Reading with your ears

Before text-to-speech, there was the optophone. It scans the letters in a text and converts them into chords that represent the visual shape of the letter. Instead of hearing someone speak the text, you hear what the text looks like.

This invention was published in Nature in 1914 (!). (By the way, there’s a bit of delicious irony in the disclaimer attached to the 1914 article in its current digital form: “This text was harvested from a scanned image of the original document using optical character recognition (OCR) software. As such, it may contain errors.”) You can access a PDF scan of the original paper for the full details, including the claim that the device “should, with some practice, enable totally blind persons to read ordinary books and newspapers through the sense of hearing.”

The device conducts a horizontal scan, with 8 “dots” moving in parallel across the letters. Each dot is assigned to a different tone. With no input (totally white background) all the dot-tones are active. When a dot crosses a dark region (text), its tone disappears, so the sound changes. I think they must have inverted this plan later, to turn on the sound when a dark part appears, based on the examples.

With practice, in theory you can learn to “read” words by their tonal patterns. Give it a try! This is the optophone “reading” the letters f, i, k, j, p, q, r, and z:

Not super harmonic, but I can see that it’s possible to distinguish letters. However, it’s a slow way to read, even after practice, which led to the development of more “compressed” versions. In general, the goal wasn’t necessarily efficiency, though – it was an attempt to make available the large volume of existing printed matter to those who could not see, without requiring a translation to e.g. Braille first. Neat invention!

The dark side of reading?

I found this article about Arthur Schopenhauer’s views on reading initially thought-provoking and then increasingly disturbing. Schopenhauer has terribly grim things to say about reading, like

“When we read, another person thinks for us: we merely repeat his mental process.”

and worse:

“The person who reads a great deal… gradually loses the ability to think for himself; just as a man who is always riding at last forgets how to walk.”

You can read more from Schopenhauer’s essay ‘On Reading and Books’.

It is easy at first to dismiss these views as exaggeration, but then they creep into the back of your mind and take up residence. He sees the act of reading without reflection as the enjoyable act of absorbing someone else’s creation, without any of it sticking; and boy, does he look down his nose at that. But reading with reflection takes work. I always find it to be rewarding, but it is still so hard to invest the time and effort to do it regularly. There’s always a new book to pick up instead… :)

I have also found that after finishing a book with a strong idiosyncratic voice (of author or narrator or protagonist), my thoughts are colored by that voice for a while afterwards. I always thought that was kind of a neat after-effect, but Schopenhauer gives it a creepy new angle: letting someone else think for me!

Schopenhauer’s critique relates to my ongoing question about why our society applies a moralistic virtue to the act of reading that elevates it above other kinds of entertainment like watching TV (always denigrated) or going to a movie (marginally better viewed, perhaps because it appears to be social, even though it isn’t, unless you get to discuss it (reflect!) afterwards). People talk about how reading engages the imagination more than visual media does, but even as an avid reader myself, I still don’t see why this makes it more virtuous. Arguably, it’s just more work. :) (Okay, Protestant work ethic, maybe I just answered my own question…)

But Schopenhauer doesn’t glorify reading; in fact, quite the opposite. He thunders on about people who have “read themselves stupid” (by too much reading and too little thinking). Only some books are worth reading, and those are worth re-reading, a lot.

“Any kind of important book should immediately be read twice, partly because one grasps the matter in its entirety the second time, and only really understands the beginning when the end is known; and partly because in reading it the second time one’s temper and mood are different, so that one gets another impression; it may be that one sees the matter in another light.”

In fact, he argues that

“The art of not reading is highly important. […] One can never read too little of bad, or too much of good books: bad books are intellectual poison; they destroy the mind.”

Intellectual poison! The horror!

… But I do get his point about the importance of reflection. Maybe writing little book reviews of the books I read is not enough. Maybe, instead of dashing on immediately to the next book (or another one of the five I have going simultaneously), I could benefit more from chewing over the completed book a bit more and determining how it connects with other things I’ve read, seen, or heard, and my own life.

It’s hard not to compare Schopenhauer’s views to those of Mortimer Adler, as in his How to Read a Book book. He, too, opined that most books were not worth reading, with some few very valuable exceptions. He advocated engaging directly with the text, including the controversial practice of writing in the book (hooray!). To Adler, the highest level of reading was “syntopical reading,” in which you identify themes and how they connect across books to allow you to place the current book within the wide world of ideas and concepts — a very deep form of reflection and analysis. But he did not share Schopenhauer’s negative characterization of the act of reading (even if he was rather prescriptive in his approach to it).

