After Reading is a Trip Down a Rabbit Hole

As a kid I raised rabbits. I liked to draw them too. The introvert in me has an affinity for rabbits. Rabbits are weak on earth, but fast to burrow down a hole and traverse the underworld, just like an introvert on a psychological journey.

As an adult I generally avoid rabbit holes. It is too easy to lose perspective. There are many kinds of rabbit holes: a programmer lost in code, a writer fumbling with words, a thinker tangling with ideas. Code, words, ideas: they are bottomless pits. The trap is detail. Fancy oneself an artist perfecting an offering and there is no end.

This work, After Reading, is a trip down a rabbit hole, a psychological journey. The trip begins with books, traces a way through the internet, and then deals with the subject of machine life. It is a strange journey, a rabbit hole, but there is a natural end. We travel to the end of books, and code, and language, and thought. At the end of thought there are no details left to perfect. At the end there is a gate, a way out of the rabbit hole. I hope you come along.

Books have Binding, but Reading Slips Through

Books try to bind knowledge but reading has never been fixed. Books are an assembly of numbered pages, bound and covered. You can hold a book in your hand, a prop in a play. Slide it into a slot on a shelf to sleep. Fixity has its merits. I can cite facts by page numbers that won’t change with the font size. The white space of a print page helps me remember the text. The white space of a web page is a spinning arrow as it loads, a status bar of an an email scan or a download in progress. A book has weight but open a million and we all can read. Open a million copies of a website and it crashes.

Yet reading itself has no binding. We imagine that we share the minds of writers and other readers but every reading is different. Reading has a history, says Robert Darnton, that is, it is not fixed. A reading of Ovid by the wife of a Roman patrician two thousand years ago is a different thing than a reading today. Reading served different purposes at different times. In the age of Luther it provided access to absolute truths. In the eighteenth century religious reading declined and people wanted to read novels, travel books and natural history. Today we read tweets. Even for one reader, a second reading is new. Re-reading a book gives the vertigo of time and perspective. Books have binding, but reading slips through.

“The born contemplative has to face the struggle for existence and social predominance without protection” — Huxley

The lack of a suitable vocabulary and an adequate frame of reference, and the absence of any strong and sustained desire to invent these necessary instruments of thought here are two sufficient reasons why so many of the almost endless potentialities of the human mind remained for so long unactualized. Another and, on its own level, equally cogent reason is this: much of the world’s most original and fruitful thinking is done by people of poor physique and of a thoroughly unpractical turn of mind. Because this is so, and because the value of pure thought, whether analytical or integral, has everywhere been more or less clearly recognized, provision was and still is made by every civilized society for giving thinkers a measure of protection from the ordinary strains and stresses of social life. The hermitage, the monastery, the college, the academy and the research laboratory; the begging bowl, the endowment, patronage and the grant of taxpayers’ money such are the principal devices that have been used by actives to conserve that rare bird, the religious, philosophical, artistic or scientific contemplative. In many primitive societies conditions are hard and there is no surplus wealth. The born contemplative has to face the struggle for existence and social predominance without protection. The result, in most cases, is that he either dies young or is too desperately busy merely keeping alive to be able to devote his attention to anything else. When this happens the prevailing philosophy will be that of the hardy, extraverted man of action.

— Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy

Are You a Reader-Seeker?

Are you a reader, bone and sinew? Do you read with a mission, seeking answers to difficult questions? Are you a Reader-Seeker?

Are you a pilgrim, a John Bunyan? Reading, it seems, saves you from terrible solitude. The reading does not save you. You must learn to read again, a second literacy. This second kind is not what a child learns, looking at letters, sounding out words. Still every pilgrim begins like a child, innocently, not knowing the dangers ahead. It will take you where you can look at words from the outside. It will break you. Broken, the signal gets in.

