Slow Your Roll

A friend of mine shared this link on his Facebook page to a Time commentary piece on the supposed uselessness of cursive writing.  As someone who has never properly mastered cursive handwriting, I can understand the frustration one has at trying to get all those loops and swirls together.  I had to sit down with a tray filled with salt and practice drawing the cursive letters out with my fingers over and over, because my handwriting was so poor.  I eventually gave up that struggle and found some homegrown midway point of block letters with occasional connectivity and some bizarre ligatures of my own design (my most common being an ng smashed together).  If there’s anything I have taken away from the salt tray in elementary school, it’s that cursive letters are awesome when creating unique gestures in your touch screen browser.

But this isn’t about my problems with cursive, this is a larger question about the value of handwriting in general.  The author is quick to dismiss physical handwriting for the expedience of the typewritten word.  True, the ability to write a tremendous amount in very little time is a huge selling point.  But what is lost in the quest for speed?

Memory retention.

Lifehacker, one of the prominent blogs about getting things done swifter, better, and often using technology to that end, back in January had a great writeup about why handwriting is better than typing.  They cite a number of studies that show how handwriting activates different parts of the brain than typing does and how students who took handwritten notes are more apt to perform better on exams.

One of the big scares that I heard years ago was that due to the prominence of the Pinyin transliteration system Chinese nationals were losing traditional writing skills.  If my recent trip to China is any evidence, there is no doubt that handwriting is alive and well, if not even more prominent than ever.  All of the students I spoke with had phones with a stylus to input characters, as did both of my American friends.  It’s just easier to do that than to try to use the keys to go through Romaji input to find the right character.  If anything, technology is making handwriting even more important.  Sure the PRC has simplified the character system but they’re not giving it up, and they’re not losing their handwriting skills.

But handwriting is only the beginning.

In an article in Psychology Today author Art Markman posits that the act of talking out loud also leads to memory retention.  I know that PT is not on the high list of credible sources, especially with their recent ridiculously racist screw-ups.  That said, I think there’s something here.  Speaking aloud is much slower than what one can think, and reading aloud from a page is substantially slower than reading solely in your head.

At the recent TEDxLibrariansTO conference I had the privilege of hearing researcher John Miedema talk about the importance of slow reading.   His thesis is that reading a text slowly leads to greater retention of the material and a greater comprehension of the content and context.  Among the comments he made were how poorly eBooks are suited to complex and dense material.  I couldn’t agree more.  While I blazed through Justin Cronin’s The Passage on my Kindle app for Android on my phone, I have yet to conquer James Gleick’s The Information  or Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants.  The content is just too difficult for me to really get via the eBook.

Part of the problem I have with reading these complex works on my phone, or even on my laptop, is that I’m missing an element.  Back in May I wrote, completely without any research to support my hypothesis, that the physical book is a memory aid in a number of ways.  eBooks are a new technology, one that is still rapidly evolving, and perhaps they will eventually find ways to simulate the memory aids of the physical book in the virtual environment.  Until then, I think I’m going to consciously make the choice to purchase physical copies of complex subject matter and leave the eBooks to novels only.

But am I supposed to ditch the digital and go back to pen and paper?  Not necessarily, in fact I think some folks are doing us one better.  In the sphere of handwriting I feel there is some progress for the person looking for the longhand simulacrum.  LiveScribe is awesome, because it is so comprehensive in its approach.  It is not only a pen, but an audio recorder, and it uploads to the internet or a desktop client for digital search capabilities.  It is engaging the brain in at least three different ways, and all of them together create an amazing package as a memory aid.  On the other side of this is NoteSlate, which at this point is still kind of vaporware, but a brilliant idea.  It’s sole function is as a handwriting tablet, from which you can upload your work online.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m all about convergence devices, which is why I love my Android phone, and if Steve Jobs wasn’t so anti-stylus I would be all about an iPad for its multi-functionality. But I’ll take a $99 NoteSlate, if and when it exists. If only for meetings.

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Books and Spatial Memory

This week Seth Godin was extemporizing upon the state of libraries and where we’re going.  This got a lot of play in library land, and rightly so.  I very deeply agree with him on most everything he’s saying here.  Yes, we need to be involved in the act of content creation with people in a meaningful way. We should be the nexus of development that shares our people and their voices with the world.

There was also an article on BoingBoing where he was talking about the nature of books, and their purpose.  Again, I agree with him that eBooks are great for getting an idea out there, and that books themselves may become something akin to souvenirs.  I know that much of the reason why I maintain a personal collection is as a visual aid to the development of my own mind.  But there is something else going on in the use of the physical that the virtual has not been able to emulate successfully, and that is spatial reference.


