The Library Basement
Reading under ground

Readings for April 2016

Novel streak!

The Land Across by Gene Wolfe

I happened across a positive review of Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun and decided to check it out. As it happened my local library branch did not have that particular work, but did have some more recent of his novels. I was honestly unsure what to choose, so after some jacket perusal I went with The Land Across. It is the surreal story of a travel writer stranded in a generic eastern European nation. Grafton suffers successive misadventures at the hands of the bureaucracy and the occult. Let the reader decide which threat is more dire.

Now I'm not one to put much stock in review blurbs. However, Gene Wolfe has the amazing distinction of being called the sci-fi/fantasy community's Melville by Ursula K. LeGuin. I was sold.

The Land Across is one of those novels where I have a particular issue: I really enjoy my reading experience, but I progress slowly. In this case I dragged through and eventually took a break to read My Struggle Book Four. Then I picked Wolfe up again and finished it. I love Wolfe's voice and I love the tone of this book. But for some reason I was not compelled to turn pages. Gass is another author with whom I had this struggle, but later enjoyed tremendously. So I'll try another by Wolfe, maybe the original recommendation.

Assumption by Percival Everett

After Glyph I went directly back to the Percival Everett well. Assumption is comprised of three novellas centered on the same small town policy deputy in the U.S. Southwest. Now I'll give this note in hopes it'll save another reader the confusion I suffered: Assumption is three discrete stories, not three acts in the same arc. I was confused in reading because I was looking for a link from the first story in the second before I more-carefully read the back cover description.

Do you like detective stories? Do you like deconstructing detective story tropes? Check it out. I really enjoyed it. Recommended.

Periodicals

  • Harper's March 2016

Readings for March 2016

I have gotten into a streak of reading novels, which is nice.

Glyph by Percival Everett

Everett is one of the authors I had on my "to try" list, so I grabbed a Glyph, a slim, fairly-recently published work. It is the farcical story of a an infant prodigy who doesn't deign to talk, but writes with a skill both startling and amazing to the adults in his world. Needless to say this draws interest from a number of fronts, and before long we're treated to the literary version of a baby outsmarting his kidnappers, a la the "Baby's Day Out" film. But it's better than that, of course. Really Everett draws together themes of childhood, race, and parental love to provide a rich subtext for the zany antics.

I'll recommend it, especially for its brevity, as an easy way to step in to Everett. I've already logged another by him, as you'll see next month.

My Struggle: Book4 by Karl Ove Knausgaard

I am one of those shameless Karl Ove Knausgaard fans of whom it has become hip to make fun. I discovered that the fourth installment of My Struggle had been published in English, so I took a detour on the way to another meeting to pop into Powell's and purchase it. I was late to the meeting. I suppose that means I'm an addict, as the Knausgaard habit is affecting my responsibilities in the rest of my life.

The theme of this work is so simple: a young man trying to get lucky. At first it seems so cliche for a memoir, but then it really is foundational to the ego of a young man, isn't it? This volume interweaves the Quest with his last two years of secondary school and a year working as a teacher in Northern Norway.

As always, Knausgaard's recollections have the effect of stirring up my own memories of my youth, sometimes dredging up things I haven't recalled for years. On the whole it is a good thing, but can be uncomfortable as well. And zooming in to a young man's first year of independence - and the seemingly-boundless potential lying ahead - has the peculiar effect of forcing the reader to also consider "what could have been"?

Recommended of course, and I can't wait until the next volume drops. Maybe I'll be the only one in a tent on the sidewalk, waiting to buy it on its first day.

Moved some git repositories

I have become enamored of Gogs, a self-hosting solution for git repositories, so I've moved most of my personal repositories from a certain large centralized git service provider to my own instance. Check it out:

https://scm.smithfam.info/nathan

I understand this may require collaborates to actually use git in the manner in which it was designed - namely as decentralized version control. If you'd like to submit a patch to one of my projects, you'll need to craft a git pull request and email me.

Will non-voting be chic in 2016?

In 2008 I read an essay collection entitled Electing Not to Vote and it threw me for a loop, launching me on a prodigious series of blog posts in which I concluded that "the only way to vote righteously is to vote self-righteously." During the next US presidential election cycle I started an abortive series called "Peace in Babylon" from which my best observation was that "the end of Constantinianism requires Christians to be courageous once more". In retrospect those are some of the posts of which I am most proud of in my short personal history of blogging, because they represent a serious engagement with a text and a topic without much of a safety net. Being a bit older now I have found I am less likely to take such strong stances in published works, but I'm not necessarily proud of that.

In addition to the increased writing output, reflecting on Electing Not to Vote troubled how I think about politics and the storm unleashed has not really calmed since. I have not voted for President since (sorry Mom), though I have participated in some local elections. I joke that I am on the spectrum between socialism and Christian anarchism, but I have mainly centered on what I call Yoderian pacifism. Centered, not settled. If there is something political I believe every day, it is that US national politics are ridiculous.

