One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small.
Jefferson Airplane, White Rabbit
One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small.
Jefferson Airplane, White Rabbit
As a kid I raised rabbits. I liked to draw them too. The introvert in me has an affinity for rabbits. Rabbits are weak on earth, but fast to burrow down a hole and traverse the underworld, just like an introvert on a psychological journey.
As an adult I generally avoid rabbit holes. It is too easy to lose perspective. There are many kinds of rabbit holes: a programmer lost in code, a writer fumbling with words, a thinker tangling with ideas. Code, words, ideas: they are bottomless pits. The trap is detail. Fancy oneself an artist perfecting an offering and there is no end.
This work, After Reading, is a trip down a rabbit hole, a psychological journey. The trip begins with books, traces a way through the internet, and then deals with the subject of machine life. It is a strange journey, a rabbit hole, but there is a natural end. We travel to the end of books, and code, and language, and thought. At the end of thought there are no details left to perfect. At the end there is a gate, a way out of the rabbit hole. I hope you come along.
When it comes to adventure a “rabbit-hole” has three things: falling, strangeness, and change. In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, Alice is bored when she spots the white rabbit and follows it. She then suddenly falls a long way down the rabbit-hole. The fall is unexpected. In The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, the wizard Gandalf invites Bilbo on a quest. Bilbo declines, “We don’t want any adventures here, thank you!”
We must fall into adventure because we are comfortable. A hobbit-hole has paneled walls and tiled floors and carpet. Comfy. Other holes are at best dry, bare and sandy. A rabbit-hole is often nasty, dirty and wet. To “go down a rabbit hole” means discomfort, a trip into the unknown and the strange. Alice encounters a world of talking animals and twisted logic. Bilbo faces hungry trolls, fierce wood-elves and a dragon. It takes a fall to dislodge the adventurer.
The strangeness of the rabbit-hole makes it difficult to get out. The adventurer must change. In the The Lord of the Rings, Bilbo’s nephew, Frodo, and his friends also go on epic adventures. Frodo and Sam set out to destroy a magic ring. Frodo returns home physically and psychologically injured but Sam grows strong. Sam musters the courage to propose to Rosie Cottonwood. Merry and Pippin rally the Ents against Saruman and enlist in the War of the Ring. They return taller and braver, rallying troops to restore their home. Alice too finds courage to stand up to the King and Queen.
Merry joins the army of Rohan as esquire to King Theodin. Pippin volunteers his service to Denethor, the Steward of Gondor. I have a personal story about joining the army, though not nearly so epic or brave as that of the hobbits. In 1985, my hobbit-hole was a little house with my parents in small-town Ontario. I was graduating with straight A’s in arts, maths and sciences. I was a prime target for the Canadian Armed Forces recruiters. They made a good pitch: travel, a university degree, all expenses paid. I fell for it.
I was sent to Chilliwack BC for Officer Training. Head shaved, I woke early every day for inspection and exercise. We marched between classes, saluting and following the chain of command. Now, this is not a story about the hazing of a new recruit, nor did I suffer any abuse at the hands of my trainers. I was in the Canadian Armed Forces, a civilized institution with decent beds and good food. I was in Officer Candidate School, and that meant some respect. This is a story about a young man out of his comfort zone.
The warrant officer was an old bear, the sergeant a weasel. While others seemed to be adapting I would stay up late to read and smoke and think. Exhausted I got strange. I recall dusting out the room’s heating vents for fear the sergeant would inspect them. Beneath the vent covers a heating pipe trailed away like a rabbit-hole. It was in weapons class one day that I realized I had to leave. Rifles mounted on our shoulders, the captain barked out a question, “The commies are coming over the hill, what do you do?” The assumed answer, “shoot,” galled me. The Berlin Wall would not fall for another four years but the Soviets were not our enemy. If I let this assumption breach my ethical walls I would lose myself, so I thought.
It was relatively easy to get out of the Armed Forces, but my rabbit-hole was more complicated. After requesting my exit, I returned to my quarters, went into the shower for privacy, and bawled my eyes out. Knowing I could leave, I had to face the fact that I had failed. I would later feel ashamed in front of my family. My mother had cried with my departure on the train as if I was going overseas to war, yet here I was back already. I felt small with my friends. “Couldn’t take it, huh?” For years I dreamed about it. At first I had nightmares that I was back in the Army, failing all over again. Later I dreamed that I was in the army but I was coping, even helping others. Finally, years later, I dreamed I was thriving. The dreams stopped. Like Alice, I awoke to find myself out of the rabbit-hole.
Some might say that Armed Forces training is implicitly harsh. I suppose that was true for me, a nineteen-year-old sheltered introvert, but I maintain no complaint. I met many fine people. There was the former Army Cadet who did everything so easily, quietly giving me tips — psst you have shaving cream on your ear. A kind army psychologist met with me to ensure I was not being mistreated. He encouraged me to continue but accepted my decision. I was given an honourable discharge. As I left a cute Dutch girl called to me from the barracks, grow your curly locks! I did. There was lasting positive change. I learned I could accomplish more in a day than I ever thought possible. I recommend the army experience for some, especially clever youths who are just a bit too comfortable.
One rainy Sunday afternoon in 1983 my sister invited me to play a board game, Payday. I gruffly declined. A month earlier it might have been the perfect diversion but something new had clamped my interest, a Radio Shack TRS-80 MC-10. Smaller than other personal computers it was all I could afford on my newspaper route savings. A black and white television served as a monitor and a cassette recorder for data storage. With the 16KB memory expansion and reference book in hand, I was programming a digital Yahtzee. I had already programmed the rolling dice and was now feverishly working on the scoring. My sister chided me for spending all my time on the computer.
