Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

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Brief reflections on learning how to read, reading speed, speed reading, …

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Learning how to read, laboriously stringing letter after letter together, was a very frustrating experience for me—not because I was a slow learner, but because the learning was too slow for my patience.* Then, six, seven years old, I was reading my Donald Duck magazines, and from the one moment to another I suddenly saw words instead of letters. The first time, it only lasted for a few seconds before I stopped reading, being almost freaked out. I could not immediately reproduce the effect, but it soon happened again, and again, and I entered a permanent state of a-word-at-a-glance reading—but where I still said the word in my head (subvocalization).

*This was a general problem during a large part of my youth. Notably, it contributed to my then dislike of anything resembling sports: I was not immediately good at a given physical activity, grew frustrated, and gave up. Of course, by giving up, I ensured that I would not improve and lost even more ground to the other children than had I merely been a book-worm, instead of a book-worm who gave up.

This reading stage was when I read with the most concentration: It took sufficiently little effort that reading was not a chore; it took sufficiently much effort that there was little risk that my thoughts would wander during reading, and reading was a dual process of putting the words together into sentences and making sense of what I read, ensuring some variety. This is also the time where I found it the easiest to retain what I had read—my comprehension improved when I became a more proficient reader, but my retention dropped. (Also see an excursion at the end.)

For reasons that are unclear to me today, I feared suppressing the subvocalization for a number of years, which meant that my reading speed was limited by the need to “say” the words. I even recall some instances where I read an entire sentence fragment (silently), stopped myself, and went back to read it again, word for word. Of course, this was highly counter-productive: Just like I had once moved from reading letters to reading words, I should have taken the opportunity to move from reading words to reading sentence fragments.

At some point, possibly aged twelve, thirteen, or thereabouts, I realized that this was silly, mostly* dropped the subvocalization, and saw my reading speed rise rapidly. An early peak came shortly before college, when I, as preparation/training, deliberately tried to read some books as fast as possible.

*I occasionally do it even today to some degree, especially during periods of less reading, e.g. in that I read a group of words and subvocalize one of them. During proof-reading, I can do so more extensively and more deliberately.

During college, however, I often found that reading fast was of little use to me: I mostly took courses in math, physics, and similar topics with comparatively little to be read, but where the information density was high and where it was very important to think about what one was reading (and where a fair bit of what was read was mathematical formulae rather than text).

This tendency to think about what has been read, be it through force of college habit or as an independent development, has come to dominate the way I read more and more over the years. The paradoxical result is that I am often a slower reader today than at age ten: I might read a portion* of a text much more rapidly and easily, but then stop and think about it to a much higher degree (or make some associations to the topic, think through reasons and consequences, visit Wikipedia to read up on something related, whatnot). However, I gain so much more from reading a text today than I did back then—or at twenty, for that matter.

*Depending on what I read and how energetic I am, this might be a sentence, a paragraph, a page, … Notably, the higher my concentration and interest, the greater the likelihood that I will pause my reading. The likelihood is, unsurprisingly, considerably lower for fiction than non-fiction; however, it is by no means uncommon even with fiction—indeed, it can even happen when I am watching a DVD.

This brings me to the general observations that (a) improving one’s reading skills makes sense to the degree that reading becomes effortless and is removed as the bottle-neck when consuming a text, (b) it makes little sense to deliberate try to “speed read” a greater quantity of text. Even if someone is able to speed read at a high reading comprehension*, the net benefit will be considerably lower without such extra thought. So, someone has speed read “War and Peace”. What did that bring that could not have been achieved even faster and better by just reading the Wikipedia page? This is the equivalent of going to a museum and spending no more than a single glance on any individual object…

*My own experiences speak against this: While trying to go really fast, my comprehension dropped disproportionately with every speed increase. Apart from deliberate skimming, which is obviously a legitimate task, I found it better to read at a lower and more controlled tempo, thereby removing the need to have to re-read a text two or three times… (I do not recall more than the vaguest numbers from my long-ago experiments, but I do know that I, in my mid twenties, have clocked myself above a thousand words per minute for an entire page—with lousy comprehension and retention. Others claim to read at several to many times that speed, with strong comprehension and retention, which leaves me skeptical.)

