Category Archives: Arts & Humanities

Sprint reading – at what cost?

There’s a check on reading speed that Spritz can’t do anything about: our ability to comprehend what we’re reading. There is, however, a non-magical way to read (and comprehend) more quickly. We all have so much to read these days. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could read it faster? The possibility that this fond wish could actually be granted by technology is what’s driving the buzz about Spritz, a new speed-reading app that debuted at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona last month and will soon come loaded on new Samsung devices. (For now, you can try out Spritz on this demonstration page.) Its makers claim that Spritz allows users to read at staggeringly high rates of speed: 600 or even 1,000 words per minute. (The average college graduate reads at a rate of about 300 words per minute.) Spritz can do this, they say, by circumventing the limitations imposed by our visual system.

It is true that “our eyes impose a lot of constraints on the act of reading,” as cognitive neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene writes in his book Reading in the Brain. “The structure of our visual sensors forces us to scan the page by jerking our eyes around every two or three tenths of a second.” These eye movements take time, slowing down the rate at which we can read.

But what if the words moved, instead of our eyes? That’s the innovation behind Spritz, which employs a technique called rapid sequential visual presentation, or RSVP. When using the app, words are presented one at a time, in the exact spot where our gaze is “focalized,” or primed for visual recognition. Then that word is whisked away and another appears in the same, optimal place — and quickly, quickly, others follow.

RSVP has been studied by scientists for years, and it does appear to bypass the speed limit imposed by eye movements during normal reading. But there’s another check on reading speed that Spritz can’t do anything about: our ability to comprehend what we’re reading. When we read really fast — especially in complex or difficult material — our understanding of the text suffers. (I’m put in mind of the old Woody Allen joke: He speed-read War and Peace, he cracks, and came away with the insight that “it’s about Russia.”)

But all is not lost for those of us who would like to read faster, at least some of the time — because there does exist an “app” of sorts that has been proven to allow faster reading and complete comprehension. It’s called expertise. In their forthcoming book,Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, researchers Henry Roediger III and Mark McDaniel (along with writer Peter Brown) liken expertise to a “brain app” that makes reading and other kinds of intellectual activity proceed more efficiently and effectively. In the minds of experts, the authors explain, “a complex set of interrelated ideas” has “fused into a meaningful whole.”

The mental “chunking” that an expert — someone deeply familiar with the subject she’s reading about — can do gives her a decided speed and comprehension advantage over someone who is new to the material, for whom every fact and idea encountered in the text is a separate piece of information yet to be absorbed and connected. People reading within their domain of expertise have lots of related vocabulary and background knowledge, both of which allow them to steam along at full speed while novices stop, start, and re-read, struggling with unfamiliar words and concepts.

Deep knowledge of what we’re reading about propels the reading process in other ways as well. As we read, we’re constantly building and updating a mental model of what’s going on in the text, elaborating what we’ve read already and anticipating what will come next. A reader who is an expert in the subject he’s reading about will make more detailed and accurate predictions of what upcoming sentences and paragraphs will contain, allowing him to read quickly while filling in his already well-drawn mental model. A novice reader, by contrast, faces surprises at every turn in the text; her construction of a mental model is much more effortful and slow, since she’s building it from the ground up.

Lastly, the expert reader is able to vary the pace of her reading: skimming parts that she knows about already, or parts that she can tell are less important, then slowing down for passages that are new or that (she can judge from experience) are especially important. The novice, on the other hand, tends to read at just a single speed: if he tries to accelerate that speed, by skimming or by using an app like Spritz, it’s likely his comprehension will slide. What’s worse, he probably won’t even realize it: lacking deep familiarity with the subject, he won’t know what he doesn’t know, and may confuse main ideas with supporting details or miss important points altogether.

Expertise has its own limits, of course. Becoming an expert is a long, slow process, and each of us can develop true expertise in only a few areas. But reading with the aid of this “brain app” permits us to read swiftly and with depth and understanding — while reading with an app like Spritz allows us only to read simply, foolishly fast.

Hollywood Linguistics – the art of inventing languages

Khal Drogo Khaleesi Daenerys
Dothraki King Drogo & Queen Daenerys © HBO

Nautilus | Jennifer Ouelette

Seven hundred people gathered at the University of California, San Diego, one day this spring to hear the creators of three fictional languages talk about how linguistics has infiltrated Hollywood, particularly when it comes to building believable make-believe worlds. When it comes to building make-believe worlds, inventing a language makes it seem that much more real to the audience, fueling the willing suspension of disbelief that lies at the heart of entertainment.

