books mind performance hacks

Foul news: Ron Hale-Evans's upcoming book cancelled

Ron Hale-Evans just twittered that Mind Agility Hacks, his in-progress (and rapidly nearing completion) sequel to Mind Performance Hacks, has been cancelled.

A boo and a hiss to those at O’Reilly Media whose short-sightedness has deprived us of what promised to be another intelligently orchestrated assemblage of tools for exploring and tuning the functioning of the tool that matters most: our grey matter.

I heartily recommend that everyone solace themselves by purchasing a copy of the original MPH.  If you already own one, go ahead and buy another—it’s probably getting dog-eared.


Alveolar Trills Revisited: Enter the Tiger

Since my original post on the topic, I’ve tried many methods to learn to produce a rolled ‘r’.  After quite a bit of practice, I managed to come up with an alveolar flap that sounds more-or-less like it should, but a sustained trill remained elusive…until now.

Commenter falco (whose comment, I admit shamefacedly, was missed and has languished in the approval queue since January) writes of his early troubles (and recent success) learning the trill:

I am 32 now, my mother tongue has the alveolar trill; however, I was the only one of the family and the class (in the past) that couldn’t produce it; so around the age of 6, they forced me to learn the uvular trill by gargling water, as it was believed in those times that all sounds must be learnt before the age of 7 or it would be to late. So, I spoke my own mother tongue wit a uvular trill, which always made certain people think I was originally from somewhere else, an immigrant in my own country (first frustration).


It is an article on the internet that I found a little time ago that changed everything:

In days, I learnt to roll my ‘r’ by using the “Tiger Method”. I also used the site under “vibrantes” and then [r] to see the different steps of the sound-reproduction. As none of the above techniques in this website had worked for me in the past; apparently the tiger method was the only one that did it for me starting from a uvular trill.

What is the tiger method?  I was initially skeptical, as other initally-promising methods that I’d tried had met with only indifferent success.  wikiHow (whose Creative Commons attribution clause states that I need to write that this excerpt comes from “ – The How-To Manual That Anyone Can Write or Edit”) describes it as follows:

The key to rolling R’s is creating the proper vibration. The vibration starts at the back of the tongue and moves toward the tip of the tongue (like a wave). If you can produce the German “acht” or Arabic and Yiddish pharyngeals and basically clear your throat, then you can roll R’s. This seems counter-intuitive because rolled R’s are pleasing to the ear – whereas pharyngeals are harsh. The vibration is the key and the same technique is needed to roll R’s. Remember: The air passing through your larynx and mouth makes the sound.

  1. Start by practicing that clear-your-throat “ckh” sound. Try to turn it into a “grr”. Don’t be afraid of sounding ridiculous. Do whatever it takes to make the roof of your mouth vibrate. (This skill also comes in handy when speaking Chewbacca and making a variety of animal noises.) Practice getting the feel for that vibration. Your throat might get a little sore at first. You’re working out “new” muscles and they’ll get stronger with use.
  2. Press the tip of your tongue against the alveolar ridge behind your teeth. Your tongue touches the right spot when you finish saying the letter L and the letter N. Say L or N and at the end of the sound keep your tongue firmly in place. Try to say “girl” and “hurl” without removing the tip of your tongue from your alveolar ridge. Use the clear-your-throat vibration to start the word and try to form the vibration into a rolled R. Initially, use the “G” sound to kickstart a rolled R. At first, you will sound like a strangled tiger (grr, grr, grr), but you’lI start rolling R’s. Eventually you will be able to purrr using purrrfectly rrrrrolled Rrrrrrrrrrrrrr’s.
  3. Practice and refine. Once you can get your R rolling, experiment with the position of the tip of your tongue. To move the sound toward the front of your mouth, add the “Z” sound in front of your R. Practice adding vowel sounds (ah, ee, uh, o, oo) before and after the rolled R’s.

My instant results were astonishing.  At first, it sound much like someone trying to strangle a pig.   (This method is not for the self-conscious!)  Almost immediately, though, my tongue started vibrating with the airflow.  Within five minutes I managed something that sounded (and seemed to feel) like an actual alveolar trill.

