Saturday, January 30, 2016

Purposeless Walking

In a recent post of the BBC: "A number of recent books have lauded the connection between walking - just for its own sake - and thinking. But are people losing their love of the purposeless walk?" We are not given an explicit list of these books, but there are references to "Frederic Gros, A Philosophy of Walking," "Geoff Nicholson, author of The Lost Art of Walking," "Merlin Coverley, author of The Art of Wandering: The Writer as Walker," and "Rebecca Solnit, author of Wanderlust: A History of Walking.[1]

The advice of these books is boiled down the the following "key tips:
  • Walk further and with no fixed route
  • Stop texting and mapping
  • Don't soundtrack your walks
  • Go alone
  • Find walkable places
  • Walk mindfully
Not bad advice, but largely negative. What about some positive advice, like
  • Carry paper and pencil (or some electronic device) to take notes
Why? Here a passage from Friedrich Paulsen, a German Kant scholar you need not know:
Unexpectedly, the essay suddenly took shape in my mind. I pulled out my notebook and began to write while I sauntered along. When I arrived at Eutin, the sketch was finished, and I had a clear idea of the whole. All that was left for me to do was to rewrite it and fill in the details—an enjoyable task, which occupied me during the following weeks at home.

Many of my articles have come into being in a similar way, as, for example, “Instruction in Philosophy, Its Past and Its Future.” I was taking an evening stroll along my father’s fields at Langenhorn, when the whole article suddenly stood before my mind, so that I felt induced to pencil down a rapid outline on the spot. Many a chapter in my Ethics has had a similar origin.

Strange as it may seem, a creative mood also came over me not infrequently when I was traveling in a train or a street car or when I was walking in the streets of Berlin. In every possible and impossible situation I wrote such outlines down, elaborating them afterward at home into an article or a chapter in a book. On the other hand, when I sit at my desk in the morning, the productive mood often so persistently refuses to appear that, after all sorts of futile attempts my pen down at last and take up a book or go out for a walk. And then it happens not so rarely that what I had been vainly to think out or put into shape comes to me quite by itself.
There is even recent study that supports the connection between walking and thinking (mentioned in the article).

The eighteenth and nineteenth century had not yet forgotten the connection between walking and thinking. Nor is it perhaps an accident that the Aristotelians are also known as the "peripatetics" or walkers (in the "collonnades)."

1. I searched Amazon for "walking" and found these titles as well (as well as some e-books and Thoreau's essay on walking).

Friday, January 29, 2016

Levenger in Boston

From December 31, 1015: "Our Boston store has closed. We thank you, our loyal customers, for your support and for your continued patronage via our catalog and Should you have any questions, our Levenger associates are always available to help you by calling 800.544.0880. More to come in 2016!"

It makes me sad. One important reason less to go to the Prudential Center!

Is Speed-Reading a Crock?

Apparently, good readers read at about 200 to 400 words per minute. Speed readers claim that they can read "at speeds between 800 and 1,500 words per minute – much higher than the average for a good reader." There is a recent article in The Guardian that reports on a study disputing those claims. The study begins from the sensible claim that "successful reading ... requires more than recognizing a sequence of individual words. It also requires understanding the relationships among them and making inferences about unstated entities that might be involved in the scenario being described." It also makes a valid distinction between reading and skimming. In skimming "the goal is to quickly move one’s eyes through the text to find a specific word or piece of information or to get a general idea of the text content." Skimming rates are, of course, much higher than reading rates (about two to four times as fast, the study claims), but comprehension rates are lower. Speed reading is claimed to offer the best of both worlds. The study says "there is little evidence for a unique behavior, such as speed reading, in which speed and comprehension are both high."

This seems common sense to me. Any skilled reader knows when to skim and when to read. The most important thing in reading is to avoid sub-vocalization which slows us down. (In fact, in conducted my own informal study on the Boston "T," I am amazed how many people "vocalize" while reading. It's like they are whispering to themselves.) "Reading silently is faster for skilled readers than either reading aloud or hearing someone else read the text. This difference reflects, in part, limitations on how quickly we can talk. A speaking rate of 150 to 160 wpm is comfortable; this is the rate that is recommended for speakers who are recording audiobooks or podcasts."

