A physicist loose among the liberal arts

Comment on “The Forests and the Trees”

winter stream with trees and snow

Silver Maples, after the willows

J.R.R. Tolkien said in Letter 339, “In all my works I take the part of trees as against all their enemies….” In her essay “The Forests and the Trees” (2017) and her earlier essay “Taking the Part of Trees” (2000), Prof. Flieger suggests that Old Man Willow, the first evil character the hobbits encounter in The Lord of the Rings, shows that JRRT was not being exactly truthful there.  “Fine words, but the reality is somewhat different. … Never does he explicitly take the part of the Old Forest against the hobbits.”

The Old Forest is definitely a dark and evil place.  But why?  Bombadil lays out the history:

It was not called the Old Forest without reason, for it was indeed ancient, a survivor of vast forgotten woods; and in it there lived yet, ageing no quicker than the hills, the fathers of the fathers of trees, remembering times when they were lords. The countless years had filled them with pride and rooted wisdom, and with malice. But none were more dangerous than the Great Willow: his heart was rotten, but his strength was green; and he was cunning, and a master of winds, and his song and thought ran through the woods on both sides of the river. His grey thirst spirit drew power out of the earth and spread like fine root—threads in the ground, and invisible twig—fingers in the air, till it had under its dominion nearly all the trees of the Forest from the Hedge to the Downs. (I, vii)

The ecologists and foresters have a fact to add here, which puts a very different face on Old Man Willow and the Old Forest:  Willows are not forest trees! They can’t handle shade.  Willows are what ecologists call a “pioneer species”.  That is, when a place is cleared by fire, bulldozers, or other calamities, willow trees are the first to re-sprout along the stream banks.  They send out “fine root-threads in the ground” and stabilize the soil.  That gives sturdier but slower-growing trees a chance to survive rainstorms and flooding.  But once the maples and ashes get established, they overgrow the willows, which then die out.  (And after a while, oaks do the same thing to the maples. C’est la vie.)  In a mature ecosystem, willow trees are just annoying weeds. (Pollan, pp. 106-7)  Old Man Willow shouldn’t be there.  He’s twisting nature out of its habit, trying to preserve his own status beyond his due.

Old Man Willow is a familiar character. We’ve seen his kind elsewhere in the Legendarium.  When the Old Forest was young, he was “lord”, but when his time was past, he wouldn’t let go and accept his natural fate. He used his magic (singing, as Bombadil describes it) to enslave the other plants of the forest so he wouldn’t have to die.  Willow-Man’s heart is rotten exactly the same way as the hearts of the Kings of Númenór.

At Isengard, Gandalf gently points out that Treebeard doesn’t really understand evil beings, because “you have not plotted to cover all the world with your trees and choke all other living things,” as someone evil would. (III, x) Old Man Willow is exactly the type Gandalf means.  His trees “attacked the Hedge: they came and planted themselves right by it.” (I,vi)  Contrary to Prof. Flieger’s expectation, Tolkien can’t “take the part” of the Old Forest trees any more than he can take the part of the Haradrim.  They’re the slaves of an evil master, and their own hearts have been filled with pride and malice thereby.  Here’s another Númenór parallel: “proud” or “pride” is used about the Númenóreans 12 times in the 13 pages of Akallabêth.  I think we’re supposed to see them the same way, with Old Man Willow fighting for unnatural immortality with wood and song as Ar-Pharazôn did with gold and iron.

In her 2000 essay, Prof. Flieger quotes Jane Chance’s Tolkien’s Art: A Mythology for England, saying “‘Old Man Willow and his malice represent the living embodiment of the parent Tree of Death’, presumably in Eden.”  Flieger calls this “overstated”, but I don’t think it is.  JRRT knew a lot about trees; it’s no stretch to think he knew that a willow in the heart of a dense forest would be a perversion of nature.  And Old Man Willow’s evil nature sprouts from exactly the same root as the great evil among Men, the central theme of LotR.  Jane Chance nailed it.  I’m going to have to read that book.

