2008

I did a reasonable amount of holiday reading in Mallorca, in between walking along the front and falling asleep on the sofa.

Jed Rubenfield’s The Interpretation of Murder is one of those murder mysteries using historical characters, which are popular at the moment (if you like them, Giles Brandreth has done a couple of good ones where Oscar Wilde fights crime). In this book, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung visit New York in 1909 and are soon caught up in the investigation of a murder and a very similar assault, where the victim survives but can’t remember her attacker.

The book evokes the New York of the era convincingly, a bustling and corrupt city. Modern New York is coming into being: the builders of skyscrapers are vying for superiority, while cars are beginning to replace horse-drawn carriages on the streets. Rubenfield has obviously researched the details, down to the colour of the taxi cabs.

This isn’t a ghastly “Freud and Jung: together they fight crime” story (with car chases), but rather a weaving of their theories and disagreements into the plot, transplanting real debates to the time of their real visit to the USA (although the crime is fictional). With Freud it’s all about sex and death, and so it is with the book, which makes it perfect holiday reading.

John Irving’s Until I find you has all his signature tropes: the wrestling, the young man sexually initiated by older women, the death of a family member, the bizarre and sometimes hilarious set-pieces involving sex or death which make it perfect holiday reading (maybe not quite all the tropes: I don’t think this book had any bears in it). Initially, the book follows the toddler Jack Burns, illegitimate son of an organist and choir girl, as he and his mother trek around Europe in pursuit of his father. Jack’s mum is a tattooist, so we get an insight into the odd world of tattoo parlours, as well as a tour of Europe’s great church organs. Jack’s settled in a girls school, before training as an actor and eventually making his way to Hollywood. Eventually, he sets off again in search of his father, realising that things weren’t quite as they appeared to his younger self.

To say the book is about memory and loss makes it sound terribly portentous and gloomy, but it’s neither. Irving’s an accomplished story-teller, whose work reads to me as if it was made to be read aloud, with the author interjecting asides as the story unfolds. The humour and sadness of the book arises from events described in a straightforward way, without embarrassment or embellishment. I remain a fan.

Umberto Eco’s The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana was a bit a curate’s egg. It’s another book which explores memory, this time in the most direct way, following the narrator, Yambo, as he recovers from a stroke which has caused his episodic memory to fail him. Yambo is a book dealer, and still remembers things he’s read. He tries to construct a past for himself, turning to his family and friends, and then to his childhood house, full of the books, records and comics he had as a child. Like Irving’s protagonist searching for his father as an adult, the return of Yambo’s memories in the latter part of the book causes him to re-interpret what he thought he knew about his past.

Yambo was a child during the Second World War, so the book focuses on the rise of fascism in Italy and the necessity to appear to be going along with it, even while resisting privately. The war stories were the most interesting part of the book for me. There’s an awful lot of examination of Yambo’s comics and storybooks which I didn’t care that much for, formative though they were to his character, and the ending left me unsatisfied.

Jan Mark’s The Eclipse of the Century came with a recommendation from Philip Pullman on the cover, so I thought it’d be worth a go. The protagonist, Keith, has a near death experience, but instead of seeing heaven, he sees Quantoum, a remote town in Central Asia. Once he’s well again, he decides to go there. Walking down the disused railway track, he finds a ghost town, abandoned by imperial powers. What remains is a museum inhabited by a bunch of oddballs and deserters of various armies, and the camp of the Sturyat tribe, nomads with a strange religion.

Keith’s arrival and his struggle to work out who’s who are a little slow, as everyone is deliberately obscure in a way which makes the story longer, even the people who don’t really have a reason to hide things from Keith. As things start to get weird, Mark picks up the pace, making it a more satisfying read. There’s some fun mockery of New Age woo-woo in there, too. Unfortunately, the book ends abruptly in the middle of the denouement without resolving what’s going on. I wondered whether there were pages missing from my copy, but I don’t think there were. You’ve got enough clues to figure out what might possibly be happening, but to cut off at that point left me unsatisfied with the book, alas.

