The Library Basement
Reading under ground

Translation ex nihilo

Published: 2014-10-19 12:21:00
Category: Christianity Tags: translation

Join me in a thought experiment. A team of biblical language experts has been convened to produce a new translation of the Bible into English. However, none of the translators have ever read the Bible before, and they have no knowledge of Judaism nor Christianity. How would their translation differ from the received tradition?

Against his will

Published: 2014-10-16 21:08:00
Category: quotes Tags: Leo Tolstoy

A man cannot be placed against his will in a situation opposed to his conscience.

~ Leo Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God is Within You. Trans. Constance Garnett.

The operative concept is the will. If one is seemingly forced to go against it, the reality is that one's will truly preferred to preserve what was being threatened.

Readings for September 2014

Published: 2014-10-09 21:32:00
Category: books Tags: readings Leo Tolstoy

We took a vacation and had other distractions. Sadly I don't get so much reading done on vacations these days, but this too shall pass.

The Kingdom of God Is Within You by Leo Tolstoy

I found this re-read to be very stimulating. As a matter of fact, I marked up the margins with a pen and dog-eared a bunch of pages, something I feel quite certain I have not done since my college days. Tolstoy's writing requires response.

I may yet commit some of those marginal notations to blog posts, as I was planning when I first penned them. I think the primary value for me in reading this work is to reflect on Tolstoy's challenges to traditional power structures and to compare how my views fit with his.

As I often say, I am a Yoderian, meaning I support "legitimate" violence only as constrained by law in a legal system. Extra-judicial violence, especially wars of aggression, cannot conform to Christian standards. But Tolstoy is right there, questioning everything, and that has value. This book is recommended for mature readers.


  • Harper's October 2014

Readings for August 2014

Published: 2014-09-02 05:40:00
Category: books Tags: readings Thomas Merton Mark VanSteenwyk

If I had to choose a theme for this month, it would be cloistered anarchic hacking.

The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton's The Seven Storey Mountain is the account of his conversion to Catholicism and call to his vocation in a Trappist Monastery. I had seen this work recommended by a number of my favorite authors, so I was keeping it on my mental "to read" list (which should probably be written, due to the failings of memory). Having read it, I can easily see the source for the affection which so many have for this writing.

Merton's style is excellent. He stretches the first twenty-eight years of his life past 400 pages, but it is kept engaging. I think my favorite feature of Merton's was to write mostly directly, but then to occasionally throw in the most whimsical observations. These were usually brief and sparse, and were used to great effect in my opinion.

The story is compelling as well. I found myself rooting for Merton. But what I think I liked best in this work was the look into monasticism. I had never known much about the cloistered life (and still don't, honestly), but The Seven Storey mountain paints a vivid picture of the appeal of monastic life. At times I found myself thinking - "What good are these monks? All they do is pray!" And then immediately felt silly. This precisely exposes the rift in worldview between monasticism and modernity. If you are interested in more, then it is certainly recommended.

That Holy Anarchist by Mark VanSteenwyk

After completing Merton's autobiography, with all of its Catholic orthodoxy, I felt compelled to mix things up and read from the radical side of the Christian spectrum. This began with a re-read of Tolstoy's The Kingdom of God is Within You (which is still on-going at the time of writing). However, whilst in the general neighborhood, I happened across Mark VanSteenwyk's That Holy Anarchist.

I was already familiar with Mark's work on the Jesus Radicals site and the Iconocast podcast. So when I came across this slim primer on Christian Anarchism, I was immediately interested.

First of all, in line with true anarchist principles, That Holy Anarchist is not protected by copyright and available on-line for free. So if you are interested by this review, there is nothing stopping you from reading the book (and buying it to share if you like).

I believe this is the best, most succinct primer on Christian anarchism which I have encountered thus far. It is not over-long (I read it in a single sitting), and not hard to understand. In addition to this, Mark avoids to the temptation to "theorize" Christian anarchism - he lays out the arguments but does not try to make an airtight case. In this way the book comes across more as food for thought than a forceful argument, which may be useful in attracting new readers to the philosophy.

I myself remain a Yoderian, so Mark didn't win me over. This work is recommended if you'd like to trouble your notions of Christianity and state power.


  • 2600 31:1 - I liked this issue of the hacker quarterly better than I did the other one I had read.

  • Harper's September 2014

Tolstoy documents American pacifism

Published: 2014-08-12 05:58:00
Category: Christianity Tags: ethics Leo Tolstoy

I have commenced re-reading Leo Tolstoy's The Kingdom of God is Within You. I first read it four years ago. It was a challenging read. This book of Tolstoy's is primarily concerned with offering a defense of the Christian principle of non-resistance to evil (Matthew 5:39). Tolstoy's interpretation calls for absolute non-violence for Christians.

