lifehacks mental exercises

Harnessing Wayward Ideas: Setup for MPH #13

My experiences putting Mind Performance Hack #1 into action await a later post, as I am planning to work with each hack for a suitable period of time before drawing conclusions as to its effectiveness or utility. Incidentally, I received a very nice note from Ron Hale-Evans, the primary author of Mind Performance Hacks. Hi, Ron! I hope that this series does not disappoint.

Hack #13, “Catch Your Ideas“, is the first hack of the Information Processing section of the book. Like a fair number of the hacks, it is by an author other than Ron Hale-Evans, in this case, Lion Kimbro. Lion is the author of a curious screed entitled How to Make a Complete Map of Every Thought You Think, a text that does a rather good job delivering what it promises. I scanned through it a few years back and found some definitely interesting bits, but Kimbro says it best himself:

If you do the things described in this book, you will be IMMOBILIZED for the duration of your commitment.The immobilization will come on gradually, but steadily. In the end, you will be incapable of going somewhere without your cache of notes, and will always want a pen and paper w/ you . . . You will not only be immobilized in the arena of action, but you will also be immobilized in the arena of thought. This appears to be contradictory, but it’s not really. When you are writing down your thoughts, you are making them clear to yourself, but when you revise your thoughts, it requires a lot of work- you have to update old ideas to point to new ideas. This discourages a lot of new thinking. There is also a “structural integrity” to your old thoughts that will resist change. You may actively not-think certain things, because it would demand a lot of note keeping work.

Kimbro also describes the positive aspects of his method, but I am far too familiar with (and prone to) system paralysis, the syndrome where some system one is using begins to eat up ever-larger portions of one’s time and life. When I first started keeping journals I was laboriously detailed, attempting to capture every minutia of thought and memory. Such compulsive devotion is only sustainable for limited periods of time.

Hack #13 could be considered HtMaCMoETYT-light, and as such is much more practical than the full system as part of a balanced, mentally healthy lifestyle. It proposes a “catch”, a system to capture and store all those cool ideas that flit through one’s head while one is engaged in hum-drum quotidiana.

It suggests using loose-leaf, ruled 8.5″ x 11″ paper divided into three columns, specifying a broad subject, a “hint” or keyphrase, and the idea itself. One is to always carry such a sheet around and, right after having an interesting thought, one is to capture it in just enough detail so that one can recall it later. These capture sheets are processed regularly, and the ideas copied onto other sheets of paper for each subject and filed. A system for numbering and referencing the ideas is mentioned as well; this seems to be part of Kimbro’s larger system, but its utility as part of this catch system is not immediately apparent to me.

My current system is somewhat related, if not quite as formal. My note-taking apparatus consists of a carefully organized and binder-clipped pack of index cards (a.k.a. a Hipster PDA) and an unruled Moleskine notebook. If I am engaged in an activity where I don’t want anything bulky in my pockets (like taking a lunchtime walk), I’ll stick one or two folded index cards in my pocket and scribble down any ideas that I don’t want to lose.

My Current Catch Idea-Flow

In theory, the scribbles are transferred either to the Hipster (if they are practical actions or goals) or to the Moleskine (if they are interesting ideas that I want to preserve for future contemplation). In practice, though, the scribble-cards often don’t get transcribed in a timely fashion and begin to clutter up my binder clip. The notes in the Moleskine are not organized beyond their chronological capture-dates. Reviewing them can be very interesting, but it’s difficult to assess them in any coherent fashion.

I’ll be modifying this hack as I put it into practice. For the first week I’ll continue to use my current system for capture. Rather than the Moleskine, though, I’ll transfer the notes to larger sheets of paper for each subject (unruled, as I have a prejudice against sloppily-printed blue lines cramping my style).

For the second week, I’ll shift to carrying full sheets of paper around with me (I might even suppress my aesthetics and use ruled, if I have some in the closet) instead of index cards, and compare the experience. For both weeks, I’ll be focusing on paying attention to my ideas as they occur and making notes about them as close to occurrence as possible. I’ve noticed that ideas come in clusters: once I’ve written down one, several more are likely to occur to me in fairly short order.

This hack is strictly paper-oriented: the issues around using computers for idea capture and storage will have to be left as fodder for a later post.

potables and comestibles

The Waning Garden

Tangled TomatoesEach year, I attempt to grow a garden, and inevitably I engage in overambitious planting. I start off most assiduously, but as the summer progresses the neatly tended, weedless rows degenerate into wild (and often underwatered) tangles. Despite this, the harvest always includes a frightening quantity of tomatoes.
Chard EnvyOur neighbor is a retired Sicilian, and his backyard looks like a small patch of southern Italy. No weeds dare grow in his yard, and his plants are lush and productive. I have chard envy.

