A physicist loose among the liberal arts

Category: mythgard academy (Page 2 of 3)

Speculative Fiction: SF : MidMoot 3.04

These are my notes from the first panel on Sunday at MidMoot 3.

Neil Ottenstein: Dreams and Prophecy in Babylon 5

I usually think of myself as a science-fiction fan. Compared to Neil, I am not. When I want to quote a work, I type out the words on a screen. When Neil wants to quote from Babylon 5, he comes to the front of the room with a stack of bound quarto volumes of scripts, opens each one in its turn, and reads passages to us with a reverent tone. That’s a true fan.

This was another in his series of talks about prophecy. It was orders of magnitude smaller in focus than his presentation at MidMoot 2. B5 doesn’t have a radical concept of prophecy. “We create the future with our words and our deeds. Prophecies are possible futures, not certainties.”

The Centauri seem to be able to make prophecies and confine them to things that are fixed. Unlike other characters who talk about things that may or may not happen, depending on people’s choices, the Centauri seem to be able to perceive “constants of the motion”, making prophecies that are going to turn out to be true no matter what.

Margaret Ann Mendenhall: The Borg: Is assimilation Fertile?

First question: is Star Trek’s humanism patriarchal? It certainly privileges Western values.

Margaret projected the text of the Prime Directive (non-interference with other cultures) up on the screen, and proceeded to slice it to ribbons. Nearly every phrase in it comes from mid-20th-century American ideology. Our perspective, here and now, isn’t that far removed. We’re in the same country, just 50 years later, but those words no longer look to us like a statement of a principle to live by. We now see terms like “healthy development” or “normal cultural evolution” as bags that carry a lot of prejudice in them.

(I’d point out here that those ideologies are honored more in the breach than the observance. Roddenberry may have been writing them down explicitly to get the US to recognize how far short of them our actions in (e.g.) Vietnam were. Which doesn’t disagree with Margaret’s thesis in any way.)

Of course, this gets taken to extremes in the show. Captain Kirk violates the Prime Directive every chance he gets. As Jon pointed out, the Prime Directive is a plot generator, not an actual law to live under. Life would be very stressful under a code that was designed to maximize the frequency of exciting events.  Possibly recognizing this, newer incarnations of Star Trek have replaced the Prime Directive with an ideology of “infinite diversity in infinite combinations”.

On to patriarchy. The presentation of the Borg in “First Contact” shows a feminized twist. The Borg Queen is a Great Goddess figure. (I hadn’t seen this movie – apparently the Borg have been transformed from a mechanical assembly to an insect hive.) It’s a gylany rather than a patriarchy. It works by horizontal linkages, not a command hierarchy.

Now, by assimilating other species into their collective, the Borg is perfecting them.  I got whiplash at this point, because if you say “market” instead of “collective”, it sounds like the attitude of  global capitalism.

Q: Aren’t the Borg and Starfleet both making decisions for other people. What’s the difference? A: They’re both symbolizing the unconscious.  (The subspace network the Borg use to communicate is the Jungian collective unconscious. Fascinating, to coin a phrase.)

Q: (from VF) are the theories you’re working from applicable to western fantasies at all? A: Yes. Her dissertation is about how the Hero’s Journey has been taken over by monotheists to mean pefection of the soul. She’s instead balancing Artemis, Lilith, and Isis in a lemniscate. (MM didn’t say “lemniscate”, but she laid “gylany” on us and I must have revenge.)

Kris Larsen: Mad Scientist Alphabet Soup

Mad scientists aren’t all lone wolves. Kris is talking about three organizations of mad science.  Their common features: obsession with experimental design (she says this like it’s a bad thing); Population-control mission; and complete disregard for informed consent.

First, the DHARMA initiative from “Lost”. Numerology – terms in an equation to predict the number of years left for the human race. The initiative is trying to change one of the parameters and lengthen our existence.

WICKED from The Maze Runner:  plans to eradicate half the population with a virus, because we’ve overloaded the planet. The virus didn’t work as planned. Natural immunity became a valuable commodity. WICKED used immunes to generate a cure.

NICE from That Hideous Strength:  There’s been a decades-long debate about whether this is an attack on science, or just scientism.  Their goal is to “Make man a really efficient animal.” NICE will “take charge of Man”.  Direct manipulation of the brain is their goal. Same as Wicked. Wither and Frost are two definite mad scientists. (How about Glitter and Lost?)

