Better than expected

I have made zero progress on the fourth Sermon this quarter, while a lot of other good things happened. My daughter Matea was born! So now we have three children and the oldest is three years old, for guaranteed 24/7 excitement. I’ve spent the last couple of weeks on paternity leave exploring the finer details of extreme sleep deprivation.

The plan to work on a translation of the first Sermon into German has been going much better than expected. Despite the circumstances, a first draft is nearly complete at 68 out of 80 stanzas.

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Poetry in the time of COVID-19

In the first quarter of 2020, the most important thing that happened was not the COVID-19 pandemic. That was just another stupid pathogen senselessly murdering innocents. Temporarily bigger than the flu, but going to be much more short-lived, and still way smaller than tuberculosis or malaria.

No, the most important thing that happened in the first quarter of 2020 was our response to it. With unprecedented swiftness, our entire species coordinated to counter this new threat. There have been previous global campaigns against infectious diseases, such as the eradication of smallpox and the imminent eradication of polio. In number of life-years saved, these are among the greatest successes humans have achieved. But those lasted for decades, to end enemies older than civilisation. Against COVID-19, we are demonstrating a swiftness of species-wide teamwork that is entirely new – a level of coordination capability never before seen in the observable universe. Nobody can seriously doubt we are now more capable of fighting a pandemic than we ever were – and since there is a lot of obvious room for improvement, we’re already looking for ways to do even better next time.

Why talk about this in a progress report for a poetry project? Because this is the exact thing that the fourth Secular Sermon, the one I’m currently writing, is about: humanity’s unique ability to cooperate that allows, and forces, progress. Our growing ability to stop a mindless virus from killing millions of thinking, feeling humans is just about the most unambiguous example of progress that I can think of.

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The Ballad of the Camping Detectives

John Watson went with Sherlock Holmes
on some unspecified
adventure where they had to roam
the English countryside.

They walked about the hills all day,
alone except for sheep,
then built the tent where they would stay
and quickly went to sleep.

“Hey Watson,” Sherlock said, “wake up!”
“Nope. Stop. Don’t bother me.”
But nagging Sherlock would not stop.
“Just look! What do you see?”

“A lot of stars out here, I’d say.
Now that’s a proper night.
That’s what our home, the Milky Way,
appears like from inside.”

“Alright, detective Watson, now
deduce from what you’ve seen
conclusions that these facts allow.
What do these stars there mean?”

“Our Milky Way contains at least
one hundred billion suns.
Through gravity, they all are pieced
together into one.
And since the stars have forged the clay
that went into our birth,
we’re children of the Milky Way,
as are the Sun and Earth.”

“Dear John, it’s elementary
that isn’t what I meant.
The meaning of these stars you see
is someone stole our tent!”

Why Atheists need Ecstasy

tl/dr: This article

  • summarizes what is known about ecstatic and mystical experiences,
  • argues that in order to end (supernaturalist) religion, it is necessary to have a nonreligious appreciation of these experiences and
  • claims these experiences have specific advantageous effects that make them worth having for atheists.

It also contains sex, drugs and Sufi whirling.

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Progress report Q3 2019

The title of the fourth Sermon is now final. It will be called “The Labor of Humanity”. Some incremental improvements have made their way in, but overall there has been little progress. I continue to be stuck on what is probably the last particularly difficult bit. After that, the work should proceed into the polishing stage for another couple of months. If I find a solution soon, I might be done by the end of the year. Or maybe not.

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A series of setbacks and a translation attempt

I show you my great masterpiece
of which I am so proud
and all it is is fantasies
of being cared about.

I have had various serious difficulties. This weekend, I was hoping to go on a creative writing retreat, live in a hotel for two relatively distraction-free days and get much of the remaining work on the fourth Sermon done. It was a gift from my lovely wife. Unfortunately it turned out to be impossible to square with my other duties. Before that, a special meeting of creative designers of meditations and rituals turned out to be impossible for me to attend as well. I will miss out on a lot of input, feedback and motivation I was hoping to get there, and I’m losing the urgency of wanting to have something new to present there. And before that, as I have previously mentioned, a significant part of what I have written for the fourth Sermon turned out to be not good enough.

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Getting on TV, and more writing

Last Saturday, a film crew filmed me reading a bit of the Seven Secular Sermons in a formal meditation setting. This is for ARD, Germany’s federal public service broadcaster. They’ll be running the movie at 17:30 on the 10th of November, apparently. Six of my friends kindly came together on short notice to play meditating extras. For the text, I chose the first half of the work-in-progress fourth Sermon.

The movie isn’t actually about the Sermons of course. They only get the publicity because I write them, and I in turn only get the publicity because my dad is famous as a hero of the overthrow of the East German dictatorship. The movie is about what it is like to have that kind of parents. I snuck in the bit about the Sermons and hope it makes the cut.

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Putting in the work

This air we breathe was breathed before,
by parts of life now dead.
It flows from lung to lung, to more
and future lives ahead.

We breathe what must someday have been
some creature’s dying breath.
To feel this breath right now can mean
to feel the touch of death.

