Jimbits vol. 1

by James Somers, March 14, 2009

I’m reluctant to post anything shorter than a few hundred words. The reason is that it feels easier to write little blurbs about this and that than to compose a longer, more involved piece, and I’ve tried to incubate an allergy to ease. (For various reasons.)

That said, there are often things about which I have something to say, maybe a paragraph’s worth or two, and I’d rather try to put that out there than either (a) let the thought rot in my notes archive, or (b) stretch it thin for the sake of a higher word count.

It also helps that I’ve come up with a nice moniker for this sort of thing: “Jimbits.”

Here’s the first batch:

Reading out loud

I wrote the following after the first “discussion section” of a class on modernist novels:

Having students read passages aloud in their first day of class is on the one hand a good way to break the ice — because it gets them talking — but it also engenders tension, because (a) people suck at reading stuff aloud, and (b) people get extraordinarily uncomfortable when they see someone struggling in a public performance.

This latter point struck me a while ago after watching all kinds of amateur speakers deliver announcements at school assemblies, but I still don’t have a satisfying explanation for it. I think it’s a combination of our general aversion to awkwardness, empathy for the speaker, and some kind of mind-meld where each person’s reaction is multiplied via identification with everyone else around them.

I’m not sure. But I think I do know why people can’t read aloud, or at least I have a theory:

Reading aloud causes a person to go into some attenuated version of “public speaking mode,” with the corresponding nervousness. Reading printed words precisely is already difficult — simply because most of our natural conversation is extemporaneous — but the added stress all but guarantees errors. Which, in turn, may induce a kind of a “self-consciousness loop” should the person realize he’s bombing.

It’s a lot easier to recover when you’re making the words up as you go along, just because there’s no need to backtrack and there are no “mistakes” to fix.

Intellectual fovea

“The foveal system of the human eye is the only part of the retina that permits 100% visual acuity,” according to Wikipedia. The impressive bit is that it “comprises less than 1% of retinal size but takes up over 50% of the visual cortex in the brain,” acting like a laser amid what is mostly diffuse lamplight.

The point being that almost all of the data in your field of vision is restricted to a tiny area; when you read, for instance, most of what you see is a “big region of wordy-looking texture,” not individual words that you can process and recall (Baum, What is Thought?, p. 412).

My question, then, is whether one can have a similar kind of arrangement for intellectual attention. Maybe, for instance, one foveates the linguistic features of a text — sentence structure, cadence, word choice, and the like — and leaves content to the periphery. Or slows down for exposition but skims equations. Or, perhaps more commonly, attends to arguments in field x at the expense of everything else.

I ask for two reasons. One, odds are that experts at anything have a fovea for their particular expertise, or a way of looking at the world that is highly resolved in one direction. And second, I’m guessing that something similar is at work anytime someone is deeply biased; religious nuts, for example, might have a “Jesus fovea.” In either case it seems like an important thing to identify (though of course it’s possible that I just have a fovea fovea).

Linguistic leverage

Every time I think about it, I’m a bit blown back by the fact that words actually have kinetic effects on people’s brains. If you are reading this sentence, for example, stuff in your head is moving in a way it wouldn’t have otherwise.

The effect depends quite strongly, though, on exactly which words are chosen. They have to be in the right language, presented at the appropriate time, and received with careful attention, if they’re going to operate with the most potency. And of course their strength grows at least linearly with the size of their audience.

By analogy, consider the Reduce function in Mathematica. According to Wolfram’s page about it, “Reduce and related functions use about 350 pages of Mathematica code and 1400 pages of C code.” That’s leverage: the label, Reduce, is only powerful because it’s connected to a massive cache of underlying machinery. I think words work the same way.