Lewis’s bitter observation: to parents, “Experiment on a child” is a bad thing. But offer them a seat in an “experimental school”, and they’ll sign right up.

Kris ended with an exhortation to science not to forget that we might be working from immoral principles. Fascinating exchange at the end of this talk:

  • Q: Why are there mad scientists, but nobody ever denounces mad theologians or literati? A: We scientists are highly respected.
  • Prof Olsen: do scientists have a proclivity that way? Philostrato isn’t mad, though he’s a dupe. A: Nobody wants to read a novel about normal scientists.
  • CO: it’s a compliment to scientists – in order for them to do evil, they must be insane.
  • Jon: science stripped of humanity leads to these effects.

Mythgard Academy: MidMoot 3.01

These are my notes from the first panel at MidMoot 3, held on September 24, 2016. An archaeologist, a toxicologist, and an engineer walk into a literary conference…

Marie Prosser: Narrative Voice in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

Lots of people have wondered: Who is the narrator of JS&MN? Marie undertook a thorough examination of all the possibilities: age, education, social class, hometown, the side they take in the Strange/Norrell debate. The part that struck me the most was the attention the narrator pays to servants. The writer is obviously upper class. What kind of upper-class Englishman pays attention to the servants? The book is completely devoid of socialists, so I have no clue.

It surprised me that there’s some debate about whether the narrator is male or female. Susanna Clarke is good at writing in distinctly male and female voices, and the narrator struck me as female from the first few pages. Ultimately Marie agrees with me and Belle Waring that she’s female, so I guess this is just making sure she’s not unduly influenced by any preconceptions.

April raised an intriguing point: if the narrator is a magician, she’ll have access to sources that regular scholars don’t. Remote viewing, necromancy, who knows?

April Neal Kluever: Externalization of Evil in Dracula

Bram Stoker’s Victorian audience believed you could recognize someone who’s evil by external cues. The book is full of such cues, if you dig back into ancient pseudoscience to find them.

April talked a lot about physiognomy. She cites a reference work from 1898, subtitled “true guide to a perfect marriage”, to general hilarity. The long description of Dracula at the beginning is all facial indicators of cunning, deceit, intelligence. Jonathan Harker doesn’t seem to know much about physiognomy, though he mentions it in his diary. Hands matter, too. There were actually “laws of scientific handreading”. (Her source looks like one of the odder corners of the Web.) Benham’s description of short fingers is funny, in the context of some running jokes in the current election campaign.

In the movies, Dracula has softened. April tracked the image from Max Schreck’s cartoonish monster to Lugosi’s aristocratic manners, to Lee’s benevolent (at first) appearance, to the “almost perfectly honest faces” of modern-day actors. Now that the audience all knows what vampires are, movie directors create horror through using outward signs of good-guys to mask the inner monstrosity.

Implication – we’re still slightly physiognomists at heart.

Meaghan Searle: Gravity Falls: Growing up and Being Grown-up

I’ve never seen Alex Hirsch’s Gravity Falls. It’s a Disney animated TV series. The villain is a demon named “Bill”. Meaghan unraveled its fascinating interweaving of mythical elements (which are frequently sad) and fairy-tale elements (which have eucatastrophes). Her best line: “A happy story for children finds itself in the nastier chapters of the Book of Revelations”

It’s about the last summer of childhood, so you know the children will end up in a bittersweet situation. An amusing twist is that the old men get the happy ending. The director sounds like he finds a lot of creative ways to mix humor into genuinely terrifying situations. I’m glad to hear Disney isn’t grinding the sharp edges off of fairy-stories anymore, like they did when I was young.

Fragments of a Geographical Approach to Fantasy Criticism

My presentation from the Mythgard Mid-Atlantic Speculative Fiction Symposium 2016. It begins with the paper from this summer, drops the math, and investigates what happens if we try to apply the same methods to other fantasy works.

Primary Geography of Sub-created worlds


A subcreated world is derivative of the primary world, so fantastical geography is going to be derivative of primary-world geography.  This work began last winter when I stumbled across Oliver O’Brien’s public-access database that lets you type in a name and see where in the UK people are called that. Geographers have done extensive work on matching names with places all over Europe, it turns out. Like hobbits, English people move around only slowly, so names are strongly associated with places. When I was given the opportunity to map a family name in Great Britain, the second name I tried was “Baggins”. The distribution of that name is centered near Birmingham almost exactly over top of J.R.R. Tolkien’s boyhood home.

