Idiosophy

A physicist loose among the liberal arts

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Computer Paleography

Olga has posted the second part of her exploration of the Sea, written with her usual élan.  I particularly liked the phrase “novel knowledge”. Invisible alliteration!

A word that jumped out at me was “sea-loathing”. I’ve never needed an antonym for “sea-longing” before, but if I need one in the future, I know now what to say.  Then I got to wondering if anyone has ever used that word before, so I asked my research assistant in Mountain View, CA.  The response was entertaining.

  • From the entry on St. Andrews in the Encyclopedia Britannica of 1888: “The golf links, which are considered the best in Scotland, and sealoathing attract many residents and visitors.”
  • From 1801, a book entitled Hints Designed to Promote Beneficence, Temperance, & Medical Science by John Coakley Lettsom, teaches us that “The great and opulent continually acknowledge the efficacy of Sea loathing.”

Umm, what?  Here’s the snippet from the Encyclopedia:


Mystery solved! Scanning those old books, sometimes a “b” looks like an “lo”.  Have pity on the poor scholar who one day tries to get that one straight in her head.

Let us close out this scholarly excursion with this thought from Lewis Carroll:

[The Snark has a] fondness for loathing machines,
Which it constantly carries about,
And believes that they add to the beauty of scenes —
A sentiment open to doubt.

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.

Digression

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.

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.

Goldberry Teaches Frodo a Lesson

The text for today’s cerebration comes from The Fellowship of the Ring, “In the House of Tom Bombadil”:

“Fair lady!” said Frodo again after a while. “Tell me, if my asking does not seem foolish, who is Tom Bombadil?”
“He is,” said Goldberry, staying her swift movements and smiling.
Frodo looked at her questioningly. “He is, as you have seen him,” she said in answer to his look.

LotR I,vii

If you want to, you can read Goldberry’s answer in a transcendent, almost supernatural way.  The verb “to be” is transitive; there has to be an object of the sentence. [1]  With one notable exception, it’s always used in the form “x is y“.  And lots of people interpret Goldberry’s answer as if Bombadil were that exception, as if he might be the sort of person who can simply say “I am”.  They give him some kind of divine character, especially if it’s the Seventies and transcendental religious experiences are all over the Zeitgeist.  That interpretation made it into Prof. Olsen’s mailbag. Here’s how he read the quotation, on the Tolkien Professor podcast from July 8th, 2009:

I read it that way too, at first. Because Seventies. The following sentences, though, undercut such a heavy interpretation. Why would Goldberry smile?  It could be out of pity or sympathy, I suppose, but those are exalted feelings in Tolkien.  They seem somehow too high for a down-to-earth figure like Goldberry. [2]

At this point my tropism towards wisecracks asserted itself. As I mentioned back at the beginning of this blog, meaning is a relationship between text and reader. If the reader is a smart-aleck, that affects the meaning of the text. And so it has come to pass. Here’s how I read that phrase now:

Kids these days call that a “dad-joke“.  Zooming out a bit: Goldberry is busy making dinner; Frodo asks her a question that doesn’t really hit the mark; she realizes he’s expecting a fairly complex answer; she tosses out a word-play [3] to let him know she heard the question.  Then, when she reaches a point where she can stop for a moment, she smiles at him to see if he appreciated the joke.  He didn’t get it.  When Goldberry sees the expression on Frodo’s face, she relents and tries to come up with an answer that fits better with his current frame of reference.

The two parts of Goldberry’s response aren’t repetitive.  The first is a gentle put-down. The second is a teacher’s attempt to tell the student that he’s making things too complicated, and should pay more attention to what’s in front of his eyes.  Frodo will find this useful a few days later, in Bree.


[1] Eco, Umberto, “On Being”, in Kant and the Platypus. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1997.

[2] Yes, I just called a water spirit “down to earth”. It doesn’t feel incorrect.

[3] I actually wrote “jeu-de-mots” here in my first draft, because reading Eco makes me think using just two languages is pedestrian. His essay in footnote 1 uses six languages in the first three pages.

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.

Daedalus versus Drone

The latest science-fictional device to hit the press is a swarm of hand-sized autonomous drones that can be dropped from a fighter or bomber.

Image credit: Popular Mechanics Magazine

As they fall, they form themselves into self-organized structures that fly about in ways that are by now familiar from a hundred YouTube videos.. The hardware and software originated at MIT. It’s called “Perdix”.

“Named after a character from Greek mythology,” the Popular Mechanics article says. Perdix is pretty obscure, so I looked him up. Ovid’s Metamorphoses, book 8.