The expression, rabbit hole, comes from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. Alice is bored until she spots a rabbit wearing a waistcoat and pocket watch, talking to itself. Curious, she follows it into a rabbit hole and falls into a fantasy world of strange creatures and twisted logic. In the end Alice grows in size and plucks up the courage to challenge the king and queen of hearts, calling them out as just playing cards. Alice’s sister wakes her up. It was a dream.
Carroll’s book was published in 1865. My modern rabbit hole is technology. Originally interested in language and literature, I was curious about the new phenomenon of the personal computer. I took high school computer courses. I played with them. I went to university for a psychology degree but in the late eighties computers were everywhere. The school computer lab had Apple IIe desktops and mainframe clients. I acquired a 14.4k modem with which I could submit statistics jobs, send email, and browse discussion boards. After graduating I worked in social services for a few years and managed to skip Windows 3.1 entirely. A later job in health research had me grinding numbers on spreadsheets, juicing my programming chops. One Visual Basic certification later I was qualified for nifty, good paying programming jobs. Scooped by IBM I began a lifelong career in information technology.
A corporate information technology department is a world of strange creatures. Alice (yes, like in Wonderland) was gifted with code but had no clue when to start or stop speaking. David was a well-adjusted college kid who could care less about code but liked the money. Helen was a middle-aged tester who resented our kind for taking her old job. I had an affinity for the book nerds. We liked reading, libraries, bicycles and public radio. Skilled with stories and a keyboard, most of us had tried our hand at creating a computer text adventure.
I had spells where I felt I had missed my original calling as a writer, librarian or psychologist. It was not that I disliked technology. Early on it was stimulating to learn the deep knowledge of how the computer world hung together. Analyzing software requirements was a bit like psychoanalysis, asking workers to explain behaviours they performed unconsciously. I enjoyed the zen state of coding, suspending the outside world, tracking a dozen variables in my head, coordinating the moving pieces as I wrote thousands of lines of code. I worked with teams that built four major software systems and dozens of smaller ones, still used worldwide today. It is likely that you have used my code. I still take pride in that. But I always expected to make an exit from the technology rabbit hole. It did not happen.
I became a strange creature. It was a daily battle, spending my best creative resources to increase the quarterly profits of banks, pharmaceuticals and manufacturers. We worked the mythical man month, too many people grinding out code too late at night and too long into the weekend. I smoked and drank. I ate badly and got no exercise. My theme song came from What’s Up by 4 Non Blondes, “And I try, oh my god do I try, I try all the time, in this institution. And I pray, oh my god do I pray, I pray every single day, for a revolution.” I suppose I was hoping for a political and economic revolution that would upend the necessity of my job, but the revolution I got was technological, the rise of cell phones and the Internet. At first, having a cell phone made me sleep better. If it was not ringing I knew everything was okay. The Internet made me smarter, no question, being able to google coding questions and learn new skills. But cell phones and the internet also meant I could be found anytime, and I could work from anywhere. Early adopters, we were assimilated into the borg.
Seven years into the rabbit hole there was a moment of light. Randy was the sort of manager who disillusioned young new employees. Forget innovation and invention, Randy would say. Business applications are meatball programming. Maybe Randy was struggling too. One day he said something unexpected, that an employee needs to be comfortable in his or her own skin to be of any real value to the company. A little harsh, a lot true. I had always been uncomfortable in my skin. I made a business case to fund a Master of Library and Information Science. I used technical terms, like usability and information architecture. Randy approved it.
I imagined that library school would lead to a comfortable job reading books, but the digital revolution was in full swing for libraries too. It may not be obvious, but librarians and technologists do the same thing, organize information. Databases, markup, boolean search: all old news in libraries but digital tools make them fast. Today’s libraries are fast places solving interesting problems; my technology skills were a hot commodity. It worked for everybody. I wrote open source code for libraries, published in technology journals, and patented an invention for IBM. I finished my part-time degree in 2010. There were good library prospects but now IBM upped the ante. Until this time, most technology required that its data be normalized, that is, structured into neat columns and tables for databases. Unstructured data was considered second class, the loose insides of documents and books, best left to librarians. This all changed when IBM faced off its Watson supercomputer against the world’s best Jeopardy players. Watson measured its data in books, unstructured data. It beat the human champs easily using natural language processing. It was the ultimate librarian. I was offered a job in IBM Watson Group and I took it.
Technology is a pernicious rabbit hole, with enough intellectual and economic rewards to keep me there. My final chapter with IBM came after a failed attempt to create a partnership between Watson Group and the Digital Humanist researchers. In library school I had become familiar with the Digital Humanists, academics who specialize in understanding the algorithms of reading. They only lacked computer resources. Watson Group had the resources but needed insight into machine reading challenges. A perfect match it seemed. As I mentioned, it is not always obvious to get two groups to see their shared concern. Had I succeeded I am sure I would have stayed with IBM for life, but the partnership failed, mostly around fears about intellectual property rights. There was nothing more I could do. There was nothing left to interest me. I was offered a pile of money to stay but I was done. Do not mistake this conclusion as my victory over the rabbit hole. I took another job at a small local firm. I work at a civilized pace, live healthy and teach a fitness class. I deliberately avoid writing code but I still work in technology. In the end, people are what they do, and I am technologist. I live in a rabbit hole. I suppose I am a rabbit.
…. What is it here in the seemingly materialistic universe that we can focus on so we can see through the cosmetic layer to what, if anything, lies below?
Glad you asked. Behold the Quotidan Miracle.
Not the miracle of birth or sunrise or cellphone-deflects-bullet kind of miracles, but the ordinary kind that we all experience all the time, like when the phone rings and it’s the person you were just thinking about. You can’t prove it, you can’t reproduce it, but you know it’s happened and you know it was more than mere coincidence because it happens too often and because you experience enough stuff like it that you know there’s more to it than meets the eye. Those are quotidian, workaday miracles, and that’s where you look. You look where you know there’s more than meets the eye.
