Practical memory and impractical memory: the Memory Palace

Things have been busy since my previous on the MOOC learning-how-to-learn. As I wrote there, while a substantial amount was review, there were still plenty of expansions on what I knew. But it’s one thing to know the mechanics of learning, which has been my business for many decades. Those have served me well. But I needed some new servants.

For example, how  to memorize a list of a dozen items? It can be done by rote, by mnemonics…strategies most people already know. But that’s inefficient. Why would you want to take the time to memorize, say, a shopping list? Paper works just fine…after all, you don’t want to remember your list a month from now, unless the acronym OC was invented for you.

But some lists I wanted to remember..forever. Various work-related lists. I’ve written about the twelve labors of Hercules, for example, and taught them often. But if you had asked me rapidly to write them all done, or recite from memory…duh. Was there something more efficient than brute force?

There was indeed. One of the course topics covered the “memory palace”which comes from associating facts as mnemonics with places. Seems humans have an incredible spatial memory hard-wired into them from the very distant past…back, back in time, back when they invented the wheel. And earlier. Cave women. Cave men. Cave people. With a memory palace, you tap into that latent strength and make it work for you. And it works. Oh my, does it ever work. There’s a reason memory palaces were secrets in the Middle Ages…in that less enlightened era, think The Stake and “burning”, and “Stake”is not a typo for “steak”. Nothing like being punished for being Satan’s Little Trained Minion to wreck the rest of your day.

Here’s how I got into it. There’s a wonderful book by a memory champion, Joshua Foer, Moonwalking With Einstein:
Foer MoonwalkingGet it! Inexpensive paperback. You’ll ultimately want, I hope, to read it cover to cover. But do what grabbed me good:  read chapter five, “The Memory Palace”. Josh encounters a memory champ  (yes, there are international contests for such titles) who shows him a shopping list of fifteen rather odd items. Josh learns to associate it with places around his house. And, apparently, learns them all very rapidly. But, and this is extremely important. Written into the narrative are frequent asides to you, the reader, to do what Josh is doing in your house. Usually I ignore such things. Not now. I took the noodges seriously. And….

Dang me. It worked. I learned that list too. What’s more, now, and it’s been about a month, I still remember the damned thing. Please, please, do yourself a big favor and do what I did. You will be impressed beyond words.

Here’s a brief example of how I learned the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The Great Pyramid of Giza is in the parking space in front of the house. The front garden has the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Inside, the Statue of Zeus at Olympia sits on the couch looking at the Temple of Artemis of Ephesus on the coffee table. The entry to the dining room is blocked by the Tomb of Mausolus while the Colossus of Rhodes is playing the piano, and the light in the kitchen comes from the Lighthouse of Pharos. That’s been in my head for a month, and the images tend to fade leaving you with just the facts. But if you start to stumble, the image comes right back to help you. Notice that the associations are…weird. The mind remembers the weird, the shocking, the pornographic far better than anything else. In the eighth grade an art teacher waned us to learn the five characteristics of art: form, line, space, texture, color. I still remember them if I want to (not often, but still…). I didn’t know about memory palaces then. Just used an incredibly sexual series of mnemonics, as only an eighth grader could. Clever rotten little rugrat, no?

You see the uses? Infinite. Liberating. And great fun. It works on poetry too, with modifications; I’m chewing up some favorite Shakespeare sonnets. But be warned!

You can also use it, again with modifications, to learn a deck of cards; memory champs can do that in a minute or so. Or the digits of Pi to one hundred places. That’s the tek approach…do it because you can. For me, that’s the impractical side of things. Fine, but do you need to know Pi out that far? I was a big math and science jock back-when, and I never needed Pi beyond 34.14159. As for learning a deck of cards…if you hang around Vegas a lot, maybe useful, otherwise…. There’s nothing wrong with doing those things, of course, but I think you’re better off on using the technique in ways which directly benefit you.

By the way, memory palaces can be recycled. Remember the couch with the statue of Zeus on it in my example? I used the couch for Josh’s exercise, and placed wine bottles there. I’ve also used it for the labors of Hercules, as a place for the Cernyian hind. Believe it or not, even though the couch is crowded, there never is bleed-through between the uses.