(He makes this theme so central to his Christianity, he ends up being a redaction critic, attributing almost anything "mystical" in the balance of the New Testament as being added to distract from the earl church's desire to distract from Jesus' teaching in the Sermon on the Mount.)

In the first section of The Kingdom of God Is Within You, Tolstoy reacts to critics and supporters of his previous work (What I Believe). In doing so, he lists authors and movements pre-dating himself which held essentially the same viewpoints about non-resistance. What interests me is that the list is dominated by American institutions - the Quakers, the Mennonites, etc. Apparently in the late 19th century, the US was known for having a bunch of Christian denominations which were dedicated to peace.

This is not the case now. Many of those historical institutions have declined in relative prominence, and some of the same have softened their stances on non-violence. On the world's stage, American Christians are now probably best known for sanctioning state aggression. But I am proud to recount that we used to have something of a reputation for refusing the call to arms.

I will probably have several posts inspired by Tolstoy's work as I read through.

Readings for July 2014

Published: 2014-08-11 05:46:00
Category: books Tags: readings Ursula K. LeGuin John Scalzi

You can't always read as much as you want.

The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. LeGuin

In reading The Tombs of Atuan I have completed LeGuin's Earthsea cycle. I read the whole thing out of "order", which is of course the proper way to read this series. The narrative focuses first not on Sparrowhawk, but on a young girl Tenar on a far island. Tenar has been selected as a young girl to be the figure head of her people's cultic religion. It is as a thief that Sparrowhawk comes to Atuan, meets Tenar, and begins the relationship at the heart of the cycle.

In Atuan LeGuin is trying to portray a caricature, I think, of a rotten culture. The place of worship is patrolled by spirits who exhibit malice and fear of change. The narrative becomes an account of Tenar's courage to confront the wickedness and free herself. In doing so she alienates herself, which seems fitting (and is one of my favorite fantasy tropes).

This was not my favorite Earthsea novel - that distinction will remain with The Farthest Shore until another read-through of the cycle. But, as with everything LeGuin I have read, this is recommended.

Red Shirts by John Scalzi

John Scalzi. Making fun of Star Trek. What more could you want a sci-fi comedic novel? Not much more, if you ask me. Red Shirts is the tale of those expendables on away missions who always seem to die needlessly. Scalzi launches from this premise into a fun plot which gets more distance than I had guessed before reading it. Certainly recommended.


  • Tin House #59 - I have now completed my first ten issues of Tin House. Each issue is still a treat.
  • Harper's August 2014

Readings for June 2014

Published: 2014-07-24 20:34:00
Category: books Tags: readings Dave Eggers

In which I reach the nadir of summer reading.

A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers

I realized upon seeing this book that I had never read Dave Eggers' fiction. Yes to his autobiography, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. And yes to his novel-biographies of What is the What and Zeitoun. But never pure fiction. A Hologram for the King therefore grabbed my attention, and I picked it up.

Eggers is definitely trying to capture zeitgeist in this novel. After all, the premise is that a hard-on-his-luck salesman goes to pitch technology to the Saudi King - a definite attempt to evoke the modern feeling in America. Yet I am grateful that there is more to the storytelling than an appeal to the current spirit. Timelessness is of course a requirement for any good fiction. Being timely only helps with sales.

I enjoyed the read, but not immensely. Eggers tells a good story, and makes you love the protagonist in a Willy Loman sort of way. So yes, by all means, read and enjoy the story.


  • Harper's July 2014

  • Harper's February 2014 - Playing catch-up with some missed back issues. For some reason it bugs me to miss Harper's issues.

Readings for May 2014

Published: 2014-06-14 20:58:00
Category: books Tags: readings Brandon Sanderson Michael Lewis

I am OK with having a back-log of periodicals.

Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson

Brandon Sanderson's new novel Words of Radiance is a book of feats. First of all, just look at it, if you get the chance. Take in its girth. The hardback is large. So large, that it defies binding. Yet somehow the good people at Tor found a way to make almost 1100 giant pages stick together in one book. And they even had to cheat a bit, removing the headers from the pages and slamming text far North into the traditional margins.

The second feat is that of storytelling. In adding a second volume to The Stormlight Archive, Sanderson is spinning quite a yarn. A huge story with many characters and plot lines is starting to converge. And Sanderson does a decent job making the reader care about just about everyone on the many pages of the book. At times I think the restrained scope and style of LeGuin is optimal, but I also like me a good, long fantasy novel. So recommended, but remember to read The Way of Kings first if you have not already.

Moneyball by Michael Lewis

This is probably the most popular baseball book of the past two decades and somehow I had not read it yet. But I had the opportunity to borrow it from my father and dove right in.

