Reading Belongs to the Eyes

Reading is a lamp of knowledge, illuminating the darkness of ignorance. Reading belongs to the eyes. Visual processing takes up about a third of our cortex. Reading braille also requires activating the visual area.

It begins with the book cover in the bookshop or online. I browse the table of contents and the illustrations. Is this book worth my purchase or time?

I read the black and white text, the ink on a page, or the pixels on a screen. I imagine pictures, sounds and feels too. I think I read left to right, but my eyes bounce all over the text. Eye movement is the true factor in reading speed. I read about 400 words per minute, but flash me text a word at a time and my speed is tripled. Speed reading and skimming use visual cues to accelerate reading, but as long as we use sentences and pages we can only read so fast. Not to worry, thinking needs time.

The codex was built for human reflection. I hold my book at a distance. I judge the thickness of the remaining content. I scan what comes next. Is it making sense? Shall I continue? I cross-reference by peering into the index. I build my own table of contents in my mind’s eye. I remember a passage by its place halfway down a page on the left, midway through the book. Reading belongs to the eyes.

Face to Face, that is Knowledge

Sit around a dinner table and share a meal. Draw chairs near the fire to speak slow and long into the night. Gaze into each other’s eyes cuddled under blankets. Face to face, that’s knowledge.

◊◊◊

Prima facie is Latin for at first face or at first appearance. In law and philosophy, prima facie means that a statement or position has merit at first examination, and deserves deeper investigation.

Face validity is the extent to which a test appears to measure a concept. A personality test should ask questions about our personality traits, though a psychologist knows to look beyond a Facebook quiz.

Face to face is the foundation of ethics. In the face of another we see our self. Please, it’s me, it’s you, do not hurt me.

◊◊◊

What is the face of knowledge? Is it shaped like a book? What can you tell about a book from its cover? A picture says a thousand words. A picture also denies answers to a thousand questions.

What can you tell about an e-book from its jpeg? You cannot feel the weight or tell the thickness of its body. Break the back of a book, break its binding, and splay it across the earth. The sixteen page book is networked to a million more.

What can you tell about a cover from its book? Your book is reading you: your title, your name, your place. Where do you skip? Where do you linger? Will it sell? Eyes watching yours, face to face.

Lila 0.2 – Compute Word Counts for WordPress Posts and Corpus

I promised code. After Reading is an assembly of many content types, including essays, memoir, book reviews, images, and … code. Lila is the concept that I am coding in steps. Lila will take on an increasing role as this series progresses. I have just coded Lila 0.2, as shown in the figure. The code is PHP and Javascript and uses the lovely Google Charts library. The code is available at my Github Gist site.

In the chart,

  • The blue line shows the count of words in each After Reading post, ordered in sequence. For example, post 21 has 1370 words.
  • The grey line shows a linear trend — the word count per post is increasing as the series progresses.
  • The red is a constant, the average words per post. The word count for post 21 is larger than both the trend and the average.

The code is just a beginning. Many more metrics will be added to analyze the text of After Reading. I want to be analyze the style of the posts, and several word measures can be calculated: frequency, feeling, concreteness, complexity, etc. Together they profile the style of posts and can be used to compare to the corpus. Even more interesting, it builds a platform for computational understanding of a text. More to come.

“NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity” by Steve Silberman (2015)

Neurotribes : The Legacy Of Autism And The Future Of Neurodiversity Neurotribes : The Legacy Of Autism And The Future Of NeurodiversitySilberman, Steve; Avery 2015WorldCatLibraryThingGoogle BooksBookFinder

I had just became comfortable with calling myself an introvert when I discovered Steve Silberman’s book, NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity. What started as an article on the increasing frequency of autism diagnoses in Silicon Valley evolved into a comprehensive investigation that became his book. I wonder if I might have been identified as autistic as a child. I shared the traits: literal thinking, shortness of expression, dysfunction in processing social information, problems with affection, anti-authoritarianism, bookishness, self-soothing behaviors, unusual sensory interests. The label might have fit, at times. Many of us have these traits to some degree — that is why autism is understood as a spectrum, fitting more or less. It is often said, if you meet once person with autism then you have met once person with autism. Still, labels are sometimes useful, e.g., getting special provisions for a child’s education. If I were to pick a label, I would choose “neurodiverse” over “autistic.” I prefer the positive connotation.

