Course Announcement: The Art of Memory

I’m teaching an upcoming course on the Art of Memory. It’ll be an hour a week for five weeks starting on July 10th at 10:00 am on Saturday mornings. I’ll be using the online learning platform Hyperlink.Academy. I hope you’ll have the chance to join me and a group of people interested in exploring the topic.

I’ve had a personal memory practice since I was about eleven years old. I started with an old correspondence course from the 1940s that I found on my parents’ bookshelf. I remember thinking at the time that it was pretty expansive. I’ve realized that the original system I learned was only a small fraction of some of the powerful techniques that humankind has created and evolved over the last 20,000 years. Sadly, the majority of this knowledge, which was once commonplace, has disappeared in Western culture.

As a kid, I used the techniques as they pertained to magic and parlor tricks like counting cards and Rubic’s cubes. Later I learned how to bend and apply them other methods. I learned new methods and used them to memorize material for classes. I discovered I could remember vast troves of information both for pleasure and for work.

Since then, I’ve been researching into the history of mnemotechniques in Western culture. I’ve been uncovering the practice in other oral and indigenous cultures. As a result, I’ve seen and experimented with dozens of other methods. Some are better and more flexible than others.

It’s rare that I encounter people familiar with even one or two of these methods. There are lots of books and internet fora dedicated to some of them. They’re generally esoteric, incomplete, or both. On the whole, they’re difficult to discover, and often even harder to learn—much less practice.

In 2011, Joshua Foer ignited some interest with his book Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. He describes the magic of some of the extant systems and nibbles around the edges. But he doesn’t detail how to enter the space and leaves the topic as esoteric as he began. His book motivates the “why”, but doesn’t describe the practical “how”.

I have seen and read scores of hucksterish and facile approaches. They usually outline a handful of memory “tricks” which some people use intuitively. Most touch on only one or two aspects of a much larger and richer memory tradition.

I’ve also followed some of the bigger memory-related sites online. They discuss many pieces of the whole. But they don’t help newcomers get a bigger picture of what is possible or how to start a practice. Most people want something more practical for daily life. Many start out with interest, but they don’t get very far before abandoning the idea because they don’t find the benefit.

I know there is an easier way.

Based on my experience, I’d like to provide a solid overview and history of the topic. My goal is to give beginners a practical entry point. We’ll look at and practice the bigger and most useful techniques. We’ll also discuss some of the lesser known methods and where they can be applied.

I encourage students to bring a practical list of things they’d like to memorize for use in the course.

After a few weeks, students should have a solid base of knowledge upon which to found a regular memory practice for the rest of their lives.

Those interested can read a copy of the syllabus. If you have any questions about the course or want to discuss if it’s right for you, please reach out.

If you can’t join us for the first cohort this summer, I’ll likely offer it again in either the Fall or Winter.

I look forward to seeing everyone in class.

I’ve just gotten a copy of Remember: The Science of Memory and the Art of Forgetting by Lisa Genova which came out earlier this week.

Simple white book cover of Remember by Lisa Genova featuring a piece of red string tied into a knotted bow

I’ve thumbed through it quickly and done some targeted searches of the text. From all appearances, it looks like she’s approaching the topic of memory from a neuroscientist’s perspective and talking about broad psychology and culture.

There are a few references to the method of loci and a tangential reference to the phonetic major system in chapter 5. She approaches these briefly with a mention of Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein and his PAO system (without using the word Person-Action-Object), but dismisses all too quickly.

But you would have to do a lot of memorizing before you can actually use these techniques (and others like them) to remember the stuff you’re interested in remembering. If the thought of doing this kind of mental labor sounds exhausting, I’m right there with you. I don’t have the dedication or time. Unless you’re motivated to become an elite memory athlete or your life’s dream is to memorize 111,700 digits of pi, I suspect you don’t, either. Most of us will never want or need to memorize that kind or that amount of information. But many of us would like to be better at memorizing the ten things on our to-do list, our Wi-Fi password, or the six things we need at the grocery store.

Sadly she doesn’t bring up the much easier to use phonetic major system, but blows right by it.

I’ll try to delve into the rest of the text shortly, but I was really hoping for more on the mnemonics front. I mnemonists won’t get much out of it on the techniques front, but might find it useful for an overview of the neuroscience or psychology fronts from Hermann Ebbinghaus onwards.

Acquired The Stars: A New Way to See Them by H. A. Rey (HMH Books for Young Readers)
This is a clear, vivid text with charts and maps showing the positions of the constellations the year round.
I’ve always wanted a copy of this book since I was little. Now I’ve got it.

I’m planning on integrating this into my memory practice shortly as well.