I really enjoyed this outsider's look inside baseball. In following Billy Beane and the Oakland A's, Lewis does much to help explain the weird economics of Major League Baseball. Now a decade on from the book, it is interesting to look back at the players featured in the novel, as well as at the A's themselves. After a bit of a downturn, the club under Beane is back on top, and still with a very low payroll.

While I enjoy that low-payroll teams can be successful, I have been disturbed by another recent trend in the bigs: an owner can still make a profitable enterprise out of a non-competitive team. If that can be fixed, baseball will be all the stronger. Recommended.


  • Harper's June 2014 - "The Second Doctor Service" by Daniel Mason was a very compelling short story. I was engaged throughout, and left thinking about it for days.

Fun with LXXM-Corpus

Published: 2014-06-13 20:56:00
Category: language Tags: nltk Greek LXX

Once I have a text available for natural language processing, there are a few basic tasks I like to perform to kick the tires. First, I like to run the collocations method of NLTK, which gives common word pairs from the text. For the LXXM, here are the results:

  • ἐν τῇ
  • ἐν τῷ
  • ὁ θεὸς
  • τῆς γῆς
  • καὶ εἶπεν
  • λέγει κύριος
  • ἀνὰ μέσον
  • τὴν γῆν
  • τοῦ θεοῦ
  • ὁ θεός
  • τάδε λέγει
  • πρός με
  • πάντα τὰ
  • ὁ βασιλεὺς
  • οὐ μὴ
  • οὐκ ἔστιν
  • τῇ ἡμέρᾳ
  • οἱ υἱοὶ
  • τῷ κυρίῳ
  • τοῦ βασιλέως

If you disregard the stop words, you can get a decent idea of the fundamental thematic content of the text.

Now for the silliness, using the n-gran random text generator:

ἐν ἀρχῇ ὁδοῦ πόλεως ἐπ' ὀνόμασιν φυλῶν τοῦ Ισραηλ παρώξυναν οὐκ ἐμνήσθησαν διαθήκης ἀδελφῶν καὶ ἐξαποστελῶ πῦρ ἐπὶ Μωαβ ἐν τῷ ἐξαγαγεῖν σε τὸν ἱματισμόν

A categorized, tagged Septuagint corpus

Published: 2014-06-09 20:27:00
Category: κτλ Tags: nltk LXX technology

Last year I created a version of the SBLGNT for use as categorized, tagged, corpus for natural language processing. Now I have done the same with a Septuagint text. I am calling it LXXMorph-Corpus. The source for text and tags is my unicode conversion of the CATSS LXXMorph text. There is at least one category for each file.

The text is arranged with one book per file. Certain books in the source LXXMorph text are split where there is significant textual divergence (manuscript B and A, or the Old Greek and Theodotion). Each file has one or more categories (e.g. pentateuch and writings).

Since there is no punctuation in the source text, the files are laid out with one verse per line. A better arrangement from an NLP perspective would be one line per sentence (thereby preserving the semantic structure). Maybe someday we'll have a freely-licensed LXX text which will include sentence breaks.

Each word is accompanied by the morphological tag in the word/tag format (NLTK will automatically split word and tag on the slash). The part of speech tag is separated from the parsing information with a hyphen, which enables the use of the simplify tags function in NLTK.

Here follows an example of how to load this corpus into NLTK:

from nltk.corpus.reader import CategorizedTaggedCorpusReader

def simplify_tag(tag):
        if '-' in tag:
            tag = tag.split('-')[0]
        return tag
        return tag

lxx = CategorizedTaggedCorpusReader('lxxmorph-corpus/', 
    '\d{2}\..*', encoding=u'utf8',

Now through the lxx object you have access to tagged words - lxx.tagged_words(), simplified tags - lxx.tagged_words(simplify_tags=True), tagged sentences - lxx.tagged_sents(), and textual categories - lxx.words(categories='former-prophets').

This is a derivative work of the original CATSS LXXMorph text, and so your use of it is subject to the terms of that license. See the README file for more details.

Readings for April 2014

Published: 2014-05-26 07:53:00
Category: books Tags: readings Michael Crichton Orson Scott Card

Reading continues.

Micro by Michael Crichton

There was a time in life when I was devouring everything by Michael Crichton I could get my hands on. As time went by my tastes have changed. And with the passing of Crichton, there were not more opportunities to read his work anyway. Except that his estate had arranged for posthumous releases of works in progress. The first was Pirate Latitudes, which I found to be decidedly half-baked.

This new offering, Micro, is co-authored by Richard Preston, so it has a more finished feel to it. And it is a vintage Crichton story-line: corporate use of bleeding-edge technology leads to mayhem. I will warn the reader that the premise of this book is essentially "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids" in an action/adventure format. I would recommend this for any die-hard Crichton fans out there.

Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card

I really loved Ender's Game, so I've had its sequel Speaker for the Dead queued up for quite some time. I also studiously avoided seeing the film adaptation of the former. Orson Scott Card once again came through with a very thought-provoking tale, well-executed in the science fiction genre.

Card's fiction seems to always address religion, though in this novel it is a major theme. You have the Catholic colony on a lonely planet reacting to the intrusion of the Speaker, who is a sort of "priest" for a new "humanist religion." The Speaker is of course Ender, who through relativistic spaceflight is still running around thousands of years after his xenocide. Ender gets the opportunity for a chance at redemption, as it were, because for the first time since the buggers, humanity has discovered a new sentient species.

I have only read three Card novels, but they have all stuck with me. He is an excellent story teller, and he does not let his genre get in the way. Rather he uses science fiction to create the alternate realities in which tough questions can be addressed. In other words, he is very much like LeGuin, and I love him for it. Recommended.


  • Harper's April 2014
  • Tin House 58
  • Harper's May 2014

Spigot 2.2

Published: 2014-04-29 20:50:00
Category: κτλ Tags: technology

I have released Spigot 2.2. The primary purpose of this release is to support the use of any arbitrary field in the incoming feed in the format of the outgoing message. Before Spigot limited you to the title or link, but now you can have more options, including author, etc.

This update requires a database schema change as well as an update to your configuration file. The new version will prompt you to upgrade these if necessary. I have provided an upgrade script in the git repo to handle this upgrade for you. New users have nothing to worry about.

Fabricus quips again

Published: 2014-04-13 20:52:00
Category: links

Kim Fabricus' "Doodlings", a semi-regular feature on the Faith & Theology blog, continues to warm my heart with humor. This most recent batch produced multiple fits of audible laughter. This was the chief in my estimation:

There are two major legal grounds for divorce in the UK: adultery and “unreasonable behaviour”. Interestingly, these are the same theological grounds on which evangelicals and liberals “divorce” each other – accusations of syncretism on the one hand and irrationality on the other.

So please, help yourself, and subscribe over there.

Readings for March 2014

Published: 2014-04-04 06:00:00
Category: books Tags: J.K. Rowling William Gass readings

While I try to stay sharp with "literary" fiction, I cannot layoff the popcorn fare. There is, of course, nothing wrong with this. Sometimes the literature smarties need to relax and read a page-turner.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling

Here ends the Harry Potter series as well as my re-read. I had actually forgotten a lot of details from the final book in the series - likely due to the film abridging much in service of the film format. What I rediscovered I liked, particularly the narrative of how Dumbledore's youthful pursuit of power shipwrecked his family life.

The series as a whole is of course recommended. It has become an important part of our culture, and it is good reading.

Middle C by William Gass

Gass tells us the story of Joseph Skizzen, the very average man. Skizzen's upbringing was the product of his father's deceptions and ultimate abandonment. Joseph, along with his mother and sister, end up in America, where they must learn their own ways to navigate the American life. In spite of being undocumented and uneducated, Joseph becomes Professor Skizzen, on the music department faculty of a small midwestern university. There he begins cultivation of his private "Inhumanity Museum" and his attempt to express an idea, a single sentence, in its perfect form.

I can honestly say this is the best novel I have read in quite some time. The character Skizzen and his neighbors are a delight to read. Recommended.


  • Harper's March 2014
  • Scientific American September 2013 - I learned a lot from this food-centric issue. One of the most interesting factoids was that humans really need to cook food in order to survive.

The τελος of Greek natural language processing

Published: 2014-03-25 21:11:00
Category: language Tags: Greek NLP

I dream that someday we'll have a full stack of Greek natural language processing tools to facilitate research. These tools will range from transcribing the text to advanced NLP tasks like text classification or sentiment analysis. These tools will of course be open source.

Here is an overview of the components I have imagined (with notes where the tools are already in development):

  • Optical Character Recognition to transcribe the text to a digital form (Rigaudon Polytonic Greek OCR)
  • A user interface for editing the output of the OCR system (a "collaborative corpus linguistics" suite could be used for this and other editing tasks)
  • Collation of related texts for textual criticism.
  • Morphological analysis of the text (Tauber's greek-inflection is a start)
  • Tagging of the text based on above morphological analysis
  • Indexing the text
  • Use of a context-free Grammar or other means to produce syntactical analysis of the text (e.g. syntax trees)
  • A database to store all of this information
  • An API to make this information accessible (towards which Open Scriptures has worked)

We're actually pretty close. And once the full stack is in place, it will greatly increase the speed at which new texts enter the research corpus. This influx of data will improve the results of research and lead to new applications.

Am I missing anything?



© Nathan D. Smith
This work is distributed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.