So, in conclusion, I think I’m willing to accept JRRT’s letter at face value.  He takes the part of the trees in the same way a feminist takes the part of women: supporting those who have historically been abused and exploited, but with no obligation to defend Messalina or Elizabeth Báthory.  To the Old Forest, “all their enemies” includes at least one tree.  The Old Forest was “hostile to two-legged creatures because of the memory of many injuries”, but not all those injuries were caused by the two-legged creatures.  A monster among their own kind inflicted the worst.

Works Cited

Carpenter, Humphrey , ed. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (1981).

Flieger, Verlyn “The Forests and the Trees”, in There Would Always Be a Fairy Tale, KSU Press (2017): 129-144.

Flieger, Verlyn. “Taking the Part of Trees: Eco-Conflict in Middle-earth.” J.R.R. Tolkien and His Literary Resonances: Views of Middle Earth. Contributions to the Study of Science Fiction and Fantasy 89 (2000): 147-158.

Plants for a Future. Database., accessed 20 Jan 2018.

Pollan, Michael.  Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education. Grove Press, 1991.

United States Department of Agriculture. PLANTS database. Accessed 20 Jan 2018.

The Story of Half-Cock

I went looking for Kabyle fairy-tales on line, and found a collection at the National Library of France. This is the weirdest story from that volume. It’s not a tale from my wife’s village; it’s from a coastal town about 80 miles to the west.


Once upon a time, a man had two wives. One was intelligent, the other stupid. They shared ownership of a rooster. One day they got into an argument over it, which they resolved by cutting it down the middle. Each wife took half. The stupid wife cooked her half; the intelligent wife let her half live. It walked on one leg, and had one wing. After several days had passed, Half-Cock said to his mistress: “Pack me some provisions so I can go on a pilgrimage.” She gave him what he needed for his voyage.

Half-Cock woke up early the next morning and took the pilgrim’s road. Around mid-day, he felt tired and went down to a little brook to rest. At that same moment, a jackal came down to the brook to drink. Half-Cock jumped onto the jackal’s back, pulled out a hair, stuck it under his wing, and went back to the road. He kept going until nightfall, and climbed up in a tree to spend the night.

Before Half-Cock could get completely settled in, he saw a lion pass by his tree. As soon as he saw that, he jumped on the lion’s back and stole a hair, which he tucked under his wing with the jackal’s hair. The next morning, he got up early and got back on the road. When the road passed through the middle of a forest, he met a boar and said to him, “Give me a hair from your back, as the King of the Beasts and the most cunning of jackals have done!” The boar replied, “Since these two important Persons have done so, I also shall give you what you ask.” He pulled a hair from his back and gave it to Half-Cock.

Half-Cock resumed his journey and arrived at the great house of a king. He started to sing, and his song said, “Tomorrow the King will die, and I will take his wife.” When he heard these worlds, the King ordered his guards to seize Half-Cock and throw him in the pen with the sheep and the goats, so they would tread him into the dirt and kill him under their feet and the King would be rid of his song. The guards took him prisoner and threw him into the pen to perish.

But when he was in the pen, Half-Cock took the jackal’s hair from under his wing and burned it in a fire. As soon as he had put the hair near the flames, the jackal appeared, asking, “Why are you burning my hair? The moment I felt it, I came running!” Half-Cock replied, “You see my situation; get me out of here!”

“Easy enough,” said the jackal, and he gave a yelp to summon all his brothers. The whole pack joined him, and he ordered them, “My brothers, save this Half-Cock for me, because he has a hair from my back that he’s put in the fire. I don’t want to burn; pull him out of this stable full of the King’s beasts, and get my hair out of his hands.” As soon as he had spoken, the jackals ran into the pen, throttled all the sheep and goats, and rescued Half-Cock. in

The next morning, the King found the pen deserted and his livestock dead. He looked for Half-Cock, but without success. That evening, though, at dinner time, Half-Cock started singing as he had the previous night. The King called his guards and said, “Seize him and throw him in the stable with the oxen, so he shall be crushed beneath their hooves.” The guards took him prisoner again, and threw him into the middle of the stable. But once he landed in the stable, Half-Cock took the lion’s hair from under his wing and held it in the fire. Immediately the lion arrived and roared, “Why are you burning my hair? From my cave, I smelled the odor of burning hair. I came running to find out why you’re doing it.”