The Three-Dimensional Nature of Books

When holding a physical book, codex, scroll, what have you.  Your mind is mapping this object.  You develop points of reference within the physical document that you retain when important elements come out at you.  One of the amazing things that we can do is remember within a book where a passage lies.  There is something about the spatial reference within the pages, the shape of the words on the page and the power of the words being conveyed to the reader that create these landmarks.And I’m not even talking about page numbering.  Numbers on pages are almost irrelevant in this context.  It’s things like the thickness of the book between the left and right hands, pages that are dogeared or marked, and how things like illustrations that break text create visual landmarks within a book.eBooks in contrast have little in the way of spatial reference, by their nature they are virtual constructions. They are the information of the book distilled into a multi-platform, personally adjustable format. Attempts have been made to create spatial references within eBooks, using percentages, creating “bookmark” spots, having little visual cues on the home screen showing how many dots you’ve read through in any given book. But, like pagination, none of these carries the same kind of spatial information that is gained from having a physical copy. We are given the general “feel” of flipping through pages in a virtual environment, but unless bookmarked or tabbed you can’t easily flip to a passage in a book without a finding aid like a search engine. The reader requires the mediation of the device to find what he is looking for, and those finding aids are only as good as the folks who develop them.

Multi-Sensory Engagement

Physical books engage our senses of touch, sight, smell, and if you chew the foil on a “Little Golden Book” you get the taste (one which I will personally never forget). Those trigger different parts of the brain, and create wildly different sensations. Different shapes and sizes and feelings are important to us developmentally.  Cover art is colorful and memorable. Looking at the spine of book one can instantly recall its content, if not its name. One of the most persistent reference questions is “I don’t remember the title, but it was about spies and it had a silver color and it was over there…”  Yes, I can usually answer those questions.  I walk this floor daily, and look at the content.  I know the books on the shelves to varying degrees based on the amount of buzz that things have gotten and the frequency with which I see it.

eBooks on the other hand are undifferentiated from each other.  They are just blank text files for the most part, and though eReaders themselves do have physical sensory input, there is no difference in the reading experience between War and Peace and the latest Danielle Steel novel.  Ostensibly they look, feel, smell and taste identical.  There is nothing to make these books special from each other, other than their content.  In the physical world you could differentiate between them from the cover art, the height, thickness, density of text on the page, etc.  In the virtual world everything looks and feels the same.  The content is the only difference.  I think this makes us less discriminating when we select eBooks, but then again that has given rise to successful authors like Amanda Hocking who never would have seen the light of day in print publishing world.

Mapping Collections of Books

Books on a shelf function in our brain in the same exact way as the physical book, especially when well organized. Librarians can zoom into an area they frequently use without having to check a catalog, not because the Dewey numbers say that’s where a book is, but because we have mapped the information content of the space in our minds.  Each shelf is combination of colors, shapes, thicknesses, words, ideas and the organizational method all working in tandem with each other.  It’s not just title and author.  It’s so much more than that.

When dealing with eBooks you’re dealing with a file structure, much like what you have on your desktop.  At this point, few people have massive collections of eBooks, such that they would need to differentiate between collections of them.  So most eReaders only have lists of titles that you’ve amassed in a big long string.  Usually in the reverse order in which you purchased it, or, God help us all, an alphabetical list.  Anyone who works in a shared drive with more than two people knows how quickly this becomes a mountain of useless content.  Just looking at file names tells you nothing about a document.  Especially if you have more than one of the same type of thing sitting on your hard drive.  Similar to searching within an eBook, you will need a finding aid to get to your books, again a mediated experience created by your eReader provider.

Some virtual systems have attempted to recreate the “looking at the” shelf experience, like Shelfari where you have a visual representation of the official cover art for your books.  Again, this just gives us the cover art, not the feel or touch or shape or size.  The fact that Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar is shown as the same height as Tom Clancy’s Dead or Alive doesn’t convey that Carle’s book is only about 40 pages where Clancy’s is like 500.  Sure you can tell from the cover art that one is a children’s book, but nothing else about it.

