A physicist loose among the liberal arts

Category: Slow learner

The Agony of the Failed Archivist

One of the strangest things about last winter’s course in literary Research Methods was the citations in the reading assignments.

Back in the 1980s I subscribed to a bunch of magazines of politics and ideas: The Nation, Harper’s, The Atlantic (it was on the left back then), In These Times, Utne Reader…. All of these magazines had a section in the back entitled something like “Books and the Arts”. I would read the articles if they were talking about an author or a subject that interested me. I would just skim the ones that devoted half their column-inches to hashing out arguments so obscure that even the writers seemed to have to make an effort to care.

All that remains of the glory of old

I thought I was making a gigantic intellectual swerve when I decided to start studying literature, so it was a surprise to see that half the references in the reading assignments were to magazine issues that I’d read, and in some cases even vaguely remembered. All the back issues used to be piled up in a precarious stack at the end of the sofa, where I could refer back to them easily. (I even had a minor triumph one time, when a dispute about the price of anti-matter came up in the conversation and I was able to grab the relevant article out of Physics Today in one minute. It was only about 16 inches down.)

I’ve moved three times since then, and the Army proverb is true: “3 moves = 1 fire”. Besides, my wife had some concerns about that style of decorating. And ce que la femme veut, Dieu le veut, as they say down at the Farm Supply.

So this week’s project had me reading an article about William Gibson and his relationship to postmodernism, which referred the reader to an article in In These Times in 1988. Alas, the ITT online archive goes back only to 2001, so I can’t track down the reference without a library. It’s frustrating — I know I used to have that issue!

I wonder if medieval Scholastics, trying to track down a quotation from some ancient Greek, ever had the same feeling.

A Narrow Escape from Theory

An interesting convergence of material in the Tolkien blogosphere lately.

Stephen Winter started us off with an excellent trio of posts about the scent of athelas in the Houses of Healing:
Tom Hillman collected these three posts with approbation.
Olga added a guest post at Stephen’s joint:

Shawn Marchese at “The Prancing Pony” ponders what elves must smell like
And last, my little squib , which is high enough to be visible only because all those other weightier essays were sitting on the other end of the see-saw, so my end rose. [1]

Because I have just survived a course on literary theory, I can see that the world has been spared from an outbreak of Newest Criticism by sheer luck. After all, the world has endured (says Wikipedia) historical and and biographical criticism, New Criticism, formalism, Russian formalism, structuralism, post-structuralism, Marxism, normal feminism and French feminism, post-colonialism, new historicism, deconstruction, reader-response criticism, and psychoanalytic criticism. To which our lecturers added performance theory, queer theory, native-american theory, and even oceanic theory.

None of us is (currently) a college professor, else we’d have beefed up our essays with citations, peer-reviewed each others’ work and approved it for publication, and now we’d be the founders of Olfactory Theory.

Works cited

[1] Nabokov, Vladimir. Bend Sinister, 1947. Idiosophers can pad reference lists as well as anyone.

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.

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.

This will not faze them

The book I’m reading right now has three levels of authorship.  (Searching the Web for the phrase “levels of authorship” leads you to a maze of twisty passages, all alike, most leading to swamps of tedium and despond.  This link doesn’t.)

The book is The Chemical Wedding by Christian Rosencreutz, by Johann Valentin Andreae, by John Crowley. Or is it The Chemical Wedding by Christian Rosencreutz, by Johann Valentin Andreae, by John Crowley?  Or is it one of the other possibilities?

One reason I love librarians is that they can catalogue this book “by author”, file it on a shelf, and then find it again later.  Librarians can handle anything.

Historical note:  When I first read this book (after a reference in Foucault’s Pendulum), it was in German. I mentally translated “Die chymische Hochzeit von Christian Rosencreutz” as the “Chemical Wedding of” C.R., not the “Chemical Wedding by“.  That was only the first of many bruises I got from attempting to read a book in renaissance German (in Fraktur!) after learning modern Hochdeutsch in high school. I knew I was going to like Crowley’s version when correcting that mistake was the first sentence in his Introduction.

Modern note: It never ceases to delight me that I can just pull up 400-year-old texts from my dining-room table.  Living in the future is in many ways awesome.

I understand medievalists a bit better

Brad DeLong has an extraordinary economics blog. You can find there lots of economic history, center-left politics, and also unique compositions like a Socratic dialog concerning the Greek fiscal crisis, jokes about the Valar, and who knows what else.

This weekend, he posted about the (lack of) philosophical foundations of quantum mechanics. [1] That’s an interesting topic in itself, but what struck me was the fact that he was quoting from an optically-scanned PDF of a magazine article by John Bell.  The OCR program wasn’t invented for physics, so when we do things like stick a greek letter into an english sentence, it gets confused. But here’s the thing. It wasn’t hard to read.  Because I’ve been through the arguments a dozen times before, it was easy to figure out that”If we take advantage of the indistinguishability of p and p…” actually has two ρ’s in it, and one of them has a circumflex over it.  (By symmetry of the copulating conjunction, it doesn’t matter which one. [That’s a physics joke])

When I look at a medieval document, I can usually recognize a bunch of the words. But understanding full sentences isn’t as easy, so I find a paper by a medieval scholar who interprets it. How do I know she got it right?  This little exercise in point-of-view reversal has given me a lot more confidence that they know what they’re talking about.

[1] If you’re wondering why, a speculation: Prof. DeLong frequently discusses the problems with dynamic stochastic general-equilibrium models of the macroeconomy. This may be a case where he’s looking at physics for guidance about how to stay connected to reality when your equations are fiendishly complicated.


I can’t believe I just noticed this: Hobbits don’t like boats, right? The Shire is a fictional version of the West Midlands, right?

regions of England

Administrative Regions of England

Of the nine regions of England, eight are on the coast. I’d expect that from a country that’s (a) an island and (b) a maritime power. One of the regions doesn’t touch the sea. It’s only natural that, compared to the others, West Midlanders would get a reputation as incompetent mariners.

So is this the origin of the sidelong remarks in The Lord of the Rings about how incompetent hobbits are on the water? Even if it’s not, I’m perfectly happy to find another reason that the Brandybucks belong in the “liminal” category.

Next question – is this why mariners are exotic heroes from far away in LotR and The Silmarillion?

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