mathematics peevishness

Campaign for Real Pi Day

Yes, it’s that time of the year again, the time for mathematically inclined curmudgeons to gripe about the inadequacies of March 14 as a date for Pi Day.  I’ve expounded on this in the past.  To give the proposal of an alternate date some permanence, I’ve created a site to promote Real Pi Day.  This year, the Chrono-Solsticial Pi Point will be at Saturday, April 17, 2010 at 12:02 AM Coordinated Universal Time.

Visit the website at for more details.

mind performance hacks

Trying out MPH #12: Overcome the Tip-of-the-Tongue Effect

Now that Zenoli is getting spun back up, it’s time to reopen the project of trying out all the hacks in Mind Performance Hacks.  I have a number of experiences to report with these, so let’s pick up with another memory technique:

Hack #12: Overcome the Tip-of-the-Tongue Effect

Unlike the mnemonic methods discussed earlier in the book, this hack suggests some techniques for shaking something loose from your memory, something that you can almost remember, but can quite get to float to the surface of your brain.

The technique suggested is “priming”; that is, you try to think of as many things as possible that are (however tangentially) related to the thing that you are attempting to recall.  Think of, for example, the context in which you were when you originally experienced whatever is that you are trying to remember, words that mean similar things (or even just sound similar), concepts that are similar, and so on.

One technique along these lines that often works for me as a starting point is to go through the letters of the alphabet, starting to say the sounds aloud, but the above method is broader: you’re attempt to activate as many concepts as possible that are, in some sense, “near” the memory that you’re trying to recall.

Unfortunately, I have a failure to report with this hack.  While I’ve had some successes, an examination of limitations can also be instructive.

Memory is curious.  When I gave my first organ recital in college (playing a toccata by Marius Monnikendam) I sat at the keyboard and began to play, just as I had practiced.  As the music swept along, though, my mind went blank.  I could not recall the score, could not picture what came next…but my hands kept on playing.  I hoped, in desperate terror, that they would continue to do so, as I didn’t have any helpful suggestions for them.  Fortunately, I made it to the end without choking, but I was left strongly impressed with the power of motor memory.

Why this anecdote?  On a two-week trip to Michigan last year, I found that I was completely unable to remember the password to get into my email account.  I tried dozens of possibilities.  I ran through every phrase and combination that I thought I could have used.  I tried to recall details where I had been, what I had been feeling when I set up the password, or any of the times that I typed in.

And that, it seemed, was the problem: for the most part, it seems as if when I typed the password it was with a part of my brain that was isolated from other thought processes that might have been going on.  The password was living in my motor memory, and had retreated from everywhere else.  I was completely stumped.

Finally, two days before the end of vacation, I sat down at the keyboard and just typed it.  There was no conscious recall, my fingers just went through the action.  Extremely worried that I might lose it, I typed it into an editor window to find out what it was.  I could remember the password, then, but it was a dry sort of memory, without much mental affect.

I now try to put a bit of emotion into my passwords, to make them, at some level meaningful (however much they may be obfuscated, the obfuscation is usually using some one-off algorithm that can itself be remembered).

The lesson?  Put some work in on the front end for things that you think you might need to remember.  By all means, try out the priming techniques…I’ve had good results with them.  Sometimes, though?  You’re just stuck.  Enjoy your practice of the ars oblivionalis.

The MentatWiki provides a link to the full text of this Hack.

books languages

Harrius Potter et Philosophi Lapis


blogging miscellanea

Skulking toward normalcy

I suppose it’s about time for an update, as my frayed nerves are beginning to return to normal.  Sleep may knit up the raveled sleave of care, but don’t underestimate the healing power of a good lay-off.

Indeed, almost exactly two years after the last adventure, the hammer came ’round again, and in November I found my at liberty.  This time, however, I volunteered to step into harm’s way: the timing was serendipitious, as I was rapidly moving toward my Ph.D. candidacy exam.  On November 1st, I found myself at ends, out of the office but still officially on the books through the end of the year, on “gardening leave,” as they call it in the UK.

snowy bushesI barely noticed that I was no longer working, as the exigencies of research and writing pressed hard, and November passed quickly.  In mid-December, happily, I passed into the exalted status of Ph.D. candidate: classes complete, and now on to the dissertation.  (At my department, achieving candidacy also greatly reduces tuition, in another bit of cheerful timing.)