…. Following the white rabbit is the point, not who’s on the phone or if it’s a good day to play the ponies.
…. The world is transparent and all you have to do to see through it is look. Quotidian miracles are visible bits of the subtle realm, breadcrumbs you can follow, invitations that most people reject but you can accept. The real Wonderland isn’t underground, it’s on the surface in full illumination, but we dwell in the subterranean darkness of slumberland. These invitations are the white rabbit leading you not deeper down but up and out.
— Jed McKenna, Dreamstate, 172-175
Maybe the certain answers of his faith made him feel there should be certain answers for everything.
— Patricia Westerhof, Catch Me When I Fall
I was born on Inkerman Street in St. Thomas Ontario, a fitting street name for a printer’s son. In the seventies my father acquired a Gestetner 480 duplicating machine to print church bulletins. As other printers modernized my father picked up their old presses for a song. He had to tear open a wall to bring in an elephantine poster press. That one never saw a job; it was later carved up and sold for scrap metal.
In exchange for work, my father bought me an old but solid Underwood typewriter with a three-foot carriage, designed for typing sideways on legal and other over-sized paper. I started a neighbourhood newspaper, selling ads for a dime, and printing on a ditto machine.
My favourite machine was a tabletop letterpress used for printing wedding invitations. I made words with my hands, assembling lead type into a metal form, packed into place with spacers and wooden blocks and wedged tight. The form was clamped onto the upper jaw of the press. Wedding stock was placed on the lower jaw and secured by guide pins. The press was hand cranked. In one deft motion, rollers would get pulled over the ink plate and type, closing the jaws so the inked type pressed upon the paper. You did not want to pull too hard for fear of smudging the ink or wrecking the type.
The printing industry was challenged by the digital revolution of the eighties. My brother developed the shop into a full-time competitive operation, upgrading to a desk-sized Comp 1 typesetter and a Multilith 1250 offset press. Family and friends worked late hours, printing, collating, cutting and binding. For a time we kept up but a complete and expensive digital overhaul was required. The shop closed.
I grew up in the print shop, literally. While it lived, it operated out of our family home, next to my basement bedroom. At night it was my my job to clean the darkroom and presses. I could never wash the ink completely from hands and nails. Lead type and ink caused me no harm, except for imprinting my soul with a love of letters. I became an avid reader. I delivered newspapers. I imagined a career as a journalist or author. Instead I underwent a digital overhaul myself, making a living in the computer industry. Code is made of text; I suppose I am still a maker of words.
Matthew and I joined our peers at the Minister’s house after church on Sundays. We grew up together. At age eighteen we were getting ready to stand before the congregation and recite the Profession of Faith, a commitment to the church and its authority. The classes were pleasant social events with coffee and boterkoek (butter cake) and light discussion of the Nicene Creed, yet I developed a sick feeling as they went along. I worried how casually I had wandered into the faith, agreeing to believe.
My parents immigrated from the Netherlands to Canada after World War II. My father’s family was poor, surviving the war by collecting firewood and selling duck eggs. My mother’s family had a tobacco farm. Both families emigrated to improve the lives of their children. My father prospered as a mason contractor and my mother worked on her family’s new and bigger farm. They married young and had seven children. I was the second youngest.
The Dutch immigrants were a close knit community. Their religious and cultural center was the Reformed church, a branch of Protestants that broke from the Roman Catholics under Martin Luther and John Calvin. The church emphasized close reading of the Bible. Three meals a day closed with scripture. I met Matthew at the private Christian school, the “Dutch school” with all those young blond heads and blue eyes. The curriculum reinforced the Bible readings. Add two sermons on Sundays plus weekday youth groups and catechism classes, the children of Dutch immigrants became Bible scholars. We were a People of the Book.
Church members looked after each other, spirit and body. We bought milk from Van Ryn’s store, a car from Zylstra’s garage, and our house through Kielstra the real estate agent. When my father fell sick and could not work in construction, the church waived our tuition, hired him to print church bulletins, and sent a Christmas food box. There was a dark side, prejudice against outsiders: Catholics, blacks, gays. Still, in the war, Dutch families risked their lives to hide Jews from the Nazis. The people were kinder than their politics and theology. If my upbringing was too restrictive it was also safe and loving.
The expression, “People of the Book,” is Islamic in origin, a community of Jews, Christians and other religions that follow scripture. It is not that they agree on scripture. Muslims follow the Quran, Jews the Torah, while Christians prefer their New Testament. They do agree in the ideas of a single sacred book, one God, and one true people.
As the Profession of Faith classes neared their end I wondered if I could stand before my people. Did I belong? Matthew did not share my doubts. I asked the Minister for personal time but I could not frame my questions and he could not help. I watched from the pews as Matthew made his Profession with the others.
Today I am a happy atheist — happy not to worry about the fate my soul, content to live by a practical morality of love and service to others, and satisfied to find meaning in the small stories of life.
From the distance of decades, it seems no surprise now that I dropped out of the church. Calvinism is a stern theology. Its main five points are represented by the acronym TULIP, the Dutch flower. “T” stands for “Total depravity,” people are born in sin and must be saved. “U” is for “Unconditional election,” the idea that God has already picked those who will be saved, while the rest are bound for hell. There it is, the exclusive club, written right into the belief system. “L” for “Limited Atonement,” Jesus died only for club members. Not what I remember hearing in church. “I” for “Irresistible Grace;” God calls everyone but the “elect” receive a special call. The fifth and last letter, “P” refers to “Perseverance of the Saints;” salvation cannot be lost, club membership is good for eternity. Calvinism is not a flowery religion. (2017-09-14 I guess I just wasn’t one of the lucky ones picked for the club.)
