November 2019

I’ve been reading about Egypt… I had been trying to keep it out of my book, but it moved itself in, much as Egypt kept moving into Canaan.  The last book I read was the Book of the Dead, translated by Ramses Seleem. In particular, it’s a translation of the Papyrus of Hunefer, one of the shorter versions of the BotD, from around 1300 BCE.


That’s Hunefer above, in fact: he got the deluxe illustrated Book for his tomb, with his name in all the spells and pictures of himself and his wife Nasha. (She doesn’t appear in the illo above; the other folks are all gods. To the left Hunefer’s heart is being measured by Anubis against a representation of maat, truth or virtue. Thoth is recording the results. Fortunately, he passes the test, and is ushered into the presence of Osiris, flanked by Isis and Nephthys.)

I’m afraid I can’t recommend Seleem’s version.  The main problem is that he seems to be a believer…. yes, in ancient Egyptian religion. I’m not quite convinced you can be such a thing, but the thing is, he has all of the convert’s convictions that a) he knows things hidden from the experts, and b) whatever he believes is identical to what was believed 3300 years ago.  But religions, like languages, change, and entering into the mindset of people long dead is extremely tricky. Saying you have special insight because you actually believe this stuff only makes it trickier.

To start with, there’s some linguistic BS. For instance, he mentions the Egyptian word for the wrapped body, krst. He then claims that this is “the root of the Latin word corpus” as well as the word Christ. Which is… non-mainstream.  Both words are Indo-European and not even related to each other. (Christ is a nominalization formed from χρῑ́ω ‘rub, anoint’; an actual cognate of this word turns out to be ghee.)  From some quick Googling, this krst nonsense does seem to be widespread, but that just means that cranks have been copying it, one book to another, for a hundred years. A chance similarity just never stops doing its mischief.

Just as bad: he thinks that language derives from lingua (‘tongue’) + age, thus, “the speech of ages.”  Argh!  In fact it’s from French langue (which is from lingua) plus the common nominalizer –age, which isn’t the same as the noun âge.

Well, non-linguists may mess up etymologies. Moving on… he informs us that the Egyptians were not actually polytheists– the words neter ‘god’ and netrit ‘goddess’ should really be ‘law or principle’, masculine and feminine: he suggests yin and yang as equivalents.

Now, I’m no expert– ask me after a few more books– but my suspicions are aroused, because this is how people from polytheistic religions talk when the most privileged religions are monotheistic. You see it in Hinduism and also in ancient Rome: scholars very gravely announce that the gods are illusions and cover an even more ancient monotheism, or even a trinity. (I’m aware, by the way, that the process is very far along in Hinduism.  But that doesn’t mean that such interpretations were what (say) Vedic religion was “really about.”)

One, there’s nothing wrong with multiple gods! You don’t have to give in to Yahweh-envy. And two– if ancient Egypt was monotheistic, it makes it a good deal harder to understand why Akhenaten’s reforms were ultimately resisted.

All of this could be ignored if we can trust his translation. But then he explains that his translations are “symbolic.” E.g., one line from Hunefer literally reads

I am pure in my great double nests, in the city of Sutnny, in the day where the people gave offerings to the great principle in it.

He says that this should instead be translated

I achieved purification of my body and soul in the time of my youth, when other people were busy with the dazzling illusion of life.

I would like a second opinion on this.

If all the Egytologists agree, great. That is, if “double nests” is a way of saying “body and soul”, that’s fine. I’m more wary of “the dazzling illusion of life”, which certainly can’t be explained by anything in the literal translation.

The problem with such interpretive translations is that the translator trusts their own explanations far more than he trusts the actual sacred text. Even if the interpretation is good, it’s theirs more than the writers… and really, it’s a rare interpretation that exceeds the original. Read a commentary on the Dao De Jing, then read a minimalist translation, and see which you get more out of. Or read the parables of Jesus, then some pastor’s book about them. (There’s nothing wrong with writing commentaries… but even as a believer, you should recognize that sages’ words are one thing, disciples commentaries are another. Not a few sages have said just that!)