According to the Steven Novella’s Neurologica blog, the Intelligent Design people (specifically the Discovery Institute) are getting interested in neuroscience (see also part 2), attacking the idea that consciousness has a physical basis and advocating Cartesian dualism.

This seems to have been rumbling away for a while, but people are writing about it at the moment because New Scientist noticed.

You can write a long article on what people have thought about consciousness, so what’s the problem with the IDists joining in? First, neuroscientists are objecting to IDists’ claims that scientific experiments prove things that those experiments don’t actually prove. As Amanda Geffer of New Scientist points out, experiments that show therapy can alter brain function don’t prove that the immaterial soul is acting on the brain, merely that the brain isn’t indivisible, so parts can act on other parts. The therapy described reminded me of mindfulness therapies, and of Yudkowsky’s recent reflections on Which Parts Are “Me”? (Everything I am, is surely my brain; but I don’t accept everything my brain does, as “me”).

Novella also objects to IDists quote-mining (I’m shocked, shocked I tell you) from philosophers like David Chalmers in order to bolster their claims. Novella says that Chalmers does not argue for an immaterial spirit, so it is a mistake for those who do to claim him for their side. IDists could quote Chalmers if they wanted to argue that there is a hard problem of consciousness, but it would be dishonest to quote him in support of their proposed solution, or indeed to say that the hard problem Chalmers speaks of has anything to do with evolution.

Edited to add: Chalmers discusses the New Scientist article on his blog, and doesn’t sound very impressed with the theists’ efforts to recruit him for their cause. The Chalmers link came from Chris Hallquist, whose blog I recommend.

Is this IDists’ new strategy after they got planed in the Dover judgement? A while back, I mentioned that they might need a new way around the establishment clause in the US Constitution. I’m not sure this can be it, as consciousness isn’t on the curriculum in most schools, but it does fit in with the wider strategy of looking for ways to undermine physicalism.

<lj-cut text=”Bruce’s cha, PaulW’s waltz”>
Bruce’s Cha

  • New Yorks
  • Fast New Yorks; 2&3 4&1
  • LF cuban breaks to right keeping RF planted; 2&3&4&1
  • Start of New York stepping through to right with LF, replace while ronde LF round to side, LF behind RF, small side RF, side LF; 2 3 4&1
  • RF behind, LF forward turning R, locks towards partner (she does alamana and ends up on your RHS)
  • Forward LF leading her to step back and open out, replace, side, close, side (she cha-cha’s to her R or locks forward if she’s at right angles (I think Bruce preferred the latter) moving with you)
  • Back basic, giving her a little push on first step so she continues past you into fan.
  • Forward basic leading the hockey stick ending from fan.
  • Tiny back basic (RF behind heel of LF), cha-cha forward, following her.
  • Forward LF, replace, side, close, side, bringing her in for top.
  • Top, on 1 lead her to spiral clockwise into rope spin.
  • Small side to L, replace, cha-cha on the spot.
  • Back, replace, cha-cha forward to meet her as she finishes walking around, ending with her on your RHS again.
  • Forward L and open her out again, cha-cha-cha to left. On 1, lead her to spiral anticlockwise
  • Behind and back R, back L, back, lock, back (aida)
  • Side L turning to face each other, replace R facing away again, step lock step back up the room,
  • Huge spot turn: swivel inward to face up the room, RF passes standing foot and ends up pointing up the room as you step onto it, continue turn stepping on to LF facing down the room, cha-cha-cha R,L,R.

I’ve a vague feeling I missed bit, as I have memories of rope spins, but someone else might remember. Edited to add: on the end of the top, now fixed.

