Category Archives: Memory

Writing to remember, writing to forget

Hotel-CaliforniaThis weblog is an unpolished open notebook. It's primarily full of two things: things I want to remember, and things I want to forget. Let me explain.

A weblog is an augmented memory for those fleeting moments of life where you really wish you had some record of, and where you know that if you don't write it down now it'll be gone forever. It's the capture place for that initial review of a piece of software you might or might not grow fond of, the record of what was talked about at a particularly interesting lunch meeting, or the color of a late spring sky (grey, with low clouds; good strawberry picking weather if the rain holds off, but not good for ripening the strawberries). When you go back to reread what's been written down, some part of the memories come back. If you're lucky and captured some particularly salient point, the entire memory – the entire conversation – can return and you'll be transported back to another time and place.

A weblog is also a place for the things that you figure out through dogged attention to some terribly inconvenient detail of something that's not working. When you figure it out, you want to write it up so that you can repeat the process if it ever happens to you again. You'd really rather never have to go through the ordeal again but just in case someone else happens on it you'll have that capsule of hard-won knowlege written down. You'll write it down so that you can forget it except when you need to refer to it again, when you'll relearn it as from new based on your old notes.

I'll cheat from time to time, going through old posts and updating them with new information or with recollections that match the time. Every so often I'll unpublish a piece that sounds like it doesn't want to be something that I want to remember and that isn't forgotten yet, or that has such atrocious grammar that I don't want to be remembered by it. My drafts folder has over 200 such articles, ones that neither qualified for remembering or for forgetting, but that I can't easily bring myself to completely deleting.

Some blog to remember, some blog to forget (apologies to the Eagles).


How did I meet you? How do I know you?

I've been thinking a lot about how I keep track of people who I've met over the years. Systems like Facebook try to do that for you (hey! you're friends with!) but they neglect to capture some critical information.

The most salient points for me about connecting or reconnecting with someone usually revolve around the circumstances of how we first met, the reasons that there's still some ongoing connection, and the particular details of the last meeting. If I can hit each of those three perspectives on a relationship, chances are that it's easy to start up a new conversation and easy to call someone to mind when it's time to make a new introduction.

Alas, most personal address book software does a lousy job of keeping tabs on any of this. You can add a "related to" field in some systems, but that's not something that I've seen pulled out and turned into a full featured exploring tool. If you're lucky you get to enter some free text in some notes field, but even then you might not get the ability to search it on the fly. And heaven help you if you want to tag or group or categorize or classify people (for your own memory purposes) without fighting a system that generally is indifferent to the idea that people might belong to more than one group.

If I can dream, I'd like the simple app – perhaps just a thin front end to my address book – that flashes names in front of me and helps me quickly remember who's who and how I might know them. This is multiply true right now because I have a lot of dormant connections to people that I'd like to refresh. A smart address book, or a routine way of collecting that information in a dumb address book, should be able to help that process out.

UPDATE: It turns out that one of the recent updates to LinkedIn adds a "how did I meet you" question, with the ability to link to a person as the introducer. It's a good start.

Related articles

mobile identity and mobile memory augmentation
What I would be doing if I were being incredibly attentive to your email
Evernote Hello Gets Updated With New Address Book Section, Other Improvements

The mental rolodex

There's a great use of the term in an LA Magazine review of "Run Lola Run":

Lola tosses her red phone up in the air and instantly goes through her mental Rolodex of possibilities. Faces flash on the screen. She decides to hit up her banker father and darts out of the house.

Credits: the "mental rolodex" term is one I heard first from Terry Bean, who used it at an LA2M presentation. It's also from Rebekah Burgess's weblog of the same name, where she is doing a daily photograph and filing that away for reference. 

And kids, if you don't know what a rolodex is, it's from the days when people had land lines phones only and their phones were so dumb that they didn't have an address book built into them. Instead, they wrote down phone numbers on little pieces of specially shaped paper, and those pieces of paper fit into a clever device that could be flipped through or (in ultra cool setup) spun like a Ferris wheel.

Related articles

"Forgetting as a feature, not a bug"
The Rolodex Era
Hey, you could do that even on paper rolodex cards! Giving up on Contactually for now
graph-structured rolodex
Cultivate Your Network Like You Mean It

Supermemo, spaced repetition and time-structured randomness

Picture 4

I've written about Supermemo before, a system for focusing your attention on things that you have previously learned in such a way that you reinforce long term memory. Given a set of items which you were confident in at a stage in the past, identify a way to re-test yourself on that confidence. Space out those retest intervals so that you keep the learning from decaying into nothingness. Repetition is the very soul of the net, and if you are careful you can repeat at intervals that don't overwhelm.

