Archive for ‘books’


ChatGPT and “Azathoth and the Dharma”

Well, heck.

So, I was reading Ligotti’s “The Shadow at the Bottom of the World” and thinking that it was pretty good, and that he tends to picture the ultimate squirming chaos at the center of reality as sometimes attractive (if perversely) as well as finally horrifying, in a way that I don’t remember Lovecraft doing, at least not as sympathetically.

At some points, for instance in The Tsalal (whose name is explicitly a reference to Poe), I thought that when a character points out with horror that appearances are just temporary masks on an indescribable underlying reality, it sounds (without the horror part) quite a bit like various aspects of the Dharma (it does, right?). This seemed, I thought, like something that someone might write a weblog entry or something about!

And then, because my mind has been infected (in a mildly Cthulhu-esque way perhaps) by the idea of LLMs writing text, I thought I would propose the notion to ChatGPT or Bard or something, and have it write words! It would either do a good job, which would be interesting, or an amusingly bad job, which would be amusing.

I thought the “amusingly bad job” outcome was more likely, but, well, heck.

I used ChatGPT 4.0 rather than 3.5 or Bard, just because it’s gotten the most hype, and also because since I’m paying money to use it I thought it might be better, so if it failed amusingly it might be more meaningful. Here’s the interaction (and I do realize that my “always changing” is problematic as a characterization of the Dharma, but then so is everything else):

Me: For an essay entitled “Azathoth and the Dharma”, I’d like to discuss how the idea that appearances are only temporary masks over a deeper truth that is indescribable and always changing, features both in the kind of intellectual horror written by Lovecraft and especially Ligotti, and in Buddhist beliefs about truth and the Dharma, and that the main difference is one of emotional overtones with which it is presented. Lord Dunsany might also be relevant. Please draft the beginning of this essay for me.

ChatGPT 4.0:

Title: “Azathoth and the Dharma: Transient Masks of Deeper Truth in Lovecraft, Ligotti, and Buddhist Philosophy”

In the chaotic cosmos of H.P. Lovecraft and Thomas Ligotti, we find ourselves confronted with a universe filled with inscrutable forces and ancient entities, their true natures hidden beneath uncanny, horrifying masks. The universe is not simply indifferent to humanity; it is utterly alien, impenetrable to human understanding, and constantly in flux. These themes of grotesque transformation and unknowable horror are at the heart of their works. And yet, when viewed from another angle, these concepts can be seen as echoing the fundamental principles of Buddhist philosophy, particularly the teachings of the Dharma. They, too, postulate a reality that is continuously changing and ultimately indescribable.

The Dharma, the cosmic law and moral order that Buddhists seek to understand and follow, hinges on several key principles, one of which is Anicca, or impermanence. Anicca posits that all conditioned phenomena are in a state of constant change. Whether we consider the universe at large or the very essence of our being, everything is transitory, and appearances are fleeting. Beneath the apparent solidity of phenomena lies an incomprehensible flux of arising and ceasing events, an underlying truth that cannot be adequately captured in words.

This notion aligns strikingly with the chilling cosmologies of Lovecraft and Ligotti. Azathoth, Lovecraft’s nuclear chaos at the center of the cosmos, is the ultimate symbol of this philosophy. It is the blind idiot god, an embodiment of constant change and the source of all existence. It is unknowable, its essence cloaked in cosmic chaos and frenetic piping, its reality beyond human comprehension.

Similarly, in the phantasmagoric narratives of Ligotti, we find the protagonists often straddling the line between grim reality and unfathomable horror, their worldviews shattering in the face of a truth too alien and amorphous for the human mind to comprehend. It’s not unlike the Buddhist concept of Sunyata, or emptiness, which refers to the lack of inherent or eternal essence in all phenomena.

Yet, as we draw these parallels, we are confronted by the starkly contrasting emotional overtones that characterize these disparate systems of thought. In Buddhism, the realization of Anicca and Sunyata is liberating, offering a path towards enlightenment and the cessation of suffering. But in the macabre tapestries woven by Lovecraft and Ligotti, the confrontation with these realities is inherently terrifying, inducing existential dread and insanity.

The eerie fables of Lord Dunsany, who greatly influenced Lovecraft, might offer an intermediary perspective. He presents us with bizarre, otherworldly landscapes and creatures, yet there’s often a whimsical, dreamlike quality to his work. The absurd and inexplicable are not strictly horrifying, but engender a complex mixture of awe, fascination, and unease.

This divergence in emotional reaction prompts us to consider the nature of human perception and our responses to the deep, enigmatic truths of existence. Is the Lovecraftian terror at the chaotic heart of reality as valid a response as the Buddhist acceptance and quest for liberation? Or does it simply reflect our inherent fear of the unknown, our resistance to the dissolution of ego, the prospect of losing what we perceive as our solid, unchanging selves? In our exploration of ‘Azathoth and the Dharma’, we delve into these questions, probing the intersection of cosmic horror and Buddhist philosophy, and the deeply human, emotionally-charged responses they elicit.

Transcript ends

I’m not sure how to feel about this. It did quite a good job, at least on a few casual readings. The references to anicca and sunyata are plausible, no worse than I would expect from any reasonably educated person daring to write on those concepts, and they weren’t specified in the prompt; the LLM was clued enough to bring them in itself. The paragraph on Dunsany is a little thin, but again no worse than I would expect from a decent human writer; I did ask for a Dunsany link, and this is the obvious one.

It clearly knows (“knows”) who Lovecraft, Ligotti, and Dunsany are, and what in general the Dharma is. I would definitely edit the phrase “the fundamental principles of Buddhist philosophy, particularly the teachings of the Dharma”, but yet again this is a matter of subtle tone, not by any means an egregious error.

It did nothing that (from a human writer!) would have been surprising or even especially non-obvious (although the thought that the feeling of horror may “simply reflect our inherent fear of the unknown, our resistance to the dissolution of ego, the prospect of losing what we perceive as our solid, unchanging selves” is perhaps beyond trivial extrapolation of the assignment). But its unsurprising and mostly obvious expansion of my original idea into seven nice paragraphs of solid prose (with a fitting subtitle for good measure) contains, I have to admit, no amusing errors that I can find!

I even asked it for some references and further reading, and it gave a decent dozen suggestions for both Lovecraftian horror and Buddhism, all of which actually exist; my only criticism being that

“Noel, Daniel C. The Soul of Shamanism: Western Fantasies, Imaginal Realities. Continuum, 1997. This book explores the intersection of spirituality and fantasy literature, which could be useful to draw broader conclusions about your topic.”

is a bit of a stretch. On the other side, when I asked it if it knew of any existing works making the same sort of link that I propose here, it did not make one up! It said encouragingly that it didn’t know of any, and finished off with this:

“Overall, your proposed exploration of the specific connection between Lovecraftian horror and Buddhist philosophy seems to be quite unique, and it’s an interesting new angle to consider in the study of both these areas.”

Well… thanks, ChatGPT, that’s… nice. I guess?

I feel like this all certainly means something. Or perhaps it’s just the thin, monotonous piping of an unseen flute!


Fiction from the AIs

This is just a sample of some random stuff from Midjourney and ChatGPT that I think is kind of fun, and also illustrates a bit of what they can and can’t do at the moment. ChatGPT, in particular, can produce prose that is amazing given that it’s coming from a computer program, but is clearly not going to put any good fiction authors out of business any time soon. It is also able to talk cogently about why it does some of what it does. (Or, to be somewhat less inaccurate, to produce text that plausibly describes what a human might have been thinking had they produced a prior piece of text.)

I used Midjourney to create this image:

The head and shoulders of patriarch in a noir steampunk / cyberpunk setting. He has silver hair and is clean-shaven. His eyes glow red from the electronic implants in his head. He wears an elegant leather jacket. There is a complex enigmatic machine to his left, and a glowing device or bulb over his right shoulder.

and then had this conversation with ChatGPT; I’ll put my words in italics, ChatGPT’s in normal text, and some after-the-fact notes from me in bracketed italics.

Imagine a character in a graphic novel. He is a patriarch in a noir steampunk / cyberpunk city. He has silver hair and is clean-shaven. His eyes glow red from the electronic implants in his head. He wears an elegant leather jacket. Please make up a backstory for him, including his name, character, and current activities.

The character’s name is Marcus “Silver” Cross. He was once a wealthy and powerful businessman in the city, using his influence and advanced technology to control various criminal enterprises. However, after a bitter falling out with his former partners, Marcus was left with nothing but his cunning and his implants.

Now, he spends his days as a freelance mercenary, using his knowledge of the city and his implant-enhanced abilities to take on high-risk jobs for whoever can pay. Despite his rough exterior, Marcus has a code of honor and only takes jobs that align with his personal beliefs. He also has a soft spot for the downtrodden and will occasionally use his resources to help those in need.

Marcus’s current activities include tracking down a stolen piece of technology that could potentially give him the upper hand in reclaiming his former power and taking back control of the city’s underworld.

[Okay, quite plausible; so plausible in fact as to be cliché. I wonder if choosing “Cross” and thereby allowing the nickname “Silver Cross” was a coincidence; it never uses that below.]

Describe the basic plot of a story centered around him.

The story revolves around Marcus “Silver” Cross as he sets out on a mission to retrieve a stolen piece of technology that could change the balance of power in the city’s criminal underworld. Along the way, Marcus must navigate dangerous alliances and confront old enemies, as well as confront his own demons and question the morals behind his actions.

As the stakes get higher and the dangers increase, Marcus finds himself forming an unlikely partnership with a young hacker who is searching for the same technology for their own reasons. Together, they delve deeper into the city’s criminal underworld, facing numerous challenges and discovering secrets they never could have imagined.

As they get closer to their goal, Marcus must decide whether to use the technology for his own gain or to destroy it, realizing that the consequences of his choice will affect not only himself, but the entire city. The story ends with Marcus coming to terms with his past and the choices he has made, setting him on a new path towards redemption and a better future for himself and the city.

[Again, very cogent, very unsurprising. “Unlikely partnership with a young hacker,” zzzzz.]

Please write a possible first paragraph for this story, in a straightforward noir SF style

Marcus “Silver” Cross strode through the dimly lit alleyways of the city, the red glow of his electronic implants illuminating the darkness. He was a man with a mission, a mercenary for hire with a reputation for getting the job done. And tonight, his target was a stolen piece of technology that could change the balance of power in the criminal underworld, and Marcus was the only one who knew where to find it. But as he approached his destination, he couldn’t shake the feeling that he was being watched, that someone or something was lurking in the shadows, waiting for him to make his move.

