A physicist loose among the liberal arts

Author: Joe (Page 1 of 8)

Sing along with LotR

Lots of people have been talking about the poems in Tolkien’s works lately.  I think Olga started it, with a characteristically delightful discussion of elf-song in The Hobbit.  Alan of The Prancing Pony Podcast has posted a pondering about “The Road Goes Ever On”.  On Twitter, Olga and I discovered that we both sing the poems, though not out loud if anyone else can hear.

Here are some of the tunes I use, for the sake of provoking argument.  They’re arranged in order of increasing embarrassment at my congenital lack of solemnity.

Hymn to Elbereth: Princess Leia’s Theme

The tempo fits. It doesn’t feel wrong to stretch the name “Elbereth” over half a measure. And I love the idea of elf-voices as french horns.

Bombadil’s Song against the Barrow Wights: Estuans interius

From Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana.  Of course everything Tom says can be sung to the same tune, and I love Morwen Thorongil’s composition for when he’s in a good mood.  But when Bombadil is out to destroy, he needs something darker.  Strangely enough, the 12th-Century satirist Walter of Châtillon who wrote “Estuans Interius” was like old Tom, in that he used the same meter for almost everything.

Errantry: Sir Arthur Sullivan’s The Major General’s Aria

from Pirates of Penzance, of course. You can use this for “Earendil was a Mariner” too, with a little twisting, but it doesn’t work so well.

Legolas’s song of Nimrodel: “Nadine”

Corey Olsen likes to take a line from Legolas’s song as an example of a perfect line of iambic meter:

Amroth beheld the fading shore / Now low beyond the swell,
And cursed the faithless ship that bore / Him far from Nimrodel.

Against which I’d put Chuck Berry’s heptameters:

I saw her from the corner when she turned and doubled back
And started walkin’ toward a coffee-colored Cadillac

The worst of all: Namárië

Donald Swann did this as a chant straight out of a medieval cathedral, but my mind runs down different channels.

Ai! laurië lantar lassi súrinen (singin’ ooh wah diddy, diddy dum diddy do)
yéni únótimë ve rámar aldaron! (ooh wah diddy, diddy dum diddy do)
Yéni ve (yéni ve)
Lintë (lintë)
Yéni ve lintë yuldar avanier

and that’s when the paramedics arrived.

The Ideal Reader

Terry Eagleton doesn’t like his predecessors in the field of literary theory. I suspect this is because the word “theory” has so many definitions that it’s useless in this context, but more about that in a future post.  At the moment, I’d like to call attention to one of the daggers he sticks in the back of the Structuralists.

For the structuralists, the ‘ideal reader’ of a work was someone who would have at his or her disposal all of the codes which would render it exhaustively intelligible. The reader was thus just a kind of mirror—reflection of the work itself — someone who would understand it ‘as it was’. An ideal reader would need to be fully equipped with all the technical knowledge essential for deciphering the work, to be faultless in applying this knowledge, and free of any hampering restrictions. If this model was pressed to an extreme, he or she would have to be stateless, classless, ungendered, free of ethnic characteristics and without limiting cultural assumptions. It is true that one does not tend to meet many readers who fill this bill entirely satisfactorily, but the structuralists conceded that the ideal reader need not do anything so humdrum as actually exist.

Literary Theory, p.105

Submitted for your consideration:  We, here in the World Wide Web, and especially the teachers and students of the Mythgard Academy, are creating J.R.R. Tolkien’s ideal reader. Nowhere was it ever said that the reader had to be one person.  In fact, for most of history, that’s not what reading was.