It turned out that this is not a coincidence.  Tom Hillman pointed out that the connection wasn’t dumb, and is worth pursuing. So let’s see what we can learn about fantasy novels by using real-world geography. This talk will tell you about three of them. The title has the word “fragments” because they don’t fit together into a solid piece of china.

The Lord of the Rings

Alone among the denizens of Middle Earth, hobbits have family names. They’re  conscious of their difference.  They effortlessly slide into “Peregrin son of Paladin” phrasing when they encounter Men.  As Tolkien wrote in letter 25, “[hobbit] family names remain for the most part as well known and justly respected in this island as they were in Hobbiton and Bywater.”

map of Baggins

There had always been a Baggins at Bag End. Computed by Oliver O’Brien.

I took this comment, along with another from Letter 211,  as explicit permission to look at The Lord of the Rings with real-world geography.  Hobbits are from different parts of England, according to their role in the story, and we know this is intentional because the story was stretched to fit them, if they didn’t match.


When we start looking at names, we can identify three categories of hobbits. Some people you keep close to you. They could be family, or they could be just friends.

JRRT was from the West Midlands; the close-by hobbits have names from that region. The Tooks and the Bagginses, despite their considerable differences in temperament, are quite close.

map of Took

The Tooks of Birmingham

This shows up on the map as surely as it does in the text. The Cottons are nearby, too, as is Hob Hayward, whom Sam picks out of the group of Shirrifs as being someone friendly. The readers Tolkien had in mind would have heard “Hayward” as going perfectly well with Cottons or Bagginses.


The second group of hobbits we find are neighbors who aren’t exactly bad, but they frequently seem to act in a way that interferes with others getting on with their lives. It’s good practice to keep them at arm’s length. They might be an unwisely-chosen in-law, or a cousin who borrows books and doesn’t return them. For example a Sackville-Baggins, rather distant from Birmingham to start with, can be led further from the fold by marriage to a Bracegirdle, who’s practically a foreigner in hobbitish terms.

The last category is the “liminal” hobbit-names. Hobbits in Buckland and the

Marish have them. Their family names in our world are either concentrated far from Birmingham, or they don’t appear in the UK at all,

underhill map

Underhills in the UK

like the Maggots or Brandybucks don’t. Frodo uses the name “Underhill” when he’s in Bree because Gandalf knows that someone who hears it won’t think of the bearer as living anywhere near the Shire. You can see here how well Gandalf knows his business. The Hornblowers are in this group, too. They’d “hardly ever set foot in Hobbiton before.” Although “Brandybuck” isn’t a name found in England, “Buckland” is. It’s on the extreme east outside Dover, that is, almost in France.


I mentioned that Tolkien would stretch the story, if a name didn’t fit.  Sam Gamgee is the conspicuous example. We know from Letters 72 & 144 that “Gaffer Gamgee” was a name Tolkien made up to amuse his children. It was a pun on “cotton”, like the Cotton family, and it occurred to him because there was a Dr. Gamgee at the University, but — it turns out that the name “Gamgee” doesn’t come from the West Midlands.

map of Gamgee

Serving the Bagginses may have involved commuting.

How then can Tolkien make Sam, whose presence in the story is essential, fit the pattern? The solution he found to this problem explains something I wondered about since the first time I read the Appendices.

Why is it worth half a page of Appendix F to write a lengthy discourse on the subject of how “Gamgee” isn’t really a family name, but more an epithet derived from the town of Gamwich whither their ancestors had decamped several generations back? This is why – Tolkien needed to get his hero within shouting distance of Birmingham. A London name wouldn’t do at all, but a nickname isn’t definitive.

Map of Gardner

Mayor Sam Gardner’s family

The final resolution of the story is in Appendix C. We learn that upon his accession to Mayor, Samwise changed his family name to “Gardner”.


That name has a much closer association with the West Midlands, though it’s not primarily in Birmingham. Evidently, three generations of residence plus saving the whole world from evil is almost sufficient to get one accepted into Hobbiton society.

The match of names isn’t perfect, but it works. As Tolkien says in the Prologue, “By the time of this history these names were no longer found only in their proper folklands.” Of course there will be some leakage across the boundaries for artistic purposes, and perhaps some because geographic information systems in the 1950s were less accessible.