Tomatoes and AsparagusHis tomatoes are carefully trained up long poles, trimmed into strict compliance with his will. They tower over my bushy, uncontrolled specimens. In the picture to the right, my tomatoes are lower and in the front, mixed with asparagus fronds. The asparagus is in its second year and has been growing vigorously. I’m looking forward to next spring’s harvest.

Habaneros ready for pickingThe pepper harvest has been quite satisfactory, though I still need to figure out what to do with all these habaneros. The second major crop is ready for harvest.

This year, I managed to keep up with oppressing the weeds and picking the ripe fruit through July, earning approving comments. Inevitably, though, work and school absorbed my attention, and it doesn’t take long for tidiness to transform into a near-jungle.

A Wilderness of FennelTwo years ago I purchased a single purple fennel plant. It grew happily for a season and died among a few green plants that sprang up on their own. Last year, I had quite a few of both the green and purple varieties that grew themselves without any interference on my part, which made me happy. They’re quite attractive and tasty (great for salads, grilled fish, or my favorite coriander-crusted scallops in fennel broth).

This year, the fennel has decided it is in charge. I didn’t fully understand its agenda and let the plants grow as they wished. After they reach a certain height, their stems become woody and more or less impossible to uproot. They are now noticeably taller than I am. If I touch them, fennel seeds rain down on the soil, sealing my fate for next year.

Fennel ResurgentThey smell wonderful in the evenings, though. Arriving home late at night after a long day at work and evening at school, the air is scented with their anise-like aroma.

Despite the late season, a few new fennel plants have started to pop up. The specimen shown at left can be seen menacing my thyme.

Oy, Tarragon!My neighbor may not approve, but an overgrown herb garden is a wonderful thing. My role in tending them is mostly to act as a peacekeeper, setting boundary disputes that arise. I planted a scraggly frond of tarragon two years ago, and it has grown into a monstrous near-bush. I’ve had to tie it back to restrain its depredations against the sage plant that can be seen behind it.

Three SagesPerennial herbs are quite satisfactory, and I’ve had particular luck growing sage, an herb that is both attractive and tasty. Three different kinds can be seen in the picture at left, which I think turned out quite well. (In fact, I’ve cropped a bit of it to use as a header for this site, livening up my depressingly bland template.)

For the moment, the garden’s vigor is subsiding. Soon, I’ll pull out the dying tomato and pepper plants and compost them for use during the next planting. I’ll enjoy the respite from knowing that I really should get around to weeding. Perhaps next year I’ll manage to plant only a reasonable number of tomatoes and to keep everything tended at least through August—but where’s the fun in that?

lifehacks mental exercises zenoli

Don't Forget Your Lunch: Setup for MPH #1

Chapter 1 of Mind Performance Hacks is devoted to techniques for improving your memory, a topic that has fascinated me since I first discovered Yates’s The Art of Memory. It combines a simple, traditional memory system (rhyming pegwords) with an application (remembering a list of things that you take with you when you leave the house on your daily perambulations).

This may seem a bit silly, but I’m occasionally absent-minded enough to pack my lunch and leave it on the counter or forget to grab my work ID badge on the way out the door.

I used to have several pairs of excellent cargo pants that served as a sort of combination reminder system and carry-all (wallet in the left-front zippered hip pocket, badge in the right leg pocket, and so on). Despite functioning most satisfactorily as a handless (if geekish) murse, sadly, this system didn’t help with my lunch as it wouldn’t fit in a pocket.

Over time, I’ve tried to engineer things to minimize the chances of something important being left behind: a box near the door holds my keys, wallet, and such, and M—— recently constructed a recharging station where our cell phones and my GPS live. Even so, something occasionally does get left behind.

MPH #1 suggests the use of a simple memory system, one that is often mentioned in books on improving one’s memory. This is a good choice on Ron’s part, as it is an easily accessible introduction to the principles of practical mnemotechnics. The system associates a rhyming word (the ‘peg’, upon which memory images can be hung) with each number from one to ten: one is ‘gun’, two is ‘shoe’, and so on. The list in MPH differs slightly from the list that I learned, but the specific words are unimportant, as long as they’re consistent.

When I first learned the system, back in college, I tried using the pegwords as a short-term ‘scratchpad’—a way to remember a grocery list, for example. After some initial enthusiasm, I fell away from using the system. One of the goals of MPH is to build the hacks into your life and brain, much as a useful utility like Quicksilver can permanently transform the way you interact with your computer. The only way to achieve this is through repetiton and continuous use.

