Friday, December 29, 2017

So Many Books, So Little Attention

“You mustn’t want to do everything at once. In a day a man can eat only three bowls of rice; he can’t eat ten or more days worth of rice at one sitting. In a day you can read only so much, and your efforts have a limit as well. You mustn’t want to do everything at once.”
(p. 133, Chu Hsi: Learning to Be a Sage, trans. Daniel K. Gardner)

My reading habits are going downhill. I’ve been reading the same book, Flavor: the Science of Our Most Neglected Sense, for well over a week now. It’s a good book—every time I pick it up again, I enjoy it. So why haven’t I finished it yet?

I’ve had time to read. In fact, it seems like I’ve done plenty of reading recently. I’ve been looking at everything from the newspaper to the latest e-newsletter from our public waste facility. Yet I remember very little of it.

In part, the problem is information over-availability. When I was a child and we were overseas, the reading options were mostly limited to the books we had on hand and a small school library. My mom ordered books by mail and we visited bookstores during visits back to the States, but still, it was possible for me to finish reading my new books and not yet have anything else to read. Fortunately, I was happy re-reading my favorites over and over. I got to know them very well.

Now I have too much to read. If you are a reader and you have only a few books to read, then you spend more time on those books. On the other hand, if you are constantly running into text of one sort or another, then you may end up spreading your time thinly over your various reading options.

Then again, you may not. When I was in graduate school, I read philosophy papers and books. If they were part of a class or relevant to my interests, I read them over and over. It wasn’t from lack of other reading material. There were libraries, bookstores, and my own overfilled bookshelves. But I had reason to read them carefully—to pick out the argument, to consider the objections raised and the replies—so I could come up with my own response.

I’m not in graduate school now, nor am I working in philosophy. I am not compelled to read thoroughly and with attention to detail. Nor am I faced with limited reading options that result in my re-reading anything that seems interesting. Instead, I have piles of books I haven’t read yet, magazines, newspapers (a new one every day!), and of course, the internet.

There’s a lot one could say about reading and the internet, but what matters here is the quantity of written material out there. It varies enormously in quality and subject matter. The only way to know if an article is worth my time is to skim over it.* The same is true of newspapers and magazines, though the quality is a bit more predictable.

So I find myself spending a lot of time skimming over articles rather than actually reading them. In fact, I spend so much time doing this that it is starting to become a habit. I pick up a magazine and skim through it, wondering if there is anything really interesting, and then find myself skimming through an article that does look interesting.

Wait! If the article is interesting, why am I glancing through it rapidly, skipping bunches of paragraphs here and there, checking to see where the article is headed… instead of settling down and actually reading it?

Sometimes I tell myself that right now I am just checking for interesting articles. I will read them later at some more leisurely time. But the amount of time I spend at this half-hearted sort-of-reading could be much better spent actually reading. And when I apply this sort of half-hearted-reading to the newspaper, I end up wasting quite a lot of time.

What is the solution to my increasingly bad reading habits? Is there a New Year’s Resolution that will help me get more out of my reading time?

Here’s one possible resolution, though I don’t know if I could actually carry it off. When I catch myself skimming, I should stop and ask if I have a good reason for skimming. If I don’t, then I should decide—do I want to read this, right now, or do I not? If not, move on to something else.

Sometimes there are good reasons for skimming. If I am looking for a particular bit of information, especially on the internet, then skimming is pretty much required. If I am trying to decide whether to buy or check out a book, I need to glance through it, which is a bit like skimming (but only a bit.)

On the other hand, there is no point in skimming through a book I’ve already bought and intend to read. And yes, I have found myself doing this, even with eminently readable books. All I can conclude is that my mind is restless and I need to focus more. “Read the book, or do not. There is no skim.”

The tricky situation is when I don’t know whether an article is really one I want to read. Unfortunately, the newspaper is full of articles like that, so I can waste a lot of time skimming. How can I choose more quickly? Decide based on the headline only? The first two paragraphs? Make a list of subjects to read about and ignore everything else?

Suppose I catch myself skimming and decide that yes, I do want to read this article. How do I switch gears from skimming to actually reading? Take notes, maybe? That would force me to focus on what the article actually says, and might help me remember some details. On the other hand, it might be more work than I’m prepared to put in.

It will be interesting to see whether I actually do manage to improve my reading habits over the next year.