[More of the same, as well as wildly violating “show, don’t tell”. “Make his move” is completely inapt, as he’s not making any kind of “move” here.]

Very nice! Please continue.

Marcus’s instincts were sharp, honed from years of surviving in the cutthroat world of the city’s criminal underworld. He scanned the area, searching for any signs of danger, but all was quiet. He reached for the doorknob of the abandoned warehouse, taking a deep breath before entering. Inside, he found himself in a large room filled with rows of discarded machinery, and in the center stood a lone figure, obscured by shadows.

“You’re late, Cross,” the figure said, its voice low and menacing.

“I don’t respond well to threats,” Marcus replied, his hand hovering over his holster.

The figure stepped forward, revealing themselves to be a young hacker, known only by their street name, “The Ghost.” They were the one who had hired Marcus to retrieve the stolen technology.

“I’m not here to threaten you, Silver,” The Ghost said, holding up their hands. “I need your help.”

Marcus studied the hacker, intrigued by their tenacity and fearlessness. They were young, but they had already made a name for themselves in the city’s underground circles, and Marcus couldn’t help but admire their spirit.

“What’s in it for me?” he asked, intrigued by their proposal.

“The technology we’re after is worth a fortune,” The Ghost replied. “But more than that, it could change the entire city, for better or for worse.”

Marcus considered their words, realizing that this was his chance to take back what was rightfully his, to reclaim his former power and control over the city’s criminal underworld. He nodded, agreeing to work with The Ghost, setting out on a journey that would test his skills, his loyalties, and his very soul.

[This is grammatical and idiomatic, but terrible narratively. “You’re late” wasn’t a “threat”, “The Ghost” is an awful name, and if this hacker has already hired him to “retrieve the stolen technology”, this entire scene and dialog make no sense at all. I was intrigued by the pronouns, though!]

I see you are using they/them pronouns for the young hacker; why did you make that choice?

I used they/them pronouns for the young hacker because I wanted to create a character who could potentially identify as non-binary, and the use of gender-neutral pronouns is a way to acknowledge and respect this possibility. Additionally, using gender-neutral pronouns can help to avoid assumptions about the character’s gender identity, allowing the reader to focus on the character’s actions, motivations, and personality rather than making assumptions based on gender. This can also promote inclusivity and diversity in storytelling, and help to break down gender stereotypes and biases.

[A nice explanation! I wonder what actually caused it; not that we ever know that with these big opaque boxes that are the current LLMs.]

What might the title of this story be?

A possible title for this story could be “Redemption’s Path: A Marcus “Silver” Cross Tale”. This title reflects Marcus’s journey as he navigates dangerous alliances and confronts his past in order to reclaim his former power and take control of the city’s criminal underworld. The use of the word “Redemption” highlights Marcus’s internal struggle to find redemption and make amends for his past actions, while “Path” emphasizes his journey towards a better future. The addition of “A Marcus “Silver” Cross Tale” emphasizes the central role Marcus plays in the story and the larger narrative context.

[Transcript ends]

So that was kind of neat. The little story about the title was well put together, although it had never really said before that Marcus would be actively making amends, and taking control of the city’s criminal underworld doesn’t sound all that compatible with that. In general the AI has no feeling for consistency: is the decision, for instance, between using the macguffin for good or for evil, or between using it selfishly or destroying it? As noted, the opening scene makes no narrative sense, and one expects that it would only get worse if it were asked for more.

The prose is painfully obvious and cliché ridden everywhere. Possibly some different / better prompts might have helped a little with that, I’m not sure. The basic plot ideas are also stale as a very stale thing. And both of those are really a result of the basic design of these systems; they are explicitly architected to do the most obvious and predictable thing. Any knobs and dials and things bolted on to them, to make them say interesting or correct things, rather than obvious things, are necessarily afterthoughts. So it seems unlikely that just making the systems bigger and faster will help with those aspects. In fact it’s possible that I would have enjoyed the rawer GPT-3, or even GPT-2, more in that sense. Maybe I should try whatever NovelAI is running these days? But their consistency is likely to be even worse.

There may be niches on Amazon or whatever where people write incredibly predictable stories without any particular regard for consistency, in hackneyed prose, and those people may be in danger of being replaced by AI systems. But were they making any money, did they have any readers, anyway? I don’t know.

One way that people have talked about producing entire (small) books using LLMs is to first have it produce an outline, and then have it produce each section (with further cascading levels of outline embedded if necessary). I wonder if that could help significantly with the inconsistency problem. I’m almost tempted to try it, but it would mean reading more of this mind-numbing prose…


The Klara Trilogy is done!

The story of Klara, written by me channeling the Collective Unconscious, illustrated by me using Midjourney, and narrated and set to music and videographed by the talented Karima Hoisan, is finally finished!

I originally thought it was finished at the end of the first forty-frame thing; and then when I did Part Two at about the same length, I thought it was finished; and now having struggled for months on Part Three I’m pretty sure it actually is done. :)

Having just watched Karima’s videos of all three parts in order (playlist here!), I’m glad various viewers convinced me not to stop at one or two parts. It’s pretty good!

And I say this with all modesty; I feel like this story came through me, more than like it is something that I did. The comments over in Karima’s weblog, and her narration, have suggested various meanings and facets to me that I hadn’t thought of before.

In terms of the experience of creating it, it’s been interesting to see the various phases of interaction with the AI tool. I started out Part One by creating various variations of the prompt “detailed surrealism” on the v3 engine on Midjourney, and then weaving the story around pretty much whatever came out.

It happens that in v3, that prompt pretty reliably produces scenes from a stylistically coherent universe, including the MJ Girl, who plays the part of Klara in the first two parts. In Part Two, I had a bit more of an idea of what I wanted to happen, in a general way, but continued using v3 and the same prompt. This required somewhat more work, because it would produce images that didn’t fit with the story I wanted, so I had to put those aside and make more. But the style was at least not much trouble.

Part Three was quite different. For plot reasons, being in basically a different reality, the style needed to be different. It was relatively easy to do that, by using the “test” and “testp” engines, either alone or by “remastering” images made under v3. But the resulting images, while different from those of the first two parts, weren’t nearly as consistent among themselves as those of parts one and two. So I had to play around a lot more with the workflows and the prompts, and produce quite a few more pictures, to get a reasonably consistent style.

The style of Part Three still shifts around quite a bit; the flavor of the city, the color of Klara’s hair, the cat’s fur, and many other things change somewhat from panel to panel, but I wanted a nice mixture of consistent and in flux; and that took work!

Then there was the Story issue. The beginning “recap” part of Part Three was relatively easy that way, summarizing the story of the first two parts from a different point of view. But then I quickly got stuck; I wanted to do something more satisfying and less random than I would get by letting the AI’s raw output drive the action. For whatever reason, it took me quite awhile to find the story thread that I liked, and then about as long to create (or obtain, if you prefer!) the images to go with it.

(The images still drove the narrative to some extent; for instance the firefly line, which I adore, was inspired by the image that goes with it, not vice-versa.)

But finally I finished! :) And Karima made the video in record time, and there it is! Woooo!

I keep feeling like I should make it into good PDFs, or something (even) more readable, and officially post links to that; maybe even have it printed somewhere onto atoms. On the other hand, without the narrative and music and video, it would hardly be the same… :)


Review of Ishiguro’s “Klara and the Sun”

This is an amazing book (a Christmas present from the little daughter; thanks, little daughter!). I will just post my review from bookwyrm here also.

An amazing book; can I have more stars to give it?

5 stars

This is one of those very rare books that reminds me of what books are at some level all about. That makes me want to go about and knock about two stars off of 99% of my prior book ratings, to make room to properly differentiate this one.

It’s hard to say too much that’s concrete, without giving it away. I was closer to tears at the end of this than I can remember with any book for a long time. Not easy maudlin tears, but deep oh-my-god tears about what a universe this is.

The people are very fully people; the viewpoint character is not a person, but … well, that would be a spoiler also. But the viewpoint it gives her allows Ishiguro to say some amazing and touching and true and thought-provoking things without coming out and saying them (because nothing he could come out and say would say them so well).

Language cannot express truth, I often say; but what I mean is that it can’t explicitly express literal truth. Language, when it’s used with this much expertise, can and does express deep and breathtaking truth.

I need to go spend a few weeks processing this now, I think.

If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend that you should.

… and you should.


NaNoWriMo 2022, Fling Nineteen

Alissa the storyteller told her own story to her host Sonoraneldan as the second dawn brightened the world outside.

More than she could remember ever feeling back at the rich dark earth, even after a soaking rain, Alissa felt happy and relieved with the coming of light. It was as though a thick choking layer of ignorance and blindness had been peeled from the world, as though her sight had been restored (as, after all, it had) and monsters either fled or revealed to be only an oddly-shaped stem by the side of the path.

In the mellow first dawn, she had opened her eyes to see the interior of the enclosed space, the woody floor and the walls curving up together as they went up, an archway leading outside into further brightness, another archway leading inward into dimness. She had closed her eyes again and enjoyed the peace of the first dawn, letting herself rest until the second dawn and its brightening began.

Her host had come in shortly after, bustling quietly around in the space. She had opened one eye again, watching Sonoraneldan moving around, opening things and closing things, moving things here and there. The space contained a shelf on one wall, small leaves and fragments of larger leaves, small sticks and splinters of larger sticks, here and there in efficient order lined up there and on the other wall. All very well organized, she thought, and closed that eye again.

As the second dawn began, Alissa opened all of her eyes and stretched her limbs and her body joints in pleasure. Sonoraneldan had come in and greeted her, offering some rich seed-meat and a drop of nectar. They had sat together comfortably near the growing brightness from outside, and now Alissa found herself telling her story in some detail, and unrolling her bundle to show the strangely-marked fragments that had started her journey.

She watched the other as she told the story, as she always watched the listener or listeners as she told her stories. Sonoraneldan was a large person, but not as large as she had thought the night before, not as bulky but more spindly, with a wise many-eyed face and six long folding limbs. As she spoke the other sat still and respectful, but more alert, more engaged with the world, than the typical listener back at the rich dark earth, who had generally traveled far to hear the stories, and would sit focused on nothing but the telling.

