Archive for ‘analysis’

July 26, 2015

Ferdowsi – The Book of Kings

by Mikael

The Book of Kings, the Shahnameh, is an iconic epic of Persian culture, written by Ferdowsi (sometimes transcribed “Firdausi”) around the turn of the previous millennium (ca AD 977-1010). It purports to detail the lineage of Persian Kings all the way from the Mythological Age, through the Age of Heroes and into the Historical Age. It also brims with the usual stuff: Heroic deeds, battles, betrayals, evil nemeses, legendary duels, black magic etc. etc. The picture below is based on an AD1909 translation by James Atkinson Esquire (of the honourable East-India Company’s Bengal Medical Service) freely available at the Project Gutenberg, and thus the somewhat antiquated transcriptions of names from Farsi into English.

[Visualization as PDF]

A striking thing about the book is the detail of family relationships that is included, and the visualization is of the family tree type (a directed acyclic graph in math speak). Royal succession, which may skip a few generations or jump completely sideways on occasion, is highlighted in gold and annotated with the length of each reign as given by Firdausi. Westerners in particular will note that the last regent included is in fact Alexander “the Great” of Macedon, who we probably know well from history books and Greek culture. The Persian take on this character is somewhat different.

Enjoy an anecdote about Ferdowsi (and much more) over at Paul Sheridan’s: Anecdotes from Antiquity.

February 15, 2014

Alexander Pushkin’s – Marie – A Story of Russian Love

by Mikael

A very straightforward and elegant love story by Russia’s Father of Literature. The text is available from Project Gutenberg as usual, though with one of its several alternative titles. Here is the general plot together with a schematic of location vs. time and a highlighting of pivotal moments.

[Visualization as PDF]

The locations appear to be mostly on the river Volga, more or less close to the border of Kazakhstan. I cross-checked with the original text in Russian and searched Google Maps to find:

  • Belogorsk (Belogorskaya) Белогорская: Where Peter was stationed, should be 40 verst (possibly 40-60 Km) from Orenbourg but while there are plenty of matches for the name, there are none within the distance as far as Google Maps is concerned.
  • Khasan (Kazan) Казань: This is where Peter was imprisoned.
  • Orenbourg (Orenburg) Оренбурга: A major city where Peter spent some time after fleeing Belogorsk.
  • Simbirsk (Simbirsk) Симбирска: Peter’s home.
February 10, 2014

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s – The Idiot

by Mikael

The Idiot is a novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky written in the 1860s. According to the translator’s introduction in my Penguin Classics copy, the author wanted to create a completely “pure” character. This became “Prince Lev Nikolayevich Myshkin”, who is better known by the pejorative epithet of the book’s title.

Myshkin’s adventures in upper middle class 19th century Russia is a whirlwind of social intrigue. He falls in love (but innocently so) with two different women, one of which has at least two other suitors simultaneously. On top of all this, there is a throng of family members and miscellaneous characters. To confuse matters, many of them tend to be referred to interchangeably by different Russian names, titles and nicknames that are probably unfamiliar to the non-Russian reader. The Uncyclopedia article describes this sarcastically.

Grabbing the text from Project Gutenberg, I’ve made two different graph representations. The left is a simple co-appearance graph that highlights a cluster of important and heavily interacting characters in the center: the closer they are and the thicker/darker the edge, the more they interact. The right is a simple schematic of family ties, romantic innuendo and some other relationships of importance.

[Visualization as PDF]

At the center of the plot is Nastasya whose three suitors are Rogojin, Ganya and the Prince. The latter is also in love with Aglaya. Several family members of Aglaya and Ganya get involved for various reasons and one of Rogojin’s compatriots, Lebdev, plays a role. The characters involved in the romantic double-triangles (or whatever it is) are all borderline mad. I’ll refrain from exposing the ending here.

The English spelling of the Russian names is taken from the translation by McDuff.

November 15, 2013

Nicolo Machiavelli’s – The Prince

by Mikael

The Prince, by the Italian Niccolò Machiavelli, is a renaissance era political treatise. It is notable for being one of the first works (in the west, after the “dark ages”) to promote political realism. The entire text is available on Project Gutenberg, although I found the Penguin Classic’s translation much more approachable.

