Middle-earth in the age of data

And more recent highlights from the Ideas blog

Perhaps it was inevitable that two great geek preoccupations—data visualization and the Lord of the Rings—would collide with the nerd obsession du jour, demography. The result is the endearingly dorkmeistery LOTRProject, an attempt by a Swedish chemical engineering grad student named Emil Johansson to document every named character in the writings of JRR Tolkien, link them by genealogy, and boil it down into one great statistical portrait of Middle-earth. The result is a series of interactive charts showing the population by race, sex, average life span, and more (he also charts the books’ epic journeys, at left) .

Transforming Tolkien’s universe into data not only shows us a crisper portrait of that world, but also, as maps will do, a clear outline of what’s missing. The big gap? Let’s just say if there were a ladies’ night on Middle-earth, things would be pretty quiet. Men outnumber women about 4 to 1 overall, with the most spectacular gender imbalance (50-1!) occurring among the population of dwarves. And for a universe without modern medicine, there is surprisingly little child mortality: Virtually nobody in Tolkien’s work dies before their 60s, and a vast number of individuals live beyond 100.

This is, of course, an artifact of what the author chose to write about, rather than the, er, reality of life there. “I think it is safe to draw the conclusion that there were children who died at a young age but we will never know how many they were,” wrote Johansson in an e-mail, calling it “a very significant part of Middle-earth that we do not know.”


Leon Neyfakh, Globe Staff

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Need to topple a dictator? Here’s something you might not have thought of: enlist a pigeon.

You could also try pranking him. Or sending messenger balloons. Those are among the imaginative approaches outlined in “An Outsider’s Guide to Supporting Nonviolent Resistance to Dictatorship,” a 55-page “how to” packet that was recently assembled by a group of pro-democracy activists after a two-day summit in New York City.

Hoping to give freedom fighters around the world more creative weapons than violence and the “same handful of policy options” used “again and again” by governments and foundations “to little effect,” the group cataloged about 120 tools that have worked against authoritarian regimes somewhere in the world. The result is a sort of “Anarchist Cookbook” for nonviolent protest.

Globe staff

Some entries on the menu are standard fare (e-mail, petitions, Twitter), but others are, well, a bit more exotic. “Some have suggested organizing a global ‘prank a dictator’ day, flooding the phone lines of regime members and loyalists with critical calls,” the authors of the guide write, citing the humiliating joke a pair of Cuban-American radio hosts played on Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez in 2003, when they convinced Chavez he was talking to Fidel Castro.


There are also some whimsical-sounding schemes for surreptitious communication, like using messenger animals (livestock, dogs, cats, and homing pigeons), Ping-Pong balls, and balloons as delivery systems for important information. This is actually a somewhat established practice: As the guide points out, a group of North Korean dissidents living in South Korea has long been using balloons—millions of them—to send USB drives, radios, pens, videos, and leaflets over the border.

Leon Neyfakh, Globe Staff

One of the most dramatic episodes in modern Boston history is a story of what didn’t happen: the moment in 1972 when an unlikely coalition of neighbors, activists, and a Republican governor succeeded in killing off a massive tangle of interstate highways that would have sliced through the city’s neighborhoods, leveling thousands of houses and carving up Jamaica Plain, Roxbury, the South End, and ­Cambridgeport.

The new issue of design magazine ­ArchitectureBoston is dedicated to the story of the demise of those highways—and includes an intriguing essay by Alan Altshuler, state transportation secretary at the time, who, with a bit of legislative sleight-of-hand, managed to redirect $1.46 billion of that federal construction money back to Massachusetts, even without the highway.

So where did all that money actually go? We called Altshuler, who referred us to Fred Salvucci, his successor as transportation secretary. The highway money became a billion-dollar windfall for mass transit, as it turns out: It let the MBTA extend the Red Line north past Harvard, built the Southwest Corridor park, refurbished the commuter rail system, and even bought subway trains. So next time you walk into the Davis Square T stop, or sit on an Orange Line car, you can think of it a different way: You’re surrounded by the ghost of a highway that never was.


Stephen Heuser

Stephen Heuser, Globe Staff

Leon Neyfakh