Bookmarked Tibor Gánti (1933- 2009): Towards the Principles of Life and Systems Chemistry (Journal of Theoretical Biology | sciencedirect.com)
Edited by Eörs Szathmáry
Volume 381, Pages 1-60 (21 September 2015)
Michael Marshall in He may have found the key to the origins of life. So why have so few heard of him? ()

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Bookmarked Vocabulary of Definitions of Life Suggests a Definition by Edward N. Trifonov (Journal of Biomolecular Structure and Dynamics Volume 29, 2011 - Issue 2)
Analysis of the vocabulary of 123 tabulated definitions of life reveals nine groups of defining terms (definientia) of which the groups (self-)reproduction and evolution (variation) appear as the minimal set for a concise and inclusive definition: Life is self-reproduction with variations.
https://doi.org/10.1080/073911011010524992

Michael Marshall in He may have found the key to the origins of life. So why have so few heard of him? ()

Bookmarked Cellular Homeostasis, Epigenesis and Replication in Randomly Aggregated Macromolecular Systems by Stuart A. Kauffman (Journal of Cybernetics Volume 1, 1971 - Issue 1)
Pages 71-96 | Published online: 15 Apr 2008
https://doi.org/10.1080/01969727108545830
Proto-organisms probably were randomly aggregated nets of chemical reactions. The hypothesis that contemporary organisms are also randomly constructed molecular automata is examined by modeling the gene as a binary (on-off) device and studying the behavior of large, randomly constructed nets of these binary “genes.” The results suggest that, if each “gene” is directly affected by two or three other “genes,” then such random nets: behave with great order and stability; undergo behavior cycles whose length predicts cell replication time as a function of the number of genes per cell; possess different modes of behavior whose number per net predicts roughly the number of cell types in an organism as a function of its number of genes; and under the stimulus of noise are capable of differentiating directly from any mode of behavior to at most a few other modes of behavior. Cellular differentiation is modeled as a Markov chain among the modes of behavior of a genetic net. The possibility of a general theory of metabolic behavior is suggested. Analytic approaches to the behavior of switching nets are discussed in Appendix 1, and some implications of the results for the origin of self replicating macromolecular systems is discussed in Appendix 6.

Michael Marshall in He may have found the key to the origins of life. So why have so few heard of him? ()

Bookmarked Budding and Division of Giant Vesicles Linked to Phospholipid Production by Juan M. Castro, Hironori Sugiyama, Taro Toyota (Scientific Reports volume 9, Article number: 165 (2019))
The self-reproduction of supramolecular assemblies based on the synthesis and self-assembly of building blocks is a critical step towards the construction of chemical systems with autonomous, adaptive, and propagation properties. In this report, we demonstrate that giant vesicles can grow and produce daughter vesicles by synthesizing and incorporating phospholipids in situ from ad-hoc precursors. Our model involves acyl chain elongation via copper(I)-catalyzed azide-alkyne [3 + 2] cycloaddition reaction and the ensuing production of synthetic phospholipids to induce budding and division. In addition, the growth and budding of giant vesicles were compatible with the encapsulation and transfer of macromolecules as large as lambda phage DNA to the buds. This chemical system provides a useful model towards the implementation of cell-like compartments capable of propagation and transport of biological materials.

Michael Marshall in He may have found the key to the origins of life. So why have so few heard of him? ()

Bookmarked Nonenzymatic Template-Directed RNA Synthesis Inside Model Protocells by Katarzyna Adamala (science.sciencemag.org)
The potential for self-replication makes RNA an attractive candidate as a primordial catalysis in the origin of life. Catalysis may have occurred in some kind of compartment, possibly a fatty acid vesicle. However, RNA catalysis generally requires high levels of magnesium, which are incompatible with fatty acid vesicle integrity. Adamala and Szostak (p. [1098][1]) screened magnesium chelators and found that several—including citrate, isocitrate, and oxalate—could maintain the membrane stability of fatty acid vesicles in the presence of Mg2+. Citrate also allowed Mg2+-dependent RNA synthesis within protocell-like vesicles, while at the same time protecting RNA from Mg2+-catalyzed degradation. Efforts to recreate a prebiotically plausible protocell, in which RNA replication occurs within a fatty acid vesicle, have been stalled by the destabilizing effect of Mg2+ on fatty acid membranes. Here we report that the presence of citrate protects fatty acid membranes from the disruptive effects of high Mg2+ ion concentrations while allowing RNA copying to proceed, while also protecting single-stranded RNA from Mg2+-catalyzed degradation. This combination of properties has allowed us to demonstrate the chemical copying of RNA templates inside fatty acid vesicles, which in turn allows for an increase in copying efficiency by bathing the vesicles in a continuously refreshed solution of activated nucleotides. [1]: /lookup/doi/10.1126/science.1241888

Michael Marshall in He may have found the key to the origins of life. So why have so few heard of him? ()

Read He may have found the key to the origins of life. So why have so few heard of him? by Michael MarshallMichael Marshall (Science)
Hungarian biologist Tibor Gánti is an obscure figure. Now, more than a decade after his death, his ideas about how life began are finally coming to fruition.
Good to see Tibor Gánti finally getting some credit. This is a great little article with a nice overview of the Origin of Life problem (and references). The author Michael Marshall has a new book out on the topic.