Not yet convinced?

Josh did an interview about his book with The New York Times here.

A very recent short piece on the memory palace idea here.

Lots of other resources in the form of books, online forums…it can get dizzying. If you get hooked an want more, don’t hesitate to ask for some guidance. Although I suspect that it won’t be a question of “If” but rather “When”. You have been warned.

The Professor Takes a Course…sort of

Even if you don’t do much online, it’s very hard to avoid knowing of, and having an opinion about, MOOCs. Every so often I’ve cruised by Coursera, the MOOC-maker that has always seemed to have the most items of interest. Many have been the siren calls; last year I came very close to signining up for one of Beethoven’s piano sonatas with the excellent pianist (ex Curtis) Jonathan Biss. Flagged that temptation by, with difficulty.

But they got me this time. When I saw a four week course “Learning How to Learn” with one of the insructors the author of a favorite book …well, how bad could it be?

The book is A Mind for Numbers by Barbara Oakley.


Despite the subtitle of “Math and Science”, the book really covers strategies for learning, in this particular case making the very convincing case that improved learning techniques can cure a phobia of math and/or science. Did I say “how bad could it be”?

So I enrolled. Four weeks of assignments and lectures, the lectures for each week amounted to maybe one hour plus, both by Oakley and a quite eminent neurobiologist. Three quizzes and a final, all multiple choice. Plenty of optional extra readings, from the general to the really hi-tek. Keep in mind that since I spent forty-one years in the classroom, I’m incredibly opinionated about how to teach in all its minutiae: lectures, quizzes, readings. Also keep in mind that I was familiar with the (optional) text supra. And finally, that’s it’s been the same amount of time since I sat on the other side of the desk. A triple theat, to say the least.

And what happened? Briefly,  a wonderful experience. In my field you can’t know everything you need, even ex of a topflight graduate program and equally topflight undergraduate major. If you aren’t a good autodidact, you’re dead. As a result, from the School of Hard Autodidacts I knew maybe two-thirds of the material. Hearing other points of view, following a lecture, and preparing for quizzes was humbling and something every professor should have…more than once. But that’s not all. Some bullet points, in no particular order….

  • None of the students was very good at speaking in the optional short video selfie, graded by other students. The stuttered. They preened. They ran out of time, or else mumbled two sentences and quit. As for the comments. The most useful one I got was “nice beard.” Well, thanks, I think. Even so, everyone gave my selfie the highest possible mark. Understandable about me (all that time in the trenches) and my fellow students (usually no time in those trenches).
  • One of the lectures, Barb Oakley, aka  the book’s author, was superb by any standard. I’d give here eleven on a scale of one to ten. The eminent neurobologist Terry Sejnowski, not so much. Did he know a lot? Yes, and I base this on having been a serious science jock through college. He was clearly reading from the teleprompter. Bad. I never read from notes either in class or at conference presentations. If you’ve been in the field more than a couple of years, you damned well better be able to speak it smoothly. Worse, he didn’t read smoothly. Worst, he went at trans-warp speed. I with my science background had to hear his lectures twice. Non-science types…technical terms come at you like bullets, and light-speed bullets at that. Many, many science and math types lament why there are so many math and science phobes around. Just look in the mirror, gang. What’s so obvious to you isn’t obvious to those who aren’t initiates. Try to recall when it wasn’t obvious. In my case, I know there was a time when the chronology of the Pentekontaetia, the period between the end of Greece’s Persian War and the start of the Peloponnesian War seemed impossibly hard. Now it seems totally obvious. But I try to put myself back to when it was new and strange. And the students then understand and enjpy. In short: math and science professors, recall your own learning struggles and teach to those. Terry gets overall a minus three on the scale of one to ten.
  • Quizzes. Muliple choice. I guess in a course like this the format is necessary. But too easy to game, and really didn’t test understanding.
  • Reading. Excellent from start to finish. I’m going to PDF those lists for future reference.

