Archive for May, 2008


Unpopular Essays

Nothing but a good old Russellian jab at ze Germans:

It was geology, Darwin, and the doctrine of evolution, that first upset the faith of British men of science. If man was evolved by insensible gradations from lower forms of life, a number of things became very difficult to understand. At what moment in evolution did our ancestors acquire free will? At what stage in the long journey from the amoeba did they begin to have immortal souls? When did they first become capable of the kinds of wickedness that would justify a benevolent Creator in sending them into eternal torment? Most people felt that such punishment would be hard on monkeys, in spite of their propensity for throwing coconuts at the heads of Europeans. But how about Pithecantropus Erectus? Was it really he who ate the apple? Or was it Homo Pekiniensis? Or was it perhaps the Piltdown man? I went to Piltdown once, but saw no evidence of special depravity in that village, nor did I see any signs of its having changed appreciably since prehistoric ages. Perhaps then it was the Neanderthal men who first sinned? This seems more likely, as they lived in Germany. But obviously there can be no answer to such questions, and those theologians who do not wholly reject evolution have had to make profound readjustments.

(Russell, Bertrand. “Ideas That Have Helped Mankind”. [1950] Unpopular Essays. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1969. 132-133.)


This and That

A fascinating discussion of the pros and cons for summative which, this, and that in expository writing at the Language Log. I tend to use summative this a lot in my writing, and I’ve never been able to assuage my fears that this might be a stylistic faux-pas. Now I can rest easy.


Speed Reading

I’ve had several encounters with speed reading, my first at the age of 15 when I watched an infomercial of the Mega Speed Reading course by Howard Stephen Berg, and my most recent while listening to an interview with Harold Bloom, who complains about the fact that he used to be able to read a 1000 pages per hour, whereas now, as a grumpy old man, he can only read at half his former speed. To wit, that’s one page every 4 seconds (or 8 seconds, respectively). An average page contains approximately, what, 500 words? Young Harold, in other words, read a whooping 12,500 wpm (words per minute) coupled with a near-perfect comprehension rate. M.H. Abrams supposedly said that Bloom “[…] had that extraordinary ability to read a book almost as fast as you can turn the pages, not only to read it but to practically memorize it.” Should we call bullshit on such extraordinary claims, or are there indeed ways to improve our reading speed? And I’m not referring to “smart reading”, e.g. perusing the table of contents first, paying attention to the first and last sentence of a paragraph, etc., but about changing the physical reading process.

In English, my current reading rate is ~250-350 wpm with, I would guess, 60-70% comprehension rate. Yet I experience my reading as rather cumbersome and exhausting (similar to my writing, in fact), and I’m willing to experiment with some of the techniques suggested by speed readers not the least because I believe a boost in speed would make reading easier and much more pleasurable. As I mentioned in my previous post, I’m able to dwell on details and read slowly, but I suck at comprehensive reading, that is, assembling the details into a substantial whole.

Now then, the techniques. YouTube hosts an instruction video for beginners. The idea is not to let your larynx interfere with your reading. The reason I’m willing to give it a shot is mainly because of testimonials outside the speed reading course circus, for example:

I have taken speed-reading training in high school (nearly 40 years ago!) And following that training I was a near-page-at-a-glance reader.

The techniques in which I was trained seemed to focus on training you to take in several words at a time and forcing you to quit “hearing” the words in your head–the mental equivalent to “moving your lips while you read.” (Some speed reading techniques suggest that you hum while you read to short-circuit subvocalization.) […] The result? The faster I read, the more I retained. This was reading the full text, not skimming, as verified by the content-based tests taken at the finish of the reading. (source)


Piecemeal Thinking

I am a piecemeal thinker. I happen to be a piecemeal writer, too. In fact, I realised today that I approach almost all of my various ventures in piecemeal fashion. While I dabble with all kinds of thoughts, quotes, mottos, concepts, I hardly ever string them together into a whole, at least not unless I put a lot of effort into it, and I usually can’t be bothered to do that. I’m not much of a rambler or ranter, either, because I never know what I want to say next, or what anything has to do with anything. *awkward pause*

However, I am also a conspiracy theorist who likes to connect the disconnected, join the disjointed, juncting the disjuncted (tiny emphasis on “junk” there). As I am thinking about piecemeal thinking, for example, all sorts of things pop into my head and link themselves to the “piecemeal” idea: my bumpy prose, my strange memory, my inability to produce coherent interpretations of literary works (unless by that you mean construing a thesis out of piecemeal observations), the way I easily lose myself in a poem’s details from which I then impose an interpretation on the entire poem, the way I’m irritated and confounded by the statement that “Milton’s blank verse is the verse-paragraph”, the way I lose interest in a project after finishing a single part (for example the way I used to paint Warhammer miniatures – spending hour upon hour on each model rather than do a quick brush-up of the entire army as was custom among my fellow Warhammer players), the way I play chess (cherishing brief tactical skirmishes and opening and endgame mechanics, but often lacking a comprehensive middle game plan), even the way I drink (slowly imbibing one gulp by splitting it up into little gulps). I’m synecdochic: I work my way from the part to a whole. But I don’t experience or perceive wholes, really. Wholes are labels referring to whatever part of the whole I can think of first. I would like to describe my thinking as a “chain of associations”, but the associations are so loose that “a ball of wool having received the kitty treatment of associations” seems a more apt metaphor.

However, the realisation that I have a tendency towards piecemeal thinking may prove to be rather redeeming and indeed productive. All you need is a hook that ties the pieces together. Here’s Alan Moore on the topic in his comments on the creation of V for Vendetta:

A couple of days later, I wrote back to Dave telling him that the Guy Fawkes idea was definitely it […] In the history of any strip or book or whatever, this is the moment where you get your real reward… the moment when all of the half-ideas and idiocies gel into something that is much more than the sum of its parts and thus entirely unexpected and utterly beautiful.