At this point I went off looking for another novel I could subject to the same scrutiny. First consideration, I needed a world that was linguistically integrated. Most fantasy novelists don’t take the time to do that. They just pick names that sound cool. Unfortunately, this gives a geographical critic nothing to work with.

Tigana, by Guy Gavriel Kay, seemed ideal. First, most of the names sound Italian. Second, the author makes a grateful mention of the cartographer in the acknowledgements. He mentions that having clear maps guided him to fix some problems with the story. There are five maps in the TOR paperback edition, so it was reasonable to suppose that geography is important.

Tigana isn’t as famous as The Lord of the Rings, so here’s what it’s about in a few sentences. Two warlord/sorcerers are contending for the Peninsula of the Palm.

Frontispiece map from Tigana.

The Peninsula of the Palm

The Palm is divided into a small number of pseudo-feudal states. In the process of conquering the left side of the Palm, one warlord lost his son in battle. To punish the country that he was fighting at the time, he devised what may be the most absolute revenge ever conceived: The cities were razed, the populations were dispersed, and he cast a spell so that nobody can remember or even say the name of the country any more. Except, some of the people who were born there have formed a resistance movement, and when they induct another Tiganan (by birth) into their cell, they teach him or her the name. Covert action is only half of their subversion; the greater crime is memory. In the second part, a Tiganan woman has insinuated herself into the king’s seraglio to assassinate him, but ended up falling in love instead. Her love of her country gets opposed to her love of Brandin. In a nutshell, these are Kay’s two themes: love and memory.

So this is where I went looking for geographical significance in the text. What I found was several early mentions of the shape of the peninsula. Its shape is important to the characters in the first few chapters. After that, though, maps and geography are almost never mentioned. What’s going on?

Kay wants us to read this as an upside-down Italy. In case an inattentive reader didn’t notice the place names are all Italian (though the character names aren’t), he includes an epigraph from Dante. There are plenty of other inversions, once you start to look for them: Italy looks like a foot, the Palm looks like a hand. Italy points south towards a desert, the Palm points north towards a desert. Lower Corte, the new name given to the lost land of Tigana, is actually uphill from Corte. The queen of the empire to the east is named Dorotea, flipping the Byzantine Empress Theodora.

Putting the book in an inverted Italy has two purposes. First, this book is about memory. The former Tiganans, even if they don’t know that’s what they are, have a nagging feeling of uncertainty about their past. The spell isn’t perfect, so they have fleeting half-memories that leaked around its edges. I confess that’s a pretty good description for my own education in history – I never know if I’m remembering something correctly. For example, I had to hit up Wikipedia to see if there actually was a Queen Dorotea somewhere, to whom Kay was alluding. So this reader (at least) has the same sort of feeling about the past that the heroes do.

The second purpose is that, rarely among fantasy novels, Tigana fits into single volume. Using a mirror-image of our own world lets Kay focus his efforts on constructing his meticulously-crafted moral dilemmas. Kay uses this technique in many of his books. He invites us readers to use medieval Italy as a touchstone, any time we feel like we need a detail that didn’t interest the author. There’s no danger of taking us out of the story when he does this, because when we supply details from our own memory, they feel right automatically. But it’s not historical fiction, which brings us to the third book.

A Song of Ice and Fire

George R.R. Martin told January Magazine, “the only problem I have with historical fiction is that I know too much history. So I always know what’s going to happen. … With this sort of thing you can take people by surprise. It reads like historical fiction. It feels like historical fiction but you don’t know how it’s going to come out.”

It’s obvious that Martin isn’t interested in writing about anything but political history. He’s said as much, in fact. Perhaps out of respect for Tolkien’s precedent, there’s a map in the front of A Game of Thrones, but we can get an idea of its importance to the story by noticing that Chapter 2 takes place in a city that’s not on the map.

Westeros is the British Isles

Westeros, by KingofFairview, via  Brilliant Maps

When Martin does take the time to describe a landscape, in the very next sentence he’s back to politics. Here are two consecutive sentences. Catelyn is riding through the lands where she grew up. She hasn’t seen them in a long time.