Peter Molnar in IndieWeb Chat ()

Bookmarked The ergodicity problem in economics by Ole Peters (Nature Physics volume 15, pages1216–1221(2019))
The ergodic hypothesis is a key analytical device of equilibrium statistical mechanics. It underlies the assumption that the time average and the expectation value of an observable are the same. Where it is valid, dynamical descriptions can often be replaced with much simpler probabilistic ones — time is essentially eliminated from the models. The conditions for validity are restrictive, even more so for non-equilibrium systems. Economics typically deals with systems far from equilibrium — specifically with models of growth. It may therefore come as a surprise to learn that the prevailing formulations of economic theory — expected utility theory and its descendants — make an indiscriminate assumption of ergodicity. This is largely because foundational concepts to do with risk and randomness originated in seventeenth-century economics, predating by some 200 years the concept of ergodicity, which arose in nineteenth-century physics. In this Perspective, I argue that by carefully addressing the question of ergodicity, many puzzles besetting the current economic formalism are resolved in a natural and empirically testable way.
Kevin Marks retweet () of 
Simon Wardley @swardley in Simon Wardley on Twitter: “Anyway, this is a fabulous paper – The ergodicity problem in economics – https://t.co/fzS3toWvT5 … well worth the read.” / Twitter ()
Read - Want to Read: How to Argue with a Racist: What Our Genes Do (and Don't) Say about Human Difference by Adam Rutherford (Experiment)
Race is not a biological reality.
Racism thrives on our not knowing this.
Racist pseudoscience has become so commonplace that it can be hard to spot. But its toxic effects on society are plain to see--feeding nationalism, fueling hatred, endangering lives, and corroding our discourse on everything from sports to intelligence. Even well-intentioned people repeat stereotypes based on "science," because cutting-edge genetics are hard to grasp--and all too easy to distort. Paradoxically, these misconceptions are multiplying even as scientists make unprecedented discoveries in human genetics--findings that, when accurately understood, are powerful evidence against racism. We've never had clearer answers about who we are and where we come from, but this knowledge is sorely needed in our casual conversations about race.
How to Argue With a Racist emphatically dismantles outdated notions of race by illuminating what modern genetics actually can and can't tell us about human difference. We now know that the racial categories still dividing us do not align with observable genetic differences. In fact, our differences are so minute that, most of all, they serve as evidence of our shared humanity.
Read - Want to Read: Shape: The Hidden Geometry of Information, Biology, Strategy, Democracy, and Everything Else by Jordan Ellenberg (Penguin Press)
From the New York Times-bestselling author of How Not to Be Wrong, himself a world-class geometer, a far-ranging exploration of the power of geometry, which turns out to help us think better about practically everything
How should a democracy choose its representatives? How can you stop a pandemic from sweeping the world? How do computers learn to play chess, and why is learning chess so much easier for them than learning to read a sentence? Can ancient Greek proportions predict the stock market? (Sorry, no.) What should your kids learn in school if they really want to learn to think? All these are questions about geometry.
For real. If you're like most people, geometry is a sterile and dimly-remembered exercise you gladly left behind in the dust of 9th grade, along with your braces and active romantic interest in pop singers. If you recall any of it, it's plodding through a series of miniscule steps, only to prove some fact about triangles that was obvious to you in the first place. That's not geometry. OK, it is geometry, but only a tiny part, a border section that has as much to do with geometry in all its flush modern richness as conjugating a verb has to do with a great novel.
Shape reveals the geometry underneath some of the most important scientific, political, and philosophical problems we face. Geometry asks: where are things? Which things are near each other? How can you get from one thing to another thing? Those are important questions. The word geometry, from the Greek, has the rather grand meaning of measuring the world. If anything, that's an undersell. Geometry doesn't just measure the world - it explains it. Shape shows us how.
Read It Wasn’t Just Trump Who Got It Wrong by Zeynep Tufekci (The Atlantic)
America’s coronavirus response failed because we didn’t understand the complexity of the problem.
Nice piece about some of the complexity surrounding the pandemic that we’re all missing out on. Good to see some complexity theory being considered in the public sphere.
Read - Want to Read: Complexity and the Function of Mind in Nature by Peter Godfrey-Smith (Cambridge University Press)
This book is a further contribution to the series Cambridge Studies in Philosophy and Biology. It is an ambitious attempt to explain the relationship between intelligence and environmental complexity, and in so doing to link philosophy of mind to more general issues about the relations between organisms and environments, and to the general pattern of "externalist" explanations. This is a highly original philosophical project that will appeal to a broad swath of philosophers, especially those working in the philosophy of biology, philosophy of mind, and epistemology.