A physicist loose among the liberal arts

Author: Joe (Page 2 of 14)

A Faërie Addendum

It’s Rev. Robert Kirk Week in the Tolkien blogosphere. David Russell Mosley, of “Letters from the Edge of Elfland”, announces that he now owns a copy of The Secret Common-wealth, and has written an excellent essay about what good it does one to believe in fairies. He also knows where to find better fairy illustrations than I have.

Another item for the list of dangers that mortals face in Faërie is dancing to the point of exhaustion or, if they’re feeling particularly brutal, until your feet are worn down to stubs.

Fairy Perils in the Mundane World

Since mortals are beset by perils in Faërie , a decent respect for symmetry requires that fairies be threatened in our world as well. What perils might a fairy face? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have a convenient list of reasons people end up in the emergency room, which seems like a good place to start. See Table I on the last page.

Probably Not Perils:


Falls are out of the question when one has wings. (Unless you’re a balrog.)

by Pirates vs. Ninjas (you can buy these!)

Automobile accident

The next most common fate for mortals, but I don’t think fairies need to worry about being smashed on a windshield. Cars these days only have cold iron in the drive train and chassis. Fairies will probably just bounce off other parts of modern automobiles.

Besides, Sanderson reports that the Rev. Robert Kirk, in his seminal tome The Secret Common-wealth, “says the fairies’ bodies are invulnerable, unlike the earthly bodies of witches and were-wolves, which can be destroyed when their assumed astral bodies are elsewhere.” So we can rule out gunshots, drowning, poisoning, and all the other things on the CDC list. We shall have to look elsewhere.

Possible Perils:

Adult-onset diabetes

Have you seen what fairies eat? My teeth ache just from looking at the pictures. Sanderson also discusses the problem of fairy dietetics, and shows us that Rev. Kirk thinks they either live on corn (the high-fructose syrup, naturally) or they attach themselves to a human and parasitically obtain nutrients from their digestion. Their human partners are recognizable because they eat as much as they want all the time and never gain weight. (There’s a business opportunity here for an entrepreneurially-inclined Fairy King.) In Middle-earth, as in Sir Orfeo, Elves are near-exclusive carnivores. A diet of animal products and refined sugar means diabetes will be a constant threat.

This is a good place to talk about the exceptions that prove the rule. Galadriel (après Melian) is the only Fairy-Queen who ever gave anyone a vegetable to eat. I feel sure that the Wise were careful to avoid getting her started on the importance of eating whole grains and other complex carbohydrates. Goldberry, on the other hand, is the epitome of a cliché fairy vegetarian, but her status as a Queen is disputable.


“For in becoming the consort of a nature myth connected with the Moon Jurgen had of course exposed himself to the danger of being converted into a solar legend by the Philologists…” – J. B. Cabell, Jurgen.

A fairy who enters this world exposes itself to humanities scholarship. If it’s lucky, it ends up in a DeviantArt gallery that exposes it to countless contortions of form, aspect, and surroundings. These are the lucky fairies, because the fay-folk are nothing if not protean. They can take all of that in stride. Alas, a fairy who is unlucky becomes the subject of a treatise by a folklorist or philologist who proves that it’s something other than what it thought it was. Note that the term “humanities”, which seems so benevolent in most contexts, is explicitly exclusionary with regard to any fay thing.

Enrollment in a randomized, placebo-controlled, statistical study

This one is certainly every fairy’s worst nightmare. A meta-nightmare, if you like. What if all the mischief Robin Goodfellow could bring about wasn’t enough to produce a p-value greater than 0.05? Could any worse fate befall a fairy than to be declared “indistinguishable from random chance”?

But here I find an intriguing conjunction. Submitted for your consideration: Rev. Robert Kirk (1644-1692) was a Presbyterian minister and folklorist. He died under mysterious circumstances, consistent with being abducted by fairies. Rev. Thomas Bayes (1701-1761) was a Presbyterian minister and statistician. Bayes’s work is the foundation of Bayesian statistics, which renders obsolete p-values and hypothesis testing. Could these be related? Did the Presbyterian Church receive a ransom demand? That’s exactly the sort of thing fairies would try. Seeing no way to coexist with their most fearsome mundane-world menace, their only recourse was to overthrow that entire branch of mathematics. Unfortunately, Bayesian statistics are tremendously difficult to formulate and use. Only now, with the computational resources we have today, can it be used in practical applications. Three centuries later, the ransom finally paid, we can get Rev. Kirk back. Somebody go look in his church. If you see a ghostly figure near the baptismal font, throw an iron dirk over its head. That will break the imprisonment, and we can finally ask him all those questions his book raised.

Works Cited

I assure you, I didn’t make up nearly as much of this essay as you think I did.

Briggs, Katherine M. “The English Fairies.” Folklore68.1 (1957): 270-287.

Cabell, James Branch. Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice (1922)

Sanderson, Stewart. “A Prospect of Fairyland.” Folklore 75.1 (1964): 1-18.

Faërie: What could go wrong?

Fairies By Ashtea

I tried to find a list of the perils of Faërie on line, and failed. It’s a tricky thing, to search for fairies on the world-wide web. All the traditional uses of the term get drowned out by gamers and manga artists. Staying on Google Scholar is highly recommended, unless I should ever decide to write about the contemporary cultural reception of the old legends.

So I decided to make one myself. Here’s what I’ve come up with. Please suggest additions.