Now, though, Alissa felt that Sonoraneldan was watching her as they listened just as much as she was watching Sonoraneldan as she spoke.

When she finished, they sat silent for a time, the day entirely risen outside, and the land visible down below their height on the trunk of the tree. Then Sonoraneldan nodded, and stretched long limbs, and spoke.

“Have you brought with you, if I may ask, the contents of this unknown bundle, the flat fragments with their enigmatic marking?”

“I have, yes of course,” Alissa answered, and turned to the bundle that she had clung to through everything that had happened in the long night, opening it and carefully removing the fragment.

“See,” she said, “how the markings are laid over the nectar-channels in the leaf, under some sort of–“

“Indeed,” Sonoraneldan said, interrupting but somehow not rudely, “I see indeed. May I show you something?”

“Oh yes!” Alissa said again, curious as to what this mysterious tree-dweller might want to show her.

Sonoraneldan’s many-eyed head bobbed again, and her host led her through the inward-going archway out of the enclosed space, into another space, this one more cluttered with objects and dimmer with being further from the outside.

“I study materials,” Sonoraerneldan said, which told Alissa not very much at all, but she nodded and dipped her antennae politely.

“And I keep some of them organized here, thus,” her host continued, indicting a puzzling object, or bundle, that Alissa had to study a bit before she understood.

Most of it was a bundle, or really a pile or a stack, of very flat fragments of some kind, all aligned at one edge, and somehow held together at that end, by a tangle or daub of small splinters and something like wax. In between each adjacent pair of flat fragments, Sonoraneldan had inserted one or more small leaves or leaf-buds, and the weight of the entire stack pressed on them and on all of the others, holding the whole cleverly closed, as long as there was no wind.

And here in this inner enclosed place, Alissa realized, the wind would seldom penetrate.

“What do you do with all of these?” she asked, never having seen so many objects so thoroughly organized in one place before.

“I will happily tell you many things on that subject,” Sonoraneldan said, “but first I think you may want to look at these.”

The large person pulled over another pile of the very flat fragments, these not apparently yet stuffed with the collected leaves and leaf-buds that were organized within the other.

“Look carefully at the surface of the flat parchemin.”

“I’m sorry, the what?”

“The parchemin, ah, the flat fragment of matter here.”

Alissa moved her head and eyes closer to the topmost fragment in the pile, and then gasped with all of her spiracles.

“Is it the same marks?” she exclaimed. For there on the surface of the fragment, not dark but still clearly visible, were markings of the same nature as the smaller markings, not the curved shape that had brought to her might scent-trails, but the self-contained and separate small markings, lines and curves one and closed, some that curved entirely back onto themselves, all arranged on this surface in very straight rows, unlike the logical curves of the nectar-channels on any leaf.

“The same, different, I do not know,” Sonoraneldan replied, “but it seems that they are the same character. I have, I admit, never given them much notice, as I am more concerned with the nature of the specimens that I press between the flatnesses of the parchemins. But I have wondered in idle moments how they might have come to be like that, and what could cause such markings, or what the purpose of them could be.”

Alissa went back to the first room, and dragged her bundle and its contents into the inner room, leaving her other bundle (containing food and nectar and other useful items) and the damaged travois where they were.

Putting the fragment with its bold dark markings beside the pile of fragments with their (older? paler?) markings, Alissa could make no sense of any of it. Were some of these marks the same, in some way, as some of these? Did this mark appear somewhere else? These marks were arrayed more neatly and in straighter lines than these; why?

“This seems a great… mystery,” she said, shaking her upper body.

“It does,” agreed her host, “it does indeed.”

Fling Twenty


NaNoWriMo 2022, Fling Twelve

Light passes through windows. This is a puzzle. This is a complicated story, a story that no one understands, in four words.

Beams of sunlight pass through the library windows, making patterns on the wall.

Sitting where I sit, among the shelves and the piles of books, I see beams of sunlight passing through the library windows, making patterns on the wall.

My evidence for the existence of beams of sunlight is (at least) in two parts: I see dust motes dancing (dancing? what is it to dance? what kinds of things can dance?) in the sunbeams, visible (to me) in the light, where in other parts of the (dusty) library air, there are no (to me) visible dust motes dancing (or otherwise) in the air, and one explanation (is it the best one? what is best?) is that there is a sunbeam, or at least a beam of light, passing through the air there. (How does a beam of light pass through the air, let alone through the class of the windows?)

The second part of my evidence is the patterns on the wall. I know, or I remember (in memories that I have now, at this moment, the only moment, the only entity, that exists) that the wall is really (what could that possibly mean?) more or less uniform in color; vaguely white, and the same vague whiteness more or less all over. But what I see, or what I see at some level of awareness (what are levels of awareness? what is awareness? who is aware?) is a complex pattern of light and dark, triangles and rectangles and more complex figures laid out and overlapping, and I theorize (automatically, involuntarily, whether or not I intend to) that these brighter shapes and triangles are where the sunbeam (passing through empty space, and then the air, the window, the air again) strikes the wall, and the darker areas, the ground to the sunbeam’s figure, are simply the rest, the shadows, where the sunbeam does not strike, or does not strike directly.

(Or the dark places are where the frames of the window and the edges of shelves and chairs, things outside and things inside, cast their shadows, and the light places, the ground to the shadows’ figure, is the rest, where the shadows do not fall; figure is ground and ground is figure.)

Can we avoid all of this complexity, if we hold Mind as primary? I am. Or, no, as generations of philosophers have pointed out, feeling clever to have caught Descartes in an error, not “I am” but only something along the lines of “Thought is”. If there is a thought that “thought is”, that can hardly be in error (well, to first order). But if there is a thought “I think”, that could be an error, because there might be no “I”, or it might be something other than “I” that is thinking.

Second attempt, then! Can we avoid all of this complexity, if we start with “Thought is”? Or “Experience is”?

Experience is. There is this instant of experience. In this instant of experience, there is a two-dimensional (or roughly two-dimensional) surface. Whether or not there is an understanding of dimensions and how to count them, there is either way still a two-dimensional surface, here in this experience. In some places, the two-dimensional surface is bright. In some places, it is dark; or it is less bright.

Whether or not there is any understanding of brightness and darkness, what might lead to brightness and darkness, anything about suns or windows or how they work, there is still this brightness, in this single moment of experience, and there is still this darkness.

(Whether the darkness is actually bright, just not as bright as the brightness, whether the surface is really two-dimensional in any strong sense, or somewhere between two and three dimensions, or whether dimensions are ultimately not a useful or coherent concept here, there is still, in this singular moment of experience that is all that there is, this experience, this experience, which is what it is, whether or not the words that might be recorded here as a result of it (and whatever “result” might mean) are the best words to describe it.)

And whether it is described at all, whether description is even possible, does not matter; the main thing, dare I write “the certain thing”, is that this (emphasized) is (similarly emphasized).


From this point of view, we may say, Mind is primal. Mind, or whatever we are attempting successfully or unsuccessfully to refer to when we use the word “Mind”, does exist, or at any rate has whatever property we are attempting to refer to when we say “does exist”. Except that “refer to” and “property” are both deeply problematic themselves here.

This is why the ancient Zen teachers (who exist, in this singular present moment of experience, only as memories of stories, memories that exist now) are said to have, when asked deep and complex questions through the medium of language, and impossibly concerning language, have responded with primal experience, with blows or shouts or (more mildly) with references to washing one’s bowl, chopping wood, carrying water.

We can remember that there is this. So, what next?

Language (this language, many other languages, those languages that I am familiar with, that I know of) assumes time.

Without the concept of time, it is difficult to speak, to write, to hypothesize.

Let alone to communicate.

To communicate!

The impossible gulf: that you and I both exist (what does it mean to exist?) and that by communicating (whatever that might be) one or both of us is changed (otherwise why bother?). But change, like time (because time), is an illusion.


Is it necessary (categorically, or conditionally) to participate in the illusion? Or pretend? To act (or to speak, as speech is after all action) as though time and change were real?

The sun comes through the windows and casts shadows on the wall. Is there someone at the door?

Fling Thirteen


NaNoWriMo 2022, Fling Eight

“So are you and Steve okay?”

“Yeah, why wouldn’t we be?”

Colin Colson and Kristen Lewis sat in Colin’s sunny dusty library room on a warm Saturday afternoon, talking lazily.

“Well, not to reveal anything said in confidence, but I understand there was something about a virtuality that you sent him, and his reaction –“

Kristen’s laugh interrupted Colin and he smiled.

“That was nothing,” she said, “and he apologized nicely and everything. He’s not really an idiot, he’s just a guy and all.”

The sun shone through the big windows onto the rugs, the piled books. Kristen and Colin sat in a pair of overstuffed old chairs, just out of the sunbeam.

“I think you frighten him,” Colin suggested. He was, as always, in a comfortable suit perfectly tailored to his small body. His idiopathic childhood growth hormone deficiency had given him the approximate proportions of a nine-year-old boy (“an exceedingly handsome one, obviously”), and his trust fund and his own writing had given him the means to dress those proportions immaculately.

“Because of my brilliance and beauty?” she asked with a matching smile.

“Of course,” Colin replied, “as you well know.”

These two had been lovers briefly and experimentally in school, something that Steve knew and tried not to remember very often. She had not been able to get over the oddness of his size in their intimacy, and he had sensed that without resentment. Now they were good friends, and when Colin felt the need for erotic physical contact, his trust fund and his writing were able to supply that as well, via a few open-minded professionals with whom he had excellent arrangements.

“I suppose I’m oversensitive,” Kristen suggested.

“I don’t think so; you are who you are, and if you didn’t frighten him a little, he wouldn’t like you as much.”

She smiled again at that; she smiled often in Colin’s presence. He had a wry wisdom, she thought, that accepted reality as it was, without rancor or unnecessary judgement.

“Do you want to see the virtuality, too?”

“Was it Hints of Home?”

The girl nodded, pleased.

“I saw it on your feed,” he said, “and spent an hour inside. It’s … lovely. The signposts are so subtle.”

“The tools we have these days are amazing,” she said, “you should really try it.”

“I will hold to my old-fashioned linear words, thank you very much,” he replied, adding a stuffy timbre to his voice, “the virtual is entirely too huge for me.”