So, should we worry about the dark side of reading? The view of the reader as escapist and lazy, vulnerable to the poison lurking within all those worthless bestsellers? Maybe just a little. Maybe I’ll try to engage in reflection a bit more. And avoid those so-very-bad books :)

How to read more books

I use goodreads to review books as I read them (and to keep track of all the wonderful new books I discover that I absolutely MUST read in the future). As a result, several of my friends have recently started commenting on my reading activity and wondering how I manage to read so much. I don’t think it is “so much,” especially since reading is an incredible form of entertainment and escapism, really more of a guilty pleasure than any kind of virtue. :) But it is true that I have been reading more lately than I had in the past, and (like anything else) it is a combination of making it a priority and making it a habit.

I just came across a fabulous article by Ali Binazir that sums up a lot of my views far better than I ever could, and also includes some great tips if you would like to increase your own reading. Unlike some other advice about increasing reading activity, Ali emphasizes that it isn’t a race and that it is a “joy and a privilege” to live in a time when we have an astonishing level of access to books and the leisure time to enjoy them (yes, we do).

According to this article, the average (median) American reads 4 books each year. Four!! I read 80 books last year and am gunning for more in 2019. In that context, I guess it does seem like I read “so much.” But the more I read, the more I find that my appetite for reading increases (bookbeast!). Where do you draw the line between an enjoyable hobby and an addiction?

For me personally, I read during meals. This has the slight downside of making me less aware of my food (and there are several good reasons to be more mindful when you’re eating), but it guarantees me timeslices every day in which I get to read. I also read in the evening to unwind, and often I read right before bed. The anticipation of getting to read a good book helps me drag myself away from my phone or computer and do something without screens before falling asleep, which is supposed to help you sleep better.

I also alternate between several different books rather than pursuing one to the end before starting the next. I seem to have a strong desire for diversity; it is like nibbling at all sorts of different treats at a buffet. I agree with Ali, too, that some books are better choices than others for pre-bedtime reading, so it’s good to have several currently-reading books to choose from, depending on the time of day and your mood.

I do occasionally consume audiobooks, as Ali suggests, but they take longer than visual reading and they are less available than the cornucopia of things I want to read in physical form at the library (or in stacks at my house). During my commutes, I mostly listen to podcasts, which can feel like a book (e.g., This American Life), but more often are thought-provoking bits that make up the bulk of my non-fiction consumption. Most of my pleasure reading has been fiction of late (although I feel some desire to change that up and get more non-fiction into my diet).

Also as Ali mentions, having a goal is motivating. I use the Goodreads “reading challenge” to declare a target number of books to read in a given year, and I do find that it motivates me. I make myself write up a short review of each book I read, which takes discipline (often I am just eager to pick up the next book), but it is very valuable for going back later to refresh my memory, or just to solidify what I got out of the book (especially non-fiction). It’s amazing how very much we forget!

I enjoyed reading Ali’s article, and I hope you will too. (As a side effect, I finally understand what a “cloud atlas” is. Thanks, Ali!)

What are your tips and strategies and habits for reading? Do share!

Understanding introversion and its strengths and weaknesses

I just finished reading “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” which makes me want to talk!

Cain’s book is a fascinating account of the latest research on introverts and extroverts. It pulls together ideas from antiquity up through today about what distinguishes these basic personality types, how they form (nature vs. nurture?), and what their strengths and weaknesses are. Cain’s tone throughout is a bit defensive or apologetic (hence the title’s emphasis on the “power” of introverts) due to our cultural bias in favor of extroversion – but both sides are discussed. Introverts will find advice herein about how to connect, communicate, and thrive (and know yourself better).

The main message I got (which fits my own life experience) was that introversion is likely an inborn trait (not an environmentally imposed one), but we can (and do) adapt to situations as needed, including performing as extroverts if it’s in pursuit of a goal that we highly value.