Are you an artist, gifted in some way, a poet or writer, a musician or painter? Herman Hesse or Ursula Le Guin? Reading is an art. You apply serious purpose to understand the world. You light up imagination to play with words. No artifact is produced, no painting or sculpture, but like all good art, the act of reading stretches our interiority, our psychological landscape. Maybe your gift is code. You bend the Internet. You are a pirate invading the gated garden to free knowledge for all. You are Aaron Swartz, the Internet’s Own Boy.

Are you Nicholas Carr, critical thinker and contrarian? An academic or digital humanist? A Reader-Seeker is a scientist is the original sense, a truth seeker, not beholden to a career or corporation. She asks questions for which she already knows an answer, testing the hardiness of her knowledge. Are you a librarian? Are you Pico, poet and librarian, forbidden to pursue your love because you do not have wings?

Are you a spiritual warrior, a Dali Lama without enlightenment? Reading is physical work, re-engineering the brain. A Reader-Seeker is aggressive, compelling books to bleed their meaning. She is murderer, killing the author. He is midwife, birthing the reader. The Reader-Seeker is suicidal with intention, sacrificing up the ego, born again a vampire, walking the earth a ghost with truth in hand. You are Jed McKenna.

Come, Reader-Seeker, you belong here for now, reading this work before you. Follow the wiseman’s words until you see what he saw. Mistake the finger for the moon, until you don’t. Your path will take you to the end of books. The answers will fail your questions. It is up to you then to step through the gate gateless. Be warned you may not read again. You will not be denied any book but why read on? Truth is after reading.

I Tried to Walk Away from Lila but Good Ideas are Persistent

Remember Lila? Did you think I had abandoned her? If you did not follow my earlier blog you might be a little confused. Lila is not a live person. Lila was a conceptual design for a “cognitive writing technology,” natural language processing software to aid with reading and writing. It was a complex and consuming project. I tried to walk away from Lila but good ideas are persistent. Below you see a screenshot of a more basic project, a tool for analyzing individual After Reading essays and comparing them to the whole work.

The user interface is comparable to Voyant Tools by Stéfan Sinclair & Geoffrey Rockwell. Lila 0.1 has unique functions:

  1. On a Home screen a user gets to enter an essay. Lila 0.1 is intended to accept the text of individual essays created by me for After Reading. An Analyze button begins the natural language processing that results in the screen above. The text is displayed, highlighting one paragraph at a time as the user scrolls down.
  2. The button set provides four functions. The Home button is for navigation back to the Home screen. The Save button allows the user to save an essay with analytics to a database to build an essay set or corpus. The Documents button navigates to a screen for managing the database. The Settings button navigates to a screen that can adjust configurations for the analytics.
  3. The graph shows the output of natural language processing and analytics for a “Feeling” metric, an aggregate measure based on sentiment, emotion and perhaps other measures. The light blue shows the variance in Feeling across paragraphs. The dark blue straight line shows the aggregate value for the document. The user can see how Feeling varies across paragraphs and in comparison to the whole essay. Another view will allow for comparison of single essays to the corpus.
  4. The user can choose one of several available metrics to be displayed on the graph.
    • Count. The straight count of words.
    • Frequency. The frequency of words.
    • Concreteness. The imagery and memorability of words. A personal favourite.
    • Complexity. Ambiguity or polysemy, i.e., words with multiple meanings. Synonymy or antonmy. A measure of the readability of the text. Complexity can also be measured for sentences, e.g., number of conjunctions, and for paragraphs, e.g, number of sentences.
    • Hyponymy. A measure of the abstraction of words.
    • Metaphor. I am evaluating algorithms that identify metaphors.
    • Form. Various measures are available to measure text quality, e.g., repetition.
    • Readability by grade level.
    • Thematic presence can be measured by dictionary tagging of selected words related to the work’s theme.
  5. All metrics are associated with individuals words. Numeric values will be listed for a subset of the words.
  6. Topic Cloud. A representation of topics in an essay will be shown.

The intention is to help a writer evaluate the literary quality of an essay and compare it to the corpus. A little bit like spell-check and grammar-check, but packed with literary smarts. Where it is helpful to be conscious of conformity and variance, e.g., author voice, Lila can help. It is a modest step in the direction of an artificial intelligence project that will emerge in time. Perhaps one day Lila will live.

