Saturday is the day I have set aside for reading, although not entirely, which means I do other things than read. But I try to read as much as I can. I like setting days aside for things. Saturday is for reading, Sunday is for writing (especially these entries), and Monday (which, although technically a school day, is a day on which I have hardly any classes) I try to answer email although I find this difficult and rarely end up doing it. Most of the time I get distracted and do other things as well which really don’t need to be done but I simply do them because my mind is tired of answering email.

This Saturday I finished the David Boies book I had been reading the second half of this week. It was an interesting book and quite well-written, I hope to review it later. I only had a little left and that went rather quickly so by brunchtime I was ready to start on a new book.

The Boies book (along with several other books) was a birthday present from my parents. I also got another set of books from a man in London named Robert Brook who has commented several times on my weblog. Initially I thought Robert Brook was Ralph Giles (also called rillian), who also lives in England and sent me a book for my birthday last year or perhaps two years ago. rillian works with Raph Levien (also known as raph) on Ghostscript and typography and used to chat with me on the Internet. The book he got me was Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographical Style which is an absolutely wonderful book which I love and treasure to this day, so I was excited to see what he got me this year, although now it appears he didn’t get me it.

Perhaps he didn’t get me anything because I never got him anything. I wanted to return the favor and get him something for his birthday but I didn’t know when his birthday was and I didn’t know what he wanted and it seemed impolite to ask about such things since birthday presents are supposed to be a surprise.

Robert Brook got me two books. The first one was Media Control: The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda, a short “pamphlet” (really just a slim book) by Noam Chomsky which I with me to breakfast. Although it was a short book I hadn’t finished it by the end of breakfast so I kept reading it as I walked back to the dorm. As I walked back I noticed it was nice out so I decided to keep walking and reading and ended up walking around the campus where there are some pretty nice-looking buildings farther away.

When I was half between where I started after leaving the dining hall and the end of the book I turned around and walked back but I must have misestimated because I still had a lot left to read when I got back. I decided to read the rest during a walk around the “lake” behind our dorm. I put lake in quotes because it’s very shallow, not filled with water, and green grass is growing there.

I walked, reading my book, around the rim of the lake. In the center some kids rode their bicycles in what looked like a track carved out around the lake’s edge. About halfway around the lake I looked out again and I couldn’t see the kids but I did see one small spec in the middle of the lake. I looked closer and realized it must be a man, although he looked incredibly small. I took a moment to examine my surroundings and I realized that the lake must be really big. I was sort of awed by this adjustment and the realization of how small and alone I really was.

I think most people feel bad about being small and alone but it made me feel good.

I kept walking and reading. I must have really misestimated because I was three-quarters of the way around the lake before I finished. I realized it really was a beautiful, beautiful day and I saw some bright shining bushes with red berries on one side, an empty green field on the other with faint hills behind that.

I decided to run the rest of the way since I now had no book and I enjoy running. I noticed yesterday or so that I can now run a lot farther than I could before. That’s probably from practice since I try to run to places when I need to go to class and such. And this morning I noticed my stomach podge (apparently not a real word; I learned it from Cory Doctorow’s new short story) was smaller than I remember and less wiggly too.

Not soon after I had started running there was an indentation in the ground which I didn’t notice because I was looking ahead and I tripped and fell over and skidded to a stop, scraping my elbow and knee. In the sort of compressed time period that you experience when something like that happens to you, I remember one thing as I watch the book slide out of my hand: “It’s going to get filled with dirt.”

As soon as the compressed time-period had stopped I realized I thought this and thought it was a silly thought, since I should care more about my knee, but as I tell my parents when they say I’m more concerned about my laptop or something than myself, I noted that this was quite a reasonable behavior since my knee and elbow can heal while my laptop cannot. (Even replacing the book costs money.)