Perdix was Daedalus’s nephew. Long before the Icarus incident, he showed himself to be an even cleverer engineer than Daedalus. Invented the compass, for example.  (The geometry one, not the navigation one.). Daedalus, jealous of his status, was enraged by the boy’s presumption and threw him off the Acropolis.  Halfway down the cliff, Perdix was saved when Minerva changed him into a partridge and he could fly the rest of the way down.  Partridges never fly more than a few feet off the ground because they still have PTSD from that event.

I have been amusing myself for a while now, speculating about reasons this story never gets mentioned in the press.

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.”

Envoi

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.

Farewell to 2016

This was a bad year in a lot of ways.  Among the wars, crimes, and self-inflicted sucking chest wounds of politics, an unnaturally large number of artists died, some before their time.  The artists got a great deal of the attention. I think that’s because we all had them in common. We all have our own sets of events, but losing David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, Carrie Fisher, and Debbie Reynolds (et depressing cetera) is in the overlap of the giant Venn diagram. Good riddance, 2016.

But I’d like to close out the year by celebrating two people who died this year, whose books taught me a lot.  No tragedy here; their combined age was 174.  But I thought about them today, and they match the theme of this blog perfectly.

Sidney Drell was a brilliant physicist.  His Relativistic Quantum Mechanics and Relativistic Quantum Fields, both written with James Bjorken, were the texts that really cracked quantum field theory open for me.  Writing well about quantum field theory is hard.  With most authors, by chapter 3 I give up on the words and just read the equations.  Bjorken and Drell’s books go the other direction.  Reading the words was good enough that I could figure out the equations for myself.  Prof. Drell also became one of the leading US authorities on national security, leading a group called JASON. When I got my first job after leaving academe in 1990, all the books I needed weren’t in my building; they were in the JASON library.  Seeing Sidney Drell’s name there was the only familiar thing about that job.

Umberto Eco was Umberto Eco.  How on earth a semiotician became a celebrity is a thing at which I’ll always marvel.  A friend who’s better at reading than I am gave me a copy of The Name of the Rose when I was in college.  The way Eco wove his erudition seamlessly into a page-turner plot was a new experience for me, and I started digging up all the other works by him I could find.  From his literary criticism I learned a new way to look at books, after which I finally “got” what so many twentieth-century authors were doing with non-linear flows of time.  And then, he published Foucault’s Pendulum.  That book was practically written for me and my friends. There might have been a few half-drunken dramatic readings from it at various parties over the years (eyewitness accounts differ).  And Belbo’s disquisition on the types of people in the world let me finally come out of the closet and embrace my identity as a Moron.

So adieu, maîtres. This wouldn’t be the same blog without you.

Institute for the Preservation of Technology

Brad DeLong has a great post about regional economic revitalization that’s attracting a lot of attention across the Web.  He’s responding to an article by Noah Smith that looks at the woes of the Rust Belt and presents four ideas for what can be done about them.  Prof. DeLong is less sanguine.  He sees real obstacles to any kind of government redistribution, and from conversations I’ve had with the demographic group in question (aka “my family”), he’s probably right.  But I think I have an idea for this one.

I’m already on the record with one idea for job growth, which was aimed at humanities scholars.  They’re not the primary problem, though.  The big need for employment in the USA these days is among people who didn’t finish college.  The older generations are particularly precarious.  Once we get into our fifties, we just don’t adapt as fast as we used to, so the turbulent pace of the new economy can be a strain.

As Lyman Stone has pointed out [1], and everyone else seems to agree, universities are the key to economic growth in this century, but the people we’re interested in aren’t to be found in universities. How do we bridge the gap between the solution and the people who need it?  The traditional response from the government has been to re-train and re-educate workers in new technology.  That hasn’t worked so well, so it’s time to turn it sideways.

My answer is not quite “technology”, it’s τεχνόω, to instruct in an art. We need universities to create institutions for the preservation of twentieth-century τέχνη.  Those old manufacturing workers, sheet-metal-benders, caregivers, farmers, weavers, etc. know a lot of things that are in danger of disappearing because they’re not in a Web-accessible format. [2]

Interlude:  Just this once, I’ll bring in an example from my day job.  The separation that air traffic controllers maintain between aircraft en route has to be at least five nautical miles.  Why five?  There are several likely explanations, but the truth is that nobody knows. It was set in an era when investigations weren’t formalized like they are today.  Those old controllers, long gone now, tried a lot of things and this one works so nobody’s changed it.  Let’s never forget important knowledge like that again!