Going down the list of criteria:

  • Equipped with technical knowledge? Check. At Tolkien conferences, I have met astronomers, botanists, classicists, doctors, economists, physicists (sorry, that’ll have to do for “F”), geographers, historians, idiosophers … And I’d bet a dollar there’s at least one zymurgist among us.
  • Faultless in applying our knowledge? Well, not at the first try, but we’re a group, and we point out faults and mend them together.
  • We are certainly stateless, in that we’ve got people from lots of countries within our ensemble.
  • We’re ungendered.  Groups don’t even have genders, per se.
  • Classless? In a purely Marxist sense, which is appropriate for Eagleton, we come mostly from the bourgeoisie, but I’m of solid proletarian stock. (I can’t be the only student who’s used both a manure fork and GoToWebinar within two hours, but I’m sure not all of us have.) In a more relevant American sense, there are several orders of magnitude of wealth between the students and the doctors and lawyers among us. Subjugation to class interests is not a problem.
  • Free of ethnic characteristics … maybe. I’ve never heard most of us mention their ethnicity. I know of seven or eight ethnicities, depending on whether you count Angles and Saxons as different. Anyway, though we’re reading books written with a specific ethnic purpose, everyone I’ve heard counts new ethnic perspectives as a win.
  • “Without limiting cultural assumptions.” This is one of those things that makes me wish that e-books came with a virtual author I could punch. We are all (1)reading books (2) written in the mid 20th Century (3) in English and (4) discussing them on the Internet. That’s a pretty narrow cultural slice. And the opinions of people who don’t do the first three things aren’t important to understanding the books.

Altogether, it is not true that I haven’t “met many readers who fill this bill.”  All the readers I’ve met, together, fill the bill quite well. So, a fig for the fatuous fulminations of Eagleton, to use George Starbuck’s excellent phrase.  We exist, and the new forms that the Academy are taking in the 21st Century are rendering Eagleton’s assertions obsolete.

Works Cited

Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Anniversary Edition. Blackwell Publishing, 2008.

The Defence of Sidney

Last week’s reading assignment for class included an unexpectedly entertaining essay: “The Defense of Poesy” by Sir Philip Sidney.  Sir Philip starts out with a thing that’s certain to win me over:  He runs down a list of the reasons people take up the study of science, music, mathematics, etc. … and he gets them right.  It’s not to be taken for granted that a poet will understand that.  But then we get to the fun parts.

First thing I loved:  Sidney spends a paragraph denouncing people who write with “painted affectation”, among whose sins are using too much alliteration (“coursing of a letter,” he calls it).  And the very next sentence he writes has six “p”-words in it!

But I would this fault were only peculiar to versifiers, and had not as large possession among prose-printers, and, which is to be marveled, among many scholars, and, which is to be pitied, among some preachers.

Second thing: He makes his case, and then finishes up the essay with a curse on anyone who doesn’t believe him.

…if you have so earth-creeping a mind that it cannot lift itself up to look to the sky of poetry, … thus much curse I must send you in the behalf of all poets:  while you live in love, and never get favor for lacking skill of a sonnet; and when you die, your memory die from the earth for want of an epitaph.

I think everyone should do this.   A curse on the unconvinced should be a formal part of academic writing, like a warrior’s boast in Anglo-Saxon, or invoking a Muse at the start of classical poems, or mentioning a season in a haiku.

But that’s not what this post is about.  This post is about Oscar Wilde’s famous epigram, “We are all in the gutter; some of us are looking at the stars.”  It turns out that I never understood that line. I was thinking of the gutter as where we habitually spend our time (“get your mind out of the gutter”).  Now I know that Wilde pinched that image from Sir Philip, who wrote, “But when by the balance of experience it was found that the astronomer, looking to the stars, might fall into a ditch …”.   Yeah, I’ve done that.  Of all the images used in Elizabethan literature, this one might have gained the most relevance for the XXI Century.  Were he writing today, Wilde might rather have said,

We are all in the gutter, but most of us were looking at our phones.

Computer Paleography

Olga has posted the second part of her exploration of the Sea, written with her usual élan.  I particularly liked the phrase “novel knowledge”. Invisible alliteration!

A word that jumped out at me was “sea-loathing”. I’ve never needed an antonym for “sea-longing” before, but if I need one in the future, I know now what to say.  Then I got to wondering if anyone has ever used that word before, so I asked my research assistant in Mountain View, CA.  The response was entertaining.

