A physicist loose among the liberal arts

Category: trivial (Page 1 of 2)

I ate verbs

Brenton Dickieson (whose name my autocorrect fights with all its strength) made his way through John Calvin’s Institution of Christian Religion.  A formidable accomplishment (944 pages!), but such are the labors of the theologian.  It’s the best way to teach them perseverance and humility, since they never have to collimate optics in the laboratory.

"Ate" as a suffixAt one point, Brent vouchsafed that next time through, he will read a modern translation that is free from “all those obscure -ate verbs we lost long ago in verb form (like arrogate, abominate, irradiate, obviate, vitiate, actuate, inculcate, supplicate, promulgate, propitiate, intimate, abrogate, expiate, execrate, extenuate, expostulate, derogate, vacillate, and, of course, predestinate).”

These verbs are far from lost!  Nuclear physicists irradiate many things. (Only doing it unintentionally is frowned upon.)  In engineering documents I have frequently used “actuate”, “abrogate”, “inculcate”, “extenuate”, and “promulgate” and none of my reviewers has raised an eyebrow.  To abominate, execrate, or derogate things is frowned upon (deprecated?) in the modern, hyper-polite workplace, so I always have to change those.

My status as a liberal artisan is known and indulged so I can use “obviate” and “vitiate” with only a remark en passant from the editor about not using too many “Joe-words”. “Vacillate” is the mot juste for dealing with recalcitrant bureaucrats. And of course I challenge anyone to spend an hour among engineers without observing any behavior for which “arrogate” is the only possible verb.

All told, of Brent’s 19 lost verbs, I use 12 regularly and get away with 9.  I hope that this effort to enumerate them may mitigate his dismay, in part.


Thomas Cahill relates (p. 160) that the account of the “Cattle Raid of Cooley in the Book of Leinster is followed by a scribal addition in Latin, which is one of the finest texts it has been my privilege to encounter.

I who have copied down this story, or more accurately fantasy, do not credit the details of the story or fantasy. Some things in it are devilish lies, and some are poetical figments; some seem possible and others not; some are for the delectation of idiots.

My boss won’t let me put that on any of my technical reports, so I am adopting it here as the official disclaimer of Idiosophy.

Works Consulted

Cahill, Thomas. How the Irish Saved Civilization. Anchor Books, 1995.

The meaning of “Hwæt”

Elaine Treharne from Stanford is tweeting The Dream of the Rood, because that is the kind of thing she does.  I thought I’d better find out something about the poem, so I headed over to the Fount of All Knowledge to read up.

Hwaet from "Dream of the Rood"There, at the beginning of the poem, is the familiar “hwæt”, and with the the clarity that comes from being at the bottom of my first mug of tea, I suddenly knew how to translate that word.  It means:

<!DOCTYPE html-ms>
<HTML lang="ang">

This seems like an obvious web-nerd concept, but the three biggest search engines agree that they can’t find it out there, so I’m writing it down here. In retrospect, it’s not surprising that  there’s an ISO-639 language code for Anglo-Saxon. (Middle English is “enm”.) No one has established an SGML document type definition for parchment manuscripts, perhaps due to the shortage of monks, so I had to invent that one.

Sing along with LotR

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

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

Hymn to Elbereth: Princess Leia’s Theme

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

Bombadil’s Song against the Barrow Wights: Estuans interius

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

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

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

Legolas’s song of Nimrodel: “Nadine”

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

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

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

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

The worst of all: Namárië

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

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

and that’s when the paramedics arrived.

When Dwarfs Were Trendy

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

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

increasing number of dwarfs in english publications

frequency of “dwarf”

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

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

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


English newspapers are published by muggles.

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

Beating a Dead Tuna

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

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

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

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

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

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

timelines of tuna, kippers, pilchards, and trout

Fish mentions in British periodicals

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

Summing up the facts we have:

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

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

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

Tirion upon Whole Wheat Toast


In which a perfectly good idea goes down in flames.

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

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

Silmarillion, Chapter 5

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

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

Exponential growth of tuna harvest

Worldwide Tuna Catch by year

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

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


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

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

Tuna vs. Tunny

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

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

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

[3] For once the pun is not intentional.

A Contribution to the Mathematical Theory of Footnotes

Tom Hillman is shaking his head at editors who footnote things that can’t conceivably need footnotes.  When we discussed this on Twitter, Tom tried to cast it in the form of a natural law:

That got me wondering what the utility of a footnote might be.  As with any form of communication, it must be related to the difference in knowledge of the writer and the reader.  Let’s suppose there’s a set of intended readers.  Some of them know the facts in question; others do not.  For any fact i, define R(i) as the fraction of the audience that knows it. This knowledge is measured at the point where the footnote is marked.  Define A(i) as the author’s knowledge of the fact on a scale from 0 to 1, where 0 is perfect cluelessness and the total knowledge of all relevant facts is normalized to 1.

Now, we can use a result from information theory called the information gain between two probability distributions. In place of the two distributions, we use R(i) and A(i), and the utility of a footnote is:

U = –Σ R(i) log[R(i)/A(i)]

where the sum is over all facts i.  (Sorry, Tom — in Digital Humanities, the logarithms just keep coming.)