If the theology is objectionable, why not join a more open church? When my own children were young my family joined the United Church. This church is enlightened. We baptized our children, not because God requires it, but as a symbol of fellowship with the church community. We partook in communion without making a Profession of Faith. The way the pastor explained it, church rituals were a step toward faith, not conditions to prove it. Openness notwithstanding I did not believe the literal Bible story. I would translate it in my head into a human message of hope. A few years later we moved away and did not join another church.
The Book imprinted on me deeply. As a high school student in English class, I caught the Eden symbolism of the two rivers in A Separate Peace. Movies and dance were forbidden so I always read, increasingly straying into divergent material, The Catcher in the Rye or On the Origin of the Species. In university I always signed up for essay courses of a philosophical bent. In graduate school I published a book, Slow Reading, about the benefits of reflective reading. For a long time I remained a Person of the Book.
Last Christmas Matthew moved into my city and we caught up the years over coffee. Matthew founded a faith-based research group. I told him that I am an atheist. He joked about not having enough faith to be one. I became an information technology consultant. He mumbled something about having people who install software for him. So do I, and I brushed it off, but it piqued a question. Did technology make a difference?
Religion prefers the Book. Books are generally written by a single author, an authority to which the reader is expected to submit. The chapters are organized into a hierarchy, a table of contents through which truth is linearly revealed. Religion and books share a top-down world view, one in which certain people and selected ideas are ranked higher than others.
After I left the church I kept reading books, searching for a deeper truth, in philosophy, in science, and in literature. I read my way to the end of books and onto the Internet. I was a teenager in the eighties when personal computers first became available. I was a natural, learning to program from a book, later searching the Web while building websites. The Internet extended my brain. Websites are different than books. Readers and writers co-create content that is constantly being remixed and reorganized by a shifting web of links. The Internet comes from a bottom-up world view, a diverse global village. It is said that information technology changes the way we think. It might also change the way we believe. Atheists are a minority but this is changing, especially among millennials, the digital natives, the People of the Internet. I am a digital immigrant, a Person of the Internet.
I once sought truth in text. Reading the Word of God is central to growing up in the Reformed Church. My father read the Bible to the family after each meal. At school children memorized the books of the Bible and many of its passages. Two sermons on Sundays plus weekday youth groups and catechism classes, we became biblical scholars. I can still quote the Bible but it is no longer my source of truth.
The Song of Solomon is the most beautiful book in the Bible. Verse one names it “the song of songs.” It is love poetry, a woman’s expression of physical desire for her lover, and then his for her. The church had a strained relationship with the book. It was rarely read. As children we tittered about the mildly erotic imagery. The woman’s breasts are compared to twin fawns. I think the church struggled with the fact that the book was more song than text, resisting literal interpretation. It never mentions God. We were advised that the book is an allegory for Christ’s relationship with the church. Of course.
The church also celebrated with song, the approved ones in the Psalter Hymnal. The songs remain with me. I still love singing Abide with Me, How Great Thou Art, and O Come all Ye Faithful. Atheist though I am, I imagine Amazing Grace being sung at my funeral. Of course I also have a list of atheist “hymns,” Scare Away the Dark by Passenger, Dust in the Wind by Kansas, and We’re Here for a Good Time Not a Long Time by Trooper. Call this second list my Alter Hymnal.
I once sought truth in text but now I follow a kind of music. The complexity of life cannot be captured in words. The signal of truth seems to me more like music. “Musica universalis” means universal music, an ancient philosophical idea about the movement of celestial bodies, more to do with mathematics than literal music. Today scientists are able to record radio waves leftover from the Big Bang. Artist-technologist Honor Harger tracks them as a sort of music of the cosmos. I think of music as a metaphor for truth, better than text at describing the complex dance of life and love on Earth.
The Na’vi say that every person is born twice. The second time is when you earn your place among the people, forever.
An empathy wall is an obstacle to deep understanding of another person, one that can be make us feel indifferent or even hostile to those who hold different beliefs or whose childhood is rooted in different circumstances.
— Arlie Russell Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right
Dust in the wind
All we are is dust in the wind
All we are is dust in the wind
Amid the seemingly endless debates today about the future of reading, there remains one salient, yet often overlooked fact: Reading isn’t only a matter of our brains; it’s something that we do with our bodies. Reading is an integral part of our lived experience, our sense of being in the world, even if at times this can mean feeling intensely apart from it. How we hold our reading materials, how we look at them, navigate them, take notes on them, share them, play with them, even where we read them—these are the categories that have mattered most to us as readers throughout the long and varied history of reading. They will no doubt continue to do so into the future.
— Andrew Piper, Out of Touch: E-reading isn’t reading
Sit around a dinner table and share a meal. Draw chairs near the fire to speak slow and long into the night. Gaze into each other’s eyes cuddled under blankets. Face to face, that’s knowledge.
Prima facie is Latin for at first face or at first appearance. In law and philosophy, prima facie means that a statement or position has merit at first examination, and deserves deeper investigation.
Face validity is the extent to which a test appears to measure a concept. A personality test should ask questions about our personality traits, though a psychologist knows to look beyond a Facebook quiz.
Face to face is the foundation of ethics. In the face of another we see our self. Please, it’s me, it’s you, do not hurt me.
What is the face of knowledge? Is it shaped like a book? What can you tell about a book from its cover? A picture says a thousand words. A picture also denies answers to a thousand questions.
What can you tell about an e-book from its jpeg? You cannot feel the weight or tell the thickness of its body. Break the back of a book, break its binding, and splay it across the earth. The sixteen page book is networked to a million more.
What can you tell about a cover from its book? Your book is reading you: your title, your name, your place. Where do you skip? Where do you linger? Will it sell? Eyes watching yours, face to face.
Reading is a lamp of knowledge, illuminating the darkness of ignorance. Reading belongs to the eyes. Visual processing takes up about a third of our cortex. Reading braille also requires activating the visual area.
It begins with the book cover in the bookshop or online. I browse the table of contents and the illustrations. Is this book worth my purchase or time?