Excursion on retention:
As I wrote above, my comprehension increased as I became a more proficient reader, but my retention decreased. This is a special case of a more general phenomenon, namely that the less effort I have to get through a text, the less I retain. This was a particular problem during the two semesters of business classes that I took parallel to my main university studies: Early on, I read through a text once or twice, understood all of it, did a bit of cramming a day or two before the exam, and expected to cruise through the test. Unfortunately, the tests were less directed at checking the degree of understanding of the course contents, and more on the degree of memorization. The texts and tests in math and physics had been very, very different…

The paradoxical result is that someone who is a worse reader or slower on the uptake can actually have an easier time with an easy course than the better reader and more intelligent student. Sure, the latter might be able to get through the text in half the time or less, and do so with a better understanding of the subject matter, but actually committing all the contents to memory becomes far more of a chore—leg work instead of head work.

During very heavy reading periods, I have occasionally reached a stage where the act of reading was so automatic, so ingrained, that I found my mind wandering off during uninterrupted reading, to the point that I had no idea what I had spent the last few minutes reading… (Similar to how someone can get lost in his thoughts while walking from point A to point B, and arrive at point B with only the vaguest recollection of what had happened since point A.)

Excursion on thinking and subvocalization:
Just like poor readers tend to engage in massive subvocalization, poor thinkers subvocalize, or, with my preferred word, verbalize. Indeed, many people seem to be unaware that it is at all possible to think without saying the corresponding words in one’s head… This slows them down considerably and would make e.g. advanced mathematics close to impossible for them (unless they unconsciously drop the verbalization).

Of course, this verbalization is entirely unnecessary—as can be seen by considering e.g. a soccer player making a rapid decision: Does he really go through a long monologue of “If I pass to George, he could score, but I could also lose the ball to the other team; Henry, on the other hand, […]”? No: If he did, it would end with something like “Shit! Someone just took the ball from me!”, because this delay in action would be disastrous. Similarly, a painter is far more likely to picture what he is going to paint than to verbalize it. Etc.

An easy exercise is to just stop verbalization one word before the end of a sentence. Did the suppression of that one word actually change the thought? No. Do the same with two, three, four, …, words, until the verbalization of the sentence is not even started—and the thought will remain.

As an aside, I suspect that something related is behind automatic writing: Let someone suppress the words in his head while letting them flow through the pen and we have a phenomenon that is quite close—with no need for a supernatural explanation.

Disclaimer on phonics and other philosophies:
None of the above should be seen as being pro or contra phonics, “sight words”, whatnot: While “reading words” is better than “reading letters”, I do not see it as given that the letter-reading stage can be skipped without a net loss in development speed.


Written by michaeleriksson

August 20, 2018 at 1:14 pm

A higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership

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I have recently read James Comey’s “A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership”—and unlike my last excursion into “Trump literature”, I find this book worth the reader’s time.

Above all, it provides a very important message on leadership, in particular in the “Author’s note”*, including the value of ethics, humility, the willingness to be open to input from others, …—and how such characteristics are all too often missing. Indeed, their weaknesses in such areas strongly contributed to my own feeling that the choice between Hillary and Trump was between two of the worst (realistically electable) candidates on record. (Cf. e.g. [1].)

*For those who do not want to read the book as a whole, do go by a bookstore and just read this part.

As a whole, the book is engaging with many interesting discussions of stations of his life. Unfortunately, parts are poorly written* and/or formulaic, as seen e.g. by how again and again a short paragraph is spent on describing someone and then spending just a few paragraphs on interactions with that someone, leading to situations where the description is too short to bring any value to the text and making it self redundant—these should either have been left out or expanded to such a point that they would have brought something to the context. This type of description does not appear aimed at actually bringing information to the text, but rather at “human interest” or similar cheap entertainment. To boot, they are potentially dangerous by giving his abbreviated view of someone else.

*Possibly ghost written: Apart from the high proportion of ghost-written works, the text often seems too polished (but not in a good way) and (again) formulaic for this to be the work of someone who is not simultaneously a professional writer, lacking in artistic drive, and not having a true connection to the material.

For the below items on and around the book, I will largely assume that the text is true or close to true. However, I stress that, as with any such text, warnings have to be raised with regard to its accuracy and fairness, e.g. due to memory lapses, subjective estimates, misunderstandings, and other human weaknesses. Worse, a text of this type and by an author coming from such hot weather could easily be an apologia or an attempt to position the author for a political career (see excursion at the end). To the degree that the text is not true, the items can need corresponding adjustment.

  1. A particular disturbing aspect is the great influence of politics (be it public or interpersonal/office politics) on his work and the maneuvering and compromises that were needed. This theme recurs through-out the book, including e.g. how to handle matters like the investigations of Martha Stewart and Hillary Clinton, or how to handle pressure from people in the White House (this not restricted to Trump, specifically, or to members of his team).

    I have already contemplated that some parts of law enforcement might need its own branch or to become a part of the judicial branch, rather than the executive. His problems point further in that direction.

  2. I found his discussions of the mafia and various interactions with its members highly interesting, through depicting a very different world and a very different sense of ethics than I have myself encountered. Even so there are at least some areas of overlap in attitude with e.g. politicians. (With a high degree of likelihood, Comey has deliberately written these parts as pieces of a greater puzzle and in a deliberate attempt to show such similarities.)
  3. Loyalty (as might be suspected from the title…) is another important theme, with the implicit question of what someone should be loyal towards. Comey seems to focus on higher ideals in the general area of truth, justice, and whatnot (which I consider highly appropriate for someone in his shoes); Trump wanted personal loyalty towards himself; others wanted loyalty towards some cause (e.g. national security in the wake of 9-11); others might have* wanted loyalty towards a particular institution or his subordinates; …

    *I do not recall whether this appears in the book; however, it is a quite common phenomenon.

    Loyalty is something that we do well to think hard on: What should we be loyal towards and why? A good example is national loyalty, where people who have sided against their countries have historically been among the worst condemned and/or punished—but why? Should we not rather side with those who share our ideals, plans, visions, … than with our country when they conflict? (This especially since the “country” often amounts to nothing more than the opinion of the country’s current leaders.) Similarly, should we not, in an argument, side with those in the right over those in our family? Etc.

    An oddity is his discussion with Trump, where he consents to give “honest loyalty”: In the context, Comey might have meant “loyal honesty” or “loyalty to truth”, but that is not what he actually, by his own depiction, agreed to. He seems to believe that he dodged a bullet and managed to avoid promising loyalty without upsetting Trump. However, the only reasonable reading of the text is that he did explicitly promise loyalty, the most reasonable involves loyalty towards Trump (as per Trump’s request), and it would be highly surprising if that is not the message Trump took home. Many less egocentric people than Trump would have been upset when this loyalty failed to materialize. The right thing to do would have been to turn Trump down without any possibility of a misunderstanding, or, on the outside, find a way to dodge giving an answer entirely, e.g. by a change of topic. (However, I stress that I have great understanding for someone who does not think sufficiently fast on his feet in a stressful situation.)

  4. Some parts of the book appear a little too self-congratulatory or conceited, especially with regard to his relationships with his subordinates, their feelings towards him, his effect on them.

    Judging such things correctly is extremely hard, and that a boss thinks that he is a beloved source of inspiration does not automatically make him so. Even should he be correct in his assessment (by no means impossible), it would be better to play it down.

  5. An interesting topic is lying under oath, during an investigation, whatnot, which is a recurring theme of the book, albeit always with a simplistic “it’s wrong” as the message:

    Many jurisdictions, including the U.S.*, contain some provisions to limit the requirement to testify, e.g. when self-incrimination is involved or when incrimination of family members could occur. Outside these narrow exceptions there is usually a blanket obligation to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Over the years, I have grown increasingly skeptical whether this is sensible from a “Rechtsstaat” point of view, and I consider it better that anyone acting in a private** capacity would have the right to refuse a statement at will, irrespective of e.g. self-incrimination. Further, there must even be some*** room for legally allowed lying when the witness is also the accused/suspect, especially in those circumstance where refusing the answer could be seen as admitting guilt. Consider, as an extreme example, the question “Did you kill the victim?”, the reply “I refuse to answer!”, and the impression left on the jury.

    *In the following, I discuss the topic in general. I have not studied the exact rules in the U.S., specifically, and I do not rule out that parts of what I say has been implemented.

    **As opposed to e.g. in the capacity of an elected official, a CEO, whatnot, possibly even as a regular employee.

    ***Exactly how much, I leave unstated. A blanket allowance is likely overkill. Lying on behalf of someone else is not included; however, there might be situations when even this might be sufficiently reasonable to warrant a legal exception. (Consider e.g. the question “Is your best friend since Kindergarten a Jew?” posed in Nazi-Germany: “I don’t know” or “I don’t remember” would hardly have been believed.)

    The difference between lying or refusing a statement on behalf of one self and on behalf of another party should not be understated. Failing to make this differentiation taints some of Comey’s comparisons.