Paul W (the other one), pp. Clive, waltz

  • Starting facing down LoD, weight on LF, step over onto RF taking a bar over it, leaving LF free.
  • Travelling contra-check: Forward L, forward R bringing left shoulder forward to start rotating into PP, forward L in PP.
  • The Step With No Name: Forward R on heel, forward L (on ball?) staying down rotating to more closed position, forward R heel-toe, forward L rising into PP again (this is fiddly and I’m not sure of the position changes). 1&2 3
  • Chasse to L, ending with a toe pivot on LF to face centre, keeping head to the left.
  • One of those sway things: Push her left leg to side with your right knee extending RF to side without weight, bring weight over it (“balls over your balls” © Bruce), bring upper body ending with head further over it (ie sway to R) and turn head to right. 1, 2, 3, roughly.
  • Recover onto LF, close RF and rise, side LF in PP, diag to centre (the next bit is the short side)
  • Weave: forward, forward, side, back, back, side (across short side, ending diag wall into corner)
  • First 3 steps of natural turn (to R), forward, side, close
  • Pivot turn: back LF, pivot onto RF as if to spin turn, but step forward L along new LoD, rising into PP.
  • Chair and slip pivot.
  • Your LF is now free and you can go back to the start.

Hard bits here: change of position PP to more closed to PP in The Step With No Name, as it’s also a timing change which confuses my addled brain.

Also, the toe pivot to get into position for the sway is hard: we’re supposed to take our time getting into it, but the previous chasse has momentum, even after pivoting I want to shoot my right leg out to the side straight away (partly to keep my balance).

Beards are important. As any evangelical will know, the words of C.S. Lewis are god-breathed and useful for teaching and training in righteousness. Hear what St Jack says:

“It is the business of these great masters to produce in every age a general misdirection of what may be called sexual ‘taste’. This they do by working through the small circle of popular artists, dressmakers, actresses and advertisers who determine the fashionable type. The aim is to guide each sex away from those members of the other with whom spiritually helpful, happy, and fertile marriages are most likely. Thus we have now for many centuries triumphed over nature to the extent of making certain secondary characteristics of the male (such as the beard) disagreeable to nearly all the females — and there is more in that than you might suppose….”
—C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

This chap elaborates.

More importantly (from my point of view), scribb1e likes them too.

Links courtesy of andrewducker and robhu.

Some of you already read Overcoming Bias, the blog of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute (I’ve seen gjm11 commenting there, and wildeabandon mentioned it, I think). I’ve been reading quite a bit of the archives recently, as evidence by the number of comments I’ve made referring to old postings there.

The bias of the title is cognitive bias, the psychological term for systematic mistakes human minds tend to make. The purpose of the blog is self-help and social change: “If we know the common patterns of error or self-deception, maybe we can work around them ourselves, or build social structures for smarter groups. We know we aren’t perfect, and can’t be perfect, but trying is better than not trying.”

Eliezer Yudkowsky is one of the main contributors there. He’s an interesting character: heavily invested in ideas about the Singularity and Friendly AI. His stuff on Overcoming Bias touches on those interests, but is worthwhile even if you consider such ideas silly (I’m not sure whether I do or not at this point: my instinctive reaction that this stuff is far-fetched may be an example of bias).

What I like about his writing is that it’s usually clear and incisive. He shows a passion for reason (contrary to Star Trek, a passion for reason isn’t a contradiction in terms) and almost a reverence for it. You get the feeling that his SF stuff about Bayesian masters undergoing the Ritual Of Changing One’s Mind isn’t just an illustrative analogy. Coming so soon after I read Anathem, I see the blog as one place where this world’s avout hang out. Stuff like Diax’s Rake would be right up their alley.

livredor once told me that one of my biases is to latch on to someone very clever and align my beliefs to theirs (I think this bias is a common one among technical people who have taught themselves some philosophy). So I ought to be a little careful when I read his stuff. Yudkowsky’s faults are that he’s also self-taught, so needs his (likewise very clever) commenters to point out that he’s covering old ground, has missed out on the standard arguments against his position, or is not using the standard definitions of some terms (such as the case where he argues his moral views are not moral relativism, for example). Some of the postings where he talks about how he used to think a whole load of wrong stuff and now doesn’t can get tedious (ahem). In some cases he’s made extended series of posts where I don’t understand the conclusion he’s trying to draw (the series on morality is an example).