Here’s my initial list of things that I need to bring with me every morning and their pegged associations (numbers 8 and 9 not pictured):

Quotidian Paraphernalia

  • One is ‘gun’: keys. I picture myself firing a gun that shoots keys. The keys bury themselves in the wood of the back door of my house.
  • Two is ‘shoe’: wallet. I imagine myself holding one of my shoes. Instead of a tongue, it has plastic sleeves holding the cards from my wallet. I pass the shoe over the proximity reader at the university library, and it beeps.
  • Three is ‘tree’: cell phone. I picture one of those ludicrous cell phone towers half-heartedly disguised with short, pine-like branches and not looking at all like a real tree. My cell phone dangles from one of the branches as if it has been lynched, strung up by its headset. This image reminds me that I need to bring both my cell phone and the headset.
  • Four is ‘door’: work ID. I picture the screen door of my house as a giant ID badge, swinging slightly in the breeze and banging againts the door frame.
  • Five is ‘hive’: GPS. This image is of a traditional beehive, with hundreds of bees buzzing around it. Each bee carries a tiny Garmin GPS and flies around in looping patterns to communicate her path to her hive-mates.
  • Six is ‘sticks’: Note-taking apparatus, which is currently a Moleskine notebook and Hipster PDA. I picture a cone of sticks, laid for a fire. The Moleskine lies in the middle and index cards are woven into the sticks.
  • Seven is ‘heaven’: sunglasses. A simple, cartoonish image of St. Peter at the gates of heaven wearing a cool set of shades.
  • Eight is ‘gate’: my bag. I have a rolly bag with a telescoping handle to transport my laptop and books about with minimal stress on my back. I imagine the handle as a wrought-iron gate. It rises up from the bag, clicks into place, and swings open.
  • Nine is ‘wine’: lunch. I picture Stephen Fry as Jeeves handing me a packed picnic hamper and a bottle of wine. He frowns disapprovingly at the thermos mug that I am holding, and I have to set it down to take the hamper.

This is sufficient for my initial list I think, and I’ll use this as a mental checklist as I leave the house each morning over the next week or two. I’ll post my experiences and conclusions about this hack at that time.

potables and comestibles

The Masochist's Mixer: Sampling the Habanero Vodka

Habanero Vodka Sample Last night I transferred the bottle of habanero-vodka infusion into the freezer against tonight’s tasting . . . very cautious tasting, I might add. It was nicely chilled when I removed it and held it up to the light.

The vodka has acquired a very faint orange tint and has become slightly cloudy with tiny, floating particulates. I decanted a small amount (about a half-ounce) into a shot glass. The smell is quite wonderful, quite definitely habanero with a faint sweetness.

M—— took the first sip and was immediately in dire straits. I had to fetch a salt shaker for her, and fast. (This, by the way, is a good tip: If you eat something that’s painfully spicy, don’t reach for your water glass, which is about as effective as throwing water on a grease fire. Heavily salted tortilla chips are much more effective.) Her report: undrinkably painful, but with interesting potential.

I took a sip.

Hot sauce vendor Dave, of Dave’s Insanity Sauce fame, claims to have developed his concoction as a method of “encouraging” drunken, troublesome patrons to leave his bar. I suspect this vodka could be turned to similar ends, or possibly used as a weapon for interpersonal combat.

My initial impression was of a surprisingly tasty industrial solvent. I was extremely glad that the sip was a very small one. It took a moment for the sensation of heat to arrive, but arrive it did. The powerful burning sensation was most pronounced on the roof of my mouth and my lips. The strength of the infusion had become much hotter than I expected in such a short amount of time. Even though it was not unbearably painful, it felt a bit as if my palate were dissolving. I decided to exercise caution before proceeding.

I fetched a bowl of tortilla chips and doused them with salt, then added more salt. M—— immediately began consuming them.

Thus fortified, I ventured a second sip. While the potency of the capsaicin is certainly foremost in the experience, the flavor is actually quite good, with a curious sweetness lingering on the tongue. The flavor melds quite well with the salty corn of the chips, and it does indeed have a lot of potential.

For any sort of reasonable use, this batch will need to be diluted. I suspect that around 2–3 parts pure vodka to 1 part habanero infusion will be about right for use as a drink mixer . . . this will make a mean bloody mary. (M—— indicated that it would have to be 3:1 before she would consider trying it again.) This could work well in recipes, as well. I’d like to try using this in a marinade for a fish, perhaps striped bass.

Oh, and I did finish the sample, sipping slowly. I’ve always loved hot sauces that were more than a bit too hot to be comfortable, and this brought back memories of sitting in my dorm room in college with a bowl of chips and a bottle of Inner Beauty Real Hot Sauce.

