A physicist loose among the liberal arts

Month: March 2016

Taking the Plunge

The post on using a British GIS to learn things about hobbits attracted so much positive attention (42 inbound links!) that I’ve decided to turn it into a serious paper.  I’m stunned – given the obscure topic, my expectations for the whole blog were more like “42 page views”.

One drawback is that I don’t yet know what the paper will be about. But Idiosophers are nothing if not data-driven, so I shall start collecting correlations, and we shall go where the numbers take us.

Things I’ll keep my eye on, in case one turns into the topic:

  • From the definition of “subcreation” [1], Middle-Earth is dependent on the real Earth.  Therefore, studies of the created world can cast light on the subcreated world.
  • A teenager picking up LotR today bears the same chronological relationship to it that I bore to Sherlock Holmes.  In 15 years, it’ll be like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Some things that were obvious to JRRT’s intended readership are going to need footnotes, before long.
  • Did hobbit names convey meaning?  Some of them are obvious short-jokes, and others are bragging about living in holes.  What are the rest?  Names are definitely important to JRRT.  Can we tease out the implications this way?

To-do list:

  1. Figure out how to assess the importance of a character to the story.
  2. Separate the good guys from the bad guys.  Or, rather, come up with a sensible categorization.
  3. Define a relationship between the Shire and Britain.
  4. Pick out from the data particular stories to tell.

Once that is done, we can identify the topic.  Statistical methods will not be required, since I’m going to use every hobbit I can find.  As statisticians say, “n=all”.

[1] Ordinarily I would include a link here, but none is available.  Sub-sacroiliac pain from copyright law is Tolkien’s wyrd, even beyond the grave. [back]

Renfield ate beetles, right?

Bless that good, good woman who hung the crucifix round my neck! for it is a comfort and a strength to me whenever I touch it. It is odd that a thing which I have been taught to regard with disfavour and as idolatrous should in a time of loneliness and trouble be of help.

Bram Stoker, Dracula, ch. 3

To which I compare,

When I find myself in times of trouble,
Mother Mary comes to me, …

Paul McCartney, “Let It Be”

I’m going to assume that this is just a coincidence.  I will keep it in mind, though, when I listen to experts in natural-language processing tout their skills at making connections between texts.

Relative Importance of Hobbit Families

Since it got such a positive response, I’m trying to turn the GIS distribution of names in Britain into a piece of real scholarship.  The first step is collecting and classifying Hobbit names.

Shortly after I started doing that, I was forcibly reminded that some characters just aren’t as important as others. Names that get mentioned a single time won’t be as carefully managed as those of more-important characters (even by JRRT), so they should carry less weight.  I’ll need some kind of quantitative measure for the concept of “importance”.  Searching about the Web for an hour produced nothing.  I see plenty of syllabuses from digital-humanities courses that ought to use such a thing, but no explicit references.  Perhaps it’s too trivial for them to mention. That’s an opportunity: What could be more appropriate for this blog than something too trivial for professors?  Onward!

Principles for quantitative importance of a character:

  1. A character must have a positive number of mentions in the story.  In most books, this would be a trivial requirement, but not in LotR.  There are lots of hobbits who are mentioned only in family trees in the Appendices.  I don’t know enough about them to say anything, so they get dropped.
  2. The difference between being mentioned on one page and being mentioned on ten is a big deal.  The difference between being mentioned on 10 pages and 11 is not so big.  The difference between 10 pages of mentions and 100 is a big deal, comparable to that between 1 and 10.

These two principles are just the definition of a multiplicative scale, like we use for sound.  It would be funny to express importance of characters in units of dBfrodo, but a proper solemnity dictates that we use a more information-theoretic definition:  the importance of a character will be the log2 of the number of pages on which that character is mentioned.  The page mentions are from the index of the 2002 single-volume edition of LotR from Houghton-Mifflin-Harcourt.

Hobbit families by importance: histogram

Fig. 1:Distribution of importance of hobbit families

For hobbit families in The Lord of the Rings, the distribution of importance looks like Figure 1. There are 28 family names mentioned in the story. Four are mentioned much more frequently than the others, which is reassuring.

There is a group of families that are mentioned only once. A larger group is mentioned thrice.  This is due to the repetition for comic effect of the list of Bilbo’s relatives at the Long-Expected Party.  Then there is a smaller group of hobbits who appear on dozens of pages.  These can be good guys or bad guys. [1]

Log plot of importance of families

Fig. 2 Family names ranked by mentions

On the far right are Baggins, Gamgee, Took, and Brandybuck, as expected.  Figure 2 is an attempt to reconcile my desire for a density graph like Figure 1 with the fact that logarithms don’t really mesh well with histograms.  The left-right position is the number of pages, the vertical position of the name is that family’s position in the bin in Figure 1.

I think this measure of importance will work.  It emphasizes the right things:  Farmer Cotton is “the chief person around here”, and his family duly shows up near the top.  It de-emphasizes the right things: Merry gets mentioned about 40% less than Pippin, but that washes out if importance is quoted with no fractional part.  Hobbits who barely exist at all, such as a few families in Bree whose only significance is that there are similar names in the Shire, have zero importance.

[1] Sauron is mentioned on 273 pages, which makes him two notches worse than the Sackville-Bagginses.[back]

Dark Side of the Rainbow for Inklings Nerds

Just listened to Sørina’s lecture on little loosed dragons, and then played “Synchronicity” by the Police. The result was a fascinating experience in parallels.

  • Scientifically-dubious, early-twentieth-century Weltanschauung? Check.
  • A #1 hit single about co-inherence? Check.
  • Auto-intertextuality? Check.
  • A baffling hypotext?  Check.
  • Dangerous giant reptiles? Check.

And, in a tour de force of seizing control of meaning from the author, I have always thought Miss Gradenko worked at the N.I.C.E., and C.S. Lewis left her out of That Hideous Strength because he didn’t have the chops to cover the electric guitar part properly.

P.S. For what it’s worth, I think Genette’s definition of “intertextuality” is useless.  If  I were going to define a sub-class of literature, I’d try to think of something that excluded at least one book. When anything that uses words is intertextual, why not just say “literary”?

P.P.S. The part where Prof. Higgins says the text isn’t really layered, but is actually woven of lots of threads — <dadjoke> you mean it’s a textile? </dadjoke>

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