A physicist loose among the liberal arts

The Opposite of Amenity

In which a linguistic conspiracy is uncovered, and thwarted.

Lyman Stone used the word “disamenities” (in reference to hurricane destruction on Puerto Rico) because he needed an antonym for “amenity”. There’s got to be a better word for that, but one doesn’t come immediately to mind. Why isn’t there a word for things that are the opposite of amenities? We certainly seem to have enough of them around. Do we never talk about them? (My twitter feed indicates otherwise.)

Webster defines amenity as “The quality of being pleasant or agreeable, whether in respect to situation, climate, manners, or disposition; pleasantness; civility; suavity; gentleness.” and derives it from the Latin amoenus. What’s the opposite of amoenus? My command of Latin is is ineffectual as my command of cats, so let’s go look at the French. There’s no cognate term in French for “amenity” that won’t make you sound funny, but a good French word for “pleasant” is agréable, for which the antonym is fâcheux. Fâcheux comes from the Latinfastidium”. The etymology for fastidium in Wiktionary is so good, I’m going to assume it’s true. Apparently portmanteau words pre-date Lewis Carroll by millennia. (Not to mention portmanteaux.) Much as I’d like to grab the Latin term directly, doctors already use it as a term for picky eaters, so that’s out.

But hello! The French dictionary only cites uses of fâcheux going back to the 16th Century. There’s a note at the bottom of that page: “Nevertheless it’s astonishing that fâcher, which, if it comes from the Provençal fastigar is certainly a very old word, doesn’t appear in any older texts.” For a long time, French people didn’t have the word I’m looking for, either. Except that can’t be true.  The French of the Middle Ages must have complained about adversity as much as they do now. The difference is that only a small fraction of them could write. Did medieval monks make a conscious effort to assert that nice things are the normal state of the world, so that we only talk about bad things with a negative prefix? Are we still stuck in that frame of mind? This is Newspeak to me: double-plus ungood.

To fill in this lacuna, let us turn to the esteemed language scholar B. Baggins, late of Rivendell, who knew some things about adverse influences on economics and demography. The antonym of “amenity” should be “calamity”.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Fictional Genres

Olga’s latest essay at Middle Earth Reflections is about escape. As usual, it got me thinking. The way Tolkien and Lewis thought of escape, it’s necessary for modern people. The modern world delivers material benefit on a scale that would have been unimaginable even three hundred years ago, but it comes at a social cost – we all have our little boxes, and we have to stay in them or the system grinds to a halt. People want to expand themselves. They “don’t want to play the part of a statistic on a government chart” [1]. We don’t like being confined, no matter how well it pays, so “escape” is now (more or less) recognized as a legitimate desire, and a (more or less) valid purpose for literature.

But what about life before the industrial revolution overthrew the tyranny of Malthusian economics?  We can get an idea from folklore: many fairy tales involve people doing extraordinary things to get food. Children in mid-twentieth-century America had trouble understanding why, if someone offered to grant a character any wish they could think of, they’d ask for a roasted goose. Chapter 1 of Robert Darnton’s book The Great Cat Massacre [2] explains why: People were starving. Literally, the best thing they could think of was a decent meal.

Darnton isn’t the first to say that. Here’s Abraham Maslow: “Another peculiar characteristic of the human organism when it is dominated by a certain need is that the whole philosophy of the future tends also to change. For our chronically and extremely hungry man, Utopia can be defined very simply as a place where there is plenty of food.” [3]

Maslow's hierarchy of Needs

Hierarchy of Needs (1943)

Which brings us to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  (You only need to read that link if your boss has never hired a management consultant – to everyone else it’s a cliché.) It seems relevant to the classification of fiction into genres.  Hypothesis: Escapism is an important part of all fiction; different genres appeal to readers whose needs are at different levels.

Tolkien gave us the top of the pyramid. Darnton gave us the bottom. What about the rest of the levels of the hierarchy?

