Human Collective Memory from Biographical Data

Estimating technological breaks in the size and composition of human collective memory from biographical data by C. Jara-Figueroa, Amy Z. Yu, Cesar A. Hidalgo (arxiv.org)

The ability of humans to accumulate knowledge and information across generations is a defining feature of our species. This ability depends on factors that range from the psychological biases that predispose us to learn from skillful, accomplished, and prestigious people, to the development of technologies for recording and communicating information: from clay tablets to the Internet. In this paper we present empirical evidence documenting how communication technologies have shaped human collective memory. We show that changes in communication technologies, including the introduction of printing and the maturity of shorter forms of printed media, such as newspapers, journals, and pamphlets, were accompanied by sharp changes (or breaks) in the per-capita number of memorable biographies from a time period that are present in current online and offline sources. Moreover, we find that changes in technology, such as the introduction of printing, film, radio, and television, coincide with sharp shifts in the occupations of the individuals present in these biographical records. These two empirical facts provide evidence in support of theories arguing that human collective memory is shaped by the technologies we use to record and communicate information.

C. Jara-Figueroa, Amy Z. Yu, and Cesar A. Hidalgo
in Estimating technological breaks in the size and composition of human collective memory from biographical data via arXiv

 

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Book Review of Dominic O’Brien’s “Quantum Memory Power”

While I'd generally recommend this to the average mnemonist, I'd recommend they approach it after having delved in a bit and learned the major system from somewhere else.
Quantum Memory Power by Dominic O'Brien
Quantum Memory Power by Dominic O’Brien

I’ve read many of the biggest memory related books over the past three decades and certainly have my favorites among them.  I’ve long heard that Dominic O’Brien’s Quantum Memory Power: Learn to Improve Your Memory with the World Memory Champion! audiobook was fairly good, and decided that I’d finally take a peek having known for a while about O’Brien and his eponymous Dominic System.

General Methods

Overall, I was fairly impressed with his layout and positive teaching style, though I don’t particularly need some of the treacly motivation that he provided and which is primarily aimed at the complete novice.  While I appreciate that for some, hearing this material may be the most beneficial, I would have preferred to have some of it presented visually.  In general, I wouldn’t recommend this as a something to listen to on a commute as he frequently admonishes against doing some of the exercises he outlines while driving or operating heavy machinery.

Given the prevalence of and growth of memory systems from the mid-20th century onwards, I personally find it difficult to believe all of his personal story about “rediscovering” many of the memory methods he outlines, or at least to the extent to which he tempts the reader to believe.

Differences from Other Systems

Based on past experience, I really appreciate his methods for better remembering names with faces as his conceptualizations for doing this seemed better to me than the methods outlined by Bruno Furst. I do however, much prefer the major mnemonic system’s method for numbers over the Dominic system for it’s more logical and complete conversion of consonant sounds for most languages. The links between the letters and numbers in the major system are also much easier to remember and don’t require as much work to remember them.  I also appreciate the major system for its deeper historical roots as well as for its precise overlap with the Gregg Shorthand method. The poorer structure of the Dominic system is the only evidence I can find to indicate that he seems to have separately re-discovered some of his memory methods.

I appreciated that most of his focus was on practical tasks like to do lists, personal appointments, names and faces, but wish he’d spent some additional time walking through general knowledge examples like he did for the list of the world’s oceans and seas.

While I appreciated his outlining the ability to calculate what day of the week any particular date falls on (something that most memory books don’t touch upon), he failed to completely specify the entire method. He also used a somewhat non-standard method for coding both the days of the week and the months of the year, though mathematically all of these systems are equivalent.  I did appreciate his trying to encode a set up for individual years, which will certainly help many cut down on the mental mathematics, particularly as it relates to the dread many have for long division.  Unfortunately, he didn’t go far enough and  this is where he also failed to finish supplying the full details for all of the special cases for the years.  He also failed to mention the discontinuities with the Gregorian versus the Julian calendar making his method more historically universal. For those interested, Wikipedia outlines some of the more familiar mathematical methods for determining the day of the week that a particular date would fall on.

Instead of having spent the time outlining the calendar, which is inherently difficult to do in audio format compared to printed format, he may have been better off having spent the time going into more depth memorizing poetry or prose as an extension of his small aside on memorizing quotes and presenting speeches.

I could have done without the bulk of the final disk which comprised mostly of tests for the material previously presented. The complete beginner may get more out of these exercises however.  The final portion of the disk was more interesting as he did provide some philosophy on how memory systems engage both lobes of the brain within the right-brained/left-brained conceptualizations from neuropsychology.

While O’Brien doesn’t completely draw out his entire system, to many this may be a strong benefit as it forces individuals to create their own system within his framework. This is bound to help many to create stronger personalized links between their numbers and their images. The drawback the beginner may find for this is that they may find themselves ever tinkering with their own customized system, or even more likely rebuilding things from scratch when they discover the list of online resources from others that rely on people having a more standardized system.

O’Brien also provides more emphasis on creativity and visualization than some books, which will be very beneficial to many beginners.

Overall, while I’d generally recommend this to the average mnemonist, I’d recommend they approach it after having delved in a bit and learned the major system from somewhere else.

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Latin Pedagogy and the Digital Humanities

I’ve long been a student of the humanities (and particularly the classics) and have recently begun reviewing over my very old and decrepit knowledge of Latin.  It’s been two decades since I made a significant study of classical languages, and lately (as the result of conversations with friends like Dave Harris, Jim Houser, Larry Richardson, and John Kountouris) I’ve been drawn to reviewing them for reading a variety of classical texts in their original languages. Fortunately, in the intervening years, quite a lot has changed in the tools relating to pedagogy for language acquisition.