Half-Cock replied, “You see my situation; get me out of here.” The lion roared to summon his brothers. His brothers arrived quickly and asked, “Why did you call us?”

“Get Half-Cock out of the stable, because he has one of my hairs that he can put in the fire. If you don’t rescue him, he’ll burn it, and I don’t want to smell my hair burning as long as I live.” His brothers obeyed him, and they soon had killed all the cattle.

The next morning, the King saw that his cattle were all dead, and he was so angry that he almost choked on his fury. He went looking for Half-Cock to kill him with his own hands. The King searched a long time without finding him, and eventually went back home to rest.

At sundown, Half-Cock returned to his usual place and sang the same song as before. The King called his guards and commanded them, “This time, put him in the most secure room you can find, lock all the doors up tight, and leave him there all night. I will kill him myself in the morning.” The guards captured Half-Cock again and locked him in the King’s Treasury. When Half-Cock landed in the room, he saw all the money under his feet. He waited until the master of the treasury was asleep, took the boar’s hair from under his wing, lit a fire, and put the hair in it. Immediately the boar came running, and the earth shook beneath his feet. He shoved his head straight through the wall, halfway collapsing it, until he saw Half-Cock and demanded, “Why are you burning my hair?”

“I’m sorry to bother you, but you see my situation. The King wants me dead, and tomorrow he will kill me with his own hands if you don’t get me out of this prison.”

The boar replied, “That’s easy. Don’t worry, I’ll open the door for you. But you’ve been here long enough. Get up, and grab enough money to keep you and your children.”

Half-Cock obeyed; he rolled around in the gold so the pieces got stuck in his wings and his feet and swallowed as much as he could until he was filled up. Then he went back along the road that he’d traveled the first day, and when he got home, he crawled underneath the mat. He called to his mistress and said, “Hit me now, don’t be afraid of hurting me.” His mistress set herself to striking him with a stick until he said, “That’s enough. Now roll up the mat.” She did as he said, and saw the floor underneath gleaming with gold.

At the time when Half-Cock returned from his pilgrimage, the two wives also had a dog, a female, that they owned together. The stupid wife, seeing that her sister wife had come into a lot of money, said to her, “We need to split up the dog, too.” The intelligent wife replied, “We can’t make anything of her; let her live. I give the half that I own to you.” The stupid wife said to the dog, “Go on a pilgrimage like Half-Cock did, and bring me back some money.”

The dog got up to obey her mistress. She set out on the road in the morning, and arrived at a fountain. She was thirsty, so she wanted to drink. When she lowered her head, she saw a yellow rock in the middle of the fountain. She picked it up in her mouth, and ran back home. When she got back to her mistress, the dog said, “Get the floor-mat and some sticks — I’m back from my pilgrimage.” The stupid wife lifted up the floor mat. The dog crawled underneath, and said, “Hit me, but not too hard.” The stupid wife grabbed the sticks and beat the dog as hard as she could. The dog cried a long time to make her stop, but she didn’t stop until the cries stopped. She lifted up the mat, and found the dog dead, with a worthless yellow stone in her mouth.

Translation notes

In answer to the obvious question, “WTF?”, Prof. Basset notes that there is a very similar Albanian folktale. The Albanian version begins with a husband and wife who have a pair of chickens. They divorce, and in the process one takes the cock and the other the hen. I suspect that somewhere along the line, a Kabyle storyteller couldn’t resist lofting a crude joke over the heads of the listening children.

The title of this story in French is “Moitié de Coq”. Although cocks are as masculine as it gets, “moitié” is feminine, so the pronouns used for the protagonist are all female. There’s an obvious temptation to read this story through a gender lens (as Sørina Higgins puts it); I’ll have to keep this fact in mind if I try that.

The word in the French that I have translated “guard” is “nègre”. I get the feeling from other stories in the volume that the reader is supposed to think of giant elite warriors from far away, like Varangians. But I’m a southerner from the USA, and as I wrote this down I unavoidably kept using Uncle-Remus locutions because to me that’s what folktales should sound like. In our kind of folktale, though, a Negro would be a trickster not a power-figure, and the stunt with the Treasury would have had a completely different meaning. So I seized on a piece of 19th-Century French military slang, in which “nègre” was the name for the best soldier among the cadets (like “honcho” for us) and just used “guards”.