One aspect of introversion that was new to me is that introverts tend to be more sensitive to the thoughts and actions of others. I am reminded of how I would anthropomorphize everything as a kid, including feeling sorry when I stepped on rocks in case it “hurt” them. Here I’d thought that everyone did that :) And it’s true that I find it nearly impossible to rest if I think I’ve inconvenienced, hurt, or annoyed someone. I feel compelled to address and resolve it.

I was also surprised to read that “at the university level, introversion predicts academic performance better than cognitive ability” and that “introverts receive disproportionate numbers of graduate degrees.” Cain does not argue that introverts are smarter than extroverts (in fact, she points out that IQ tests show no difference), but that they are more focused, invested, and studious – traits that are rewarded in academia. In contrast, extroverts are better at “handling information overload,” perhaps because introverts are devoting “cognitive capacity” to reflecting on experiences as they are happening. I can identify with that!

But the part that really hit me hard was the discussion of being “reward-oriented” versus “threat-oriented” (one way of thinking about extroverts and introverts). Reading through this characterization, I realized that this theory captures my own behaviors remarkably well. And I went through a short existential crisis, because this is not how I have ever viewed myself consciously, and it felt like a disappointment. While there are up sides to being cautious and conscientious and thorough, it seems … less impressive, somehow, than being a risk-taker and go-getter and achiever. I’m not sure that I want to think of myself as motivated by fears.

An industrious individual converted Cain’s short 10-question quiz into an online quiz, so if you don’t have access to the book, you can still determine where you fall on the reward-threat spectrum.

Cain shares the results of studies on how well people think and work in solo situations versus group settings, with important implications for your own productivity and for the workplace. She makes some powerful points about the need for both introverts and extroverts for balanced decision making (e.g., in financial markets, but everywhere else, too).

There are also chapters devoted to the teaching or parenting of introverts. I found these less compelling or insightful. The main message is about awareness of diversity in personalities and strengths. As an introvert myself, I find the recommended strategies to be overly meddlesome, but it’s always possible that others would find them beneficial.

Overall, this was a thought-provoking read that yielded some new insights about myself and my behavior. I wrote extensively in the margins and will likely come back to browse and review over time.

The usability of everyday things

I’m taking a class on “Web Usability”, and our first assigned reading is The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman. This is a very readable tour through design principles that can help us create devices and systems that are easy and even enjoyable to use.

The book is peppered with interesting examples of bizarre or cryptic designs. Norman seems particularly fond of talking about light switches (such a simple device, and yet so many are hard to use!). As a pilot, I also enjoyed the frequent examples he cited from the world of aviation, where a bad interface can mean the difference between life and death. However, he also says that his personal rule is to avoid criticizing unless he has a solution to offer. Now there’s a high bar!

Norman identifies “discoverability” (can you figure out what actions are possible?) and “understanding” (do you know what the controls/displays mean?) as key components of good design. He also emphasizes the importance of a user having a good “conceptual model” of the device – even if that model is inaccurate in a technical sense. A successful model is one that allows the user to operate the device successfully.

I also found his discussion of the balance between “knowledge in the head” (memory and learned skills) versus “knowledge in the world” (objects, signs, instructions) to be thought-provoking. It makes sense to try to strike a good balance between how much advance training/prep the user needs versus how much they’ll have to read/learn/absorb while using the device. Going too far in either direction makes things harder to operate.

One of the biggest takeaways for me was his encouragement to remove the concept of “error” from an interface. He points out that when we don’t understand something another human says, we don’t say “You made a speaking error.” Instead, we interact and try to figure out what meaning was intended. Similarly, devices (and computer programs) could shift from “error” feedback to help or guidance that aids the user in specifying their intent in the form that is needed. He suggests that we think of a user action as an approximation to what is desired, and help the user to improve it. Great idea!

Chapter 5 is devoted to an analysis of errors: different types, different causes, and different remedies. I like the suggestion to treat errors as learning opportunities (for the user and for the designer); we can brainstorm ways that the error could be entirely precluded in the future. I will be on the lookout for ways to apply this in my ongoing flight training.

Some quotes I enjoyed or found insightful:

  • “Machines require us to be precise and accurate, things we are not very good at.”
  • “We have to accept human behavior the way it is, not the way we wish it to be.”
  • “We use logic and reason after the fact, to justify our decisions to ourselves (to our conscious minds) and to others.”
  • “How can the designer put knowledge in the device itself?”
  • “Expert [users] minimize the need for conscious reasoning.”

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