Jenny's Second Year Latin
A copy of Jenny’s Latin text which I had used 20 years ago and recently acquired a new copy for the pittance of $3.25.

Internet

The biggest change in the intervening time is the spread of the  internet which supplies a broad variety of related websites with not only interesting resources for things like basic reading and writing, but even audio sources apparently including listening to the nightly news in Latin. There are a variety of blogs on Latin as well as even online courseware, podcasts, pronunciation recordings, and even free textbooks. I’ve written briefly about the RapGenius platform before, but I feel compelled to mention it as a potentially powerful resource as well. (Julius Caesar, Seneca, Ovid, Cicero, et al.) There is a paucity of these sources in a general sense in comparison with other modern languages, but given the size of the niche, there is quite a lot out there, and certainly a mountain in comparison to what existed only twenty years ago.

Software

There has also been a spread of pedagogic aids like flashcard software including Anki and Mnemosyne with desktop, web-based, and even mobile-based versions making  learning available in almost any situation. The psychology and learning research behind these types of technologies has really come a long way toward assisting students to best make use of their time in learning and retaining what they’ve learned in long term memory.  Simple mobile applications like Duolingo exist for a variety of languages – though one doesn’t currently exist for classical Latin (yet).

Digital Humanities

The other great change is the advancement of the digital humanities which allows for a lot of interesting applications of knowledge acquisition. One particular one that I ran across this week was the Dickinson College Commentaries (DCC). Specifically a handful of scholars have compiled and documented a list of the most common core vocabulary words in Latin (and in Greek) based on their frequency of appearance in extant works.  This very specific data is of interest to me in relation to my work in information theory, but it also becomes a tremendously handy tool when attempting to learn and master a language.  It is a truly impressive fact that, simply by knowing that if one can memorize and master about 250 words in Latin, it will allow them to read and understand 50% of most written Latin.  Further, knowledge of 1,500 Latin words will put one at the 80% level of vocabulary mastery for most texts.  Mastering even a very small list of vocabulary allows one to read a large variety of texts very comfortably.  I can only think about the old concept of a concordance (which was generally limited to heavily studied texts like the Bible or possibly Shakespeare) which has now been put on some serious steroids for entire cultures. Another half step and one arrives at the Google Ngram Viewer.

The best part is that one can, with very little technical knowledge, easily download the DCC Core Latin Vocabulary (itself a huge research undertaking) and upload and share it through the Anki platform, for example, to benefit a fairly large community of other scholars, learners, and teachers. With a variety of easy-to-use tools, shortly it may be even that much easier to learn a language like Latin – potentially to the point that it is no longer a dead language. For those interested, you can find my version of the shared DCC Core Latin Vocabulary for Anki online; the DCC’s Chris Francese has posted details and a version for Mnemosyne already.

[Editor’s note: Anki’s web service occasionally clears decks of cards from their servers, so if you find that the Anki link to the DCC Core Latin is not working, please leave a comment below, and we’ll re-upload the deck for shared use.]

What tools and tricks do you use for language study and pedagogy?

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Lecture Series Review: “Augustine: Philosopher and Saint” by Phillip Cary

Augustine: Philosopher and Saint (Great Courses, #611)Augustine: Philosopher and Saint byProfessor Phillip Cary, Ph.D., Eastern University (The Learning Company, 1997)

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This series of 12 audio lectures is an excellent little overview of Augustine, his life, times, and philosophy. Most of the series focuses on his writings and philosophy as well as their evolution over time, often with discussion of the historical context in which they were created as well as some useful comparing/contrasting to extant philosophies of the day (and particularly Platonism.)

Early in the series there were some interesting and important re-definitions of some contemporary words. Cary pushes them back to an earlier time with slightly different meanings compared to their modern ones which certainly helps to frame the overarching philosophy presented. Without a close study of this vocabulary, many modern readers will become lost or certainly misdirected when reading modern translations. As examples, words like perverse, righteousness, and justice (or more specifically their Latin counterparts) have subtly different meanings in the late Roman empire than they do today, even in modern day religious settings.

My favorite part, however, has to have been the examples discussing mathematics as an extended metaphor for God and divinity to help to clarify some of Augustine’s thought. These were not only very useful, but very entertaining to me.

As an aside for those interested in mnemotechnic tradition, I’ll also mention that I’ve (re)discovered (see the reference to the Tell paper below) an excellent reference to the modern day “memory palace” (referenced most recently in the book Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything) squirreled away in Book X of Confessions where Augustine discusses memory as:

“fields and spacious palaces” “…where are the treasures of innumerable images, brought into it from things of all sorts perceived by the senses. There is stored up, whatsoever besides we think, either by enlarging or diminishing, or any other way varying those things which the sense hath come to; and whatever else hath been committed and laid up, which forgetfulness hath not yet swallowed up and buried.”

Those interested in memes and the history of “memoria ex locis” (of which I don’t even find a reference explicitly written in the original Rhetorica ad Herrenium) would appreciate an additional reference I subsequently found in the opening (and somewhat poetic) paragraph of a paper written by David Tell on JSTOR. The earliest specific reference to a “memory palace” I’m aware of is Matteo Ricci’s in the 16th century, but certainly other references to the construct may have come earlier. Given that Ricci was a Jesuit priest, it’s nearly certain that he would have been familiar with Augustine’s writings at the time, and it’s possible that his modification of Augustine’s mention brought the concept into its current use. Many will know memory as one of the major underpinnings of rhetoric (of which Augustine was a diligent student) as part of the original trivium.

Some may shy away from Augustine because of the religious overtones which go along with his work, but though there were occasional “preachy sounding” sections in the material, they were present only to clarify the philosophy.

I’d certainly recommend this series of lectures to anyone not closely familiar with Augustine’s work as it has had a profound and continuing affect on Western philosophy, thought, and politics.

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