This method is a little hard on the throat, and after ten minutes I was starting to feel a bit light-headed.  I will be continuing to practice over the next week, and will report on how it goes.  At the moment, once I achieve the trill I can sustain it indefinitely, but there is much hunting around before tongue and airflow find the right position and balance of tension.  If I attempt to transition into a word, it falls apart.

falco concludes his comments:

I’m now practicing to soften the trill a little more and use it in different words of different difficulty levels… but I am confident that it’s just a matter of time now before I can speak fluently with a rolling r, the alveolar trill!
Record your voice on a computer/mobile and listen to yourself in order to easily define errors or its evolution, compare it to the recorded r-sounds on the above-given website (… and most importantly: DON’T GIVE UP, you might sound ridiculous at the beginning but we can all learn it!

Intelligent bloody-mindedness is the key.  If you’ve been trying to learn to roll your ‘r’s, I strongly recommend giving the tiger method a try.  If anyone has successes (or failures) using this method, I’d love to hear about them.


A Modicum of Order

After a moderately hellish Anno Domini 2008, the solstitial vacation was quite welcome.  Rooms were frantically cleaned, relatives descended, food was devoured, and tasty, tasty beer from my birth state was consumed.  At last, the wreckage cleared, I found myself at ends for a few days.

When M—— and I moved to our current house, five years ago or so, the books were not neatly organized.  No, indeed, the first boxes were unloaded without ceremony onto the nearest shelf until all were full,  leaving several dozen which had to be piled into the attic where they yet remain.  A few ordered clusters emerged (philosophy, for example, moved over nearly intact), but others (oy, the Judaica!) seemed to be equally distributed over the entire house.

Desorted Bookshelf

This Saturday, I settled in for the pleasant task of finally sorting through some of the morass, which mostly meant making piles of books on every available horizontal surface (and several wobbly fabric surfaces).  The picture at right shows the dining room table after the first of the shelves had been emptied.  I played Maxwell’s demon, attempting to shuttle like volumes toward their kindred.  But where does one file Thurber’s Fables for Our Time?  Does Manzanar get placed with Holocaust, with the World War II books, or with twentieth-century American history?  (I settled on the last of these for Manzanar, but the Thurber is still a puzzle.)

It will be a long time until the Kindle or its ilk replace the physical volume.  Sure, it’s easier to keep dusted, but the experience of renaming a directory of e-book files is nothing like the tactile pleasure of handling a stack of real tomes.

Maybe its my limited budget, but I’ve never gone in much for collecting volumes of serious bibliophilic interest.  A nice trade paperback can be extremely satisfying, and one doesn’t need to worry about maintaining it in humidity-controlled isolation…content trumps all.

Faced Shelves

Rooting around in one shelf, I made some gleeful rediscoveries: a copy of an Ionesco children’s book (Story Number One), chapbooks of Michael Swanwick short-shorts (Puck Aleshire’s Abecedary and Field Guide to the Mesozoic Megafauna), my hardcover of the Annotated Snark, four volumes that had been originally filed together because of their Gorey cover illustrations.  The real frisson, though, comes from the order itself, looking at the neatly-faced shelves and recalling every book and the reason it was placed with its fellows.

As midnight neared, I realized the task was not to be completed in a weekend.  Laggard books were hustled back willy-nilly and surfaces cleared, but somehow, they had expanded.  All the shelves are full, but many book-feet remain.  The guest room is encrusted with piles and, somehow, a waist-high stack stands in front of the full case in M——‘s sewing room.  Work begins again tomorrow, class on Tuesday, and my evenings will again be spent on my Ph.D. studies.  In spare moments, though, I can refile a book here, a book there, perhaps bring a box down from the attic.  The seed crystal of order has been planted, and the lattice of the library will form inevitably around it.

mad science miscellanea

Chariots of the Muses

Consider, for a moment, alternate history.

We’re speaking here not of a particular history, but of the genre, the speculative fictions that ask: What if things had been different?

There are many variations on this theme. Perhaps an important event has a different outcome (Persia crushes the upstart poleis of Greece, wiping democracy from the historical stage), or a strange development changes everything (Jean-Marie Jacquard follows up the principles suggested by his earlier invention and creates a general-purpose Ciphering Loom, ushering in a Napoleonic ère de l’information). Quite often, the change selected for the story is a small one, and the interest is in working out the complex ways that things might change further down the time-stream. (For encyclopedic, alternately-historical fun, check out Uchronia or the bite-sized glimpses into nearby universes dished out at Today in Alternate History).

