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Wormtalk and Slugspeak

My life among the invertebrates

Updated: 2017-10-08T00:26:56.123-04:00


Summer 2015 Lexomics Research Team


Anglo-Saxon Medicine


By now you may have heard about the team from Nottingham that tested an Anglo-Saxon remedy for an eye-stye and found that it killed methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus bacteria. There's an article in New Scientist about the research here .

Some readers may remember that ten years ago our Anglo-Saxon Medicine research group at Wheaton tested the same remedy. The article is on Google Books at this URL. Full cite is: Barbara Brennessel, Michael D.C. Drout and Robyn Gravel. “A Re-Assessment of the Efficacy of Anglo-Saxon Medicine,” Anglo-Saxon England 34 (2005): 183-95.

We, however, found that the compounded recipe did not kill bacteria. Although the ingredients (garlic, leeks, ox gall, wine and leached copper) were efficacious on their own, when we let them sit in the copper vessel for nine days, as the recipe says, they turned into a loathsome slime that did not inhibit bacterial growth. We used the Kirby-Bauer method of growing "bacterial lawns" of Staphyloccus aureus in petri dishes and then placing filter-paper disks impregnated with the remedy to see if they produced a zone of inhibition greater than 10 mm. They did not.

So why are our results at such variance with that of the Nottingham team?

One major possibility is that they tested the efficacy of the remedy in vivo on strips of infected mouse skin, while all of our testing was in vitro.

(For the first and probably the last time in my life, I am wishing that there had been some infected mouse skin lying around the lab).

It also may be that some small variable turned out to be important. Perhaps we had microbial contamination of the remedy where they did not (or vice versa). I'm very excited to read their paper.

And to the question that a few people have asked: if I'm upset that this group got the glory of finding something that is about as effective as Vancomycin on MRSA. I can honestly say "no", that rather, I'm excited to see follow up and improvement in human knowledge (though, honestly, that's probably because the team was led by a good friend of mine, Christina Lee -- if it had been someone I don't like....)

More importantly, this research demonstrates quite forcefully one of the major points of the 2005 paper: that there's an enormous amount of tacit information that is absolutely essential to the cultural practice but is not found in any recipe book. The things that go without saying, because any intelligent Anglo-Saxon læce would have known them, are those most likely to be lost over the centuries. It's very exciting when we can use scientific methods--or any approaches, really--to recover that lost knowledge.

Stare at it long enough, and you can see through a brick wall


The data has been staring me in the face for a year or more and it just didn't sink in until today:

The rolling window analysis of thorn and eth shows that lines 1924-2138 of the Anglo-Saxon poem Genesis A had a written, Old English source.

It has long been known that at least lines 1982-2005 and perhaps 2039-2095 are not drawn from the Latin Bible like the rest of Genesis A. But I hadn't realized the implications of my own data: that only a written source in Old English could account for the anomaly in the thorn/eth ratio at that part of the poem.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies


Many variants of the story Sigurd the Völsung survive from the Middle Ages, and all of them are not quite right. Taking the texts and references all together, you can piece together the general idea of the story, but it seems as if none of the poets were really familiar with what they were writing about. They knew the characters' names and that there was something going on with Sinfjotli and poison, and that the two queens had a dispute that led to death and destruction, and that the hero killed a dragon and took its treasure, but they weren't entirely clear on how all the pieces should fit together. Peter Jackson's Hobbit films give the same impression. It's as if he and screenwriter Philippa Boyens had heard an oral traditional version of the story of Bilbo Baggins, which they supplemented with information from some partially burned leaves of the text in a museum and a few chapters of a very old Chinese translation, but had never actually read The Hobbit for themselves. And maybe that's the best way to think about The Battle of the Five Armies, not as an adaptation of Tolkien's book, but as a reconstruction of someone's recollection of a lost text for which no original exists. Because that if this were the case, the immense flaws in the film, flaws which are not present in Tolkien's text, would at least be understandable. Now, before I become too much of a curmudgeon, let me say that I don't object in principle to converting a somewhat light-hearted story into a full-on epic more in the tone of The Lord of the Rings than The Hobbit as it is written. Tolkien himself thought to revise The Hobbit in the style of the later book, and the "Quest of Erebor" shows that he had thought about the geopolitical implications (in Middle-earth) of the dragon, the mountain, the exiled dwarves and the ruined town of Dale. Adding the War of the Dwarves and Orcs and the assault of the White Council upon Dol Guldur was a good idea, as these events provide context. Nor do I have a problem with side stories, the development of additional characters or the conversion of formal speeches into more colloquial character interaction. Every one of these changes could have been incorporated into an effective film that extended beyond the journey of Thorin and Company to the Lonely Mountain. And I'll also excuse Jackson for being trapped on the Hollywood escalator. George Lucas faced the same problem of needing to make each film's action sequences be bigger, faster, brighter and louder than the previous film's. Even though the Battle of the Five Armies was never intended to be larger than the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, Jackson had to continue to escalate, and so we we get even more elaborate set-pieces, choreography and cgi. Nevertheless, it was frustrating to watch these films because they could have been better. Some of the failures in the Hobbit film are the same as those in Jackson's The Lord of the Rings and spring from the same root problem: Middle-earth is much too small, physically, temporally and demographically. Physically, Middle-earth seems to be not a continent, but a theme park, the size of Disney World, or maybe, if we're generous, Rhode Island. Legolas and Tauriel make a (completely useless) journey to Mt Gundabad, about 300 miles from Erebor, in what seems like, maybe, a half hour of traveling. They return even more quickly to warn everyone of the army that is 10 minutes behind them. Dain arrives on his Armored War Pig (which is awesome) seemingly less than an hour after Thorin sends a raven message. Time-wise, everything from the death of Smaug to the final battle is compressed into 2 or maybe 3 days. Since there are many cinematic methods for passing rapidly through days, weeks or months, I don't understand the rush. Armies on the march can be terrifying. They don't have to be running faster than Usain Bolt the whole way. And everybody knows everyone else -- even people who aren't on screen. My fa[...]

A major source of problems on campus


Resolved: That treating college students as children rather than adults is the cause of many significant problems in contemporary higher education.

Over the past three decades student freedom and autonomy has been steadily eroded, as an administrative superstructure has steadily increased in size and power.

This reduction of freedom and expansion of administration has been justified in terms of alleviating campus social pathologies, but problems associated with alcohol and drug use, sexual assault, cheating and poor academic performance, student disengagement and dissatisfaction have, at best, remained unchanged.

The evolution of campuses from self-governing, non-coercive intellectual communities towards regimented "complete and austere institutions" has also been correlated with a massive increase in costs.

There is no evidence that these increased costs or the increased surveillance and regulation of student life have generated higher intellectual achievement or greater student satisfaction. In fact, the reverse appears to be true.

Therefore: the experiment of increasing the size and power of the administrative apparatus and reducing the freedom of students to organize and govern themselves has failed to produce its promised results. Current problems will not be solved by making colleges more like high schools, but instead by respecting students as adults with all the freedom and responsibility that should attend that status.