Would I take another MOOC? In a second, with the caveats supra if it’s a math or science course. It got me out of my comfort zone. I got to learn  more about what I already new, and a lot of new techniques like memory palaces. MOOCs are not the same as a classroom experience which remains fundamental. But if used carefully and with self-awareness, they can be a very good thing indeed.

Tales From the Trenches: Analog Saturday

Yesterday morning (September 26, 2015), I did a very quick pass through social media and then, around noon (all times EDT [USA]) I pulled the plug. iPad never turned on. Big Iron, aka the iMac, just sat unused, iPhone not used beyond lock screen for time and counting my steps. The last twenty-four hours were wonderful. So much so that there may be a weekly Analog Day in these parts. And, by the way, I am emphatically not into self-mortification, sackcloth and ashes; as for poverty-chastity-obedience, I could with difficulty hack the first two, but obedience would be the Deal Breaker. Simeon Sylites, this boy is not. [No one should miss the absolutely wonderful Buñuel short film, Simon of the Desert.]

What was so wonderful? What I got done. Totally caught up on one of my favorite publications, The Chronicle of Higher Education, a very high quality rag for those in…higher education. Wallowing browsing in some, by no means all, of the new books which have come in. You’ll take my point if I say that the most dangerous job in this neighborhood is…riding shotgun on the Amazon delivery truck. [There is no such truck…yet. But you get the idea.]  Speaking of books, when an undergraduate I counted books. When it hit one hundred, I switched to measuring bookshelf length. When that hit one hundred feet I considering switching to yards. But I didn’t. I jus t stopped trying to quantify. I have many books, let’s leave it with that and a picture of a pile just above where I’m writing this:
Alone with my thoughts on a whole lot of things, from calculus to my writing projects to just enjoying the exciting mental life of feeling and hearing myself think. Time to sit down and read through some piano music: two movements from Bach’s French Overture, the last movement of Beethoven’s Pathétique.

Did I think about the digital world? Couple of brief times, but knew that The Republic was not in danger, and if it was, my services couldn’t change things. Didn’t even thing about problems with digital solutions, like cataloging an enormous xerox collection, or an even more enormous clipping collection. The best thing was just feeling life slow down to normal speed, to whatever speed I chose to use.

Kant would have had no problem with this. Digitality [is that a word? it is now.] has its own categorical imperative. All those little switches in a CPU which put a device through its computing paces…to humans this can feel like, to use a Star Trek analogy, trans-warp speed. Humans simply can’t go as fast, fast as the neural connections of our oligodendrocytes may be. And that’s in large part because we don’t follow an instruction set; we make connections, we wonder down related paths, in short, we reason and intuit. No machine can do that. Programming a machine to reason? No can do…contradiction in terms. Ditto “Artificial Intelligence”, contradiction in terms.

So moving at human speed, without digital intervention, is part of what being human is about. Machines can curate by algorithms, but it’s a human curator who can do world-class curating with its/her/his reasoning and intuition.

Someone, probably an alleged Digital Native, probably is thinking “Luddite.” Did I say “no can do”? When computers were just one step ahead of Eniac and Univac and still called Electronic Brains…that’s when I started with computers. I’ve seen it all and done a lot of it; the “About Robert” page here has some of it, so I’ll not belabor the point much further than to say…I’ve programmed in Fortran and Assembler and C, including some Windows apps, beta tested for, among others, Microsoft and Adobe (including the PDF spec; every time you use a PDF file, there’s a little bit of me there). Kiddies, you claim to be Digital Natives, but being able to use a smartphone is not being a digital native. I claim the title for myself, and others of my generation, who got in on the ground floor of computing. So watch it when you say “so easy your grandmother could use it”…because I’m of grandparent age, have done and can do things digitally that will leave you at the starting line. So there.

Don’t get me wrong. I do digital all the time. Being able to yank in an 1896 in PDF format is wonderful. But it’s also wonderful to go after that book in a library…serendipity is sadly underrated these days. Some of the best references I ever had came from a book or journal I just happened to notice as I was going after something else. Of course, you can’t get a manuscript finished if you’re always doing serendipity. I always make time for it even when I’m working the digital to meet a deadline.

