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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TV Shows, Weirdness

The Sherlock Problem

So I’ve been watching Sherlock. Have you been watching Sherlock? You should. Season 2 Episode 2 just aired yesterday, and I saw it about 5 hours after the telecast time. Making this the first TV series EVER, since BR Chopra’s Mahabharat aired on Indian National Television way back in 1987-89, that I’ve watched the same day it first came on TV. The Hounds of Baskerville was fun, though not as much as episode 1. There, I said it – even a great TV series like this one has its off moments, and this episode was it. The structure and the plot was too glaringly obvious for my taste, and besides, the whole set-up felt a little too X-Filesey for my taste. Though there are a bunch of snappy moments between Holmes and Watson that iron the disappointment away.

On a side-note, I feel glad about having read the Sherlock Holmes stories early on in life. An attempted rereading of A Scandal In Bohemia last week ended up being a little disappointing. I have a bad feeling that if I start rereading the Conan Doyle stories, I may not enjoy them as much.

Now here’s something that sort of stuck in my head, with all these reboots and remakes being churned out nowadays, especially the ones where the lead characters and the main story-line are re-imagined as contemporary characters. There’s an obvious problem with these reboots, one that I had not thought about until watching Sherlock. Or specifically, one scene in episode 1 of the first season, where John Watson searches online to find out more about his prospective flatmate. The results show us that within the world of Sherlock, Arthur Conan Doyle never existed. Or even if he did, he never met Dr Joseph Bell. Well, maybe the two did meet, but Conan Doyle definitely did not write the Holmes stories. Which also means that there were no adaptations of those non-existent Sherlock Holmes stories. No Basil Rathbone or Jeremy Brett. No Jamyang Norbu or Laurie King or Detective Comics #572. None of these are particularly earth-shaking changes. But one specific thing worries me quite a bit – Google does not exist in this world. How on earth the absence of Conan Doyle’s Holmes is related to the non-invention of the world’s biggest search engine is something that needs careful, logical train of thought, something that astute people around me will know I am not capable of.

Quest Search, the fictional search engine inside the Sherlock TV series

But if you extrapolate this further, every fictional world has the same problem – which real-world people and items can exist inside a given work of fiction without upsetting the central conceit of that world?

Homework: Can anyone think of a movie with a sequel that contains the former as a movie inside itself, watched by a character in the latter? (I can)

Also, can you think of a reboot/remake that explicitly refers to the events of the original movie? (I can’t)

Also related: Rockstar as Speculative Fiction. Because I think of shit like this all the time.

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Television

A Scandal in Belgravia

You start giggling approximately a minute into the opening of ‘A Scandal in Belgravia’, when a Bee Gees song begins to play. And the laughs just don’t stop, as writer Stephen Moffat and director Paul McGuigan create a rousing remix of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories that is adventure laced liberally with humor.

Spoilery observations and tee-hee points:

Much of what I like about Sherlock is the innovative modern-day parallels that the series brings to the original stories. An American opera singer is transposed to a British dominatrix, a photograph becomes a bunch of photos and videos on a phone, and a region in Germany becomes a London district. A whole bunch of other Holmes cases are punningly name-dropped. The Speckled Blonde, The Geek Interpreter. The blog counter stuck at 1895. Well-played, guys, well-played.

Irene Adler’s War-Dress is a joy to behold.

“Brainy is the new sexy.”

I liked the way the central focus of the original Holmes story – that of Holmes having to find the picture for his client – is covered in the first 1/3rd of the episode, and the remaining portion is devoted to exploring this delightful – relationship? – between Holmes and The Woman. A relationship that involves her vital statistics, her pulse, her password – and of course, her death.

“It’s a bit rude, that noise, isn’t it?”

Great use of the supporting cast of the show – specially Mrs Hudson. Sherlock and Watson both show a tremendous amount of affection for this lady, played with just the right amount of eccentricity by Una Stubbs. Most of the regulars turning up at a Christmas party at 221B Baker Street (which also features the most uncomfortable deduction scene ever) is a treat, having them all being subjected to Sherlock’s moody quips and yet be around, most amusing.

Did anyone check out @TheWhipHand on Twitter? Or John Watson’s Blog? Also this, which is hilarious beyond belief, but please proceed with caution. The title of the blog gives out one of the most crucial plot points of the episode.

Crackling dialogues abound. One of my favorite scenes involves Mycroft and Sherlock in the corridor of a hospital where, between puffs of a cigarette, the two brothers stare at a grieving family in the distance. “Look at them”, Sherlock says. “They all care so much.” The camera frames the two brothers in profile, through an assymetrical frame on one side of the screen. “Do you ever wonder if there’s something wrong with us?”, he wonders aloud. “All lies end”,  the elder brother responds. “All hearts are broken. Caring is not an advantage.”  There is a reason why their mutual enemy refers to him as “The Iceman”.

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All in all, Sherlock season 2 is a perfect example of how quality programming speaks for itself. Just today morning, Adi Tantimedh wrote about TV shows burning out, citing two once-popular shows that have jumped the shark in recent times thanks to lazy writing and needless season renewals. This show, on the other hand, proves that if you bring your best to the table, you can win over viewers regardless of production delays and non-adherence to an annual schedule.

“But initially he wanted to be a pirate.”

An excellent start to the New Year. Two more episodes lie in wait for us, and I have high, high hopes for both of them.

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