“Would I start to resemble a book myself?” — Keith Miller, The Book of Flying

And slowly I arrived at a realization so startling I was almost afraid to believe it. I found, as I moved through this subterranean forest, that I could imagine a book, known or unknown, read or unread, and be certain of the path I would have to take to find it. … We all have titles, questions swept like sodden leaves into the corners of our minds, that we have little hope will ever be answered or solved, but that we cannot get rid of. Suddenly, I found myself in the orchard of answers. …
For a time, I wondered if I would simply stay here forever, reading, sampling the delicacies, hiding from the librarians — the ghost of the Library of Alexandria, a reformed thief in paradise. And I wondered what would become of my soul if I chose that path. … Would I start to resemble a book myself?

— Keith Miller, The Book of Flying

Body of Knowledge

A book is a binding of truth. Truth is out there, first in the world, long before anyone commits it to paper. The written form is subject to the errors of brain and body and language, a lesser truth.

A book is a stack of papers bound on edge, pasted with glue or stitched with thread. Websites are also bound, a collection of web pages linked to a single domain name. A book is covered, stamped with a title and name, a face to attract and sell. A book’s binding is covered with a spine for finding on a shelf. A spine, as if a book can stand up and speak its name. Websites too are covered with a banner on a home page, and announced by title and snippet in a search result. The coverings gives identity and soul at a glance, as if truth could ever be bound and tidy.

Every reading is another binding, an embodiment of truth, enlisting the brain and the whole body. From the beginning knowledge has been a whole body experience. When Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived, they were reading the first book.

Reading belongs to the eyes. Reading is a lamp of knowledge, a light illuminating the darkness of ignorance. I read the text, my eyes bouncing all over the page. My knowledge can only be acquired as fast as my eyes can read it.

The nose is a perch for my spectacles while reading. The smell of books is not in leather, ink or moldy pages. No, the smell of books is in feelings. I read about an orchid. The elusive smell is activated. Is it raspberry or coconut? It is delicate and exotic, reminiscent of a past love.

I learned to read with my ears, listening to my mother’s voice. I imagine the voice of an author or a character in a book. Adults still sound out difficult words, trying to recreate the original speech sounds. For centuries, most everyone read aloud, mouth and lips in motion.

Reading is fingery. My thumb lets me grasp and behold a book. I flip pages. I bookmark a page with a finger. I brush the pages, guessing how much reading remains. Reading online I click and scroll and swipe. I turn the pages of my e-reader with a touch. Print or digital, reading is fingery.

Of course the brain features in reading. Learning to read takes years of training, recognizing the shapes of letters, detecting subtle differences in words, encoding units of meaning. Reading is physical work in the brain.

Even the feet are enlisted in reading. Too much reading blurs the questions and dulls the mind. Walking refreshes my spirit and reconnects me to the world where the questions were first asked. True understanding is a dance, a two step between the bindings of books and bodies and first hand experience in the world.

Does the Brain Need the Book? Video by John Miedema


Two thousand years ago the book replaced the scroll. The book was portable. Pages allowed for precise references. The spine allowed a title to be imprinted, easier to organize in libraries. The book was the superior technology for reading. Digital technology has introduced the web browser and the e-reader. Is the book dead? Why has the book lasted 2000 years? Is it possible to change our reading technology so quickly? This video looks at the close connections between the reader’s brain and the book.

(Originally published as part of my I, Reader blog series in 2012. It is a good summary of many ideas about literacy discussed in Part I of After Reading.)

Mitsuku is a Chatbot and Third Time Winner of the Loebner Prize

Mitsuku is a chatbot created by Steve Worswick. It has won the Loebner Prize, which is awarded to the most “human-like” chatbot, three times, again in August 2017. In my first test chats with Mitsuku, its snappy responses were relevant but highly scripted. It recognized me as a returning visitor, but when prompted to “ask me anything,” it always replied with the same question, “Who is your favourite band?”