And maybe that’s he key thing here. An analog day forces you to do serendipity because you have time for it, because you don’t have to schedule it. It restores the balance. And that, in this usually unbalanced digital world of fast, fastest, instant and more instant…is something we humans need.




Can’t anybody write? …the “Content Curation” problem

Sometimes I seriously wonder. Recently I set Sergey and Larry to work on “content creation”. Limited myself to the first page of Google results; a good thing, because more would have made me feel suicidal. Sounds extreme? Read on….

Starting with the Wikipedia entry, s.v. we read “Content curation is not a new phenomenon. Museums and galleries have curators to select items for collection and display. There are also curators in the world of media, for instance DJs of radio stations tasked with selecting songs to be played over the air.” Okay on museums and galleries since that’s the traditional usage; most curators have either terminal degrees in the fine arts, or advanced degrees in art history. Not okay with the following sentence. With all due respect, DJs are simply not like museum creators, with the possible exception of classical music stations where their DJs usually have either substantial performing experience, or academic degrees in music, or both. By the way, in classical music, “songs” are Lieder, as in Schubert’s songs. The Beethoven Fifth Symphony is many things, but “song” it is not. But the worst thing in the sentence is “tasked”. The first thousand times I read it online, no problem. But it’s omnipresent nowadays in writing, both “legacy media” (another phrase that should never have been coined” and the digital. It’s useless, it’s lazy, it’s cliche.

And here’s a post on Mashable, “If You use the Web You are a Creator'”. Right. Everyone can do it. Those degreed types and real experts…who needs them? Everybody, just everybody can sort through the information flood. If you believe that…why on earth are you visiting this blog?

Finally, there’s the cliché which has entered the common vocabulary for good, I fear. “Content.” If you say “articles” or “essays” or “squibs” or even “riffs”, I’m with you. The word “content” tossed around as it almost always is…says nothing (it’s way too general), is overused, and…fills me with inertia. In the 90s Bill Gates used it a lot, but I’m sure he wasn’t the first. Besides, even though I’m now a happy Mac user, Microsoft has been very good to me in the past. Even though we all know that “GUI” does not mean “Graphical User Interface” but “Gates Understands Income”. Or, if you will, Micro$oft.

Conventional wisdom has it that we inhabit the Information Society brought on by Internet. Wrong as usual,  CW. I’ve been suffering from information overload since computers had memories measured in kilobytes, took up a room, and weren’t called computers but Electronic Brains. If you’ve read the “About Robert” page you’ll see why. Even in those days when a large hard drive was 20 MB and a lot of memory was 640K. information came in faster than I could process it, and even on those computers could process my words faster than my head could process ideas.

There has always been a problem with finding the “good stuff.” Yes, you can get more faster from having a menage à trois with Sergey and Larry than by literally thumbing The Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature in the old days. But there’s always way too much to sort through and not enough time. Even though, as the great German classicist Friedrich Leo put it, “there are twenty-four hours in the day, and if that’s not enough, there are the evenings.”

Speaking of that menage à trois. Great if you need to find out about the maker of Amalgamated Widgets. Or if you want the lowest price for a case of Fizzie Swiggles. But even the best crafted search, using Boolean operators and all the advanced search facilities that Google offers, comes up short. Some things aren’t digital, and never will be. Important things. For example, when I’ve taught Roman religion, at one point, through readings and discussion I’ve made my students experts in one small Roman festival. Then I’ve turned them loose online to see what they found, and discuss the ten best links and the ten worst. Nobody could come up with more than a couple of “barely” good links (their phrase), and everyone went way over ten for the bad links. Their comments were shrill. As one wrote “I used to think it didn’t exist or didn’t matter if it wasn’t online. I’ll never use online the same way again.” And another “I never realized how useless online could be for serious learning.”

Out of the mouths of babes.

So I’m going to do a series piecemeal about how I pursue and select, the latter term far more accurate ; cf. above on  the c-word  traditionally applied to museum curators. Further, I’m hoping that by showing what I bring to the table you’ll have your own additions or, at least, find mine useful. Why? Because as a successful academic, I’ve learned how to weed out the great from the good, the bad, and the ugly. It won’t be biased to my own area of academia (fear not!) nor will it be one post after another; it will be biased and totally skewed towards finding good stuff for anyone who realizes that her/its/his head is not for decoration. To coin a phrase.


