Books, Weirdness

The Mind Palace

If you have seen the BBC TV series Sherlock, you must be aware of the term “mind palace”.

Gratuitous India reference y'all.

Clicky! Animated mind-palace gif!

The phrase makes its appearance in the first season, and seems to be played for both shock/awe and laughs. Every time, Sherlock boots people out from his immediate vicinity to access the “palace” and gets into a CGI-enhanced zone where he accesses, sifts through and retrieves information. By season 3, the mind palace has become a recurring concept, part of Sherlock’s self-aggrandizing charm, with Watson and every other character making references to it now and then.  As it turns out, Sherlock’s nemesis in Season 3 also has a mind palace of his own. Sounds like a very Convenient Tool from the writers’ arsenal, right?

Until I realized, after reading the first few chapters of a book called Moonwalking with Einstein, that the mind palace is an actual mnemonic device in use since Greco-Roman times, called ‘method of loci’. There is a Wikipedia page that talks about it in detail. People who practice and participate in the World Memory Championships use this technique to hone their brain to the extent where they can memorize the order of a shuffled deck of playing cards in as less time as possible (21 seconds is the world record, at the moment), or as many numbers as possible within the space of an hour, or random names in 15 minutes. How do they do it? It requires tremendous amount of focus and a meditative state of mind to construct a “real place” in your mind – I believe the programmatic analogy would be a multi-dimensional hash-map where the key iterator is about travelling through that real place and storing/retrieving values as you mentally walk through that place. Here is a great and detailed post that goes into way more detail than I can get into.

The book is written by a journalist named Joshua Foer, and details his own attempt at the World Memory Championships. Like I said, I have just started on the book and it’s super interesting so far – and I love the way it begins, with an account of (apparently) the first historical use of the method of loci.

 

There were no other survivors.

Family members arriving at the scene of the fifth-century-B.C. banquet hall catastrophe pawed at the debris for signs of their loved ones –  rings, sandals, anything that would allow them to identify their kin for proper burial.

Minutes earlier, the Greek poet Simonides of Ceos had stood to deliver an ode in celebration of Scopas, a Thessalian nobleman. As Simonides sat down, a messenger tapped him on the shoulder. Two young men on horseback were waiting outside, anxious to tell him something. He stood up again and walked out the door. At the very moment he crossed the threshold, the roof of the banquet hall collapsed in a thundering plume of marble shards and dust.

He now stood before a landscape of rubble and entombed bodies. The air, which had been filled with laughter moments before, was smoky and silent. Teams of rescuers set to work frantically digging through the collapsed building. The corpses they pulled out of the wreckage were mangled beyond recognition. No one could even say for sure who had been inside. One tragedy compounded another.

Then something remarkable happened that would change forever how people thought about their memories. Simonides sealed his senses to the chaos around him and reversed time in his mind. The piles of marble returned to pillars and the scattered frieze fragments reassembled in the air above. The stoneware scattered in the debris re-formed into bowls. The splinters of wood poking above the ruins once again became a table. Simonides caught a glimpse of each of the banquet guests at his seat, carrying on oblivious to the impending catastrophe. He saw Scopas laughing at the head of the table, a fellow poet sitting across from him sponging up the remnants of his meal with a piece of bread, a nobleman smirking. He turned to the window and saw the messengers approaching as if with some important news.

Simonides opened his eyes. He took each of the hysterical relatives by the hand and, carefully stepping over the debris, guided them, one by one, to the spots in the rubble where their loved ones had been sitting.

At that moment, according to legend, the art of memory was born.

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Books, Weirdness

The Meaning of Life

The more you look at the history of Homo sapiens, it’s all about movement, right from the very first time they decided to leave Africa. It is this restlessness which seems a very significant factor in the way the planet was settled by humans. It does seem that we are not settled. We think we are, but we are still looking for somewhere else where something is better – where it’s warmer, it’s more pleasant. Maybe there is an element, a spiritual element, of hope in this – that you are going to find somewhere that is wonderful. It’s the search for paradise, the search for the perfect land – maybe that’s at the bottom of it all, all the time.