The second level from the bottom is “safety”. According to the hypothesis, there should be a literary genre in which people whose safety isn’t assured can read about characters who are threatened, but manage to triumph and find safety at the end. There is no difficulty finding two: Mysteries and thrillers fit the bill exactly. They are, respectively, #3 and #4 on the sales list. Nothing can be done for the corpses in Chapter 1 of those books, but the protagonist escapes danger with reassuring frequency.  “Escape” is literal, in most cases.

The third level up is “love”. (Most updates to Maslow’s work say “social” here, but I shall stick to the original term because we’re talking about “social science”, and “social” is too weak a word to do double duty. “Love” is not. Like Maslow’s, my readers all know how many definitions the word “love” has.) It is easy to find genres here, too. Romance novels are #2 on the list of best-selling categories of fiction for adults. I’m going to put bibles here, too. They’re #1 of all kinds of books ever sold. It’s a bit of a stretch, because bibles generally go under non-fiction (despite the unicorns). However, etymologically, religions exist for the purpose of forming a community; books are an important part of that; and they fit the hypothesis so well that I can’t pass them up.

For those whose physiological needs are met, who have a safe place to exist, and are solidly placed in a group, the next level of need is for “esteem”. Originally, status within the group was the focus. Now, self-esteem is added to this category. At this point an Idiosopher might get into trouble: Are “novels” genre fiction? The 19th Century novels, from Jane Austen onwards, which caused the form to have its enormous impact on culture, are about little else than the pursuit of social status. In the more egotistical 20th Century, self-esteem joined the more venerable pursuit. General Fiction, or as I think of it “Muggle Fiction”, is #1 on the sales list. If it didn’t provide entertainment featuring characters finally getting the esteem they deserve, there would be large gaps on those shelves.

At the top of the pyramid is “Self-actualization” which is where we started. Fantasy and fiction (to a great extent) contain a strong streak of self-actualization, providing escape from the confinement of the bureaucratic economy. Role-playing games have become so popular that they belong here, too, though that would involve jumping over to a different medium.

So, what is left?  According to this hypothesis, most lines on the Publishers’ Weekly chart can be filled in immediately.

Rank Genre Maslow Level
1 General Fiction Esteem
2 Romance Love
3 Suspense/Thrillers Safety
4 Mystery/Detective Safety
5 Graphic Novels (multiple)
6 Classics (multiple)
7 Fantasy Self-Actualization
8 Science Fiction Self-Actualization
9 Religion Love
10 Action Adventure Safety
11 Occult/Psychological/Horror Safety
12 Western (multiple)

There is no prose genre that doesn’t fit into one of the levels of Maslow’s hierarchy.  The hypothesis holds up well.  The lines marked “multiple” are due to Publishers’ Weekly breaking up books by how to sell them, not by their literary characteristics.  Graphic Novels and Classics can have any kind of thematic content. They could easily be separated into the other classifications.  Westerns are the same, though I’d bet the vast majority are actually thrillers.  Westerns used to be much more popular.  They’re down to about 1% of sales now, and I doubt they’ll exist as a separate genre much longer.


Other people have added other levels to the hierarchy since 1943. I think they’re not so well justified as the original five. Maslow himself suggested there might be other levels, but I’ve stuck with the basics. Except this one, which has a deep ring of truth and should not be missed.

Social-science experimentation in the 1940s wasn’t so bland and statistical as it is today. Maslow, speculating on a possible experimental test of the second tier of the pyramid, suggested: “…the child might be confronted with an exploding firecracker…”  I’d love to see how the Institutional Review Board responded to that proposal.

Works Cited

[1] Sting,“Invisible Sun”, Ghost in the Machine, 1981.

[2] Darnton, Robert. The Great Cat Massacre and other episodes in French cultural history. Basic Books, 1984.

[3] Maslow, A. H., “A Theory of Human Motivation”, Psychological Review, 50, p. 370-396, 1943.