This present 2016 election cycle presents fertile ground for further reflection on these topics, because it is of course the most ludicrous Presidential primary race in memory. So if I was scandalized in 2008, by 2016 it is "first as tragedy, then as farce." Therefore I will re-read Electing Not to Vote and see where it takes me. Given the present cynicism taking root among the American electorate, I would not be surprised if non-voting becomes a popular choice this fall. But will it be meaningful, or despondent?

Published:
Category: politics

Readings for February 2016

In which I enjoy some pop novels.

Shadows of Self by Brandon Sanderson

When in doubt, Brandon Sanderson. Shadows of Self is the next installment in the Mistborn series, and the second in the Wax and Wayne cycle: you know, magic in a steam-punk setting. And I'm OK with that. Sanderson in this novel is showing his increasing command of comedy - I had some honest guffaws. He also managed to find a way to write novels (for some series) which do not stretch the technology of book binding, so that is a plus. Recommended.

The Martian by Andy Weir

I saw the film The Martian in the theater with a friend and loved it. My wife picked up the novel recently, and it was even better. I really devoured it (and so did she, after I relinquished it). Most of the time I don't put too much stock in "real science" sci-fi, because to me the storytelling is ultimately more important than the genre bonafides. This story managed to blend both to perfect taste. Recommended, and I hope the author Andy Weir writes more to enjoy in the future.

Periodicals

  • Tin House #62

koine-nlp release

Today I am formally releasing koine-nlp 0.2, a Python library for common NLP-related tasks for Koine Greek. I decided to make a fancy koine-nlp homepage with the help of sphinx. It includes info on installation, a tutorial, and an API reference for the koinenlp module. You can find the source repository on my gogs instance.

In the most basic mode of operation, koine-nlp is used to prepare polytonic Greek text for indexing by normalizing. This done by means of the omnibus normalize() function:

>>> import koinenlp
>>> koinenlp.normalize("καὶ ἡ σκοτία αὐτὸ οὐ κατέλαβεν.")
'και η σκοτια αυτο ου κατελαβεν'

There's plenty more to it - see the documentation for more.

I do plan on adding some features in the future, so watch this space.

Formation over information

My old man emailed me a link to a blog post by singer Ashley Cleveland. In it she relates some of the history of her spiritual journey, and it is well worth a read. One line in particular stood out to me, regarding her transition to the Episcopal Church:

My desire is less for information and more for formation, less like Martha, more like Mary.

Formation over information. It has a nice ring to it. She continues:

To that end, the beauty and repetition of the Episcopalian liturgy which is built on the scripture, the common worship, the symbolic gestures and the centerpiece of communion have given me a rich experience of worship and a place for practice, regardless of my spiritual fitness at any given time.

All churches are repetitive. Some like to pretend that they don't have a liturgy, but they really do. Yet there is something distinct about the never-ending cycle of the Church Year. We repeat the same seasons and the same feasts year in and year out. We read through the lectionary every three years. And we repeat the same form of the Eucharist each week. All of these provide signposts by which I can look back and assess the progress of my Christian life. Formation.

It's not that information is bad. I have an advanced degree in Christian information (Biblical Studies) after all. And it's not that Biblical exposition in a church setting is wholly inappropriate (though I do think that Sunday school is probably a better venue for it).

One of the main things I came to appreciate early on about the Episcopal church was the short and sweet sermons. They are detached from a need to convey a lot of facts about the reading and instead provide a moment for reflection in the midst of worship. They are the opportunity for the clergy to provide some context to the never-ending liturgical cycles.

So yes: formation. It is a good theme to focus on in this Lent.

Readings for January 2016

Getting caught up on periodicals feels good. Getting deep into long books feels good too, though they don't show up in the ledger in a timely fashion.

Periodicals

  • Harper's January 2016
  • Harper's February 2016
Published:
Category: books Tags: readings

Readings for December 2015

In which our hero realizes that life changes have made reading more difficult by observing his end-of-year reading stats.

Basically I lost a long train commute which afforded a lot of reading time and on top of that had a baby. It was my lowest total since 2010, when I had my first son.

The Technological Society by Jacques Ellul

Considered by many to be Ellul's magnum opus, The Technological Society did not disappoint. It is the full exposition of the thinking of Ellul which I had only seen in small bits previously. Reading his account of technique will change how you perceive the world in a fundamental sense. Or at least it has for me.

I left many dog-ears in my copy, and I keep saying I'm going to a post expanding on my observations there. For the most part his observations are prescient and still relevant to this day. One fascinating angle in the work is that he wrote at the height of the Cold War, at a time when it was not clear how it would pan out.

This is a very dense work, so it takes commitment to complete. Recommended if you have the will to get through it. Perhaps warm up on some shorter articles or interviews to find out if you have the taste for Ellul.