People of the Book, People of the Internet

Matthew and I joined our peers at the Minister’s house after church on Sundays. We grew up together. At age eighteen we were getting ready to stand before the congregation and recite the Profession of Faith, a commitment to the church and its authority. The classes were pleasant social events with coffee and boterkoek (butter cake) and light discussion of the Nicene Creed, yet I developed a sick feeling as they went along. I worried how casually I had wandered into the faith, agreeing to believe.

My parents immigrated from the Netherlands to Canada after World War II. My father’s family was poor, surviving the war by collecting firewood and selling duck eggs. My mother’s family had a tobacco farm. Both families emigrated to improve the lives of their children. My father prospered as a mason contractor and my mother worked on her family’s new and bigger farm. They married young and had seven children. I was the second youngest.

The Dutch immigrants were a close knit community. Their religious and cultural center was the Reformed church, a branch of Protestants that broke from the Roman Catholics under Martin Luther and John Calvin. The church emphasized close reading of the Bible. Three meals a day closed with scripture. I met Matthew at the private Christian school, the “Dutch school” with all those young blond heads and blue eyes. The curriculum reinforced the Bible readings. Add two sermons on Sundays plus weekday youth groups and catechism classes, the children of Dutch immigrants became Bible scholars. We were a People of the Book.

Church members looked after each other, spirit and body. We bought milk from Van Ryn’s store, a car from Zylstra’s garage, and our house through Kielstra the real estate agent. When my father fell sick and could not work in construction, the church waived our tuition, hired him to print church bulletins, and sent a Christmas food box. There was a dark side, prejudice against outsiders: Catholics, blacks, gays. Still, in the war, Dutch families risked their lives to hide Jews from the Nazis. The people were kinder than their politics and theology. If my upbringing was too restrictive it was also safe and loving.

The expression, “People of the Book,” is Islamic in origin, a community of Jews, Christians and other religions that follow scripture. It is not that they agree on scripture. Muslims follow the Quran, Jews the Torah, while Christians prefer their New Testament. They do agree in the ideas of a single sacred book, one God, and one true people.

As the Profession of Faith classes neared their end I wondered if I could stand before my people. Did I belong? Matthew did not share my doubts. I asked the Minister for personal time but I could not frame my questions and he could not help. I watched from the pews as Matthew made his Profession with the others.

Today I am a happy atheist — happy not to worry about the fate my soul, content to live by a practical morality of love and service to others, and satisfied to find meaning in the small stories of life.

From the distance of decades, it seems no surprise now that I dropped out of the church. Calvinism is a stern theology. Its main five points are represented by the acronym TULIP, the Dutch flower. “T” stands for “Total depravity,” people are born in sin and must be saved. “U” is for “Unconditional election,” the idea that God has already picked those who will be saved, while the rest are bound for hell. There it is, the exclusive club, written right into the belief system. “L” for “Limited Atonement,” Jesus died only for club members. Not what I remember hearing in church. “I” for “Irresistible Grace;” God calls everyone but the “elect” receive a special call. The fifth and last letter, “P” refers to “Perseverance of the Saints;” salvation cannot be lost, club membership is good for eternity. Calvinism is not a flowery religion. (2017-09-14 I guess I just wasn’t one of the lucky ones picked for the club.)

If the theology is objectionable, why not join a more open church? When my own children were young my family joined the United Church. This church is enlightened. We baptized our children, not because God requires it, but as a symbol of fellowship with the church community. We partook in communion without making a Profession of Faith. The way the pastor explained it, church rituals were a step toward faith, not conditions to prove it. Openness notwithstanding I did not believe the literal Bible story. I would translate it in my head into a human message of hope. A few years later we moved away and did not join another church.

