Tuesday 19 May, 2020

How to read

Yesterday I mentioned Keith Thomas’s lovely LRB essay on his working methods. I’ve just re-read it again, and this para stood out:

Scholars have always made notes. The most primitive way of absorbing a text is to write on the book itself. It was common for Renaissance readers to mark key passages by underlining them or drawing lines and pointing fingers in the margin – the early modern equivalent of the yellow highlighter. According to the Jacobean educational writer John Brinsley, ‘the choycest books of most great learned men, and the notablest students’ were marked through, ‘with little lines under or above’ or ‘by some prickes, or whatsoever letter or mark may best help to call the knowledge of the thing to remembrance’. Newton used to turn down the corners of the pages of his books so that they pointed to the exact passage he wished to recall. J.H. Plumb once showed me a set of Swift’s works given him by G.M. Trevelyan; it had originally belonged to Macaulay, who had drawn a line all the way down the margin of every page as he read it, no doubt committing the whole to memory. The pencilled dots in the margin of many books in the Codrington Library at All Souls are certain evidence that A.L. Rowse was there before you. My old tutor, Christopher Hill, used to pencil on the back endpaper of his books a list of the pages and topics which had caught his attention. He rubbed out his notes if he sold the book, but not always very thoroughly, so one can usually recognise a volume which belonged to him.

I’ve seen some of Newton’s bookmarks: smart idea, that — angling the page-corner to point at the relevant passage. Not all that precise, though. And Macaulay’s vertically-lined pages indicated his astonishing ability to remember everything he read. The rest of us have to rely on cameras — but even then we have to remember the passages that we have photographed.

Interestingly, I’ve found that Kindle is useful in this respect. I buy Kindle versions of books that I need for work, and highlight passages and bookmark pages as I go. And when I’ve finished the software obligingly has a collection of all the passages I’ve highlighted.

I’m preparing a guide to an important and complex work at the moment, and although I have the physical volume, I’m mostly working with the Kindle version, because it assembles my highlights as I go.

Good things happen quickly, sometimes

One of the wonders of the online world is the Johns Hopkins dashboard providing up-to-date official statistics about the Coronavirus worldwide. The most striking thing about it — for me, anyway — is the speed with which it was put together. Here’s the story:

In December when the disease that now is known as COVID-19 emerged in China, Ensheng Dong was studying the worrying spread of measles. A first-year graduate student in civil and systems engineering with a focus on disease epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, Dong began tracking the new disease.

On 22 January, he and his thesis advisor in civil and systems engineering Lauren Gardner, who is co-director of the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Hopkins, released an online ‘dashboard’ documenting its spread.

That dashboard, like its subject, quickly went viral. It has become a familiar feature on news sites and on TV the world over, tracking the total number of confirmed COVID-19 cases, deaths, and recoveries globally. The site which Dong built in just a few hours receives more than a billion hits per day.

[Emphasis added]

Platforms Adapted Quickly during the Pandemic — Can They Keep It Up?

Interesting article by Heidi Tworek, an academic at the University of British Columbia, arguing that digital platforms have shared data, taken responsibility for content and moved quickly to work with trusted sources of information. She thinks this should be the norm post-pandemic. I agree with her about the ‘should’, but doubt that it will happen. The power of the business model is too great.

The list of dramatic, unexpected shifts in our online behaviour seems endless. Within five days, from February 20 to 25, the top ten search terms on Amazon switched from the usual suspects like “phone cases” to coronavirus-related items in countries such as Italy, the United Kingdom, United States and Germany. Bricks-and-mortar shops have pivoted to online sales, Canadian provinces have legalized the sale of alcohol online, and in early May, the e-commerce platform Shopify became the most valuable publicly-traded company in Canada.

Social media platforms have been sources of surprise as well. In recent weeks, digital platforms have shared more data for research, taken extensive responsibility for content and moved quickly to adopt official institutions such as the World Health Organization as the trusted sources for information. These swift developments remind us to be skeptical of company rhetoric and ambitious in our visions of what a positive internet could be. This pandemic is revealing what is feasible.

These companies have long been known for their strenuous defence of freedom of expression. Although they employ content moderators and have extensive policies, they have typically reacted rather slowly to combatting forms of false information, even those with demonstrable harms, such as anti-vaccination content.

Their reactions were far faster with COVID-19. Companies rapidly updated their content moderation policies and seemed to understand that they bore some responsibility for content. “Even in the most free expression friendly traditions, like the United States, there’s a precedent that you don’t allow people to yell fire in a crowded room,” said Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, in mid-March. Instagram started to delete false content that used the COVID-19 hashtag and substituted information from the World Health Organization (WHO) or US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Various types of advertisements were curtailed to prevent price gouging and scamming. In late March, Twitter even decided that prominent politicians’ tweets could be removed, and deleted two tweets by Jair Bolsonaro, the Brazilian president, for praising false cures and spreading incorrect information.

Personally, I think this is way too Panglossian. But interesting nonetheless.

Quarantine diary — Day 59