  • From the entry on St. Andrews in the Encyclopedia Britannica of 1888: “The golf links, which are considered the best in Scotland, and sealoathing attract many residents and visitors.”
  • From 1801, a book entitled Hints Designed to Promote Beneficence, Temperance, & Medical Science by John Coakley Lettsom, teaches us that “The great and opulent continually acknowledge the efficacy of Sea loathing.”

Umm, what?  Here’s the snippet from the Encyclopedia:

Mystery solved! Scanning those old books, sometimes a “b” looks like an “lo”.  Have pity on the poor scholar who one day tries to get that one straight in her head.

Let us close out this scholarly excursion with this thought from Lewis Carroll:

[The Snark has a] fondness for loathing machines,
Which it constantly carries about,
And believes that they add to the beauty of scenes —
A sentiment open to doubt.

Reading “The Craft of Research”

I am back in an English class, for the first time since 1979.  Signum University is running a class called “Research Methods”.  I signed up because I’m old. Two years ago I discovered that, although I was a state-of-the-art statistician in 1982, the things I know don’t count as knowing statistics any more.  The same thing may have happened here. And so it appears. Half the syllabus sounds like the first month or two of this blog. (Good – I’m not doing it wrong!) The other half is things I’ve never even thought of. (Better!)

One of the books they’re making us read is called The Craft of Research.  I like the word “craft” there. Research is not a science [1], and it would be pretentious to call it an art. It’s something in between. It’s an excellent book in almost all ways. My reactions to it alternated among “obviously – what else would one do?”; “have you been looking over my shoulder?”; and “wait – I thought I invented that!”  But there’s one point with which I must take issue.

Chapter 3 is an orc’s breakfast. Their guidance about doing research that doesn’t make people ask,”so what?” is to think on three levels:

  1. I am studying x,
  2. Because I want to find out y(x),
  3. Which will help the reader understand Important Thing z, of which y is an element.

They talk as if you do research by starting with your source of data.  I would have had no objection to this formulation in the 20th Century.  Now, though, this is the canonical drunk looking for his keys under the lamppost. In the age of Cheap Data it has become a trap.


Most people who like to talk about the leading edge of technical progress say “big data”, and justify its importance by telling stories of google searches and flu outbreaks. But when you ask them the most basic question, “How big is it?”, you find that they aren’t all talking about the same thing. There’s one definition I actually like: “Big data is big enough that it won’t fit on a single machine — which means you need to use specialized tools to muck with it.”  Readers of this blog know how much I like Wikipedia, but in this case they let me down: “Big data is a term for data sets that are so large or complex that traditional data processing applications are inadequate to deal with them.” (They then go on to list the same jobs everybody has ever had with collecting measurements of any kind.)  People who sell storage and processing power like to brag that what you’re thinking of won’t challenge their machines.  I have a certain affection for the smartass response:  “If you have to ask this question, your amount of data isn’t that big 🙂 …”.  But there’s no way to argue that the term is well defined.  That’s why, instead, I say “cheap data”.  That’s what it really is.  Anyone who’s ever assembled a large set of measurements by hand knows exactly what I mean.

End Digression

The world is now full of databases.  I work with dozens of people who build and maintain them.  For them, Step 1 is a given.  They’re studying their database because that’s what they do.  Why anyone should care is above their pay grade.  When I’m a reviewer, I get papers with this mistake in them all the time.  (It does not go well for the authors’ major professors.)

To avoid the seductions of databases [2], the sequence ought to go:

  1. Thing z is important, and readers will understand it better if they know y.
  2. Thing y is a function of x, which is accessible through means I’m good at,
  3. So I’m studying x, and here’s what I found.

I don’t obey this structure with perfect fidelity.  This post and this one are pretty much of the form, “I’ve got a database and nobody can stop me from using it.”  That’s OK for a blog (in moderation) because this is a place for scintillating insights, wild-goose chases, and things that turn out to be dumb, without discrimination on the basis of merit.  But mostly I’ve stuck to my preferred structure.  And if the rest of the world doesn’t come along with me, well, let a hundred flowers bloom; our papers won’t all sound the same.