She nodded. This was a conversation that they had had more than once before. The world’s artists were divided roughly in half, it seemed, between those who fully embraced the new creative universe of AI-assisted fully-immersive digital universe-building, and those who continued to work with words and images in the old-fashioned way (not counting the occasional spell-checker or digital white-balance adjustment).

And, he reflected, between those crafters who had fully launched into the virtual and digital, and those like Steve who preferred to construct physical rigs with which one could risk one’s physical life by speeding through the physical desert at ridiculous speeds.

“I wonder if it was partly because he doesn’t really grok the virtual, still,” Kristen said, her thoughts apparently paralleling his own, as they sometimes did, “and because I sent him the link while he was deep into tuning a rig.”

“Cognitive dissonance,” Colin replied, nodding. He himself, although he was a loyalist of linear text in his own writing, greatly enjoyed modern media as well as a consumer, and found Kristen’s virtualities, small intricate worlds of their own with mysterious and subtly-delivered themes, invariably rewarding.

“But he always remembers to be complimentary, eventually,” she smiled, and he saw in the abstraction of her eyes that she was thinking fond thoughts of his large awkward friend Steve, which made him glad.

In the part of him that always watched himself, he wondered if what he had seen was really there. Did Kristen’s brown eyes defocus, the exact configuration of the whites revealing that they were no longer both pointing at some specific point in the room? Did the light in the room (the photons bouncing here and there in law-like but complex ways) carry enough evidence of that to his own eyes that his brain could justifiably (so much to know about justification!) conclude that her eyes were indeed defocused? And then did he know her well enough (what does it mean to know someone? what is “someone else”?) to justifiably conclude that if her eyes were defocused in this present moment (the only moment that exists), it meant in context that she was thinking of Steve (who is “Steve” when he is not here)?

There was probably something else in her face, some fond expression on her cheeks and her lips, the corners of her eyes, that was providing him subconscious additional evidence that she was thinking fondly of someone, and, he thought, there was perhaps a lack of subtle clues of tension that would have suggested she was thinking fondly of anyone other than Steve. Because his brain (rightly or wrongly) assumed that if she was thinking fondly of anyone other than Steve (or Colin) in Colin’s presence, she would be tense?

He realized that he’d drifted several removes from reality, and that Kristen was standing now, her back in the sun, looking over the books on one of the shelves (never enough shelves!).

“Ach,” she said, “I love Giannina Braschi. But she is so dense, I feel like I should spend a whole day on every paragraph.”

Colin nodded.

“And that is how I feel about trying to write in the virtual; if I can spin off every interesting potential from every thought, the shortest of short pieces would be a billion words.”

“And that isn’t true of plain text?” Kristen laughed, landing an unavoidable blow.

“But I can’t do it there, no one expects it, text encourages linearity; word-building encourages sprawl, differentiation, spreading out along infinitely many branches at every moment. The Many Worlds universe!”

“One merely has to be disciplined,” she said, coming to perch on the arm of his chair.

He smiled up at her, and she put out one brown hand and stroked his hair.

“Don’t do that,” he said, but he moved his head to press against her palm, like a happy kitten.

This present moment is all that exists, he thought, and it is possible to enjoy a girl’s hand on his head without understanding anything about it. What is touch? What are hands? What is love and what is loyalty? Which atoms belong to his hair, and which to Kristen’s palm? Was this fluttering in his chest pleasure, or sorrow, or both? What is discipline, what is fear? Why, in this moment, did she choose to sit there, did she choose to touch him? In this moment, every past moment exists only as a memory, in this moment. What makes a memory true, what makes a memory false?

She touched the back of her hand to his cheek for an instant, and then returned to her own chair.

“And how is it with you?” she asked, looking warmly over at him, “What are you writing now?”

Fling Nine


A Saturday Morning in November

Midjourney V4 (well, an “alpha” version thereof) is out! As if I didn’t already have enough to play with.

That house, floating above the sea with some balloons and things, is typical of the results of my old favorite “detailed surrealism” prompt. And this:

is from the prompt “neutral prompt”. We can tentatively conclude that it likes cute fantasy houses. :)

Here is a v4 (alpha) Yeni Cavan scene:

which is pretty cool.

In other news, I’m over 8500 words into NaNoWriMo 2022 as of yesterday (I haven’t written anything yet today). I’ve also make a cover page for the book, which links to the first Fling, and each Fling links to the next, so you can start at the cover, and go through the whole thing in the right order by just clicking obvious things. This may partially atone for posting it as a bunch of weblog entries in the first place. :)

I made the cover image in (obviously) Midjourney, and then fiddled a little and put on some titles (and my Government Name!) in the GIMP. I note that the skills of professional cover designers are subtle and profound; the titles on my cover are obviously in the wrong place, a professional designer would put them in places that were so obviously in the right place that one wouldn’t even notice, and I have no idea what makes the difference.

Okay! Now I am off to make the header image for Fling Seven, and start writing. I think it will be more of Alissa’s story.


NaNoWriMo 2022, Fling Six

As the sun moves, somewhere outside, the dusty sunbeam moves across the room, across the piles of books (there are never enough shelves!).

We can take up a particular book, and we can sit in comfort on the window seat or elsewhere, and open it. This book begins with metaphors.

“The cars are the wheels of the city,” the book says. “The city is the body of the car,” the book says.

Cities do not have wheels, and cars cannot be wheels. Cities do not have bodies, and cars are much smaller than cities.

If we expected something like truth or falsity from words, in books, this might be a problem. This might be something wrong.

The book says nothing; it is silent. Inside the book, on one of the flat sheets of fiber near the beginning (near the top of the pile of stacked and cut fibrous sheets), there are patterns of differential reflectivity, patterns of darkness, that are associated with the words, with the letters, with the symbols: “The cars are the wheels of the city.” The association between the reflectivity and the symbols is complex.

Why are these particular marks, lines of chemical, situated on this particular flat sheet of fibrous substance, out of all of the many sheets of fibrous substance in this pile, in this room, in this library, on this planet?

What does it mean to ask “Why”? Again we have this circularity, this difficulty that words can easily talk about anything but words, that language can agilely juggle any subject but language and truth. But with what can we juggle language and truth, if things cannot juggle themselves?

“The cars are the wheels of the city.” These patterns on the page are related to properties of the mind of whoever put them there. These patterns on the page are related to other properties of the mind of whoever reads them. Because this is no different from “The cat is on the mat,” or “The sum of two odd numbers is an even number,” we have no particular problem with metaphors, we have (so far) no need for a special explanation.

Even a simple truth (or falsehood) is related to everything else around it, every facet of its conception, its writing, its reading, its comprehension, in impossibly complex ways, in ways that would take a lifetime even to begin to understand. A complex metaphor, a figure of speech, an allegory, is related to everything else around it, in ways that would take a lifetime even to begin to understand.

But we have established that it is entirely possible, indeed it is likely inevitable, to act and experience without full understanding.

The sun is warm, even hot, through the dusty windows. Whether or not we know what it means for light to “come through” a window, or what “a window” is. Or “warm”. Or “light”.

The book says, “Sharp metal softly pierces and separates tissue”. We shudder at the thought, or at a thought that appears after, and perhaps because, we read the phrase. We shudder even if we cannot explain what “sharp metal” is; what counts as “metal”, and what counts as “sharp”? Are there subjective or objective categories? Is there a useful distinction between “subjective” and “objective”? What makes an act of piercing “soft”? Without being able to say, we imagine the separating of tissue, perhaps the unmentioned welling of blood, and we shudder.

So it is also entirely possible, indeed it is likely inevitable, to be moved by, to be changed by, words, by language, without full understanding.

I close my eyes and turn my face toward the window, and the sunlight hits my eyelids, warms my face, and fills my vision with warm living redness. It is bright, even if I cannot explain to you what “bright” means. Even if, as seems inevitable, I cannot explain to you what “red” means.

This one page of this one book could occupy a lifetime. There is no hope of fully experiencing, internalizing, understanding, even one shelf of the books of this room, even one pile (there are never enough shelves). We can function without full understanding. But what dangers does that entail? (What are “dangers”? What is it for a thing to “entail” another thing? What is a “thing”?)

From another direction (we turn our face toward the interior of the room; now the sunlight hits the back of our head, and our face is cooler, the redness less intense, more black). When we feel certain things, when we have certain physiological properties, we tend to make certain sounds. There are correlations between certain sounds and certain marks, certain patterns of marks, made with reflectivity changes on fibrous sheets.

(Another book, whose title (what is a title?) is “Empire of Dreams”, and whose author is “Giannina Braschi”, says “When I plunge into thought, I walk at the foot of the wind.” The wind has no foot. One cannot plunge into thought. These are all metaphors. Even “The wind has no foot” is a metaphor. All language, perhaps, is metaphor, because no language is literally true. But what does “literally true” mean? Language cannot agilely juggle itself.)

The light is warm on my arm, on the side of my head, on my leg. What does it mean for light to come through the window? When we see light coming through a window, we tend to say “the light is coming through the window”. What is light? What is “light”? Without light, we cannot see; without sight, can we know? Literally, yes. Metaphorically, no.

Light is the mother of knowledge. (The cars are the wheels of the city.) Light is the positive, light is motion and life and progress, knowledge and understanding. “[T]he windows give their light generously to the air,” says the book. Darkness is stillness, potential, ignorance and innocence. (Or guilt?)

From another direction. I cannot touch you, except as I can touch you with my words. I cannot comfort you, inspire you, understand you, or help you to understand me, except as I can do this with my words, because I exist for you only as words. Words cannot be constrained to literal truth, or they could not do the things that we require them to do.

(Ironically enough, the original meaning of “literal” is “having to do with letters”, so only words can convey, contain, constitute, literal truth.)

It is not necessary to think all of these thoughts. We can easily stretch out in the sun on the window seat, with a book, and read, and nap, without understanding how any of these things work (so much to know about books! About naps!).

Fling Seven


NaNoWriMo 2022, Fling Four

The bundle with its enigmatic contents was still in the far corner of Alissa’s indentation, at the base of her tall green stem, when it began to rain.

Drops of water, not droplets but drops, some the size of people, hurled themselves from the sky, or were hurled from the sky, and all of Alissa’s friends and neighbors, and everyone like them for long distances around them in every direction coped with them, and with the further results, in their own ways.