New to me this week is a similar spaced repetition training tool focused on short term memory. Referred to as "N-back" (Wikipedia), it looks at turning the process of matching repetitive items in a sequence into a game, with higher scores if you can recall that e.g. 3 letters ago there was also an 'x' in the string. The application Brain Workshop was created by Paul Hoskinson and lets you play with your current skills; I haven't seen anyone render this into hardware a la the old game of Simon.

To turn the random noise of the world into patterns that you understand and can manipulate and recognize, you need to find the useful connections and build upon them somehow. You can't just learn by remembering things out of context – it always helps to learn by doing. People love to make things into patterns, and an organized exploration of an otherwise random world can help you make connections which are key to understanding the world.

The space I keep trying to explore is remembering the names of people, some of whom I know rather well by face, others who I know only by their work. The index into this space that lends itself to randomness is the birthday, which you can be pretty sure to capture less than 1% of the set of people every day. Alas, Facebook has cheapened the opportunity for remembering someone's birthday as a distinguishing mark, so the challenge is to use this somehow else; if I happen to remember your half birthday, it's because I'm trying to remember and plan both forward and back 6 months. Even better if I send you a half-birthday postcard (to combine two unusual abilities). Wish me luck.

Supermemo: repetition is the very soul of the net

I wrote about SuperMemo some months back, but if I’ve told you once, I’ve told you 146 times: repetition is the very soul of the net.

SuperMemo is a piece of software from P A Wozniak, originally developed in 1987 as a DOS program for learning languages.  Wozniak, a student of molecular biology, was frustrated by the amount of knowledge he lost after cramming for an exam, and worked to develop methods for improving long term memory.  His 1992 masters thesis, Optimization of Learning, covered the early work on Supermemo and a discussion of spaced repetition in learning.

I’ve been using some of the principles from SuperMemo, in particular the discussion of using SuperMemo without a computer, to structure some organized retrospective looks at what I have been interested in over time and also to trigger follow up contacts with people and ideas that would have otherwise been forgotten.  The important element of spaced repetition is used not to remember facts and figures but to trigger memory of people and the context I saw them in.  The idea is that you structure a process to revisit previous days efforts – more recent days more frequently, and old days less frequently – and use that memory jogger to keep you connected.

What makes this newly easy (or at least easier) is some combination of tools and search engines not originally available in 1987, combined with my existing frequent blogging.   Let me provide two examples, with some source code.

I keep a personal wiki with a page for each day.  This is actually the second of those I have tried doing – the first was on custom pre-release versions of the Socialtext software and I reanimated it on the current Socialtext hosted platform.  The notion is that you have a wiki page named "2008 August 12", or really one page possible for every day, and you take notes on or about that day there or link to it to refer to it.   There’s a little bit of code that I wrote to make links from that page to a series of days spaced in the past and future which I include as a block on that page, making it easy to hyperlink forwards and backwards in time.  That’s good, as far as I do have things in my personal wiki (though maintaining that every day is a burden and I often have big blank spots when the burden of diligence is too great).

The second and more immediately practical approach uses search engines to replace explicit page dates to slice up the world into punctuated time slices.    I use this with my weblog, creating searches like "August 12, 2007"
to methodically revisit the past.  As I said, it helps if you post daily, or have a tool like the tag poster to do it for you. 

The code I wrote which I’ll share is based on "" which I released some time ago.  That tool prints the date a specified time in the past; this new tool, "spaced-days", creates a series of days formatted appropriately for whatever you want to paste them into.  The sample I have generates Socialtext formatted wiki pages but minor edits will generate Mediawiki pages and more major ones could make HTML with the formatted searches above.

So if I’m thinking about my cousin’s wedding two years ago, or next year’s St Urho’s Day celebrations, or the Burns Park Run for 2009, it’s because there was just enough reminders to jog 1/n of my memory and not the whole darn thing.

supermemo and morning coffee ritual memory

An important piece of having coffee in the morning is making it part of a routine. If you’re predictable in your habits, you start to see the same people in the same space at the same time, and you get to be something of a regular.

If you’re careful, and switch your morning allegiances from time to time but still visit the old haunts often enough, you can be what passes for a regular long after you stopped coming every day.

How often, then, do you need to show up for people to remember you? For that I turn to structured repetition, and the power of priming memory periodically to strengthen it. Supermemo, a software package for memory improvement, has a nice paper on using Supermemo without a computer, which specifies a pattern of repetitions and intervals to get details into memory. The table of intervals specified says that you review materials at this pace:

4 days, 7 days, 12 days, 20 days, 1 month, 2 months, 3 months, 5 months, 9 months, 16 months, 2 years, 4 years, 6 years, 11 years, 18 years

Which suggests that a well-timed practice of showing up at a cafe, introducing yourself to everyone, learning their names, and them coming back at precisely timed intervals to repeat the process would be enough to make you a regular in no time at all.