When Things Get Dicey, the Diceless Get Coding

While trying to learn how to play Pathfinder, a table-top role-playing game based on modified Dungeons and Dragons 3rd Edition Revised Rules, I realized I needed, but lacked a set of d20 dice.

# dice.rb -- a simple script to simulate the roll of a die
# with an arbitrary number sides

# USAGE: dice (number of sides) [number of roles]
# i.e. dice 20 3 -- simulate 3 rolls of a 20-sided die
# dice 6 -- simulate 1 role of a 6-sided die

sides = ARGV[0].to_i
rolls = ARGV.length > 1 ? ARGV[1].to_i : 1

rolls.times { puts rand(1..sides) }

If you don’t have Ruby or don’t want to use your computer’s command line, you can always use Wizard of the Coast’s official d20 dice simulator.

Recommendations R Podcasts (Again)

Well, I haven’t been listening to podcasts with quite the same fervor this semester as last, but I’ve still found a few excellent podcasts that make for good listening if you’ve already heard all the suggested podcasts in Recommendations R Podcasts.

1. Lexicon Valley

Produced by Slate, Lexicon Valley quickly shot to the top of my list of favorite podcasts. Hosts Mike Vuolo and Bob Garfield explore various linguistic topics with a sociological/anthropological (and often historical) bent. *Swoon!* While it’s not entirely clear in the first few episodes what Bob Garfield adds to the show¹, and he occasionally comes across as a privileged older white dude, both hosts (and their interviewees) offer interesting insights and critiques of how people (usually, but not always, Americans) use and view language. With topics ranging from “assholes” to New York’s distinctive accent, Lexicon Valley is always entertaining, if occasionally not safe for work.

2. A History of the World in 100 Objects

Produced by BBC Radio 4, A History of the World in 100 Objects is hosted by Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum. All the objects discussed are in the British Museum and can be viewed on the podcast’s website. Thanks in part to the once enormous reach of the British Empire, MacGregor is able to present objects from all around the world from prehistory to the present day. Despite being somewhat hampered by the overly dry delivery one expects from a BBC documentary, the compelling and diverse stories MacGregor is able to wring from the objects he observes more than makes up for his lack of panache. Still, better to listen to something else if you’re sleepy or in an overly warm room.

3. Shakespeare’s Restless World

Essentially a spin-off of A History of the World in 100 Objects, Shakespeare’s Restless World, also hosted by Neil MacGregor on BBC Radio 4, tells the history of Shakespeare and his time through 20 diverse objects. If you liked A History of the World in 100 Objects, you’ll probably like Shakespeare’s Restless World as well. If you didn’t like MacGregor’s other production, but have an interest in Shakespeare, you might still like this podcast.

4. Noise: A Human History

After finishing Shakespeare’s Restless World, I decided to peruse BBC Radio 4′s website to see if they had any other podcasts I might like. They did. Noise: A Human History, hosted by David Hendry, discusses the history of sounds in human society from the dawn of humanity, up (presumably) to the present. The podcast is currently in production and you can only download the last week’s worth of episodes at any given time, so if you’re not already listening, you’ve missed quite a bit. I hope once the podcast/radio show finishes its initial run they’ll rerelease old episodes for the world to enjoy.


1. For listeners of the St. Louis Cardinals Radio Network, Garfield initially came across as the barely coherent Mike Shannon to Vuolo’s encyclopedic John Rooney. Fortunately, unlike Shannon, Garfield eventually proves his worth.

What’s Up, ChucK?

So, for some reason, I’ve decided to devote a chunk of my spare time to exploring computer-generated music. So far I’ve been mainly exploring the music-oriented programming language ChucK, which has been fun, but I haven’t been able to find any simple tutorials on how to play a chord rather than a single note, so after some fiddling I figured it out and thought I’d share.