But I do have an unusual respect for objects. I get sick when people write in books or fold their pages. I don’t like it when movies (even on DVD) are interrupted and always wait until the movie is completely over, including the credits, before leaving. Part of this is because I don’t like losing things. I write things down because I fear I will forget them and I backup things because I can’t bear to delete them. And scuffing up a book destroys the book irreversibly. But this theory doesn’t explain everything because it also creates a new book and this doesn’t explain the movie-watching thing at all. Or wait, I think I don’t like interrupting movies because you can only watch a movie for the first time once and you don’t want to mess up and lose that chance.

And it was a rather good book. A pretty good summary of the issues and clearly-written, although it may have some passages which would confuse beginners, but perhaps that’s quite right since confusion leads to curiosity which should be encouraged. Or maybe it only leads to that with me.

Fortunately, the book was not harmed at all, although my knee was badly scraped and my white shirt got a lot of mud. My body stung quite badly, though, and I said several angry things until the pain began to fade. I’ve always been puzzled by pain. It seems like such a problem when it’s there but before it and after it, which is to say the vast majority of your life, you can hardly even remember what it feels like. So why do people give into things like torture, when the effects are negligible, except at that moment? It must stop the brain from thinking very rationally.

I don’t think I’ve ever been tortured or even hurt severely so it’s hard for me to say what I’d do. I wonder if I ever have been hurt severely. I don’t have many memories but I suppose that is to be expected since you forget about pain quite quickly. The only two real pains I remember were what I think was yesterday, when I got a very painful leg cramp and today when I fell. I even remember hurting myself on purpose (e.g. slamming my body into the wall repeatedly) when I was younger and enjoying getting a little hurt. I also remember being sick and thinking, “Why does everyone care so much about me being a little sick when there are surely other people out there with real pains?” and feeling a little guilty. (I now suppose this might be called Liberal Guilt, which seems to be quite a good thing to be kept.)

I also remember spending a long time with allergies and asthma and headaches and other long-term ailments like that and, upon the doctor’s attempt to treat all such things, wondering if normal people went through their lives not feeling pain all day, but just spending it feeling normal. I sort of wondered what that would be like at the time. Perhaps that’s why I tried to hurt myself when I was just feeling normal?

The pain from the fall went away soon enough and I began to feel better enough that I could run slowly again, while being careful that the land was flat and safe. Walking back I saw a lot of buildings I didn’t recognize and realized I was rather confused about the geography of the area. I really don’t ever stray from the main sections of campus.

After I got back I started reading the other book Robert Brook had sent me, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which is a novel written as if written by an autistic British boy named Christopher. It’s a really great book which made me feel fascinated and giddy and I couldn’t put it down. It expertly ties together interesting scientific facts with touching bits about being autistic with a mystery and an emotional family plot. I read it straight through, only stopping to run with glee to the bathroom and back.

Immediately before I started writing these entries I read Michael Lewis’s Trail Fever (also published with the title Losers) where he follows around quietly observing the candidates in the 1996 presidential election. Unconsciously and later more consciously, I wrote these entries in this style. Since The Curious Incident is the first really great book I’ve read since then (“really great” here refers to my media review scale, meaning 4.5 or greater) I’ve decided to try writing in its style for a while. I am almost certainly not as good as either book but I am curious whether you like this style or not. It seems to lead to a lot more personal reflection.

I read the book in the library, which is one of the few places here that’s quiet and alone, and afterwards I walked out onto the balcony next to it, which I didn’t know existed until this morning when I came back after the fall and saw people standing on it, and didn’t know was in the library until I came in here to read the book.

I often here songs in my head which provide a sort of soundtrack to my life. My brain automatically selects a song which it finds appropriate to the mood and begins playing it for me, which is nice. Now was no exception. It’s also interesting that I don’t know what the song is usually, just the notes my brain has played for me so far, from which another part of my brain tries to figure out what it is.