Rapid eye movement, something on which speed reading concentrates, is less important. In fact, real understanding presupposes the ability to be able to go back in the text, sometimes a whole paragraph or a whole page. Indeed, the advantage of normal reading over speed reading that it does not "force the eyes to move straight down a page or present words one at a time is this opportunity—the opportunity to move backward in the text in order to recover information that was initially missed or forgotten." To sum up: "although immediate comprehension may be successful with single sentences presented using RSVP speeds well beyond typical reading rates, scaling up to full text passages yields substantial comprehension costs."

This does not mean that using a pencil as a guide may not be useful, but it does mean that the exaggerated claims for speed reading are false. "Speed reading" is closer to skimming than to reading, or so it would seem to me. In any case, there
is a trade-off between speed and accuracy in reading, as there is in all forms of behavior. Increasing the speed with which you encounter words, therefore, has consequences for how well you understand and remember the text. In some scenarios, it is tolerable and even advisable to accept a decrease in comprehension in exchange for an increase in speed. This may occur, for example, if you already know a lot about the material and you are skimming through it to seek a specific piece of information. In many other situations, however, it will be necessary to slow down to a normal pace in order to achieve good comprehension. Moreover, you may need to reread parts of the text to ensure a proper understanding of what was written. Bear in mind, however, that a normal pace for most readers is 200 to 400 wpm. This is faster than we normally gain information through listening, and pretty good for most purposes.

The article and the study are well worth reading for anybody interested in taking notes properly.[1]

1. See also here.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Toynbee on Writing and Note-taking

Arnold Toynbee tells us in Experiences (New York and London: Oxford University Press, 1969) that he began by making notes in the margins of his university texts in minute handwriting with "a triple-H pencil" (94).

But then "work" underwent a significant change. His main focus was no longer reading, but rather "writing or preparations to write" (97). He reserved the hours between brakfast an lunch entirely for this task.
This change in the purpose of my reading led me to make a corresponding change in my way of taking notes. I had begun ... by making notes in the margins of my Greek and Latin texts, and this scholiast's way of taking notes had been the most convenient as long as the interpretation and understanding of texts had been, fro me, an end in itself. Now, however, I had learnt to use texts as materiale for making something of my own, and for this new purpose I needed to have my notes insome handier and more accessible repository. From about 1933 onwards I started to take notes in notebooks on points in books I was reading, which seemed to be likely to come in useful for something that I was going to write. Usefulness in writing had now become my criterion. ... By this year 1969 I have more than thirty of these notebooks, full to the brim. They have, long since become the my most immediate source of the information I need for writing." He says that from the note in a notebook he can easily go back to the original (100)

He e claims "the right and healthy purpose of acquiring knowledge is to make out of it some work of one's own" (98), and he offers five pieces of advice:
  1. Don't plunge in precipitously. Plan first.
  2. Act promptly and write as soon as you feel your mind is ripe to take action.
  3. Write regularly, day in and day out at whatever time of day you write best. You can always revise your first draft.
  4. Don't waste odd pieces of time (like when you have just finished something, start right away with something new).
  5. Always look ahead —a "sixth sense" is good.
His work is not entirely free of the defects that come from "note-making," as discussed in the previous post.

Note-taking or Note-making?

I recently read this: "We distinguish between note-taking and note-making. Note taking is a passive process which is done at lectures whereas note-making is more active and focused activity where you assimilate all information and make sense of it for yourself."[1] I dislike the distinction for several reasons. It appears to me that there is no process which is, qua process, passive. There may be active and passive participants, but "taking" or "taking note" is active. Furthermore, grammatically speaking, there is an "active" voice and a "passive voice," not a "more active voice." It simply means that "in a sentence using active voice, the subject of the sentence performs the action expressed in the verb." In the case of "note taking," a person "takes" notes. While the same person or the agent may be more active at one point than at another, this doe not make a process passive. A "more active ... activity" is even stranger--at least to me. It's the one who engages in the activity who is active, not the activity. You might say that this is nitpicking, but it is a site published by a university, after all.

What they really mean is that you should not stop after you have taken down the notes, but should instead continue the note-taking process until you have made as much sense of the information as you need to. But making "sense of it for yourself" is not sufficient either. In making "some" sense of the information you have taken down, you could very well be wrong. You may just have made it up. The point is to understand it correctly. And that is not "up for grabs." In the context of a university, you will find out during exam time at the latest. In life, it may be even more painful.