“In reading, you must keep your mind glued to the text. Only when every sentence and every character falls into place have you done a good job of thinking through the work. In general, the student should collect his mind so that it’s completely tranquil and pure and in its normal activity and tranquility doesn’t run wild or become confused. Only then will he understand the text in all of its detail. Reading like this, he’ll understand the essentials.”
(p. 145, Chu Hsi: Learning to Be a Sage)

Till next post.

*Actually, there are some short cuts. Slide-show style? Almost certainly not worth the time.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Everyone Should Have a Party Trick

In The Breakfast Club, Molly Ringwald’s character, Claire, is asked what she can do. All the other kids in detention have started making claims about what they can do—one says she can write with her feet, another that he can make spaghetti. Claire says she can’t do anything, and someone replies that everybody can do something. So she reluctantly—but still with some pride—demonstrates her ability to apply lipstick (messily) without using her hands.

We should all have some sort of trick that we can show off on such occasions. Some people have actual magic tricks—you may have run into someone who can pull a quarter from your ear, then make the coin disappear and reappear again elsewhere.  That’s impressive. It’s especially good for astounding visiting children.

Other people can casually take up three clementines and start juggling them. I’ve noticed that people are impressed by even a very limited ability to juggle (unless they themselves can juggle, of course.) Juggling is also contagious—once someone juggles something, everyone starts trying to juggle. This can be dangerous if the objects used are breakable or messy, but clementines are pretty sturdy.

There are people who can square off discarded candy wrappers and fold them into beautiful cranes. Instead of a piece of trash, you have a decoration. Part of what makes it special, though, is watching the transformation.

Being able to play an instrument can be a party trick when the instrument is there in your pocket. My father-in-law is known for pulling out his harmonica on any occasion and playing a suitable tune.

Not all party tricks require props. My husband can pretend to inflate his hand. He blows “into” the thumb, the hand slowly opens up, he pinches the thumb “closed”—then he lets go and his hand goes hissing and spinning crazily about as it “deflates”. I’ve seen it many times and I’m still amused.

Reciting a poem is, or should be, a party trick as well. I think the most effective poems for this purpose are those that tell a story, such as “The Raven” by Edgar Allen Poe, or “The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes. So I recommend memorizing one long poem to have on hand when you need it. I started memorizing “The Raven,” but didn’t get beyond the first couple of stanzas. I also only know about half of “The Singsong of Old Man Kangaroo” by Rudyard Kipling (perhaps not technically a poem, but it recites like one.) I still remember parts of “The Tale of Custard the Dragon” by Ogden Nash, which I had to memorize in sixth grade.

What brought all this to mind was my daughter’s showing me a hexahexaflexagon that a friend of hers had made. She was trying to remember how to fold one from a strip of paper. The first problem was how to get a series of equilateral triangles—she was sure there was a trick to it, and she was right. When she consulted her friend, she found out that she needed to fold the paper strip at an angle, trying to match edges in the same sort of way one folds a letter into thirds.

Having learned all this, she pointed me to a good (and entertaining) Youtube video. (I had been vainly trying to fold an equilateral triangle.) I was able to make my own hexahexaflexagon, and it occurred to me that this is a good party trick of the sort I mentioned earlier. It’s a bit like making a paper crane, but instead of leaving your audience (victim?) with a decorative sculpture, you leaving them madly flexing a hexagon, trying to find all the sides and looking baffled when a new one pops up after they thought they had found them all.

Hexahexaflexagons, one made of shiny wrapping paper
Hexahexaflexagons, one made from wrapping paper.

So there’s my early New Year’s recommendation—figure out what your party trick is, and if necessary, refresh your memory of it. Clearly I need to do so, since my cranes have been coming out deformed, my poems incomplete, and after a year of “frozen shoulder”, I’m out of practice at even the most limited juggling. Maybe I should get into hexahexaflexagons instead...

strip of paper folded ready for making a hexahexaflexagon
Hexahexaflexagon in process

Till next post.

