Idiosophy

A physicist loose among the liberal arts

Category: Digital Humanities

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 Song of the Digital Humanists

To the same tune as “Errantry”:

Graphing the Inklings

Sørina Higgins’s lecture at Mythmoot IV gave us a hint about where she’s going intellectually in the near future. She wants to apply network theory to create “meta-fictional narratives” about the interactions among the Inklings and how it affected their writing, and invited us to do the same.

The coolest figure from “Graph Theory as a Mathematical Model in Social Science”

This seemed like a good time to blow the dust off my command of graph theory. You can figure out lots of cool things from networks, if you know about graphs.   Frank Harary, writing from a period contemporary with The Lord of the Rings until well into this century, pushed the use of mathematical graph theory into the social sciences.  Here’s a short version.  Here’s what I think is his clearest explication of what can be done with graphs in the social sciences (which is what we are doing, now).

For instance, graphs are used a lot in management theory.  The fastest performing network structures were those in which the distance of all nodes from some central person (the “integrator”) was the shortest, say Borgatti, Stephen P., et al. “Network analysis in the social sciences.” science323.5916 (2009): 892-895. Now, if you’re looking for a paradigm of a stable, efficiently operating organization, the Inklings are not an obvious place to start.  I’m pretty sure that C.S. Lewis would turn out to be the integrator, but then what?  Here’s a chart from Borgatti et al. that might clarify the relevance:

Following Sørina’s Ansatz, we might begin with the box on the left to determine our set of writers (nodes). Next, we’d assign a numerical quantity to each node, probably derived from a lexomic analysis.  Then, we’d build links from the two boxes on the right, Interactions and Flows, based on accounts of how the writers interacted, to see how some attribute of the nodes changes over time.

The easiest thing to see would be something like the spread of Theosophy or Anthroposophy. Weird philosophies come with an idiosyncratic jargon that should be trivial to find in the writers’ texts. The mathematical tools we’d need to identify the influence of some *osophy have already been developed to model the spread of infectious disease.

Slightly more difficult would be to track down an agreement between the writers to split things up.  There was the famous wager between Tolkien and C.S. Lewis about writing a time-travel and a space-travel story, respectively.  We’d look for some lexemes they shared equally, which then split up mitotically into space on Lewis’s side and time on Tolkien’s. But a difficulty presents itself. It might be possible to find lexemes in Tolkien that correlate well with space travel, but I can’t think of them.  We’d have to find them via statistical correlations, which tend to make the final result less credible.  A better choice might be King Arthur.  In an old lecture on Youtube, Sørina mentions that Tolkien may have given up work on Arthurian legends because Charles Williams was doing so much in that area. It should be easy to find convincing Arthurian terms whose frequency evolves over time.

Caveat:  Sørina drops a hint that she’s dealing with a large network, which the Inklings are not.  We’ll have to wait and see.

 

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.

Conclusion

English newspapers are published by muggles.


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

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.
Conclusion

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.

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