J.R.R. Tolkien's Beowulf Translation


Some quick thoughts (more to come as I think more about the volume):The translation itself is not a great piece of art. It is not poetic (although in some places it is rhythmical), and the still-unpublished alliterative translation is much better, quite similar to the "Mounds of Mundburg" poem in The Return of the King.  You can get a feel for that translation in the short bits that have been published in Sigurd and Gudrún, "On Translating Beowulf" and Beowulf and the Critics. But there were only about 600 lines of translation made, which is why I originally proposed presenting it synoptically with the prose translation (i.e., poetry on the left leaf, prose on the right, shifting to prose on both where there existed no poetic translation). I can only hope that the poetic translation is scheduled to be published some day, perhaps with all of Tolkien's early poems, the Trumpets of Faerie collection that has been rumored for many years. The prose translation is valuable for two reasons: (1) It lets us figure out more of what Tolkien thought about Beowulf, the subject of his lifelong study; (2) It probably brings us in terms of content closer to what the Beowulf poet intended than any other translation.The Commentary materials are straight-up brilliant, a pleasure to read, and a significant contribution to Beowulf criticism. I can't tell if they will shape the field, but they should. Tolkien had incredible insight into the poem because he could combine his philological acumen with his creative abilities. At times I worry that he is inventing something that isn't there (his treatment of the thief entering the dragon's barrow is extremely good, but I'm just not certain it is supported by the fragmentary evidence). But other times he shows that the words in the manuscript, rather than being clumsy or cliched, are in fact precisely perfect to describe a scene.To me the best example is Tolkien's interpretation of the scene of Beowulf's swimming contest with Breca. After the swimming match itself, a sea-monster seizes the hero and:     Me to grunde teahfah feondscaða,      fæste hæfdegrim on grape;     hwæþre me gyfeþe wearð,þæt ic aglæcan     orde geræhte,hildebille;     heaþoræs fornammihtig meredeor     þurh mine hand."Fast the grim thing had me in its grip. Nonetheless it was granted to me to find that fell slayer with the point of warlike sword; the battle's onset destroyed that strong beast of the sea through my hand" (JRRT trans.)Most translations (and most teachers) treat "orde" [with the point] as just a metonymic reference for "sword" and move along. Tolkien, on the other hand, gets inside the scene and shows that in fact the language isn't a repetitive, dead metaphor but is instead technically precise. You are not just supposed to read the line as "Beowulf killed the monster with his sword," but instead to imagine Beowulf struggling against the coils of the beast to bring the point around to where he could pierce the creature through with a pressing motion; the resistance of the water would have prevented swinging the sword:"We are, or at any rate I am, not familiar, as actor or onlooker, with savage infighting with the sword. Nor indeed with swords in their variety. But it does not take a great effort of imagination to get some idea of Beowulf's predicament. He was seized by a sea-beast of great strength, and no doubt held close. It took great strength to resist the grip sufficiently to prevent himself being gored or bitten; he he had only one hand; the other held a naked sword. That is a weapon at least two feet long. Only by a great effort could he retract this so as to level the point at his enemy; there would be little if any striking-distance, and to thrust this through the tough hide would require very great strength of hand and arm" (255). Now, it may be that Tolkien is here crea[...]

Tolkien's Beowulf: The Real Story


The Tolkien Estate recently announced that J.R.R. Tolkien's translation of Beowulf will be released in May.  Since there seems to be a little bit of incorrect information floating around the web (thanks in part to some careless work by more than one reporter for British newspapers), I figured I should clarify things.First, I have nothing to do with this edition. I did work on Tolkien's Beowulf translation about ten years ago and was putting together an edition along the same lines as the one the Estate has described, but the Estate withdrew permission for that project and I have done no new work on it since then.Second, I did not "discover" the Beowulf translation, not even in the sense that I found it in the Bodleian Library. This claim is a conflation of a story about one manuscript with information about a totally different text.The real story is not quite as exciting.I went to the Bodleian Library in 1996 to finish up my dissertation research, which included work on the evolution of Tolkien's 1936 lecture "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics." From the catalogue in Modern Papers I knew that there were notes and drafts of that lecture in MS Tolkien A26. What I did not know was that not only did the box of manuscripts contain marked-up carbon typescripts and proofs of the British Academy lecture, but also two substantial handwritten texts that were Oxford lectures about Beowulf written in the 1930s. These lectures were obviously preparatory to "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics" and were quite a bit longer and more elaborate than that text. These were what I "discovered," not Tolkien's translation of Beowulf (which I actually did not examine). Obviously a text preserved in a library and mentioned in its catalogue is not a "discovery" in the sense that it was ever "lost," but it was a discovery to me and also, as best I can tell, to Tolkien scholarship and Anglo-Saxon studies, since neither I nor the field knew that such lectures existed.  Although Christopher Tolkien obviously knew what they were when he donated the manuscripts in 1986, as far as I know, no mention of the lecture drafts had appeared in any publication in the decade between the donation and the date I read them. So that's was the "discovery" I was talking about. The Tolkien Estate very graciously gave me permission to have the texts microfilmed and to quote from them in my 1997 Loyola Chicago Ph.D. dissertation, and after I successfully defended and had started teaching at Wheaton, the Estate gave me permission to produce the edition that became Beowulf and the Critics, which was published in 2003.[Note: the release of the edition was absolutely not timed to coincide with the Peter Jackson films, and there was no coordination at all with the Estate. In fact, my publisher had the manuscript for over two years before the edition appeared. I was nagging them to try to get the book released in time for The Fellowship of the Ring (and my tenure case!), but the queue of previously accepted works was so long that Beowulf and the Critics was not released until around the time of The Two Towers, and then they printed only 300 copies, so it sold out in about a week and new copies were not available until after the hype had passed. My total royalties from the edition have been something like $75.00 -- though I haven't received a royalty statement in a few years; I should check. The Tolkien Estate's total royalties have been $0.00.  So much for the claim that Christopher Tolkien allowed the edition to be published for financial reasons].In 1999 (I think), I had traveled to Oxford to proof my edition of Beowulf and the Critics against the manuscripts. While there, I had a very pleasant meeting with the Solicitor for the Tolkien Estate and expressed my interested in producing an edition of J.R.R.T.'s Beowulf translation and commentaries. The Tolkien Estate arranged to have all the manu[...]

