The pain of forgetting

There’s an old adage that psychologists study their own deficiencies: I study the psychology of memory.

At times in the past, I was able to discourse fluidly on obscuranta ranging from the internals of software for text processing, Wildean views of suffering, or conspiracy theories behind the construction of the Egyptian pyramids… few wanted to listen, but at least I found my own thoughts interesting.

Painfully, painfully, I feel this rich arcana slowly seeping away. In my personal Hades, I would be doomed to fill a sieve with grains of sand by day, even as they pooled into a puddle of forgetting around my feet by night.

My frustration hardened into a hypergraphic compulsion to externalize everything I learned. I wrote notes on every article, lecture and conversation. I painstakingly heaped my newfound nuggets of knowledge into a gigantic paper haystack.

But then I had a new problem – I couldn’t find any of it. Like a millionaire without the numbers to his Swiss bank account, I was rich and poor at the same time.

Things came to a head when I desperately tried to assimilate a pillar of textbooks for my neuroscience qualifying exams. Every brain area goes by a dozen names, can be organized by location or by lesion, by experiment or experimenter, by projections or inputs, by effect or atrophy, or equally along a dozen other dimensions.

But in my paper prison, each piece of information was confined to a single cell – a place for everything and everything in its place. In order to allow the informational inmates to run free, I needed a way to allow any nugget of knowledge to abide simultaneously in a multitude of homes.

And so I sought to build software to help me. After many musings in the shower, I constructed an elaborate infrastructure that incorporated: dynamically-generated hyperlinks to highlight associations; transclusion to include the same text in multiple places; tags to break down the trammels of tree-based hierarchies; and aliases to allow for multiple names.

Things are better now. I feel mnemonically empowered, or at least less mnemasculated. By granting conjugal visits from my conscious to my unconscious mind, this index-on-steroids means I can find things more easily.

But maintaining this index requires effort whenever I add a new piece. And my memory mansion grows so fast that even if I slept in a different room every night, I’d never return to the same one twice. I simply don’t remember what’s in there to look for it.

So in truth, even this sophisticated system is just a crude ropes-and-pulleys facsimile of my mind. A fixed hyperlink lacks all of the deep isomorphism, insight and spontaneity of an analogy. The ideas trapped there are dead and inert – they don’t bump and bite and spark off one another like active, bustling, living thoughts. And the effort of exhuming them by typing laboriously into a laptop lacks all the rapid, happy spontaneity of immediate recollection.

I dream of distant-future neural prosthetics, a google gland hooked up to my hippocampus. But I am too impatient to wait.

This is the quest that led me to co-found Memrise. I have gone as far as I can efficiently *externalizing* my thoughts. Memrise’s mission is to improve *internalization* – learning faster, forgetting slower.

I know that there is no silver bullet that will fix my memory. But I’m compelled to continue looking for tools and techniques that can boost it and shore it up.

Memory, the persistent effect of experience, provides the tools with which we think. We are the sum of our memories. When we forget, we erode.

Self Control through software

Leo Efstathiou asked me recently whether I’d rather be smarter, or have more willpower. It took only a moment’s thought to realize that I’d rather have the self-control any time.

And so it was with a sense of wonder and optimism that I normally reserve for sunrises that I fired up Self Control: a Mac application that completely blacklists parts of the Internet. Like a gaoler with a blackjack, Self Control coshes any attempt to blunder down rabbit holes like Facebook or email for some time period you specify. It’s absolutely and delightfully watertight.

The beauty of this is its potential long-term effect. I want to counteract the variable reinforcement schedule that email and blogs provide – with Self Control’s help, I’m hoping to ensure zero reward from them for long enough to break the self-perpetuating cycle of reflexive refresh-pressing.

Sssssssshhhhhhhhhhh… for now

I suppose I must really care about mobile phones ringing, since this is the third piece I’ve written about it. Maybe it’s just that I really care about auditory pollution. Or that it seems like a problem that affects billions of people and hasn’t been given enough thought.

I often want to silence my phone for an hour or so, while in a meeting or class. However, I know that I’ll forget to turn the ringer back on afterwards. This is a failure of prospective memory (‘remembering to remember’), and it’s something I feel I have almost no control over.

Wouldn’t it be great if one could set one’s phone to be silent for an hour, safe in the knowledge that soon after the meeting ended, you’d be back in business? Isn’t this what we always want?

Mobile phones should be felt but not heard

I can never hear or feel my phone when it rings, no matter how loudly or how insistently hornet-like the trilling and shrilling and buzzing and fuzzing.

For this reason, I got very excited when I heard that they now make a Bluetooth bracelet that buzzes when your phone rings.