[1] Academic disciplines with the word “science” in their names aren’t sciences. Nobody ever studied in a department of Chemistry Science, or Mathematics Science.

[2] Google assures me that phrase exists nowhere but here at Idiosophy.

When Dwarfs Were Trendy

Rummaging through the Lansdall-Welfare database again, looking for Faërie creatures, I find only disappointment.  Was Georgian → Victorian → Edwardian → Georgian England such a prosy place?  “Fairy” doesn’t rank among the top million words, though “fairyland” just barely makes the cut.  “Elf” shows up only in 2-grams that look like “him elf” and “her elf”, which I interpret to mean that the letter “s” is poorly suited to optical character recognition.  Hobs, ogres, orcs, ettins, and goblins all appear, but just barely.  One in ten million words is their order of magnitude.  Dragons are 10-100 times more common than any of those; getting a job in heraldry was evidently a good career move.

Dwarfs, though, are almost impossible typographical errors.  There are dwarf fruit trees and so forth, but that should form a stable background against which we can see trends.  And so it appears.

increasing number of dwarfs in english publications

frequency of “dwarf”

The big spike in “dwarf” in 1938 is almost certainly Disney’s Snow White, but I’m going to pretend it’s also due to The Hobbit because The Hobbit has twice as many dwarfs.  (“Dwarves” doesn’t appear  in the database.)

But what’s with the dwarfs in 1871?  I consulted the fount of all trivial information, and found that 1871 saw the publication of Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, by Lewis Carroll and At the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald.  Alas, no dwarfs in either, though MacDonald did throw in a dwarf primrose for me.  1870 saw the publication of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. [1] That seems like a stretch.  Google Books says the only books it knows about that mentioned dwarfs that year are two dictionaries.

General Tom Thumb made his world tour from 1869 to 1872, and he was in the British isles in 1871-2.  Let’s suppose that’s the explanation for the big spike in dwarf-mentioning in 1871. If we subtract out the gardeners’ background with a 10-year moving average, then the press mentions of dwarfs dropped by 75% from 1871 to 1872, which means he didn’t come home a minute too soon.


English newspapers are published by muggles.

[1] Also Venus in Furs, by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. Finding meaning in that coincidence is beyond me.

Goldberry Teaches Frodo a Lesson

The text for today’s cerebration comes from The Fellowship of the Ring, “In the House of Tom Bombadil”:

“Fair lady!” said Frodo again after a while. “Tell me, if my asking does not seem foolish, who is Tom Bombadil?”
“He is,” said Goldberry, staying her swift movements and smiling.
Frodo looked at her questioningly. “He is, as you have seen him,” she said in answer to his look.

LotR I,vii

If you want to, you can read Goldberry’s answer in a transcendent, almost supernatural way.  The verb “to be” is transitive; there has to be an object of the sentence. [1]  With one notable exception, it’s always used in the form “x is y“.  And lots of people interpret Goldberry’s answer as if Bombadil were that exception, as if he might be the sort of person who can simply say “I am”.  They give him some kind of divine character, especially if it’s the Seventies and transcendental religious experiences are all over the Zeitgeist.  That interpretation made it into Prof. Olsen’s mailbag. Here’s how he read the quotation, on the Tolkien Professor podcast from July 8th, 2009:

I read it that way too, at first. Because Seventies. The following sentences, though, undercut such a heavy interpretation. Why would Goldberry smile?  It could be out of pity or sympathy, I suppose, but those are exalted feelings in Tolkien.  They seem somehow too high for a down-to-earth figure like Goldberry. [2]

At this point my tropism towards wisecracks asserted itself. As I mentioned back at the beginning of this blog, meaning is a relationship between text and reader. If the reader is a smart-aleck, that affects the meaning of the text. And so it has come to pass. Here’s how I read that phrase now:

Kids these days call that a “dad-joke“.  Zooming out a bit: Goldberry is busy making dinner; Frodo asks her a question that doesn’t really hit the mark; she realizes he’s expecting a fairly complex answer; she tosses out a word-play [3] to let him know she heard the question.  Then, when she reaches a point where she can stop for a moment, she smiles at him to see if he appreciated the joke.  He didn’t get it.  When Goldberry sees the expression on Frodo’s face, she relents and tries to come up with an answer that fits better with his current frame of reference.