Anglo-Saxon Aloud: Greatest Hits now on iTunes, CDbaby


Responding to people who have asked "Who buys physical CDs any more?" I have put Anglo-Saxon Aloud: Greatest Hits up on iTunes and CDBaby.

The album includes readings in both Old English and Modern English of 10 classic Anglo-Saxon poems: 

Cædmon's Hymn
The Battle of Brunanburh
The Wanderer
The Ruin
The Wife's Lament
Wulf and Eadwacer
The Fortunes of Men
Riddle 47 (Book Moth)
The Dream of the Rood

There is a general introduction as well as explanatory introductions for each poem.  

I am working on putting up a downloadable version of Beowulf Aloud as well, but right now I only have physical copies for sale of that 3-CD set at .

I hope you enjoy listening to the poems as much as I enjoyed translating and recording them. 

The Value of a Medieval Studies Degree


Parent: I'm really proud of my daughter's success in medieval studies. It's amazing how she has learned these languages and knows so much about literature I didn't even know existed. And being a co-author on an academic paper... no one in our family has ever done that.

But I'm worried about her majoring in something so specialized. She doesn't want to teach, and the economy is still terrible, and we're not a rich family. She has to get a job when she graduates. Wouldn't it be better to major in Psychology or Business, something practical? What is a degree in medieval studies going to do for her?

Professor: Show potential employers that she is really, really smart.


Professor: I'm completely serious. Success in medieval studies is incontrovertible evidence of intelligence, self-discipline and the ability to solve complex problems.* Employers aren't allowed to give IQ tests (which don't really work that well, anyway), but they want to hire really smart people. Medieval studies is a big, bright flag that says "Smart Person Here."

Joking aside, it's probably a safe bet that any undergraduate who can do original research in a centuries-old academic discipline dominated by prickly Oxbridgians, grumpy Germans and in-bred Ivy-types is going to be able to handle something like banking or administration.


Parent: That's a really good point.


Parent: [sounding frustrated] Why don't liberal arts colleges ever just say that? Why all this vague "critical thinking" stuff that is obviously b.s.?

Professor: Colleges are run by administrators, not medievalists. Administrators like vague phrases like "critical thinking," because the same group of words can mean different things to different constituencies. So "critical thinking" can mean "criticizing aspects of current social organization" to the people who care about that stuff and "being able to think in a disciplined manner" to people who care about that stuff. But the very vagueness that makes the cliche appealing to administrators robs it of rhetorical power.