Works Cited

Basset, René, Contes Populaires Berbères. Paris, E. Leroux, (1887). #42, pp. 83-89.  PDF page 121.

Goldberry’s kind gets around

Since my wife is a nutritionist, I got her to look at my “fairy perils” post to make sure I had everything in the diabetes section right. She corrected one point, and then asked, “Who is Goldberry?”

Biographical interruption: English is my wife’s fourth language, so it’s OK that she’s not a Tolkien fan. She comes from a village in the mountains of Algeria; by ethnicity, she’s one of the original inhabitants. They call themselves “Kabyle”, and they’re part of the Amazigh (Berber) people.  (Reading Roman history is weird now that I actually know Numidians, including someone named “Jugurtha”.)  Her grandmother was a sort of village wise-woman. I never got to meet her, alas, but from all the stories, she was basically a short Granny Weatherwax.

I answered that Goldberry was the River-woman’s daughter, and I told the story of  how she and Tom Bombadil met.  Madame replied, “Oh, that happened to my grandfather!  He was walking to the orchard one day, and a blonde-haired, green-eyed woman came up out of the creek.  She had lots of gold and silver jewelry in her hair and around her neck.  She said she wanted my grandfather to marry her. My grandfather turned and ran back home as fast as he could.  My grandmother told him to go to bed and go to sleep.  When he woke up the next day, he had dozens of tiny bleeding wounds all over his face.  They took a week to heal.”

When I started studying fairy-stories, it was with the explicit intention of doing something that had no practical application in everyday life.  I hope that still holds, and that susceptibility to attacks by rusalki is territorial and not transmitted in families.

Rusalka, her prey ensnared

Rusalka, by Mikhail Vrubel

King Arthur Has Returned

Sørina Higgins, who more or less talked me into starting this blog, has just published a collection of works by 20 eminent scholars in the field of Inklings research.  She has the table of contents up on Charles Williams’s blogsite, as well as all the compliments and endorsements from the book jacket  (An Archbishop of Canterbury?!). Out it ought to be checked:

Commentary on “Particle Physics of Middle-Earth”

Santa Claus brought me a copy of Verlyn Flieger’s latest book There Would Always Be a Fairy Tale. I have spent the last week reading it, and wondering if I should go back and fix my old posts wherever she addressed a topic about which I’ve blogged. For example, the essay “Re-creating Reality” starts with, “Let us begin by acknowledging the obvious: fiction by its very nature is escapist.” and continues from there to make clearer observations than I did in “Maslow’s Hierarchy”.

But then I got to the essay entitled “Words and World-Making: the Particle Physics of Middle-earth”. Oh, dear. She starts by citing John Wheeler, and that is all to the good. Unfortunately, Fritjof Capra makes an appearance as well. The Tao of Physics shouldn’t be used for anything of consequence. (Optional rant below.) But the thing I’d like to get out into the blogosphere is a better conception about Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.

Prof. Flieger writes, “If we measure position, we will disrupt momentum; if we measure momentum, we must forego position. The measurement of either forecloses the measurement of the other.” I’m fine with this, up to the word “forego”. The rest is not what Heisenberg (or Wheeler) said.

Momentum and position are “complementary”. You can measure them both, but the more precision you demand about one, the less you can have in the other. That’s all. Nothing is foreclosed. In fact, you can turn it to your advantage.

Telescope Glamor Shot

Part of the Very Large Array

The Very Large Array (apparently there are hobbits naming things at NRAO) is an extreme example. They want to detect radio photons, of which they want to know both the position (i.e., they want the photon to hit the telescope) and the momentum (in the lateral dimension). They use a telescope 22 miles across so they deliberately measure the photon’s position very badly, which means they can measure its direction of travel (related to its lateral momentum) with exquisite precision.

Thing is, the essay doesn’t need either Wheeler’s general relativity or Capra’s hippies. Prof. Flieger proposed an analogy: that words to Tolkien are the measuring devices of nature, and the speakers of those words are the observers. This is perfect, and it leads to another comment by Heisenberg, less famous but much more relevant:

This again emphasizes a subjective element in the description of atomic events, since the measuring device has been constructed by the observer, and we have to remember that what we observe is not nature herself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning. Our scientific work in physics consists in asking questions about nature in the language that we possess, and trying to get an answer from experiment by the means that are at our disposal.
Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science, Lecture 3.