1. Abduction

This could be the most common misfortune that Faërie can bring. It comes in two varieties: those in which the victim knows she’s been abducted (e.g. Sir Orfeo, changelings); and those in which he does not know, but finds out when they leave Faërie and discover that a long time has passed. (e.g. Samwise in Lothlorien)

2. Preposterous disfigurement

An encounter with fairies might lead to one’s head being replaced with that of an ass (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), or being adorned with antlers.

3. Theft

Fairies steal small things from around the house. They also steal less tangible things, such as your shadow, or your voice, or your eye color.

4. Unrequitable passion

Fairy glamor can leave the victim overwhelmed, whether by love for a fay him/her/itself, or for the taste of fairy wine or food, or the beauty of fairy-lands forlorn. Possibly the most traumatic of the perils of Faërie, because if left untreated it can cause Romanticism. (Ode to a Nightingale)

5. Swindling

Many fairy-curses can land on their victim for no reason at all, but swindling usually comes to people who were asking for it. A bag of fairy-gold that turns into sand the next morning is not only a fair reward for greed, it’s a metaphor we can use every election season.

6. Murphy’s Law-Enforcement

When mortals doesn’t reward their domestic fairies (brownies, silkies) for their service, they’ll turn into boggarts. Then the cow gives buttermilk, the hens won’t lay, objects go missing, machines go haywire, and poltergeists run loose in the house.

My source for the not-otherwise-attributed parts above is one of the most delightful papers I’ve ever read in a scholarly journal.

Sanderson, Stewart. “A Prospect of Fairyland.” Folklore 75.1 (1964): 1-18.

Origami with Quotes

Stephen Winter writes in this week’s blog post:

The one who chooses to be an enemy learns how to  perceive weakness in others and then exploits it. Indeed it seems to be this quality that marks out an enemy above all others. But when we choose to lay down that which we desire then the enemy has nothing more to exploit.

The first and second sentences rang a bell. Peter Westbrook, 13-time US National Champion at Men’s Sabre, wrote a memoir entitled Harnessing Anger: The Inner Discipline of Athletic Excellence. Up front, it contains this statement of the philosophy that made him such a successful fencer:

I have no qualms about preying upon the weaknesses of my enemies until they are no longer a threat to me. To do this in life is a crime, but to do it in the sport of fencing is to create beauty and art. (p.57)

To set next to Stephen’s third sentence, G.K. Chesterton wrote in “The Sword of Wood“:

“A man with no sword,” he said, “can never be beaten in swordsmanship.”

I don’t think there’s any deep enduring point here. I just like it when things fold up into nice neat bundles.

Some Networks are Simple

In which the Idiosopher gets to do Inklings stuff on the clock.

logo of the winter simulation conferenceLast summer, the blog started following Sørina Higgins’s suggestion about network analysis to see how interactions between the Inklings in real life turned into stylistic evolution in their literary styles. I haven’t mentioned it since, due to a lack of discoveries that are interesting (even to me).

This week was the 2017 Winter Simulation Conference, a world-wide hootenanny of computer-simulation experts. With all my responsibilities discharged, I got to spend the last half-day attending talks on anything that sounded interesting.  Here’s a good one from Wai Kin (Victor) Chan of Tsinghua University:

This paper studies social influence (i.e., adoption of belief) using agent-based simulation and regression models. Each agent is modeled by a linear regression model. Agents interact with neighbors by exchanging social beliefs. It is observed that if individual belief is linear in neighbors’ beliefs, system-level belief and aggregated neighbors’ beliefs can also be described by a linear regression model. Analysis is conducted on a simplified 2-node network to provide insight into the interactions and results of general models. Least squares estimates are developed. Explicit expressions are obtained to explain relationship between initial belief and current belief.

Social networks are complicated. People go in and out, they talk more or less, they form cliques, etc. If you want to measure things about them, you usually have to build a computer model with a clock and a bunch of “agents” in it. An agent is (in this case) a person with ideas (represented by a number), and as time advances, the agents pick up ideas from each other. Then you inspect the agents after a the simulation has been calculated and find out what ideas each agent has absorbed.

What Prof. Chan has discovered is that, as long as each person in a social network only picks up an idea from three others (which is comparable to the situation for the Inklings), all the complicated stuff drops out – the results of the full-powered simulation always look like a straight-line influence!  This paper is his attempt to prove that’s actually true.  If he’s right, then the spread of some ideas through a literary group will show a very simple pattern, and a literary scholar will be able to do lots of Digital Humanities research with just a spreadsheet. (Hi, Sparrow!)

An anecdote: another thing I did last summer was serve on a jury.  We had to decide on a prison sentence.  At the beginning, we went around the table and got everybody’s first impression. There was quite a bit of difference among us.  After four hours of discussion, which got pretty acrimonious at times, we agreed on a number that was within 5% of the average of everybody’s initial opinion.  That’s what a social-influence model would predict, if Prof. Chan is correct.

If the idea you’re studying can be cast as how strongly an opinion is held, on a scale from 0 to 1, then a linear regression is all you need to solve it.  That’s what I suggested Theosophy might look like, in the post from last July.  Division of territory, such as giving up Arthurian legends to one colleague, space travel to another, and focusing your own attention on time-travel, isn’t describable this way.

Prof. Chan started off his talk by saying the topic was just his own interest, not funded by any organization, and it wasn’t finished yet and he didn’t know what it meant, and the talk was still interesting.  My new scholarship goal is to be able to do that.

Irrelevant note: today is Idiosophy’s second bloggiversary.


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.

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