However, some of us non-administrators are trying to get the word out: How to Think: The Liberal Arts and Their Enduring Value

* Two of my student research partners, both of whom concentrated in medieval studies and wrote honors theses on Anglo-Saxon topics, recently graduated from a top-25 law school. They didn't study pre-law or political science but were nevertheless perfectly prepared for the academic challenges. Why? Well, honestly, mostly probably because they're both ridiculously smart and self-disciplined, for which their parents get the credit, not me. But also because medieval studies prepared them to handle complicated, ill-defined problems--just like the kinds of things they had to deal with in law school. The difference? The law-school problems are all in Modern English, so they're a bit easier. Also, their undergraduate focus in medieval studies demonstrated to law schools that they were extremely smart, which helped get accepted into an elite school in which they could then prove themselves.

Lecture at Swarthmore


Giving a talk at Swarthmore next week: "Tolkien and Beowulf: Towers and Ruins," Feb 26, at 8:00 p.m. in Science Center 101.

A Football Story


This was my first season coaching football. I learned a lot. I also came to love the game far more than I ever expected I would. This little story is one reason why.The Dedham E-team is made up of seven- and eight-year-olds as well as the "older, lighter" nine-year- -olds (an 8-year-old can weigh 90 pounds and still stay at E; a 9-year-old has to be under 75).A kid that we will call "Martin" was one of the smallest 7-year-olds on the team. He was a little shy, a little nervous, and not yet very physically developed. He was always one of the last two runners in from a lap, and he often would excuse himself to get water, ask his parents about something, go to the rest room, get his equipment fixed. I don't know if he was playing because his parents were forcing him to (I don't think so) or because once he had signed up they weren't letting him quit (more likely).Part way into our season we had a game against South Boston on their home field. For some reason, the veterans on the team were talking up Southie, telling the rookies how tough they were, how mean they played, how they had a tree growing in the end zone of their field that you could run into and kill yourself (that part is true), how the parents and spectators always went crazy."Martin" seemed to take this talk very seriously. When he arrived at Southie, tears were streaming down his face and his father had to force him onto the field. He was absolutely terrified, and he kept sobbing "I don't want to play. I don't want to play."Arthur was one of the senior assistant coaches on the team. To give you an idea of how much Arthur knows about football: his first year coaching Pop Warner was the year I was born.Arthur saw Martin crying, walked over to him, and didn't try to talk him onto the field. Instead, he picked up a football."Hey, Martin, play catch with me," he said, and began tossing the ball back and forth.Arthur is at least 6' 6" and 250 pounds. He is a retired police officer. He has a very deep voice and a commanding presence.But he just kept tossing the ball back and forth with Martin, slowly edging him out onto the field by stepping away, so that Martin had to follow him in order to play catch.When they were in the middle of the field, near where the team was warming up, some of Martin's teammates saw him and called out "Hey, Martin! We need you over here for cals."Martin looked up at Arthur."You know, Martin," Arthur said. "I threw up before every single football game I played until I got to high school. I was that nervous." Pause. "I'll bet you didn't throw up today, did you?"Martin shook his head."You want to go warm up with your friends?"Martin nodded. And he did.And he got through the game without incident and was smiling from ear to ear when we ended up winning in a blow-out.*But the story doesn't end there.A few weeks later, we were playing Ashland, a team that was absolutely enormous. They had 12 nine-year-olds, compared to our 6, and they towered over us. But things went well, and we were tied in the last two minutes of the 4th quarter with the ball on the 50 yard line.Coach Paul, our offensive coordinator, is Arthur's nephew and has been coaching for 20 years. He is a football genius, able not only to teach a bunch of little kids the full high-school play book, but to read a situation and know exactly what play our team could pull off against the particular opponents on the field.This time he saw something and set up a play for a long pass and a touchdown, talking it over during a time-out. The kids all seemed to understand what they were supposed to do. Paul went over their roles again, and then:"The one thing that has to happen in this play," he said, "is that the Left End has got to hold the block for more than a full second. Otherwise the Quarterback is getting hit before he [...]