Autism is misunderstood, says Silberman. Leo Kanner is the scientist who coined the term, autism, from the Greek word for self, autos, “because they seemed happiest in isolation.” Kanner is a villain in NeuroTribes for blaming parents about their children’s condition, and for failing to acknowledge Hans Asperger’s original and more positive research. Asperger believed that success in science and art required a “dash of autism.” Silberman tells the story of Temple Grandin, an accomplished scientist and one of the first adults to publicly identify as autistic. She might have been institutionalized as a young person. She credits mentors who believed in her and helped liberate her creative gifts. Silberman tells more stories of other brilliant scientists with autism, Henry Cavendish and Paul Dirac. Not everyone with autism is a genius, but many are high functioning, endowed with unique insight and cognitive abilities.

Casting autism as one type of neurodiversity puts the subject in a new light. I share Silberman’s positive view that autism and other disorders such as dyslexia and ADHD may represent natural variations in the human genome, often useful for adapting to the complexity of life.

“The Introvert Advantage” by Marti Olsen Laney (2002)

The Introvert Advantage The Introvert Advantage: How to Thrive in an Extrovert WorldMarti Olsen Laney; Workman Publishing Company 2002WorldCatLibraryThingGoogle BooksBookFinder

”I’m not an introvert. I like people.” It is a common misconception. We are all social beings, but introverts process information differently. It can be a challenge. Introverts are typically outnumbered by three times as many extroverts. It is no wonder if introverts feel out of place. It can also be an advantage, as shown by Marti Laney in her book, The Introvert Advantage.

Introverts have increased blood flow in the brain and it follows a different pathway, engaging memory, problem solving, and planning. The pathway is long and complex, activated by the neurotransmitter, acetylcholine, which stimulates a good feeling when thinking or feeling. The extrovert path is activated by dopamine, fired by adrenaline – they need external stimulation to feel good. Extroverts like to experience a lot, and introverts like to know a lot about what they experience. Introverts find that outside activity raises their intensity quickly. It is like being tickled – the sensation goes from feeling good and fun to ’too much’ and uncomfortable in a split second. Their brain may shut down – brain freeze, ’vapour lock’. Social encounters are rich in stimulation and introverts process them deeply, sometimes needing to limit the encounter, ”It’s time to go now.”

The introvert and the extrovert are the tortoise and the hare. Introverts tend to be slower and stead-ier, while extroverts are faster and take bigger risks. The tortoise strategy tends to work better in the long run. Introverts have the ability to focus deeply, and to understand how a change will affect everyone. They have a propensity for thinking outside the box, and the strength to make unpopular decisions. They help slow down the world a notch.

A hundred light bulbs went on when I read Laney’s book. At the time of the reading, I identified my-self as an introvert off the scale, but I have since met people who are much more introverted. Laney’s book recommends several excellent coping strategies. Wake early and gently to let the brain engage. The introvert’s nervous system causes food to metabolize quickly, so graze through the day. Avoid rewinding and replaying words after social encounters (I do this). Speak to extroverts in short, clear sentences (hilarious but true). Introverts tend to have fewer, deeper relationships, which is great, but the best of advice I received from this book was to accept that relationships can be light as well as deep. It makes the world a friendlier place.

 [originally published at this site on 2011-02-03]

“Close to the Machine: Technophilia and its Discontents” by Ellen Ullman (1997)

Close to the machine Close to the Machine: Technophilia and its DiscontentsEllen Ullman; City Lights Books 1997WorldCatRead OnlineLibraryThingGoogle BooksBookFinder

Ten years ago I took my first real job as a computer programmer. Perhaps three weeks later I picked up a book, The Philosophical Programmer by Daniel Kohanski. Title notwithstanding, it is not a very philosophical book. Today I work as an IT Architect for a multinational corporation. There is still something that draws me toward technology, just as there is still discontent which I seek to understand. In 2002, I read a better book, Close to the Machine: Technophilia and its Discontents by Ellen Ullman. Written in 1997, it is a better book because Ullman tells a personal story of her seduction to technology, the swoon of power, the impact on her relationships, and her eventual disillusionment.

Computers offer a cool alternate reality. Programming takes one into a transcendental zone like mathematics, where reality is symbolic and gritty human particulars don’t matter. Programmers are seduced by complete creative control of their little worlds. Others admire and reward their activity. Occupying this virtual reality is not just tempting but probable since software systems require constant attention. A system is never finished.