As I said before, I dislike the notion of "note making." There is nothing wrong with "note-taking," properly understood. Once you have taken the notes, you can, of course, use them to make your own arguments, theories, or whatever. But making up the notes themselves does not seem to me a good idea.[2]

1. See Wits. This is just one site of many that subscribe to similar view.
2. No matter what hermeneuticists and other skeptics have to say about the limits of our ability to understand what others might mean. It is important, but it should make us try harder.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Samuel Johnson on Information

On April 18, 1775, Boswell, Johnson, and Sir Joshua Reynolds were visiting Richard Owen Cambridge, who apparently had an extensive collection of art and asubstantial library. After a quick introduction to Cambridge, Johnson "ran" to the library to look at the backs of the books, while Reynolds examined the paintings. When Reynolds claimed that he could see "more" than Johnson, and Johnson was asked by the host why he was so intently interested in "the backs of books," he replied:
Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it. When we enquire into any subject, the first thing we have to do is to know what books have treated of it. This leads us to look at catalogues, and at the backs of books in libraries.(in Boswell's Life of Johnson)
It's interesting to see that he makes a distinction between knowledge and meta-knowledge, calling the latter "information." It's also interesting to see that since 1775 the second kind of knowledge (meta-knowledge, that is) has increased almost exponentially as compared with the first kind. Some people lament this. I believe that it is an inevitable byproduct of the growth of knowledge of the first kind, and therefore not to be lamented, but to be better understood than it is even now.

In any case, this distinction is one of the reasons why the claim that nowadays there is "too much to know" is, strictly speaking, nonsense.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Adding Search and Keywords to the File-Text Wiki

While I will probably never use the Text-File Wiki as a serious alternative to ConnectedText, I do find it interesting to play with this rudimentary personal wiki. Ashby had his hobbies, I have mine: book hunting, mechanical pencils, watches, and AutohotKey. I have pursued this AhK project for the last few days, and it occurred to me that it would be nice to have categories or keywords to tag the files. This is easy to implement in one sense, as all you need to do is to add phrases like "kwphilosophy" or "kwgeneral", etc. where "kw" stands for "kewyword" and does not naturally occur in English.

However, such keywords are useless, if you do not have an easy way to find them. Quickpad has no search function at all. Choosing another text editor would not solve the search problem either, as most of their search capabilities are rather weak. I decided to use a dedicated program that searches within text files and can be restricted to the directory in which I keep the wiki. The best I found is FileSeek. It's fast (though I obviously could not test it on a large number files), it has a freeware version, and it allows for complex searches as well as RegEx.[1]

I have therefore added the following to the script.[2]
run C:\Program Files\FileSeek\FileSeek.exe
I know the whole thing is cobbled together, but, for what it's worth, it does not have that feel to me :)

Later that day (18:08): For anyone who is interested, I have added the ability to do back links and to select keywords from a listbox. (These changes are not reflected in the version of the script given in [2]).

1. The cheapest professional version for (one computer) is U.S. $9.00 which seems to me more than reasonable for what you get.
2. This is what the script looks like now:
; AutoHotkey Version: 1.x
; Language:       English
; Platform:       Win9x/NT
; Author:         A.N.Other 
; Script Function: Make a simple desktop wiki
; Template script (you can customize this template by editing "ShellNew\Template.ahk" in your Windows folder)

SplashTextOn,,,Updated script, 

#SingleInstance force
#NoEnv  ; Recommended for performance and compatibility with future AutoHotkey releases.
SendMode Input  ; Recommended for new scripts due to its superior speed and reliability.
SetWorkingDir %A_ScriptDir%  ; Ensures a consistent starting directory.

#IfWinActive ahk_class zeniko's QuickPad 


clipboard =

send ^f]{Enter} ; Find ]
;Send {Right} ; move one space to the right
sleep 100

send +{Home}
send ^c  ;selects what is to the left of "] " and copies it
sleep 100

send {home}

clipboard := RegExReplace(Clipboard, ".*\[", " ")
name = %clipboard%
thefilename = %clipboard%.wki

IfExist, %thefilename%
run %thefilename%
Sleep, 100
Send, `n{BS}
IfNotExist, %thefilename%
FileAppend, %name%`n`n, %thefilename%
run, %thefilename%

run C:\Program Files\FileSeek\FileSeek.exe

You will notice that I am now using RegExReplace to isolate the file name (and ^~LButton:: or Ctrl Left Click to open wiki links).