Power of Faerun

I’ve just finished reading Power of Faerun, a Forgotten Realms book for D&D. I have to confess that I wasn’t over-impressed with it. It wasn’t actively bad; quality control at Wizards of the Coast is far too good for that to happen. However, it was distinctly uninspiring.

It’s a background book, dealing with high-level (powerful) characters in the Forgotten Realms setting. Each chapter covers different sorts of things that they can do. Unfortunately, most of these chapters failed to inspire me with lots and lots of ideas. A good RPG setting book should inspire the reader with more ideas than he could possibly use in a lifetime, and quite a lot of the previous Forgotten Realms books have actually done so, for me. I like the Forgotten Realms setting, because it’s “classic” high fantasy done well. It’s a good roleplaying setting, in a style that I find appealing. Thus, good setting books for that world tend to inspire me.

This book generally failed. The chapters seemed not to go beyond “Your character could become a high priest!”, “Your character could lead an army!”, and so on. There was very little that generated ideas beyond the obvious, or looked likely to save me substantial amounts of time if I actually wanted to use the material in play.

It wasn’t a complete failure; there were a number of vignettes and examples that inspired some ideas. But it did strike me as weaker than most books in the line. It’s also not obvious how it should have been done, because there are a lot of options. I think this format could have been done better, with a heavier emphasis on adventure and campaign ideas, but the format could also have been changed. For example, one chapter is about becoming a religious leader. That could easily be a whole book, with each chapter giving details of the current politics of one major faith in Faerun, and pointing out how a player character could rise through the ranks, and the problems he would face. Or a book could cover all the aspects of power for one region of Faerun, including a discussion of how to get all the characters in a standard party into positions of power at once: the cleric leading a temple, the wizard the power behind the throne, the fighter a border lord with an important keep, and the rogue a merchant prince.

So, a bit uninspiring. Essential for Realms completists, obviously, but probably not for anyone else. Although you should still buy it through my link to Amazon. (I suspect I’m not going to get much money from the link from this review, but then I don’t get much money from the links anyway.)

Watch Me Grow!

My Mum sent us this book as a present, so that we could follow along with the baby’s development. It’s really good, because it isn’t a technical discussion of what goes on and the sorts of problems there might be. Instead, it’s basically a collection of 3D ultrasound pictures of various babies, at various stages from the very beginning to the verge of birth.

The pictures are great, because they really look like pictures, as opposed to the rather fuzzy grey blobs that you get from 2D ultrasound. Obviously, pictures of our baby are even better, but these images have given me, at least, a fairly definite feeling for the process. Seeing the images goes beyond just knowing what happens when; I can imagine what our baby probably looks like right now, which means that the whole thing feels a lot more real.

Actually, the book was very good in conjunction with the 2D pictures of our baby. From the 2D picture, it was easy to work out which page was appropriate, and thus get a better idea of what the foetus looks like overall. Some movement is, apparently, possible at that stage, so I probably did see our baby move its arm on the screen.

So, thank you Mum for the book. It’s great.

The Most Difficult Language in the World

I mentioned to my sister that Japanese would take at least four times as long to learn as French (which she has already studied), and she asked me where that was from. A quick Google turned up a webpage of language learning difficulties for English speakers. If we assume that these difficulties are roughly symmetric, it goes some way to explaining why the Dutch and Scandinavians speak such irritatingly good English.

The slightly surprising thing is that Japanese is the only starred language in Category III: that is, according to the experience of the US State Department, Japanese is somewhat harder to learn than Chinese, Arabic, or Korean.

Or, in other words, Japanese is the most difficult major language in the world for English speakers.

I have to say that I do not find this implausible.

An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding

Yesterday, I finished reading David Hume’s An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding. It was, naturally, interesting. Although I read his Treatise of Human Nature years ago, and taught the causation and induction sections for something like ten years at Cambridge, I’d not previously read the whole of the first Enquiry.

One of the most notorious sections is chaper 10: Of Miracles. In this chapter, Hume argues that there can never be any reason to believe that a miracle happened. The basic argument is simple: it is always more likely that the sources are mistaken or lying than that a miracle occurred, so the reasonable conclusion is always that there was no miracle.

Hume’s reason for that belief seems to be that we have lots of empirical evidence that the laws of nature are never broken, so that testimony, which we know is sometimes false, can never be enough to convince us otherwise. It is interesting that he assumes that one will never personally witness a miracle.

This could be read as saying that it is irrational to believe something that you haven’t seen for yourself. That’s not what he means, however. He’s perfectly happy for people to believe testimony of the sorts of things that they have themselves seen; if someone tells me that they saw a flock of starlings flying through the air over Cambridge, I should generally believe them. When I lived there, I saw similar things many times. The problem comes with things that are very different from anything you have experienced.

Actually, I think there is a deeper problem. When Matthew’s Gospel says (27: 52-53) that, after the resurrection of Jesus, many formerly dead and buried saints went into Jerusalem and were seen by many, we can safely conclude that this never happened. Matthew was either lied to or lying. Somebody else would have mentioned it; at the very least, this mass resurrection would have got a mention in the other Gospels. More likely, it would have been reported, at least as a rumour, by the numerous Roman historians writing at the people. Large numbers of dead people getting up and walking around is not a common occurrence, after all.