Less Germanically phrased: to look at something in the world, we have to have a question in mind. Those questions are written in a language. The language determines what we observe.

This is exactly where Prof. Flieger’s essay ends up. Gimli’s speech about the mountains of Moria is a beautiful example of how using three different observational devices – the senses of elves, dwarves, and men – leads to different ideas of the world, and therefore each race carries with them ideas about the observed phenomena “in the language that they possess”.

Coda: Heisenberg vs. Celebrimbor

Another pair of complementary variables under the Uncertainty Principle are energy and time. The more precisely the energy of a quantum state is constrained, the longer it can last without decaying. The Elves wanted “to preserve all things unstained,” said Elrond (II,ii), but to do that means the energy of each body would have to be fixed, and life would be impossible. Eru knew what he was about.

Optional Rant

The Tao of Physics makes a big deal out of the fact that English translations of texts from Eastern religions use a lot of the same words that quantum physicists use. This is a fundamental logical error – we are using those words as metaphors for the mathematics, and the Eastern mystics are not. Worse, the physics Capra uses is out of date. He uses a bootstrap model of the S-matrix that isn’t borne out by experiment any longer. I would cut him some slack on this, since his book was already at the printers when the J/ψ particle was discovered and S-matrix theory became an academic curiosity, useful mostly to morons. However, if you want to keep the mantle of Science on your shoulders, you have to change your theories when new evidence arrives. Later editions of TToP didn’t change. The Standard Model is, well, the standard now, and it doesn’t sound much like TToP anymore.

A Faërie Addendum

It’s Rev. Robert Kirk Week in the Tolkien blogosphere. David Russell Mosley, of “Letters from the Edge of Elfland”, announces that he now owns a copy of The Secret Common-wealth, and has written an excellent essay about what good it does one to believe in fairies. He also knows where to find better fairy illustrations than I have.

Another item for the list of dangers that mortals face in Faërie is dancing to the point of exhaustion or, if they’re feeling particularly brutal, until your feet are worn down to stubs.

Fairy Perils in the Mundane World

Since mortals are beset by perils in Faërie , a decent respect for symmetry requires that fairies be threatened in our world as well. What perils might a fairy face? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have a convenient list of reasons people end up in the emergency room, which seems like a good place to start. See Table I on the last page.

Probably Not Perils:


Falls are out of the question when one has wings. (Unless you’re a balrog.)

by Pirates vs. Ninjas (you can buy these!)

Automobile accident

The next most common fate for mortals, but I don’t think fairies need to worry about being smashed on a windshield. Cars these days only have cold iron in the drive train and chassis. Fairies will probably just bounce off other parts of modern automobiles.

Besides, Sanderson reports that the Rev. Robert Kirk, in his seminal tome The Secret Common-wealth, “says the fairies’ bodies are invulnerable, unlike the earthly bodies of witches and were-wolves, which can be destroyed when their assumed astral bodies are elsewhere.” So we can rule out gunshots, drowning, poisoning, and all the other things on the CDC list. We shall have to look elsewhere.

Possible Perils:

Adult-onset diabetes

Have you seen what fairies eat? My teeth ache just from looking at the pictures. Sanderson also discusses the problem of fairy dietetics, and shows us that Rev. Kirk thinks they either live on corn (the high-fructose syrup, naturally) or they attach themselves to a human and parasitically obtain nutrients from their digestion. Their human partners are recognizable because they eat as much as they want all the time and never gain weight. (There’s a business opportunity here for an entrepreneurially-inclined Fairy King.) In Middle-earth, as in Sir Orfeo, Elves are near-exclusive carnivores. A diet of animal products and refined sugar means diabetes will be a constant threat.

This is a good place to talk about the exceptions that prove the rule. Galadriel (après Melian) is the only Fairy-Queen who ever gave anyone a vegetable to eat. I feel sure that the Wise were careful to avoid getting her started on the importance of eating whole grains and other complex carbohydrates. Goldberry, on the other hand, is the epitome of a cliché fairy vegetarian, but her status as a Queen is disputable.


