Of Spiders and Sin

What follows is the definitive telling of my story about the Australian redback spider and its pedagogical employment in a theological context. This is a tale I have told many times in the company of friends but it has never been recorded for posterity, until now. I have included some notes below the story that might be of interest and will add more later as they occur to me.
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The phrase ‘liberal Baptist church’ might sound like an oxymoron, but I grew up in Coventry, England, and the theology of some English Baptists is quite liberal. Indeed, I was raised by a congregation of souls so liberal that I became a Sunday school teacher even though I had never been baptized and had not yet – nor have I since – accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. Back then, as the sixties were turning into the seventies, Sunday school was more about the geography of poverty, feeding the hungry, and boycotting companies that did business with the white regime in South Africa.

The person who leads the services in an English Baptist church is referred to as the minister, although said person might be addressed as Reverend. From time to time, our regular Reverend went on holiday and Sunday services were conducted by guest ministers, which is how I first encountered the redback spider.

The guest minister that Sunday was from the continent that is the home of said spider, Australia. The deacons who arranged his visit were apparently unaware that some Australian Baptists were much closer in spirit to their evangelical cousins in the southern states of America, and their manner of sermonizing more that of preacher than minister. Such was the case with this unfortunate fellow, as his address to our Sunday school children would reveal, quite painfully as it turned out.

“Good morning children,” this preacher began, “I come from Australia, a place some people call ‘the land down under,’ and in that land we have some amazing creatures.”

His unfamiliar accent, and his dramatic emphasis on the last two words, definitely got the attention of his young audience, which ranged from about four to fourteen. The preacher continued, “One creature, the redback spider, is no bigger than the nail of my little finger, but his bite is deadly.”

To my English ears, this last word, which should have carried a lot of weight, sounded like ‘diddly’ which may explain how this children’s sermon went astray.

He continued, “Although he is so small, just one bite from this little fellah can kill you … dramatic pause … dead.”

Again, the ‘dead’ sounded like ‘did’ to me but the preacher’s delivery left no doubt that death was what this small but fearsome creature delivered. One bite could end your life. I could see some of the younger children sitting up a little straighter, eager for whatever came next.

“Now then children, what does this remind us of?”

The preacher paused for an answer. Scanned the young faces. Nothing.

“Just one bite and you’re dead. What does this remind us of?”

More silence.

“Sin!” he proclaimed, apparently failing to detect in the faces before him the signs of confusion that this word caused.

The preacher took a deep breath and forged ahead, asking a question he assumed would solve the riddle: “How many sins does it take to keep you out of heaven?”

More silence with just a hint of embarrassed shuffling from the adults in the congregation. The preacher was undeterred.

“Come on children,” he continued, as though this was the first thing you learned in Sunday school, “How many sins does it take to keep you out of heaven? Is it two? Five? Ten? A hundred?”

The sequence of numbers was enunciated with what sounded to me like a mild but mounting sense of despair. It was at this point that young Mark Jacobs from my class shot up his hand. No more than seven years old, Mark was a bit of a handful, but very quick on the uptake. I could tell he was sure he had this one figured out.

“Yes!” exclaimed the preacher, extending his palms towards Mark, who loudly delivered his answer, a logical deduction from the clues provided, but also – I like to think – a reflection of the spirit of the church in which he was being raised:

“Infinity!”

My heart went out to the preacher as he stood there and said about all he could say at that point: “No. It’s one. Just one sin can keep you out of heaven. Now let us sing hymn number 127: “All Things Bright and Beautiful."

Notes:

1. The chorus of that hymn, written by Cecil Francis Alexander in 1848, goes like this:

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful:
The Lord God made them all.

I have no idea if Alexander had the redback spider in mind when she penned line two.

2. Very few renditions of this hymn today include the third verse of the original, which goes like this:

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.

In fact, several members of our congregation refused to sing the hymn at all, owing to the fact that its author held views so opposed to their own.

3. The English Baptists believe in adult baptism, a belief I greatly respect because it holds that nobody should take this step in life unless they make an informed decision to do so. I was never pressured to make this choice, again something I greatly respect. I remain unbaptized, but always welcome at that church.

4. Many years later I encountered redback spiders in Alice Springs, Australia. They were pointed out by the very gifted engineer who worked on my wife's off-road racing vehicle, in a dark corner of his garage. He had recently been bitten by one, causing a very nasty injury, but fortunately he survived.

5. My wife was living in Alice Springs at the time because she was in charge of network security at a place called JDFPG for Joint Defense Facility Pine Gap, which is probably one of the largest computing facilities in the Southern Hemisphere.

6. JDFPG has a rugby team called the Redbacks with an awesome emblem. I know because one of their shirts is a prized possession of mine.

7. Theologically speaking one can argue that both Mark and the preacher were correct. Hard line protestant thinking on sins is that just one is enough to keep you out of heaven -- and thus send you to hell when you die -- unless you accept Jesus Christ as your savior and are baptized, in which case your sins are washed away. Technically, if you committed an infinite number of sins, you could still get into heaven because God's forgiveness is infinite.

 
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Fighting malware, cybercrime, and hemochromatosis = I've been busy

I enjoy reading a wide range of blogs. Recently, I was shocked to visit one of my own blogs -- this one -- and see that I had not posted anything since February. Surely I had written more than that? In fact, I have been doing a lot of writing, but on other blogs. So I decided to post a roundup of recent writings and presentations, for my own edification, and to show that I have not been slacking. Enjoy!