This reminds me of a bit in The Curious Incident where Christopher explains how consciousness works, which I’d never understood before. I am not sure if this is simply Christopher’s theory, since Jeff Hawkins made it sound like nobody had really developed a complete theory of the mind before him, or Christopher’s summary of a real thing, but in either event it’s an impressive description. Christopher also describes a number of other scientific things quite well (indeed, in this respect the book reminds me of The Number Devil and it actually has a very similar cover) most of which seem to be correct, but he also says one thing which I’m pretty sure is false:

[In the midst of discussing prime numbers.] Prime numbers are useful for writing codes and in America they are classed as Military Material and if you find one over 100 digits long you have to tell the CIA and they buy it off you for $10,000. But it would not be a very good way of making a living.

I know people who find large prime numbers and I’ve never heard of them telling the CIA, but the EFF will pay up to $100,000 for finding very long ones. But it is still not a very good way of making a living.

posted January 26, 2005 08:17 PM (Education) (8 comments) #


In His Own Words
Newspaper Writers on the Election
Stanford: Day 62
Jeff Hawkins on the Brain
Stanford: Day 63
Stanford: Day 64
Stanford: Day 65
Quick Takes
Stanford: Day 66
Stanford: Day 67
Home: Day 1


That’s a pretty great Christopher impression! Which means it’s a little scary…come back into the light, Aaron…

posted by Bob at January 26, 2005 11:18 PM #

I’ll second that :).

I just subscribed to your RSS feed yesterday; as I was reading your entry today, I was thinking to myself “wow, this really reads like an autistic/Asperger’s person’s writing”. Must be the med student in me thinking. Nevertheless, it was a good impression!

posted by Angus at January 27, 2005 01:06 AM #

Thank you! I’m really happy to hear that.

posted by Aaron Swartz at January 27, 2005 02:39 AM #

When I got about half way through this entry, I wondered if the other book was “the curious incident…”. I found that I read that book very quickly - the text rolls on at a very steady rate. Most books seem to have fast bits and slow bits, whereas this one was incredibly steady. I think you captured that aspect very well!

My feeling is that this style is good in short doses, but quite tiring to read a lot of it.

posted by Ben at January 27, 2005 03:07 AM #

I also thought “Wow, this reads a lot more like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time than Aaron’s usual writing does” before I got to your reference to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

posted by Seth Schoen at January 27, 2005 02:11 PM #

What a lovely post on you’re healthy respect for the abstract objects around us.

I read ‘Curious Incident’ in one sitting to and found it to be a total mind fcuk, pardon my language, but in quite a wonderful way. I was completely absorbed in the narrative and it took me a few days to shake off the Aspergers perspective. Perhaps I have an unusual affinity with prose?

posted by leah at January 27, 2005 08:13 PM #

I previously wrote that your main concern was your own intelligence. After reading this entry, it seems that you have potential after all. There’s more than one way of viewing, perceiving or understanding things.

It is unfortunately the fate of many of the most intelligent people to end up in academia. That is not to say that all academics are ineffectual, but a quick walk through most Universities will drive the point home.

Since there are limits to the performance of any brain, there is always a compromise between generalisation and specialisation. Hence knowing more and more about less and less is always going to decrease the chances of working in a productive area.

Being able to view the world from different perspectives helps dig deeper into the underlying reality of the universe, and make more informed decisions and design choices, potentially leading to breakthroughs.

Keep balancing the different perspectives, don’t over-specialise in either area or environment, and constantly consider how what you are doing relates to other efforts and you will maintain the maximum return for the minimum outlay (even though this minimum may be your maximum).

There are limits to how much we want to dig though… we retain our sanity by living in a thin patina of delusions, animal comforts that we hug to ourselves because reality is too harsh. There’s intelligent, and there’s insanely intelligent.

I’m close enough to the latter to have peered across the fence without having crossed. I came, I saw, I ran - no thanks. Lest this statement be thought self-serving, you don’t know who I am, you can’t find out, and I can’t prove it later.

Being truly brilliant has never made me that happy and has isolated me from other people. So Aaron… use your brain, but don’t let it define you. Your intelligence is a tool, but your mind is not your intelligence.

posted by steve at January 28, 2005 10:28 AM #

Glad they reached you!

posted by Robert Brook at January 31, 2005 09:16 AM #

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