The two parts of Goldberry’s response aren’t repetitive.  The first is a gentle put-down. The second is a teacher’s attempt to tell the student that he’s making things too complicated, and should pay more attention to what’s in front of his eyes.  Frodo will find this useful a few days later, in Bree.

[1] Eco, Umberto, “On Being”, in Kant and the Platypus. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1997.

[2] Yes, I just called a water spirit “down to earth”. It doesn’t feel incorrect.

[3] I actually wrote “jeu-de-mots” here in my first draft, because reading Eco makes me think using just two languages is pedestrian. His essay in footnote 1 uses six languages in the first three pages.

Beating a Dead Tuna

After the “tuna/tunny” discussion in last weekend’s post, I came across a  digital-humanities paper that describes a truly formidable job of digitizing:

Lansdall-Welfare, T. et al. (2016). “Content Analysis of 150 Years of British Periodicals”. In: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

As the title says, they scanned every periodical they could find in Britain from 1800 to 1950, made a giant database of the million most common words, and put all their results on line. This is exactly the tool I need to address the Tuna question, without  American noise drowning out the signal I’m looking for.

First discovery: “tunny” didn’t make the cut.  It appears in books; apparently not in newspapers or magazines.  But there are, as the saying goes, plenty of fish in the sea.  The most-mentioned species are cod and haddock. Trout leads the freshwater contingent.  Tuna is lower in frequency than these by an order of magnitude, down among words that I don’t believe I’ve ever typed before like “pilchard” and “kipper”.

Fish mentions in the FindMyPast database
cod haddock trout pilchard tuna kipper
913,831 547,329 324,366 68,382 47,961 18,442

Second discovery: “tuna” doesn’t show an increasing trend over time.  The FindMyPast team uses an appearance-per-year metric (as does Google Ngrams), so the growth in references is corrected for the growth in the number of publications.  English periodicals are more likely to talk about trout and kippers since the end of the 19th Century, but not tuna or pilchards.  All the growth in the Google result seems to have come from the USA.

timelines of tuna, kippers, pilchards, and trout

Fish mentions in British periodicals

For what it’s worth, the big spike in “trout” in 1897 coincides with the re-publication of Izaak Walton‘s The Compleat Angler, edited by Andrew Lang of fairy-tale fame. [1] Was there a surge in interest in fishing, on which Lang capitalized?  Or was the book the reason for the increase in trout-mentioning?

Summing up the facts we have:

  1. “Tuna” was not prominent in texts in the UK at the time when Tolkien was writing The Silmarillion.
  2. There’s only a fifty-percent chance that people would have called that fish a “tuna”, anyway.
  3. Tolkien could certainly have known the Americans were making tuna into a household word.
  4. There is no sign that the word “tuna” would have intruded upon Tolkien’s notice from external sources as he was writing.

It is highly unlikely that JRRT would have thought the word “tuna” might have humorous resonances among his audience, but there is no scholarly merit to wondering about this issue.  Idiosophers just like playing with databases.

[1] There — a connection with speculative fiction, at last.

Daedalus versus Drone

The latest science-fictional device to hit the press is a swarm of hand-sized autonomous drones that can be dropped from a fighter or bomber.

Image credit: Popular Mechanics Magazine

As they fall, they form themselves into self-organized structures that fly about in ways that are by now familiar from a hundred YouTube videos.. The hardware and software originated at MIT. It’s called “Perdix”.