When I first started programming, I worried that it was putting people out of jobs. I was wrong. It changes their jobs. It is equally worrisome. Everyone winds up making concessions to the bugs and the system. Soon it becomes tautological — a new bigger system is required. The logic of the system is self-sustaining, sucking everyone in, changing them to suit its needs. “Our accommodations begin simply with small workarounds, just to avoid the bugs: ‘We just don’t put in those dates!’ … We conform to the range of motion the system allows. We must be more orderly, more logical. Answer the question, Yes or No, OK or Cancel.”

It is in Ullman’s account of users that I know she gets my angst. “The world as humans understand it and the world as it must be explained to computers come together in the programmer in a strange state of disjunction.” Every twist a user’s mind might invent must be anticipated. Other kinds of design, e.g., elevator design, must also anticipate user actions, but not for the purpose of replacing human thought. People want software so they don’t have to think through data processing tasks. The coder is building technology to replace human thought, and with little to no room for uncertainty. Where a user might generalize a concept or fudge the numbers, the code is exacting and demands precise resolution. Design analysis forces users to understand their thinking, perhaps for the first time. It is a painstaking process. Most often, the design documents blur over the difficult ideas, and it is finally up to the programmer to resolve human thought.

Computer programming in a standard business application context has about five years of juice in it. There are many interesting nuances, but in the end it just comes down to data and rules for processing it. The technology keeps getting repackaged in new forms, and it is not a trivial matter to keep up with it. “It had to happen to me sometime: sooner or later I would have to lose sight of the cutting edge. That moment every technical person fears — the fall into knowledge exhaustion, obsolescence, techno-fuddy-duddyism — there was no reason to think I could escape it forever.” The fact that I cannot write code forever brings a smile to my face. To stay in the business one has to find new juice: the intellectual challenge of the problems, the intimacy of analyzing thought, the desire to make life genuinely better for others. As always, human relations trump the thrills of technology.

[Originally posted on this site on 2011-01-15]

Introverts have Psychic Powers, it Seems

Extroverts own the world, it seems. Natural talkers, they think out loud, enlisting the best minds and hearts to their cause. They may lead out of their depth but all adventure entails risk. Extroverts are comfortable in company and the world, fish in water, easily the centre of attention and recipients of loyalty. All people suffer anxiety but extroverts are not lost to it. The world belongs to all its inhabitants but extroverts are naturally sovereign.

Introverts have psychic powers, it seems. Introverts read people’s minds by attention to facial micro-expressions and body language, interpolating what people do not say. This data can be misread, but it works more often than not. Introverts know the future by orchestrating a complex model of cause and effect in their minds, bolstering it with a rich mental catalogue of similar past events. Be mindful of the secret powers of introverts.

Technology is a Pernicious Rabbit Hole

One rainy Sunday afternoon in 1983 my sister invited me to play a board game, Payday. I gruffly declined. A month earlier it might have been the perfect diversion but something new had clamped my interest, a Radio Shack TRS-80 MC-10. Smaller than other personal computers it was all I could afford on my newspaper route savings. A black and white television served as a monitor and a cassette recorder for data storage. With the 16KB memory expansion and reference book in hand, I was programming a digital Yahtzee. I had already programmed the rolling dice and was now feverishly working on the scoring. My sister chided me for spending all my time on the computer.

The expression, rabbit hole, comes from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. Alice is bored until she spots a rabbit wearing a waistcoat and pocket watch, talking to itself. Curious, she follows it into a rabbit hole and falls into a fantasy world of strange creatures and twisted logic. In the end Alice grows in size and plucks up the courage to challenge the king and queen of hearts, calling them out as just playing cards. Alice’s sister wakes her up. It was a dream.

Carroll’s book was published in 1865. My modern rabbit hole is technology. Originally interested in language and literature, I was curious about the new phenomenon of the personal computer. I took high school computer courses. I played with them. I went to university for a psychology degree but in the late eighties computers were everywhere. The school computer lab had Apple IIe desktops and mainframe clients. I acquired a 14.4k modem with which I could submit statistics jobs, send email, and browse discussion boards. After graduating I worked in social services for a few years and managed to skip Windows 3.1 entirely. A later job in health research had me grinding numbers on spreadsheets, juicing my programming chops. One Visual Basic certification later I was qualified for nifty, good paying programming jobs. Scooped by IBM I began a lifelong career in information technology.