I much prefer Wendy Doniger’s approach with the Rig Veda. Where the text is maddeningly obscure, she lets it be so. She explains a good deal of it, but separates text and interpretation, and doesn’t over-supply the latter. Yes, it can leave the reader feeling that they don’t understand everything. That’s a plus. It’s no favor to give the reader the illusion of understanding a very old and difficult text.

The other problem with the “symbolic translation”: it bleaches out almost all meaning and interest from the text. Saleem’s version of Egyptian religion turns out to be, well, pretty much like most religious writing. Here’s a random sample from his commentaries:

These three pillars (awakening, purification, and activation) form the earthly triangle. When this has been activated, the heavenly triangle comes into operation. This include the process of rejuvenation. When the body is working correctly, the internal and external energy can be fully utilized. The body then starts to create new skin and tissues in all its organs and muscles, which take about 15 years. 

So… some nice words come together and are given a metaphorical name. There are special disciplines for the elect which allow a fuller life. It’s the message of every religion and completely devoid of any interesting specifics.

By the way, I don’t at all reject spiritual points of view or disciplines. I just find writings about them to be nearly meaningless. I’ve known a few people I consider to be near saintly. The thing is– they talked like any other religious person; it wasn’t their gift. Their quality was in what they did, not what they said. This is undoubtedly why so many religions are based on personal, one-on-one discipleship.

Anyway, I don’t feel I can use much of the book. It does contain a lot of information on Egyptian mythology, and it’s beautifully illustrated.



I should talk to you about Mesopotamia… but a late stage of the Minecraft fever hit me, so I want to talk about Skyblock instead. This is a map where you start on a tiny little island in the sky. After watching Impulse and Skizzleman turning their Skyblock into a major empire, I had to try it.


The picture is far from the initial state. This is after getting trees and wheat growing, and getting a load of cobblestone.

I had to learn how to do backups, because there are so many ways to ruin the game. It took me a few tries to figure out the cobblestone generator. You use water and lava: if you do it right, they generate a cobblestone block which you can mine, and then repeat forever.  But it’s easy to do it wrong and get obsidian instead, and/or lose your water or your lava.

Then you need trees. You start with one, which you mine… but if you don’t get a sapling out of it, you’re toast.  More frustrating was when my lava set fire to my tree…

There are other islands far away that you can build a bridge to, and have additional resources. One is especially useful because it allows you to reach the Nether (which also starts you out on a tiny block). Some of the stuff I haven’t figured out. Like, what do you use the lily pad for?  Also, the trader is worthless so far– he doesn’t want zombie flesh as ordinary traders do, and the one trade he’ll make requires golden apples, which I don’t have yet.

I spent a lot of time creating a mob farm.  The first one was never very productive– not as much as just letting them spawn on the bridges. But now I have an awesome one. Here’s its business end:


Sometimes there’s a dozen mobs in there– the sound they make when you hit them is terrifying.  I didn’t make it tall enough to kill them with fall damage. That’s not the design flaw I ran into, though.  The design flaw is that I forgot to light the roof.  So mobs spawned on top of it and started invading my base…

It’s weird to play for hours without a scrap of iron. I now have two bars of iron, so I feel rich.  Both were provided by zombies.

I’ve learned a bunch of new stuff as well. E.g. I didn’t know that you can crouch in order to move freely over a block without falling off– this is essential in Skyblock as falling into the void is easy and also fatal. I also only just learned that saplings can be used as fuel, which is great– I was using wooden shovels.

There’s no shortcut for building below the current block, but there is a method: create a waterfall. You can go down the water and lay cobblestones as you go. You’re supposed to be able to swim back up, but I haven’t figured that part out… I just respawn.

Also, I learned how to make snowballs, which turn out to be great for knocking mobs off those narrow bridges.

That’s enough for now. I really want to go back and add another wing to my mob farm…

Edit: I forgot to say why this mode is fun. Mostly it’s the challenge— doing without iron and gold, turning precious single resources into chestfuls of stuff.  Plus it’s neat to start with so little and end up with a little empire.

I did redo the mob farm, which involved cleaning it out first. So… many… spiders.  But it’s easier to open up the roof and hit a mess of spiders than it is to lure a single spider into range and get one or two string each time.


