Thursday, October 11, 2012

Incremental Reading: What is of Value?

Imagine you are an archaeologist exploring a cave that potentially has valuable fragments of a lost civilization. As you explore the cave, you find many rocks of little value (If any). However, as you find artifacts that might be relevant to your field of work, you pause, examine the artifacts, place them in bags, label them for future study, etc.

Incremental reading is difficult to describe; like traditional reading with books it involves exploring a line of thought, but unlike traditional, linear reading, you are encouraged to examine and constantly assign value to the material under consideration, much like an archaeologist exploring a cave. What information and articles are valuable can be very subjective, as people have many different motivations, hobbies, fields in which they are ignorant, etc. (After all, to a geologist, the same "valueless" rocks that were discarded by one might potentially be more useful than a valuable artifact at that same site!).

As you examine any text, you need to first ask yourself, "What information is valuable to me?" To do this you must first have a set of core values (Stated or otherwise). To illustrate, consider an article I just finished reading from Time magazine: "Red Truth Blue Truth."

What information is valuable to me? I have no political affiliation, I consider myself neutral when it comes to politics. While one might cut the top part of a weed every few years by electing a new face for the government, the roots of corruption, greed, etc. stay the same. Thus, while one political party might advocate a policy I feel is good, the corruption runs so deep on every level, the decaying institution is either beyond reform or very close to it. I'm not advocating that you adopt this viewpoint, I'm simply stating my core values that came into play when evaluating this article.

If I was a Romney supporter, I might be more inclined to look for knowledge and facts that would be detrimental to Obama's administration and something I could use to win an argument with a co-worker. If I was an Obama supporter, I might be just as inclined to look for things detrimental Romney's policies and track record. Because I don't have a stake in either side, going into the article I was looking for mainly historical tidbits and a more complete picture of the tattered state of political discourse.

(It is also good to remember that many statistics are greatly subject to change. To memorize them would be just as valuable to memorize the stock price of a company on any given day.)

I read the article, one paragraph at a time. If I didn't find anything enlightening, surprising, etc. in one of those paragraphs, I would delete that paragraph and move on to the next one. If I found something interesting in that paragraph, I would analyze what was valuable in that paragraph and try to condense each point into a single sentence (Very important!). After doing this, I would extract that sentence, delete the paragraph and move on. I kept this up until I finished reading the article.

Among the interesting points I found in the article were:
-Lies and mud-slinging is as old as US politics itself; it goes back all the way to the very first election involving John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.
-The quote "We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers," is telling about politics in general.
-Those that subscribe to a political party are more likely to dismiss or downplay the lies said or endorsed by their own party (Basically "fanboy-ism," which works with technology, movie franchises, etc.).
-I never knew Ronald Reagan claimed that 80% of pollution came from trees and vegetation.

Other than the above points (Along with a few more), the rest of the article contained nothing extremely surprising or enlightening. Still, 6 or 7 good flashcards came from an article that took 10-15 minutes to read, so I'm satisfied with the result.


  1. LittleFish, can you tell how you find the time to Supermemo at all? Three/four years ago a was an avid Supermemo user, but admittedly it took me 2/3 hours day to use it. Now I have additional projects on me (after work) and also some extracurricular activities like dance lessons and I just can't find the time to use it. Do you have some recipes to use it. I would really would like to get back to it as I think this used to added signifficantly to my knowledge. I didn't only retain what I need on my daily work but also some facts and knowledge which might be good as basis and/or fundamentals of understanding some programming and technology principles (related to my work but not so essential)...

  2. Which version of Supermemo are you using?

    1. I am currently using Supermemo 15, and I will likely use Supermemo 16 as soon as it comes out (And it is verified to be stable).

  3. I wonder, do you read everything incremental?
    I was just thinking back of the last time I read a non-educational book (I think it was Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings) and I can't imagine I'd go through the text and value/summarize it.
    I enjoy it a lot to read linear then, because of the excitement/curiosity what might come next. (unlike the boredom when forcing myself to read something scientific that I'm more obliged than I'd really like to read. That's probably when incremental reading is superior..)
    So more precise: do you read linear when its not your knowledge-appetite that is driving you?

    Interesting blog by the way. It's the first time I'm reading one.

  4. Hello!

    I've been following this blog for some time, but this is the first time I've decided to step out of the shadows. If it seems like my questions/ramblings are a bit off topic, that's just because I have a lot of questions that have been borne of my time reading this site.

    First, a big thank you for pointing out the existence of tvtropes, though i believe it was not on this page. My question it worthwhile to commit tropes to memory?

    I would first argue that it is without doubt beneficial to increase your simple vocabulary. I read some statistical analysis that guessed that Shakespeare knew about 60,000 some words, and it seems to be that some of the greatest thinkers simply know more words and metaphors (i.e. tools) for understanding and thinking. I think I'm somewhere around 17500 words, though my Anki deck is only at 3500 flashcards, and not all vocabulary.

    Can we even make a good argument for memorizing things other than new words and simple or interesting metaphors? I have come to view a flashcard as containing two elements: 1) a degree of entropy, chaos, and complexity represented on the front side. 2) a small bit of insight or word(s) that increases our understanding of what is on the front side. Therefore, the more words you really know, the more you are really able to understand (albeit in a slightly more compact, abstract way).

    This makes me wonder about great minds like Shakespeare or JK Rowling that influence so many people through their words. Combined with their prolific amount of writing (both in the 1 million ballpark for words methinks), they simply have such large vocabularies that their insight into the human condition is of an immensity that lends itself nicely to creating influential fiction. Fiction that keeps both the mind and the heart whirring intensely.

    My question this all we need? Vocabulary? Are tropes like the kind that we see on tvtropes mere fashionable trends in the abstract? Of course I am asking because I desire to create a work of art with words that is beautiful and that many will admire. Vain perhaps, but what's life without vanity.

    On the other hand, I have read so many shitty, shitty novels that the critical literary "scholars" loved in college. Many of them were obtuse, replete with academese and lots of really random vocabulary, seemingly thrown in to make the author look smart. That, clearly, is not very good either. Maybe this is just the result of authors trying to actively use vocabulary that they passively understand, but that hasn't quite naturally passed into their active vocab arsenal yet? I said before that that study claimed shakespeare knew probably 60,000 words...but it also said that he only used 30,000 or so in his writing. Should we then strive for as large a vocabulary as possible, but refuse to use those vocab words which are not yet understood by us to an actionable extent? If so, this would seem to build the case for creating more than just 1-2 flashcards for new words...maybe we need 4-5 or more, which makes developing a vocabulary of 60,000+ a daunting task indeed.

    Some of the most fertile text I have found on TVtropes as far as using the site as a writing aid has been the articles on the escapist functions of literature. I feel like this is one of the few places on TVTropes where they talk directly about how the readers connect to and are influenced by a text. Other articles, often, seem designed to be a way for writers to share interesting plot points, devices, etc. The plot points and devices and characters don't matter so much to me as does the fact that the person reading the plot points and devices is really influenced. Of course we have been talking about using an SRS as a way to prepare for the act of writing itself, but there is no doubt that the act of writing something influential itself is another activity completely, with its own problems (e.g. perseverance).

    I look forward to hearing more from you all. If you wish, you can email me at weele dot me at gmail dot com.

    1. WHOA, what an interesting comment! I haven't forgotten it, I've been working on a post as a reply... lots of interesting things :D

      Thanks for the interesting thoughts!