Still, I’m very much enjoying articles like his articles on staging a Crisis of Faith (which isn’t ultimately about losing religious faith, but about changing long-held opinions. It’s good introduction to the blog as a whole, as there are links to many other good articles at the bottom of it), Cached Thoughts, Are Your Enemies Innately Evil? (shades of Bartlet’s “They weren’t born wanting to do this” there), Avoiding Your Belief’s Real Weak Points, Belief in Belief (not quite your standard Dennett argument); and his argument that Elijah conducted the original scientific experiment.

I recommend the blog to you lot. If you like reading blogs on LJ, you can find it at overcomingbias.

Anathem is Neal Stephenson’s latest novel. Told in the first person, it’s the story of Erasmus, a young member of a monastic order dedicated to philosophy and science. Erasmus lives on Arbre, a world rather like our own. The monks aren’t religious (quite the reverse, for the most part), but their monasteries use many of the trappings of religious orders, like ritual, sung music, a set of rules of discipline, and seclusion from the outside world. It’s not a boy’s club, though: male and female monks mix within the monastery, and certain kinds of relationship are allowed by the discipline.

The monks are grouped according to how often they have contact with the outside world, which can be every 1, 10, 100 or 1000 years. As the story starts, it’s just before a 10 year Apert, where the 1 and 10 year monks will mingle with the populace for 10 days. Erasmus, a “tenner”, finds the monastery’s astronomical observatory closed, and gets the first hints that the secular and monastic authorities are conspiring to keep a pretty big secret. Together with his cohort of young monks, he gets drawn into solving the mystery.

Saunt Descartes was a drunken fart

In the early part of the book, Stephenson draws the reader into the world of Erasmus’s monastery. He uses the common SF trick of making up words for things: the monks are the “avout”, the outsiders “saecular”, the monasteries are “concents”. Some people don’t like this sort of thing, but for the most part I was content to let this wash over me as part of the book’s scene setting, the measured pace of which parallels the life of the avout. (There’s also a glossary at the back, which helps). The avout are serious seekers of knowledge who learn the stories of theoreticians as religious monks might learn about the lives of saints (the avout word for a great thinker is “saunt”, a contraction of “savant”). They engage in debates which are intellectual duels, the sort of stuff you get in the better debating places on and off-line. Stephenson has placed real philosophy in the book under the names of the saunts who thought of it on Arbre: it’s fun to try to work out the real world analogues, among whom are Plato, Faraday, Occam, and Einstein. The philosophy isn’t just there for show, it becomes important later: Stephenson is the second SF author I’ve come across who has written a story which hinges on the idea of the Platonic world of forms (the other is Greg Egan).

Modern life is rubbish

In comparison with the concents, the saecular world Erasmus encounters in the 10 days of Apert is unthinkingly religious and commercialised, a parody of modern American society right down to the thugs in sportswear (anyone who remembers the thetes in The Diamond Age might think that Stephenson has a thing about this) and the drugs which keep everyone happy but somehow blunted. Erasmus observes several times that clever people tend to end up inside the walls of the concents. The book seems to describe a vicious circle of anti-intellectualism leading to the intellectuals hiding away, leading to further distrust of intellectualism in the outside world, which eventually leads to the concents being sacked every few thousand years. The initial retreat into concents happened because of some cataclysmic events in the past. You can see Stephenson drawing on A Canticle for Leibowitz here, with the difference that the avout aren’t just preserving old books they don’t understand.

The first part of the story is a more erudite version of a Harry Potter book, with the young avout (Erasmus is 18 as the story starts) ranging over the old stone buildings they live in, talking about philosophy and science, and finding ways around authority with the help of some wiser older monks. We see more of the saecular world as Erasmus is thrust into it in the later part of the book, and finds that things aren’t a total cultural desert out there. Stephenson dislikes the unthinkingly religious and so Erasmus does too, but the religious contemplatives that Erasmus meets show the other side of Stephenson’s opinions, where religion provides people with a code which keeps them from the feckless behaviour of most people outside the concents.