North of here the Kingsroad ran along the Green Fork of the Trident, through fertile valleys and green woodlands, past thriving towns and stout holdfasts and the castles of the river lords. Catelyn knew them all: the Blackwoods and the Brackens ever enemies, whose quarrels her father was obliged to settle; Lady Whent …; Lord Frey ….

A Game of Thrones, P. 241

The first sentence jumped out at me because it’s almost a pastoral lyric, by GRRM standards. I’ve elided about 40 words of aristocratic political detail with those ellipses. It’s clear that the political actors are the important part.  Martin uses the land as a board to hold the pieces in his chess game, and that’s all. His text doesn’t encourage geographic analysis.

His fans, though, seem to have overruled him.  By now, twenty years after the first volume was published, Westeros has been invaded by amateur geographers like Adam Whitehead, professional demographers like Lyman Stone, and what appears to be a large detachment from the Stanford University Department of Geology.

The geologists support Martin fairly well. Mapping what must be happening in his world from beneath, they can find analogues to the earth’s crust. Nothing they found in the book is obviously absurd.

The geographers and demographers, on the other hand, are pretty brutal. They find only one way to make sense of the population densities, the city sizes, the number of ethnic groups, the patterns of dynasties, and so forth. They conclude that A Song of Ice and Fire has an unreliable narrator. If you assume that city populations are a factor of 10 too large, that all the distances are 5 to 10 times too broad, and that spans of time are 2 to 5 times too long, then Westeros at least is a self-consistent world. In a sense, Martin has reproduced a familiar problem – all the way back to Herodotus, sizes of armies and all the casualty figures are inflated by anyone’s-guess-how-much. Martin has actually expanded that mis-feature of ancient historiography into new areas.

At this point, I was all set to declare that my objective – using real-world geography as an approach to understand fantasy stories – must be limited to only a few, extremely thorough authors. But then I read a post by Adam Whitehead. Martin is listening to his fans, so these criticisms are feeding back into the series. In A Feast for Crows, Whitehead notes that the characters have begun mentioning that you can’t exactly trust things you hear from the maesters at the Citadel. The characters now know the lore is wrong.


I’ll conclude, therefore, by saying that Tolkien, and the writers who followed him, do to a large extent “keep their feet on their own mother-earth,” so this approach can be useful.

But subcreation is becoming a new and different thing.   World-building need not be an author’s solitary pursuit. It can be a collaborative effort, drawing on a range of knowledge that is limited only by the breadth of the author’s fan base. And not only “can be”, soon we may find that it must be. Once an author has a fan base, he may find that a world will be built whether he likes it or not. And literary criticism via the sciences is no longer a passive pursuit. In some cases, it appears to be able to affect the work it studies.

Signum University Fall Fundraiser

It’s that time of year again.  Signum University is having its annual fundraiser, with all the festivities appertaining thereto.  I gravely doubt that anyone who reads this page doesn’t already know that, but there are forces in this world beyond our ken.  Let this be as a sacrifice to the search-engine gods, that prosperity may rain down upon Signum like a summer shower.

The Evolution of Dracula

Warning: I am going to disagree with both Corey Olsen and Tom Hillman in this post, so I am wrong about at least some part of it.

I have just finished listening to the Episode 14, the last of the Mythgard Academy classes on Bram Stoker’s Dracula. They wound up with a discussion of how Dracula evolved over the twentieth century, from the novel to Dracula 2000. Corey and Tom both expressed some surprise that the “Christian spiritual elements” of the films had gotten more pronounced over time, even though society became more secular.

This trend does not surprise me at all.  I think they were misled by the word “spiritual”.  I would, instead, describe the Christian elements in Dracula as “ritual”.  From this point of view, in the novel, an ancient, supernatural being threatens modern secular society.  To defend itself, our quintet of heroes (a cross-section of society) calls on Professor Van Helsing to drag out of the dustbin of history the rituals developed by an older society to defend itself.  An exact analogy is the discovery of digitalis among old folk remedies, which was refined to treat cardiac disease in modern hospitals.

The religious ritual elements in the movies have been getting stronger because over the last half-century, Christian ritual elements are becoming much more prominent in American society.  It makes good business sense that they should be played up more in the movies.  (And of course, that is the only sense that matters to movie producers.)  One example: Donald Trump, who has based his entire campaign on breaking rules, felt obliged to pretend to be Christian to win the nomination (the famous “two Corinthians” episode). Public obeisance to religion is one rule he dared not break.  Another: After every mass shooting, every elected official sends out a communiqué about how their “prayers are with the families of the victims”.  It seems clear that “pray” in this context means “do nothing”.