Only a Mobile Creature Needs a Brain

Only a mobile creature needs a brain, points out New York University neurophysiologist Rodolfo Llinias in his 2002 book, I of the Vortex: From Neurons to Self. To illustrate he uses the example of a tiny jellyfish-like animal called the sea squirt: Born with a simple spinal cord and a three hundred-neuron “brain,” the larva motors around in the shallows until it finds a nice patch of coral on which to put down its roots. It has about twelve hours to do so, or it will die. Once safely attached, however, the sea squirt simply eats its brain. For most of its life it looks more like a plant than an animal, and since it’s not moving, it has no use for its brain. Llinas’ interpretation: “That which we call thinking is the evolutionary internalization of movement.” (Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, by John J. Ratey and Eric Hagerman)

Suppose you already know the outcome of an otherwise difficult choice. Go left or go right. You already know that the left path leads astray into danger, and that the right path leads safely home. Would you bother thinking it over, analyzing the situation, debating your choice? Of course not. When there is no uncertainty, concrete action is preferable to talking and thinking. Thinking too much only causes anxiety; action clears it.

The absence of uncertainty is exceedingly rare. The universe is a story of things in motion. Once there was a high ordered singularity, then there was a big bang. Everything since is dissipation of energy, the expansion of the universe to entropy. Change is constant and the things that survive are the ones that can adapt to it. Brains are for managing change. Humans evolved brains with the ability to think, to analyze and evaluate, to rehearse and estimate, to predict and control. At the limit of our biological brains, we invented technologies to make us smarter yet. Pencils, pens, paper. Books, computers and artificial intelligence. Information technologies externalize and extend human brains.

Is it the universe that is endlessly complex or is it our minds? Was life simpler in the past? We think so, but each generation thinks its time the most complex. Twenty years you thought your life was complex. Complexity may be a constant. Perhaps it is only our minds that are in constant motion. Movement cannot fathom stillness. The only way for movement to be aware of stillness would be to stop, to turn upon itself with a small crunch, and, like the sea-squirt, eat its own brain.

Give No More Time to Writing than Walking

Some decide to devote the same amount of time to writing as to reading. Thoreau, Emerson recalls, had made it a principle to give no more time to writing than he had to walking. To avoid the pitfalls of culture and libraries; for otherwise, what one writes is filled with the writing of others. For all that those others in turn had written on the books of yet others … Writing ought to be this: testimony to a wordless, living experience. No the commentary on another book, not the exegesis of another text. The book as witness … but witness in the sense of the baton in a relay race. Thus does the book, born out of experience, refer to that experience.

— Frederic Gros, A Philosophy of Walking

“The purpose of literature is to turn blood into ink” — T.S. Eliot. Four Quotes about Writing and Bleeding

I write with the blood that goes to the ends of my fingers, and it is a very sensuous act.
— A. S. Byatt, Paris Review

The purpose of literature is to turn blood into ink.
T.S. Eliot

There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed. Ernest Hemingway

I write so slowly that I could write in my own blood without hurting myself.
— Fran Lebowitz, Paris Review

Knowledge is Five Bindings of Truth. How Good is It?

Knowledge is a series of bindings of truth, from the initial sensation and perception, to spoken and written language, and its home in memory. Truth — it is such an absolute word, can we even use it? Truth is existence independent of an observer. We depend on error-prone observation to know it, but plainly the world exists without us. We apprehend truth better by understanding the errors of knowledge.

Binding is an act of fastening, securing and uniting. Books have binding. Books are a stack of papers bound on one edge, a spine. I bound books with glue in my father’s print shop. Sometimes books are stitched with thread. Websites are also bound, pages linked to a central domain name. A common thread runs through the content. Books are covered, stating the title and author. Websites are covered with a home page. A binding and cover give the impression of a unified identity, as if knowledge is ever tidy.

Binding is also associated with footwear. Mechanical bindings are use to attach feet to skis. Once bound, the skiier can move across snow at a rapid pace. It is good fun and exercise but skiis also compel the skiier in just one direction. A person is more agile on snowshoes or foot, able to cut across fields. Knowledge, too, limits agility, mental agility. Knowledge binds a mind, compelling it to look in a particular way, occluding other directions.

