1.3 Skimming – an example
We'll shortly be asking you to skim an article which appeared in the Spring 2003 issue of a journal called IEEE Technology and Society Magazine. 'IEEE' is usually referred to as 'i-triple-e' and stands for 'Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers' – a professional association based in the USA.
Activity 1: exploratory
Click on the link below to open the document in Networked microsensors and the end of the world as we know it. Read the abstract and keywords (labelled 'index terms'). What do you expect the article to be about?
Click on the 'View document' link below to read Shepherd, D. on 'Networked Microsensors and the End of the World As We Know It'
When I read the abstract, I expected the article to discuss some quite radical and unsettling future changes in the way we live our lives. The article's title includes some very emotive words: 'the end of the world as we know it', and the abstract talks about changing society significantly. I assumed these changes would involve the use of computers – perhaps in a way they are not currently used – because the abstract talks about bringing people 'into closer contact with computers'. In the list of keywords (called 'index terms' in this example) I could see the terms 'microsensors', 'networked sensors' and 'automation' so I suspected the article would be something about devices that sense physical states (such as temperature or pressure) or events (such as a particular change in physical state) and relay the information to computers. I thought perhaps this sensing and relaying of data might be done automatically, and/or the process might trigger some automatic response.
To me, it seemed clear from the abstract that the author would be looking at four main areas – manufacturing, military operations, personal health and personal freedom.
Activity 2: exploratory
Now go back to the document and skim the Networked microsensors and the end of the world as we know it article. Look for any of the visual clues listed earlier that could provide you with more information about the document's contents.
The article uses only five sub-headings. These appear to be related to the four main areas identified in the abstract, plus what I assumed would be a concluding section ('Pros and cons abound'). I couldn't see a sub-heading relating directly to personal health, but I assumed that this would be discussed in the section headed 'Biological applications'. There aren't any figures to provide further clues.
I could see only a few instances of italicised words but these didn't help me much, and there are no numbered or bulleted lists. On the second page there is a box of large type which confirmed, rather than added to, the impression I'd gained from the abstract.
Activity 3: exploratory
Read all of the introduction, which consists of the first two paragraphs of the article, and the conclusion, which consists of the whole of the final section 'Pros and cons abound'. What additional insights to the article's contents has this given you?
My impression from reading the introduction and conclusion was that the article would focus on future applications where miniature devices and increasingly powerful computers are linked into networks to monitor and control aspects of our environment. While identifying many of the advantages this can bring to society, I thought the article would also raise concerns about potential state control and loss of personal privacy that the use of such systems may bring.
Whilst reading the introduction and conclusion you may have noticed some numbers included in the text. Some were shown as superscripts (small figures or characters raised above the normal line of text) and others in square brackets.
Each superscript gives a cross-refrence to an endnote listed at the end of the article. Theses notes give additional information that could interrupt the smooth flow of the document if they had been directly incorporated into the text.
Each number in sqaure brackets gives an index to a reference list at the end of the document. This reference list gives details of all the original sources of information that the author has directly referred to or quoted from in the text. Another commom and often preferred method of indication for an original source is to substitute the bracketed index number for a short reference consisting only of the author's surname and the year of publication of the article – for example, (Allgood, 2001) instead of  in the Shephard article – and then to list all the information in alphabetical order of authors' surnames in the reference list.
Another very important reason for getting an overview of a document is that it helps you to avoid taking a passive approach when you read the document in full. A passive reading approach is one where the reader puts in very little effort. The outcome of this sort of reading tends (at best) to be a string of unconnected facts and ideas in the reader's mind, with very little coherence or structure. At worst, it can be a complete blank, where the reader has gone through the motion of reading but has actually drifted off to think of other things.
An active reading approach involves reading in a disciplined manner with some purpose, and thinking continually about what you are reading. As you skim a text, questions will probably occur to you – for example, 'What is the author trying to say here?'; 'What is the evidence for this?'; 'Do I agree?'; 'How do I feel about this?'; 'What more do I need to know?' Seeking answers to questions like these gives focus to your reading.
Activity 4: exploratory
Working from your understanding of the article, how do you think the topics it raises might have an impact on you? What questions do you hope the article will answer? What authority do you think the author has for giving his opinions?
Here are my reactions to those questions.
The four main areas the author will be discussing could each have an impact on my life, but 'personal health' and 'personal freedom' sound as though they will have a more direct effect on me. I feel intrigued but slightly anxious. I think that the health effects are likely to be beneficial (possibly providing earlier detection of health problems and faster, better treatment when they arise) but I do feel concerned about privacy and control. Might I have to relinquish some of my freedoms in order to gain benefits? What might these be and what is the pay-off? I notice that the article appeared in Spring 2003 and I wonder how the world has moved on since then. I wonder if the article predicts any changes that have already started to happen!
The IEEE is a reputable professional organisation so I expect that the article would have been reviewed by other professionals in the field. This leads me to feel pretty confident about the authority of the author.
As we said earlier, we're not going to ask you to read through the whole of the article – though of course you may if you wish. (Perhaps you are keen to see if it answers any of the questions you identified in Activity 4.) Instead we would like you to return only to the first two paragraphs because these give a useful introduction to the idea of devices 'talking' to each other. The rather futuristic view presented in this section introduces you to some of the things involved when devices communicate and take actions. It identifies elements that interact with each other to perform some function.
Activity 5: exploratory
What are all the elements mentioned in the first two paragraphs that enable devices to function together as an IT system? Is there anything else you can think of that would be needed?
The extract identifies sensors, actuators, computers (processors), storage devices, and databases. But it says nothing directly about what connects all these together – the communication link – and what rules are needed to enable the devices to talk to each other.