Perhaps these phantasies are more science fiction than one might think at first: in the July 2 issue of Nature, Peter Turchin writes (behind a paywall, unfortunately):

…[W]e need a historical social science, because processes that operate over long timescales can affect the health of societies. It is time for history to become an analytical, and even a predictive, science…Rather than trying to reform the historical profession, perhaps we need an entirely new discipline: theoretical historical social science. We could call this ‘cliodynamics’, from Clio, the muse of history, and dynamics, the study of temporally varying processes and the search for causal mechanisms

Shades of Asimov’s psychohistory!

Ken Hite, in his Suppressed Transmission column, often writes of Clio and alternate histories. (In fact, I suspect that a search of his essays might turn up a prior coining of the term ‘cliodynamics’.) In “An Alternate-Historical Alphabet”, he propounds the following theory:

All Change Points (q.v.) from Xerxes (q.v.) to the last presidential election, create worlds with clean, efficient Zeppelin traffic. Changing history may produce Zeppelins as an inevitable by-product, much as bombarding uranium produces gamma rays. Often, the quickest way to tell if you are in an Alternate History is to look up, rather than at a newspaper or encyclopedia. From this premise, it is not outside the realm of Plausibility (q.v.) that our history between 1900 and 1936 was, in fact, an Alternate History. It would, at least, explain a lot.

With this in mind, how are we to interpret this recent New York Times story?

As the cost of fuel soars and the pressure mounts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, several schemes for a new generation of airship are being considered by governments and private companies…[B]ecause of new materials and sophisticated means of propulsion, a diverse cast of entrepreneurs is taking another look at the behemoths of the air.

Clearly, these are parlous times, and the cold, hard light of Science reveals a looming Change Point.

Watch the skies!

Arise, Cliodynamics!” article via Complexity Digest

Zeppelin article via Gizmodo.

Image of a Zeppelin-Luftschiff LZ 127 courtesy Schockwellenreiter.


Get it off get it off getitoff!

My workplace is located conveniently close to Valley Forge Park, so I typically head out for a lunchtime hike. I’ve walked the trails for quite a few years and have had a number of Aldo Leopold moments: an immense swarm of ants executing a slave raid against another nest; a daddy long-legs feasting on a still-twitching beetle; two fawns nursing at their mother’s teat.

Pennsylvania is tick country, and after each hike I try to remember to perform the requisite self-examination, making sure nothing has latched onto my pants or socks. I’ve never actually seen a tick while doing this, but I’m a responsible guy and it’s just part of the drill, right?

Today, I was caught in a drenching downpour when I was a good half-mile out in the woods, and I was thoroughly soaked by the time I slogged back to the car. A bit later, sitting in my cubicle, I reach up to rub my forehead, and something falls, something arachnoid that scuttles under my laptop. Yergh. A tick.

Looking underneath the machine does not reveal it, as it had quickly scuppered off somewhere amongst the cables and papers. I’m not particularly squeamish about insects or spiders, but I have to admit to the newly-discovered fact that ticks give me the willies. A careful check of my trousers, legs and arms revealed no further hangers-on. The tick emerges from a pile of papers, so I trap it in a plastic container. It’s a big, perhaps a bit larger than a pencil eraser, so I’m relieved that it’s probably not a Lyme-infested deer tick.

A bit later, I rub my neck and find a lump, something that feels a bit like a mole. In full acarophobe mode, I find a mirror and, yes, around the back quadrant of my neck a large tick has attached itself, nearly out of sight. YERGH. One should never pull out a tick with one’s fingers, so I vibrate in my seat during the fifteen minute drive over to to visit the company infirmary, remaining CALM, because it doesn’t matter that I have a PARASITE embedded in my flesh.

Later, back at my desk, I find there’s something crawling across the lens of my glasses. Taking them off to look more closely, I find a third tick. Thoroughly creeped out, I put it in the plastic container with the first and check myself again. No ticks, but that’s not particularly reassuring by this point.

Now, one thing I’m a bit worried about is my hair. Once I pass my Ph.D. candidacy exam, I expect I’ll be required to join the Luxuriant Flowing Hair Club for Scientists (the club for scientists who have, or believe they have, luxuriant flowing hair). Flowing, perhaps, but could it be a haven for vermin?

In short, yes. Upon returning home, M—— checked my scalp and, sure enough, a fourth tick had embedded itself in my left temple. YERGH! Was the rain knocking them off the trees?

I think it’s time to buy a new hat.

CC-licensed image of a wood tick courtesy of bogdogmax, as I didn’t have my camera and didn’t really feel like keeping my specimens around for purposes of nostalgia.


