Are we losing our ability to deep-read?

Woe, Twitter, IM-speak, dumbing down of young brains.

You’ve heard it before, but you probably haven’t heard it like this. Dr. Maryanne Wolf writes about what we’ve learned about the neurobiology of reading, what the brain is doing during the process of learning to read and the act of reading itself. In Our ‘Deep Reading’ Brain: Its Digital Evolution Poses Questions, she shares her worries about how today’s digital push for faster, skimmier reading encourages us to disable our ability to read deeply, reflect, and go beyond what’s in the text.

“We need to understand the value of what we may be losing when we skim text so rapidly that we skip the precious milliseconds of deep reading processes. For it is within these moments—and these processes in our brains—that we might reach our own important insights and breakthroughs.”

We all do this. I bet you skimmed part of this article, which is itself a condensation of her article (which I encourage you to read in full!). But hey, after two or three paragraphs, we’re getting it, we’re agreeing, we want to move on, encounter something new! Right?

“We need to find the ability to pause and pull back from what seems to be developing into an incessant need to fill every millisecond with new information.”

Amen to that. Smartphones are the killer information device. I never need fear downtime or long waits at the doctor’s office again. I have Slashdot and blogs and Kindle books galore. But now I find in any waiting time, no matter how short, I itch to pull out my phone. Unlock the thing and snack at the information buffet, cruising through Slashdot blurbs in search of the one or two items about which I actually want to read more details. What am I doing?!

Asked whether Internet reading might aid speed reading, Dr. Wolf replied, “Yes, but speed and its counterpart—assumed efficiency—are not always desirable for deep thought.”

I think that is one of the reasons I continue to post to this blog. There is a part of me that believes that being forced to slow down and write about what I’ve encountered (often, by reading) will help me to think a bit deeper on what it all means.

What do you think? Did you read this far?

Predicting h-index

What is your future impact?

Researchers Acuna, Allesina, and Kording decided to use machine learning to find out. They recently published a Nature article, “Future impact: Predicting scientific success,” that describes their method and findings.

Their goal was to predict a scientist’s future h-index given his or her current bibliographic data. I wrote about discovering the h-index two years ago. Nowadays, Google scholar will calculate this value for you. It’s a measure of research impact, characterized as the number h of your papers that have at least h citations.

Acuna et al. collected data on 3,085 neuroscientists and performed a linear regression on these features:

  • n: number of papers written
  • h: current h-index
  • y: years since publishing first article
  • j: number of distinct journals published in
  • q: number of articles in Nature, Science, Nature Neuroscience, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and Neuron

They found that this five-factor prediction did better at predicting the future h-index than just using the current h-index itself. Their R2 value for predicting h-index one year into the future was 0.92; five years out, 0.67; and ten years out, 0.48. Their conclusion was that raw h-index numbers were not as predictive as also capturing the scientist’s “breadth” (in j) and the quality of the publication venues (in q).

You can try out their model on your own data, although they note that it is “probably reasonably precise for life scientists, but likely to be less meaningful for the other sciences.” Also, you’ll have to wait the specific number of years to see if it comes true. Or you can plug in your data from a few years ago and see how the predictions match the present. Using my data from two years ago (h-index 12), their system predicts that my h-index this year should reach 19. Google scholar pegs it at 17 right now, so either I am not reaching my proper potential, or their model is wrong. ;)

There’s more than recreational fun going on here. The authors note that h-index values may be used in tenure decisions. In that context, the ability to predict a candidate’s h-index five years into the future could have even more impact—if it were sufficiently reliable. As usual, we can hope that such decisions are made with more than just these impoverished metrics in mind!

Why we yawn

Bored? Sleepy? Lack of oxygen? Who knows?

The Library of Congress posted an interesting analysis of this question in Everyday Mysteries: Why do we yawn? They conclude that it may serve a social function and/or a physiological one, which leaves the door pretty wide open.

The article claims that “generally speaking, we cannot yawn on command.” I find that I can yawn whenever I choose to, which is handy on airplanes. Do others find that they lack conscious control over yawning? (Stifling a yawn, however, is really difficult!)

Apparently 42-55% of non-autistic adults find yawning contagious. I’m surprised that the percentage isn’t higher. Do you find that the picture of the man yawning above makes you want to yawn? Try doing a google image search on “yawn” and see if you can escape the power!