Metaphor Alert: History of the Field


Cuts from the in-progress book on Lexomics:The very best traditional philologists, people like Lapidge and Gretsch, can collect widely scattered shards of information and piece together enough to get a view of a little piece of lost culture. But scholars like this are rare, and their very brilliance shows how much the scholarly world has had to change because the great philologists of past generations have worked out the mine. Back in the Age of Grimm, scholars like Kemble and Grundtvig could casually pick the best nuggets right from the tunnel floor, the dust of diamonds on their shoes. And although the next generation might have needed picks and shovels, Thorpe, Müllenoff, Sweet and Köhler and still found riches. There was still high-grade ore for Sweet, Sarrazin, Sievers and Skeat, but the lode was beginning to be depleted, so Olrick, Panzer, Chambers and their contemporaries had to be miners rather than prospectors, following the dwindling veins deeper and deeper below the surface. In the post-war period scholars were reduced to panning for glistening flecks, and by the 1980s the field was reduced to mechanically processing vast piles of low-grade ore in hopes of eventually extracting a small amount of metal from the overburden. To push the metaphor perhaps further than I should: The introduction of lexomic techniques allows us to find riches even in the tailings piles of previous generations. What was for them un-useable is for us, with new knowledge and technology, a new source of wealth. [...]

A good trick? (and is it legit?)


Every couple of years I team-teach the lit half of a "Connected" pair of classes with my friend, the mathematician Bill Goldbloom Bloch. "The Edge of Reason" links my SciFi class with his Math Thought class over the course of an entire year, with us alternating teaching days and each prof sitting in on and participating in all of the other's classes. It's incredibly fun, and I learn a lot about math and, maybe more importantly, about how mathematicians think. Bill says that most mathematicians have 1 or 2 "good tricks," ways of conceptualizing the world or handling problems, that allows them to make multiple discoveries. Going beyond mathematicians: physicist Richard Feynman had his "integrate over all paths" trick, Einstein had his visualizations, etc. My own "good tricks" have included "read the whole thing" (you'd be amazed by how few scholars do) and "push the metaphor until it breaks."Now I think I have a new one. And it's mathematical.This summer our research group was working on the problem of thorn / eth distribution  . We were having trouble visualizing the data. I don't know why, but suddenly into my mind popped the notion of a rolling average, something I think I'd learned way back in high school and which had shown up when I was being creative with budgets to avoid laying people off during the financial crisis: it turns out that the amount of money you are allowed to draw from an endowment's revenue stream is based on a rolling average of the returns in several previous quarters. This saved me during the crash, as we had a little more money right at the beginning—since the the previous quarters were propping up the average—so we could at least give visiting and part-time faculty a year or two to try to find something else instead of just dropping them into a terrible economy (my sole accomplishment as department chair was that I didn't lay anyone off or fail to renew a contract). So I started calculating the rolling ratio of θ (total number of þ divided by total number of þ plus total number of ð) through a text: choose a "window" of words or letters, add up all the thorns and eths in that window, calculate θ, and then move the window one unit to the right and re-calculate. The plots of the rolling ratios turn out to be very interesting. I'm just finishing up a paper now on what they might tell us about a work's textual history.But I have been worried--following a chance remark by Janet Bately at ISAS Dublin--that all we were detecting with θ was the frequency of first-, second- or third-person plural present tense or plural imperative verbs. These forms end with an interdental, and there certainly seems to be a correlation between terminal interdentals and scribal use of ð (most famously by the B-scribe of Beowulf, but elsewhere as well). I wanted to know if θ was just a complicated proxy measurement for portions of the poem in the plural present tense or the imperative.So we developed another measure, τ, which is the ratio of terminal interdentals (þ and ð) to the total number of interdentals in a passage. We calculated τ as a rolling ratio as well, and then compared the plots of τ and θ.Sometimes these plots appear to be negatively correlated with each other: when τ goes down, θ increases, but other times,  not so much. And just looking at the graphs wasn't entirely satisfactory. So I calculated Pearson correlation coefficients between τ and θ. It turns out that these are pretty ambiguous when applied to whole texts, generally being on the order of .3  (1.0 would be perfect correlation and 0 would be no correlation at all). That wasn't entirely helpful: with an r of .3, tense and number could be contributing to θ, but other things ([...]