The Book imprinted on me deeply. As a high school student in English class, I caught the Eden symbolism of the two rivers in A Separate Peace. Movies and dance were forbidden so I always read, increasingly straying into divergent material, The Catcher in the Rye or On the Origin of the Species. In university I always signed up for essay courses of a philosophical bent. In graduate school I published a book, Slow Reading, about the benefits of reflective reading. For a long time I remained a Person of the Book.

Last Christmas Matthew moved into my city and we caught up the years over coffee. Matthew founded a faith-based research group. I told him that I am an atheist. He joked about not having enough faith to be one. I became an information technology consultant. He mumbled something about having people who install software for him. So do I, and I brushed it off, but it piqued a question. Did technology make a difference?

Religion prefers the Book. Books are generally written by a single author, an authority to which the reader is expected to submit. The chapters are organized into a hierarchy, a table of contents through which truth is linearly revealed. Religion and books share a top-down world view, one in which certain people and selected ideas are ranked higher than others.

After I left the church I kept reading books, searching for a deeper truth, in philosophy, in science, and in literature. I read my way to the end of books and onto the Internet. I was a teenager in the eighties when personal computers first became available. I was a natural, learning to program from a book, later searching the Web while building websites. The Internet extended my brain. Websites are different than books. Readers and writers co-create content that is constantly being remixed and reorganized by a shifting web of links. The Internet comes from a bottom-up world view, a diverse global village. It is said that information technology changes the way we think. It might also change the way we believe. Atheists are a minority but this is changing, especially among millennials, the digital natives, the People of the Internet. I am a digital immigrant, a Person of the Internet.

“Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right” by Arlie Russell Hochschild

What the hell happened in the USA in 2016? I gaped at the anger that kicked liberals in the teeth on election night. Take that f’ers. Confused, I made an effort to better understand the right. I asked questions with an open mind. What I got was disturbing: “the Koran orders Muslims to kill us”, “climate change is just weather.” What bothered me most was the cold anger, now thawing under a Trump star. Just as I was about to slink back into my echo chamber I came across an important book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild. A Berkeley liberal, Hochschild spent five years in arch-conservative Louisiana, bayou country, listening to what the other side had to say.

“An empathy wall is an obstacle to deep understanding of another person, one that can be make us feel indifferent or even hostile to those who hold different beliefs or whose childhood is rooted in different circumstances.” My background has some similarities with the Louisianans, coming from a large, low-income, Christian family. It is my memory, and Hochschild observes, that the people are kinder and more generous than their politics and theology. That said, I share little with the Louisianans today, having raised a small family on a dual income, being an atheist. The differences explain things. For example, I consider it my job as a citizen to pay taxes and help others. Louisianans hate taxes, but not for lack of caring of course. They tithe through the church so taxes seems redundant. Unfortunately the church does not scale to solving a global problem like the environment.

The environment is the key paradox of the book. Hochschild returns to it in every chapter. Louisiana is the most polluted state and yet it is also the strongest against environmental regulation of corporations. Across the states, those with higher exposure to pollution are more likely to be strong Republicans. How can this be? Certainly, less regulation leads to more jobs but toxic exposure is destroying their land and families. Short term risk can be rational but it seems to me that Louisianans are getting numb to the damage. They are not alone. Many people need a hard shake to see that green jobs also put food on the table.

Education is part of the difference. Education qualifies people for jobs, yes, but it is not just about university degrees. It is also about knowing how to find and analyze information. Fox News can be a source of information but it should not be the only one. The collapse of traditional journalism has left a vacuum of authority. People fail to check the source of their news. It is a festering pot for ignorance. Hochschild calls it a deep story, a psychology of resentment about being left behind. Liberal insults about rednecks and white trash cut deeply. Self-sufficient and gritty to the core, they do not whine like liberals. Still they do not recognize themselves. They are strangers in their own land, a Biblical reference to alienation. This is what happened in the USA in 2016.

It is important to figure this all out, to prevent spillover into Canada and beyond, to disarm the anger before it escalates into hate and violence and war. We must meet anger with open-mindedness, good information, and loving-kindness. Strangers in Their Own Land is a worthy book in this campaign.