What the One Ring Does

If you believe Peter Jackson, the Ring doesn’t do much of anything. It’s just a MacGuffin. With the Ring, someone who’s a hundred feet tall can knock down dozens of soldiers with one sweep of a thirty-foot mace, but I’m pretty sure I could do that without a Ring. (It’s all in the wrists.) The Ring blurs your vision and fills your ears with voices, which seems counterproductive when you’re trying to rule an evil empire. It enables you to see Ringwraiths, but who would want to?

The cost of Ringlessness

So what does the Ring actually do? We can try to figure that out by looking for things that only happened because Sauron didn’t have it. Here are a few:

The Nazgûl aren’t very effective, without their Lord

When the Black Riders split up they can scare people, but they can’t accomplish much useful. Granted, there is power working against them in the Shire, but it would have to be stronger than the military of Gondor to neutralize the Nazgûl to that extent, and I don’t think it is. Besides, the Riders seem kind of disorganized. The One Ring may be the only channel of control that works on all nine of their rings.

Saruman attacked Rohan too soon

Time to take another swipe at Peter Jackson. Saruman in his movie is a willing slave of Sauron, which makes his attack on Rohan ridiculous. If he’d held off a week,  until about March 8, the Rohirrim would have still been pinned down in Helm’s Deep as the gates of Minas Tirith were shattered. War over.

In the book, this makes perfect sense. Saruman thinks he’s an independent agent, pursuing his own ends. I can’t find any evidence that he knows Sauron’s timetable for the attack on Gondor. Sauron can’t give him a direct order without revealing his dominance, which would provoke some kind of resistance. Considering the distance and Saruman’s considerable power, resistance could have done quite a bit of damage to Sauron’s plans. All this is because Sauron doesn’t have his Ring. With the Ring, Saruman’s own ring would have bound him to Sauron’s will, with no need to keep up a pretense, and the synchronized attacks on Gondor and Rohan would have been devastating.

The fight among the orcs in the Tower of Cirith Ungol

Sam called it “lucky” that Shagrat’s and Gorbag’s forces wiped each other out, so we should keep an eye out for the hand of Providence. And everything worked out so neatly that it must have been there, but in this case it’s hardly needed. The natural centrifugal instincts of Orcs aren’t held in check by the Ring (even though it’s just a few feet away). A bit of “binding” would have kept the lines of command clear, and made sure that either Shagrat or Gorbag would have known to shut up and obey.

The chaotic orders Shagrat gets from Lugbúrz

Look at this mess:

“Any trespasser found by the guard is to be held at the tower. Prisoner is to be stripped. Full description of every article, garment, weapon, letter, ring, or trinket is to be sent to Lugbúrz at once, and to Lugbúrz only. And the prisoner is to be kept safe and intact, under pain of death for every member of the guard, until He sends or comes Himself.”

VI, i.

Shagrat’s reporting path upwards goes through the bureaucracy of Barad-dûr, but the path back down does not. This is a recipe for disaster: the middle-managers aren’t kept apprised of the actions at the top, so who knows what they’ll screw up, even if they’re following orders to the letter.

Let’s put these together into an Orc Chart. This graphic shows a disaster waiting to happen. Shagrat has three directions from which orders can arrive; that’s the obvious point of failure of this organization.  (JRRT’s military experience shows up again.) The Nazgûl don’t have any lines between their boxes. If I were Lord of the Nazgûl, I’d have designated two deputies, with three wraiths reporting to each one. Put one team at each Bree-gate, and LotR ends in Chapter 11. The green boxes are characters called “lieutenant”. Not very similar roles. The Ring can be thought of as a set of command and control channels among the characters that clear up that disorderly network.

organization chart of forces of Mordor

Organization of Morgul & Cirith Ungol Divisions

Looking for the Ring in our world

From the 1950s through the 1970s, people who were looking for real-world analogues of the Ring usually thought of the atomic bomb. I was never comfortable with that because of one salient feature of the Ring: when it’s destroyed, Sauron will fall. This was a very puzzling thing to a teen-aged first-time reader. What kind of tool or weapon reduces its user to nothingness when it’s taken away? Stephen Winter wrote an essay recently about Sauron’s project, which gets at that important point.