My 15 seconds of fame….

Probably nanoseconds in Internet time. Couple weeks back I found a very interesting illustration of ruined ancient structures as if they still existed intact in today’s cities. Hanging gardens of Babylon, Inside the Temple of Zeus at Olympia and more, including…the Parthenon. Grab that image and tweet it. Q.E.D. = “Quite Easily Done”. But then the Favorites and retweets started coming in. No, make that pouring in. Or, changing the metaphor, a thundering herd. I’ve never had more than single digits of either Favorites or RTs, and often wondered what it would be like to have a really popular post. My education needed expanding. And it was. Oh my, how it was.

Evgeny Kazantsev Acropolis calendar


“Be careful what you ask for.” Usually I tweet thank-yous to the nice people who retweet or favorite one of my tweets. But twenty favorites in one morning alone makes for paralysis. Some added comments (infra) but sometimes those comments were in languages that I don’t read [I do read, of the modern languages, English, French, German, Italian; never mind the dead languages for now]. Maybe their comments were “this is the stupidest tweet I’ve ever seen.” Or worse.

I started to wonder how the crowd with six and seven digit numbers of followers cope. Not for long. Each morning brought a new onslaught to my innocent posting. Finally quiet reigned in my Twitter notifications, and you can see the final numbers here:

IMG 031 stats


I thanked everyone who made substantial comments which I could read. There were several common themes.

More than one person noted that Parthenon’s friezes were white rather than in colors. Good catch! We classicists have known for years that the Parthenon was painted from flecks of paint on the stone. But very recently, advanced imaging techniques have produced far more color evidence, and not just for the Parthenon. Two examples:

parthenon colors

greek sculpture color harvrd

Scholars have known for a very long time that Greek sculpture and architecture was painted from minute traces of paint thereon. But in the last decade new imagining techniques have made reconstruction possible. The second picture shows a Greek stele (tombstone), left to right: original, colored and a b/w which shows the kind of information that can now be found. It comes from a wonderful Harvard exhibit; you really should look at the other pictures here. The first picture shows how the Parthenon probably looked in the fifth century.

Garish, n’est-ce pas? Do that in an intro painting course and with luck, you’ll be toast; without luck, extremely dead. But what about all the “white classical purity” of the “noble Greeks” who believed “nothing in excess; know thyself”? Hah. Gone, because it never was and they never were…but that must wait for an upcoming post.

Several carped about the arrangement of the buildings, that some of the other Acropolis were in the wrong places. Well yes they are. But this wasn’t an illustration for a book; it was part of a calendar advertising campaign; see the other illustrations here. In portrait orientation, you just can’t get the whole Acropolis in and still have the modern city unless the former is way, way, tiny. So get real.The posters seemed to think that painting and illustration is supposed to be photographic. Perhaps they were thinking of this Renaissance painting:


But compare it with just two other Renaissance paintings whose perspective is rather…singular:

Mantegna_Andrea_Dead_Christ 1435-1506


And as for building inaccuracies, no real cafe could stay in business long if van Gogh had turned architect:

Le_café_de_nuit_(The_Night_Café)_Van Gogh Yale 1888

[Aside: The Yale Art Gallery was just around the corner from my residential college. It was a rare week when I didn’t commune with it]

The visual arts are rather like poetry, on whichW. H. Auden remarked “poetry is what is lost in translation.” I rest my case.

But most commenters simply enjoyed it, as I did. I’ve not dared to ask my fellow classicists their opinions. Because the results would for the most part by nattering, niggling, and nit-picking…the last-name is surely best left to the simians. This is the crowd who still carps about Robert Graves’ wonderful novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God. Why…because Graves is rather free with his primary source, the great Roman historian Tacitus. Likewise for the wonderful television series of that name.  Some people just don’t know how to have fun. Nothing like being cross-threaded with most of your profession, is there?