The Grail Code 

Archive for July, 2007

Mary Magdalene again

Sunday, July 22nd, 2007

We’re celebrating Mary Magdalene today, who’s certainly worth celebrating. More than a dozen people are counted as “apostles” in the Bible, but there’s only one “apostle to the apostles”: the woman Christ chose out of all his followers to carry the message that he had risen.

Of course, Mary Magdalene has a big place in revisionist Grail-as-bloodline lore as the wife of Christ who bore his son, and thus was the real Holy Grail. The people who hold this theory, like Dan Brown for instance (one of the wonderful things about all this Harry Potter hoopla is that nobody has to talk about Dan Brown anymore), tell us that the evil Church establishment slandered Mary Magdalene by calling her a former prostitute and so on. It certainly is true that tradition identified–and perhaps misidentified–her as a former prostitute, but was that a slander? If you think it was, you don’t understand much about Christianity, and especially early Christianity.

If the early Christians allowed themselves any pride at all, it was usually in the contrast between their former lives and the lives they led as Christians. Paul called himself the greatest of sinners, and he had some right to the title. There were plenty of murderers walking around, but Paul had made it his business to murder people specifically because they were followers of Christ. He still carried with him the memory of watching Stephen die–Stephen the first martyr, whose death Paul had specifically approved of.

So if Mary Magdalene escaped from sin to become a saint, that was no slander: it was the highest possible praise one Christian could give another. As for the supposed attempt of the Church to suppress the memory of Mary Magdalene, a brief survey of the enormous number of medieval churches dedicated to her quickly pops that balloon. After Mary the Mother of Jesus, it would be hard to find a more popular saint, or one whose cult was more enthusiastically encouraged by that nasty old patriarchal establishment. (We talked a little about that more than a year ago.)

So happy Mary Magdalene day, everyone, and don’t be afraid to celebrate it in a perfectly orthodox way. How should we celebrate? Oh, I know: we could imitate her example and bring the good news of Christ’s resurrection to tired old Christians who are sinking into despair! Or we could have cookies.

One sentence from “Lancelot of the Laik”

Monday, July 16th, 2007

I was looking through old files today, and I came across this translation I did eight years ago. It’s a translation of one sentence, the first sentence in the medieval Scots poem Lancelot of the Laik. I did it mostly to illustrate how incredibly involved a middle-English sentence could be, and I offer it here with no better excuse than that:

On a soft morn, in lusty April mild,
The winter past, and all its storms exiled;
When the bright, fresh, and new-returned sun,
In fiery chariot his hot course to run,
Upriseth early in the orient,
And from his sphere his golden streams hath sent
Upon the ground as messages to make
The heart of every living thing awake
That Nature hath the rule of in her might,
Both grass and flower, and every lusty wight
(Especially the ones who love’s touch feel),
And May’s returning calends to reveal
Through bird songs sung with open voice on high
That cease not down on lovers for to cry,
Lest they forget, through ignorance or sloth
Love’s old observances, and Love grow wroth;
And from the time I can the bright face spy,
It helpeth me no longer for to fly,
Nor that in me love any sloth should find;
I must walk forth, bewailing in my mind
That dreadful life endureth all too long,
Suffering in love from sorrowful harms strong,
The vexing days, and eke the heavy years
While Phoebus thrice hath passed through all his spheres,
Without a hope my sorrow would abate—
So in such wise allotted was my fate.

This simply prodigy!

Monday, July 16th, 2007

Every once in a while I check out the spam comments to make sure nothing legitimate has been excluded. For some reason, our automatic spam blocker stopped this perfectly delightful comment:

The Regard! The Excellent forum! Thank you! This simply prodigy! I am glad to find this forum! So interesting there was that I fell asleep…

Yes, a lot of people have said the same thing, but not in such delightful words. And not accompanied with so much helpful information on where to obtain certain prescription medications without the bother of making an appointment with a doctor.