I read the black and white text, the ink on a page, or the pixels on a screen. I imagine pictures, sounds and feels too. I think I read left to right, but my eyes bounce all over the text. Eye movement is the true factor in reading speed. I read about 400 words per minute, but flash me text a word at a time and my speed is tripled. Speed reading and skimming use visual cues to accelerate reading, but as long as we use sentences and pages we can only read so fast. Not to worry, thinking needs time.
The codex was built for human reflection. I hold my book at a distance. I judge the thickness of the remaining content. I scan what comes next. Is it making sense? Shall I continue? I cross-reference by peering into the index. I build my own table of contents in my mind’s eye. I remember a passage by its place halfway down a page on the left, midway through the book. Reading belongs to the eyes.
What would your book’s cover look like? Set aside that you have not written a book, there is a book in everyone. You must choose a cover. What does it look like? I suppose this question is like asking what your face would look like if you could pick it.
The book cover, like the face, serves so many purposes: recognition, attraction, communication, all in an instant. A cover is also part of the binding that holds a book together, to give it form, just like a face. A book’s cover is its identity or soul. We see it at a glance.
Cover images took off in the twentieth century with mass publication. The primary purpose of cover images is to sell books, though readers continue to linger on the cover long after a purchase. To publish again with a different cover is a face-lift at best, but more often feels like a betrayal, a weird clone. Dust jackets are worse, a lesser sibling, serving similar purposes but eerily removable. To remove a cover is to remove a book’s face, to leave it vulnerable to some other title’s face. If you buy a book without a cover it was stolen, stripped for destruction but trafficked back into sale, book slavery.
Then came digital books. At first digital cover images served to sell print books at online bookstores. The cover blurred into images of content in lieu of physical browsing. With e-books the physicality disappeared altogether. Slap on a template cover from an online artist. If sales are bad this month replace it with another cover. A book can have a dozen covers, distributed to differences market niches. As many covers as we have profile pics on Facebook and online I suppose.
I look into the eyes of my lover. At nineteen I am shy. A Dutch child is a candle burning twice as bright, fair-haired and blushing skin. For the glow I paid a painful adolescence, blemishing my complexion, twisting my body’s frame into tallness and structure, finally a man. Kristine is a dark-haired beauty. We ask the same questions. We love the same books. Smarter, bolder, she made the first move, rubbing my leg beneath the desk. Our on first date, wrapped in each other’s bodies, I look deep and long into Kristine’s eyes. She looks back. I can brave the world.
A deep gaze in the eyes of a stranger is rare, troubling, and precious.
A few seconds of eye contact anyone will give. A smile, nice to meet you. We craft a mask. It is a remarkable device, engineered from decades of tears and betrayal, an interface to an uncertain world. The mask affords a minute to read the other. What do you want? What do you have? We risk long looks with strangers only from a distance. A fellow studies me in his boss chair. A store clerk greets me eagerly for a sale. A young woman smiles easily because I am fifty and gray like her sweet father.
If the eyes are the mirror of the soul is there a deeper body of knowledge? Beneath the skin is just another surface, fascia, a network of tissue, fibrous and pliant, connecting and separating muscles and organs. Beneath the surface fascia there is just more tissue, ligaments and tendons and joints, connecting the muscles and bones. Surface plied upon surface. Beauty is skin deep, they say; a mountain face is only another skin, another layer of rock, and it is sublime.
Look into the eyes of a dog, a monkey, or a dolphin. Soul does not insist on language. Machines have faces. Look into a digital eye. In aesthetics there is a term, uncanny valley. The more human a thing looks the more endearing it is. But when we see a replica that appears almost, but not exactly like a human, we shudder with revulsion. Worse, look into a mirror. In a minute you will see a stranger. You, old and deformed. A lion or a monster. Is there nothing special to be found? Are we all but animals or machines?
The face is in the light, nude to the world. I am like you; do not hurt me. Some can hold a poker face, others will flicker with doubt. It is the by the flicker that we know them. The eyes cannot hide a child’s laugh, a lover’s desire, or a widow’s grief. We know our lover by the face, the blemishes and pockets, the retreats and reveals from the mask, the rings beneath the eyes, the turns of light and shadow. The eyes are the soul, cradled in the face of knowledge.
2018-01-03. Face to face is eros, erotic. There is an other in those eyes, a mystery I do not understand. What is looking back at me? Another human? I am like you, do not hurt me. Or is it something else looking back, something vaster? Or is just me looking back? We are all connected, a common identity. Face to face, eye to eye is the first step in tantric massage. It is the test too for a potential AI, even a chatbot with no face: is there mystery? can I know it? A ping for humanity.
2018-01-13. What I seek in Face to Face is in that middle zone between the persona and mystery. Persona is fun, the clever act the individual has prepared from his or life experience so far; it is a performance we keep working on and testing on others. The middle zone is the wild space, when I slip behind the persona, when I am skilled or trusted enough to see the uncertainty, the wild space that the person knows personally but does not share easily, the known unknown. This is an exciting erotic place that we can share, and if I am granted access there, then perhaps we may glimpse together at mystery, the unknown unknown that is too big for any one of us.
2018-02-22. The Naked Truth: The Face and Body Sensitive N170 Response Is Enhanced for Nude Bodies
Jari K. Hietanen, Lauri Nummenmaa
Published: November 16, 2011
“Without any doubt, other human beings are the most important visual objects in our environment. Compatible with this, cognitive neuroscience has revealed that the perception of other human beings is based on brain mechanisms specifically devoted to processing visual information from this socially and biologically relevant class of stimuli . Much research has focused on neurocognitive mechanisms subserving perception of human faces and bodies as they both provide information necessary for social interaction and interpersonal relationships.