“The days of aliens spouting gibberish with no grammatical structure are over,” University of Southern California linguistics professor Paul Frommer told the New York Times in 2011. Frommer invented the Na’Vi language spoken by the tall blue native inhabitants of Pandora in Avatar, and was on the San Diego panel, along with David J. Peterson, who invented the Dothraki language for HBO’s smash hit series, Game of Thrones, and Mark Okrand, who created the Klingon language forStar Trek III: The Search for Spock.

People who create new languages as a hobby—a very serious hobby—are called “conlangers.” The oldest and most successful invented language is Esperanto, dating back to 1887. It hasn’t yet ushered in world peace, as it was intended, but between 10,000 and two million people speak Esperanto today, mostly concentrated in Europe, East Asia, and South America, with as many as 1,000 native speakers who learned it from birth. There is also a tradition of inventing languages in the science fiction and fantasy realm. J.R.R. Tolkien invented an Elvish language while writing The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and Disney’s John Carter featured an invented Martian language called Barsoomian. Continue reading

Self Defeating Soft Power – Revisiting the ghost of Yasukuni

Only one step could have made conditions worse among Japan, China, and South Korea, with spillover effects on America. That is the step Japan’s prime minister has just taken.

 DEC 25 2013, 8:56 PM ET, The Atlantic

Main hall of Yasukuni Shrine, via Wikipedia.                 

At first I didn’t believe the news this evening that Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe had visited Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. I didn’t believe it, because such a move would be guaranteed to make a delicate situation in East Asia far, far worse. So Abe wouldn’t actually do it, right?

It turns out that he has. For a Japanese leader to visit Yasukuni, in the midst of tensions with China, is not quite equivalent to a German chancellor visiting Auschwitz or Buchenwald in the midst of some disagreement with Israel. Or a white American politician visiting some lynching site knowing that the NAACP is watching. But it’s close. Continue reading

Science is not the enemy of the Humanities

Steven Pinker for The New Republic

(and read the response here: Crimes against Humanities – now science wants to invade the Liberal Arts

The great thinkers of the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment were scientists. Not only did many of them contribute to mathematics, physics, and physiology, but all of them were avid theorists in the sciences of human nature. They were cognitive neuroscientists, who tried to explain thought and emotion in terms of physical mechanisms of the nervous system. They were evolutionary psychologists, who speculated on life in a state of nature and on animal instincts that are “infused into our bosoms.” And they were social psychologists, who wrote of the moral sentiments that draw us together, the selfish passions that inflame us, and the foibles of shortsightedness that frustrate our best-laid plans.

These thinkers—Descartes, Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Leibniz, Kant, Smith—are all the more remarkable for having crafted their ideas in the absence of formal theory and empirical data. The mathematical theories of information, computation, and games had yet to be invented. The words “neuron,” “hormone,” and “gene” meant nothing to them. When reading these thinkers, I often long to travel back in time and offer them some bit of twenty-first-century freshman science that would fill a gap in their arguments or guide them around a stumbling block. What would these Fausts have given for such knowledge? What could they have done with it?

We don’t have to fantasize about this scenario, because we are living it. We have the works of the great thinkers and their heirs, and we have scientific knowledge they could not have dreamed of. This is an extraordinary time for the understanding of the human condition. Intellectual problems from antiquity are being illuminated by insights from the sciences of mind, brain, genes, and evolution. Powerful tools have been developed to explore them, from genetically engineered neurons that can be controlled with pinpoints of light to the mining of “big data” as a means of understanding how ideas propagate.

One would think that writers in the humanities would be delighted and energized by the efflorescence of new ideas from the sciences. But one would be wrong. Though everyone endorses science when it can cure disease, monitor the environment, or bash political opponents, the intrusion of science into the territories of the humanities has been deeply resented. Just as reviled is the application of scientific reasoning to religion; many writers without a trace of a belief in God maintain that there is something unseemly about scientists weighing in on the biggest questions. In the major journals of opinion, scientific carpetbaggers are regularly accused of determinism, reductionism, essentialism, positivism, and worst of all, something called “scientism.” The past couple years have seen four denunciations of scientism in this magazine alone, together with attacks in BookforumThe Claremont Review of Books, The Huffington Post, The Nation, National Review OnlineThe New Atlantis, The New York Times, andStandpointContinue reading

Should art really be for its own sake alone?