“Named after a character from Greek mythology,” the Popular Mechanics article says. Perdix is pretty obscure, so I looked him up. Ovid’s Metamorphoses, book 8.

Perdix was Daedalus’s nephew. Long before the Icarus incident, he showed himself to be an even cleverer engineer than Daedalus. Invented the compass, for example.  (The geometry one, not the navigation one.). Daedalus, jealous of his status, was enraged by the boy’s presumption and threw him off the Acropolis.  Halfway down the cliff, Perdix was saved when Minerva changed him into a partridge and he could fly the rest of the way down.  Partridges never fly more than a few feet off the ground because they still have PTSD from that event.

I have been amusing myself for a while now, speculating about reasons this story never gets mentioned in the press.

Tirion upon Whole Wheat Toast


In which a perfectly good idea goes down in flames.

J.R.R. Tolkien was careful to choose proper names that would avoid ridiculous resonances with his audience, in English at least.  But he missed one.

Even among the radiant flowers of the Tree-lit gardens of Valinor, [the Vanyar & the Noldor] longed still at times to see the stars; and therefore a gap was made in the great walls of the Pelóri, and there in a deep valley that ran down the the sea the Eldar raised a high green hill: Túna it was called.

Silmarillion, Chapter 5

There’s a diacritical mark above the “u” in “tuna”, but it doesn’t help much.  How did this slip by?  That’s when I had an (what’s the opposite of “brilliant”?) idea:  Maybe people didn’t eat tuna in 1920s England!  After all, the idea of a tuna steak didn’t exist in the US until about 30 years ago.

So off I go to the Marine Management Organization of the UK.  Their statistical report for 2015 confirms that tuna isn’t really a thing, as far as the domestic fishing industry is concerned.  “Virtually all tuna available for use in the UK is from abroad.”  That means I can use worldwide production statistics from the UN Food and Agricultural Organization.  Unfortunately, their data only go back to 1950. [1] Fortunately, the statistics fit an exponential curve fairly well up to 2000, [2] so we can extrapolate backwards in time.

Exponential growth of tuna harvest

Worldwide Tuna Catch by year

Extrapolation outside one’s data is generally risky, but in this case we have an endpoint to keep us in line:  Tuna wasn’t a big consumer item until they figured out how to can it about 1900.  The variation of the actual harvests around the regression line is about 100,000 tonnes per year.  Between 1900 and 1914, the extrapolated curve is less than the error term, so the estimated tuna harvest is indistinguishable from zero.  So far, so good:  Canning tuna began in Oregon and California, so it could easily have taken a few decades for tuna to catch [3] on in England.

But then this whole thesis falls apart.  “Demand soared with the onset of the First World War. Canned tuna provided a high-protein, portable, and convenient food for soldiers in the field.”  That is suspiciously close to the 1914 breakpoint I just computed.  Tolkien was a soldier in the field; there is no way he was ignorant of canned tuna.  Confusticate and bebother these facts!  In the words of Emily Litella, “never mind.”


One marvelous thing about the World-Wide Web is that it decreases the cost of following an idea into a dead end.  I spent less than an hour on research, data acquisition, and analysis for this post, and it’s snowing outside so I had nothing better to do anyway. If I had tried to do this exercise when I was in college in the 1980s, it would have taken a week.

Update:  Shawn, of Prancing Pony Podcast fame, points out that the fish in question was called “tunny-fish” in olden times.  According to Google Ngrams, he’s right.  You can clearly see the change-over when the American fisheries got into the act.

Tuna vs. Tunny

By the 1920’s the American word might just barely have been visibly more frequent (though the relative frequencies when spoken might have been different), but it would have been a moderately-impressive prophecy to anticipate that huge run-up in the second half of the century.

[1] Something bad must have happened in the 1940s to disrupt data collection.

[2] Production and consumption are flat so far in the 21st century.  Alas, tuna populations have collapsed.  We ate them all.  No sea-Ents have come to the rescue.

[3] For once the pun is not intentional.

Page 1 of 8

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén