Ways in which print is superior to digital, part 1

NOTE: Which are better, fish or birds? Silly question, right? We must ask, “better for what?” I’m not maintaining that print is inherently a “better” medium than digital media, nor the reverse. Each has its strengths and weaknesses. We should maintain both.

1. Permanence

Information on the web can vanish overnight. Maybe your webhost suddenly shuts down.

I once hosted a site that talked more about this idea at http://mind.blazingfast.net/TheRaft, but it seems that google nor the wayback machine are able to help me reclaim that page. source


Or someone controlling the content decides on a change…

Last week, President-elect Barack Obama launched a Web site with detailed information about his plans for technology, Iraq, and health care policies.

Now they’re gone. source.


Image source.

In my own computer files I have the complete text of a book published in 1976, which was made available online by the author. It had to be downloaded one chapter at a time, and as I did so I was thinking “Oh this is silly, I can come back to this whenever I want.” But recently when I tried to go back to the link, it was gone, and the text is nowhere to be found as far as Google can tell.

What’s online may be altered too: the writer can undergo a complete turnaround, or merely make edits to what is posted, so that it’s difficult or impossible to recover the original. Rather like the drastic re-writing of history in 1984. With a printed book, such changes are additive rather than subtractive: an author publishes a “revised second edition” for example, but the first edition still exists and can be consulted. This means you can recover specific details lacking in the revised form (citations, turns of phrase, pronouncements, data, whatever it might be), as well as track the writer’s alterations.

As with other differences between print and online material, this lack of permanence shows how what’s considered an advantage can have a flip side, a drawback that is the consequence of a valued feature. Things have the “vices of their virtues”. Something that is easily updated cannot remain constant.

Even if digital data isn’t altered, it may become unreadable. We have found many examples of the earliest known writing, from 4600 years ago. And its glyphs are all visible to the human eye, able to be widely studied via photos so that languages are reconstructed and unknown forms of writing are deciphered. The pre-cuneiform writing below is part of a list of “gifts from the High and Mighty of Adab to the High Priestess, on the occasion of her election to the temple” about 2600 BC. (Wikipedia)


Yet digital records less than a decade old may become unreadable because of physical deterioration or hard to access because of the adoption of new systems and hardware. The Wikipedia article on CDs shows a CD recorded in 2000 which by 2008 had lost part of its data due to physical degradation. And any computer user who is old enough, and is conscientious about making back-ups, probably has a stack of old floppy disks bearing data that didn’t get transferred before the old machine went out the door. If you find a ribbon-bound bundle of letters written in 1810 you can open and read them easily, but your own material stored 8 or 10 years ago on floppies—getting at that will take considerable effort, and each year that goes by will increase the difficulty of finding compatible equipment (as well as the likelihood that the disks themselves may be damaged or degraded).

When works exist only in digital form, there is reason to be concerned about how long they will endure, and be accessible. A shelf of books and movies on DVD may be about as hard to play in 2025 as a box of 8-track tapes is today. Software and hardware will have moved on. Where does that leave an author, if demand doesn’t support a re-issuance in new media? How do you share or re-read a book you liked or found important, when the computers that could read it are all in the landfill? What about historians, will they all have to congregate in museums of carefully-maintained antique computers, trying to coax words from deteriorated storage media? Print books, on the other hand, won’t become obsolete until the human eyeball evolves into something else (a barcode reader?).

So, if you want text or other material to be accessible to you in ten years, or to posterity in a hundred years, print it. On archival-quality paper.

Longlasting media


Above, one tablet of the earliest known dictionary (about 2,300 BC). Source is the fascinating HistoryofScience.com, which has timelines of short articles for various aspects of science, medicine, and technology. Some of their articles (including this one) are based on Wikipedia, but not all. Being able to scan through them by topic is great. “It consists of Sumerian and Akkadian lexical lists ordered by topic. … One bilingual version from Ugarit [RS2.(23)+] is Sumerian/Hurrian rather than Sumerian/Akkadian. Tablets 4 and 5 list naval and terrestrial vehicles, respectively. Tablets 13 to 15 contain a systematic enumeration of animal names, tablet 16 [the one pictured] lists stones and tablet 17 plants. Tablet 22 lists star names.”


Here’s a piece of thin paper 1300 years old: part of the earliest known complete star map, the Dunhuang Star Atlas. It was drawn in China about 650 AD. The paper survived being stored in a cave for an unknown period, and was found in 1907. Image source. More on this and another early Chinese star atlas here.


This book, printed in 1543, is a first edition of On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres by Nicolaus Copernicus. No data loss in nearly 500 years! Copernicus wrote it in Latin, which was then the international language of science, and is now called a “dead” language because it has no living native speakers. But due to its historical and religious importance, there are far more people alive today who can read Latin than can read 16th century Polish, the language Copernicus grew up speaking.

Siskiyou wild plants: horsetail, chokecherry and yarrow, and a detour into the Iliad

Today I’ll start with a genus of plants that is a bit different: it’s a “living fossil” from the Devonian (405 million to 345 million years ago, age of fishes and appearance of amphibians) when some specimens topped 90 feet (30 meters), it does not flower, and it’s found on every continent except Australia and Antarctica. And, people both cook it and use it to scour pots. This is the genus Equisetum, commonly called horsetail. It’s a lover of wet places and we found it at the edge of a creek.

Equisetum 2stages.jpg

Above are both stages of growth side by side: the jointed stem somewhat like bamboo, which I plucked from a slope next to the creek, and a smaller stem that has already “leafed out” in radial whorls of needle-like leaves. This picture from Wikipedia shows the leaf whorls well.


The unleafed stems were beautifully colored,

Equisetum StemCLOSE.jpg

and hollow.

Equisetum Hollow.jpg

The stems are said to be “anatomically […] unique among plants”.

Equisetum stem cross-section.jpg

This beautiful microphotograph is of a stained cross-section of stem.

Equisetum species grow from underground rhizomes that are extremely persistent and invasive; think twice before deciding it is the perfect plant for that boggy spot in your yard, because it is likely to be there (and maybe other places too) forever. They’ve been used for all sorts of purposes through history. Many a camper and wildland dweller has scoured pots with the stems, which have a lot of silica in them, and they are “still boiled and then dried in Japan, to be used for the final polishing process on woodcraft to produce a smoother finish than any sandpaper.” The leaves are used as a dye for a soft green color. The young shoots are eaten but require special treatment because they contain the enzyme thiaminase[172], a substance that can rob the body of the vitamin B complex.

Equisetum strobilum forms.jpg

In addition to spreading locally via rhizomes, Equisetum produces spores on terminal cones, shown below.


Photo source.

There are several species found in Oregon, and I think the one we saw and photographed is Equisetum hyemale but I’m not sure. Equisetum, by the way, means “horse-bristle”, as in “scrub-brush”, and hyemale is from hiemis, “winter” (both terms from the Latin). Other common names include scouring rush, pipes (children play with them, as the hollow segments can be taken apart and put back together), and scrub grass.

Downstream from the equisetum, back on the road, we saw next to the narrow concrete bridge a small tree growing in the water

Prunus virginianus tree.jpg

and laden with tresses of white blooms.

Prunus virginianus .jpg

This is choke cherry (Prunus virginiana), a species of “bird cherry”. Fruits are small and sour but very high in antioxidant pigment compounds, like anthocyanins. With a lot of added sugar, they are used to make wines, syrups, jellies, and jams.

Yarrow cultivars are familiar garden plants. Here is the ancestor of those, Achillea millefolium or common yarrow. It’s found throughout the Northern Hemisphere, even in the Himalayas.

Achilleia millefolium flowers.jpg

A closer view of the flowers.

Achillea millefolium flower detail.jpg

The leaves are distinctive, giving rise to the common name plumajillo, or “little feather” in Spanish-speaking New Mexico and southern Colorado, and to the millefolium (thousand-leaf) in its scientific name.

achillea millefolium leaf .jpg

It’s called Achillea after Achilles, Homer’s hero in the Iliad, who was well-trained in healing wounds as well as in causing them. Yarrow has been used for thousands of years to staunch the flow of blood and for other medical purposes, and among its common names are “herbal militaris” or soldier’s herb, nosebleed plant, and soldier’s woundwort. But there doesn’t seem to be any peer-reviewed research into compounds in the plant that may have medicinal properties. One site I visited, planetbotanic.ca, promoted it as an immune stimulant to ward off colds. But then the site’s “fact sheet” also tells us that “Yarrow’s scientific name hints of a legendary use. Achilles’ famous heel is said to have been healed when yarrow was applied to it.” Other than the words “Achilles” and “heel”, everything in this sentence is wrong: Achilles’s mother held her infant by the heel while dipping him in the River Styx to confer invincibility upon him. The water did not touch that part of his body, and eventually the warrior who had survived many wounds was killed by an arrow to the heel, from the bow of Paris.

AchillesBinding Wound.jpg

Achilles bandaging the wounded Patroclus. From a Greek vase painting. Source.

Paris was not much of a fighter. He mostly stayed with the women and old men observing the ten years’ war from the heights of Troy’s great battlements, so it’s ironic that his blow (even if delivered from a distance) should kill the otherwise invincible champion of combat, Achilles.

Achilles in battle.jpg

Achilles in battle. Source.

Homer doesn’t include the death of Achilles in the Iliad; he ends with a final consequence of Achilles’s wounded pride, fit of rage and refusal to fight, when his friend Patroclus goes out wearing the great warrior’s armor to drive back the attacking Trojans. Patroclus and the Greeks carried the day, indeed seemed about to breach the walls of Troy, but the god Apollo intervened, striking Patroclus so as to daze him, sending his borrowed helmet spinning in the dust; one Trojan wounded him from behind and then Hector, Prince of Troy, delivered the fatal blow. When word of this reached Achilles he put aside his pride under force of a greater rage, and went after Hector like a lioness whose cub’s been killed.

All is not the clashing of bronze and shedding of blood in the Iliad. This is a famously tender moment, famously sad as well, one that is familiar to too many soldier parents.

Astyanax, Hector.jpg

“And tall Hector nodded, his helmet flashing:
… shining Hector reached down for his son—but the boy recoiled,
… screaming out at the sight of his own father,
terrified by the flashing bronze, the horsehair crest,
the great ridge of the helmet nodding, bristling terror—
so it struck his eyes. And his loving father laughed,
his mother laughed as well, and glorious Hector,
quickly lifting the helmet from his head,
set it down on the ground, fiery in the sunlight,
and raising his son he kissed him, tossed him in his arms…”

Iliad Bk. 6: 556-56, in the very readable translation by Robert Fagles. Source.

The Iliad ends with Hector’s father King Priam of Troy humbly seeking his son’s body for burial. In his boundless desire for vengeance upon his friend’s killer, Achilles has been dragging the body behind his chariot, around and around the city. Yet when the old man, escorted through the enemy lines by a disguised Mercury, kneels before Achilles, kisses his hands, and implores his son’s killer to think of his own faraway father and give up Hector’s body, Achilles weeps with Priam, and relents.

All that was about 1250 BC, yet reading the Iliad we find characters and feelings that match those we can see around us still. The immense destructive power of rage and wounded pride are as great now as then. And the history of the humble yarrow also connects us to people like Achilles and Hector; their eyes saw these flowers, crushed these leaves to keep with them against the likelihood of wound from sword or spear.

Walls of Troy.jpg

Troy, level VI, defensive walls, as excavated by Schliemann. This level is about a hundred years earlier than that believed to have been the city destroyed by war in the Iliad, about 1250 BC. Source.

At the Food Pantry: Boy and books

There was a gangly boy, perhaps 14 years old, looking through the “Free Books for Kids” at the Food Pantry as I walked over. “Hi, finding anything you like?” I asked. “Well…” he said, ”do you have any comic books? like Spiderman vs. …” “No, the place where I get most of the books doesn’t have any comics, I’m sorry.” He picked up a thick hardback. “This is Harry Potter in Spanish?” “Yes, pretty good way to learn a language once you have some basics.” He made a polite noise and put the book back, but kept looking, telling me that he was moving to North Dakota this summer. That could be real soon, I thought, since tomorrow was the last day of school. “Whoa, that’s going to be a big change from Oregon. Have you ever been there?” “Oh, yeah, a bunch of times, we kinda go back and forth.”

He was a serious young man, with a good smile and a clear gaze. The other two people who’d gotten out of the small car were an older youth, brother I figured—same reddish-blond hair and very fair skin, and a woman who was being “head of household” over at the Food Pantry dock. She looked old enough to be their mom, barely, but then lately everyone seems too young to me.

I rummaged among the books for teens, looking for something he might like. I got few bookseekers his age, mostly my customers were under twelve. At a certain age reading tastes become more individualized, much harder to satisfy from my small stock of secondhand books and library discards. Here, among the chapter books, a fat paperback with a boy hero and “wizard” in the title. And an S.E. Hinton book, Tex, about a boy on his own on a ranch with his siblings after his mother dies and his father leaves to find work. I remembered a line, “I just went on spreading mustard on the baloney and eating it. We were out of bread.” On the cover were a motorcycle, which featured largely in the story, and a rawboned young man wearing a sheepskin jacket and a battered cowboy hat. I put it on the table near him, and looked for more. The (fictional) journal of a boy in the Union Army. One or two more.

The boy bound for North Dakota was still working through the books behind me, arranged in the open back of the car. “What’s this?” he asked, holding out an old grey hardback, a book club edition of Collected Stories of Mowgli. I’d just added it today. “It’s about a boy who’s raised by wolves,” I said, watching his face for signs of recognition. Nothing. “In India,” I added, “and he goes on living in the jungle with the animals. The stories are about his adventures and what he learns from them.” One of my favorite books as a child, I thought to myself, I really should be able to say something more about it. But he was interested. “How much is it?” he asked diffidently. “Oh, it’s free, they’re all free.” His face lightened, and his hand took a firmer hold upon the book. He looked at a few others without choosing any, then turned to the table. The book with “wizard” in the title made the cut, and another. “I’m getting some books for friends,” he said. “Good, that’s good.”

After a bit I ventured to say that he had a long drive ahead of him. “Yeah, three days,” with an air of remembering just how long those days were. “I have some other books to read too, though. Ice Fire and Dark Fire, it’s a series. There’s these two people, they live in a house with a bunch of dragons made out of clay. And a boy comes to live with them, they’re not his family, but he comes to live with them and the clay dragons start speaking to him, they’re not just clay…” Inner voices, not yet silenced, I thought, nodding as he spoke. His head turned quickly, he’d heard his name called though I hadn’t heard. “I’ve got to go now, thanks.” A lot of my interchanges with kids ended this way. “Sure, you’re welcome.”

He made several trips back to the small car with boxes of food, half-gallons of milk, and his brother groaned in a comic fashion under the weight of a large bag of dog kibble. Oh good, they’ve got a dog, hope the dog gets to go, but I won’t ask. Finally they were done, all three coming smiling back to the car; the mother gave me a friendly look, the grey-haired woman with the second-hand books who’d been talking to her son. He veered my way and said, with his open face, “Thanks for the books.” “You’re welcome, I hope you all have a good journey. And good luck in North Dakota.” They smiled and waved and off they went.

Reading and the brain, and “brain scans”

There’s a new book out about what happens in our brains when we read, which may appeal to people interested in accessible accounts of neuroscience, as well as to those of us who are watching the shift from paper to electronic reading.

Reading in the brain : the science and evolution of a human invention
Stanislas Dehaene. (New York : Viking, 2009)
ISBN: 9780670021109 – Description: xi, 388 p. : ill., map ; 24 cm.


I put a reserve on it at the library and am waiting for it to arrive. In the meantime, I found that the author has put all the color figures online along with short chapter summaries. The imbalance on the webpage between text, and the diagrams and brain maps, makes the book look more forbiddingly technical than it is, I hope. Unfortunately the book on Amazon doesn’t have the LookInside feature, so we can’t look at more of the text. Reviews have been mostly positive (links to several, on author’s page; Barnes and Noble review) though one was critical of the book’s accessibility for us “interested lay readers”:

Unfortunately, he needs to lay a lot of groundwork. This makes the first 100 pages of the book an excruciating slog. While it picks up after the first two chapters, the book still sometimes slips back into detailed explanations of neurophysiology. Dehaene is first and foremost an academic, and he seems to want to make his work defensible to his peers even as he tries to explain it to laymen. This is especially problematic in his diagrams. Rather than helping to clarify points, his visual presentations are almost always overly technical, presenting formulas and pictures of the brain that are difficult to decipher. Part of the problem is that images are all black-and-white. While he offers up full color versions on the book’s website, that’s only useful to readers who are also regularly consulting their computers. …The result is a work that requires focus to read, but rewards the effort.

It is disappointing that, according to this reviewer, the images in the book are not in color like those on the web. This reminds me of a book I looked at recently on the various branches of our early human-ish ancestors, in which maps to locate the various hominid species were poorly done or not there at all. Publishers try to cut corners and end up crippling the book. But I hope that won’t be the case here, and even if parts of it are over my head I look forward to the exploration.

I’m expecting a stimulating mix of actual established neuroscience, conclusions based on new research still open to interpretation, and informed speculation. After discussing how, he believes, reading (including our writing systems) developed in response to our neurological structures—“over time, scribes developed increasingly efficient notations that fitted the organization of our brains”, Dehaene applies the same theory to other areas of human culture: “Mathematics, art, and religion may also be construed as constrained devices, adjusted to our primate brains by millennia of cultural evolution.”

Cautions about fMRI (brain scan) studies: What a fish can tell us

I don’t know how much of Reading in the Brain relies on fMRI data, but many of the popularized “this-is-how-your-brain-works” revelations do rely heavily on brain scans, including fMRI, and we’re seeing some push-back from other scientists. A study at Dartmouth (reported by Wired, and Science News) found that a salmon’s brain had “a beautiful, red-hot area of activity that lit up during emotional scenes [photos put before the salmon’s eyes]”. Wow! Unfortunately for all but the spiritualists among us, the fish in question was dead. Apparently the neural activity that showed up was random, and more rigorous statistical analysis of the data revealed this. While many popularizers, especially in the general media, give the impression that brain scan interpretation is cut and dried, the truth is quite the opposite.

Less dramatic studies have also called attention to flawed statistical methods in fMRI studies. Some such methods, in fact, practically guarantee that researchers will seem to find exactly what they’re looking for in the tangle of fMRI data. Other new research raises questions about one of the most basic assumptions of fMRI — that blood flow is a sign of increased neural activity. At least in some situations, the link between blood flow and nerve action appears to be absent. Still other papers point out insufficient attention to insidious pitfalls in interpreting the complex enigmatic relationship between an active brain region and an emotion or task. (Science News)

Michael Shermer, founding Publisher of Skeptic magazine and columnist for Scientific American, gives an excellent presentation of how fMRI works and why “bright spots” in the brain don’t necessarily tell us much of anything. His article (pdf) , “Five Ways Brain Scans Mislead Us”, is as technical as it needs to be but won’t give you a headache. A more technical but still readable article by Edward Vul et al., “Puzzlingly High Correlations in fMRI Studies of Emotion, Personality, and Social Cognition” examines one major source of errors in brain scan analyses. [There’s a short summary here at mindhacks.com, if you want to skip the technical details, and an interview with Edward Vul at scientificamerican.com.]

So while the area known as “social cognitive neuroscience” is fascinating, and we all love quick and easy explanations, remember that much of what you read in this area is, like the lottery, best used “for entertainment purposes only”.