“Electroencephalography (EEG) and magnetoencephalography (MEG) studies have investigated the early stages of visual processing of human faces and bodies. These studies have identified an event-related potential (ERP) and its magnetic counterpart recorded over occipito-temporal regions peaking between 140–200 ms after stimulus onset and being more sensitive to faces than to other objects –. Because of the typical peak latency (170 ms) of this negative potential, it is often referred to as N170 response.
“Recent event-related potential studies have shown that the occipitotemporal N170 component – best known for its sensitivity to faces – is also sensitive to perception of human bodies. Considering that in the timescale of evolution clothing is a relatively new invention that hides the bodily features relevant for sexual selection and arousal, we investigated whether the early N170 brain response would be enhanced to nude over clothed bodies. In two experiments, we measured N170 responses to nude bodies, bodies wearing swimsuits, clothed bodies, faces, and control stimuli (cars). We found that the N170 amplitude was larger to opposite and same-sex nude vs. clothed bodies. Moreover, the N170 amplitude increased linearly as the amount of clothing decreased from full clothing via swimsuits to nude bodies. Strikingly, the N170 response to nude bodies was even greater than that to faces, and the N170 amplitude to bodies was independent of whether the face of the bodies was visible or not.”
Of what use is the nose to reading? The nose is a place to perch one’s spectacles, to be sure. People trying e-books for the first time complain about the missing smell of leather and ink and pages. Print books today are mostly covered in cardboard, not leather. Get a leather cover for your Kindle and every read will smell bookish. The scent of fresh ink is just chemicals: oil and dye, solvent and finisher. Old pages are dust and mold. E-books are an improvement. Still, the nose always knows. The olfactory bulb is part of the brain’s limbic system, associated with memory and feeling. Read about an orchid. The elusive smell is activated. Is it raspberry or coconut? It is delicate and exotic, reminiscent of a past love. Encounter the smell elsewhere, the book comes back. The nose will continue to play a role in reading, print and digital.
“All sound is inherently powerful. If a hunter kills a lion he can see it, touch it, feel it and smell it. But if he hears a lion he must act, fast, because the sound of the lion signals its presence and its power” (Ong, Orality and Literacy).
Books were built for the hand and the eye. Books are boxes of knowledge that can be shared by hand across a distance. Books are read with the eyes, silently.
The scroll was built for the mouth and ear. Scrolls did not have spacing or punctuation; the ear would disentangle what the eye read and the mouth spoke aloud (Manguel, A History of Reading).
Culture was mostly shaped by sound, by the mouth and the ear, by speech. One might think that oral culture could not engineer complex works, yet the Iliad and the Odyssey were oral creations.
“We all learn to read by listening word-by-word, phrase-by-phrase to those reading to us” (Prose, Reading Like a Writer). We mouth words when we learn them. We imagine the voice of the author or a character in a book. Adults still sound out difficult words. All reading and writing is transformed in the brain back to the original sounds. Reading and listening are the same process (Carver, Reading Rate; Dehaene, Reading in the Brain).
Speech has presence. A speaker stands before you, insisting on your attention, projecting emotion, demanding your response. Today’s voice technologies are conversational like speech but they are still disconnected, separated by computer technology based on text. I can ignore a computer’s voice prompt. It can ignore me.
Have you written your name in a book? My first books have my name written in a child’s print, later in cursive. Working in the family print shop, I created a rubber stamp with my name and address. I stopped when I left home; my address changed too often. Bookplates — or ex libris, Latin, “from the books of …” — are decorative labels pasted in the front cover of a book, filled in with the name of the owner. I printed bookplates with a letterpress. Writing one’s name in a book is a practice dating back to the twelfth century. People would write their name, profession, residence, the book’s price, the giver if it was a gift, the date it was obtained, and even how long it took to read. Some readers will underline passages or add marginalia, comments or pictures in the margins. Others think it sacrilegious to write in books or will only write in pencil.
Why do readers write in books? And why have they stopped? I can think of five reasons:
Abundance. Books used to be scarce. They were an asset in a collection. If you loaned a book out you expected to get it back. Books are abundant today. They still have a price, and can be expensive, but most everyone has access to books. When I lend a book, I do not expect to see it again. Even so, I lend books. There are plenty more.
Fashion. Bookplates are beautiful, emblazoned with a coat of arms, but heraldry was a medieval military fashion and passed with it. People still find heraldry and bookplates fascinating, collecting them in the way people collect stamps or coins. It is now just a specialist hobby.
E-book Ownership. The concept of book ownership has changed. If you purchase a print book, it is yours for as long as you like and you can do what you like with it. Today, when you buy an e-book you are only purchasing a license to access the book’s contents. You do not own the book. You may not copy it. You may not sell or give it to anyone. If you do not own it, why write your name in it?
E-books are Read-Only. Even if you owned an e-book you could not write in it. Better e-readers allow you to highlight passages and export quotes and notes, but you cannot write notes in the text or make copies. It comes down to digital abundance and licensing. Digital content can be copied and modified so easily, publishers artificially limit the native digital capabilities of e-books to ensure sales.
Reading is Continuous. Reading has traditionally been a private event, something done quietly and alone. We would set aside time dedicated to reading, and when we were finished a book it felt like a personal accomplishment. It seemed natural to complete the event by writing our name in the book. Reading has changed with technology — it is now both open and continuous. We read more books than ever. We talk about books more than ever on social reading websites. We read e-books and they read us back, tracking the titles we purchase, our reading pace, and even the passages we like best. Publishers know just what we want. The line between writers and readers is blurred. We chat with authors as we the read their books. We give feedback for their next book, and publish alternate “fan” versions. Reading is no longer limited to books. We read constantly on computer screens and mobile devices. The notion of distinct reading events is gone. Reading is continuous.
Most people read silently. Many schools have Sustained Silent Reading programs which encourage students to read freely, frequently, and silently. Silent reading is common, and highly valued for its cultivation of our inner lives.