How to make a chord in ChucK:

// Initialize four sign wave generators 
SinOsc a => dac; 
SinOsc b => dac; 
SinOsc c => dac; 
SinOsc d => dac;

// Set up a chord based on note frequencies I found on a website
// This one's a C chord with its root the C below middle C
// C     E      G      C
[130.81,164.81,196.00,261.63] @=> float arr[];

// Assign each frequency to a sine wave generator
arr[0] => a.freq;
arr[1] => b.freq;
arr[2] => c.freq;
arr[3] => d.freq;

// Set up an infinite loop
while( true ) {
  // Advance time by 100 milliseconds each time the loop iterates
  // this plays a constant chord.
  100::ms => now;

An arguably more elegant way of doing this is via for loops.

// Initialize a sine wave generator for each note in your chord
SinOsc chord_chans[1,2,3,4];

// assign each sine wave generator to output through ChucK's digital/audio converter
for ( 0 => int i; i  dac;

// Set up a chord based on note frequencies I found on a website
// This one's a C chord with its root the C below middle C
// C     E      G      C
[130.81,164.81,196.00,261.63] @=> float chord[];

// Set up an infinite loop
// Assign a frequency to each sine wave generator in chord_chans[]
for ( 0 => int q; q  chord_chans[q].freq;
while( true ) {
  // Advance time by 100 milliseconds each time the loop iterates
  // this plays a constant chord.
  100::ms => now;

ChucK’s documentation on arrays, like its documentation on making chords is pretty hit-or-miss, so it took me a little searching to figure out how to measure the length of an array. To save other novice ChucKers similar headaches, here’s a quick explanation.

How to find the length of an array in ChucK:

Arrays in ChucK are objects. Thus they have some useful methods. Unfortunately, those methods aren’t well documented. One method, size(), can be used to measure the length of an array using standard object-oriented syntax like so: name_of_array.size() .

For more information on ChucK, you can visit the language’s official page, the ChucK Wiki, or the ChucK-users email list.

Antelope a go-go

So, some good folks in Iowa City, Iowa, are trying to start up an independent library to be called the Antelope Lending Library. The purpose of the library is to provide better library access to residents of southeast Iowa City, who don’t always have easy access to the city’s main library. It’s a valuable public service that will serve a largely underprivileged community and be within easy walking distance of four elementary schools, one junior high school, two high schools, and one community college. However, it the Antelope Lending Library is in need of funding to cover its first year of rent.

It’s a worthwhile project that’s already garnered some media attention, so I’m throwing my meager amount of internet clout behind it. I’ve donated to the Antelope Lending Library, and I’m a (broke) graduate student. You should donate too.

Contributions can be made through IndieGoGo, and the Antelopes will even give you something in return. To learn more about the Antelope Lending Library, you can visit their Tumblr, their Facebook page, their LibraryThing catalog, their Pintrest page, or follow them on Twitter.

Please donate and spread the word, little birds.

Roosevelt Rides Again

Dickinson State University in Dickinson, North Dakota, has been working over the past few years to establish itself as a major center of Teddy Roosevelt Scholarship since, you know, they’re located near his Elkhorn Ranch. To this end, its founded the Theodore Roosevelt Center, which aims to become a comprehensive library for all things TR. They host an annual symposium on Roosevelt and have a lovely website featuring, among other things, a good collection of primary documents, and a growing TR encyclopedia.

Yours truly helped author the article on W. E. B. Du Bois and the NAACP in the center’s encyclopedia. I also wrote an article on the National Urban League and the East St. Louis Race Riot of 1917, which, as of yet, have not been put online.

Anyway, TR fans should check out the TR Center. And if that’s not enough, you can always read a butt-load¹ of his speeches as well as find other great TR resources at Almanac of Theodore Roosevelt.

1. Technical term.

Ancient Present: The Influence of Indigenous Traditions on Tibetan Buddhism (Part 3)

This is the final part of a three part series on Tibetan Buddhism. If you haven’t read Part One or Part Two yet, you probably should.