So I’ve discovered a game called Minecraft. It’s fairly new, compared to, say, Babylonia: it was released in 2011. It’s kind of addictive!


I’ve played a number of exploration/survival games– I’ve put hundreds of hours into Empyrion and Conan Exiles. I had long resisted Minecraft, not least because it looks stupid; I liked the realism of the later titles. But, as I say, Minecraft is surprisingly good.  I think it’s because of the very pure gameplay loop.

These games need to balance mining, building, and threats (combat, hunger, environmental damage). Too much mining quickly becomes tedious and prevents building magnificent structures. Too much threat is annoying, but too little makes the building seem pointless. Minecraft gets the balance just right.

  • The threat level is low, so you can spend most of your time doing other things. Yet monster-proofing your creations is still important.
  • Mining is generous: you can make a dirt shelter in seconds, stone is so plentiful that you’ll soon have chestloads of cobblestone, wood is easy.  So your “real house”, after making shelters, will be pretty satisfying.
  • You drop your items when you die, and they disappear in five minutes. This can range from no annoyance at all to a major catastrophe, especially if you don’t know exactly where you died. So you’re motivated to not be entirely careless.

At the same time, just building bases would only be good for a few nights of fun. There is a huge variety of other tasks you can discover and take on:

  • finding villages and trading with villagers
  • growing crops
  • raising and breeding animals\
  • exploring new biomes
  • building railroads
  • mining deep enough to find the good stuff (gold, diamonds, redstone)
  • building electrical (redstone) devices
  • making maps
  • fending off pillagers
  • enchantments
  • making monster traps
  • building a portal to the Nether (a hellish otherworld with new monsters)
  • co-op, if you still have friends who play

Or, of course, you can just build and rebuild. The picture above is not my house, it’s a railroad station. I’m sure it still looks noobish to Minecraft veterans, but at least it’s past the “make a big rectangle” stage.

A couple days in, I discovered a huge cave with a partial mine inside– that is, it had long passageways with rails and timber supports, which were themselves good resources. I moved my main base there to excavate fully.  I found a deep ravine nearby which turned out to be connected. I think the place is fully explored now, though I still find odd monsters wandering around.

I took a long wander around and found the ocean, about 1200 blocks to the east. A shipwreck suggested a new place to build a house, this one located right in a ravine, with glass blocks for a roof.

Then I built a railroad between my two houses.  This was a huge project that required mining large amounts of iron and making several base camps in between. It’s now a nice train ride, though I’ve also found how to make the trip using Nether portals.

In its own way, Minecraft can be rather pretty:


In the distance you can see one of my railway bridges. (I built like a 19th century engineer, bridging valleys and digging through mountains.)

I thought the fever had broken recently, but then I found a new ravine with a mine system, and I’m back to excavating. By this time I’m more scientific about it– marking the way to the exit, for instance.

On the whole I still like the relative realism in the other games.  Empyrion is still the best of these, not least because its wide array of building pieces allows you to build truly original and gothic spacecraft. The progression of building, then getting to space, then getting to other planets, is also more satisfying.

What still falls short, to my mind, is No Man’s Sky. The visuals are top-notch– you really feel that you’re deeply exploring a 1970s progressive rock album cover. But the base building is terrible: it takes huge investments of resources to build a single room, and with the latest update, it’s a further chore to keep it powered up.

I stumbled on some videos related to a mod called Skycraft, where you start on a tiny island in the sky. The first was just stupid; the player just kept knocking each other off. But this series is rather addictive: two dudes build an impressive installation with a good deal of automation. Plus the main dude has a really infectious laugh. (Also, they say “dude” a lot, like every five seconds.)

Just a couple of Minecraft cavils. One, making skins is pretty basic but isn’t in the main game– you have to use the game website, and mess with Paint or external character creators. They couldn’t have addressed this in eight years?

Two, there’s not much help in-game. You get recipes for crafting, but there’s no real guidance on doing most of the more advanced tactics. Fortunately there’s years of guides available by now.

I’d also say that they’re not generous with points of interest– e.g. I’ve explored a couple dozen chunks and found only one village. I assume this is optimized for co-op play, where you want a good deal of land for each player. But playing solo, it can feel like there’s little reward for exploring the world.