What Machiavelli means by “a Prince” is what we would rather call “a King” or “a Tyrant” today, a sovereign who commands absolute power in his state. The book contains advice for how such people should act to acquire and stay in power. It is controversial in that it promotes many ambiguous or clearly unethical behaviours.

Machiavelli is very systematical and fond of making distinct categorizations. These are my notes interpreting some of the more amusing passages.

[Visualization as PDF]

Although the cynical part of me (which happens to be the larger part) notes that these ideas may well make much sense for your practical tyrant, I don’t suggest that they are “right” (whatever that may mean) or ethical. The way to read this is by trying to understand the circumstances people lived under in the past. Some of the tidbits are still relevant, such as the part on how to deal with sycophants. Most of them are not.

October 21, 2013

The Forged Coupon Begets Evil

by Mikael

The Forged Coupon is a novella written by Leo Tolstoy and published (posthumously) in 1912. The story is set in 19th century Russia and has a number of interesting themes. Prominently we see how evil begets evil when the forgery of a coupon sets off a chain of ever worse events. This culminates in a series of horrible murders by a man named Stephan.

During the last of these murders, however, Stephan has a spiritual awakening which eventually causes him to reform. This sets of a chain-reaction of reformation, good deeds and proselytizing. Perhaps even the Tsar is influenced to be a better man, through an intricate series of causation. The story in its entirety is of course hillarious.

Here is my attempt at cataloguing the chain reactions:

[Visualization as PDF]

The transcription of names into English is slightly different in different translations. I use the spelling in the Penguin Classics book quoted. A couple of Important characters are:

Mitya Smokovnikov, the 15-year-old boy who with the help of his friend Makihin forges a coupon in order to repay a small debt.

Stephan Pelageyushkin, who is at the center of the whole web, first becoming a murderer and then radically reforming his sinful ways.

Maria Semyonova, an altruistic old woman whose incredible goodness inspires a wave of religious reformation.

Mitya, Makihin and Maria are to some extent sources of good and evil while Stephan is at the center of the vortex.

It is not unlikely that I have overlooked important details or gotten something wrong. In this case I would be delighted to learn about it and make the necessary corrections.

September 23, 2013

An Investigation into the Death of Ivan Ilych

by Mikael

“The Death of Ivan Ilych” is a short novel by Leo Tolstoy, one of his masterpieces. In the words of Wikipedia:

The novella tells the story of the death, at age 45, of a high-court judge in 19th-century Russia. Living what seems to be a good life, his dreadful relationship with his wife notwithstanding, Ivan Ilyich Golovin injures his side while hanging up curtains in a new apartment intended to reflect his family’s superior status in society. Within weeks, he has developed a strange taste in his mouth and a pain that will not go away. Several expensive doctors are consulted, but beyond muttering about blind gut and floating kidneys, they can neither explain nor treat his condition, and it soon becomes clear that Ivan Ilyich is dying.

Anthony Briggs in the introduction of my copy points out an interesting litterary device that Tolstoy employs: As the story progresses towards the inevitable end (already given away in the title), the chapters and paragraphs become shorter and even the sentences briefer. This seemed like something that could be systematically tested. I therefore helped myself to the text in plain form from Project Gutenberg and wrote some simple parsing code.

The numbers may seem unremarkable at first but when we take a look at the rolling averages, the trend becomes strikingly clear. The chapters, paragraphs and sentences indeed become shorter towards the end. In fact even the words Tolstoy chooses become progressively shorter on average. One must wonder to what extent this was a conscious decision.

The Results [PDF]


The alignment on the horizontal axis is by word index, i.e. Chapter II starts at about 15% since Chapter I has 3229 words out of the 21821 in the whole book. The longest words (16 letters each) are: circumstantially, lightheartedness, misunderstanding, and incomprehensible. The longest sentence with 123 words is:

Having graduated from the School of Law and qualified for the tenth rank of the civil service, and having received money from his father for his equipment, Ivan Ilych ordered himself clothes at Scharmer’s, the fashionable tailor, hung a medallion inscribed *respice finem* on his watch-chain, took leave of his professor and the prince who was patron of the school, had a farewell dinner with his comrades at Donon’s first-class restaurant, and with his new and fashionable portmanteau, linen, clothes, shaving and other toilet appliances, and a travelling rug, all purchased at the best shops, he set off for one of the provinces where through his father’s influence, he had been attached to the governor as an official for special service.

Finding the longest paragraph is left as an exercise to the reader 😉