Ninja monks in space

The final part of the book is page-turning SF stuff with ninja monks in space, a long way from Erasmus’s quiet life as the book begins. Stephenson draws the philosophical threads from earlier in the book into a satisfying conclusion. The popular notion that he can’t write endings was disproved by The System of the World, but sceptics will be pleased to hear that Anathem has an ending too.

A positive effect of the narrator’s voice is that the book is less frenetically digressive than Stephenson’s earlier stuff. Some of Stephenson’s wild tangents are fun (my favourite is the wisdom tooth removal in Cryptonomicon), but they make his books longer without advancing the plot. At about 900 pages, Anathem is long, but most of it is world-building or action (if you count the philosophy stuff we’re going to need for the later revelations as “world-building”). Other reviewers have complained it’s slow to get going, but the avout are sympathetic characters, so I didn’t mind reading about their lives at the start of the book. I think it’d be quite cool to be one of them, in fact.

Anathem is a fun mix of philosophy and action. Recommended to people who read the sort of stuff I write here on LJ 🙂

A while back, robhu was looking for Bible study courses, and nlj21 recommended TEAM, a course which is run by the vicar of an offshoot of my old church (you might remember my posting about his sermon on The God Delusion).

I poked at the media site. Surprisingly, I didn’t make a bee-line for the sex one: anyone who has been in an evangelical church for any length of time has heard 1 Cor 7 preached to death, and knows that sex is a Good Thing if you’re married (but if you’re very keen on evangelism, or merely very bad at talking to girls, you can be “single for the gospel”). Instead, I picked on the evangelism one, specifically the Q&A session (that’s a link to the audio, which you may want in a minute) on how to convert your friends. Know your enemy, right? 🙂

John Richardson(edited: I got the name wrong initially, apologies to Richardson and Woodcock should either read this)Pete Woodcock, the speaker, is a straight-forward sort of bloke. He’s also pretty funny. The Q&A starts with a worked example of how to talk to various types of people about Jesus, which says sensible stuff about working out where people are coming from, sensitivity and suchlike, while also having a slightly cheeky approach (he talks about how he gave the residents of a new estate flyers saying “your foundations are crumbling“, for example).

There were a couple of bits which stood out as quick shocking. Looking at it from the evangelical viewpoint, I’d say Woodcock is being consistent with it, and that this is so much the worse for the evangelical viewpoint. See what you think.

<lj-cut text=”Pray for your well off friends to have an accident, pray for obstructive liberal vicars to be converted or to die”>To be even-handed, I’ll put these shocking statements in some context. So, at around 29:40, he’s midway through responding to the question of how you deal with people who have a good life and don’t think they need God (remind them that they’re going to die and they don’t get to decide when that’ll be, as this parable does). We then get this (my transcription for the purpose of criticism, ellipses are where he tails off and changes tack rather than where I’ve elided something):

I know people get shocked when I say this, but someone was asking me the other day about their son, who’s doing really well, and I said, why don’t you pray that he has a nasty accident? Have you ever prayed that? You know, it does sound weird, doesn’t it? Well, why not? Because, you know, we don’t want… I don’t know, I want to help that person, and if having an accident, and taking away his money, and taking away his car, and the very things that he’s put… if his gods are exposed, then I need to pray that his gods will be exposed for the false gods that they are, in order that I can teach him about the reality of God.

(The bit about “his gods” here is an occurrence of the evangelical trope that “everyone worships something”, so the gods referred to are the money, the car and so on).