“For in becoming the consort of a nature myth connected with the Moon Jurgen had of course exposed himself to the danger of being converted into a solar legend by the Philologists…” – J. B. Cabell, Jurgen.

A fairy who enters this world exposes itself to humanities scholarship. If it’s lucky, it ends up in a DeviantArt gallery that exposes it to countless contortions of form, aspect, and surroundings. These are the lucky fairies, because the fay-folk are nothing if not protean. They can take all of that in stride. Alas, a fairy who is unlucky becomes the subject of a treatise by a folklorist or philologist who proves that it’s something other than what it thought it was. Note that the term “humanities”, which seems so benevolent in most contexts, is explicitly exclusionary with regard to any fay thing.

Enrollment in a randomized, placebo-controlled, statistical study

This one is certainly every fairy’s worst nightmare. A meta-nightmare, if you like. What if all the mischief Robin Goodfellow could bring about wasn’t enough to produce a p-value greater than 0.05? Could any worse fate befall a fairy than to be declared “indistinguishable from random chance”?

But here I find an intriguing conjunction. Submitted for your consideration: Rev. Robert Kirk (1644-1692) was a Presbyterian minister and folklorist. He died under mysterious circumstances, consistent with being abducted by fairies. Rev. Thomas Bayes (1701-1761) was a Presbyterian minister and statistician. Bayes’s work is the foundation of Bayesian statistics, which renders obsolete p-values and hypothesis testing. Could these be related? Did the Presbyterian Church receive a ransom demand? That’s exactly the sort of thing fairies would try. Seeing no way to coexist with their most fearsome mundane-world menace, their only recourse was to overthrow that entire branch of mathematics. Unfortunately, Bayesian statistics are tremendously difficult to formulate and use. Only now, with the computational resources we have today, can it be used in practical applications. Three centuries later, the ransom finally paid, we can get Rev. Kirk back. Somebody go look in his church. If you see a ghostly figure near the baptismal font, throw an iron dirk over its head. That will break the imprisonment, and we can finally ask him all those questions his book raised.

Works Cited

I assure you, I didn’t make up nearly as much of this essay as you think I did.

Briggs, Katherine M. “The English Fairies.” Folklore68.1 (1957): 270-287.

Cabell, James Branch. Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice (1922)

Sanderson, Stewart. “A Prospect of Fairyland.” Folklore 75.1 (1964): 1-18.

Faërie: What could go wrong?

Fairies By Ashtea

I tried to find a list of the perils of Faërie on line, and failed. It’s a tricky thing, to search for fairies on the world-wide web. All the traditional uses of the term get drowned out by gamers and manga artists. Staying on Google Scholar is highly recommended, unless I should ever decide to write about the contemporary cultural reception of the old legends.

So I decided to make one myself. Here’s what I’ve come up with. Please suggest additions.

1. Abduction

This could be the most common misfortune that Faërie can bring. It comes in two varieties: those in which the victim knows she’s been abducted (e.g. Sir Orfeo, changelings); and those in which he does not know, but finds out when they leave Faërie and discover that a long time has passed. (e.g. Samwise in Lothlorien)

2. Preposterous disfigurement

An encounter with fairies might lead to one’s head being replaced with that of an ass (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), or being adorned with antlers.

3. Theft

Fairies steal small things from around the house. They also steal less tangible things, such as your shadow, or your voice, or your eye color.

4. Unrequitable passion

Fairy glamor can leave the victim overwhelmed, whether by love for a fay him/her/itself, or for the taste of fairy wine or food, or the beauty of fairy-lands forlorn. Possibly the most traumatic of the perils of Faërie, because if left untreated it can cause Romanticism. (Ode to a Nightingale)

5. Swindling

Many fairy-curses can land on their victim for no reason at all, but swindling usually comes to people who were asking for it. A bag of fairy-gold that turns into sand the next morning is not only a fair reward for greed, it’s a metaphor we can use every election season.

6. Murphy’s Law-Enforcement

When mortals doesn’t reward their domestic fairies (brownies, silkies) for their service, they’ll turn into boggarts. Then the cow gives buttermilk, the hens won’t lay, objects go missing, machines go haywire, and poltergeists run loose in the house.