Stephen reminds us that Sauron can not create. He calls Sauron a “false maker” (which seems to be a deliberate counterpoint to the word “sub-creator”). Previously in the history of Middle-Earth, Sauron had worked via the psychology of individuals. He was effective at sowing discord, but it didn’t help him build an empire of evil because it generally led to the destruction of the place he was working in. He needed something more tangible for his attempt to conquer and hold the world. But what tangible thing is available to a false maker? Sauron found the loophole: organizing is not creating. Matter can be rearranged almost indefinitely without overstepping any bounds. In particular, people and things can be arranged into a hierarchy.

A hierarchy is a tremendous tool for multiplying the force of a leader. In the mid-twentieth century, it reached a peak of implementation in Nazi Germany, Stalin’s Soviet Union, and Mao’s China. In fact, the word “totalitarian” could be defined as a state that allows no interactions among its citizens outside the hierarchy. There’s a pattern here. I am reminded of the comment by a (probably apocryphal) German officer in World War 2: “The reason the Americans do so well in war is that war is chaos, and Americans practice chaos every day.” The forces of the West in Middle Earth are the same way. If there’s any clear path of authority across the races, it’s hard to see. This came up in the comments at Middle-Earth Reflections, a while back. Leadership among Elves and post-Numenoreans is a matter of personal relationships between a commander and the troops. (Éowyn: “They go only because they would not be parted from thee — because they love thee.” V, ii) It’s not a hierarchy, or any kind of structure you can draw on a PowerPoint chart.

To make a hierarchy work, though, the boss has to pay a price. He has to delegate both authority or responsibility. Or, in Ring-terms, “let a great part of his former power pass into it.” (I, ii). The hierarchy can be turned against the boss, or if it’s destroyed the boss finds himself sitting at a desk, with a dead telephone, commanding nothing. Powerless.


Organization was missing in the First Age, so it’s what Sauron added when he set up on his own. Hierarchy is the key, a thing Morgoth never had. Théoden King of Rohan had more levels of structure in a 6,000-man (ok, 5998-man) detachment than you can find mentioned in the entire Silmarillion. For us in the Information Age, the closest thing to the Ring is not a weapon, it’s a hierarchical org chart.

My Favorite Bookstore 

Whenever I’m in Paris…  OK, that sounds really pretentious, so let me make it clear that a “trip to Paris” for me means that I’m in France visiting my in-laws, and I’ve escaped from their house in the suburbs for a day. Still, going to Paris is always awesome. Everybody should do it as often as they can.

At the end of a day pretending I’m a flâneur, I always arrange to wind up at my favorite bookstore, “L’Écume des Pages” on the Boulevard St. Germain. Don’t bother trying to translate the name – it doesn’t mean anything without you have read a book called L’Écume des Jours by Boris Vian If you like beatnik surrealism, I highly recommend that.  Come to think of it, that website is lame.  Listen to this instead.  (Lyrics in English here, but they should have said “systematically” where they said “automatically”.)

Anyway, this is my haul from my latest trip:

Books purchased on my latest trip


Learn to Philosophize with Bourdieu, by Adelino Braz; Vian and ‘Pataphysics by Thieri Foulc & Paul Gayot; and The Roman Empire through its Menus, by Dmitri Tilloi D’Ambrosi.  Bourdieu may have said the most intelligent things of anyone we had to read in the Literary Theory course I took last winter, but he writes in such an elevated style that I’m grateful to have a pedestrian commentary to clarify exactly what he was talking about.  The ‘Pataphysicians are always fascinating. They appear to be doing nothing but jerking people’s chains, but underneath may be completely serious. And I always love to read about ancient Rome. I could never pass up a book that contains a recipe for rose petals with fish sauce.

The Physics of Street Signs

There are little jokes about science all over the roads in France. I have no idea whether they’re intentional or not.