P.S. The same friend who showed her the hexahexaflexagon also gave her a photocopy of a chapter from a book detailing the history of hexaflexagons and some of their properties. The most important bits are also revealed in the Youtube video series of hexaflexagons by Vihart, esp. "Hexaflexagons 2" which I HIGHLY recommend to anyone who wants to create one, and even those who don’t.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Maps, Mystery, and Adventure—decorating with story

I have a pair of porcelain mugs decorated with antique map designs, and an out-of-date globe. What is it about maps, both real and fictional, that makes them so appealing as decoration?

two mugs decorated with antique maps and an out-of-date globe
Decorative maps (globe used to be current)

Some maps are intended to be almost purely functional—the paper road maps in my car (still!) are like that. I have seen even these maps used for decoration, especially if they depict a familiar area (e.g. get a mug with a partial map of your hometown on it), but generally maps tend to be less functional as they get more decorative.

But why decorate something with a map rather than, say, flowers or cars or an abstract design?

Maps show us worlds. Worlds that are, worlds that used to be, and worlds that never were, except in imagination. The right kind of map suggests travel, stories, and adventures. Antique maps, with their limitations and inaccuracies, recall a time when the world was a mysterious place and explorers really didn’t know what they would find. There might be sea serpents, golden cities—even buried treasure, where x marks the spot. In fantasy novels, maps show a world that may really have all those things. Maps are sufficiently popular in fantasy that someone even designed a spoof of fantasy novel maps.

photo of westeros map
Westeros, from Game of Thrones (rather than using Middle Earth as an example)

Maps in mystery novels have a quasi-functional use. A house plan can help the reader track who was where and when--and how a secret passage might have allowed someone to be where they supposedly weren’t. In her mind’s eye, she can see different possible scenarios suggested by the layout of the mystery’s setting.

photo of tupelo landing map
Tupelo Landing, from Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage

Maps of the world we know don’t have to be purely functional, or even functional at all. Consider the maps that are sometimes designed as souvenirs of a town, where streets aren’t to scale and landmarks are amusingly caricatured. They're fun, decorative, and sometimes sentimental, but hardly something that will help you navigate, if you should find yourself without GPS and Googlemaps.

photo of map from Stolen Magic
Stolen Magic by Gail Carson Levine--fantasy and mystery both

In A Great Reckoning, by Louise Penny, an old orienteering map features heavily. But it isn’t a straightforwardly practical map—its maker clearly intended it to refer to landmarks in someone’s personal history. The map isn’t shown in the book, but it is described at various points.

“At first glance, it didn’t look like a map at all. While worn and torn a little, it was beautifully and intricately illustrated, with bears and deer and geese placed around the mountains and forests. In a riot of seasonal confusion, there were spring lilac and plump peony beside maple trees in full autumn color. In the upper-right corner, a snowman wearing a tuque and a habitant sash, a ceinture fléchée, around his plump middle held up a hockey stick in triumph.” (p. 35)

“Yes, it took a while to see beyond all that, to what it really was, at its heart.

A map.

Complete with contour lines and landmarks. Three small pines, like playful children, were clearly meant to be their village. There were walking paths and stone walls and even Larsen’s Rock, so named because Sven Larsen’s cow got stuck on it before being rescued.

Gamache bent closer. And yes, there was the cow.” (p. 36)

Finally, there is something intriguing about the names on a map, not just the images. Some place names are more interesting than others, and just giving an area a name somehow makes it special. Years ago, my daughter and I were at Great Wolf Lodge, a kind of hotel/amusement/water park. The hotel was set up so that the halls could be part of a game in which kids roamed around with electronic “wands”, which when waved at various items, caused them to do something or display something. In keeping with the magical theme, the halls and public areas of the hotel had names.  I should have written some of them down, but I think they were along the lines of “The Enchanted Forest” and such. I commented to my daughter that we should name the areas of our home something more interesting than “Hall Bathroom” and “Mom’s Study.”

(I did in fact name one area of our yard “The Fairy Garden”, and another area that happened to get planted in rosemary, lavender, chives, catmint, and butterfly bush, “The Purple Garden”.)

Having said all this, it is a curious truth that I have not had much luck making maps for the stories that I write. I have some general diagrams to help me keep straight left and right, north and south—but that’s about as far as it goes. And yet, I would love to have some pretty maps to illustrate them with. Maybe I’ll give it another try someday, allowing myself to emphasize beauty  and mystery rather than detail.

Here there be dragons.

Till next post.

Friday, December 1, 2017

On Communicating With the Government--I ponder different methods as I write to the FCC

This week there was considerable fuss, first about the FCC’s proposal to repeal the net neutrality rules, and then about the emails they received in response—in particular, those emails that appeared to have false or temporary addresses or to have originated from Russia. This started me thinking about our communications with our government more generally. Since we are usually communicating with our legislators about bills (rather than sending comments to the FCC), I’m just going to talk about that.