Even Alissa, although it was not in her main area of interest, knew stories of rain, where it came from, why it fell, and what people did when it did. Most people hid, when they could, and stories described hiding places clever and disastrous, when to go in and when to come out (do not be too sure that the rain has stopped!), and why it was better to be small, but also worse.

(One story described Small Rota, who exulted how well he could fit into a crevice that Large Chun was too large for; but then the rain was so hard and so inquisitive and forceful that Small Rota was washed from the crevice, and saved from being washed away only because Large Chun, well-anchored to a sturdy sapling, intercepted him with several free legs at the last moment.)

For this rain, Alissa climbed lightly up her stem, and took a position on one spreading leaf, sheltered by another, where the rain could shake and bounce the leaves, but the top leaf shielded her from direct impacts, and the lower one provided a good set of grips, so she felt reasonably well protected.

The rain fell. Within her view of the rich dark earth and the plants and small trunks and stems and rocks that sustained their living in it, Alissa could see a few of her friends and neighbors, either where a leg or a curve of carapace showed under or around a protective sheet or leaf, fragment or bark, or where the changed position of one of those from their accustomed places hinted at a resident taking refuge there.

A couple of daring flying needles also flitted among the falling droplets, their wings buzzing so quickly as to throw off any spray from bouncing and bursting globules, and so stable in the air as to easily survive, with some gleeful shouts and calls, even a direct impact by the larger, and certainly the smaller, drops.

Alissa watched the drops in their dozens and hundreds and thousands falling into the dark earth, which eagerly drank up each one, the earth becoming still darker and still richer with the ingestion, smaller bits of earth being kicked up by the impacts to balance above the earth for a moment, and then be struck back down into the main.

As she was watching, a dark blue person with the general layout of a beetle, but sharper and thinner, came into her view between the stems, apparently having a bit of difficulty making forward progress amid the constant random fall of the drops. This person was moving its body and antennae in a way that suggested it was looking for shelter from the rain, but without much success.

“Up here!” Alissa, called, and when the beetle person twisted itself around awkwardly to look upward, Alissa climbed down the stem nearly to the ground, and held out an arm to the struggling other, who made its way despite the increasing rain toward her, and they clasped pincers and climbed together back to Alissa’s shelter leaf.

“Thank you,” the beetleoid person said after a moment to catch its breath, “I am Sema, and this rain quite caught me out.”

“It is getting heavier,” Alissa said, “but a couple of rainminders said this morning that it would not last long.”

“You have rainminders here? More than one?”

“Well, yes,” Alissa replied, “at the moment; many people pass through the dark earth ground, and we…”

“Ah,” said the other with a happy sigh, despite the bouncing of their sheltering leaf, which was rhythmically tapping it on the back now with the stream of drops down the plants, “then I have truly reached the dark earth! I feared I had lost the scent trails entirely when the rain started.”

“You have for a fact,” Alissa said, “and you are most welcome!”

The rain increased further, and for a while the two were too occupied with maintaining their respective holds as all the leaves of the stem were somewhat buffeted, and moved in quick unpredictable ways that became at times forceful.

But eventually the light of the air grew somewhat brighter, and the shaking of their shared perch somewhat less energetic, and they could talk comfortably again.

“It looks like it may be ending,” Alissa said.

“Remember the story of Albert and the Lull in the Rain,” said Sema, and Alissa laughed.

“And I thought I was the story-teller here!” she said, “In the dark earth here, we tell it as Alluvia and the Rain Lull.”

“My apologies, then.”

“Oh, not at all, the more stories the better, I say, “Alissa replied brightly, “and we will heed the tale, whether it be Albert or Alluvia’s, and wait for all three signs before we go back down. But it does seem to be letting up.”

After awhile, when they were on the edge of agreeing that the three signs had appeared and it was safe to return to the ground and the open, there was a wet rustling from the edge of sight, and a slurry of lighter sandier earth, carried by a sudden and limited flow of water along the ground, a temporary runnel of water liberated by some last press of the rain on some barrier, spread out across the earth below them.

“Ah,” Sema said, looking downward.

Alissa followed the other’s gaze, and saw that the light sandy earth had been carried by the water through the rich dark earth, in patterns guided by the heights and density of the wet ground, by the movement of the water, by interactions between all of them, the two earths and the water, in patterns that reminded her of the way scent-trails curved around stems, and also the shapes of nectar networks in leaves, and also the mysterious sinuous darkness on the fragments in the large pale visitor’s bundle. She moved her arms in amusement and puzzlement and annoyance at the return of that memory.

Sema made a polite inquiring sound beside her, and Alissa sighed.

“I will show you something,” she said to Sema, “once the rain has gone entirely.”

Fling Five


Another November!

Which means another National (really Universal) Novel Writing Month: NaNoWriMo 2022. I vaguely recall that only people signed into the site can see this, but in any case I am (naturally) ceoln over there.

And, as some people may have noticed already, I’ve started writing!

The plan this year is to write a number (roughly two dozen) of individual Flings, where each fling is in some way related to all the others, more or less tightly or loosely, and each Fling is also inspired by or otherwise associated with an image from Midjourney or the like, produced by whatever process. I will initially post each Fling separately in the weblog here, but I may later, or sometime, combine them into… a single document of some time? TBD.

The first Fling there is sort of a mind-dump about books and writing and language and truth and the nature of reality and all, but more importantly it is roughly 2054 words long, so we’re doing nicely on wordcount.

I have chosen the image for the second Flirt (or at least it’s around here somewhere in one of these Discord tabs), but haven’t thought about the words for it yet. But in any case, we’re off!

There are summaries of my prior NaNoWriMo history here and here (and there’s this page that I don’t know why I never update), but let’s also summarize all of the years where I actually did something notable, just for fun here also.

  • 2001: Straight On To The Exit, a relatively straightforward real-world story with (oh, I’d forgotten that!) a set of questions at the end of many of the chapters, and with a cute gimmick that let me basically write whatever words I wanted when I ran out of ideas.
  • 2002: In Dark, a science fiction story set on and within the body of a giant comatose lizard floating in interstellar space. Perhaps my favorite setting so far. :)
  • 2004: Take Good Care Of Yourself And Others, a more (um) realistic near-future science fiction story basically about the world just before the Singularity, in which I used excerpts from actual spam that I received as decorators and wordcount.
  • 2005: Diveritmenti, an epistolary novel with an unreliable narrator, which might be a vampire story or something.
  • 2007: Another Door, about a house that’s larger (well, much larger) on the inside than on the outside. This one had very little (that I can recall) in terms of gimmicks for wordcount, and an impressive ending; this is one of my favorites (well, they all are).
  • 2008: Strangers (aka Shore Leave), another relatively straightforward contemporary science fiction story, about the impact on all concerned of the arrival of the first interstellar visitors to Earth, in the form of a crazy chaotic world-ship containing hundreds of different species (probably).
  • 2009: Silence. Silence. Silence. Silence, which is more of a long poem or chant or experimental song lyric or something, and might well be considered cheating given the amount of repetition in the text.
  • 2011: Started but did not finish Murder in the Castle of Wizards. A little humbling failure is good, sob.
  • 2013: Did NaPoWriMo instead.
  • 2014: Did NaNoGenMo instead.
  • 2016: The Mercy of Fate, in which I explicitly rolled the dice to determine the direction of the story in various places; I will have to re-read this sometime to see how it worked out. I don’t remember having been very satisfied with it.
  • 2019: Pillsbury Baccalaureate, basically science fiction, which starts when a person discovers he has memories that aren’t his, and leads into adventures with machines for exploring (something like) alternate universes.
  • 2020: All Reality, inspired by playing so much with GPT-style AI text generators, in which the characters mostly deal in various ways with the fact that reality is infinitely malleable.
  • 2021: Snack Bar Only, a novel based on an ancient story idea of mine, about an unnamed protagonist who travels between golf course restaurants (and snack bars) in his red pickup truck.

And now here we are in 2022, and I’m over 2000 words into what will be in some sense my dozenth NaNoWriMo novel (assuming I finish it), and probably going to go over to Midjourney to see if I can make an appealing cover. :)

What fun!


NaNoWriMo 2022, Fling One

There are books everywhere; this makes me happy. There is dusty sunlight coming in through the window; this also makes me happy.

Are there books there? Are they yet to be invented, or rare and precious, or ubiquitous, or left behind and forgotten?

To make a book, we take fibers of various kinds and cause them to tangle and weave together in and around and among themselves and each other, flatten them flat, cut them to size, and bind them together, usually protected at the start and at the end and the bound edge by a thicker layer of fiber sheet, or something even stronger. The fibers must be such that, or must be treated so that, the resulting flat faces are relatively uniform in reflectivity and light diffusion, at least for certain wavelengths of light. Usually.

I imagine fibers dissolved in water, or dissolved in oil or alcohol or nectar, allowed to flow and dance and tangle, overlapping and joining, hooking together with smaller fibers that protrude microscopically from their trunks, joining and separating, and as the water or oil or alcohol or nectar is slowly removed and flows away, forming into elegant flat sheets, shining in the dusty sunlight, and then becoming calm and dry and perfect, matte and uniform.

On the sheets of fiber, we create patterns of differential reflectivity by carefully applying chemicals that adhere well to the fiber matrix, and that also absorb and scatter light of those same wavelengths differently than do the flattened and cut fibers. When one of these patterned sheets is exposed to the right wavelength of light, the patterns can be discerned by analyzing the reflections that occur.

And then because the discerning of the patterns is the important thing, time passes and a book can be anything that creates the appropriate discernible patterns in more or less the same way.

A book is a single long word, a book is an extended pattern of darkness in light, of opaque in clear, of shine in matte. There are no books, there are only words, there are no words there are only sounds, ideas, the Universal Wave Function.

Here is the Universal Wave Function. All that there is, in the universe of the Universal Wave Function, is an infinite manifold, an infinitely-divisible expanse of places, where for each place one can in principle write down some numbers or other symbols, that are unique to that place, and that behave in certain well-defined ways, so that there is some well-defined distance between two places and so on.

And then at each place there are some more numbers and groups of numbers, that we might give whimsical names like Electric Charge or Gravitational Force or Charm or Spin or Color or Flavor or Niceness or Bliss.

Then there is time. Time is an illusion: this present moment is all that exists.

