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.

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.

blogging computer science zenoli

This post is about meta-blogging

Having made the decision to pursue a doctorate, I’m boning up in preparation for the qualifying examinations. For the past several weeks I’ve been marinating my brain in computer science, tenderizing it by bashing it repeatedly with a large stack of textbooks. Three more weeks, pass or fail, and I’ll finally have a chance to emerge from this haze of NP-completeness and routing algorithms.

I strongly disapprove of excessive meta-blogging and the cringing, pathetic whinging that often accompanies a shift in a blogger’s posting schedule. A good blog should be about something besides itself. Nonetheless, I don’t think I’ve set expectations for my own schedule, which would seem to be a reasonable courtesy. (As a further courtesy, any further inclinations toward meta-blogging will be sternly quashed and allow to emerge only once a quarter.)

My general goal for Zenoli has been to make on average two to three posts per week, with a minimum of one and a maximum of four. I expect to continue with that schedule for the rest of 2007, though until late April the frequency will be at the low end of that range. I may toss up a few shorter bits that are more timely, and probably shouldn’t moulder in my queue.

Thus far, writing this blog has been quite a curious experiment. I’ve enjoy developing these small essays, and watching my own approach toward my writing change. Most significantly, thanks to this site I have corresponded a bit with some very interesting people; a sincere thank you to everyone who has written and commented. I’d also like to thank those whose exceptional examples of thoughtful blogging serve as both a moveable feast for the intellect and a spur toward the heights.

mental exercises zenoli

On Mentats

Okay, we probably shouldn’t bad-mouth mentats. If pressed, we would admit that we actually think mentats are pretty cool.

The Mentat Wiki adopts the mentat as an ideal towards which to strive; it is a catalog of many different approaches to mental self-improvement, and deserves lengthy and repeated delving. The site is maintained by Ron Hale-Evans, author of the superb Mind Performance Hacks.

Mind Performance Hacks (published by O’Reilly) deserves special mention. Dollar for dollar and ounce for ounce this was one of my best book purchases of last year. While I was certainly familiar with a large number of the topics covered, the presentation is excellent and there is quite a lot of value in having such a high-density collection of intelligent and useful ideas in easily portable form. There’s something of interest on nearly every page. It’s a great book, and I plan to give a more detailed review in a future post.

language zenoli

On the other hand….

According to Wikipedia, zenoli is also the Friulian word for ‘knee’. The same article informs us that Friulian (also called ‘Eastern Ladin’) is spoken by at least 600,000 people–about twice the number that speak Icelandic. When I first discovered that the language existed, I had to blink several times and realize that I’ve never spent that much time digging into linguistics beyond the big categories. Even so, I’d never noticed that there’s a Friulian version of Firefox.

Last night I was browsing through the language shelf at the bookstore, and was struck by the number of lesser-known languages represented, including many Indian and African dialects. It reminded me how easy it is to fall into mental ruts; after a certain point, our models of the world tend to ossify, and areas of lesser familiarity (such as, in my case, non-big-name-brand languages), tend to be chucked into very general mental buckets. (“Let’s see, they speak Hindi in India, right?”) lists hundreds of living Indian languages, some with millions of speakers, others with as few as 150…enough diversity to satiate lifetimes of linguistic scholarship.

I’m always happy to be reminded of the complexity of the world, but for the sake of any speakers of Friulian it’s worth noting that this site has very little to do with knees.

science fiction zenoli

Why 'zenoli'?

Because zenoli warriors kick Mentat butt.

Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels are standard fodder for top-10 lists of SF. Old Isaac posits a science of psychohistory that allows the prediction of the behavior of humans en masse over the course of millenia. Set against the sweeping fall of a galactic empire and the prospect of tens of thousands of years of chaotic, violent interregnum, one man sees a possible course that can shorten the time until the rise of a new empire. It’s a grand conception, marred a bit by mathematical handwaving and wooden characterization. It always felt a bit hollow to me, and psychohistory never really meshed into my ideational umwelt.

Until I found Psychohistorical Crisis, by Donald Kingsbury. Crisis is an unauthorized riff off of Asimov’s themes, played firmly in Kingsbury’s own key. Mathematics, which for the original novels was typecast into the role of an axiomatic MacGuffin, is elevated to a center stage. The nature of psychohistory itself is key to the plot, and while the math may still be window dressing, it is at least extremely well-considered and thought-provoking window-dressing. I was able to believe that psychohistory was true, or at least suspension-of-disbelief-possible.

Crisis‘s other main departure from Foundation‘s universe is the fam. From ‘familiar’, the fams in Crisis are symbiotic computers, given to their an owner of age three or so. They act as an extended brain, growing and learning with their owner, augmenting cognition and mnemonic ability. At some point in Galactic history, zenoli was developed, a martial art that exploits the capabilities of the brain-fam link. “At the moment of combat, the zenoli soldier is poised, inertialess, ready to act in any direction–like a marble at the top of a smooth, multidimensional hill.”

At we will consider our meat-brains, our silicon symbiotes, and our own small corner of the galaxy.