I suggest that anyone who is surprised by the growing importance of Christian ritual in Dracula movies over time has been misled because they are thinking of Christianity in terms of its moral or ethical teachings.  If they think of it instead in terms of the inch-deep religiosity that dominates current American politics and culture, along with Hollywood’s natural attraction for superficiality, they will see two trends marching in lock-step.

P.S.  Bram Stoker looks like a feminist (not proven, though few feminists would find any problems in Dracula) because we naturally compare him with the blatant sexism of twentieth-century Hollywood.  Yeah, I’m kinda down on movies these days.

Proving a Thesis and its Limits

Prof. Olsen’s Dracula Lecture 8 includes a special bonus rant on the wrong way to write papers about literature. It matches up marvelously with the next section of my paper. The issue, in a nutshell, is that if students think up a thesis and then look for evidence to support it, they can usually find some.  Which is a good first step, but it doesn’t go far enough. Stopping there lets the writer get away with a thesis that’s not necessarily true. Ideally, the writer should also collect all the evidence that the thesis is wrong, and then decide which set is more convincing.

This is one of those cases where being a scientist helps.  Standard methods for data analysis take contrary evidence into account on an equal footing with supporting evidence, so the subject of Prof. Olsen’s rant is one of “the blunders we didn’t quite commit” (in Piet Hein’s words).

Which brings us to the core of the paper:  how do the regions of England that provide the names of hobbits relate to their role in the story?

Hypothesis: Family names from Birmingham or the West Midlands are close to the Narrator; names from other parts of England indicate families to be kept at arms length; and names that aren’t found in England indicate families that are liminal or distant from the Shire.

regions of England

Administrative Regions of England

I’ve previously defined the categories of families. The regions of England are from Wikipedia.  Birmingham, where J.R.R. Tolkien grew up, stretches from the “W” to the “a” in “West Midlands” now; it was much smaller a hundred years ago.

These are administrative regions, but I’ve checked with an English colleague, who confirms that the regions have cultural significance as well as political.  If they were both in London, for example, a person from Warwickshire and a person from Shropshire would agree that they are almost neighbors, as if  they came from the same place.  (An example of the opposite case would be a Virginian and a Marylander. We don’t feel like we’re from the same place, even when we’re both in California.) So it makes sense to include everyone from the West Midlands in a single category, which is essential to this project because the heat-maps are only that precise.

role vs. region.

Hobbit families, by region and role

When we count the number of hobbit families in each group and region, the relationship looks like this figure.  Birmingham names are dominant among the “close” group and rare among the others.  Names from other parts of England are almost as common among the close group, dominate the “arms-length” group, and drop off in the other groups.  Names that do not appear commonly in England are steady across the four groups.  Of the three clauses in the hypothesis, the first seems likely true, but the second and third are dubious.  Not so good.

group vs. region, weighted by importance

Hobbit families by group and region

All names are not equally important, though.  When the importance of each family to the story is included, the graph looks very different.  Important characters with Birmingham names are overwhelmingly close to the narrator.  Other English names dominate the “arms-length” group, as we expect.  The high value of the red line in the “close” group is almost entirely due to Sam Gamgee, as we noted ‘way back at the beginning of this project.  (If Sam were “close”, the red line would drop to 15 at “close” and the purple line would jump up above 35. More on that later.) The big spike of important, non-English names in the “liminal” category is mostly due to Merry Brandybuck.  “Distant” families aren’t important at all.

So, to take us back to the top of this post, the preponderance of the evidence supports the hypothesis. The “Birmingham” line slopes sharply downward, the “Middle-Earth” line of names that sound strange slopes upward, and the “England” line of names that should sound like they’re from far away is in between the two.  The causality runs only one way: if we’d tried to prove that families close to the Narrator were from the West Midlands, the first graph wouldn’t agree.  (Only about half of the “close” families are from there.)  Using a scientific approach tells more than one side of the story, and sets limits on the strength of the conclusion.  With that I shall close, and amuse myself by imagining the look on the face of my high-school English teachers if I’d ever turned in a paper with graphs in it.