I have begun reading the first part of the fourth Sermon to people, and found it doesn’t quite work. I always knew this is a possibility with every Sermon – I’m so close to them I have an inside view that makes me a poor judge of what is effective for others. So I take care to seek feedback from readers and listeners, and incorporate it as diligently as I can. But that doesn’t feel right when I’m in the very beginning of a Sermon, where the pieces don’t even hold together yet. So I’ve gone without feedback for a long time, and now that I get some, I find I’ve deviated from the hypothetical optimum more than usual. So over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been reworking and improving things that I thought I had pretty much finished.

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A little more progress

A bit more is written. There is a decent first draft of the first 40% of the fourth Sermon, and a great number of bits of and pieces that I need to string together into the remaining 60%. I will rework the beginning part first and then keep adding to it in a more or less sequential fashion. So I’m basically in the synthesis stage again. Right now my attempt to finish the fourth Sermon this summer looks a bit precarious, but it might still work out.

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On the significance of Gwern’s poem generator

Vast waves of researchers must crash
on cliffs of ignorance
to grind them down into a stash
of knowledge fine as sands.

I first saw automatically generated poems in 1998. They were randomly arranged picks from a corpus of clichéd goth lines, clearly terrible and presented as a parody on terrible goth poetry. I had run into them because I had just started to study IT and this was one of the first examples of CGI programming that I had happened to find. I played with it for longer than I might have, because I was writing terrible goth poems.

Anyway, I did know about the Turing test (where a machine passes if it cannot be reliably distinguished from a human) and I knew machines were getting better at seeming like humans, because my dad was having way too much fun coding a chatbot and pointing out how it was better than ELIZA. Those terrible poems seemed like the same kind of thing, where machines would inevitably get better at seeming human. And poems are clearly easier to fake than conversation. So, it has been twenty years. Did the machines get better at poetry? Oh yes. Oh hell yes.

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Stumbling into 2019

This having children thing? It’s good.
And yet I’m also sad.
I wish I’d truly understood
how much free time I had.

I have written a few more bits of the fourth Sermon, and finished the blog post on Kipling. The latter kind of morphed into a manifesto against most other poetry, and led to some interesting discussions. The rest of my work continues to be fairly minimal. I clearly underestimated how much harder having a second child makes finding time for anything that is not super urgent.

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Rudyard Kipling and exactly why modern poetry systematically sucks

I believe modern poetry is in terrible shape, and its low popularity is the appropriate, deserved result of its decline as an art form.

I mean poetry of the type that properly educated poets write these days: as few words as possible, little meter and almost no rhyme, impressionistic, often ungrammatical, almost always aggressively pointless. I mean measly secretions like this, rated the fifth best original poem ever posted on reddit:

Had the worst dream today.
I almost didn’t get out of bed.

Why the hell is it getting worse?

Is it possible I am depressed, or am I just overthinking things?

I don’t know if I’m depressed or not.
What’s an official diagnosis?

I think of drivel like this as the polar opposite of my favorite poet, Rudyard Kipling. He likes to go on a bit longer than necessary, he uses rhyme and meter and usually repeats phrases or entire lines to create more structure, has an explicit narrative and a coherent language and always a clearly discernible point. He is also basically the reason I write poetry.  I’ve been writing poems since some Kipling poems in German translations of the “The Jungle Book” and “The Second Jungle Book” were so amazing when I was about 7 years old. Continue reading

A little time for rhyme and reason

It has been half a year since my last post, and it was a very hectic half of a year. My son was born and is growing up beautifully. Life with two small kids leaves me with too little time for many things, especially poetry.

I’m weirdly ambivalent about that. It sure feels right to focus on my kids in basically all of the time that I’m not at work or sleeping. I also feel guilty about my very slow progress on what is, after all, supposed to be my Magnum Opus. But on the other hand it’s just poetry so who will ever care. But what will I amount to if I don’t do this right. I’d amount to a pretty good dad it seems. And that’s both obviously enough, and obviously not enough, at the same time.

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A very good Friday

Over the last two days, my wife and daughter went on an Easter holiday. So I was away from both of them for more than a day for the first time since the third Sermon premiered in November 2016.

This has allowed be to put a big chunk of work into the fourth Sermon. I’m getting near the end of the synthesis stage now and I’m mostly done with the complicated parts that need a couple of highly focused uninterrupted hours at a time. So I think I can finish the fourth Sermon with mostly just little bits and pieces of work that I can squeeze in between other things.

And there will be lots of other things! We’re expecting our second child in July 🙂 while our first is keeping us fairly busy already and work is quite hectic at the moment as well. I’d love to be done with the fourth Sermon before July, but that seems unlikely right now. I’ll certainly try, though.

I have also added an extra page about the poetic format of the Sermons, the common metre. I might update it occasionally, as I improve my understanding of what I seem to be doing.

I’ve been noticing for a while that I find it increasingly hard to write poetry in any format that is not the common metre. Every time I try, it feels wrong and difficult and I always tend to be attracted back to the common metre. My unconscious processes have clearly been trained to better help my conscious processes write in this format. This is great because it relieves some of the cognitive burden and reduces the time and effort needed. Last night, I produced 15 stanzas in 5 hours – that’s three times as fast as I was writing the second Sermon and about six times as fast as I started out. Clearly I have sacrificed some mental flexibility to gain this speedup. I’m fine with this. In fact, it seems quite delightful to be able to observe my own mind crystallizing in this fashion.