The Moviegoer by Walker Percy

Walker Percy has a boisterous following, and some thinkers I respect are among them. The Moviegoer won the National Book Award and therefore in some sense is a part of the American literary canon. Yet it is in a realist school which I find a bit tiresome. I felt as I did after reading The Sun Also Rises, that nothing important had really transpired in the course of the novel. Yeah, I probably didn't read closely enough, and missed the point. But this one did not inspire close reading for me.

The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman

Gaiman's The Sleeper and the Spindle is a delightful short story which springboards from a certain well-known (but never explicitly named) fairy tale. The version I read was made even more delightful by the inclusion of fantastic illustrations by Chris Riddell. I got through it in a single sitting, and I do believe it has re-read value (once I get it back from a friend to whom I lent it). Recommended.

Periodicals

  • Harper's October 2015
  • Harper's November 2015
  • Harper's December 2015

Year-end stats

In 2015 I read:

  • 14 magazines
  • 18 books
  • 7,874 pages
  • or about 22 pages per day

Much less than last year, as discussed above.

Updates to lxxmorph-unicode and lxxmorph-corpus

The conversion of the original CATSS betacode into unicode relies on beta2unicode.py, a script published by James Tauber. James has just done an early release of greek-utils, which includes an updated version of the betacode converter. I tested the new version with the CATSS conversion process, and discovered that it produces the same output, with an exception.

Thanks to a bug-fix in the new version, a fault in the existing unicode texts has been discovered and corrected. Specifically, initial ρ was marked with smooth breathing marks instead of rough breathing. This changed 1,017 lines in 58 of the books.

Check the lxxmorph-unicode and lxxmorph-corpus repositories for updates.

Readings for November 2015

We happened to welcome a new baby to our family near the end of the month, so I feel lucky to have completed what I did.

Xenocide by Orson Scott Card

XenocideAs I began Orson Scott Card's Xenocide, third in the Ender series, I quickly fell into the same joy which accompanied Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead, the first two books in the series. Card's craft is storytelling first and science fiction second, as it should be. In this novel I particularly appreciated the mixing of religion (not just religious themes, mind you) into science fiction.

Card sets the stakes high in this novel, with the opening plot on a course to the destruction of a planet full of colonists along with two (or three?) entire sentient species. The addition of a new characters on another world - some obsessive-compulsive whose attention to detail is put work in service of an empire - adds a good counter-balance, keeping Ender's universe from becoming too in-grown.

What spoiled the book for me, to a degree, was Card reaching too deep into fantastic world-building in order to elucidate the mysterious connection between Ender's mind and that of the Hive Queen, the Pequeninos, and Jane - the ghost in the machine of the interplanetary communications network. It's not that Card's plot device is too fantastic, it's that it arose in a series in a way in which I feel it violated the reader's expectations. Card set the stage one way, and dramatically shifted it later. Probably the brightest spot coming out of this plot shift is that we get to see a bit of Mormon theology shining through: namely the implication of the pre-existence of souls.

As anyone can tell by reading the front-matter, the Ender saga is far from over. However I think I'll leave it here. It has been quite enjoyable, but it is time to move on to new stories.

Anarchy and Christianity by Jacques Ellul

I have probably read three or four works on Christian anarchism, but Jacques Ellul's Anarchy and Christianity is now my favorite. This is definitely a good read with its emphasis on nonviolence and neither seeking nor serving political power.

I have slowly been making my way through his seminal work The Technological Society. Once I complete that, I am planning on putting together a "Quotable Ellul" piece with quotes from each of these works.

Readings for October 2015

I promise, I have a bunch of longer books going. I promise.

Periodicals

  • Harper's August 2015 - I found it fascinating to read about the Parsis of India in Nell Freudenberger's article "House of Fire".

  • Harper's September 2015

Until next time.

Published:
Category: books Tags: readings

LXX Mean Log Word Frequency

In another recent post, James Tauber covers the topic of mean log word frequency as a measure of difficulty of reading. I adapted James' code to address the CATSS LXX data (new format still forthcoming, I promise!).

Output columns are mean log word frequency, and then book+chapter (insert caveat about LXX chapter numbering). The higher the first column, the harder to read. Here are the top ten hardest chapters by this measure:

7983 Wisdom 17
7708 1 Chronicles 1
7281 2 Esdras 2
7217 Proverbs 10
7128 3 Maccabees 4
7114 Wisdom 11
7110 Wisdom 13
7092 Proverbs 14
7076 Proverbs 11
7065 Wisdom 14

Wisdom 17 has the unique distinction of having a broader vocabulary than a list of names, which is impressive. And now the easiest:

4752 Psalm 133
4752 Psalm 135
4792 Deuteronomy 30
4809 Deuteronomy 26
4836 1 Kings 13
4837 Psalm 116
4851 Ezekiel 20
4852 2 Chronicles 7
4856 Ezekiel 37
4881 Ezekiel 33

Top five hardest books:

6777 Wisdom
6677 4 Maccabees
6664 3 Maccabees
6634 Proverbs
6484 Joshua A
6402 2 Maccabees

Books composed in Greek appear to have the edge. I included a sixth because "Joshua A" in this corpus is not a full-length work. Now the five eastiest:

5189 Deuteronomy
5205 2 Chronicles
5239 1 Samuel
5242 Judges A
5256 Baruck

That's all for now.