  6. His assessment of Trump as e.g. an incompetent leader is true from one perspective, but not necessarily from all. If we look at the situation from the view point of the led, he does not appear to do well; by implication, he is a poor leader. If we look at the situation from Trump’s perspective, things might be very different*: What are his goals and how well does he reach them? Considering his success at gaining power, he is certainly not incompetent** (but still poor) as a leader. I strongly suspect that Trump is merely continuing practices that have worked well for him in the past—even bringing him the presidency…

    *Looking e.g. at his interactions with Comey, as described by Comey, it is clear that he is attempting something that would weaken the separation of powers within the executive branch as well as the integrity of the FBI. However, he is also doing something that might have been good for himself. Notably, very many would have been swayed to do the wrong thing in Comey’s shoes, being (or appearing to be) implicitly offered the keys to the kingdom.

    **With some reservations for what baseline is used in the comparison. For instance, the average Bundesliga player is extremely competent at soccer by any mortal measure—but that does not mean that he is World Cup material. Similarly, of those who do go to the World Cup, only a fraction make the honorary all-star team.

    In addition, we have to consider that aspects of leadership like e.g. humility and integrity are means to an end, not the end it self. They are needed because it is almost impossible to be and remain a good leader without them. However, they do not automatically make someone a good leader, because this also requires making the right decisions and being able to enforce these decisions. It is also not a perfect certainty that someone without them will be a poor leader—just an overwhelming probability. Now, I very seriously doubt that Trump will get an A+ through such aspects when his presidency is eventually summarized; however, as for now I still remain with my thumb angled slightly upwards when looking at actual policy until now*. More importantly, when judging whether someone is a good or poor leader, in general, it is dangerous to look just at humility et co.—the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

    *With reservations for the results of his tax reform: A tax reform was needed, but I have serious doubts as to the one that took place, and it could turn out to be Trump’s biggest screw-up, just like ObamaCare turned out to be Obama’s.

  7. A few areas where Comey loses credibility include diversity*/PC nonsense, including abuse of “they”** as a generic singular, and his disregard for citizens’ rights with regard to surveillance and the like.

    *While some degree of diversity can be good in the FBI, in order to facilitate its work with e.g. immigrants, Comey seems to belong to the more naive brigade that sees diversity (in the racial, cultural, whatnot sense) as a good in its own or even as a fairness issue. Down that road lies affirmative action and other destructive measures: Pick the best person for the job, irrespective of sex, color, and creed, and no-one has a legitimate cause to complain.

    **I have a post in planning on this type of abuse, where I discuss why this is a bad thing and some alternatives. In this specific context, I note that a person of his level of education and accomplishment should know the rules of grammar better, implying that, almost certainly, this has been done deliberately in the highly offensive PC manner.

    To expand on the latter: While he claims to try to see various sides of the issue, he is clearly very set on the advantages that surveillance, lack of encryption, whatnot can bring to law enforcement. He does not appear to understand the technical risks involved and how opening doors for the government also opens doors for criminals; he fails to consider that we must always have regulations based on the assumption of an evil government, because a good government today does not imply a good government tomorrow; that e.g. anti-encryption regulation will hit “small timers” much worse than “big timers”, who have the resources to work around such regulations. Cf. e.g. my previous post.

    Other related issues already discussed on this blog include the uselessness of digital evidence, the danger of tools like the “Bundestrojaner” eventually being used to plant evidence, the risk of legally gathered data (accidentally or through intrusions, cf. my previous post) moving outside the control of the government, …

    An interesting point is his claim that the surveillance of many big timers only became hard in the wake of the Snowden revelations (quite contrary to my expectations). This, however, is not a sign e.g. that Apple should not give end users means of encryption—just a sign that these big timers used to be highly naive about their vulnerability to surveillance when not taking counter-measures: They are not doing things post-Snowden that they could not have done pre-Snowden. It is not even that strong an argument for e.g. encryption backdoors in standard software, because these would simply lead to competing, possible illegal or black-market, products without backdoors that big timers would use—while the small timers, again, are the ones left vulnerable…

Excursion on Comey as President:
On several occasions through the book, I considered the outside possibility that it was intended as a maneuver towards a presidential (or other high position) candidacy of Comey’s own. I note in particular the combination of stress on ethical leadership and other characteristics with how he portrays himself to have them and Trump to not have them.* From another perspective, consider how satisfying it might be for him, should he win an election over the same President that fired him…

*He is probably mostly correct about Trump; whether he is correct about himself, that I cannot judge.