For the overlapping parts, regular correlation coefficient is .349. Spearman's Rho is .357.  But all that changes a lot if you correct for that one place in the middle where the top graph goes up and the bottom one goes down. I think this happens because for most of the overlapping section we are comparing apples with apples, but just at that point, an orange or two got dropped in.

The challenge is to decide when you have reached that magical point where you are manipulating your data rather than evaluating it.

And that's what I'll be spending tomorrow morning doing.

A Little Formula


Turns out that you can find out stuff about Old English texts with just a simple formula:For any text of length nwith a sub-segment of length w < nwhere k is the first term in wþ is the total number of thorns in the segment;ð is the total number of eths in the segment; and w+k ≤ n.The real tricks are figuring out if what you're detecting is significant or just a product of stochastic variation and, if it is statistically significant, whether or not it is just an epiphenomenon of a less interesting process.As Richard Feynman, one of my intellectual heroes, once said “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.”Which is why I've been having learning to debug programs in Python and re-learning Stats II from 20+ years ago.Unfortunately, at least one of the more striking findings is looking like its just an epiphenomenon. But the good news is that the other discoveries seem like they are pretty robust.[...]

"How to Read Tolkien" lecture from Carnegie Mellon now on line


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Father Brag


My son's first touchdown. 

The Killer-Barney Effect


In some of the Icelandic sagas in which he appears, Bjarni Brodd-Helgason is a generally peaceful man, even though he got the nickname Víga-Bjarni (Killer-Barney) when he had to kill some of his relatives at Bodvarsdalr. In Vápnfirðinga Saga he is reluctant to take revenge; he is eager to reconcile in Voðu-Brands þáttr; and he’s clever and honorable in Þorsteins þattr stangarhoggs. So the nickname is somewhat at odds with the character, especially in these sagas that come from the East, where Bjarni was from. The disjunction between name and personality seems to be the point, especially in Thorstein the Staff-struck.  Víga-Bjarni’s name, however, appears to have overpowered his character in later sagas from the West, where people either had not known Bjarni Brodd-Helgason, or the transmitted knowledge of his personality was forgotten. In this material, Killer-Barney is now a blood-loving, death-dealing maniac.I hate you, you hate me, I had to slaughter members of my family.... We can call this phenomenon, in which a traditional referent, like Víga-Bjarni's name, loses the link with its original extra-textual and contextual meaning and instead develops as part of a new, intra-textual tradition,  The Killer-Barney Effect.[...]

How to Think: The Liberal Arts and Their Enduring Value


I have a new lecture course out from Recorded Books' Modern Scholar series:
How to Think: The Liberal Arts and Their Enduring Value

It's an 8-lecture course:

1. The Liberal Arts: Where did they come from?
2. Separating Science
3. Tools to Rule
4. Can the Liberal Arts Make you a Better Person?
5. The Best Reasons: Solving Complex Problems, Preserving and Transmitting Culture
6. Beowulf: A Case Study of the Richness of the Liberal Arts Tradition
7. What's Wrong with the Liberal Arts? (And How to Fix it).
8. A Defense and Celebration of the Liberal Arts.

The CD set is available from Amazon here at this link.
The direct link to all of my courses on Recorded Books is here.

John Alexander, the founder of The Modern Scholar and my producer for all 12 courses, has formed Scholarly Sojourns: beautiful, flawless educational tours throughout the world. In Summer 2014 I am leading tours to Anglo-Saxon Britain, Iceland and Tolkien's England. We could meet up!

Wisdom from Neal Stephenson


Some people try to communicate "out of a conviction that the world must be amenable to human understanding, and that if you can understand something, you can explain it in words: fancy words if that helps, plain words if possible. But in any case you can reach out to other minds through the medium of words." And by doing this, you are saying "here is something cool that I want to share with you for not other reason than making a spark jump between minds."