The workers for whom the new economy has no place shouldn’t be students of these new institutes, they should be staff. I imagine them as the shop-floor equivalent of Senior Fellows at think tanks. That type of position always seems to be available for high-ranking political figures when their terms are up. Why just them? Frankly, society would derive value from listening to my father-in-law explain how to re-use waste heat from a fireplace to make a water heater more efficient, just as it does from former Secretaries of Whatever writing op-eds about their policies. [3]

The other half of the staff would be young people who are familiar with the most-recent means of mass communication via the Internet.  This Institute would be dedicated to the knowledge of people who will never write a book, and perhaps their knowledge is better suited to audio, video, or HTML5 animation anyway.  The younger half of the staff will get everything into a transmissible format, properly cross-linked, human- and AI-readable.  On top of all this newly-available knowledge, a superstructure of journals, peer review, synthesis, and scholarly progress can be erected in the usual manner.

Good universities that can sponsor these institutes exist in all fifty states.  Institutes like this would naturally be dispersed, and might even be naturally concentrated in areas forsaken by the flashier parts of the economy.  The Institute for Preservation of Technology doesn’t have to suffer from the negative reactions big government gets in rust-belt America, because it isn’t a “jobs program”.  It isn’t a handout. It would create important jobs that can’t be performed by anyone else. It would give proper respect to the people who kept the USA running for half a century, making sure that they and their hard work are remembered.


[1] Readers of Idiosophy already know Lyman Stone from his opus on Westeros.
[2] We saw this during the mobilization to prevent the Y2K bug from destroying civilization.  Old COBOL programmers were called out of retirement because much that once was, is lost.
[3] My father-in-law’s name is Frank.

Comments on The Dispossessed

As usual, I’m a month or so behind the Mythgard Academy.  Had I been present at the sessions, or had I an ansible that could reach back in time with a text message, these are the things I would have said about The Dispossessed.  No overarching theme, just three disconnected observations.

The Physicist at Work

This book has the best descriptions I’ve read of a theoretical physicist at work. I searched the Web for biographies of Ursula LeGuin to find out if she had any physicists in her family — no. She did this all with imagination, and it’s spectacular. I recognized myself in almost every line of those scenes.  Usually, works of fiction that deal with a subject I know about in real life are excruciating.  The only fictional scientists I can handle are the humorous ones: Dr. Zarkov from Flash Gordon; Chris Knight (Val Kilmer) from Real Genius (I know what you’re thinking, no, Laszlo was my college roommate).  But Shevek’s struggles with his work, and how it affects his relationships with other people, ring true.

Also, the way LeGuin describes Shevek’s original insight isn’t wrong.  There’s nothing there that’s obviously insane; were relativity one day to be falsified, the explanation might well sound like that.  Only exception is the paragraph that talks about “the interval” as the key insight.  Replacing the absolute position of objects in time and space with intervals as the fundamental description of a system is, in fact, the heart of special relativity.  But by that point I was too smitten to care.

Communism

I found myself yelling at my iPod whenever Corey referred to Annares as a communist society.  Anarres is anarchist (see it in the name?); Thu is the communist society.  The people of Anarres refer to citizens of less-evolved societies as “archists”, a collective term for capitalists and communists.  (If you want to hear more about anarchism, here you go.  It’s all Real Genius, all the time, here at Idiosophy.)  Anarres draws heavily from Marxism, but Communism was not much like what Marx had in mind.

Putting myself back in the mindset of the early 1970s, the Cold War is all over this book.  It’s all happening on Urras, though.  There weren’t any neutral observers to the Cold War, because nobody could be far enough from the bombs to be safe.  LeGuin is showing us what the USA (which I can hear inside “Nio Esseia”) would have looked like, if anyone could be neutral.

Vea, Siegfried, and Roy

Corey did a good job getting through the uncomfortable politics of Vea.  All through that disquisition, I found myself thinking of Siegfried and Roy.  Vea is in the same line of work as they:  There’s an awesomely powerful force around, and by making a public show of dominating it, you gain wealth and status.  In Urras, that force is the patriarchy.

Vea didn’t passively accept dominance, she figured out how to manipulate it and turn it to her own ends.  Because she was so good at it, she became wealthy, popular, and influential. However, when you’re playing that game, you have to be perfect.  One mistake, and it all blows up in your face.  When Roy Horn got bitten by a tiger, his career was over.  He was lucky to escape with his life and his fortune mostly intact.  Vea got off easy, by comparison, with just a dry-cleaning bill and (one presumes) a case of the shakes in her room after all the guests had gone.


Update:  Brad DeLong, to whom I have referred readers before, was posting a discussion of “communism and related issues” on his blog as I typed this.  The Dispossessed features prominently.  As does an interesting discussion of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” which TIL comes from the Acts of the Apostles.

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