It was well into January, however, before my mind began to feel a bit less like suet.  It’s quite possible to pursue a Ph.D. while working, but I will observe that it’s extremely painful, much harder than working on a Master’s.  The relatively well-defined demands of classwork can be contained much better than the open-ended, all-consuming requirements of research.

I’m now starting to settle into the new rhythm of the days; the recent heavy snows that have been assaulting Philadelphia have not inconvenienced me at all, as I happily had chanced to refit my home office before finding out about my impending free agency.

With that in mind, I’ve begun to fire up again,  To those patient readers who have kept this site in their RSS readers: huzzah to you, friends.

input devices


I was sorry (though not, alas, surprised) that IBM’s “personal area network” never took off.  This was a research project, demonstrated in the mid-90s, to transfer data through the body.  The skin, more or less, can act as a conductor, allowing a low-power signal to travel between different devices being worn, or to an other person or device with which you are in physical contact.  The sexy demo was exchanging business cards by shaking hands.

This was shortly before Bluetooth press appropriated ‘PAN’ to describe short-range wireless network (though much leakier and higher-powered), and this technology seems to have stayed in the labs.

I always perk up when a new input device is demonstrated, and this one made me think of IBM’s quondam project. Called ‘skinput’, it’s an interesting twist on human-computer interfaces: bio-acoustical sensing combined with a pico-projector to turn the skin of your arm into an input device.  At the moment, the researchers (the project is a collaboration between Carnegie Mellon and Microsoft) have a prototype that distinguishes between five input points with a slick dynamic interface.  Looks like they have a paper that will be presented at the upcoming CHI 2010.

(Via Engadget.)

blogging tools

Administrative: RSS/FeedBurner Problems

Here’s a bit of a technical aside, I’m afraid.

It looks like may have been experiencing a few problems with the RSS feed, related to the backend configuration changes required by Google for the FeedBurner service.  I’ve been using FeedBurner for feed hosting and management for quite a long time, since before they were acquired by Google in 2007.

Google finally got around to making some changes to the MyBrand feature, which lets you use your own domain name FeedBurner: convenient for preventing lock-in if you ever want to take your feeds somewhere else.  This requires having a CNAME set up in your DNS to point to the FeedBurner/Google servers.

I’ve had two such CNAMES set up: and, but something related to Google’s back-end changes caused the former (which was also the default configured in my WordPress FeedSmith plugin) to stop working: any requests for the feed URL were met with not-found errors (you may or may not have experienced this, depending on which URL your feedreader is using).

It seems that, under the current regime, FeedBurner does not like having two MyBrand entries for the same domain; if there’s something else going on, I haven’t been able to divine what it might be.  I have, however, found a workaround, setting the feed up to use a single canonical URL:

  1. My web host, Nearly Free Speech, makes it easy and cheap to create new sites.  I created a new website that would simply act as a redirect.  (This could also have been done using the main website, but since I’m actually maintaining a number of different websites, it seems to be convenient to host all the redirects in one place.)
  2. I changed the DNS CNAME for from the link to Google’s servers to point to this new site.
  3. I added an Apache .htaccess file to redirect requests for to with a 301 response:
    RewriteEngine On
    RewriteCond %{HTTP_HOST} ^( [NC]
    RewriteRule ^(.*)$$1 [R=301,L]
  4. I ensured that FeedBurner had just one MyBrand entry for (, and that the FeedBurner feed for was configured to point to the WordPress feed.
  5. I pointed the FeedSmith plugin (which I updated to 2.3.1), to the now-canonical MyBrand URL for the FeedBurner-hosted feed: ‘‘.

And that seems to have done it.  Hopefully any requests for the feed, whether at the default WordPress URL,, or will work seamlessly.  We now return you to our regularly scheduled miscellanea.