Browsing and Serendipity
Another feature that gets lost in the virtual world is serendipity.  While browsing a bookstore or library we wander, aimlessly through the shelves our senses taking in the variety of what’s going on around us.  But what we’re doing is we’re exploring, and very quickly at that, the visual and physical medium before us.  We begin with areas of familiarity and then take in what else may be happening in our surroundings.  We’ll process entire bookcases in a matter of seconds.  Titles we may have heard recently will leap out at us, and the other titles in the environment will start to seep into our subconscious mind.  And as we wander through those rows, we will encounter things that connect with our previous body of knowledge, our lingering interests, the topic we may have frequented as a child but have forgone for more serious matters, and they will draw us back in to explore anew.
The virtual world on the other hand is like browsing a catalog of our most recent purchases.  Amazon has some amazing things in its “people who bought this” algorithm.  Their suggestions are rarely outside of something I wouldn’t normally purchase.  But that’s the problem. Eli Pariser in his new book The Filter Bubble explores how these customized serendipity engines are leading us down a hole into a recursive loop.  We read what we read and this asks us if we want to read more and more of the same thing.  Unless you’re actively diversifying your book selections then you will only see the top sellers (an elite few at that) and those special recommendations for you.  It is an information oubliette.
Pure Information

This is where I feel this social conversation is going.  The eBook is a method for conveying pure information.  Its role is to be that method of data input for the human mind where we can experience something fleeting and move on to the next thing.  Surely we are building data repositories of eBooks that rival mankind’s wildest dreams.  We can do unbelievable amounts of cross-sectional informatics that were unthinkable just a few years ago.  There will come a time, in our lifetimes, when the entirety of written communication is going to be available online.  And It will be the most cacophanous mess anyone has ever seen.  Hell, it already is.  Just try searching for anything in the canon of English Literature. You’ll find at least 20 identical copies with tiny little variables in the text.  I dare you to go look for something that was brought up from the middle ages.  Chaucer, Shakespeare.  Yeah.  There’s a few hundred different copies.  If you’re a philologist it’s a goldmine, but if you’re just an average reader, it’s a dizzying array.
For numerous reasons, many of them enumerated above, I’m not one of those people who feel that the death of the book is imminent.  On the contrary.  I feel that eBooks are an addition to the world that are both remarkable and bland at the same time.  They cannot by their nature function within the human experience in the same way as a printed book.  But that’s okay.  They can deliver the pure content.  But there is a deeper experience with the physical world that they just cannot mimic.  We are creatures who exist in multiple dimensions and our brains are geared to work that way.  Maybe when we have hard light books, we’ll revisit this conversation.

Scattered Thoughts

I have about a half dozen uncooked ideas that I’m just going to park here and see what grows over the course of the week.  Maybe come Sunday I’ll have something fully formed.

eBooks and Book Deals

This week Harper Collins, one of the major publishers working with the library eBook distribution company Overdrive, has decided to change its policy on the end user license agreements for their eBooks.  They want to limit the number of times you can download one of their eBooks to 26 cycles and then that item will remove itself from your selections list.  This has caused a firestorm among librarians, and prompted a number of libraries to start taking action in direct response.  I’m with the libraries on that.

When a library purchases a physical copy of a book it’s generally assumed that it’s going to have a limited lifespan.  Mass Market paperbacks don’t usually survive more than 10 circulations, urban fiction barely makes out the door alive.  Hardback books have a much more hearty lifespan, but even they may not survive a good 40 circs.  Binding gives way after a while and damage gets done.  EBooks on the other hand do not suffer from physical damage.  An eBook can be downloaded millions of times and that edition will remain exactly the same as it was.

But this isn’t about longevity, it’s about preserving profit. Harper Collins is worried that libraries will start to buy eBooks to replace physical collections and that means that these digital editions will be around forever, thus negating any future profit on redundant sales for backlist titles.

I don’t think they have anything to worry about, at least not any time soon.  Libraries already operate under a Digital Rights Management system with Overdrive that limits the number of digital copies that are checked out of any given title.  Libraries then coordinate further sales of specific titles based to meet the eBook demand.  It’s the same exact thing we’re doing with physical copies, only with virtual copies.  Currently if we see that there’s a holds list 100 people deep for the new Dan Brown novel we’re not just going to sit on that.  We’re going to go out and buy another 20 to 30 copies to try and meet that demand.  Same holds true for the DRM driven eBook market.  We’re not giving things away with unlimited copies.  We’re holding true to the DRM and buying multiple copies of eBooks to meet demand.  It’s bizarre that we would construct a model for virtual items that mimics physical items, but it’s what we’ve got in place right now.

My friend Cliff Landis has proposed shared an eBook users bill of rights.  I think that’s a great start, and that we should see more direct thinking to help prevent publisher’s abuses like this.