Ancient Greek 80% Core Vocab Flashcards

Imagine you wanted to study vocabulary in advance of reading not just a work, but an entire corpus, or perhaps the super-corpus of the Greek Classics. Wilfred Major advocated for learning a core vocabulary in his paper It's Not the Size, It's the Frequency. In it he provides some good news:

Ancient Greek has a high-frequency core vocabulary scarcely half the size of many other languages.

He provides lists of lemmata which comprise 50% or 80% of the words in the ancient Greek corpus. The 80% has only 1,100 entries, so it is definitely achievable for advanced students.

I have made a flashcard pack at Quisition which contains this vocab list. If you think it would be useful to your studies, you can add it to a deck and start memorizing.

Published:
Category: language Tags: Greek

LXX Vocabulary Coverage

James Tauber is blogging daily until SBL, and several of his posts have piqued my interest, so expect to see a few derivative posts here.

The first post covers vocabulary coverage statistics for the SBLGNT. The concept can take a moment to wrap your mind around: given a count of vocabulary learned (vertical axis), assuming you want to be able to read a certain percentage of words in a verse (horizontal axis), in what percentage of verses will you be successful (intersection of the two).

My usual instinct when reading posts about New Testament Greek is to try the same thing with the Septuagint. Here is the data for the LXXM using the methodology outlined in James' post:

             ANY    50.00%    75.00%    90.00%    95.00%   100.00% 
------------------------------------------------------------------
   100    99.78%    88.63%    27.16%     1.99%     0.74%     0.62% 
   200    99.80%    94.19%    51.25%     8.65%     2.58%     1.56% 
   500    99.84%    98.38%    78.01%    33.00%    13.95%     8.30% 
  1000    99.89%    99.35%    89.86%    58.46%    34.27%    23.08% 
  2000    99.92%    99.61%    95.93%    79.25%    59.45%    46.20% 
  5000    99.99%    99.87%    98.67%    93.72%    85.12%    77.44% 
 10000   100.00%    99.99%    99.78%    98.31%    95.33%    92.15% 
   ALL   100.00%   100.00%   100.00%   100.00%   100.00%   100.00%

(In order to obtain the necessary input data, I had to restructure the lxxmorph-unicode dataset - after proofing I'd like to release the new format soon.)

Say you had learned 500 words, and only wanted to look up about one word per verse (90%), you would be successful in 13.95% of verses. Another way of looking at it: if you wanted to know 75% of words in 90% of verses, how big would your vocabulary need to be? About 1000 words.

I have been convinced by smart and experienced educators that vocabulary mastery really is the key to mastery of reading Greek. Just imagine the frustration of having to look up words that often even after learning so many. Wait, you probably don't have to imagine it - we've all been there! Vocab is king.

The LXX is a much bigger corpus than the New Testament (and maybe has more lexical diversity - perhaps the subject of a forthcoming post). By way of comparison with the above, a vocab of 500 targeting 90% coverage would be successful in 36.57% of verses.

I wonder if maybe the number of proper nouns in the LXX may significantly skew these numbers. Proper nouns are not vocabulary words per se - the knowledge and memory of them works differently than vocab words. So what if I remove them from consideration (in this case just filtering out words which start with a capital letter from the input file). This decreased the word count from 623,685 to 589,731. Here is the updated coverage:

             ANY    50.00%    75.00%    90.00%    95.00%   100.00% 
------------------------------------------------------------------
   100    99.91%    91.57%    40.48%     6.54%     3.36%     3.02% 
   200    99.92%    95.92%    63.30%    18.17%     7.77%     5.79% 
   500    99.97%    99.21%    85.79%    47.92%    26.03%    18.13% 
  1000    99.99%    99.84%    94.92%    72.53%    49.98%    38.05% 
  2000    99.99%    99.97%    98.84%    89.13%    74.26%    63.61% 
  5000   100.00%   100.00%    99.92%    98.40%    93.92%    89.70% 
 10000   100.00%   100.00%   100.00%   100.00%   100.00%   100.00% 
   ALL   100.00%   100.00%   100.00%   100.00%   100.00%   100.00%

That change upped the 500/90% result to 26.03% from 13.95%. Still pretty daunting, but less intimidating when you think of it that way.

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