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Posts Tagged ‘memory

“Right now I’m having amnesia and déjà vu at the same time. I think I’ve forgotten this before.”*…

Woodcut illustrations from Anianus’ Compotus cum commento (ca. 1492), an adaptation of Bede’s computus system — Source.

Before humans stored memories as zeroes and ones, we turned to digital devices of another kind — preserving knowledge on the surface of fingers and palms. Kensy Cooperrider leads us through a millennium of “hand mnemonics” and the variety of techniques practiced by Buddhist monks, Latin linguists, and Renaissance musicians for remembering what might otherwise elude the mind…

In the beginning, the hand was just a hand — or so we can imagine. It was a workaday organ, albeit a versatile one: a tool for grasping, holding, throwing, and hefting. Then, at some point, after millions of years, it took on other duties. It became an instrument of mental, not just menial, labor. As a species, our systems of understanding, belief, and myth had grown more elaborate, more cognitively overwhelming. And so we started to put those systems out into the world: to tally, track, and record by carving notches into bone, tying knots in string, spreading pigment on cave walls, and aligning rocks with celestial bodies. Hands abetted these early mental labors, of course, but they would later become more than mere accessories. Beginning roughly twelve hundred years ago, we started using the hand itself as a portable repository of knowledge, a place to store whatever tended to slip our mental grasp. The topography of the palm and fingers became invisibly inscribed with information of all kinds — tenets and dates, names and sounds. The hand proved versatile in a new way, as an all-purpose memory machine.

The arts of memory are well known, but the role of the hand in these arts is often overlooked. In the twentieth century, beginning with the pioneering work of Frances Yates, Western scholars started to piece together a rich tradition of mnemonic practices that originated in antiquity and later took hold in Europe. The most celebrated of these is the “memory palace” [see here]. Using this technique, skilled practitioners can memorize vast collections of facts by nesting them in familiar places (or “loci”): the chambers of a building or along a well-known route. (To make these places more memorable, a bizarre image is often added to each one, the more jarring the better.) It is an odd omission that hand mnemonics are rarely mentioned alongside memory palaces. Both techniques are powerful and broadly attested. Both are adaptable, able to accommodate whatever type of information one wants to remember. And both work by similar principles, pinning to-be-remembered items to familiar locations.

The two traditions do have important differences. Memory palaces exist solely in the imagination; hand mnemonics exist half in the mind and half in the flesh. Another difference lies in their intended use. Memory palaces are idiosyncratic in nature, tailored to the quirks of personal experience and association, and used for private purposes; they are very much the province of an individual. Hand mnemonics, by contrast, are the province of a community, a tool for collective understanding. They offer a way of fixing and transmitting a shared system of knowledge. They serve private purposes, certainly — such as contemplation, in the case of the Mogao mnemonic, or calculation, in the case of Bede’s computus. But they also have powerful social functions in teaching, ritual, and communication…

The five-fingered memory machine: “Handy Mnemonics,” from @kensycoop in @PublicDomainRev.

* Steven Wright


As we give it (to) the finger, we might recall an occasion for counting that required no fingers at all: on this date in 2015, a baseball game between Chicago White Sox and the Baltimore Orioles at Camden Yards set the all-time low attendance mark for Major League Baseball. Zero (0) fans were in attendance, because the stadium was closed to the public due to the 2015 Baltimore protests (over the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody).


“What you remember saves you”*…

Observations on obsolescent (or otherwise “over”) objects…

“My mother possessed a superlative ashtray,” writes architecture critic Catherine Slessor. It had a waist-high stand and a chrome-plated bowl, and, she writes, “faintly reeking, it stood to attention in our 1960s suburban living room like some engorged trophy.” Slessor goes on to describe other ashtrays of note: a Limoges porcelain limited-edition ashtray that Salvador Dalí designed for use on Air India, in exchange for a baby elephant that the airline transported for him from Bangalore to Spain; the ashtrays at Quaglino’s in London that reportedly used to disappear at a rate of seven per day in the 1990s, snatched by diners as souvenirs of a society locale. In doing so, she conjures the material world of the twentieth century, inhabited as it was by ashtrays of all shapes and sizes. Then, with the dawn of the millennium, this category of object—part functional décor, part objet d’art—all but disappeared.

