It’s behind you

I was skimming through my blog archives recently and I came across a post I wrote back in April but didn’t get round to publishing. It’s nice and short (compared to my usual essays) and made me chuckle when I reread it (having forgotten all about this idea since I first wrote it down), so here it is for your entertainment and edification:

When I was learning to drive, many moons ago, one of the basic lessons drummed into me was “Mirror – Signal – Manoeuvre”; in other words, before you make any significant change in your motion you should first check that the coast is clear (including, but not limited to, checking behind you with the aid of your mirrors), then signal your intention to other road users.

This is eminently sensible advice. It’s good for cyclists as well as drivers although, of course, it’s fairly unusual to find bikes equipped with mirrors. I know such things do exist but I can’t remember when (if, indeed, ever) I last saw one in the wild.

In order to keep the mnemonic letters MSM but make it a bit more appropriate for cyclists, I’ve taken to thinking of the first word as Monitor rather than Mirror.

It recently occurred to me that a further tweak could perhaps make it even more memorable. My new, and hopefully tastier, mnemonic is MSG – “Monitor – Signal – Go”.

Apart from sharing its initials with a popular food additive and saving a couple of syllables, this has the benefit of not requiring you to remember how to spell “manoeuvre” when you’re writing it down. 🙂

Plumming the depths of memory

Memory is a funny thing.

You can forget about something for many years and then, due to a random association (or even no discernible cause whatsoever), remember it suddenly.

This happened to me yesterday while I was eating a plum. All of a sudden, a couple of lines from a German poem that I vaguely learned almost 20 years ago (and haven’t looked at or thought about at all for several years) came floating into my mind.

In this case, the association wasn’t too random since it is actually a short poem about a plum tree by Bertold Brecht (who, I believe, was more famous as a playwright, though certainly also a well-respected poet).  It is called Der Pflaumenbaum (the Plum Tree) and it runs like this:

Im Hofe steht ein Pflaumenbaum,
Der ist klein, man glaubt es kaum.
Er hat ein Gitter drum,
So tritt ihn keiner um.

Der Kleine kann nicht größer wer’n.
Ja, größer wer’n, das möcht er gern;
‘s ist keine Red davon,
Er hat zu wenig Sonn.

Den Pflaumenbaum glaubt man ihm kaum,
Weil er nie eine Pflaume hat.
Doch er ist ein Pflaumenbaum,
Man kennt es an dem Blatt.

Here’s my own rough prose translation: “There’s a plum tree in the yard. It’s small and you hardly notice it. It has a fence round it, to stop people tripping over it. The small thing can’t grow any bigger. Yes, it would love to grow bigger; but there’s no way it can – it gets too little sun. You’d scarcely believe it’s a plum tree as it never has any plums. But it is a plum tree – you can tell by the leaves.”

On one level it’s quite a mundane, almost banal little tale and the simplicity of the meter coupled with the strong rhyming makes it sound suspiciously like doggerel verse.  However, I think it’s quite charming and also, especially in the middle stanza, rather sad.

One detail that I find quite interesting is that while the first two stanzas follow an AABB rhyming scheme, the third stanza switches to ABAB.  Also, there are a couple of places where the basic rhythm of the stanzas is varied, most notably in the penultimate line (which is emphasing the identity of the plum tree against all evidence to the contrary and perhaps, therefore, most needs to be a stand-out line).  This slight break in the regularity, I think, makes a huge difference to the sonic impact of the poem (though it would make it slightly more difficult to set it to music – an exercise which I might one day try).

Constructing a Memory Palace

Over the last few days I’ve been reading an interesting book that a friend lent me.  It’s intriguingly entitled Moonwalking with Einstein: The art and science of remembering everything and is by American journalist Joshua Foer (published by Penguin in 2011; ISBN 97800-141-03213-9, in case you want to track down a copy).

The subject of the book is memory.  In particular it traces Foer’s own year-long journey to the finals of the USA Memory Championship, sparked by a chance encounter with a photograph at a museum in Pennsylvania while killing time waiting to interview somebody for an article about something completely different.  However, he also goes into quite a bit of detail about the techniques that mental athletes (or mnemonists, to use the technical term) use for prodigious feats of memorisation, and the history behind them.  When it comes down to it, the ability to do things like memorise the order of cards in 27 consecutive decks of randomly shuffled playing cards (that’s 1404 cards, BTW, assuming you leave out the jokers) is more about carefully practised technique than any natural inbuilt ability.

In the modern world, when we have such conveniences as printed books and the internet to store information for us, the art of memory is somewhat marginalised but in earlier times the ability to remember what we would now consider to be vast tracts of information was decidedly useful.  Consequently quite a lot of effort was devoted to the development of various techniques to aid the memory and there are several extant classical texts that deal with the subject.  Foremost among them is a shortish Latin work, formerly attributed to Cicero but now considered to be of unknown authorship, entitled Rhetorica ad Herennium (“Rhetoric: For Herennius”; the dedicatee is, as far as I know, as mysterious as the author).  This book is notable for containing the first known description of the method of loci (aka. the memory palace), which is a particularly influential (and evidently effective) mnemonic device that works by creating mental associations between the things to be remembered and a series of specific physical locations that the mnemonist can easily recall.

There are quite a few memory techniques in use by the modern mnemonists.  Many of them are essentially the ones described in the Ad Herennium and other ancient texts.  What most of the techniques, including the method of loci, have in common is that they rely largely on visual or other sensory associations.  This is because the human brain is evidently optimised for remembering these things rather than more abstract stuff like words and numbers.

Thinking about it, this does seem to accord with what I’ve noticed about how my own memory seems to work.  For instance, if somebody asks me who was at a particular meeting I attended a few days ago, I almost invariably find myself trying to picture the group sat around the room in order to remember who was there.

I haven’t yet tried to make serious use of any of the mnemonic devices presented in the book and I suspect I probably won’t, although from time to time it may be handy to set up a small memory palace to help remember something particularly important.  However the book, as well as being an interesting read, has definitely contained some useful advice.  One section I was reading this morning talked about the difference between effective and ineffective practising, be it in music, memorisation or any other sphere of activity.  Foer writes:

When you want to get good at something, how you spend your time practising is far more important than the amount of time you spend… Regular practice simply isn’t enough.  To improve, we must watch ourselves fail, and learn from our mistakes.

I’m sure there was something else I was going to add to this post, but I’ve been called away to do other things since I started writing it and now I can’t remember what that was!