Seward’s Folly

Dr. Seward, the narrator of a large part of Dracula, sometimes seems like he’s there to make the reader feel relatively intelligent.  His inability or unwillingness  to comprehend things outside his experienced make him, despite his self-avowed erudition, the last person to understand what’s going on.

Dr. Seward refers to himself as a “sceptic” four times over the course of the novel. Old Pyrrho being unavailable, I’ll step in to say that’s not really what he is. Skeptics don’t believe absolute knowledge is possible, and that includes their own preconceptions. Seward has a solid base of things he knows, and anything contradicting it gets disregarded.  Skeptics doubt their own working assumptions and even the framework in which they reason, the same as new information they receive.  Dr. Seward isn’t doing that at all.  In terms of Bayesian logic, he’s reasserting strong prior probabilities in the face of evidence to the contrary. There’s a word for that: the economist Noah Smith calls it “derp”.

Wait – what’s a “prior probability”? Bayes’s theorem is one of those amazing mathematical results that sits there for centuries before anyone really gets its significance. The basic idea (and you can look to Dr. Smith’s blogpost for a better explanation than mine) is that every thinker has a certain prior base of knowledge that she uses to interpret new information.  As new information comes in, it modifies the odds of each thing in the base, leaving the thinker with a new “prior distribution” of (in this case) the likelihood that each possible cause gives rise to future observed effects.  The mathematical operation that makes that happen is multiplication. One immediate result, therefore, is that if your prior distribution says the likelihood that thing X caused event Y is exactly zero, then the new information gets multiplied by zero.  There’s no amount of new data that can make you think X is really going on.  Dr. Seward has a prior distribution with zeroes assigned to everything he didn’t learn in school.  A skeptic uses a prior distribution with no zeroes in it at all (like a bell curve), because those zeroes are awesomely powerful things, and they’re not to be trusted.

Perhaps I’m being too hard on the good Doctor, but I feel justified because there are examples right next to him of better ways to reason. Characters who use prior probabilities derived from literature seem to work much better. Mina Harker, for example; at times she seems to be the brains of the whole outfit. Why do I say her priors come from literature? Mina may have taken Corey Olsen’s Faërie and Fantasy class (or the 19th-century equivalent).  She knows how to compose an oath so it doesn’t later cause trouble in an entirely-predictable way.  Maybe this is why Prof. Olsen says she’s “awesome”.  Mina reasons from stories. Here’s how she swears never to read her husband’s diary: “I would never open it unless it were for his own dear sake or for the sake of some stern duty.” (Chapter IX)  When I read that, I said, “Brava!” [1]   She drew the crucial lesson from Arthurian romances – be really careful how you swear oaths.  That “unless” clause made the happy ending possible.  (Oops – spoiler!) The sons of Fëanor should have been so wise.

Jonathan Harker has a similar skill at hedging his oaths, though I’m sure his prior probabilities come from law school.  On the expedition to Dracula’s castle, Mina tries to make him understand that her life is secondary in importance to ridding the world of vampires. “’Jonathan, I want you to promise me something on your word of honour. A promise made to me, but made holily in God’s hearing, and not to be broken though I should go down on my knees and implore you with bitter tears. Quick, you must make it to me at once.’
“’Mina,’ I said, ‘a promise like that, I cannot make at once. I may have no right to make it.’” (Chapter XXIV)  You have to love that “may have” — he won’t even commit to that, without consulting his books of precedents.  Any knight of the Round Table would have sworn instantly and suffered for it for the rest of the poem.

The similarity of Mina’s and Jonathan’s thought processes raises a question.  Instead of school, did Mina learn this mode of thought after meeting Jonathan, to be a better wife?  Doing such a thing would be consistent with her character, since it’s not much more difficult than memorizing Transylvanian railroad schedules without speaking Romanian. But I prefer to think that it’s the way she was educated. Victorian girls were taught by literary example (I admit it: my own prior probability distribution is influenced most heavily by Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland). I’m sure that a mode of thinking so consistent with the British legal system was one of the salutary qualities that attracted Jonathan to her in the first place.

[1] Some people write in the margins of books.  I talk to them.[back]

Brandy is too a Panacea

For anybody who’s laughing at the doctors in Bram Stoker’s Dracula who prescribe brandy for any illness: Remember that Elrond gave Gandalf a flask containing a cordial that was a sure-fire cure for hypothermia and squid attacks.

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.

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>

Page 2 of 3

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén