Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘Books

Questions/exercises at the end of a chapter

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The questions and exercises* at the end of a chapter of school literature always annoyed me as a child. Even then they seemed like pointless busy work to me and they rarely made sense. To some part, this was my own laziness: if I liked the book, I wanted to read on; if I disliked it, I did not want the spend more time with it to answer some “stupid” questions. However, to a large part, my opinion was actually correct:

*I will typically stick to “question” below, for simplicity.

Recently, I have both revisited some of my old Swedish school-books during visits to Sweden and read a handful of college level texts from the softer sciences. I find that I still have a similar aversion, if one more nuanced and held for a better reason: Outside of the hard sciences, even in more advanced literature, these questions tend to focus too much on just repeating the stuff of the chapter, where true value would be found in making the students think about the material and to help them towards the areas and ways of thought that best help with a deeper understanding. In this, they are largely a waste of time, energy, and motivation. This especially because many questions can be unduly time consuming relative their value, should an honest attempt be made, as e.g with “find five other examples of X”, or even time-consuming and open-ended, e.g. “find as many examples of X as you can”. (That type of open ended question should be grounds for an immediate firing.) In contrast, a “Y is a similar example. Can the same arguments be made in that case?” would be a much better question/exercise—especially, when the answer is “no”. (The exact formulations used might need adjustment to the appropriate age bracket, both here and below.)

In contrast, the exercises* found in e.g. a math or a physics book actually force the student to use his head (or fail at answering)—here what has (ideally) been learned is actually tested, various ideas and approaches are often given new spins, the student is motivated to go back to the text to check what he might have missed that will help him solve a problem, etc. Importantly, mere learning, e.g. having memorized a formula, will rarely be enough if an understanding is not present. It is much harder, even if not impossible, to get through a math class without understanding than through a class from the softer sciences.

*Those with little exposure to math should note that these questions tend to have a very different character from the arithmetic tasks of the early years. They soon include solving problems and applying techniques, and even a first-year college text might ask for an own proof of a theorem. (At least for me in Sweden—with the continual dumbing down and whatnot, no guarantees can be made for the future or other countries.)

Many other fields are too different in character for this to always be possible and it is only rarely possible in the same manner—but why is the attempt so rarely made? Worse, when the attempt is made, it is often in a misguided or irrelevant direction, e.g. “How do you think that X felt, when […]”. In contrast, assuming that this question arose from a conflict,* a better question might focus on (a) exploring different perspectives of an issue, (b) learning that there are almost always different perspectives and that it is valuable to try to understand them, (c) approaching a question with reason and impartiality, e.g. in that a conflict is examined based on who has what ethical case (as opposed to e.g. who feels what). Another common error is a too great focus on personal opinion, e.g. “Who do you think was in the right?”, which is likely to result in an unreflected top-of-the-head answer from most younger students, usually based on emotions or identification—and will be seen as patronizing and unproductive by most older students (assuming that they do not still given an unreflected top-of-the-head answer). Here a better question would be e.g. “Who do you think was right and why?”. Better yet, leading to better thinking and removing the need to artificially side** with one party: “What arguments could X and Y make for their respective case?” This not followed by a “Who do think would be more convincing?” or similar.

*It need not have. I have seen similar questions asked e.g. relating to a happy event or an accidental misfortune.

**Which is unfortunate on at least two counts: Firstly, it can lead the student to lock himself into one position. Secondly, most realistic cases will cause good students to not side entirely with either party, and forcing such a choice is unproductive and/or forces a fake answer. A personal example of the latter: In one of my first school-years, we were supposed to name our respective personal idol. I did not have an idol. (It can be disputed whether I have ever truly had one, even now.) I just picked Björn Borg (or possibly Ingemar Stenmark), because he happened to be a very plausible answer for a Swedish boy at the time (1982?)—and I had to answer something.

Even my suggestions above are potentially too simplistic, unproductive, patronizing, whatnot. Much better questions are e.g. those involving a hypothetical, as “what if” Hitler had not invaded Poland*; those that cause the student to investigate commonly believed facts and assumptions; those that force a critical investigation of a line of reasoning; those that focus on abstracting and generalizing; those that point to the “why” of matter (e.g. why someone did something or why something did or did not work); etc.

*A scenario that I consider much more interesting that the more common the-Axis-won-WW2 scenarios. And, yes, this is a very open-ended question, but it is open ended in a different manner than “find as many […]”.

A downside of such questions is that they rarely have a short and definite answer, which make them fit poorly in e.g. the context of a typical answer/check-the answer workflow. But why should they—the point is not to have the right or wrong answer, but to think, to develop a better understanding, and, even, learning to ask the right questions for one-self. Moreover, such questions are not best asked at the end of a chapter—they should ideally be in the mind of the student while reading the chapter.

Excursion on repetition and filtering:
There are two aspects of typical questions that some might feel come up short with more productive questions.

Firstly, repetition. Here I counter that just reading a chapter once and then relying on questions for repetition is unproductive. It is better to read the chapter several times, preferably spaced out over a greater time interval. If need be, a short summary or a check-list is a better means of providing repetition. (As could more reader-centric work be, e.g. the reader writing an own summary.)

Secondly, knowing what is or is not important. Here I counter that such limits tend to be unproductive, because they cause the student to focus just on the “important” parts; that the opinion of what is important held by the book author need not be shared by the student (or his teacher); and that, again, a short summary or a check-list is a better means.

Excursion on other problems:
Generally, I often found various tasks, questions, whatnot, in school unnatural, unproductive, poorly thought-through, whatnot. This often because they were; often because no-one bothered with telling the students why the task was there. A telling example of both: In early English, we were given a set of questions to answer, with no further instruction. I promptly answered them in a reasonable manner, e.g. by “yes”, “no”, a name, …—and was promptly scolded by the teacher with the pseudo-argument “That is not how you would have answered those questions in Swedish!”. Yes, it bloody well was! In Swedish, I would have answered with “ja”, “nej”, a name, … While I am more verbose today, there is a wide range of questions that I would still answer in that manner, even as an adult and in any language. Very often, such a short answer is not only the most economical, but also the most natural and what benefits the asking party the most.

What the teacher did not do, was to explain the purpose of the exercise—to train active language skills. We were supposed to use formulations like “my name is […]”* in order to master such phrasings as a speaker/writer. Had she done that, I might** have been more receptive and/or improved my own study approach at an earlier date. Her approach is also a good illustration of how too many teachers behaved—instead of giving a good argument, all they had was usually pseudo-arguments or some variation of the “because I said so”/“because the book said so” theme.

*Honestly, how often does this phrase actually occur among native speakers? Most often, I suspect, the speaker will just state his name; and the majority of the remaining cases will be some variation of “I am”. Similarly, “mitt namn är […]” (resp. “jag heter […]”) is not that common a phrase in Swedish, nor “mein name ist […]” in German.

**I make no guarantees, seeing that I could be extremely stubborn and disliked this type of exercise. However, the approach she actually used was a complete failure, almost by necessity, in terms of being convincing, and even if the improved version had also failed with me, it would likely have been more successful over a wide range of other students.


Written by michaeleriksson

July 19, 2019 at 7:52 am

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A book lover’s lament

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Yesterday, still plagued by loud renovations, I decided to take a day trip somewhere. The decision fell on near-by Düsseldorf, largely due to the presence of one of the few bookstores that I take seriously—Stern-Verlag. This especially with almost every visit to one of the weak Wuppertal bookstores having been a waste of time.

While on the train, I sketched a plan for the day, which would see me visit some other stores, do a bit of walking, including revisiting the park and the birds that I had enjoyed so much during my years as a Düsseldorf resident, have a prolonged meal with a good read—and then to go through Stern-Verlag from top to bottom, to make up for several years without visiting a good bookstore.

After dinner, I set out in the rough correction direction, to my surprise finding that I had forgotten the exact location, a fair bit outside the actual city-center. As I drew nearer, my memories started to click again, and I knew that I was either in the right street or one parallel to it. The latter applied, because I suddenly spotted the back-entrance. Good enough. I approached—and found the glass-door locked on a conspicuous lack of books.

Hoping against hope, I went around to the main entrance—possibly, there had just been cut backs, with a portion of the store closed? Alas, no. (Rest in peace, old friend.)

A last hope was a sign in the window pointing to a nearby Mayersche. While this chain has been one of the leaders behind the declining quality of bookstores, there might at least be some possibility that it had taken over a significant portion of Stern-Verlag stock, possibly because Mayersche had bought and stream-lined the old Stern-Verlag. No, this too was an unfulfilled hope—the “new” store was not worth the trouble, being even smaller than the Mayersche a few hundred meters from my apartment. The size of the downgrade is clear from German Wikipedia, which gives the sales floors as 7,000 m2 resp. 400 m2—a cut by more than a factor of 17… Veni, vidi, exivi.

To save something of my main purpose, I walked to the known second best alternative—a Mayersche about a kilometer away, in the main shopping district, which had a similar size to Stern-Verlag, but which, obviously, suffered from the Mayersche attitude towards books and customers. There I found myself demotivated and found the usual, depressing, Mayersche proportions of hyper-commercialism to more worthy content. However, I still managed to pick out two books, both college texts on literary science. (Exactly the type of book that is the first to go when we move down bookstore sizes.)

In this, I see two sad problems repeated: The death of bookstores and the take-over of highly commercial products, often even non-books.

Now, I can understand the wish, even need, to make a profit—and I do realize that with less commercialism, even more bookstores would already be gone. I also understand that the bookstores are not always the source of the problem, themselves being victims of “people don’t read anymore” and decreasing intellectual aspirations among those who do read. (Even eCommerce competition aside.) The development is still a negative and lamentable one—it might be a necessary evil, or a lesser evil, but it remains an evil. Moreover, the same development appears to have spread to libraries, where it is not defendable.

If we look* e.g. at the bookstore closest to me, the aforementioned Mayersche a few hundred meters from my apartment, we find that:

*I go by memory here. I might be off in detail, but the broad strokes hold true—and match what is typical for at least the major German chains. (But any quantities mentioned might need scaling by store size, including that a very large store, like the larger Mayersche from yesterday, might contain some types of books that smaller stores do not have—but still only in small proportions. Also see an excursion below.) Stern-Verlag, at least at the time of my last visit, had better proportions.

  1. A significant portion of the products are not books at all. This includes calendars, cups, writing utensils, DVDs, … I have seen bookstores where more than a quarter of the floor space is lost to such products. (But I do not think it to be quite that bad here.)
  2. The sections* for cooking, travel, and languages are among (or outright) the largest. That such sections are present is by no means wrong, but when they are so large compared to the overall, something is amiss, and such large sections on cooking and travel might even be better left to a specialist cooking respectively travel store. (Note: “store”, not “book store”.)

    *Here used to imply a portion of a bookstore with a clear own theme, typically somehow labeled to inform of the contents. In the case of this store, most sections (not including the above three or the main fiction sections) are just a single bookcase from top to bottom.

    Note, not necessarily as a criticism, the common theme of a practicality or a use unrelated to reading per se—and often unrelated to learning, education, and Bildung* too. Languages is likely the most “traditional” of these sections, but even here, the character of the books is different from both fiction and more regular non-fiction—it is not a matter of reading, Bildung, whatnot, but of learning a language.

    *This German word is hard to translate to English, although a metaphorical “cultivation” or some older meaning of “culture” might come close. It contains aspects of growing intellectually, growing as a person, and similar. The “Bildungsroman” (as might be guessed from the name) deals with Bildung, if typically on a beginners’ stage or the specific stage of growing from youth to adult. Bildung is not to be confused with just gaining an education—and certainly not with e.g. dressing well and visiting the opera.

  3. A very significant further section is school literature—large heaps of mostly the same books that parents buy for their children’s classes. At the seasonal height, one might think that “bookstore” actually should be “school store”, due to the sheer quantity of books, the common addition of non-book school supplies, and the prominent placement. College-level literature is far rarer.
  4. There are a few shelf meters with natural-science books. These are virtually all popular science and they are matched by a similar quantity of shelf for esoteric/“new age”/superstition/astrology/… books (that take these topics seriously) and a similar quantity of “self-help” books offering trite, superficial, and not very helpful advice for those unable to handle themselves on their own.
  5. Other non-fiction sections of a more serious character (to which cooking and travel do not belong), tend to fair similarly poorly, languages excepted. There is a computer section, but it contains only or almost only practical guides to various programs—with no sign of more abstract treatments, including books on actual computer science. Psychology books tend to be superficial pop-psychology or even “self-help” in disguise. Ditto religion. History does bit better, but not much. Literary theory, history of literature, and similar themes are absent (despite there being a natural connection between reading and having an interest in such topics). Mathematics is absent. Engineering is absent. Philosophy is probably absent. Etc.

    Two more practical sections are law and “work topics” (e.g. concerning job applications, on-job conflicts, middle-management skills, and similar By the nature of the topics, their contents seem appropriate, but, again, we have fields not strongly relating to reading, education, Bildung, … I have bought a few books from the latter category myself over they years—and have usually not found them to be very helpful or insightful. (I have bought a few reference books from the law section too. These have done their job, but today I would stick to the Internet.)

    Other notable sections include biographies and politics. I have never looked into either in more detail, but my superficial impression is that they continue the best-seller, for-the-masses, well-short-of-academia trend of other sections. For instance, recently a book by Michelle Obama has been very heavily featured.

    Through-out, irrespective of field, books on the college level or above, including actual textbooks, are rare or entirely absent.

  6. The various sections for fiction are dominated by best-sellers—works of “high literature”, “classics”*, whatnot are very obviously secondary to the latest Stephanie Meyer or whatnot. The proportions given to children’s and “young adult” literature sections seem larger than warranted by their part of the population—which is a shame for adult me.** A very significant portion are English works translated to German.*** This includes the many sci-fi and fantasy works that I might have been interested in, had they been in English—and would have been very interested in during my twenties.

    *In all fairness, most books counted as classics are in the public domain, and I recommend trying Internet sources for free access before looking in a book store.

    **However, I stress that I do not necessarily see this as a bad thing in a bigger picture—if children never learn to love books, bookstores are doomed.

    ***There is not necessarily anything wrong with translations in principle, but (a) most translations that I have encountered in Germany have been quite poor, (b) it borders on the shameful that the average German is so bad at reading, or unwilling to read, English in the original (other languages are more understandable). We are at a stage when most books by English authors should be sold and read in English even in Germany.

It does not contain a cafe, but that is only because it is too small… Larger Mayersche (and many other larger bookstores) typically do. Similarly, the lack of book signings and book-readings-by-the-author is more likely to relate to size than to insight into the typical commercialism and lacking intellectualism that dominates the former and is very often a factor in the latter—the former is for idiots and while the latter might have value for many non-idiots, I suspect that the idiots dominate among the actual visitors. (Consider e.g. motivations like “A reading by the author might reveal something new about the text.” vs. “Yes! I get to see my favorite author in the flesh!!!”.)

Excursion on school books:
The presence of school books is easy to understand in that this is a recurring and large scale way to sell a lot of books—the number of books needed by a student at the beginning of the year might match or exceed the number of other books bought by the typical parent for the entire year. However, in my eyes, there is a systematic error here: if books are mandatory for school, it would be much better for the school to buy them, in bulk, with VAT deductible, with some leverage to negotiate prices,* etc. This not to mention the time and effort the parents would be saved. (This might, of course, come with some type of additional fee for the parents corresponding to the shift of immediate costs.)

*In fact, when schools dictate what books the parents must buy, publishers have every incentive to artificially inflate prices, and as long as parents pay, schools have no incentive to consider costs when making choices.

Similarly, I have read about U.S. schools where parents are given lists of things to buy for their children, include crayons and “Kleenex”* packages, which are then confiscated by the teacher, to be handed out among the students according to need. Apart from the implied Socialism, this causes a considerable extra effort and cost for the parents, which would be much better handled if the school bought in bulk and then just billed the parents a small amount—notably, an amount almost automatically smaller than what the parents would have payed individually, and potentially much smaller when the opportunity cost of the extra work is factored in. To boot, the quantities I saw in at least one list were such that the average child would be unlikely to use everything up, implying that the reminder turns into an involuntary gift from the parents to the school.

*Which raises the additional question of whether any brand will do or whether it has to be specifically Kleenex—a question which is not moot, considering variations in price, quality, and package size.

Excursion on Düsseldorf:
With my prolonged absence, I had forgotten how loaded with stores and large stores Düsseldorf was. Compared to Wuppertal (where I currently live) and Cologne (the stop before that), there is a mismatch with the population size. For instance, the larger Mayersche above could alone contain all of the bookstores that I have seen in Wuppertal—probably twice over. The Wuppertal Saturn (electronics store/chain) might be a third as large as the one in central Düsseldorf. Etc. Population-wise? Wikipedia gives population sizes for 2015 of 350,046 for Wuppertal, 612,178 for Düsseldorf, and 1,060,582 for Cologne—going only by stores, I would have matched the 1,060,582 to Düsseldorf and the 612,178 to Cologne. This is likely partially explained by a “magnet” effect after reaching some critical limit—even for me, Düsseldorf might be a better alternative than Wuppertal for my rare (non-grocery) shopping.

On the down-side, during my years in Düsseldorf, I repeatedly noted how the city was ruining it self through construction works, including causing traffic jams and reducing access to some smaller stores to the point that they lost too much business and had to close or relocate. Amazingly, such works are still on-going… (But it is much better now than around e.g. 2012.) Of course, for the big-shots of the city, this might not have been seen as a problem at all—the cost of traffic jams are carried by others and the loss of a mom-and-pop store just means that there is an opening for a new Prada or whatnot store that brings more prestige and tourist interest. The overall gain from these works, with the incompetent and intrusive implementation,* were not worth the cost.

*The same works done in a better manner, might have been a very different matter.

Excursion on bookstore sizes:
As might be clear from above, we need large bookstores. With smaller bookstores, the choice of books is highly limited; and having two, three, or four small ones, only means that we have the same limited choice repeated in each of them. Comparing e.g. the large Mayersche in Düsseldorf with my local, we can e.g. note that the proportion of books on literature is quite small—but there are still a few shelf meters. Similarly, it does not have many math books, and likely no truly advanced—but it does have a few shelf meters of the early college level. The Wuppertal Mayersche has a few shelf meters with (untranslated) English books—in Düsseldorf there is a similar quantity of French and Spanish books, and the English sections might be ten times as large. Etc. I would rather walk two hours to a bookstore of this size than five minutes to the local Mayersche. (Unfortunately, a walk to Düsseldorf would take far longer than two hours.)

Written by michaeleriksson

July 18, 2019 at 1:35 pm

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