However, consider the cases of resurrection that were reported to medieval shrines. These were reported within a few weeks of the event, by people who were there, with witnesses. A typical pattern is as follows: A child falls into a river, and, being unable to swim, sinks. After some time the child is pulled out of the river, but he is not breathing and has no apparent heartbeat. Efforts are made to revive him, but they fail, and he is pronounced dead. The child’s mother, deeply distraught, petitions the saints to save him. (Sometimes, she petitions several saints, but nothing happens at first.) Suddenly, the child coughs, sits up, and is well. The miracle is attributed to the saint who was being invoked at the relevant moment.

Now, I think it is much less reasonable to reject this account out of hand. This sort of thing happens today, particularly, in fact, with children who have fallen into water. As I understand the cases, even modern equipment cannot immediately find signs of life, but after warming up a bit, the child revives, apparently none the worse for wear. It’s rare, but it happens.

However, even if we accept the event, that does not mean that we accept that it was a miracle. A miracle is the direct intervention of God, suspending the laws of nature. It is true that, as far as I know, doctors do not currently understand exactly what is happening in these cases, but that is not enough to assume a miracle. There are lots and lots of perfectly common, everyday, events that science does not yet fully understand, including my ability to type. That doesn’t make that a miracle, so why should lack of understanding make these apparent resurrections into miracles?

And that, I think, is the deeper problem here. No matter what you see, that can only give you a reason to believe that you have seen something you do not understand. It cannot give you a reason to believe that you have seen something that breaks the laws of nature. One event is simply never enough to do that.

This does not mean that there are no circumstances under which it would be rational to believe in, say, ghosts. If the ghosts of several people appeared frequently to a number of people, appeared when being filmed for television, and appeared even when massive batteries of scientific instruments were set up, then it would be reasonable to believe that there was something there. After further investigation, it could even become reasonable to believe that there was something there that could not be explained by current science. There are, in fact, numerous examples of such things. Radiation is one; when it was first detected, it seemed to be impossible, but it kept showing up, and so eventually it was brought within the ambit of science.

There may even be things that happen lots of times, but which are not predictable, and so which do not get explained. Ball lightning is an example of this; the scientific consensus appears to be that the events happen, but there is no consensus on what causes them (other than that they are not lightning). The events are just not common or predictable enough to investigate properly. But that still doesn’t show that they are miracles.

The problem here, then, is that the supporters of miracles have not finished their job when they have proved that people rise from the dead. They still need to prove that they rise from the dead because an undetectable, ineffable deity wills them to. And there can never be any evidence for that. In fact, they need to show that the dead rise because the particular undetectable, ineffable deity described in their scriptures wills them to, and I cannot see any way to even begin doing that.

There is even some textual evidence that this is the sort of miracle Hume has in mind; he says that the miracles of different religions cancel out, which is only true if the miracles are supposed to imply the truth of the religion. If they are treated merely as events, there is no reason why all the events could not have happened. Obviously, a lot of people will be wrong about the causes.

And now, before I get distracted into epistemological relativism (because things are different for people who believe in God already, just as reports of radioactivity are different for people who believe in that already), I will leave things there.

Writing Japanese

I wrote a really long post for my Japanese blog today; about 2000 characters. The rough-and-ready conversion is that two Japanese characters equal one English word. Certainly, the number of times you have to hit the keys is around there. Thus, the Japanese post is about equivalent to 1000 words of English.

It took me a little over an hour to write. 1000 words an hour is what I reckon for my average productivity in English, although I can get up as high as 2500 when I don’t really need to think about what I’m writing. (Hmm, that must mean that I can type 40 wpm.) What that means is that my speed of writing in Japanese is very close to my speed of writing in English. Frankly, I find that deeply surprising. My reading is much slower, I think. (Although I may be using the wrong metric; Japanese is denser on the page, so I probably should be reading fewer pages-per-minute in Japanese than in English. That, however, I don’t yet have a good conversion for.)

I guess this post comes down to me gloating about my Japanese ability. Comments from people who read Japanese criticising the quality of the Japanese on my blog will not be welcome.

Hmm. I know! I’m not really gloating. I’m trying to encourage people who are still studying Japanese at the moment. Keep it up for long enough, and you will actually get good at it. It just takes longer than you might initially think. (I still remember my initial plan – go to Japan for a year to get from JLPT level 3 to fluent. Three and a half years after arriving, I think I can actually describe myself as fluent. It only took three times longer than I expected.)

Welcome to the Blog

This is my English-language blog, as threatened in my most recent diary entry. As noted there, the aim is for it to supplement, rather than replace, my Japan Diary. The blog should be a quick way to note events and thoughts, while leaving the Diary for accounts of visits and the like; essentially, things with pictures.

Now that it’s set up, it should be easy to update and such, but, unlike my Japanese blog, I don’t plan to update this one every day. I do hope to do it more often than once a month, which is what has tended to happen to my Japan Diary recently.