From the Foreword to David Foster Wallace's Everything and More.

The book is out!


The new book is out!

Tradition and Influence in Anglo-Saxon Literature: An Evolutionary, Cognitivist Approach.

This book was more years in the making than I like to think about.  I would never have finished it if it weren't for the unexpected help of Jack Zipes, who, in a kind of Tolkienian eucatastrophe, swooped in right when things were most dire.

The cover was designed by Wheaton students Leah Smith and Amira Pualwan. From it people of a particular age may be able to guess at what album I most overplayed in the summer of 1982.

Seamus Heaney passes the torch to the next great writer of English


(no pressure, sweetie). 



I'm very happy to announce that we'll be hosting the next Mythcon at Wheaton College.

Fantasy literature does not fit comfortably into any scheme. Both old and new, traditional and innovative, popular and elite, mainstream and esoteric, escapist and engaged, high-tech and anti-technology, fantasy defies definitions and transcends categories, dramatizing the incompleteness of our understanding of our own imaginations. At Mythcon 45 we will discuss the place of fantasy in our culture, our institutions, and our hearts. 

Scholar Guest of Honor:
Richard West

Author Guest of Honor:
To be announced

keep an eye on

Intellectual Environments


We've been having another successful season of research in the Lexomics Lab this summer: discoveries made, complex things figured out, methods invented, tools created.  And most of all, it has, once again, been really, really fun.  Much more fun, and much more intellectually exciting, than anything I ever did in grad school (or in undergrad or as a professor, for that matter). I've been wondering why. Probably the simplest reason is that English students don't naturally work in a lab environment. Our ideal seems to be lots of solitary time with books and a computer and then a quick chance to show off what we've written in a seminar or at a conference.  It's not that we're not social, but that our socialization comes after the fact, not during the research.  The daily give and take, the continuously social nature of the lab, isn't really part of our experience. So we get all the way through our studies never knowing that we're missing out on the most intellectual fun you can have. We were lucky to have the use of a single big room, with one wall of white-board, desks and monitors around the other walls, and moveable smaller tables, which we configured as a "library table" and a work table around which we put our laptops. Since we all worked together, we talked a lot, working through ideas out loud, overhearing the challenges various parts of the project faced (i.e., the Beowulf-focused people hearing the discussions of the Cynewulf-focused people and the Shakespeare-focused people and the Old Norse-focused people and the software people, etc.).So it was all shared and cross-pollinated and social and fun. But also there was another factor in play, I think. Because my students are undergraduates ranging from  freshmen to seniors and ranged in major from English to Computer Science to Chemistry to Philosophy, there was always more than one person in the audience who didn't know something. And so it was always ok to ask for more explanation. We completely avoided that most damaging of statements a teacher or mentor can make: "What! You don't already know that!" It's a damaging statement, because it encourages the student, in the future, to bluff, to hide ignorance or cover it up.  And when you do that, you never end up learning what you need to learn. Intellectual bluff is such an important part of grad school, and the job market, and the tenure game, that it's absolutely ingrained throughout academic culture. And it's debilitating, because people aren't willing to ask questions that would expose their ignorance, and so they don't get answers or explanations that could enable them to solve particular problems and make real contributions. But in a room with as many computer-scientists as medievalists, everybody is ignorant about lots of stuff and so, over the course of the summer, we've gotten to the point where we can confess that ignorance, get an explanation, and then learn more.  It's exhilarating.Quick example: I was trying to derive some kind of measure of comparative vocabulary homogeneity for different segmentations of a text.  I had an elaborate formula that I thought made sense, but I couldn't get the numbers out that were consistent with what we thought we knew. Finally, my student research partner (the chemistry major) just plotted a bunch of data on a graph, and, uh-oh, it made a straight, diagonal line. I didn't have enough variables in my eq[...]

On Discipline


If the experiment contradicts the theory, then the theory is wrong.

                                                  —Richard Feynman (paraphrase)  

it can be so hard to accept this rule sometimes, but just keep telling yourself...

Progress comes when the experiment contradicts the theory.