La gloutonnerie et la bibliothèque

The public library seems to have fallen out of favor, of late. Budgets are slashed. Circulation is down, so the collection must be popularized. Librarians have lost that cultural authority that once let them enforce a stern rule of silence; they even seem grateful for the shenanigans of any Strewwelpeter left to wander around by his piggish parents. What use has the common public library in these days of Internet?

When I moved to Pennsylvania a decade or so ago, I’d fallen out of the habit of libraries. I came from Ann Arbor, an Elysian town of bookstores used and new. Walking the four blocks to downtown, I whiled away many a Saturday strolling from one to the next: West Side, Dawn Treader, David’s . . . there were at least eight within the range of a casual perambulation. Perhaps a drive to Ypsilanti to visit Cross St; a jaunt down to Toledo to Frog Town.

Part of the pleasure was to watch the slow evolution of each inventory, trolling patiently through the shelves wrapped in the scent of old paper. The goal, though, the thrill, was in the kill: a volume of Scholem; a remembered book from childhood (Bellairs, say, with a treasured Gorey frontispiece); a worn paperback of Dick or Zelazny; an issue of Aman’s Maladicta from 1981.

At home, the books piled higher, far exceeding the book-foot capacity of the shelves. I have never sought books as artifacts to be hoarded in alabaster isolation. They are to be kept near at hand, read and handled, annexes to my palace of memory.

When F- entered private school in Pennsylvania, our resources were turned to this new end, and we entered a long period of austerity. Sad as it was, I had to curb my acquisitions.

When one has a personal library, one can survive a year or two of drought. Old volumes are rediscovered. A small cache purchased long ago, boxed and forgotten, emerges from the attic. But after a time, this pales. The soul of the bibliomane craves novelty, the exploration of new semiotic terrain.

It was in this environment of penury and deprivation that I began to rediscover the pleasures of the public library, but slowly. At first, I was dismayed at the plebian assortment. Where was the Calvino? Barely more than one shelf of philosophy? As for the computer books, I would be hesitant to poke them with a stick.

Desperation, though, acts as a Maslovian aqua regia on aesthetic hauteur. The economics of “free” are hard to resist.

As I explored the stacks, I began to realize that my initial impression was awry. As Boswell observed, “But what can a man see of a library being one day in it?” The shelves were not static, and three subsequent visits would reveal new books in each section as they returned from circulation.

Most significant, though, was the lack of risk. If out of a dozen books taken home only one proved to be of interest, nothing was lost. I could allow my tastes to run unfettered, sating my bibliophagy with sheer volume.

Austerity has eased, of late, but the library habit remains. Only rarely will there be a stack of less than two dozen circulating volumes piled by my chair in the dining room. The library blunts the edge of my daily hunger, so the occasional feast is all the sweeter.

computer science miscellanea

I should probably mention….

…that I again number myself among the ranks of those receiving regular remuneration in exchange for the sweat of their brows.  You’d think that as a unemployed layabout I’d have been writing blog posts like mad (and perhaps a novel or two), but it just didn’t seem to work out that way.

The most striking thing about the experience was how mentally exhausting it was.   I kept up my spirits though application of the hot irons of optimism, but by the end of January the whole thing was starting to wear a bit thin.

Now, two months into the new position, I’m finally beginning to emerge from the cloud of blue devils into something resembling my usual snarky, obsessive persona.  I’m back at the same company that laid me off (with a satisfyingly ironic bump in grade), in the same cubicle, with the same accretion of technological paraphernalia that had built up around me over the previous decade.  The work, at least, is somewhat different, and should keep me interested for the next few years.

My Ph.D. studies are starting to pick up in pace, as well.  I opted for a machine learning class this quarter, as it’s highly relevant to my intended areas of research.  This will mean that I finally have to get around to developing some better statistical chops, but to my surprise I also have to dust off my embarrassingly rusty calculus (“You’re computer scientists,” said the professor, “of course you hate calculus.”).


Nuts to Pi Day

Well, it seems to be time for another simpering genuflection to the Gregorian calendar in the guise of lauding a transcendental constant. This is the same thinking that causes the doomsday chiliasts (to use Carl Sagan’s phrase) to get all het up any time there’s a date with three or more zeroes or sixes.

I’ve railed against the Vulgar Pi Day before, so I shan’t re-rant.

mind performance hacks

Conclusions regarding MPH #1

(This post is part of a series describing implementation of the hacks in O’Reilly’s Mind Performance Hacks book. You may want to refer to the first post in this series, or the post describing my setup for Mind Performance Hack #1.)