Would Comey be a good choice? This depends to a large part on how serious he is about what he says on leadership and how well his self-portrayal matches reality. If he scores highly in these regards, then he could be a very interesting candidate. Unfortunately, I some fears on matters of policy (cf. the last item above), and I also have some doubts about his suitability in terms of experience: Being head of the FBI or the Deputy Attorney General are not bad qualifications; however, a few terms as e.g. governor would have been much better. (But they could be very valuable for some other position.) Either which way, he would be bound to be better than either of Hillary and Trump.

Written by michaeleriksson

May 6, 2018 at 1:09 pm

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What an eBook is and is not

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The topic of eBooks is common in the blogosphere—often as a discussion of whether eBooks are better or worse than regular books, which has the better future, or similar. (An examplee.)

This is all fine and dandy. What disturbs me, however, are the many incorrect assumptions made about eBooks. Typical mistakes include believing that eBooks are read on a Kindle (or a similar device), have a particular format, or are DRM infected.

If Amazon and its likes had their way, this might be the case; however, an eBook is simply a book in an electronic format—no more, no less. An HTML or plain-text file can also be an eBook, eBooks are regularly read on normal computers, and there are many, many eBooks that are free from DRM restrictions. Notably, a very sizable part of the classic literature is available free-of-charge on websites like Project Gutenberge.

My advice:

  1. Make sure to not confuse eBooks in general with the heavily restricted and user-unfriendly eBooks that make out a sizable part of the commercial volume.

  2. Take advantage of the many user-friendly, DRM-free, and free-of-charge eBooks that are available. Yes, if you want to (legally) read the latest Stephenie Meyer, you may have to shell out money; but, as a counter-weight, everything up to and including (most of) the Victorian era is in the public domain—as are many works of the 20th century and even a few of the 21st. (Including works dealing with vampires, fairies, and romance—and works that have stood the passage of time, where Meyer may be a mayfly.)

  3. When you do buy eBooks try to stay away from those that are DRM-infested or in non-standard formats (safe alternatives: plain-text, HTML, PDF) to the degree possible. If sufficiently many do so, there is a chance that the industry will see the light.

Written by michaeleriksson

September 26, 2010 at 10:44 am

The yearly Swedish book-sale

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Every year, towards the end of February, the yearly Swedish book-sale takes place: All the bookstores in the country lower the prices on parts of their respective line of books, often considerably, for a fix time period.

Understandably, this sale has been very popular among book-lovers. Today, however, I read a Swedish articlee lamenting, among other things, that books that were “traditionally” a part of the sale are no longer so, and noting that its popularity has decreased considerably in just a few years (e.g. due to competition from Internet-based bookstores).

Well, the latter is easy to understand: The previous popularity was a direct effect of the overly high prices charged the rest of the year. In effect, the sale was an attempt to eat the cake and have it too: Prices were held artificially high through most of the year, giving a nice profit margin; and then dropped for a time to ensure that a sufficient quantity of books were sold on a yearly basis. While this scheme is dubious ethically, it is also quite clever—provided that cheaper books cannot be procured elsewhere during the rest of the year. With most Swedes having Internet access this condition is no longer true (in particular, as many Swedes are good at English, which makes online bookstores targeted to the UK or the US an alternative).

Obviously, the book industry has never admitted this scheme. Instead they try to deceive people with claims about getting rid of surplus or unsellable books, that the books sold off are often cheaper special prints, or similar.

The first may have been the historical reason, and to some part remains true today, but is certainly not the main reason—except to the degree that the system is rigged to yield such surpluses (cf. above). Besides, if an involuntary surplus was the problem, how come some books are sold off every year? Would this not imply a considerable lack of judgment?

The second points to one of the biggest lies of book selling everywhere: That the cost of printing makes out most of the book price. (Also used to justify the drastically higher prices for hardcover editions over pocket editions.) This simply is not true (with some reservations for luxury editions): numbers around 10 %e have been mentioned as realistic estimates. Even if we manage to cut the printing cost in two, e.g. by using cheaper paper, this would only allow a 5 % reduction…

Germany uses another somewhat perverted system to fool its book buyers: The “recommended” cover price is legally binding in Germany. Every bookstore must sell the books for this exact price, which eliminates competition and allows for an artificially high price. Instead, books deemed too poor sellers are eventually remaindered. In addition, long term price reductions can often be reached by issuing new editions of a different quality, allowing for some amount of price segmentation.

Written by michaeleriksson

February 27, 2010 at 2:43 pm