A History of the World in 100 Objects (Neil MacGregor)

The world is barely there at all. Don’t we all secretly know this? It’s a perfectly balanced mechanism of shouts and echoes pretending to be wheels and cogs, a dreamclock chiming beneath a mystery-glass we call life. Behind it? Below it and around it? Chaos, storms. Men with hammers, men with knives, men with guns. Women who twist what they cannot dominate and belittle what they cannot understand. A universe of horror and loss surrounding a single lighted stage where mortals dance in defiance of the dark.

Humans were built to look back; that’s why we have that swivel joint in our necks.

Kids forget. Every teacher knows this. And they think they’re going to live forever.

11/22/63 (Stephen King)

It all goes back and back to our mothers and fathers and theirs before them. We are puppets dancing on the strings of those who came before us, and one day our own children will take up our strings and dance on in our steads.

The lines that explain what those Darn Seven Books are all about.

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Life, Weirdness

The Myth of Good Handwriting

I have come to the conclusion that the importance of good handwriting is one of the biggest lies we were taught in school.

Most of it boils down to the fact that the art of writing by hand is no longer a broadcast medium, nor a medium of exchange. In the real world, that is. In schools, or at least in most schools around most parts of the world, pen on paper and chalk on blackboard is still the default medium of information exchange. It makes sense that children are trained to write down words in a uniform legible script, and all idiosyncrasies and personal quirks of writing have to be stifled, ironed and rinsed from their system. After all, they have to write examination papers, which have to be checked and corrected by time-constrained examiners, and you do not want illegibility getting in the way of that. Obviously, nobody tells the kids that the time and effort they put into getting their cursive writing right makes absolutely no difference outside of exams. Oh, and do not sidestep the fact that teachers themselves have fairly atrocious chalk-on-board handwriting.

I am not aware of how much good hand-writing matters in schools right now, but I can make an enlightened guess things are exactly the same as they were 20-25 years ago.

Doctor-prescription jokes aside, does handwriting matter any more after you get out of your academic life? Writing has already been superseded by typing, which itself is on its way out. Sure, you take notes during a meeting, which in all likelihood you will glance at once or twice, and maybe capture it in a more permanent format. No one will come to you and remark on the aesthetics of your handwriting or the deficiencies in your personality because you were not legible enough when taking notes. You sit down and write a letter by hand, to make it more personal. But why does good handwriting matter in that act? Isn’t the very effort of taking time out to write the letter reason enough for the receiver to feel good about the act? I cannot think of a situation where they would complain about bad handwriting – sure, it can be hard to read, but it is you, not an artificial, homogenized hand. (If they do complain, I suggest that you type it out next time, and add a signature at the end. Make sure you say “Yours faithfully” too, just to rub it in.)

The more I think about it, and the more I discuss it – on Twitter, yeah, where civil discussion and clear exchange of ideas is possible, despite what you may think – the more I think that the myth of “good handwriting” is just something that is propagated through memetic traditions prevelant in India. Like the music of Pink Floyd or the sayings of MK Gandhi,  where a combination of nostalgia and personal belief that something is “important” or “good” stiffs any attempt to rationally understand why it is so, or look at alternatives. “It helps”, one may say, but it is hard to explain how good handwriting helps. “First impressions.” Really? Like you will appreciate a person better after you have seen the way he writes down – what exactly? Signing a check? A signature is meant to be unique, not aesthetically pleasing. It is highly unlikely that people besides the ones closest to you will ever get to see what your hand-writing looks like, and as long as your handwriting is not brazenly illegible, there should be no problem at all. Pretty handwriting may impress someone, but if you try to figure out why they are impressed by it, it will probably be because your handwriting is prettier than theirs. Or so they think.

You could also point out about the importance of graphology, the science of handwriting analysis and people interpreting your personality (especially in organizations, as a means of identifying character traits. However, I have never really seen any organizations actually resort to graphology to judge potential candidates). But there again, the traits in your hand-writing, the way they are, represent you as an individual. “Good” or “bad”? Does not matter.