And then there was the story of the 26 year old girl who is making an absolute bloody fortune on Kindle selling 99 cent books.


How Physical Activities Affect our Memory

Ran across this article on LIfehacker about how writing affects the memory better than typing.  This got me thinking about all sorts of things.  I know that kinesthetic memory is important as a learning style, but the simple act of writing never seemed to me to be something that was as integral to the process. Makes me think that the Livescribe pen isn’t so dorky after all.  In fact it could be a great bridge device to help integrate the physical and the digital more directly.  Perhaps a link between Livescribe and Noteslate could be a beautiful synergy.

But then I started thinking about other kinesthetic memory triggers, specifically spatial ones.  I think about the physical space of the library, and about how this represents a collection of data about the world, and a selection of literature from different countries.  It’s an information microcosm.  As part of our process we organize these items into delineated categories to help facilitate retrieval but also to help make intellectual connections between items.  A person scanning a range of books will see the titles of a hundred or more books in a matter of minutes.  If they find what they’re looking for there, they will more than likely return to that shelf and continue and expand beyond the shelf.  Amazon on the other hand provides you a little echo chamber of books, usually about 20 or more that you have to click through in cycles of 5 or 6.  We haven’t yet constructed a digital repository that mimics the physical in any way that encourages the browsing behavior and the physical stimulation of going to a book shelf.  I don’t know that we necessarily can.  Maybe when we have real 3D holograms we can interact with light books in a physical way.

Poly Drama on Big Love Raises Real Issues

One of the big plotlines on Big Love concerns Nikki’s daughter Cara Lynn.  Nikki is concerned about what may happen to her daughter now that her father is dead, and asks Bill to formally adopt her as his own.  However, under Utah law, this is not legal, because they don’t allow unwed couples to adopt.  Should anything happen to Nikki Cara Lynn would be orphaned and at the mercy of her family, because Bill isn’t legally recognized as related to Nikki at all.  He is only legally married to Barb.  So they decide that they will change the legal status of wife from Barb to Nikki so that Bill can formally adopt Cara Lynn as his own child with Nikki.

Issues like this and numerous others come up for polyamorous families all the time.  There are medical insurance problems, who gets covered and how, income problems, estate issues… It’s just a thorn bush.  Tristan Taormino really explores a number of the emotional and legal issues surrounding polyamory in her fantastic book “Opening Up.”  It’s like the Strunk and White of polyamory.  I strongly recommend people to read it, even if you don’t go there in your own relationship to understand the complexity of what relationships can be, how people cope with them and how society could improve by recognizing that we’re not so uniform in the way we love people.

I’m also intrigued by the feminist storyline running through with Barb’s character.  Joanna Brooks, probably the best person on the planet to write about the awesomeness of this story, wrote a great piece about the feminist tradition in the Mormon church.  While I practice a faith that has deep feminist principles, I’m not Mormon and I’ll just leave that commentary to Joanna.

Politics Disgusts Me

I was reminded today that I just recently began reading actual news again, and the vitriol of the right wing makes me want to just drop it all again.  I could spend my days reading, reposting and analyzing political stuff up on Huffington Post or Daily Kos till I’m blue in the face.  But the reality is, I just don’t like it.  I believe it’s important to be aware, and I do my share of raising awareness.  But reading all these horrible things is starting to effect me again, and I don’t know when I will reach a breaking point.

I’m keeping myself in check to a degree.  I’m not going out of my way to read things that I know will just utterly incense me for no reason.  I read casual tech news sites like Boing Boing and Gizmodo, I read the NY Times online, and Religion Dispatches.  But I don’t read excessively politicized pages unless directed by a friend via Facebook or something.  I don’t read conservative news sites or commentary from hate groups (then again, I repeat myself).  Reading those things makes me physically ill.  It’s like intentionally poisoning myself.  I just don’t want to subject myself to it.

But at the same time, what’s happening now has a real effect on my life.  As a public servant my neck is on the line right now.  Public services are being slashed everywhere and here in DC is no different.  While we don’t have a tea party governor trying to break our unions, we do have a Republican led oversight committee in Congress has already stripped away what little representation we had, and if a government shutdown occurs then District Government funding from the Federal government will be frozen, libraries may be deemed a non-essential function, and will probably be closed during the shutdown.  Yeah, that effects me directly.  As it is we’re already going to have to suffer a devastatingly awful cut to the budget at a time when services are desperately needed.