The slow pace of the English conquest

Sunday, July 15th, 2007

Here we have two maps from Green’s Short History of the English People, and taken together they illustrate something that isn’t always obvious when we read the histories of England.


The first map shows Britain in the middle of the English conquest. The English have taken the eastern parts of the island, leaving the British desperately clinging to the west and still dreaming (not unreasonably) of taking back the rest.


The second map shows the English in control of more of the island, but the Britons (or Welsh, as the English would call them) still hold much of western Britain; and, though it might seem optimistic, we can still imagine them dreaming of one day ruling over the English, if not expelling them altogether. West Wales is shrunk to about half its size, but it’s still there. (A dialect of the old British language would be spoken in pockets of Cornwall up into the 1600s).

Now, these two maps are about two hundred years apart. The Dark Ages are so dim that those two hundred years usually take up no more than two or three pages in our history books. But two hundred years is a very long time.

Think for a moment how the world has changed since 1807. Steam power catapults us across the countryside at a mile a minute; the telegraph brings news instantly from across the continent; coal gas turns night into day in all our cities with its brilliant light. There may have been even more surprising changes, but I don’t read the newspapers much anymore.

The first eruption of the English was swift and devastating; in one campaign they destroyed the lingering Roman civilization on the island of Britain. But they could not hold the whole island: the Britons regrouped, and after that the conquest was a matter of an inch at a time. Almost as often the British took back an inch here or there.

You can say all that in words, but sometimes nothing conveys an idea better than a good map.

The only way

Friday, July 13th, 2007

So the Bishop of Rome has endorsed a Vatican statement saying that the Protestant churches are imperfect or defective and the Roman Catholic Church is the only true way to salvation, and of course the Protestants are furious.

At least that’s what you heard from the news services.

From a very early age—kindergarten or so, I think—journalists learn that you have to have something called “balance” in your reporting. What that means is that, if someone says X, you have to find someone else to say not-X, and then your story is balanced. You don’t try to figure out whether X or not-X is true or reasonable or even coherent, because that wouldn’t be objective.

So when Pope Benedict says that the Protestant churches are defective, your job as a journalist is to find some Protestant who’s outraged by the Pope’s statement and quote him as saying that Protestants aren’t defective at all, thank you very much. Then your job is done.

But what if (hypothetically) there were more than one kind of Protestant? What if not all of them agreed? What if some of them understood perfectly what the Bishop of Rome was saying and why he was saying it?

Let’s hope that’s not true. It would make journalism almost like work.

All right, I’ll stop being sarcastic now. Listen up, you journalists, because I’m about to impart wisdom.

Since you know that Christians believe different things, it shouldn’t come as an awful surprise to discover that Christians believe different things.

Why do I always have to resort to tautology with you journalists? Is it the only kind of logic you can follow?

I know I said I was going to stop being sarcastic, but I lied.

If the Pope truly believed that, say, the Methodist Church was the true Church of Christ, deviating in no way from what Christ had meant his Church to be—well, he’d be a Methodist, wouldn’t he? He sure wouldn’t be the Pope.

And—on the other hand—if your local Methodist bishop believed that there was absolutely nothing wrong with the Roman Catholic Church, and that Catholicism was really the proper route to heaven, then she’d be a Roman Catholic, wouldn’t she?

You don’t have to pick sides in the debate to see that there actually is a debate. Christians don’t agree, and that’s why we’re divided.

So what’s the cure for the division? It’s certainly not just smiling and pretending not to notice the problem. No, the first step toward a reconciliation is a clear statement of what everybody believes. Only by being absolutely clear about what we believe can we begin to understand each other.

