Archive for January, 2012

“Moonwalking with Einstein” is the story of Joshua Foer, an American journalist who covered the US Memory Championships and was so smitten with what he saw that he sought the expertise of K. Anders Ericsson, psychology professor at Florida State University and Ed Cooke, a regular competing “memory athlete” to teach him the techniques the contestants were using. Foer participated in the contest the following year, walking away with the title. This book is partly pop science, partly autobiographical adventure story and partly a pot-pourri of interesting snippets on memory, the written word, educational theory and the nature of skill and expertise.

It seems the title confused some readers. “This wasn’t a book on how to improve your memory,” moaned one Amazon reviewer. “I got the general concept of how the techniques work but no detail which left me confused and a little annoyed.”

The book was never intended to be a “how to” manual. Nevertheless, as someone who had already taken a memory training course, the author’s descriptions of the techniques he was using gave me plenty of useful snippets to take specific areas of that skill to whole new levels, particularly with regard to speed training and memorizing long numbers or other lengthy, abstract data if I so needed.

From time to time, a critic would join the pmemory forum and say that nobody used the pmemory system of numeric figurative codes for serious competition. This assertion was usually in vehement defence of the “Major System”. One of the first things that I found interesting is that Foer reveals that the memory champions don’t use the Major System to remember numbers either. They use a system called “Person – Action – Object”, or “PAO” for short. Each number is represented by an image of a person performing an action on an object, e.g. Frank Sinatra (person) singing (action) into a microphone (object). For six-digit numbers, the memory athlete would take the person representing the first two digits and combine it with the action representing the second two digits with the object from the third two digits, giving a ridiculous, but unique and readily memorable image. This would give him/her a picture for every number up to 999,999 while only having to learn figurative codes for numbers up to 99.

Contestants are apparently always working at developing new techniques that will enable them to memorize more information while having to visualize fewer pictures while doing so. Foer used the analogy of an arms race – someone will come up with some bigger and better system, and then everyone else starts using it and the contest is on to come up with something better still that will give the memory athlete an edge over the rest of the field. Ed Cooke developed the system “Millennium PAO”, in which every number from 0 to 999,999,999 is represented by its own unique image. Similar systems are used for memorizing playing cards and binary digits.

Foer devotes a chapter to “the OK plateau”; the level of skill at which progress tops out and the person makes little or no further improvement. It had long been believed that a person reaching the OK plateau had reached the level of their innate capacity. Upon reaching such a plateau while drilling memorizing cards at speed, Foer called Ericsson for advice. He was told to obtain a metronome and set it 10-20% faster than his current level of skill and keep trying at the faster pace until he stopped making mistakes. If there was a card that kept on giving trouble, Foer was to make a note of it and analyze why it was giving problems. This advice is doubly interesting, not only because it has applicability to areas of skill besides memory, but also because it demonstrates that the level at which many of us stop improving at various endeavours may have more to do with our own consideration that we are now good enough for purpose, rather than being a true index of our ultimate capability.

The pmemory course and forum are quite critical of other memory systems, and reading them both, one could be forgiven for having the idea that the author of the course and the forum members knew what techniques serious competitors were using. My conclusion now is that they probably don’t.

One thing both the pmemory course and many aspects of serious competition have in common is speed, but I feel that their respective approaches may be different. Ed Cooke describes to Foer about the speed aspect – competitors are moving so fast in events such as the speed cards that the only impression the competitor may get is a passing glance as the cards are turned over. The skill here is to learn just how little of the image one needs to see to make it memorable. He describes how it may not be necessary to see the whole image, and to focus on one salient element of it, because if you know your figurative code image system well enough, you should be able to translate that image back again. In fact, when the competitor is really going for broke, the only traces they may form are a series of emotions with no visual images at all. That is a complete departure from what we are taught in pmemory.

Possibly the biggest surprise for me in the book was the revelations about Daniel Tammet, and the questions raised about the nature of his extraordinary memory and freaky on-the-spot arithmetical calculations. Apparently, Daniel competed in the World Memory Championships a couple of times under the name Daniel Corney, achieving fourth place in the year 2000. Foer asks some penetrating questions about the nature of his alleged savantism, and points out how others, upon seeing the TV documentary about Daniel (“Brainman” or “The Boy with the Incredible Brain”), raise suspicions about his mental calculation techniques. Some say that these can be learned by anyone, and that what Daniel is doing is nothing out of the ordinary, and that the stuff he talks about synaesthesia and so on is just an obfuscation of what he is actually doing. There is, so they say, no way of “calculating without calculating”. Daniel may not be a savant after all, but a trained mnemonist who has learned mental calculation and calendar calculation, and there is no comparison between him and the real “Rain Man”, Kim Peek, who also appeared on the documentary.

Just before Foer wraps up with book with his account of how he won the US Memory Championships, he discusses “Mr. Memory” himself, Tony Buzan. Allegedly, opinion on the memory contest circuit is sharply divided about the man who founded the memory championships. Some worship the very ground he walks on, others think he is merely the purveyor of over-hyped self-help books. Foer’s bizarre interview with Buzan, conducted in the back of his chauffeur-driven classic car from Central London to Buzan’s abode a 45-minute drive away, is strongly suggestive of the self-styled guru: his unique mode of dress, his mannerisms and anecdotes, and his mysterious request that the location of his home not be revealed in print.