Using the example in the linked post, the text contains two facts: A. E. Houseman’s name and the title of the book A Shropshire Lad.  R(1) = 1 and R(2) =1; all the readers know these things because C.S. Lewis just told us. Since R=A, the contribution to the utility from these terms is log(1) = 0.   The footnote adds a third fact, that the book was published in  1896. How useful is that? Let’s suppose that Idiosophers are typical readers of this book.  Before reading that line, I’d have said A Shropshire Lad was published in the 1890’s.  The number 1896 has 11 bits of information in it, of which I knew 8. (8/11)*log(8/11)=-0.33, where the answer is in bits because I took the log to the base 2.

The total utility of this footnote is therefore U=0+0+0.33, or one third of a bit of information.  (For purposes of comparison, a useful footnote might contain tomorrow’s winning Pick-3 lottery numbers, which is 10 bits of information.)  This footnote is therefore almost worthless, so by the Hillman-Hoffman law, its appearance in the book was almost inevitable.

Nota Bene: the utility formula goes to infinity if the author does not know what he’s talking about and the readers do, i.e. if A(i) = 0 when R(i)>0. This is the case for student papers, which implies that footnotes there are of infinite utility. There is no way to have too many footnotes in a thesis.


The Monday meeting of the Defenders of Denethor is now in session. I commented over there, but I’m putting this here because Stephen’s got a serious discussion going on, and this gets less serious the more I think about it.

Where I think we both ended up is, Denethor is doing the right thing according to his reason. His proposed course of action is entirely defensible, all his priorities are well established, he’s acting within his authority, and if anything went wrong his CYA package was in order. Unfortunately, he’s operating outside the theater of reason alone. The circumstances require faith in Something much greater than the works of Men, which Denethor doesn’t have, or hasn’t found use for in government.

Here in our world, any christian (and large numbers from other religions) will tell you we have Scripture to tell us about that Something.  Nothing of the sort exists in Gondor.  I suppose the Steward could go ask Elrond, which is kind of what Boromir is doing at the Council.  Or he could ask Galadriel and Celeborn, since they were around for even more of the backstory.  Or Círdan would have an interesting perspective.  But these people all have their own interests, their own motives.  He’d never be sure they were telling him everything.  If you really want Denethor to take supernatural powers into his calculations, you’d have to give him something in writing.

What img_0159 if Denethor got hold of a copy of the Letters?  Would that have the same theological impact as the Epistles of St. Paul have in ours?  After all, Middle Earth has an omniscient creator (he’d say “subcreator”) who knows and sees all, and has a Plan for the world.

The book would contain the creator’s secret thought,  his intentions that didn’t make it into the obvious plot. It contradicts itself in some places, and is frustratingly silent when it gets to some things you really need to know. Some parts would make no sense at all to a character from LotR. It has all the trappings of the foundational text of a religion.

Somehow, though, I don’t see the Men of Gondor accepting it that way.

Take the Canon Quiz!

Brenton’s at it again. He has made a manageable list of canonical works, “for those who are inclined to soak in this great tradition.” I’m all for that. Let a hundred Harolds bloom. But it seems like missing the point of (a) lists of canonical works and (b) the World-Wide Web, if you make one without making a way to keep score.

Click the appropriate button for whether you’ve read the work (1 point), read part of it (half a point), or haven’t read it at all (no points).  I scored 12.5. I resisted the temptation to give bonus points for reading things in their original languages.

Read Partly Nope
Foundational Work (Theocratic Age)
The Iliad (Greek, 8th BCE)
The Odyssey (Greek, 8th BCE)
Virgil, The Aeneid (Latin, 29-19 BCE)
The Bible
Late Medieval and Renaissance (Aristocratic Age)
Dante Alighieri, Comedia/The Divine Comedy (Italian, 1308-1320)
Chaucer, Canterbury Tales (English, 1475)
Love’s Labour’s Lost (English, 1597)
Hamlet (English, 1603)
Othello (English, 1604)
King Lear (English, 1606)
Macbeth (English, 1611)
Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote (Spanish, 1605)
Moliere, The Misanthrope (French, 1666)
John Milton, Paradise Lost (English, 1667)
James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson (English, 1791)
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust (German, 1772-1790)
19th Century+
William Wordsworth
• ‘The Ruined Cottage’ (English, 1800)
• ‘Tintern Abbey’ (English, 1798)
Jane Austen, Persuasion (English, 1818)
Walt Whitman,
Leaves of Grass (English, 1855)
• ‘Song of Myself’ (English, 1855)
Emily Dickinson, The Poems of Emily Dickinson (English, 1800s)
Charles Dickens, Bleak House (English, )
George Eliot, Middlemarch (English, 1874)
Henrik Ibsen, Peer Gynt (Norwegian, 1876)
Leo Tolstoy, Hadji Murad (Russian, 1896-1904)
Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time = Remembrance of Things Past (1913)
James Joyce, Ulysses (English, 1922)
Virginia Woolf
Orlando (English, 1928)
A Room of One ‘s Own (English, 1929)
Franz Kafka, The Blue Octavo Notebooks (German, 1917-1919)
Jorge Luis Borges, The Garden of Forking Paths (Spanish, 1941)
Pablo Neruda, Canto General (Spanish, 1938-1950)
Samuel Beckett
Endgame (English, 1957)
Murphy (English, 1938)
Waiting for Godot (English, 1953)

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