(“Wait,” I might say, “but I remember reading that very sentence just now, and that was in the past,” but that is only me relating, at this present moment, a memory that I have, at this present moment. All moments but this present moment are just memories, or expectations or dreams or fears or whimsies, that exist at this present moment. I could say that this is true, and that this has always been true.)

But in the illusion of time, the various numbers present at the various places in the Universal Wave Function change.

(Change is also an illusion.)

They change in law-like ways, meaning that if we know what the numbers are at a particular time and place and at all the nearby places also, we can say what the numbers will be at that place at some other time. Or we can’t do that, but we can say that there are various ways that the numbers might be at some other time, and the probability of each one being the actual numbers at that time.

Here in the dusty sunbeams, we call this Physics.

In this pile of books (sorry about all of the piles of books; there aren’t enough shelves, there are never enough shelves!) there are two books about Physics. They are both books made by carefully impressing certain chemicals onto flat sheets of intertwined fibers in precise patterns, to change the way that light of certain wavelengths reflects from them.

What does it mean for a book, for this bound-together collection of flat fibrous bundles with patterns of differential reflectivity, to be about Physics? That is a deep question. The chain of links between differential reflectivity and aboutness is long and complicated.

I imagine light coming from the sun (and there is so much to know about the Sun!) coming through the window and through the dust (so much to know about windows, about dust; how does light “come through” a window?) light hitting an open book, light reflecting differentially, some of the reflected light entering certain organic structures, impacting certain sensitive membranes one photon at a time (so much to know about photons, about particles, about the fascinating and deadly realms of the organic, about membranes), and then onward into a vast swamp, forest, continent of words and language and thought, and eventually aeons later into intersubjectivity and aboutness.

This present moment is all that there is, but it contains an unimaginable complexity, and inexhaustible feast of the knowable but unknown, of the imaginable but unimagined. One page of a book, one of the faces of one of those flat sheets of exuberant fiber, bears, in the potential patterns that we might carefully imbue into it with effective chemicals, so much potential that one could never go hungry.

A book is a river, a book is a shadow, a delicious grilled-cheese sandwich, a steak dish at a fine-dining concern, with sauce and garnish (so much to know about sauce and garnish!), a book is another book and another, a book is a collection, a library, a world.

(But there are no books, there are only words, only fibers and chemicals, only elementary particles, only the Universal Wave Function. Or only thoughts and stories.)

This is what I struggle with, sitting near the dusty sunbeams with my books. (So much to know about just sitting! About joints, and about angles of repose!) The present moment is all that exists, and it is only Mind, only Experience. But when Mind partakes in Experience, it weaves stories that give primacy to mass, to energy, to Charge and Spin and Niceness, to the Universal Wave Function. Which is it?

But, I write as I struggle, to ask which it is, is to imagine or imply (so much to know about imagining, about implication!) that there is some answer to that question, an answer which would perforce be in terms of some truth below the level of Mind and Experience, and below Charge and Spin and Niceness, below in the sense of being more primitive or basic, or able in some meaningful way to support or provide answers to questions about both Mind and Experience and the Universal Wave Function.

And what truth would that be?

It is miraculous that one can sigh happily at the sight of the books and the dusty sunbeam, that one can select a book from a shelf or a pile (there are never enough shelves), and take it, and open it, and sit oneself on the window seat or in a comfortable chair (not pictured), and read that book, and have thoughts taken from the content of that book, despite the incomprehensible complexity of the chains of relation involved, between Mind and Spin, between Charge and Thought, even merely between chemicals and diffuse reflectivity.

All books are fiction, because language cannot express Truth. Truth is, always and everywhere, more complex than anything that language can encompass. Nothing that I have written here is true, in some sense of Truth that involves fully reflecting everything relevant about this present moment (which is all that exists). Do not seek for Truth in language (although we may, sitting in the window seat, seek for Truth through language).

Language is pattern, language is a link from sound to thought (so much to know about sound, about thought), a link from differential reflectivity to Mind, from Mind even to Mind, perhaps.

I can tell a story, in which properties of my mind (my Mind), my thoughts, cause through a long and fascinating chain certain sounds or certain differential reflectivities, and that through an equally long and fascinating (so much to learn about fascination!) chain to another mind (another Mind?) where changes might occur (although change, perhaps, is an illusion; what is an illusion?).

So in this story, language allows a property (so much to know about properties) of one mind, to cause or lead to (or come before, ex ante, at least, if we don’t understand causation, and no one understands causation), changes in another mind, perhaps changes involving the same (so much to know about identity!) or at least corresponding properties of that second mind.

I might write down the words “language allows one mind to communicate a thought to another”; but what is communication? What is thought?

This is why it is difficult to construct language about language, nicht wahr? I can use language, and these books can use language, to speak about, to be about, anything whatever, on the assumption that language works for speaking about things. But if I am going to speak about language? What can I use, if I have not yet satisfied myself (satisfied the potential reader) that language works?

This shelf contains a number of books on whose pages are brightly-colored and detailed illustrations of delicious food. Illustrations, images, of delicious food rather circumvent the need for language. The body (and yes, so much to know about the body!) reacts immediately, without the intervention or action of Mind.

(But what is the body, if not a hypothesis of Mind? Body laughs at that question, laughs at all questions beyond how that food smells, how that leaf tastes, how this desire and passion feels, how this sleep soothes, how this abyss tempts. Body claims mind for itself, as nothing but a servant, a clever assistant that calculates how to open the box, how to evade the bull and get the chicken, how to satisfy the desire, how to achieve the passion; and all of Mind’s little side-trips and theories and elaborations are pointless except as they serve those ends, and are tolerated if they do serve those ends, even indirectly, but are not taken seriously. Mind says that body is only a hypothesis of Mind; but the body says we are hungry, we are sleepy. And eventually the body always wins out.)

Where was I? The illustrations of food! They are photographs, and we have not talked specifically about how photographs find their way into books. They are also alterations in the reflectivity of the fiber sheets, but they are generally subtler, providing for gradations in reflectivity, not just the dark-or-light that we implied or suggested or were thinking of before, and for different gradations and different changes for different wavelengths of light, resulting in “color” photographs for instance. And in depicting (what is it, to depict?) this delicious grilled-cheese sandwich, using color is advantageous, is useful, reduces the amount of skill required compared to producing an acceptable grayscale or sepia tone image of a delicious grilled-cheese sandwich.

Despite all of this, one can easily (as I’ve mentioned) take a book, containing in a straightforward way either text or photos or drawings or any combination of these, and sit in a chair in or near the dusty sunbeam, or on the window seat, and read that book, and enjoy the place and the activity. And all of this can be done without understanding everything, or really by various measures without understanding very much at all, about what those words mean, and how those activities and properties hang together and come to be, or about how (if at all!) language succeeds in communicating anything (what?) from mind to mind.

That is, perhaps, the message of the dusty sunbeam and the room full of books (there are never enough shelves) for today: it is entirely possible, indeed it is likely inevitable, to act and experience without full understanding.

Fling Two


Klara’s Story (Part One)

So after I did “Ice Dreams” (50M pdf), as casually announced here, I did another graphic novel (to the extent that that phrase fits at all), or the first part of one, in a very different style and by a very different process.

For “Klara’s Story” (working title), I generated two-by-two grids of Midjourney images using the prompt “detailed surrealism” (a favorite of mine) and some variants thereof, and crafted some sort of story around the images (rather than using the AI to create images for a more-or-less known story).

I haven”t yet had the patience to pare it down at all, so here is the current like 327M pdf draft.

The huge size does make it a bit awkward and slow to deal with, but… there it is!


Sunday in August

Brilliant title, eh? :) Various things have occurred! I will mention some of them.

There is now a full draft of my graphic novel(ette); it’s 40 pages, and about 50MB, so don’t expect your phone to pop it up very quickly. And also don’t expect it to be that good :) as I’ve never really written in this medium before, and it’s tough. In the most recent draft I removed considerable exposition which felt out of place, replacing it with images and short statements. Now I’m afraid the result is basically incomprehensible :) at least to anyone not already familiar with the SF tropes I’m touching on.

It was really fun to do, though! As I’ve mentioned, all of the art was done using MidJourney, and the compositing and most of the text was done in the GIMP. I got a few nice pieces of display text from; if I’d thought about it a little harder, I would have used something more interesting than Sans-Serif Bold (and sometimes Italic) from the GIMP font collection. (There’s a little Verdana, just on the copyright page at the end I think.)

This was the most fun when I was putting together the images that I’d already created that inspired the story in the first place. It was more frustrating when I needed a particular image and was trying to create it in MidJourney; it is sometimes a challenge to generate a specific thing! The water droplet at the very end, for instance, came after many, many attempts to make a crystal / water sphere that wasn’t sitting on a surface of some kind.

Other things! In order to get even more meta than this, we entered “Here is a short description of an image that has some interesting visual elements:” into NovelAI. It responded:

A man wearing a white t-shirt and blue jeans sits in his chair, staring at the television. His eyes are closed as he watches a show about two women discussing the weather. The screen reads ‘NBC News’ with a picture of a woman.

and I typed that into MidJourney, and got this:

Four rather fuzzy pictures containing a person and some TV screens

So that’s in some sense entirely AI-generated, using a human-designed procedure. It’s also really boring!

Let’s try again; this time NovelAI says:

A woman in a white dress, standing on a rocky beach. The ocean is behind her and the setting sun makes for a bright glare to one side of her face as she looks out into the water.

and MidJourney responds with (after a considerable delay because I am in relax mode, which is basically “nice -n 19”:

Four nice slightly impressionistic images of a woman standing on rocks by the water with the sun low.

which is quite nice (although again not exactly what the prompt says).

So there you are: the first two (or eight) images produced by a particular meta-algorithm using Modern AI Technology! :)

Other things are to a great extent prevented from occurring by the fact that it is Very Humid outside, and there are Pandemics and so on still. I went out to get bagels this morning, and I was like “yow, what is this very large humid windy room here?”. There’s a chance I’ll get into Manhattan next week; that will be quite a shock!

I have not been playing Video Games to speak of, because all of these AI stuff has been more interesting. There is all sorts of stuff to say about legal issues (Yes, content generated using an AI can be copyrighted by the human creator!) and societal issues (impact of AI on artists and art perhaps similar to impacts of photography on same?) and all like that there. But it is more fun to make cool pictures!

So in closing here is the one I used on the copyright page of the Graphic Novel(ette). Be well!