Most of history followed an oral tradition. Knowledge, law and stories were communicated out loud, with speech and song. Chatting with my brother-in-law and Bible scholar, AJ DeGelder (BA MDiv) I was reminded of the oral tradition of the Old Testament. The Bible’s creation myth begins with sound, “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” AJ continued:
You can see the oral tradition in the Old Testament by the way the stories are shared For example you can see a Jewish family, in your mind, sitting around a campfire in the middle of a desert. The father has the children clinging to the edge of their seats as the father tells them how this skinny little runt of a boy, called David, goes out to fight the giant Goliath. David brings the giant down with a slingshot. Takes the giant’s sword and cuts off his head and then runs and buries it in his tent. You can almost hear the children asking, “Why did he bury the sword in his tent, Dad?” “Tomorrow night I will tell you why,” says the father. This was the oral tradition passed on from father to children.”
The modern religious Jew is a person of the book. Daniel Saunders is a young Jewish man in the novel, The Chosen, by Chaim Potok, set in Brooklyn New York in the 1940s. Danny’s father, a respected Rebbe, only speaks to him during their regular religious readings. Danny is being brought up in silence. The reader learns how Reb Saunders worried that his son’s intelligence was outstripping his compassion for others. To teach Danny the meaning of pain, he shut him out emotionally by silence. It seems a cruel method, but the story illustrates how silence can be used deliberately to cultivate inner qualities, such as compassion.
The New Testament is bookish. Set aside that Jesus never wrote a word, Christianity was developed by Christ’s disciples and followers. The codex was on the rise at the time. The codex is a collection of pages, bound and covered, a book. The book was adopted by Christians for the Bible (Manguel, A History of Reading). Compared to scrolls, the book was easier to carry and hide in a time of religious persecution, and easier to read alone in silence.
Aurelius Ambrosius is the first silent reader on record. Ambrosius, aka Saint Ambrose (c. 340-347) was an archbishop of Milan. In his Confessions, Augustine observed that Ambrose read in silence. The practice was relatively rare. Alexander Lucie-Smith is a Catholic priest, doctor of moral theology and consulting editor of The Catholic Herald. Lucie-Smith says that Ambrose was the first of a great tradition, using silent reading and looking within for salvation.
It took centuries for silent reading to be adopted widely. Ferenstein explains how the Catholic church encouraged it. The Christian Bible popularized the idea that morality was not just about evil deeds, but also included the intent to cause harm. Monks segregated themselves from society to battle inner demons free from the distractions of civilization. In 1215 the church mandated confessions for the masses, extending the concept of internal morality to much of Europe. The Gutenberg press was invented in the fifteenth century, and by the eighteenth century, personal reading was common.
The book is central to the rise of Christianity, to the practice of silent reading, and to the idea of an inner life. Silent reading can be credited with the very invention of soul. It facilitated private religion, the creation of an inner truth. The New Testament says it outright. “You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all; and you show that you are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the spirit of the living God, not on tables of stone but on tables of human hearts” (2 Corinthians 3:2-3, NRSV).
In religion the soul is special, the immortal essence of a person. The soul is universal, transcending time and space. It survives death. If silent reading invented the soul, its universality is called into question. Was there a time when people did not have souls? Also, if the soul transcends earthly life its truth should be singular. In practice, silent reading created trouble for Christians, generating multiple interpretations of the Bible and stoking a fight against heresy. Martin Luther, the original Protestant, observed how silent reading caused anxiety for Christians and preferred the old practice of reading the Bible aloud in groups. In the 21st century, the codex is declining in favor of digital technology. People still read silently but not so privately. Reading online is a a social experience, tearing down traditions of privacy. One has to wonder how notions of inner life and soul will change with it.
The word, digital, comes from Latin, digitalis, referring to fingers and toes. Today, digital refers to technology that uses numerical digits to store or display data. Digital computers still depend on fingers for input and interaction; toes not so much. How the fingers get used depends on the type of reading. Borrowing from Heidegger, reading can be “ready-to-hand” or “present-at-hand.”
Ready-to-hand is the more common type of reading, assimilating information as quickly as possible. We scan online in high mental gear, whizzing from one link to the next, slowly down only briefly when we find something interesting. Ready-to-hand reading uses fingers to click and scroll. We want information at the speed of thought but it only goes as fast our fingers. We invent touch screens to move faster. We imagine even better technologies, screens generated on the fly with our fingers, like in the movie, Minority Report. Voice technologies only help so much. Until computers can read our minds they will continue to be “fingery” machines, managing digital data with the digits of our hands.
A laptop just does not work for holiday novels. Many still read print books for pleasure, while many others prefer e-readers. The manufacturers are learning the haptics of reading, the study of communication through touch. An e-reader is more fingery than a laptop. It is tapered to feel like a paperback. The hand begins a reading by opening a cover and finishes by closing it again. The pages turn with a touch. This kind of reading is still “ready-to-hand,” fast summer reading, not demanding slow or labored thought.
Present-at-hand reading is not so common, the slow analytical read of a complex text, or the rich processing of a beautiful book of art. If ready-to-hand is the routine use of a hammer for nailing, then present-at-hand is what happens when the hammer breaks. It is the boundary at which print books begin to fail as vessels of knowledge, e-books and laptops all the more so. Mental presence is required. Deep reading demands our fingers too. Humans evolved the thumb, the opposable digit that allows us to grasp and behold a book. We judge its weight with our hand. We flip pages constantly, back to the tables and forward to the index. The print book gives instant parallel access to any point in the text, our finger serving as a bookmark. We brush the pages with a finger, estimating how much work remains, book or chapter.
Present-at-hand reading is physical work, enlisting the brain and the body. To this day, students prefer a print book for reading academic texts. The reader who attempts a complex text on an e-reader feels phantom pain. The fingers long for the absent pages. Digital or print, fast or slow, reading is fingery.