Let it be noted, however, that I am not talking about calligraphy. Which is an art that needs to be sustained and encouraged. Calligraphy is something that is to be evaluated purely from an aesthetic perspective (after all, it is ‘beauty in writing’) and I do not need to go into how much modern typography revolves around it.

I also pondered about the complete lie that is the concept of participation certificates, but that does not need any explaining. At all.

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Fiction, Weirdness

Hello

YOU HAVE A PRIVATE MESSAGE FROM NATALIE FRITZ, said the subject-line of the first email.

“Hey Stranger”, Natalie began. “A friend of mine told me I can easily find someone in my area.” Blah blah portfolio blah blah call me yadda yadda discreet sexual encounter in hotel room. Five lines to get to the point. I clicked on the accompanying link more out of habit that actual interest, and moved on to Jackie Cassell, and Francesca Valdez, and Brittany Eyman. Tough to pick, all their profiles had an airbrushed, unimaginative similarity that screamed eager-to-please. Boring.

Francesca’s blunt “Let’s fuck like rabbits” helped. I wrote three lines – nothing too flashy, nothing that reeked of formality. A mild compliment, a Seinfeld reference in the second line (Seinfeld always gets them, somehow), and ending with a casual “let’s meet around five, take care”. Hit send. I figured it would take her about an hour to respond. She sounded a one-hour type, just like Kylie from last week, and Vivian and Jessy. There was this one – what was her name again, Corina? Clarissa? Yes, Clarissa – who responded in thirty minutes, the current record. I liked Clarissa, we shared a lot of discreet hotel time that week.

One email from drugsonline_258 and another from Lin Courtney. I checked my Cialis stock just to make sure I have enough to last next week. Wrote a polite “hey-what’s-up” to drugsonline_258. Dougie – that was his name, a college drop-out with a T1 line, a heart of gold and a a steady supply of the good stuff – Doug the Dog made a point of offering great discounts to valued customers. I was one of them and I liked to keep up the personal relationship. You really have to admire a guy who knows how to maintain his customers’ inches-to-height ratio, if you know what I mean.

I didn’t respond to Lin – her last batch of MAX-Gentleman pills arrived two days too late, and she did not include the complimentary stash of Viagra that she promised.

Four mails from Nigerians. Henry and his friends, Christ. I took charge of Henry’s money a year ago. With a twenty percent commission, which was way less than the de facto thirty-five percent others charged. Twenty percent of his Swiss stash of two million dollars still made for a pretty chunk of pocket change, and my goodwill gesture was telegraphed to the rest of his countrymen, just like I hoped. Every other week, some oil prince or junior minister sent in a polite, awkwardly worded missive, full of detailed family histories and apologetic explanations and a seven-figure amount. I kept my replies short and my percent constant. I liked Henry and his pals. And other than a few nervous calls from Chase Manhattan about the frequent wire transfers to and from my checking account, things are fine.

The iPad offers are getting tiresome. Sure, they’re a dollar each, but not sure if I should get myself another one of those. Some site tries to scam me into spending $4.99, some spiel about matching 10% of retail price. Good luck finding a sucker, buddy.I send them crisp “Not interested” one-liners, the same that goes to the $800 VIP casino prizes, the holiday deals, the work-from-home offers. Too many of them with too little money, and I don’t have the time.

Francesca’s reply arrived just as I was done with my last email. Two minutes shy of Clarissa’s half-hour record. I texted her on the number she sent me, and got up to make myself some coffee. I glanced at the email from my my brother, and another from Jonathan from my old work-place asking how I was doing. I deleted them right away. I don’t have time for spam today.

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Books, Weirdness

Don’t Date A Reader

Don’t date a man who reads. Don’t date a man who spends more on books than on things that matter. Don’t be with someone who lives in an apartment filled with a mountain of paperbacks and hardcovers, out-of-date New Yorker and Economist magazines, the contents of which he may have glanced through the day he bought them and then stacked them up against the wall just to show that he made an effort. Don’t go out with someone who’d rather carry a book than a gym bag. He probably does not exercise, eats unhealthy and will have a heart attack at 40.