As a bonus, I learned two nifty new words while reading this article:

  • pandiculation: yawning and stretching the body on waking up or getting sleepy
  • oscitation: yawning (“the involuntary opening of the mouth with respiration, breathing first inward, then outward”)

Program or be programmed

I read Douglas Rushkoff’s book, Program or Be Programmed with a mixture of fascination and criticism. I didn’t agree with every argument (e.g., that computer networks have no notion of time; many internet protocols use timestamps to ensure reliable communication), but each chapter gave me something to wrestle with mentally, and the book as a whole made me see various aspects of my life (interacting with technology) in a new light. Rushkoff’s thesis takes a historical view of how new technology penetrates society gradually, and those who develop the ability to manipulate and create, rather than just to use and consume, are the ones in control. Arguing from examples based on the development of writing, print, and electronic media, he notes that for us today, it’s the ability to program that gives us control over the new technological world, and that (somewhat chillingly) willful or accidental ignorance about the motives of Those Who Program may cause you to execute their Program without even knowing it.

This great, short video lets Rushkoff summarize his points in two minutes flat:

I am already a “programmer,” in that I have programming skills, but even so I consume most of what’s on the net as a user, rather than getting out there and being actively involved myself. Programming is what I do at work. On the other hand, I’ll never forget the thrill I experienced when I first contributed to an Open Source project. My art, my creation, uploaded into the ether after building on, complementing, and extending the work of complete strangers! And who knew where others might take it! It was like Free Love, but in C.

But after reading his book, I couldn’t help but think a while about what built-in biases about how various technologies work are shaping my own thoughts, habits, and ability to create.

This point, however, is the tenth of his 10 commandments. The earlier ones have value too; it never hurts to get another reminder of the value of not always being “on”/”connected,” and of being present in the here and the now.

How to hang glide

Yesterday I got to hang glide for the first time. Windsports Hang Gliding offers introductory lessons at Dockweiler Beach. Under the guidance of an instructor, you get to launch and sail out over the sand dunes on your own!

For my first few flights, the instructor served as a set of training wheels as well as a source of useful shouted instructions. He held on to one side of the glider and kept it stable until I got a feel for its motion. A 30-foot wingspan makes it quite unwieldy to manipulate unless you’re working with the wind and can sense the glider’s position through your body. Here I’m learning how to stabilize the glider, before launching, which at that point genuinely feels like having a giant kite strapped to your back (I’m clipped in behind my back via carabiner).

Next, you run forward and launch off the hill. Running is harder than it sounds, since the glider immediately wants to lift you up, at which point you lose the ability to run. You have to hold it down until the right moment when it lifts you (so smoothly) upward.

Pushing the bar forward shifts your weight back relative to the glider and makes it climb (and slow). Pulling the bar towards you does the opposite (and makes you go faster). Turning is not accomplished by any kind of leaning. Instead, you pull the right bar towards you to turn right, and pull the left bar to turn left. This makes sense, as it simply moves your body weight around and controls the kiteglider with simple physics.

Except it takes a while to figure out how to implement this. You only need to pull briefly, then return to center, and a second or so later, the glider responds with a turn. That kind of delayed response is initially challenging to deal with. Everyone in the class over-steered, holding the bar until the glider actually turned, which is when you want to already be back in a neutral position (unless you’re aiming for a real bank, not just a bit of trim). Apparently for an even stronger turn, you can yaw the glider (make it pivot around its vertical axis) by pushing outward with the non-pulling hand, but I didn’t get to try this.

Here I am up in the air, with the helpful instructor trotting below and giving instructions:

You land by losing altitude (natch) and, just at the end, pushing the bar out to raise the nose, slow the glider, and give you a gentle stop as you land on your feet. One time I forgot to do this, or did it too late, and landed dragging my knees, which was amusing rather than painful (beach sand!).

Overall, this was a surprisingly tame experience. There wasn’t one moment when I thought “yikes!” The glider moves so smoothly that you barely notice you’re off the ground. No crashes, no calamities. Our instructor commented that hang gliding is no longer considered an extreme sport (!). There are, of course, still accidents and casualties. One source says that the chance of dying while hang-gliding is 1 in a thousand pilots, which seems extremely high. But this is calculated over “regularly participating pilots beyond the student level”; apparently there are very few student casualties. A U.K. source, however, reports a rate of 1 in 116,000 flights (and note that the risk of dying from childbirth is an order of magnitude higher, at 1 in 8,200 maternities). Hmm.

Each of our flights were about 30 seconds long (so short!). The same company offers tandem glides off a cliff, where you get 15-minute flights and, presumably, much more time to actually to feel the glider’s response. Tempting!

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