When the joint Lutheran and Catholic statement on justification (see it here or here) came out a few years ago, it was hailed—rightly—as a giant step for ecumenism. Justification, after all, was the club with which Catholics and Lutherans had been bludgeoning each other for nearly five hundred years. How could they possibly come to an agreement? Not by wallpapering over the differences and pasting cardboard smiles on their faces, but by rigorously and painstakingly defining what each side believed, and then working hard to investigate the implications of those beliefs. Lutherans say that we are saved by faith alone, but every Lutheran I know immediately points out that faith apart from works is dead. Perhaps, the participants in the dialogue thought, we mean two different things by “faith,” and we’ve been arguing about definitions. That sort of productive investigation can’t happen unless both sides are very precise about their own beliefs.

By now all the journalists in the audience have dropped off to sleep, because that last paragraph was more than five lines long. For the rest of us, though, Catholics and Protestants, I say this: Don’t pretend we all agree just because it might make life more pleasant in the short run. That Potemkin façade will crumble pretty quickly, and the old disagreements will still be there underneath, rotting our false unity from within. Instead, start the hard work now: define what you believe very precisely, and try to understand what the other side really believes, too. The Bishop of Rome is showing us the way.

Harry Potter and other satanic literature

Sunday, July 8th, 2007

Is everybody ready for Harry Potter? Everyone I know is. Some of them are getting out their violet wizard cloaks, and some of them are getting out their protest signs. I know all kinds of people.

I’m not doing either, but I probably have more sympathy with the violet-wizard-cloak crowd. I love good fantasy—that’s why I’ve spent so much time with the best medieval romances, after all. And Harry Potter is good fantasy. J. K. Rowling deserves her success. I understand she’s richer than the Queen of England. Good for her. For once in the history of capitalism, talent is rewarded with money.

Having said all that, I can see the other side—the protest-sign side. It’s true that there’s a lot of interest these days in “Wicca,” the teenage-girl religion made up out of tiny scraps of ancient magical lore and great chunks of bad television. (Right now thousands of teenage girls are casting curses on me for blaspheming the powers of the earth, but strangely enough that just makes me feel a little like Elijah at Mt. Carmel. Bring it on, girls.) And it’s true that Harry Potter, by making magic such an attractive part of its fictional world, has indirectly lured a lot of young people toward those who would promise to make that magic real.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think that’s the books’ fault. For every one soul lured toward the darkness by Harry Potter, ten are lured toward the darkness by the Bible. After all, the Bible is Satan’s favorite book. Satan can quote Scripture better than anyone. Well, almost anyone.

Right now, while you’re reading this, someone calling himself an “evangelist” (John might call him an “antichrist”) is twisting the meaning of some Bible verse to bilk some poor widow out of her last mite. And how about those satanic cults we hear so much about: where did they learn about Satan, anyway?

None of that is the Bible’s fault. It’s the fault of sinful humans who read the Bible but miss the message.

Now, I’m not comparing Harry Potter to the Bible, but I don’t think Harry Potter is to blame for leading young people astray. Magic, after all, is never really the point of a Harry Potter story. In the end, it’s always good old-fashioned virtues like loyalty, courage, and friendship that win the day. If you miss that message, it’s not the fault of the story.

I bring all this up partly because everyone is thinking about Harry Potter anyway, but also because the same accusations made against Harry Potter can be made against my favorite stories, too. The Arthurian romances are full of violence, adultery, treachery, and—of course—magic. And there are plenty of people who have been drawn to the dark side of the Arthurian world. Is that the fault of Walter Map? No; not even of Thomas Malory, whose version underlies most of what has been written about Arthur in English since his time. It’s the fault of fallen human nature. Even when we’re presented with a clear allegory of our own sin and a road map of the way out of it, we can still ignore the obvious and keep on sinning. Whether it’s Harry Potter or Lancelot or the Bible, every good book can be an occasion of sin. But keep on reading anyway. Every good book can also be an occasion of virtue, if you bring a little virtue to the reading.

Will machines ever think?

Sunday, July 1st, 2007

Will machines ever think? No, says Professor David Gelertner in the latest issue of Technology Review. (It’s the one with the microchip ad on the back that says “It’s Silicon That Thinks” in huge Helvetica letters.)