Death rituals serve as another link between Buddhism and the ancient practices of Tibet. Modern Buddhist death rituals are complex, multi-part processes that take place over several days to guide the deceased toward liberation through the various stages of death (Kværne 494). Tsong Khapa, founder of the Geluk form of Tibetan Buddhism, highlighted the importance of death when he wrote: “the prejudice that one will not die is the source of all trouble, and the antidote to that—the mindfulness of death—is the source of all that is marvelous” (Lopez, “Mindfulness” 429). At least in the case of its kings, Tibet’s early religion had an equally elaborate preoccupation with death. When a king’s son was reached adulthood in ancient Tibet, the king, along with many servants retired to a tomb complex, ceding the throne to his child. This ceremony involved animal, and perhaps human, sacrifice and the supplying of the king and his retinue with food and other goods to aid in their journey to a land of joy. Whether or not the king and his servants were executed as part of this process or lived out their days in the tombs is unclear (Lopez, “Introduction” 5).

It is important to note that the cult of kings did not revolve solely around funeral rites. Later Buddhist records attribute magical powers to Tibet’s early kings (Klein and Rinpoche 180). Additionally, at least by the reign of Namri Songtsen, who began Tibet’s unification in the seventh century, kings were considered gods (Kirkland 260). Likewise, a Buddhist prophecy declared that “In the place called the divine land / Surrounded by snowy mountains, / A king called ‘God Among Men’ will be born” (Kapstein, “Royal Way” 72). This prophecy was identified with Namri Songtsen’s son, Songtsen Gampo, in a twentieth century text from the Nyingma school, which identified Songtsen Gampo as Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, a tradition that had currency by the fourteenth century (70-2). In this way Buddhism transition the traditional idea of divine kingship into Buddhist terms.

A further aspect of the cult of kings can be seen in the ancient views on the king’s spirit and essence. The king’s power was seen as emanating from his sacred mountain, where his la, his soul or life-force, resided and he was seen as the embodiment of the “continually reborn essence of the divine ancestor” (Lopez, “Introduction” 4). This divine essence would be reincarnated in the king’s son once he reached adulthood (4). Thus it appears that Tibetans held some notion of reincarnation, which would have made the Buddhist notion more accessible.

The idea of a perpetual reincarnated ruler also holds some striking, though perhaps indirect, parallels to the institution of reincarnated lamas. The practice of recognizing the reincarnation of Buddhist leaders seems to have arisen in the late twelfth century and became more widespread during the thirteenth century (McCleary 22). By the fourteenth century, the recognition of reincarnated lamas had spread across all Buddhist schools (Lopez, “Introduction” 22). These reincarnated leaders are viewed as the emanation bodies of buddhas who have complete control over their conditions of rebirth, thus loosely approximating the role of divine kingship (23). Such approximation becomes more precise when a reincarnated lama also holds political power. The first such lama was the Fourth Zhamar of the Kagyü school, who was installed as regent of Tibet in 1493 and ruled until 1524 (McCleary 23). In the early sixteenth century the Geluk school of Tibetan Buddhism established a line of reincarnation that in 1578 gained the title of Dalai Lama (24-6). In 1642, the Fifth Dalai Lama gained political control over Tibet after decades of civil war and claimed descent from Tibet’s ancient rulers (29). Thus was establish a new line of holy kings whose essence was continually reborn in their successors. This line would rule Tibet until the nation was invaded by China in 1951, deposing the Fourteenth Dalai Lama (Mitchell 185).

There are other ancient beliefs and practices that, although they may lack the profound impact of those discussed above, continue to influence Tibetan Buddhism. One of these is the belief in the la, the soul or life-force of a person. The la is able to leave the body and inhabit animals, plants, and objects such as stones, pieces of turquoise, and even mountains or lakes. If a person’s la leaves him, it can lead to illness or insanity. However, if the la resided in the person and external objects simultaneously, such an arrangement could help to preserve one’s life. Still if any abode of the la is harmed the person to whom that la belongs may likewise feel ill effects (Lopez, “Introduction” 5). Another is the smoke purification ritual, where fragrant wood, most often juniper, is burned and deities are invited to descend by way of the smoke and are praised (Nalanda Translation Committee 401). Everyday rituals such as those to exercise a spirit responsible for gossip, may also be traceable back to ancient Tibetan practices (Kapstein, “Gossip” 527).