It’s been nearly a month since I started implementing MPH #1’s suggestion of using a memory peg system to ensure I don’t forget anything important when I leave the house in the morning; I’d say that this is enough time to draw some conclusions about the efficacy of the technique.

My implementation of this hack has been rigorous: every morning before leaving I have quickly stepped through the mental list, usually placing each item in my pocket or bag as I think of its peg. I have not forgotten any item on the list during this past month. In fact, this morning I thought I had left my catch on the kitchen table, but I discovered that I had automatically placed it in my coat pocket as I went through the list. Using this hack hasn’t necessarily made me less absent-minded, but at least I’m putting my robotic trance to good use.

I have extended my original peg list with three additional entries:

  • Ten is ‘hen’: wildcard. I often have some item that’s not on my regular list that I nonetheless have to remember to take with me: a deposit to take to the bank, a letter to mail, quarters for the parking meters, and so on. M—— not infrequently has been exasperated as I’ve failed to take some item that she’s left where I’ll be sure to notice it (on top of the key box, say, or hanging from the door knob) . . . I’ll happily move whatever it is aside and never have a conscious thought about it.

    Usually, it’s enough to remember that there’s something else that I have to bring . . . like a string tied around the finger. I try to give myself a hint, though, with a multilevel peg. For this image, I picture a hen pecking at the key box on top of the microwave. Suddenly, the box flies open like Pandora’s box, and the hen flaps off squawking in a flurry of feathers and swirling Technicolor troubles. All that is left behind in the box is the joker from a deck of playing cards . . . a wild card. If there’s something else I need to remember, I’ll associate it with the joker using the same mnemonic techniques.

  • Eleven is ‘leaven’: Kleenex. (I couldn’t come up with a good noun, so I went with a verb.) I picture myself kneading bread dough. I add Kleenex, and they adhere to the sticky mass.
  • Twelve is ‘shelve’: USB thumbdrive. (Another verb, it seems . . . it was this or ‘delve’.) I imagine driving a bookshelf down the street. The front end is a giant USB connector.

The Queen of DiscsMy pegs are pretty much filled up, though. One could perhaps add “thirteen is ‘dirt queen'”, using, say, an image of the Queen of Discs from Crowley’s Tarot, and “fourteen is ‘floor sheen'”, but I admit my my invention has been failing me on a rhyming peg for “fifteen”.

Extending this further would probably be best done with a different memory system. I did manage to get extra mileage out of some of the pegs by stacking several items into one image (both cellphone and headset for number three, for example, and my Hipster, Moleskine, and a pen for number six). Some of my images (such as the cartoonish St. Peter for number seven) are rather spare, and there’s probably room to hang additional items on the peg.

In general, I am satisfied with the results of this experiment. I would judge this hack to be quite effective at its modest goals, and would further observer that it’s a good introduction to the principles of basic mnemotechnics. I’ll be continuing to use this system for the foreseeable future.


Salaryman hits the pavement

Blurry SalarymanFor the last decade, I’ve worked in the IT department of the same company, a Fortune 500 multinational with well over 100,000 employees. On the whole, the experience has been a positive one. It’s provided stability through difficult times, regular pay, good benefits, and reasonably interesting work

Last week, my department was informed that the company would be “expanding” its “operational excellence” program. On Monday, the suspected meaning of this rather Orwellian phraseology was revealed: I’ll be getting my walking papers. If I’d thought a bit faster, I would have worn a “pink slip” costume on Hallowe’en, despite the risk of an HR incident.

The company has gone through layoffs in the past, but up until now I’ve passed through them unscathed. Each time, those shown the door are assured that it’s nothing personal and does not reflect at all on performance. I’m not sure what effect this is supposed to have on morale, but those who remain seem to find this rather depressing: there’s no safety in personal excellence, and one’s fate lies in the hands of maliciously indifferent accounting trolls.

It was a rough few days coming to grips with this new, less-secure reality, but I’ve adjusted. If they offered me my job back, I wouldn’t take it. I’m taking my decade of real-world experience and my freshly-minted M.S. into a job market that’s looking pretty healthy. There are a few months until my job ends, so there’s plenty of time to find something interesting to do next. I’m even considering switching to working on my Ph.D. full-time for a while, but I suspect that M—— and the cats may not be too keen on living on ramen.

Herr Ziffer’s recent post on technical interviewing would seem to be all too timely . . . time to start sharpening my teeth.

Photo of an Osaka sarariman courtesy JanneM.