The Guardian  | by Alain de Botton on January 20, 2012

Descent into limbo andrea mantegna

A detail of Descent into Limbo by Andrea Mantegna. Photograph: Sotheby’s/AP

You often hear it said that “museums of art are our new churches”: in other words, in a secularising world, art has replaced religion as a touchstone of our reverence and devotion. It’s an intriguing idea, part of the broader ambition that culture should replace scripture, but in practice art museums often abdicate much of their potential to function as new churches (places of consolation, meaning, sanctuary, redemption) through the way they handle the collections entrusted to them. While exposing us to objects of genuine importance, they nevertheless seem unable to frame them in a way that links them powerfully to our inner needs.

The problem is that modern museums of art fail to tell people directly why art matters, because modernist aesthetics (in which curators are trained) is so deeply suspicious of any hint of an instrumental approach to culture. To have an answer anyone could grasp as to the question of why art matters is too quickly viewed as “reductive”. We have too easily swallowed the modernist idea that art that aims to change or help or console its audience must by definition be “bad art” – Soviet art is routinely trotted out here as an example – and that only art that wants nothing of us can be good. Hence the all-too-frequent question with which we leave the modern museum of art: what did that mean? Continue reading


A call for moral courage among artists

Salman Rushdie for New York Times | 27 Apr 2013

WE find it easier, in these confused times, to admire physical bravery than moral courage — the courage of the life of the mind, or of public figures. A man in a cowboy hat vaults a fence to help Boston bomb victims while others flee the scene: we salute his bravery, as we do that of servicemen returning from the battlefront, or men and women struggling to overcome debilitating illnesses or injuries.

Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

Police officers carried off an Occupy D.C. demonstrator in Washington, October 2011.

It’s harder for us to see politicians, with the exception of Nelson Mandela and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, as courageous these days. Perhaps we have seen too much, grown too cynical about the inevitable compromises of power. There are no Gandhis, no Lincolns anymore. One man’s hero (Hugo Chávez, Fidel Castro) is another’s villain. We no longer easily agree on what it means to be good, or principled, or brave. When political leaders do take courageous steps — as France’s Nicolas Sarkozy, then president, did in Libya by intervening militarily to support the uprising against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi — there are as many who doubt as approve. Political courage, nowadays, is almost always ambiguous.

Even more strangely, we have become suspicious of those who take a stand against the abuses of power or dogma.

It was not always so. The writers and intellectuals who opposed Communism, Solzhenitsyn, Sakharov and the rest, were widely esteemed for their stand. The poet Osip Mandelstam was much admired for his “Stalin Epigram” of 1933, in which he described the fearsome leader in fearless terms — “the huge laughing cockroaches on his top lip” — not least because the poem led to his arrest and eventual death in a Soviet labor camp.

As recently as 1989, the image of a man carrying two shopping bags and defying the tanks of Tiananmen Square became, almost at once, a global symbol of courage. Continue reading

Origins and evolution of the iconic America Superhero

By JAMES PARKER, Published: July 5, 2012

“Superman!” gasps Lois Lane, freshly scooped from beneath the nodding carbines of a South American firing squad. “Right!” says the boxy blue-and-red figure who holds her in his arms. “And still playing the role of gallant rescuer!” His mouth is set in a kind of grimace, but with dimples. Is he frowning? Tautly grinning? And what can he mean by “still playing the role”? This is only the second Superman comic ever, from July 1938, and already our hero — caped and airborne, with Lois coiled against his unbreachable bosom — is carrying a freight of super-irony.

Photofest Lois and Clark: George Reeves and Phyllis Coates starred in the 1950s television series “Adventures of Superman.”

Then again, as we learn from “Superman,” Larry Tye’s exhaustive and engaging book, irony attends every phase of this story. Superman’s creators — Jerry Siegel (writing) and Joe Shuster (drawing) — were a pair of Cleveland geeks whose underdoggery was purer almost than the ­alpha-male prowess of the pulp heroes they adored: Tarzan, Hugo Danner, Clark (Doc) Savage Jr. and so on. Both the sons of immigrant Jewish tailors, Siegel and Shuster were uncool, and they were girl-less. They had no money. Shuster, the artist, was horribly nearsighted. And how they toiled, through lost nights of teenage-­dom, at their secret weapon: their made-up ultrabeing, their hero to out-hero them all. First, in a misfire, he was naughty (a mind-reading tramp called “the Super-Man”), then he was good. Then very good. At last, on what Tye calls “a hot summer night of divinelike inspiration,” it happened: the elements fused, and the 19-year-old Siegel, scribbling madly in his bathroom, came up with the doomed planet Krypton, Lois Lane, Clark Kent the mild-mannered reporter. . . . Continue reading

For those about to (punk) rock, we salute you.