A bit later, around 32:20, he’s asked about how to get your nice middle-class neighbours in to realise that going to their local village church doesn’t mean they’re saved. He recommends getting them into a Bible study group. The questioner says the local vicar is against that sort of thing (maybe because the vicar doesn’t like evangelicals, maybe because the vicar is a control freak, probably both: the politics of village churches can get pretty nasty). He recommends telling the villagers to make their own minds up about things. We get to about 37:15 and this happens:

But don’t morally worry about a dead vicar that is preaching heresy. He’s a liar, you know, if he’s not preaching the truth, that man is a liar and will be judged. He is in desperate trouble. You can pray for his soul, and pray that he’ll get converted, but do not allow him to dictate anything. He is a liar, and doing people harm, and if he’s stopping them getting into the Bible, then God, take him from this world or save him. That’s the prayer: Lord, stop him, somehow, either by killing him or saving him. That’s the prayer I have for our local vicar in Kingston. I ask the Lord to take his life or save his soul. I prefer to have his soul saved, but take him, or at least, take him away from our town, cos he’s a liar.



It’s lucky this chap isn’t a Muslim, or he’d have his own Channel 4 documentary team doing a programme on him. We’re not quite in Undercover Mosque territory, as there’s no suggestion of giving God a helping hand with the brake lines (not worrying about a “dead vicar” here probably refers to a spiritually dead vicar, i.e., one who is not an evangelical Christian): at least praying for something gives God the option of saying no.

These are off the cuff responses to questions. I imagine the poor chap never thought they would turn up on some atheist’s blog. But the important thing to realise is that, as far as I can tell, Woodcock is perfectly consistent with evangelicalism, consistent in a way which even many evangelicals are not (the lack of consistency in the other evangelicals is possibly a manifestation of belief in belief: they think it’s good to believe in hell, so they say they believe in hell, but they don’t anticipate-as-if there’s a hell). If you ask your evangelical friends where you’re going when you die, if you’re not a Christian, they’ll tell you’re going to Hell. Hell is the worst thing ever, so keeping you out of it is pretty important. What are horrific injuries in the temporal world compared to an eternity in hell? What is the death of one man if it leads to the salvation of many?

One might quibble about the advice to pray for this stuff, rather than, say, praying for God to convert the person or get the vicar out of the way and letting God sort it out. For some reason, it’s usually thought to be better to pray for specific stuff rather than generalities. If we concede that it would be right for God to do this stuff, it’s surely right to pray for it. So would it be right for God to do it? Recalling that whatever God does is right, that the Bible is inerrant, and that the Bible says that God isn’t averse to killing people that get in the way of his chosen people, it’s hard to say that smiting recalcitrant vicars isn’t something God might do (it’s right to pray that the vicar gets converted, but recall also that God doesn’t force himself on people to make them converted, so the smiting is a useful backup plan if the vicar won’t become a real Christian). In the case of the car accident, we know from C.S. Lewis that pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.

Speaking of car accidents, this sort of thing does make you want to have a Barlet moment, doesn’t it?

Bhikkhu Nanamoli’s The Life of the Buddha is a telling of the Buddha’s life using excerpts from the Pali canon.

In the Pali canon, the world is an abundantly supernatural one, a cosmos with many worlds and many deities. The Buddha’s birth is foretold to sages by deities, and he himself converses with various supernatural beings. He also does miracles, like reading minds, turning people invisible, vanishing into one of the many heavens, and so on. You get the impression that the miracles aren’t unique to him: it seems there were lots of ascetics and teachers around at the time, each with their own disciples, and this sort of stuff is par for the course. The Buddha describes Devadatta, the villain of the piece, as “stopping halfway with … the mere earthly distinction of supernormal powers”, and seems to see them as tricks that are well known.

In the book, there’s little mention of the Buddha’s early life, although some passages about living in a palace are quoted. After his birth, we’re straight into his quest for enlightenment. He tries asceticism for a while but decides it’s not helping, and disgusts the small number of followers he’s acquired by taking food and drink. He goes off and thinks about stuff, and has a series of insights about how one thing leads to another thing, Star Wars style (a process known as dependent arising), and with that, realises how to stop it. He thinks about keeping the knowledge to himself, as most people won’t be able to get it, but a brahma persuades him not to. He begins to teach people the dharma.