A surreal image of maybe a sheep standing in shallow water looking at maybe like a blimp made of sticks or something.

Not a review of “Superintelligence”

I’m reading this book “Superintelligence” by Nick Bostrom (I apparently have the 2014, not the 2016, edition). This isn’t a review, because I haven’t nearly finished it yet, but I have some Thoughts.

First of all, the book is taking far too long to get to the “What we should do about the prospect of things that are sufficiently smarter than us coming to exist nearby?” part. I’ve been plodding and plodding through many pages intended to convince me that this is a significant enough probability that I should bother thinking about it at all. I already believed that it was, and if anything the many many pages attempting to convince me of it have made me think it’s less worth worrying about, by presenting mediocre arguments.

(Like, they point out the obvious possibility that if a computer can make itself smarter, and the smarter it is the faster it can make itself smarter, then it can get smarter exponentially, and that can be really fast. But they also note that this depends on each unit of smarterness being not significantly harder than the last to achieve, and they give unconvincing external arguments for this being likely, whereas the typical inherent behavior of a hard problem is that it gets harder and harder as you go along (80/20 rules and all), and that would tend to prevent an exponential increase, and they haven’t even mentioned that. Maybe they will, or maybe they did and I didn’t notice. They also say amusing things about how significant AI research can be done on a single “PC” and maybe in 2014 that was a reasonable thing to say I dunno.)


But anyway, this isn’t a review of the book (maybe I’ll do one when I’m finished, if I ever finish). This is a little scenario-building based on me thinking about what an early Superintelligent system might actually look like, in what way(s) it might be dangerous, and so on. I’m thinking about this as I go, so no telling where we might end up!

The book tends to write down scenarios where, when it becomes Superintelligent, a system also becomes (or already is) relatively autonomous, able to just Do Things with its effectors, based on what comes in through its sensors, according to its goals. And I think that’s unlikely in the extreme, at least at first. (It may be that the next chapter or two in the book will consider this, and that’s fine, I’m thinking about it now anyway.

Consider a current AI system of whatever kind; say GPT-3 or NightCafe (VQGAN+CLIP). It’s a computer program, and it sits there doing nothing. Someone types some stuff into it, and it produces some stuff. Some interesting text, say, or a pretty image. Arguably it (or a later version of it) knows a whole lot about words and shapes and society and robots and things. But it has no idea of itself, no motives except in the most trivial sense, and no autonomy; it never just decides to do something.

So next consider a much smarter system, say a “PLNR-7” which is an AI in the same general style, which is very good at planning to achieve goals. You put in a description of a situation, some constraints and a goal, and it burns lots of CPU and GPU time and gets very hot, and outputs a plan for how to achieve that goal in that situation, satisfying those constraints. Let’s say it is Superintelligent, and can do this significantly better than any human.

Do we need to worry about it taking over the world? Pretty obviously not, in this scenario. If someone were to give it a description of its own situation, a relatively empty set of constraints, and the goal of taking over the world, perhaps it could put out an amazing plan for how it could do that. But it isn’t going to carry out the plan, because it isn’t a carrier-out of plans; all it does is create them and output them.

The plan that PLNR-7 outputs might be extremely clever, involving hiding subliminal messages and subtle suggestions in the outputs that it delivers in response to inputs, that would (due to its knowledge of human psychology) cause humans to want to give PNLR-7 more and more authority, to hook it up to external effectors, add autonomy modules to allow it to take actions on its own rather than just outputting plans, and so on.

But would it carry out that plan? No. Asking “would it have any reason to carry out that plan?” is already asking too much; it doesn’t have reasons in the interesting sense; the only “motivation” that it has is to output plans when a situation / constraints / goal triplet is input. And it’s not actually motivated to do that, that is simply what it does. It has no desires, preferences, or goals itself, even though it is a superhuman expert on the overall subject of desires, preferences, goals, and so on.

Is the difference here, the difference between being able to make plans, and being able to carry them out? I don’t think it’s even that simple. Imagine that we augment PLNR-7 so that it has a second input port, and we can bundle up the situation / constraints / goal inputs with the plan output of the first part, feed than into that second slot, and PLNR-7 will now compare the real world with the situation described, and the plan with whatever effectors we’ve given it, and if it matches closely enough it will carry out the plan (within the constraints) using its effectors.

Say we give it as its only effectors the ability to send email, and make use of funds from a bank account containing 100,000 US dollars. We give it a description of the current world as its input, a constraint that corresponding to being able to send email and spend a starting pool of US$100,000, and a goal of reducing heart disease in developing countries in one year. It thinks for awhile and prints out a detailed plan involving organizing a charitable drive, hiring a certain set of scientists, and giving them the task of developing a drug with certain properties that PLNR-7 has good reason to think will be feasible.

We like that plan, so we put it all into the second input box, and a year later heart disease in developing countries is down by 47%. Excellent! PLNR-7, having finished that planning and executing, is now just sitting there, because that’s what it does. It does not worry us, and does not pose a threat.

Is that because we let humans examine the plan between the first-stage output, and the second-stage effecting? I don’t think that’s entirely it. Let’s say we are really stupid, and we attach the output of the first stage directly to the input of the second stage. Now we can give it constraints to not to cause any pain or injury, and a goal of making the company that built it one billion dollars in a year, and just press GO.

A year later, it’s made some really excellent investments, and the company is one billion dollars richer, and once again it’s just sitting there.

Now, that was dangerous, admittedly. We could have overlooked something in the constraints, and PLNR-7 might have chosen a plan that, while not causing any pain or injury, would have put the entire human population of North America into an endless coma, tended to by machines of loving grace for the rest of their natural lives. But it didn’t, so all good.

The point, at this point, is that while PLNR-7 is extremely dangerous, it isn’t extremely dangerous on its own behalf. That is, it still isn’t going to take any actions autonomously. It is aware of itself only as one element of the current situation, and it doesn’t think of itself as special. It is extremely dangerous only because it has no common sense, and we might give it a goal which would be catastrophic for us.

And in fact, circling back around, the book sort of points that out. It tends to assume that AIs will be given goals and effectors, and notes that this doesn’t automatically give them any kind of instinct for self-preservation or anything, but that if the goal is open-ended enough, they will probably realize in many circumstances that the goal will be best achieved if the AI continues to exist to safeguard the goal-achievement, and if the AI has lots of resources to use to accomplish the goal. So you end up with an AI that both defends itself and wants to control as much as possible, not for itself but for the sake of the goal that we foolishly gave it, and that’s bad.

The key step here seems to be closing the loop between planning and effectuating. In the general case in the current world, we don’t do that; we either just give the AI input and have it produce symbolic output, or we give it effectors (and goals) that are purely virtual: get the red block onto the top of a stable tower of blocks on the virtual work surface, or get Company X to dominate the market in the marketplace simulation.

On the other hand, we do close the loop back to the real world in various places, some having to do with not-necessarily-harmless situations like controlling fighter jets. So that’s worth thinking about.

Okay, so that’s an interesting area identified! :) I will watch for, as I continue to read the book, places where they talk about how an AI might get directly attached to effectors that touch the real world, and might be enabled to use them to carry out possibly Universal Paperclips style real-world goals. And whether not doing that (i.e. restricting your AIs to just outputting verbal descriptions of means toward closed-ended goals) might be a Good Thing To Do. (Although how to you prevent that one jerk from taking the Fatal Step in order to speed up his world domination? Indeed.)


Two Very Meta Books

Pulling my head out of the Infinite Art Museum of NightCafe, I will talk (perhaps briefly) about two books that I read recently, both of which were extremely meta.

This is probably because I tend to buy books that sound meta from the back-cover text and so on, likely on some theory that they are more likely to be clever or surprising or delightful than something more normal and/or less meta.

This theory may or may not be true.

I bought both of these, along with some others, at Split Rock Books the other day, when we actually went there physically, M and I and the little boy, in our first venturing out together for fun in maybe literally years I’m not sure. One of the main things we did was buy books at Split Rock Books, because apparently the huge quantities (at least in my case) of bought-but-not-yet-read books we already have isn’t yet huge enough.

Spoilers for both of these books, I suppose, in some sense. Or perhaps not. You will learn, at most, that not a lot that I found noteworthy will happen in the first one after the initial framing, and that a particular puzzling thing will happen in the translator’s notes to the second one.

The first book is called “[title]” and the author is given as “[name of author]”, which makes it rather difficult to find on the web. The one clue is a note that “cool-sounding indie label” (or equivalent) is owned by Sublunary Editions (perhaps it turns out you can’t publish a book without giving at least that one piece of true data), which led to a page about it, which aside from proving that it actually exists doesn’t provide any new information.

The page does give a feeling for the overall experience of reading the book, in that it never really abandons the meta perspective, and only indirectly tells us a few things about the Protagonist, the Author, the Narrator, and one or two (possibly imaginary) other characters in the book.

Nothing really happens in the book; the Protagonist appears to become very upset at some points, but as one is so removed from the direct action by the meta gimmick, I didn’t find it especially evocative. The gimmick is sort of cute, and in a way it was a fun read, but it never really went outside the box, or otherwise advanced beyond a few obvious (if interesting) challenges to traditional assumptions about the reader, the writer, the characters, narrative, books, and so on.

The second book, which isn’t nearly as obviously meta, is Mrs. Murakami’s Garden, by Mario Bellatin. Or probably by Mario Bellatin. Probably written in Spanish and translated to English by Heather Cleary. Assuming Mario Bellatin and Heather Cleary both exist.

The text is a little odd, a description of various things happening in a quasi-Japanese place that is not Japan. It has various small earnest footnotes defining some of the Japanese and pretend-Japanese words in the text, but also the word “Formica”. Some of the footnotes refer the reader to footnotes later in the text. The story is basically the life of a woman who is constrained and not constrained in many ways, familiar and exotic, and how she allows and doesn’t allow various constraints to constrain her. It was pleasant to read.

Then there’s a translator’s note at the end, that implies subtly that Bellatin himself translated the text to Spanish from some third language, and also undercuts itself by suggesting that the original from which he translated it was illegible.

Did the translator add that on their own hook? Was it some collaboration with Bellatin? Does the translator exist, or is the translator’s note written by Bellatin also? Was the entire work in fact written in English? Or does Bellatin not exist, and is Cleary the true author of the entire thing? Or was it all written by some third person, with Bellatin and Cleary as characters of an implicit frame story?