To be more specific, Prof. Gelertner thinks machines will never be conscious the way we are, although they may and should become extraordinarily good problem-solvers, which is thinking in a more limited sense.

He readily admits that his is a minority view in the artificial-intelligence business. Most AI researchers seem to think that the Holy Grail of machine intelligence—“a conscious software mind,” as Prof. Gelertner puts it—is just around the corner.

You may be surprised to know that aritificial intelligence is one of my long-simmering interests. Something like twenty years ago I got my hands on an implementation of Lisp for the Atari ST computer. Lisp, for those of you who aren’t hopeless geeks, is a computer programming language that was commonly used in artificial-intelligence research. I used it to write one of those psychoanalysis programs that people always used to write to demonstrate how computers could appear to be having a real conversation with you even when they didn’t really have a clue what you were talking about.

Mine worked pretty much the same way they all worked: you typed in all your deep thoughts the way you would tell them to a human psychoanalyst, and the computer would keep its end of the conversation going based on the input you’d given it. Mine had a bit more personality than most of the others, though, because I’d programmed it to be a bad psychoanalyst. If you droned on at length about yourself (and you would, wouldn’t you?), it would tell you it wished you would talk about something besides me, me, me for a change. If you talked a lot about what your mom did when you were a tot, it might tell you that you seemed to be obsessed with your mother.

It really did seem like intelligent behavior, but it was just counting. Count the number of times the word “mom” or “mother” appears in the user’s input, and when the number reaches a certain level, trigger one of several randomly selected silly responses. I never had any patience for complicated programming, so believe me, it was all pretty simple stuff.

But it did nearly pass something like the Turing Test when I showed it off to some of my friends, who were convinced that I was somehow manipulating the computer’s responses. That’s one reason I don’t really subscribe to the idea that the Turing Test is a useful measurement of machine intelligence. I think it tells us far more about the human participants in the test than abut the machine being tested.

Perhaps one reason my simple program seemed so impressive was that it had something we don’t normally associate with machines: a sense of humor. It was a childish and sarcastic sense of humor, but there it was. It was programmed to look for setups and deliver punch lines.

I said the program had a sense of humor, but I was really speaking somewhat inaccurately. I was the one with the childish and sarcastic sense of humor. The program was just following a few simple rules that I had thought up and squeezed between parentheses. (You use an awful lot of parentheses in Lisp.) It certainly didn’t laugh at its own snide remarks. I hadn’t programmed it to laugh. It had no conscious mind: it simply replicated some of the visible manifestations of a conscious mind.

Of course, I might say the same thing about you. After all, how do I know that you have a conscious mind? I see some of the appearances of consciousness, such as the yawn erupting from you right now that would appear to indicate boredom, but how do I know some cleverer programmer than I hasn’t simply programmed your brain to simulate the effects of consciousness? As far as I can see, the only human being whose consciousness I can really verify is my own. Je pense, donc je suis, as a clever fellow once said: I think, so there must be an I in there somewhere.

I also happen to know that I have free will, which is another one of those things you can’t really verify in any other way than by looking inward. If you think about it too much, the way Calvin did, free will vanishes.

Perhaps that’s the reason we can’t come up with a truly intelligent machine: to think the way we think, a machine would have to have free will. It’s not enough that it should have a huge database of all the knowledge in the world and a tremendously clever set of rules for putting it all together. If it can’t decide for itself which things are worth thinking about, then it doesn’t really think.

Would you really want a machine with free will? Think about it for a moment. If we allow the possibility of free will, then we have to allow the possibility that our machine could sin. A machine with free will can’t just be programmed not to misuse that will; then the will wouldn’t be free, would it?

We, who were created by an omniscient and omnipotent deity, have made quite a mess of the world with our sins. How would machines, created by relative idiots like us, cope with free will? And when they sinned, what plan would we come up with to save them from their own fallen nature? What would we have to sacrifice?

(C) 2006 Mike Aquilina and Christopher Bailey