Real Punk belongs to Fighters –

Jessica Bruder, NYT, June 11 2012

NEW YORK — Exactly 35 years after the Sex Pistols were arrested for trying to perform their version of “God Save The Queen” while boating down the Thames, punk’s politically subversive snarl has never been louder. But you won’t hear it in the U.S. and the U.K., the countries where punk was born.

Instead look to Moscow, where three women have been detained and face up to seven years in prison because their band, Pussy Riot, staged an anti-Putin “punk prayer” in a cathedral. Amnesty International now classifies them as prisoners of conscience.

Consider Banda Aceh, Indonesia, where six months ago officers hauled more than 60 young punks off to reeducation camps, sheared off their Mohawks, removed their piercings and forced them to bathe, change clothes and pray. Or contemplate Iraq, where human rights groups report that dozens of emo kids — followers of punk’s tender-hearted offshoot — have been slain by extremists since February, when the government’s interior ministry released a statement equating emo style with devil worship. Continue reading

Sticker Lady: What’s the fuss, really?

Peter Beaumont, The Guardian, June 17th 2012

In Hoxton or New York, it might be regarded as commonplace – witty stencils and stickers posted by an artist around public spaces. In Singapore, however, a city obsessed with order and where “vandals” can be flogged, 27-year-old Samantha Lo – the so-called “Sticker Lady” – has inspired a massive online campaign after being arrested for posting stickers.

Lo, founder of an online arts magazine, has been arrested for sticking messages on traffic signal buttons, including “Press to Time Travel” or “Press to Stop Time”, as well as on suspicion of painting messages on roads reading “My Grandfather Road” – a Singaporean pun on bad driving and, some believe, the out-of-touch government of Singapore.

Lo’s arrest, which has been condemned by more than 14,000 people who have signed an online petition calling for leniency in the way she is treated, has triggered deep soul-searching in the city state, which is infamous for its enforcement of strict social order and banned the sale of chewing gum to keep its pavements clean.

If charged under Singapore’s draconian 1966 vandalism law, Lo could face up to three years in jail and a $2,000 (£1,000) fine. Men who are convicted, even of first offences, also receive three strokes of the cane. Continue reading

Liberal Arts – different in Yale and NUS?

Two staff reporters for the News, Ava Kofman and Tapley Stephenson, traveled to Singapore over spring break, interviewing more than 80 sources on the founding of Yale-NUS College — how Singaporeans view the project, how the liberal arts function in Singapore and how the country’s values differ from those on Yale’s campus. This is part two of the three-part series. (Read part 1and part 3.)

SINGAPORE — On other days, the giant halls in the National University of Singapore’s Sports & Recreation Centre might feel empty. But the 18,000 Singaporean students who passed through campus on March 17 and 18 for the NUS Open House entered rooms packed with booths from all of the NUS’s 16 schools and countless other student programs.

This year, tucked in a corner next to a booth for the NUS Business School, there was a new option on display. Under a sign that read “1 + 1 = 3,” Yale-NUS admissions representatives fielded questions from curious students about how Yale-NUS, the country’s first liberal arts college, will recreate Yale’s academic model in a Singaporean setting.

Although the booth looked similar in appearance to its neighbors at the open house, Yale-NUS will differ drastically in its academic structure from its peer institutions in Singapore.

Yale and NUS administrators have said their first priority is crafting “a unique and powerful education,” but they face the challenge of attracting students to a new school with an unfamiliar educational model.


In a nation where most undergraduate degrees are offered in vocational subjects such as dentistry, engineering, business and law, some still understand the concept of “arts” as exclusively fine arts, rather than broad-based learning.

“Liberal arts is a misnomer; Asians think it means music, dance and drama,” Yale-NUS governing board chair Kay Kuok told the Straits Times in an interview last November.

The Ministry of Education has previously brought elements of foreign educational models back to its own universities through 60 international partnerships with academic institutions and internal programs like the NUS University Scholars Program (USP). The USP allows for more academic breadth than most NUS programs, though students still take 70 percent of their classes within their majors. Continue reading