All posts by daniel

From the swamp

Like a lotus flower blossoming from a swamp, the fourth Sermon was published from amid the horrific chaos that currently is my personal life. So I failed to do the usual quarterly progress reports for Q2 and Q3.

There is progress to report, though.

  • The fifth Sermon, working title The Signal and the Voice, exists in the earliest of draft forms, and at some point I’ll manage to scrape together a full day to start serious work on it.
  • I have recorded The Love that Guides Humanity, Children of the Milky Way and Kinder dieser Galaxie, and re-recorded the first three Sermons, on better recording equipment than last time. A dear friend is currently working on postprocessing the recordings so I can put them online.
  • The translation of the second Sermon into German now stands at 50 out of 80 stanzas translated satisfactorily. This has led to some (very minor) improvements in the original English text.
  • I have fun trying to rap the Sermons. This is very different from the sedate pace at which I usually deliver them, and I’ll need to practice the skill of rapping a lot until I can do it convincingly. I hope this alternative style can make the text interesting to some of those who don’t like long slow guided meditations (i.e. almost everybody). Practicing this also helps me notice and improve lines in the text that previously were too difficult to pronounce quickly.
  • Yesterday I published on LessWrong the central insight about love that I got out of writing The Love that Guides Humanity. This is the polar opposite of the poetry version: detailed, nerdy, dry, difficult, and hopefully a pretty watertight argument.

On the personal side, there’s a long and arduous road ahead, and it seems unlikely I will make much progress on the fifth Sermon anytime soon. But I wouldn’t rule it out.

Beta version of the fourth Sermon

After six years of much-interrupted work, I have completed a preliminary version of Sermon number four, which ended up being named “The Love that guides Humanity”. It still needs polishing, and I’m hoping to collect feedback which parts need the most improvement from some friends.

This has been by far the hardest Sermon to write, because while the first three dealt with settled facts and only offered a particular perspective on them, the fourth is an answer to questions that aren’t as clearly settled. What is the central difference between humans and other animals? How is it to be understood? How shall we move forward as a species? What is love? I started out without sufficient answers to any of these questions, with only a vague notion that they have to hang together. It took a lot of research, meditation and thinking, squeezed between my many other duties. Writing this felt much like writing a thesis, a statement how I think these questions should be answered truthfully. While I shun being personal, I have to accept this cannot be more than my answer. I am curious to find out if others find it convincing.

The last year in particular has in many ways been the hardest year of my life so far, perhaps excepting the very first years when I was so ill I might have died, but I barely remember those. It is tempting to feel a romantic notion where this is kind of a sacrifice that I had to make in order to be able to give the answer in this Sermon. In sober terms, it clearly held me back and impeded the work.

Otherwise, I have made small bits of progress on the translation of the second Sermon into German. And I made a poem on the war in Ukraine that I haven’t published yet. But mostly I’ve been tending to my roots rather than growing new leaves into the light of truth.

Another weak quarter

In Q1 2021 I have made negligible progress on the Sermons. Technically not nothing – there’s a little bit of work on translating the second Sermon into German – but still a lot of lost time.

The reasons are the usual – the kids and my job are taking so much out of me there’s not enough left. And we’re still in lockdown because Covid-19 is faster at mutating than we are at producing vaccines. Humanity and I need to get our shit together.

A bright spot was that I discovered the ReEnchantment podcast by Daniel Lev Shkolnik, who seems like a fellow traveller on this mostly untrodden path and does a wonderful job developing rich spirituality without supernatural assumptions. If you like the Sermons you will probably like this podcast and should check it out.

Interesting times

I made zero progress on the fourth Sermon in the fourth quarter of 2020. On top of the pressures of my full time job and three small kids and various health problems, the rising number of Covid-19 cases has led daycare to be closed and made life more difficult in a large number of small ways – like how difficult it is to find a babysitter now.

I was previously more optimistic than most on a Covid-19 vaccine, but not optimistic enough. Still, with vaccinations starting, I’m now less optimistic than most because the new mutation from southern England appears poised to outrun the pace of vaccination. (Seems like the smart people focused on developing vaccines and left the tasks of production and distribution to less smart people.) This makes it unlikely I will make much more progress in the first quarter of 2021.

That said, while I still can’t find enough time and mindspace for difficult writing, I can still translate in moments between, or while, doing other things. I translated Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah for my mom with the help of my dad, and wrote up lengthy notes on the translation. And I have started work on a translation of The Games of Entropy into German. This one is significantly harder than the translation of Adrift in Space and Time into Im Flug durch Raum und Zeit was, but it is better than doing nothing.

It has occured to me that Im Flug durch Raum und Zeit gives me the opportunity to perform it at local open mike or poetry slam events, once the pandemic is defeated. The English language sermons I have read at international meditation meetings and conferences, but those take days of travel and I don’t know when I’ll be able to afford that kind of expense of time again. Something like a poetry slam could be done in an evening which seems a reasonable target. Of course the sedate pace at which I usually present the sermons would be completely inappropriate there, so I shall experiment with speaking much faster, perhaps like this:

Comparing German translations of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”

I translated this great song because of a stupid mistake: I thought there was no German translation. I could only find a “wedding version” that swaps out all of the lyrics except the “Hallelujah” and replaces them with new text about marriage. I’m sure that’s dear to someone’s heart, but it isn’t a translation. So I thought I’d write one, and make it a Christmas gift to my mom.

I later learned there actually are at least two translation already. Since I wrote my own independently, this is an opportunity to compare them. This won’t be biased at all!

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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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