Last week I was gallivanting around Provence.  I know; somebody’s got to do the dirty jobs, right? On the departmental routes (like state roads in the USA), there are little rest areas where you can pull off. Like on the New Jersey Turnpike, they’re named in honor of people. They aren’t symmetrical, the way Americans do them. Instead, the northbound rest area ends where the southbound begins.

french rest areas look like sine waves

Rest areas on french country roads

The result is that the areas look like a sine wave.  On the road through the Camargue, one of them, to my delight, was named “de Broglie“. If we consider the rest area as a quantum-mechanical system, estimate its wavelength, and use de Broglie’s formula to calculate its momentum, the number will come out to be unmeasurably tiny.  That’s good; we want civil-engineering projects to stay where we put them.

map to the Parking Lagrange

Parking garage on the Rue Lagrange, Paris Vme

Once a person with a couple of years of physics is sensitized to them, these little landmark jokes appear with suspicious frequency.  The first one I noticed was a parking garage called “Lagrange”.  Makes perfect sense, since it’s on the Rue Lagrange in Paris. But you don’t even have to formally study physics in this case.  Just read enough science-fiction, and you’ll know the Lagrange points by heart.

Also, the Rue Coriolis is a one-way street, running counter-clockwise around a big apartment building.  As it must, since it’s in the northern hemisphere.

Am I just imagining there’s a pattern here? Probably.  But the elves distinguish two things that English calls “hope”.  Amdir is when you express a desire that some event with a calculable probability will come out in your favor. Estel is when you’re expressing faith in the divinely-ordained course of the universe. The modern world doesn’t have much call for estel, usually. But that’s exactly the word for my hope that somewhere there’s a civil engineer doing these on purpose.

The Song of the Digital Humanists

To the same tune as “Errantry”:

Plucking the Canard

As much as I respect Alan and Shawn at The Prancing Pony Podcast, I have to warn people when we can’t trust them.  Life in France is one of those times.  In their first episode on The Hobbit they repeated the slanderous canard that you can’t get a glass of ice water in a French café.

Your Idiosopher is not one to duck the obligation to give back to the community of scholars, so here’s how you do it.

The cheapest thing on the menu in most any bar is an apéritif called “pastis”.  Maybe it goes under a brand name like Ricard or Pernod or 51. It’s anise flavored, tastes like licorice. Most people don’t like it, but that’s not important right now. What’s important is that you drink it with ice cubes and water. At expensive bars, it comes with a carafe of ice.  Even in the cheapest dives, the waiter will bring you a glass full of ice cubes with a tablespoon of liqueur in it, and a pitcher of water. Pour the pastis into the gutter, pour the water over the ice, and you’re back in America for five minutes.

Pitcher of ice water, also pastis

You see? Told you!

I suppose you could try telling them to “hold the pastis”. I never tried that, because I actually like the stuff. It’s a working-class drink, totally unfashionable. My father-in-law laughed for years at the sight of me drinking like a retired plumber, because he didn’t understand the true objective of the exercise.

The Agony of the Failed Archivist

One of the strangest things about last winter’s course in literary Research Methods was the citations in the reading assignments.

Back in the 1980s I subscribed to a bunch of magazines of politics and ideas: The Nation, Harper’s, The Atlantic (it was on the left back then), In These Times, Utne Reader…. All of these magazines had a section in the back entitled something like “Books and the Arts”. I would read the articles if they were talking about an author or a subject that interested me. I would just skim the ones that devoted half their column-inches to hashing out arguments so obscure that even the writers seemed to have to make an effort to care.

All that remains of the glory of old

I thought I was making a gigantic intellectual swerve when I decided to start studying literature, so it was a surprise to see that half the references in the reading assignments were to magazine issues that I’d read, and in some cases even vaguely remembered. All the back issues used to be piled up in a precarious stack at the end of the sofa, where I could refer back to them easily. (I even had a minor triumph one time, when a dispute about the price of anti-matter came up in the conversation and I was able to grab the relevant article out of Physics Today in one minute. It was only about 16 inches down.)