A corporate information technology department is a world of strange creatures. Alice (yes, like in Wonderland) was gifted with code but had no clue when to start or stop speaking. David was a well-adjusted college kid who could care less about code but liked the money. Helen was a middle-aged tester who resented our kind for taking her old job. I had an affinity for the book nerds. We liked reading, libraries, bicycles and public radio. Skilled with stories and a keyboard, most of us had tried our hand at creating a computer text adventure.

I had spells where I felt I had missed my original calling as a writer, librarian or psychologist. It was not that I disliked technology. Early on it was stimulating to learn the deep knowledge of how the computer world hung together. Analyzing software requirements was a bit like psychoanalysis, asking workers to explain behaviours they performed unconsciously. I enjoyed the zen state of coding, suspending the outside world, tracking a dozen variables in my head, coordinating the moving pieces as I wrote thousands of lines of code. I worked with teams that built four major software systems and dozens of smaller ones, still used worldwide today. It is likely that you have used my code. I still take pride in that. But I always expected to make an exit from the technology rabbit hole. It did not happen.

I became a strange creature. It was a daily battle, spending my best creative resources to increase the quarterly profits of banks, pharmaceuticals and manufacturers. We worked the mythical man month, too many people grinding out code too late at night and too long into the weekend. I smoked and drank. I ate badly and got no exercise. My theme song came from What’s Up by 4 Non Blondes, “And I try, oh my god do I try, I try all the time, in this institution. And I pray, oh my god do I pray, I pray every single day, for a revolution.” I suppose I was hoping for a political and economic revolution that would upend the necessity of my job, but the revolution I got was technological, the rise of cell phones and the Internet. At first, having a cell phone made me sleep better. If it was not ringing I knew everything was okay. The Internet made me smarter, no question, being able to google coding questions and learn new skills. But cell phones and the internet also meant I could be found anytime, and I could work from anywhere. Early adopters, we were assimilated into the borg.

Seven years into the rabbit hole there was a moment of light. Randy was the sort of manager who disillusioned young new employees. Forget innovation and invention, Randy would say. Business applications are meatball programming. Maybe Randy was struggling too. One day he said something unexpected, that an employee needs to be comfortable in his or her own skin to be of any real value to the company. A little harsh, a lot true. I had always been uncomfortable in my skin. I made a business case to fund a Master of Library and Information Science. I used technical terms, like usability and information architecture. Randy approved it.

I imagined that library school would lead to a comfortable job reading books, but the digital revolution was in full swing for libraries too. It may not be obvious, but librarians and technologists do the same thing, organize information. Databases, markup, boolean search: all old news in libraries but digital tools make them fast. Today’s libraries are fast places solving interesting problems; my technology skills were a hot commodity. It worked for everybody. I wrote open source code for libraries, published in technology journals, and patented an invention for IBM. I finished my part-time degree in 2010. There were good library prospects but now IBM upped the ante. Until this time, most technology required that its data be normalized, that is, structured into neat columns and tables for databases. Unstructured data was considered second class, the loose insides of documents and books, best left to librarians. This all changed when IBM faced off its Watson supercomputer against the world’s best Jeopardy players. Watson measured its data in books, unstructured data. It beat the human champs easily using natural language processing. It was the ultimate librarian. I was offered a job in IBM Watson Group and I took it.

Technology is a pernicious rabbit hole, with enough intellectual and economic rewards to keep me there. My final chapter with IBM came after a failed attempt to create a partnership between Watson Group and the Digital Humanist researchers. In library school I had become familiar with the Digital Humanists, academics who specialize in understanding the algorithms of reading. They only lacked computer resources. Watson Group had the resources but needed insight into machine reading challenges. A perfect match it seemed. As I mentioned, it is not always obvious to get two groups to see their shared concern. Had I succeeded I am sure I would have stayed with IBM for life, but the partnership failed, mostly around fears about intellectual property rights. There was nothing more I could do. There was nothing left to interest me. I was offered a pile of money to stay but I was done. Do not mistake this conclusion as my victory over the rabbit hole. I took another job at a small local firm. I work at a civilized pace, live healthy and teach a fitness class. I deliberately avoid writing code but I still work in technology. In the end, people are what they do, and I am technologist. I live in a rabbit hole. I suppose I am a rabbit.