Saturday, 23 July 2016


When I pass some milestone on The Blob - 100 posts, 1000 posts [two years later], 100,000 page views, two continuous years of daily posts - I put up some specious comparison between the current word-count and Moby Dick, War & Peace or Harry Potter.  It's silly because they are different: there is a lot more about whales in Moby Dick, but more intestinal flora on The Blob. On scything, The Blob and Anna Karenina are about evens. I've only read 40 pages of Harry Potter, so I don't know who has more magic.

I mention this because one of the family spent a diverting half-hour flitting through the Blob back-catalogue and wrote to say thanks. I wanted to say how many hours of similar material were available, so googled up "average reading speed wpm"  and found that Joe Normal is able for about 300 words per minute wpm. This means that a typical 600 word Blob takes only a couple of minutes. You'd have to read more than one a day to catch up, of course, because new copy is being generated at a little more than 1 Blob/day.  At 900,000+ words = 3,000 minutes, you could pull two consecutive all-nighters and read everything I've ever written in this medium.  The restless relentlessness of modern life in modern media was captured by James Gleick in Faster!  And that was before Twitter.

In the course of finding out the stats on reading speed. I came across this tendentious piece in Forbes which claimed that reading fast is one of the habits of highly successful people. Thast may be true because knowledge is power and information is knowledge. According to the article, a college professor reads 675 wpm which is about 4x faster than the average teenager. Forbes went a step too far in suggesting that IF you read more/faster THEN you'll be 'successful'; that is faulty logic.  Of course you will want to know if you are a perfessor or a numskull and Forbes provides a link to a speed test on the Staples site. Be careful, you'll be asked a couple of comprehension questions at the end, so some of what you read has to go beyond the optic nerve for processing. Me, I'm there at 285 wpm which is 8% slower than Josie Median and a lot near to the teens than the professors.

One of the key attributes of being a successful scientist is reading the literature.  1.2 million papers were published last year in the biomedical sciences. Of course, nobody is going to read all those because they are being published at the rate of one every 30 secs, night and day.  But you are expected to read, with care and attention, the papers in your field. For example, 2015 saw 1791 new papers published on TLR4, an important (=sexy) immune receptor. Tht's a couple of hours of your day, if you're a TLR4 maven and going to do it properly. No wonder successful professors read fast.

But really is it worth it?  Either reading fast or reading more? There are 200,000 new books published in English in England each year and more in India.  If you have a job or friends you're not going to read more than one book a day, unless you're in the trade, so you can only cover a tiny fraction of what's available. So a case could be made that you may as well not bother.  My father was a reader with taste for history and biography: chunky hardbacks with hundreds of pages.  He also had  a quota of more ephemeral stuff (a daily newspaper and a couple for the weekend) delivered to his home. At the age of 80 he looked at the ticking clock, felt he didn't have enough time to deal with the back-log and enrolled in a speed reading course! This restless quest for new information killed him in the end. One Sunday night he fell asleep in a chair in front of the TV and surrounded by unread sections of the Sunday Telegraph and the Observer. After midnight, he woke up, gathered an armful of reading matter for the morning and stumbled up the stairs to bed. He never made it. A momentary drowsy loss of balance, and no available hand to catch the bannister, pitched him backwards down the stairs. He fractured at least one vertebra and sustained other painful damage. He died five days later in hospital - in somewhat murky circumstances, but that's another story. The bottom line is that, if it wasn't for the reading matter, he wouldn't have been in hospital that week . . . and he'd be 99 this October and still reading like he could take it with him.

After 50+ years of reading, I conclude that, despite The Blob's Science Matters headline, information doesn't matter. Kindness matters.
Moby Dick? There's a great thread in Metafilter set off by a young chap who twigs that Moby Dick, a the classic of American Literature is sooo gay. The discussion is summarised by WidgetAlley thus "I can't believe a (probably) young person being surprised and delighted to find that their own minority identity reflected in a piece of the Western cannon of great literature, which is almost exclusively advertised as by and for straight white upper class men, and talking about it in a humorous way, is being met with snobby-sounding, "Why didn't this person already know about this?" Because that. That attitude right there. That is why they didn't already know about this."

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