The point of communicating with your congressperson is to influence his/her decisions and change his/her behavior. There are three ways a communication (letter/email/call/visit) could do this.
(1) The content of the communication could be reasons for or against the bill in question.
(2) People’s communications could arrive in such profusion that it causes chaos and makes it impossible for the legislator to ignore the fact that people are concerned about the bill, and maybe also impossible to conduct the rest of his/her business.
(3) The communications could give evidence of grassroots opinions—that many people are very concerned about the bill.

The first possibility, that the communications will give the legislator reasons to change his/her mind, seems fairly unlikely. Probably by that point, he/she has already heard most of the reasons given by both sides, has made up his/her mind to some degree, and isn’t likely to even see, let alone be influenced by, any single communication. (Other people are opening the mail and answering the phone anyway, especially if the legislator is getting tons of mail and phone calls.) Still, that doesn’t mean the communication doesn’t need to offer any reasons. If nothing else, it will give the office workers who tally people’s positions a general sense of people’s reasons.

The second possibility, that the sheer volume of communications is what matters, suggests that politics is a matter of beating your legislator into submission, which is a pretty cynical view of things, though maybe with a grain of truth to it. Maybe we want the letters to be disruptive enough to get the legislator’s attention, but surely not so much that it prevents him/her from doing other useful things, or thinking about other forthcoming bills. Otherwise legislators won’t be able to do anything most of the time, and why would we want that?

The third possibility seems the strongest. If lots of people hold a particular opinion on a bill and hold it very strongly, then not only should the legislator, as representative, be concerned about representing their view, but the legislator’s vote on the bill could have an effect on his/her chances of re-election. And that’s a powerful motivator.

How much is his/her vote on the bill likely to affect his/her re-election? Well, how many people are for it, and how strongly do they feel? Both matter. If lots of people support the bill but only lukewarmly, the legislator could probably get away with voting against it. If only a few people support it, it doesn’t matter how much they care, they still only have a few votes to give.

So what kind of evidence do the various forms of communication give of these things? Long ago, when I was an intern in Congressman Whitehurst’s office*, I was given the relatively unimportant job of looking up the addresses of people who had signed their names to form postcards. Form postcards were, I think, supplied by political organizations and probably dropped off by them as well—I don’t think the individuals who signed the cards had to actually mail the cards themselves. But they did have to sign their names and maybe give their town. I was to look up the full addresses so the office could send them a form letter in response.

Remember, this was before most people had personal computers, and well before there was a world wide web. No cutting and pasting letters (except in the very literal sense) and no email. So there were form postcards, regular letters, phone calls (long distance was still expensive), and personal visits. Form postcards were the least important, because they took the least effort and expense on the part of the sender.

Now emails make communicating with your legislator easier, but as this week’s kerfuffle makes clear, there is the problem of knowing whether the email represents a particular individual, or if it has been sent by a bot, or if one individual or sneaky organization has sent many emails, and whether the sender is even an American and eligible to vote.

On top of that, emails can be sent with very little effort, especially if they are pre-written and addressed by an organization, so that the individual has only to enter his or her email address and click a button. So the emails don’t do a good job of showing just how much the sender cares about the issue. Is this a make-it or break-it issue for them, or just one among many concerns?

So I’m sending the FCC chairman and commissioners hand-written letters that will arrive with my local postmark on them. I doubt hand-written letters are a solution long-term. If people take to writing their letters by hand, some sneaky group may find a way to fake them. On the other hand, it costs 49 cents apiece to mail them, so maybe no organization will find it worth the money.

Hand addressed envelopes to commissioners of the FCC
On reflection, I should have sent a single letter to the FCC in general.

Till next post.

*I was politically apathetic in high school, but we were required to intern in a congressional office junior year. I had no idea where to start, so I took the suggestion of the program director and asked to intern in G. William Whitehurst’s office. They were lovely people, but I don’t remember ever actually trying to find out what their positions on any issues were. I’m not sure what most of the issues of the day even were, other than nuclear arms policies. I find it funny now, to think that I, who even then counted myself at least vaguely a Democrat, did my internship in a Republican’s office. I really had no idea what I was about. Fortunately, they were very patient.