Don’t date a man who keeps going on and on about books and poems, essays and reviews. The kind of man who is so excited about the Murakami that he finished last night that he just has to tell you all about it, in detail, even though you are running late for lunch. He will casually ask you about the last thing you have read, and if you fumble, or mention a name that is too pedestrian, he will judge you for it. If you show the slightest spark of interest in his reading, he will proceed to thrust his enthusiasm on you. You may find it amusing at first, maybe even a little sexy, but it soon gets tiresome. Every conversation will become an endless thrust-and-parry of words; any casual comment you make will result in a barbed riposte.

It’s easy to notice – and avoid – someone who reads. He’ll be the one slinking through a bookstore looking for a title someone mentioned on an obscure literary website. He does not need to buy another copy of that Neil Gaiman book just because it is the Author’s Preferred Text and has five thousand extra words, but he will. The kind of man who grins like an idiot when he comes across a first edition of The Dark Tower or a dog-eared, scotch-taped copy of Catcher in the Rye, just because that he can brag about it to his friends later. If you date a man like that (and I really suggest you don’t), be prepared to smile and nod when he tells you (for the twenty-ninth time) about how he met Jonathan Franzen in a Trader Joe’s parking lot. But try talking to him about something remotely to do with life, or your feelings, or the last episode of The Big Bang Theory that you enjoyed, and he will probably not know how to react. Or tell you that he never liked that series anyway.

Don’t date a man who reads. He is the kind of man who says he has a busy social calendar, but chooses to sit in his room and alphabetically index his collection instead. He can’t pass a bookstore without popping in “just to see”, but complains about waiting for you for fifteen minutes outside the changing room of the department store because his precious reading time is ticking away. He spends hundreds of dollars on eBay buying full runs of Louis L’Amour novels, but wears the same pair of sneakers everywhere because he cannot spare the extra money to get himself a good pair of shoes. Don’t date a man who, on your birthday (if he remembers your birthday), buys you another book that you will never read. Who thinks flowers are impractical and environment-unfriendly, but continues to buy paperbacks because e-readers “don’t smell right”.

Don’t date a man who reads fiction. He thinks that life is a fairy tale, and that happy endings exist, and that every story needs a villain. He sees the world in black and white and avoids the grays. He has a smart, ironic comeback every time he messes up, as if his wrong-doing can be washed away with puerile, second-hand wit. He will consider himself more knowledgeable than your friends; he scoffs at their conversation because he thinks they are shallow. He will go to the movies with you, but rolls his eyes at the parts you enjoy, because they are not faithful to the book. He will accompany you to parties, but refuse to wear anything but Threadless t-shirts because he feels dressing up destroys his individuality.

Don’t date a man who reads. He’ll keep the bedside lamp on till 2 in the morning to finish the last chapter of the book he’s reading. Chances are high that he will sigh loudly when he’s done, just to make sure you wake up uneasily and ask him if everything is all right. Don’t date a man who will refuse to go out on a sunny day, choosing instead to loll in bed and reread his Wodehouse. If you lie with him, he will scratch your head distractedly. If you try to cuddle, he will push you away and ask you to make him a coffee. He will say please, but as an afterthought, and only because Mr.Darcy would have. Yes, the sex will be interesting, but only because he is thinking of Henry Miller and Nabokov.

You don’t deserve a man who thinks he is a Victorian hero come to life, who pretends he can take care of everything but cannot fix a leaking tap, whose  has his head in the clouds and up his ass. You don’t deserve a man whose room smells of musty paper and printer’s ink. You definitely do not deserve a man who refuses to get a TV connection because he cannot stand commercials. You don’t want to be with someone who cannot stand on a beach and watch the moon rise without quoting Shakespeare. A man who can recite Tennyson by heart, but does not know the names of his neighbors. A man who always – always – wants to get the last word in.

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