Speed Reading

The NYT has a recent op-ed announcing that speed reading is not possible. Speed skimming can be done - getting a few ideas from an article without reading all the words, but speed reading, no. The trouble is partly in the limitations of the human eye, but mostly in the speed with which the brain can decode language. I don't think this is a shock to any serious reader of nonfiction. Some sample reads.


OUR favorite Woody Allen joke is the one about taking a speed-reading course. “I read ‘War and Peace’ in 20 minutes,” he says. “It’s about Russia.”

The promise of speed reading — to absorb text several times faster than normal, without any significant loss of comprehension — can indeed seem too good to be true. Nonetheless, it has long been an aspiration for many readers, as well as the entrepreneurs seeking to serve them. And as the production rate for new reading matter has increased, and people read on a growing array of devices, the lure of speed reading has only grown stronger.

From a history book.

THE TREATY OF 1580 RECOGNIZED a stalemate between two empires and two worlds. From this moment, the diagonal frontier that ran the length of the Mediterranean between Istanbul and the Gates of Gibraltar hardened. The competitors turned their backs on each other, the Ottomans to fight the Persians and confront the challenge of Hungary and the Danube once more, Philip to take up the contest in the Atlantic. After the annexation of Portugal he looked west and symbolically moved his court to Lisbon to face a greater sea. He had his own Lepanto still to come— the shipwreck of the Spanish armada off the coast of Britain, yet another consequence of the Spanish habit of sailing too late in the year. In the years after 1580, Islam and Christendom disengaged in the Mediterranean, one gradually to introvert, the other to explore.

Crowley, Roger (2008-07-01). Empires of the Sea: The Siege of Malta, the Battle of Lepanto, and the Contest for the Center of the World (Kindle Locations 4825-4831). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

From a reading in my genomics class:

A quickening of the direct interaction between hominins and plants is apparent at 100 kya (thousands of years ago), with grass seed consumption by early Homo sapiens in Mozambique (Mercader, 2009). Later evidence comes from Neanderthals up to 50 kya where plant material enshrined in the calculus matrix of teeth shows the consumption of plants later associated with domestication, such as Hordeum, Phoenix, and members of the Faboideae (Henry et al., 2011, 2014). Furthermore, an insight into the sophistication of this plant use is evident from the occurrence of starch granules showing damage that may be consistent with cooking. This ‘early’ starch economy is also apparent from the late Pleistocene (13.7e15.0 kya) of modern humans from dental caries and a broad range of plant materials from the same context, including grasses, oak, legumes, pines, and pistachio (Humphrey et al., 2014).

From Wikipedia

In abstract algebra, a free abelian group or free Z-module is an abelian group with a basis. Being an abelian group means that it is a set together with an associative, commutative, and invertible binary operation. Conventionally, this operation is thought of as addition and its inverse is thought of as subtraction on the group elements. A basis is a subset of the elements such that every group element can be found by adding or subtracting a finite number of basis elements, and such that, for every group element, its expression as a linear combination of basis elements is unique. For instance, the integers under addition form a free abelian group with basis {1}. Addition of integers is commutative, associative, and has subtraction as its inverse operation, each integer can be formed by using addition or subtraction to combine some number of copies of the number 1, and each integer has a unique representation as an integer multiple of the number 1. Integer lattices also form examples of free abelian groups.

Except for the last passage, most of the words encountered are likely being used in familiar ways. Even in the last one, most of the unfamiliar words are defined in the paragraph, but can anybody not expert in the subject matter quickly decode any paragraph except the two of the NYT story?


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