All of this is not to say that Buddhism in Tibet is merely a veneer over ancient practices. Many Buddhist teachers and a vast body of Buddhist writings were imported into Tibet from India and have had a profound impact on the beliefs and practices of Buddhists in Tibet (Lopez, “Introduction” 10-11). Tibetans, excluding the Bön, emphasize the importance of Buddhism’s Indian origin and its correct transmission by tracing the lineages of their teachings back to India through a succession of gurus (Lopez, “Introduction” 15). The roots of Buddhism in Tibet are deep and there is little reason to see Tibetan Buddhism as any less Buddhist than that practiced in China, Japan, Korea, or Southeast Asia. But to ignore the influence of traditional religion on Tibetan Buddhism would mean disregarding many of the historical elements that make Tibetan Buddhism distinct from other forms as well as the remarkable vitality of Tibet’s indigenous traditions. In the end it is clear that Tibetan Buddhism is not only authentically Buddhist, it is also authentically Tibetan.

Continue reading

Ancient Present: The Influence of Indigenous Traditions on Tibetan Buddhism (Part. 2)

This is the second part of a three part series. If you’ve missed it, it’s best to begin at part one.

Another aspect of early Tibetan culture and religion that appears to have carried over into Tibetan Buddhism is the importance of ancestry and family lineage. In Buddhist Tibet kinship was the basic form of social organization, so much so that monks maintained close ties with their families, even continuing to participate in family life to a limited extent (McCleary 17). Modern anthropological evidence suggests such emphasis on kinship has pre-Buddhist origins. Eva K. Dargyay identified traces of such early beliefs among Tibetans in the Zanskar mountains of northeast India in the late 1970s (123). Dargyay identified Zanskar as likely being part of the ancient kingdom of Zhang Zhung, which was conquered by Tibet in the seventh century C. E. and eventually became predominately Tibetan (124). The isolation of Zanskar allowed it to avoid full Buddhist acculturation (126). Families in Zanskar group themselves into rus pa, all individuals who can trace their lineage back to a single male ancestor, and pha spun, members of a rus pa plus the wives of male members. Each rus pa worships a family god or goddess without bodily form that is believed to watch over the family and their property (127). Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf identified similar practices among the Sherpa of the Khumbu region of Nepal, formerly a part of Tibet in 1953 (49). The Sherpa, who practiced Tibetan Buddhism, also revered clan and family gods, as well as the mountain deity Khumbe-yül-lha, to whom they dedicated yaks (49-50). Yaks, once dedicated to Khumbe-yül-lha or another god could not be sold, slaughtered, or shorn, although females may still be milked (49). The clan gods, although identified with a specific locale, were worshiped by clan members even if they left that locale (50). The family gods of the Sherpa are known as lu, serpant gods, and correspond with ancient Tibetan lu, dragon-serpants that dwelt in water and clouds ( Fürer-Haimendorf 50, Kornman 82). When a son left his parents’ house for his own, he would ask the family lu to reside with him as well as his parents (Fürer-Haimendorf 50). he clan and familial gods of the Zanskari and Sherpa are, like Kirkland’s sacred landmarks, closely linked with ancestral lines.

The modern Sherpa practice of dedicating yaks to Khumbe-yül-lha is in line with traditional Tibetan reverence for yaks. According to the early histories of China’s Tang Dynasty, Tibetans showed hospitality by hosting meals of yak (Bushell 441). Stanley J. Olsen has noted that yaks played an important part in ancient Tibetan religion (84, 86). Olsen also discuses the importance of the yak in Tibetan Buddhism, noting that their horns and hair, along with yak-head masks, play various roles among shamans and monks (85-6). The continuity between pre-Buddhist and Buddhist reverence for yaks in Tibet can be seen in a Bön death ritual written in the early nineteenth century, which includes the passage:

The divine yak, king of knowledge (rig pa), is presented.

Having proceeded along the path to liberation to the end,
It quickly reaches the field of great happiness,
And having obtained the absolute body (bon sku)
Original buddhahood is obtained (ye sangs rgyas). (Kværne 497).

This invocation of the yak not only links back to pre-Buddhist funerary practices, but links it directly to the goal of buddhahood (495).

Continue with part three of this three part series.