Knowledge is a series of five bindings of truth, summarized in the figure and table below. Links to related articles are provided.

Name Description Types of Error Links
Sensation Visual stimuli in the lifeworld are captured as images on the retina. (Other physical stimuli are processed by other sense organs.) Attention to stimuli depends on the importance of the viewer. Images on the retina are two dimensional, completed by the mind.




Perception An image on the retina is carried through the optic nerve to the brain for interpretation and consolidation into memory. Experience is interpreted, classified and blended to form single memories.




Speech Speech organs evolved first for basic bodily functions such as feeding and breathing. It evolved into language. Spoken language is localized. Words can be used to speak of things even when they are not present. Words can be used to speak of things that do not exist. They can used for persuasion http://johnmiedema.com/?p=843
Written Learning to read, the brain becomes encoded with the specific shapes and sounds of words. Written words are correlates of spoken words. Written language has similar errors as spoken language. In addition, written language does not require the presence of a speaker. A dead person can speak. http://johnmiedema.com/?p=850
Memory Human and computer memory has different systems for short-term and long-term memory. Input is encoded differently for concrete and abstract inputs. Memory is encoded into neural or digital format. Neural memory is non-deterministic while digital memory depends on explicit instructions.



The five bindings stretch the truth. Supposing each binding gives the same distortion, our final grasp of truth is only a fifth of the original, twenty percent. What good is knowledge? Is it a lie, a movie, a trip into the Matrix? Twenty percent is actually quite functional. Consider the Pareto Principle. The principle states that for many events, eighty percent of the effects come from twenty percent of the causes. For example, eighty percent of a company’s business comes from twenty percent of its customers. Think too of a driver in the rain. The driver’s visibility is greatly reduced, sometimes less than twenty percent. The painted white guidelines on the road are still enough to get a driver home. In many cases, your knowledge is still a good guide.

The Fifth and Final Binding of Knowledge is Memory. Human and Computer.

The fifth and final binding of knowledge is memory. Human and computer memory are different types of binding, but still a binding, a transformation of original experience into a reduced form, a simpler and lesser representation, with error.

Human brains have short-term and long-term memory. Short-term memory works like a “scratch-pad” that allows for attention and processing at the same time. It is limited to about seven “chunks” of data. Long-term memory stores an unlimited amount of information almost indefinitely; forgetting is a problem of access.

In some ways, computer and human memory is similar. A computer has random access memory (RAM) that works like a scratch-pad. Similar to human short-term memory, RAM is a limited resource meant for temporary storage. A computer’s disk functions like long-term memory for indefinite storage. Binary encoding in computers is comparable to neural activation — a neuron either fires or it does not, depending on its activation and threshold.

The comparison is limited. Computer memory is mathematical and deterministic. The letter “A” is mapped to a number in an ASCII table, 65, and then encoded as binary, “01000001.” An image is converted to a pixel array and colours mapped to numbers. Audio is a signal that can be plotted on a graph. Language is a series of letters and video a series of images. Memories are precisely addressed and maintain state unless deliberately edited.

In contrast, human memory is non-deterministic. Memory is distributed throughout the cortex in a network of meaningful associations. Parallel processing is required for all mental functions. Replaying a memory changes it, adding the experience at the time of recall.

The fifth binding of memory has different types of error, depending on the system, human or computer. Humans forget things in seconds unless conscious effort is applied. Memories are constantly being rewritten. Remembering is really an act of creative remixing with new experience. Computer memory is deterministic, but at a price. The quality of the memories depend entirely on the hardware and software used to capture and encode the data. A program will deliver no more than it is explicitly instructed. Non-deterministic human memory can mean more error. A vital memory can be forgotten. But non-determinism is also a factor of sophisticated capability. For example, memories encoded in different parts of the brain allow retrieval through alternate pathways, very handy in the event of partial damage.

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