I’ve moved three times since then, and the Army proverb is true: “3 moves = 1 fire”. Besides, my wife had some concerns about that style of decorating. And ce que la femme veut, Dieu le veut, as they say down at the Farm Supply.

So this week’s project had me reading an article about William Gibson and his relationship to postmodernism, which referred the reader to an article in In These Times in 1988. Alas, the ITT online archive goes back only to 2001, so I can’t track down the reference without a library. It’s frustrating — I know I used to have that issue!

I wonder if medieval Scholastics, trying to track down a quotation from some ancient Greek, ever had the same feeling.

Tolkien meets the Oulipo

An Epitome of the Idiosophical method

(The core of Idiosophy is that the idiosopher can be misinformed and incorrect at every step in a logical process, and still arrive at a meaningful conclusion.) Our starting point is an earlier post, on which Tom commented, wondering what the “Ents’ Marching Song” would sound like in Latin.

1. The riposte humorous:  Hexameters! Longfellowish sprawling hexameters.

2. Noticing a flaw in the joke: Wait, no. Archy the cockroach liked hexameters because he had six feet. Ents all have two feet.

3. Transfiguration: But ents have lots of toes. Ent-latin should have big feet with lots of syllables.

4. Observation: They do. The first line is definitely one long foot. I suppose it’s possible to argue that the second line is a jumble of small troches and dactyls, or maybe iambs and anapests with stray syllables at either end, but that’s not how I hear it.

In the willow-meads of Tasarinan I walked in the spring.
Ah, the sight and the smell of the spring in Nan-Tasarion!

LotR, III, iv

5. Following the thought wherever: How could we construct a sound-pattern for big feet that makes them into poetry? Alliteration is matching the sound at the beginning of the foot. Rhyme is matching the sound at the end. If we’re just using iambs and troches, rhyme and alliteration are our only choices. With big feet, though, we have the possibility of matching sounds elsewhere. That would be a novel poetic structure!  Dactyls have three syllables. Can we match the middle consonant?

6. Noticing that someone smarter is ‘way ahead of me:  “Errantry” has lots of that kind of central sound-match. It’s neither rhyme nor alliteration, but my ears enjoy it the same way.

he built a gilded gondola
to wander in and had in her
a load of yellow oranges
and porridge for his provender…

The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, 3.

7. The unexpected arrival:  J.R.R. Tolkien was a Modernist writer, and “the most striking element of modernist poetry is the invention and experimentation of new modes of expression.” This is what my heroes in the Oulipo are interested in, too.  This is derived from a root as mathematical as any of their self-imposed constraints.

Up at the top of the page, I promised a meaningful conclusion.  Coincidentally, Dimitra Fimi just published an essay in the Times Literary Supplement about world-building.  She points out that writing speculative fiction is about creating a different set of rules from those we see in the world around us, and writing your story in strict adherence to those rules.  But, she says, that’s exactly what the Oulipians do, except they’re doing it at the level of the text, while fantasy and science-fiction writers do it at the level of the story. So it’s entirely reasonable that JRRT was doing this on purpose,working on both levels at once.

Hazards of French Châteaux

Alan Coren (1938-2007) wrote some of the funniest things I’ve ever read.  I first encountered him when my mother went on vacation to England and brought me back a copy of an issue of Punch as a souvenir.  That magazine is awfully moldy and tattered now, but Coren’s column is still legible.

I’ve bought every book by Alan Coren that I’ve been able to find, over the years.  That includes a copy of Golfing for Cats that was never published in the USA; I found it in an antiques store in Palm Springs.  None of them contains the article that introduced me to Coren.  Some entrepreneurs have acquired the Punch archives, but they’re only interested in selling the cartoons.

So I’ve rescued “And a Gray Dawn Breaking…” here, under the “20th Century Paleography” rubric.

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