Post Scriptum: It seems that Inner Beauty, alas, is no longer being produced. Perhaps I’ll use up a few of my habaneros on this recipe for a home-made substitute.

books mental exercises zenoli

Mind Performance Hacks: Review and Manifesto

Mind Performance Hacks CoverMy copy of Mind Performance Hacks has been sitting by my chair in the living room for some months, waiting for me to spend some serious time digging into its contents. I picked it up again this past weekend, and was once again impressed with the density of surpassingly cool information packed therein.

The book is perfect for those with omnivorous interests who enjoy pushing the limits of their minds, but I’d venture to suggest that anyone with a modicum of curiosity will find a quite a number of things to pique their enthusiasm.  The book’s 75 short articles (called “hacks”, implying an attractive blend of usefulness, cleverness, and efficacity) are grouped into eight chapters: Memory, Information Processing, Creativity, Math, Decision Making, Communication, Clarity, and Mental Fitness.

Even though I’ve encountered many of the specific topics previously, I found plenty of material that was either new to me or contained interesting perspectives. For example, even though I’ve investigated shorthand systems I’d never paid much attention to Dutton Speedwords. I’ve played around with mental arithmetic, but I’d never encountered the divisibility tests for seven, eleven, and thirteen.

Simply placing all this material into close proximity invites experimentation. While I’ve read much about mnemotechnics, for example, I’ve only put some of the most basic techniques into practice, and never in any sort of systematic fashion. The book starts with a relatively simple pegwords example, then moves into more advanced material, including a system that purports to allow you to remember a list of 10,000 items.

Rather than write a single in-depth review of this book, over the next few months I plan to use the hacks in MPH as jumping-off points for posts, recording my experiences putting them into action. I’ll be ranging through the book freely rather than taking the entries in order.

potables and comestibles

The soothing power of habanero vodka

Sliced chiliesThe garden is nearing the end of its season. The tomatoes have reduced their frenetic output to something nearly manageable, and the chilies are bright on the vine. This year, I have a disturbing number of habaneros . . . far more than is safe for any sane culinary pursuit. Happily, I am not excessively troubled with sanity, so I’ve processed the first batch and frozen them for the use during the long, coming winter.

Handle with careSadly, I’ve lost the little plastic tag that revealed the variety of the red peppers in the above photograph. They’re plenty hot, though not quite as fiery as their orange cousins to their right. It took about an hour and a half to sort through the harvest and prepare them for freezing. The garden also yielded several other kinds of peppers not pictured here, including a tasty Hungarian cultivar that fries up nicely and plenty of jalapeños. (A hint on jalapeños, by the way: if you grow them yourself, let them ripen all the way to bright red before harvesting. This adds a strain of sweetness to the heat, far superior to the watery, under-ripe green specimens you find in the the grocery.)

Handling cut chilies with bare skin is not recommended . . . really, not recommended. Despite a latex glove on my pepper-handling hand, my wrist was burning from the capsaicin spray after the first fifteen minutes.

Habanero VodkaI’ve been wanting to make some habenero vodka, so this was the perfect opportunity to experiment. I had a partial bottle of inexpensive (Gordon’s) vodka sitting around, so I popped sixteen quarter-pepper segments into around 400 mL. This is going to be hot! A sip immediately after I dropped them in had a faint heat to it, and another sample taken an hour later had a lovely burn.

The bottle is now sitting in the pantry, where it will infuse for several days before I take the next sample. I’ve seen suggestions that it sit up to half a year, but if I’m going to wait that long I’ll want to be a bit more certain of the results.


Bad revolting stars: an untold tale of woe

It has indeed been an ill-aspected tetrafortnight, and I shall not try the Gentle Reader’s patience with lists of my miseries and woes. Should you be a sympathetic soul who wishes to commiserate, you can soak up some of the atmosphere by listening to the duet “Woe” from P.D.Q. Bach’s half-act opera, The Stoned Guest. (I’m sure you’re not the sort of cad who’d try to find a torrented copy on Mininova. The Vanguard recording is still readily available, as is the printed score, and Prof. Schickele could probably use the royalties.)

Let’s be truthful, though—you likely wouldn’t be interested in my misfortunes, as your own may be much more pressing. Should they be threatening to overwhelm you, may I recommend . . . a woesary?

The Woesary

Pictured about is a woesary constructed by M—— (made, I have to admit, at my instigation). There are twenty-seven small and seven large beads. Attached to the bottom is an Unnecessary Weight.

Proper use is as follows: at each small bead, speak one of your woes, and cry, “Woe!” in a loud voice. At each large bead, hold forth with as full-voiced a “Woe!” as you can muster. If others are around (which makes the process much more cathartic, of course), encourage them to join in the wailing.