Living Security


A lot of my writing these days appears on We Live Security, the website that grew out of the Threat Blog at blog.eset.com. Here are some highlights:

Being Security


I have also been writing some posts about security and privacy on my first blog, Scobbs Blogspot. The idea is to put security pieces there when they are not a good fit for We Live Security, for example, a strong personal opinion, or a speculative piece. (In general, I want to keep this blog here, Cobbsblog, for non-security stuff.) Recent posts on Scobbs Blogspot include:

Security Slides and Webinars and Podcasts


You can find some of the slides from my security presentations at SlideShare under the zcobb account. These include slides that ESET graciously makes available for anyone who is working to increase security awareness in their organization. Here is a recent example from a webinar on cybercrime:



Some of my security education presentations are done as webinars and you can find these in the ESET channel on a service called BrightTalk. The channel requires a one-time registration process but is free and there are dozens of recorded webinars available from myself and my colleagues.

I have also recorded a lot of podcasts on security and privacy. These are available on this page but they are not marked as to author. All of the podcasts are worth a listen and feature my fellow researchers at ESET.

Earlier this year I answered several questions for a reporter while visiting the Latin America headquarters of ESET. Topics covered in the resulting video include the effects of Snowden's revelations about the NSA, the relationship between privacy and security, and social media issues for young people. Spanish subtitles are provided.



Fighting Hemochromatosis


My writings on hemochromatosis started here on this blog in 2008, with "dsgds". Then, in 2010, I created CelticCurse.org and post there when I have something substantial. Here are some recent posts.

In addition to Celtic Curse, I created another channel of communication about hemochromatosis, the Hemochromatosis page on Facebook. This has reached over 100,000 people so far this year and led to the publication of the first ever "Hemo Doc Stars" list of recommended hemochromatosis doctors from around the world.

So, the next time I am wondering to myself "what have I accomplished this year?" I can look at this page and refresh my memory. And the above is not everything. I also got accepted into a postgraduate degree program in security and risk management in the Criminology Department of the University of Leicester, in England. I hope to have time to share some instructive tales of distance learning here as the program progresses.

How to find $168 billion in annual spending cuts while saving the world

Allow me to explain where the U.S. federal government can find $168 billion. That could be a $168 billion cut in annual spending from the current budget, or $168 billion of spending shifted to more worthwhile endeavors. It could even end world hunger while giving us all tax rebates.

Lately, I've been looking at a lot of numbers related to safety and security, like how much money we spend on fighting wars and cyber crime, how many people die from different causes, and so on. I was inspired to research such things by a comment made to the press by my friend and boss, Andrew Lee, CEO of ESET North America, who was asked what he thought of General Keith Alexander's keynote at Blackhat last year. (The General spoke about mass surveillance by the National Security Agency (NSA) as revealed by former federal contractor Edward Snowden.) Andrew said that we should be asking ourselves if the levels of surveillance now being revealed constitute a proportionate response.

Personally, and I stress that this is my personal opinion, I think that the $50 billion my country spends annually on spying is way too much (BTW, for new readers, "my country" = the United States of America, the country of which I have been a citizen for more than 30 years).

To put that $50 billion spend on spying in perspective, it dwarfs the total spend on life-saving health research by the federal government is $30 billion (that's funding for over 300,000 researchers at more than 2,500 institutions). I'm pretty sure that $50 billion is about the same as the operating expenses of Google and Microsoft combined. Aside from the sheer amount, the challenge of oversight and efficiency across multiple agencies is huge, leading to some terrible decision-making, as revealed by some of the Snowden papers.

But let's leave the spy budget aside and consider what we spend to defend our country. Suppose we were to decide that the appropriate annual budget for defending America is twice the total annual military spend of our two closest rivals, China and Russia. Those two countries spend $166 billion and $90 billion respectively, or $256 billion combined; double that is $512 billion, which is $168 billion less than the $680 billion that the U.S. spends.

military-spendingSurely we can adequately defend America by allocating twice what China and Russia spend combined. Still nervous? Want a comfort zone greater than 2X?

Consider the $272 billion annual military spending by our six strongest allies (UK, Japan, France, Germany, Australia, Canada). Figures are from SIPRI Yearbook 2013.

Want more perspective? With our $168 billion savings we could drastically reduce the deficit, lower taxes, and still have enough left over to END WORLD HUNGER (estimated cost of that is $30 billion).

So, let's recap, the Cobb budget plan for America would:

  • Spend more on defense than China and Russia combined

  • End world hunger

  • Reduce the deficit

  • Enable lower tax rates


What's not to love about that?

Happy Blogging New Year 2014!

Happy New Year! While it took me a few days to get around to this, I did want to mark the beginning of the new year with at least one blog post here on Cobbsblog. In fact, I have been doing quite a bit of blogging around the turn of the year.

Over on WeLiveSecurity.com I was privielged to present some of the 2014 security predictions from my fellow researchers at ESET. My colleagues in Latin America shone again this year, producing a 30+ page review of malware trends and predictions.

That report very rightly fingered privacy as a hot topic for 2014 and I am heading for Washington, D.C. in a few weeks to be on a panel about data privacy at a Data Privacy Day event at the Pew Charitable Trusts (January 28 is Data Privacy Day).

Predictions are one thing, but what practical good are they? What advice can they generate for IT security managers? I will try to answer that question in a free webinar happening January 15 on ESET's Brighttalk channel.

I made some information security predictions of my own, over on my security blog: scobb's information security blog. That blog was in fact my first, and lately I have been reviving it. My idea for 2014 is to use Cobbsblog for more personal posts, and put my security related posts on scobb's. Of course, in 2014 I will be writing about security on WeLiveSecurity.com as well, but sometimes I have things to say on the topic that don't quite fit there.

And sometimes my thoughts will migrate to other blogs. For example, Graham Cluley liked my prediction about the persistent misrepresentation of antivirus software, and reprinted it (with my permission) on his very information blog.

I wish you a safe and happy 2014 and pledge to do my best to provide you with informative and thought-provoking content all year long.