The word, analog, is commonly used to describe a system that predates digital computers. I blink each time I hear it because I know it is not right. Formal definitions in computer science are better. They contrast analog and digital by how they store data, continuously or discretely. The terms are treated as opposites. I still blink. If the formal definition is correct, the dyad should be digital and continuous. I will explain how analog and digital are not exactly opposites.
In analog telephone lines, the fluctuations of the voice correspond to the electric vibrations in the wires. The essential waveform is preserved. In a digital voice system, the voice transmission is encoded into bytes for transmission, and later decoded back into sound. All digital computers do the same. Electricity flows through switches, representing data in binary digits, one or zero, called bits. So far so good, but as above, the dyad should be digital and continuous.
An analog clock measures time by the continuous motion of one or more hands. In a digital clock, an electric charge is passed through a crystal, causing a sound whose frequency is converted into counts of seconds and minutes and so. The digital aspect is seen in the display of number of hours, 1-12 or 24. The base 12 or 24 system is as digital as binary. But then, then hands of an analog clock also point to the same digits. The clock is both analog and digital.
Today, analog is used as adjective, but originally it was a noun, a comparison of one thing to another. For example, a pump is an analog of the heart. An analog is a literary device with properties. One property is proportion, a correspondence in size or quality between one thing and another. An analog can be exactly proportional to the original. If I mark the length of my finger on a ruler, the marked ruler is a one-to-one analog for the length of my finger. I can use the ruler as a record of my finger length at a particular age and compare the size again in the future.
More often, the proportionality is at a scale. A map is an analog for a real world geography, reduced in scale for analysis and portability. This bring out a second property of analogy, incompleteness. Analogy is a comparison such as a metaphor or simile, which are substitutes. My love is not literally a red red rose. A map is not literally the land. Even if I map the world with a high resolution satellite camera I cannot record every detail. This fact is what makes the map useful. By omitting detail the map becomes something I can see at a glance, measure with a compass, and carry in my pocket. But what happens when I zoom in with a magnifying glass? It depends on how the map was printed. I may see dots. A color map has a range of dots. A black and white map has two types, black or not — binary digits, bits, digital. Even a hand-drawn and painted map is not continuous like the real world. The resolution of analog is always digital.
The third property of the analog is its purpose, to explain a new or complex idea with a familiar one. We use analogy to help explain and understand. It is the same purpose for a digital representation. The bits must ultimately correspond to something meaningful in the world. Bits mean nothing without a mapping to numbers and characters and real world phenomena. A ruler represents my finger. A clock represents time. Ones and zeros decode back into voice, and images, and music.
Decoding depends partly on the continuous physical form in which the data was stored. Take language. In some ideal language we could map all the forms of a word to a single lemma. We could also strip out all punctuation and spacing. In real language each form carries unique differences in meaning that must be preserved in digital storage. Punctuation and spacing also meaning. All digital systems that store text also store these real world features. Digital systems require analog data.
Analog and digital are not precise opposites. Analog has an older literary meaning that still applies, comparison. My discussion of the properties of proportion and completeness showed that the analog always resolves to the digital. Also, the purpose of analog is just as applicable to the digital. None of this analysis will make a whit of difference to the operation of analog or digital systems. The analysis cannot be used to claim that analog technology is superior to digital. The main benefit is that I might stop blinking the next time someone misuses the terms analog and digital.
A book is a binding of truth. Truth is out there, first in the world, long before anyone commits it to paper. The written form is subject to the errors of brain and body and language, a lesser truth.
A book is a stack of papers bound on edge, pasted with glue or stitched with thread. Websites are also bound, a collection of web pages linked to a single domain name. A book is covered, stamped with a title and name, a face to attract and sell. A book’s binding is covered with a spine for finding on a shelf. A spine, as if a book can stand up and speak its name. Websites too are covered with a banner on a home page, and announced by title and snippet in a search result. The coverings gives identity and soul at a glance, as if truth could ever be bound and tidy.
Every reading is another binding, an embodiment of truth, enlisting the brain and the whole body. From the beginning knowledge has been a whole body experience. When Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived, they were reading the first book.
Reading belongs to the eyes. Reading is a lamp of knowledge, a light illuminating the darkness of ignorance. I read the text, my eyes bouncing all over the page. My knowledge can only be acquired as fast as my eyes can read it.
The nose is a perch for my spectacles while reading. The smell of books is not in leather, ink or moldy pages. No, the smell of books is in feelings. I read about an orchid. The elusive smell is activated. Is it raspberry or coconut? It is delicate and exotic, reminiscent of a past love.
I learned to read with my ears, listening to my mother’s voice. I imagine the voice of an author or a character in a book. Adults still sound out difficult words, trying to recreate the original speech sounds. For centuries, most everyone read aloud, mouth and lips in motion.
Reading is fingery. My thumb lets me grasp and behold a book. I flip pages. I bookmark a page with a finger. I brush the pages, guessing how much reading remains. Reading online I click and scroll and swipe. I turn the pages of my e-reader with a touch. Print or digital, reading is fingery.
Of course the brain features in reading. Learning to read takes years of training, recognizing the shapes of letters, detecting subtle differences in words, encoding units of meaning. Reading is physical work in the brain.
Even the feet are enlisted in reading. Too much reading blurs the questions and dulls the mind. Walking refreshes my spirit and reconnects me to the world where the questions were first asked. True understanding is a dance, a two step between the bindings of books and bodies and first hand experience in the world.
I write with the blood that goes to the ends of my fingers, and it is a very sensuous act.
— A. S. Byatt, Paris Review
The purpose of literature is to turn blood into ink.
— T.S. Eliot
There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.
— Ernest Hemingway
I write so slowly that I could write in my own blood without hurting myself.
— Fran Lebowitz, Paris Review