The book then follows the growth of the sangha, the community of monks. The community grows, and sometimes finds favour with merchants and royalty, who give the monks land. It seems they live by receiving alms from the lay people, to who receive talks on the dharma in return. We don’t see much of the lay people in the book, as it mostly concerns the teachings given to the monks. We do see the community undergo growth, dissension and outright mutiny (Devadatta again).

The chapter on the dharma itself was pretty hard going. The translation could probably have helped there, but Nanamoli writes in the preface that he’s attempting to provide as true a translation as possible, without interpreting too much. I found contemporary paraphrases easier to understand. If one can sum up a large body of teaching in a few sentences, the Buddha thinks that dukkha (usually translated as “suffering”) is real; suffering is caused by our inability to get what we want or keep it, or prevent what we don’t want; suffering can be prevented by giving up the desire for these things, which can be achieved by following the mental and ethical teachings summarised as the Noble Eightfold Path.

The scriptures bear the signs of being passed on orally: there’s a lot of repetition (one of Nanamoli’s few concessions to the reader is that he elides some of this), speech is often stylised, and teachings often use numbered groups of things (four noble truths, noble eightfold path). According to Wikipedia, there are a number of schools of thought about how much of the canon represents the Buddha’s words. Manuscript evidence isn’t helpful, as the earliest ones are apparently 8th century.

There’s a sense in which this doesn’t matter as much as it does to, say, Christianity, because the point seems to be the teaching, which is said to be something people can experience for themselves. In orthodox Christianity, at least, the scriptures recording important miraculous events which are to be believed in, so that the evidence for them is important, and the teaching of Jesus rest on his personal authority. I don’t think one can eliminate questions of authority from any religion, though: there are so many religions that ask you to “try it and see” that there’s not enough time to try them all.

More problematic to me was the way much of the Buddha’s teachings are phrased as ways to avoid rebirth, since (a) it’s not clear what rebirth means when one of your other doctrines is that there’s no fixed self, and (b) it’s not clear how anything of us survives after death, such the the results of our actions (known as karma), in a way which could be passed on to another person.

It also wasn’t clear from the book how detachment was meant to be practiced by people who weren’t monks. The monks need the lay people, or they’ll starve, but the householder’s life seems second class when it comes to attaining enlightenment. Apparently there are Buddhist scriptures which do address the lay people, so it’d be interesting to read those.

In summary, the book was interesting, but hard to get into. I got bogged down in places and ended up skipping bits. A more dynamic translation might have been easier to read, even if such a translation did end up reflecting the biases of the translator more than Nanamoli’s did.

For you Firefox users, I’ve put a new version of LJ New Comments up.

It supports Russian keyboards, courtesy of some code from mumi_0.

I’ve also made it expand collapsed comments when you move to them by pressing the “n” or “p” keys, as my assumption when you do that is that you want to read the comment. The thread expansion stuff needs the style to have an “Expand” link for the comment (literally, a link to the thread with the text “Expand”: if anyone’s got any ideas on how to identify it in a way which doesn’t assume it’s labelled in English, let me know).

Comments/questions to the entry for the script.

My wife has been blogging about ancient literature. She’s started with The Epic of Gilgamesh and moved on to the Old Testament, starting with the similarities between the Flood and creation stories in Genesis and Gilgamesh. More will be appearing on scribb1e‘s journal in future.

As part of some sort of cultural exchange programme, I’ve been reading Bhikkhu Nanamoli’s The Life of the Buddha, a telling of the Buddha’s life using excerpts from the Pali canon. It’s interesting, although very strange in places, mostly because of the cosmology of the time. I think it could do with a glossary explaining some of the Pali words which Nanamoli chose not to translate. I’d not realised the Buddha had superpowers (he regularly reads minds, and occasionally does cool stuff like preventing a robber from catching him even though the robber’s running as fast as he can), or that lots of supernatural beings were present at his birth. I’ll probably write more about it when I’ve finished it.