Better still though, I’d like a sticky Bluetooth (Gluetooth?) doodad that you could affix to a watchstrap or a belt or a ring that stayed charged by dynamo from the kinetic energy of my movements – that would be much less obtrusive.

Emacs backup files

Emacs loves to create billions of little ugly-twin backup files all over your hard disk that look like ‘myfile~’ and ‘myfile.txt~’. Here are some better alternatives:

– add the following to your .emacs (this is the best solution)
(setq make-backup-files t)
(setq version-control t)
(setq backup-directory-alist
     (quote ((“.*” . “~/backup/emacs_autosave/”))))
; otherwise it keeps asking
(setq kept-new-versions 30)
(setq delete-old-versions t)

[i’ve forgotten which of these does what, but they’re all in my .emacs file…]

make sure to create ~/backup/emacs_autosave first. this will create multiple snapshots of every file you edit and store them in that directory. this avoids having all the blah~ files in your current directory, and is useful if you want to revert to the way you had things 5 minutes ago.

– a quick alias to remove them (courtesy of Randy O’Reilly)
alias cleanup ‘/bin/rm *~ .*~ #* .#*’

– finally, put Dropbox into ‘pack rat’ mode, so that it stores every single version of your Dropbox files for eternity.

Mobile phone ringing

Everyone hates it when a mobile phone rings in a cinema, classroom or restaurant. Especially if it’s yours.

It’s so easy to forget to mute the ringer. It’s even easier to forget to turn the ringer back on at the end of the lecture. Turning ringers on and off seems beneath us, and beyond us.

Clearly, it would be better if our phone could decide when to ring for itself. This kind of ‘context-awareness’ is actually a very hard problem. Here’s one simple algorithm that might go a long way towards helping.

If my phone can pick up lots of other mobile phones in close proximity, and they’re not moving away, then assume it should be more silent. This covers most of the cases we’d want, where lots of people are sitting together, and no one wants to be disturbed. It excludes cases where we’re walking down the street surrounded by lots of other people, but none of us are sticking around.

I can think of a few cases where this might fall down. If I’m anxiously awaiting a call from the hospital about a loved one, I want the phone to ring wherever I am. If I’m sitting in a noisy coffee shop, I want it to ring loudly, and no one will be particularly disturbed.

But on balance, this seems like a good heuristic. Instead of having a manual ‘mute’ button, we might just let the phone guess, and have a manual ‘loud override’ button for the above cases.
The problem is that often, we’d rather our devices be dumb but predictable than smart but surprisingly and unpredictably tricksy.


I have stubby, knobbly hands that look neanderthal to me as I prod sweatily at the smooth, cleanness of my iPhone.

Wouldn’t it be cool if there was a thimble you could place on your thumbs/index fingers that would give you a restricted surface area with which to press on small buttons on your iPhone?

Then, I could genuinely use the device as a 21st century post-it note – I wish I could scratch and scribble on it with a horsehair finger-biro, rather than doodling and poodling all over it with my pudgy digits.

Spacetime alarms

Alarm clocks are temporal. They tell you when some time criterion has been reached. They’re very useful.

But often, I really want an alarm with a spatial criterion – a location alarm. Let’s consider some possible uses:

  • Beep shrilly if anyone tries to steal this device from its current location. [I think there are accelerometer-based programs for laptops that do this]
  • I’m snoozing on the train – wake me up when we get near Penn Station. [This is where I first came up with the idea].
  • Give me a kick if I’m still in my office when I’m supposed to have left for that meeting. After all, I don’t need the alarm to go off if I’m already on my way to the meeting. [though that’s a combination space + time criterion]

This would make for an obvious and delightful iPhone app. I haven’t found one yet, but I haven’t looked hard either.

UPDATE: there are some really superb suggestions in the comments, and in Hacker News that take this idea much further. I particularly liked these:

  • R.J.Google Maps needs this so when I’m walking down the street I don’t have to pay attention to street address numbers/keep my eyes glued to the screen.
  • FrankusMaybe something like that could tell me when I’m close to the grocery store that I need to buy milk.
  • Frankus: A game where you try and assassinate your friends by setting imaginary time bombs to go off at a particular location when you think your friend will be there.

Emacs Freex gets a new home

Emacs Freex mode is a minor mode for organizing and editing a massively-hyperlinked database of your notes and ideas. It’s a personal wiki on steroids. Per Sederberg & I released the Emacs Freex code under the GPL two years ago.

I’ve just moved it to a new home on Google Code, and also recorded my first ever screencast, to demonstrate how it works.

There are probably still some teething problems with the installation instructions, and I think perhaps I could be clearer in the screencast. Do let me know what I can do to make it easier for new users.