My source for the not-otherwise-attributed parts above is one of the most delightful papers I’ve ever read in a scholarly journal.

Sanderson, Stewart. “A Prospect of Fairyland.” Folklore 75.1 (1964): 1-18.

Origami with Quotes

Stephen Winter writes in this week’s blog post:

The one who chooses to be an enemy learns how to  perceive weakness in others and then exploits it. Indeed it seems to be this quality that marks out an enemy above all others. But when we choose to lay down that which we desire then the enemy has nothing more to exploit.

The first and second sentences rang a bell. Peter Westbrook, 13-time US National Champion at Men’s Sabre, wrote a memoir entitled Harnessing Anger: The Inner Discipline of Athletic Excellence. Up front, it contains this statement of the philosophy that made him such a successful fencer:

I have no qualms about preying upon the weaknesses of my enemies until they are no longer a threat to me. To do this in life is a crime, but to do it in the sport of fencing is to create beauty and art. (p.57)

To set next to Stephen’s third sentence, G.K. Chesterton wrote in “The Sword of Wood“:

“A man with no sword,” he said, “can never be beaten in swordsmanship.”

I don’t think there’s any deep enduring point here. I just like it when things fold up into nice neat bundles.

Some Networks are Simple

In which the Idiosopher gets to do Inklings stuff on the clock.

logo of the winter simulation conferenceLast summer, the blog started following Sørina Higgins’s suggestion about network analysis to see how interactions between the Inklings in real life turned into stylistic evolution in their literary styles. I haven’t mentioned it since, due to a lack of discoveries that are interesting (even to me).

This week was the 2017 Winter Simulation Conference, a world-wide hootenanny of computer-simulation experts. With all my responsibilities discharged, I got to spend the last half-day attending talks on anything that sounded interesting.  Here’s a good one from Wai Kin (Victor) Chan of Tsinghua University:

This paper studies social influence (i.e., adoption of belief) using agent-based simulation and regression models. Each agent is modeled by a linear regression model. Agents interact with neighbors by exchanging social beliefs. It is observed that if individual belief is linear in neighbors’ beliefs, system-level belief and aggregated neighbors’ beliefs can also be described by a linear regression model. Analysis is conducted on a simplified 2-node network to provide insight into the interactions and results of general models. Least squares estimates are developed. Explicit expressions are obtained to explain relationship between initial belief and current belief.

Social networks are complicated. People go in and out, they talk more or less, they form cliques, etc. If you want to measure things about them, you usually have to build a computer model with a clock and a bunch of “agents” in it. An agent is (in this case) a person with ideas (represented by a number), and as time advances, the agents pick up ideas from each other. Then you inspect the agents after a the simulation has been calculated and find out what ideas each agent has absorbed.

What Prof. Chan has discovered is that, as long as each person in a social network only picks up an idea from three others (which is comparable to the situation for the Inklings), all the complicated stuff drops out – the results of the full-powered simulation always look like a straight-line influence!  This paper is his attempt to prove that’s actually true.  If he’s right, then the spread of some ideas through a literary group will show a very simple pattern, and a literary scholar will be able to do lots of Digital Humanities research with just a spreadsheet. (Hi, Sparrow!)

An anecdote: another thing I did last summer was serve on a jury.  We had to decide on a prison sentence.  At the beginning, we went around the table and got everybody’s first impression. There was quite a bit of difference among us.  After four hours of discussion, which got pretty acrimonious at times, we agreed on a number that was within 5% of the average of everybody’s initial opinion.  That’s what a social-influence model would predict, if Prof. Chan is correct.

If the idea you’re studying can be cast as how strongly an opinion is held, on a scale from 0 to 1, then a linear regression is all you need to solve it.  That’s what I suggested Theosophy might look like, in the post from last July.  Division of territory, such as giving up Arthurian legends to one colleague, space travel to another, and focusing your own attention on time-travel, isn’t describable this way.

Prof. Chan started off his talk by saying the topic was just his own interest, not funded by any organization, and it wasn’t finished yet and he didn’t know what it meant, and the talk was still interesting.  My new scholarship goal is to be able to do that.

Irrelevant note: today is Idiosophy’s second bloggiversary.


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