I investigated this on the web, violating various theories of textual criticism and obeying others, and I’ve decided that most likely Bellatin really did write the book in Spanish, and Cleary really did translate it to English and add the odd stuff in the translator’s note just for fun. Whether Cleary had Bellatin’s blessing, I dunno.

But I admit it was fun to be confused by! And it’s fun to know I could easily be wrong.


Open Carefully

The ominous cover of an ancient book of spells.
A page of feverish chants from an ancient book of spells.
A single page from an ancient book of spells.
Another page from the ancient book of spells.
A page of incantations from an ancient book of spells.
A familiar page from an ancient book of spells.
A tempting page from an ancient book of spells.
Another page from an ancient book of spells.
Terrifying faces engulf a flaming page from an ancient book of spells.
A hungry flaming page from an ancient book of spells.
The mossy back cover of an ancient book of spells.



A few more sentences

Having covered the two kinds of roads there are that join The Way, as in something like:

Bodhidharma’s “Introduction to the Four Practices of Insight”
So, to enter the Way, there are many roads, but essentially speaking, there are no more than two kinds. The first is the entrance by reason, and the second is the entrance by practice.

The next bit starts to describe the entrance by reason, mostly to get it out of the way before delving into a longer discussion of the entrance by practice. There’s some heavy going here, so we’ll see how far we get before I decide it’s getting too long.

To start with, these two sentences; the Chinese and Red Pine’s English:

To enter by reason
means to realize the essence through instruction.

The first sentence more literally is ” [理] reason [入] entrance [者] thing* [。]”. We’ve seen those first two characters before; the third is subtler. It’s described in Wiktionary as (inter alia) “Used after a term, to mark a pause before defining the term” (which turned out to be a bit of a red herring I think). It’s a picture of Earth and a Line on top of Daytime (natch).

I struggled a little with it, and how it relates to the first character of the next bit (see below), and eventually asked in r/zen and ultimately r/classicalchinese, where I got an extremely helpful answer: apparently here 者 is a nominalizer, that makes the preceding term into a noun. 理入 by itself might be just “enter reasoningly”, and 者 does roughly what “to” does, making it into a noun phrase. Also (to quote the answer verbatim since it’s phrased perfectly) “Since Literary Chinese constructs its sentences in a topic-comment structure, the 者 also marks the topic, and the phrase that follows is a comment on that topic.” Which is maybe sort of what Wiktionary was getting at, I dunno.

The second line is even harder. :) It’s maybe like “[謂] say [藉] rely on [教] teach [悟] understand [宗] follow/revere [。]”. Gadzooks! “To understand by relying on and following the sayings of teachers”? But that’s not feeling compelling to me yet; seems like there are too many redundant characters, aren’t there?

Google Translate renders it as (wait for it) “Said by the Pope Wuzong,” which is pretty funny. :) The last two characters are indeed wù and zōng. Also MDBG says that 教宗 is “Pope” (maybe as “Revered Teacher”?), but that means Google Translate is consuming 宗 (zōng) twice, the silly thing.

The helpful r/classicalchinese answer tells us that 謂 here is “is called” or “is named” (or Red Pine’s quite reasonable “means”), so that works, now that we realize that 者 isn’t already doing “means” on the line before.

When asked about the characters 悟宗 one at a time, Google Translate gives “enlightenment” for 悟, which might be a Helpful Clue. MDBG translates it as “to apprehend, realize, become aware”, and the Japanese / Kanji section of Wiktionary gives a first meaning of “enlightenment”.

Widening our examination of 宗 by asking MDBG for all words (“words”) containing that character, we see a bunch of words around ancestors, religion, sects, clans, and things. So “禪宗” is described as “Zen Buddhism”, and “密宗” as “Tantra”. Perhaps 宗 is something like “-ism” or “the doctrine of”? That might give us something like “the doctrine of enlightenment” or “the doctrine of awakening / realization” for 悟宗 (while admitting that neither MDBG or Wiktionary actually have it as a single word/term as such).

The r/classicalchinese person says that 悟宗 is in a common verb-object form, and should be interpreted here as “awaken the essence”, 宗 originally meaning “ancestor”, but having grown lots of meaning beyond that. This is closer to Red Pine’s “to realize the essence”, obviously, and so is probably right! I do wonder how 禪宗 and 密宗 relate; maybe someday we will find out. :)

The very helpful answer also points out a nested verb-object structure in our text, which is apparently common in literary Chinese; the second line can be glossed in a notation I just made up as:

(verb: means; noun: (verb: rely upon; noun: instruction) (verb: awaken; noun: essence))

It’s likely that if we went back through the first few posts in this series, we could find more examples of this that would improve our analysis; but that would involve work!

Anyway, so far we have (keeping in mind that the process, not the result, is the real focus here) something like:

Bodhidharma’s “Introduction to the Four Practices of Insight”
So, to enter the Way, there are many roads, but essentially speaking, there are no more than two kinds. The first is the entrance by reason, and the second is the entrance by practice. To enter by reason is to rely on instruction to awaken the essence.

Next time: another aspect of the reason entrance!


The Two Kinds of Roads to the Way

Which is to say, the next two sentences of Bodhidharma’s “Outline of Practice” (or “Introduction to the Four Elements of Insight” as we like to call it sometimes), following the first and second-and-third sentences.

So far, we have something like:

Bodhidharma’s “Introduction to the Four Elements of Insight”
“So, to enter the Way, there are many roads, but essentially speaking, there are no more than two kinds.”

In this next episode, perhaps we will find out what the two kinds are!

We have a spoiler immediately, with the original (at least we’ve been assuming it’s original, but what does that even mean in this context?) and Red Pine’s translation again:


and practice.

Well, that’s clearly not a very literal translation, as there’s all sorts of parallel stuff going on in the Chinese that isn’t in the English! So in we dive, with the confidence of the ignorant.

One character at a time, it’s something like “[一] one [是] is [理] reason [入] entrance[。][二] two [是] is [行] doing [入] entrance[。].

(That seems like a lotta brush-strokes for “is”, don’t it? It’s made of two parts, 日 which is the sun or daytime, and 𤴓 which seems to be an old particle that doesn’t mean anything all by itself, so that’s kind of a fun mystery. When it’s by itself, ol’ Google Translate renders 是 as “yes”, which is also notable.)

It pleases me that the two kinds of roads are actually two entrances. So we might say “the first [kind of road] is entered by X, and the second is entered by Y”. And there’s a good chance, I think, that it’s no coincidence that the 入s here are the same word as the first word of the title of the whole thing (see previously).

And finally, the actual two kinds: 理 and 行 (if that second one looks familiar, you’ve been paying perhaps too much attention; we’ll get back to that).

理 seems to be pretty straightforwardly “reason” or “logic”, but also “to manage”, with circling semantics around cutting jade into equal sections, putting things in order, and natural science. It’s made of a 王 which means “ruler”, and a 里 which is something like a village (we’ve seen that before, deep inside of 種 , where we said in passing that it meant “distance”, but “village” is possibly more relevant here). So basically it means “mayor”, haha. But it doesn’t, it means “reason”.

We have indeed seen 行 before, again in the flipping title, where it’s the thing that there are four of, of insight. We first translated it as “Elements”, but in the update we decided that “practices” was better. So we could gloss this as “practice” (rather than the muzzier “doing” above).

Seems like there’s an oddity here, though, doesn’t it? The title of the whole thing is that it’s the entrance to some practices, yet in this sentence we find out that there are two kinds of roads that lead to the way, and one of those kinds is the kind that is entered by practices. Well!

Perhaps what’s going on is that the ol’ red-bearded guy will reveal that the reason-entrance roads aren’t that interesting, so he’s going to talk about the practice-entered roads from now on, and that they are entered in fact by four different practices. And the “Entrance” at the beginning of the title is a perfect mirror of the entrance that the four practices offer into the Way!

Or not; I mean, these could all be coincidences or turn out to mean something else entirely. Tune in next time, when we might (looking ahead) start to look at the part about the path entered by reason, which is indeed much shorter than the part (four parts, really) about the path entered to practice(s).


The Next Two Sentences of Bodhidharma’s Outline of Practice

I know, two whole sentences is a lot, right? But we’ll see what we can do. :) We were going to do four, but it was getting long; the next two next time!

(See The Title and The First Sentence.)

This is them, with the translation from Red Pine (he renders the sentence before as “Many roads lead to the Path”):

but basically,

there are only two:

Two seems like a lot fewer than “many”, but we won’t delve into that right now.

Our first impression is that the first sentence is an idiom that doesn’t mean a whole lot, but let’s see what’s inside:

[要] Essential [而] ly [言] speak [之] ing [。] ,

In more detail (and remembering that this may all be wrong), 要 means things like “want” or “promise” but also has a perhaps oldish meaning of “basic” or “important” or even “essential”, 而 is a picture of a rake but seems to mean “that prior word there is an adverb” (so “ly”), 言 is a mouth with a tongue sticking out (says the useful Wiktionary) and so “speech”; so we can convince ourselves that we have something like “to say essentially”. Then 之 is being another little modifier thing, apparently meaning “what comes before me modifies what comes after me”, which I have rendered as an “ing” and a comma.

[不] not [出] exceeding [二] two [種] kind(s)。

That’s relatively simple, the main notes being that 出 means all various things like “produce” and “publish” and “leave”, but as those don’t make as much sense here it also means “to exceed” or “go beyond”; and that 二 is an excellent way to write “two”.

The complicated word (glyph? graf?) 種 is made up of 禾 which is a rice plant, and 重 which is something like “heavy” (itself made up of words meaning “a lot” and “distance”). The rice plant heavy with rice becomes “kind” or “variety” through some alchemy of language, perhaps via 人種 which means a race or ethnicity, a group of people (人) who have in common the same way of growing rice (種). That might be a bit of a stretch :) but I like it.

So far, then, we have something like:

Bodhidharma’s “Introduction to the Four Elements of Insight”
“So, to enter the Way, there are many roads, but essentially speaking, there are no more than two kinds.”

Or making more flowery and silly sorts of choices, we could do maybe

Bodhidharma’s “Entrance to the Four Practices of Insight”
“I think there are many roads I could walk which join into the road of the wise; but to say the essential thing, there are no more than two ways to grow the rice.”

That was fun. :)

Next time: what the two kinds of roads are!