One thing this book certainly confirms for me is that probably every one of us could develop at least one skill to extraordinary levels, given the right training, sufficient time and bags of dedication.

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Upon hearing the news of a Nottingham couple winning the £40 million jackpot on the Euromillions lottery, I began speculating what I could do with such a windfall.

For a limited time, at least, I would be able to have my time freed up to do my work without having to waste the greatest part of each day doing things I don’t want to do just to put a roof over my head and food on the table. I would also have the means to outsource tasks that swallow up yet further proportions of my time unnecessarily, enabling the work to be done in a distraction-free environment.

Where I needed to take time out for additional training in specific areas, or to travel abroad in order to network, close deals or even undertake training in another part of the world for several months, I would be able to do so without a second thought.

Instead of worrying about how I’m going to save up for even one piece of equipment that I need to start the research, I would be able to have a fully equipped laboratory suite to work in. And be able to staff it, and pay volunteers’ expenses.

The drafting in of technicians and other experts to handle specific issues that may come up (such as IT or other equipment installation) would be no problem.

Publishing, promotion and any other administrative matters could easily be covered out of the small change.

Any training courses, materials, equipment, delivery organizations etc. that were developed as a result of the research, and from which the public would be able to benefit, could be established from part of the sum, and continue to raise revenue in terms of books, courses and equipment sold, which could potentially fund continuing R&D.

But yet again, I can foresee a large windfall being spent on houses, cruises, holidays, parties, cars and champagne. If you award such a sum to those of average ability and average disposition, that is what will inevitably happen.

I have heard it said that extraordinary ability needs extraordinary opportunity. Clearly, the Euromillions number-picking machine didn’t get that memo.

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Reading this article about physicist and polymath Robert Hooke, I was reminded once again of why the extent of a person’s genius should never be measured in terms of public name recognition.

I’d choose a difficult, irascible Hooke over a zillion charming idiots any day of the week.

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Reading the letters page of the London Metro this morning, I see that the story is still rumbling around regarding Cait Reilly, the graduate who is suing the Government over being made to take a work placement in Poundland, or lose her benefits.



While I can see the arguments on both sides of the story, what sticks out for me is the hypocrisy being shown by many commenters.

Kids at school are told that they had better work hard enough to go to University and get a degree, otherwise they’ll end up working in Poundland. So the kid works hard and gets their degree, and then they’re berated for not wanting to take a job in Poundland.

I’ll wager that most students (unless they come from an exceptionally privileged family background) have done plenty of grunt jobs to pay their way while studying already. What possible value can an extra few weeks’ work in Poundland add to their CV?

This scheme was supposed to be to catch out people who are working illegally while claiming benefits. While a lawsuit might be a bit extreme, at least it’s got people talking about how unintelligently the scheme is being administered.

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I found the following email in my mailbox this morning:

Hello my friend!
In the times of uncertainty, when everything shakes and collapses, investment in to your own personal potential and abilities is the safest and wisest.
Some people so get used to struggle with their learning and memorization that they actually believe it is normal to read a book and forget its content in just a few weeks or days. What is the point?
If you can imagine how different your life would be if you could memorize entire books and if you recognize the importance of your mental shape and abilities such as speed of thinking, sharp focus and stable, effortless attention – then you are going to LOVE my 2012 present!
I decided to give away 100 courses for just 99$ to those who truly see the potential of having real Phenomenal Memory.
The discount coupon can be used only 100 times. The Coupon name is – just99
Happy New 2012 Year! You have unlimited potential and I hope you let it shine in 2012!

School of Phenomenal Memory
PO BOX 48171, Spokane, WA 99208-1171, USA

My reply:


You have got a nerve sending me this when my account on the site has been locked out since the summer!

If you have no intention of restoring my access to the forum or the student area, then would you at least do me the courtesy of removing me from your email list.


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Finally, I’ve found an electronic version of this article to link to.

Minds are as clever as they will ever be, say scientists

It’s all downhill from here – we are as clever as we are ever going to be, scientists have concluded.

If our brains were to evolve any further, it would increase the risk of disorders such as autism.

Our grey matter has hit an evolutionary ‘sweet spot’ – with the  perfect balance between high intelligence and a balanced personality.

But scientists claim that, if our brains did become more advanced, we would be more likely to develop disorders such as autism or synaesthesia, where several senses ‘join together’ and are indistinguishable.

Becoming super-intelligent would also increase the chances of us concentrating too hard on tiny details of life and missing the wider picture.

Researchers from the University of Warwick and the University of Basel in Switzerland cite how people who already have high IQs are more likely to suffer autism, synaesthesia or other neural disorders.

Ritalin is used to help improve the attention span of hyperactive children but, when given to someone with good concentration levels, it can lessen their mental agility.

‘There is a “sweet spot” in terms of enhancing our mental abilities,’ said study author Dr Thomas Hills, from the University of Warwick.

‘If you go beyond that spot, you have to pay the price.’

Read more: http://www.metro.co.uk/news/884305-minds-are-as-clever-as-they-will-ever-be-say-scientists#ixzz1iUDQS4hD

I have to disagree with the writer’s assessment of synaesthesia being a disorder. I consider it to be just another dimension to my internal life. And sometimes my intensity and focus on the current project can be mistaken for Aspergoid traits.

If a few personal quirks happen to be concomitant with a statistically deviant IQ, then I feel it’s a small price to pay. I like being that way.


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