Slessor’s short essay on the ashtray appears in the new book Extinct: A Compendium of Obsolete Objects, a collection of illustrated essays on eighty-five objects that, its editors write, “once populated the world and do so no longer.”…

The essays in Extinct often answer two questions: What was it that has disappeared and why? And then, what was the significance of this loss? Some, like Slessor’s, are lucidly personal meditations, stuffed with anecdotes and design history; others are more technical treatises on the reason a particular technology failed to take root. The editors identify six general reasons why things become extinct and categorize each object in this way. Certain objects are deemed “failed”; they simply didn’t work. Many more, though, are “superseded” by more advanced models of similar things. Some dead objects, especially commercial products, are “defunct”—these have failed to gain widespread adoption, or couldn’t be mass-produced, or have simply gone out of style. Others are “aestivated,” meaning that they disappear but are revived in a new form. Still others are classified as “visionary,” in that they never quite came into being at all. The rest are “enforced,” basically regulated into disappearance…

From “Mementos Mori,” an appreciation by Sophie Haigney (@SophieHaigney) of Extinct: A Compendium of Obsolete Objects, in @thebafflermag.

See also “Heritage out of Control: Disturbing Heritage,” by Birgit Meyer, from which:

… waste, is in many respects the Other of heritage. Things that have lost their value, were left to decay or targeted for destruction can be scrutinized for alternative understandings of how past things matter in our global entangled world: as haunting shadows, shady specters, or hidden time bombs, challenging how histories have been written, and the narratives and powers condoned by them.

* W. S. Merwin


As we deliberate on disappearance, we might recall that it was on this date in 1958, above the waters off Tybee Island near Savannah, Georgia, that an F-86 fighter plane collided with the B-47 bomber carrying a nuclear bomb. To protect the aircrew from a possible detonation in the event of a crash, the bomb was jettisoned. Following several unsuccessful searches, the bomb was presumed lost somewhere in Wassaw Sound off the shores of Tybee Island. It has never been found. (That said, nuclear weapons are, sadly, still with us.)

An Mk 15 nuclear bomb of the type lost when jettisoned after the collision (source)

“Visualization gives you answers to questions you didn’t know you had”*…

Reckoning before writing: Mesopotamian Clay Tokens

Physical representations of data have existed for thousands of years. The List of Physical Visualizations (and the accompanying Gallery) collect illustrative examples, e.g…

5500 BC – Mesopotamian Clay Tokens

The earliest data visualizations were likely physical: built by arranging stones or pebbles, and later, clay tokens. According to an eminent archaeologist (Schmandt-Besserat, 1999):

“Whereas words consist of immaterial sounds, the tokens were concrete, solid, tangible artifacts, which could be handled, arranged and rearranged at will. For instance, the tokens could be ordered in special columns according to types of merchandise, entries and expenditures; donors or recipients. The token system thus encouraged manipulating data by abstracting all possible variables. (Harth 1983. 19) […] No doubt patterning, the presentation of data in a particular configuration, was developed to highlight special items (Luria 1976. 20).”

Clay tokens suggest that physical objects were used to externalize information, support visual thinking and enhance cognition way before paper and writing were invented…

There are 370 entries (so far). Browse them at List of Physical Visualizations (@dataphys)

Ben Schneiderman


As we celebrate the concrete, we might carefully-calculated birthday greetings to Rolf Landauer; he was born on this date in 1927. A physicist, he made a number important contributions in a range of areas: the thermodynamics of information processing, condensed matter physics, and the conductivity of disordered media.

He is probably best remembered for “Landauer’s Principle,” which described the energy used during a computer’s operation. Whenever the machine is resetting for another computation, bits are flushed from the computer’s memory, and in that electronic operation, a certain amount of energy is lost (a simple logical consequence of the second law of thermodynamics). Thus, when information is erased, there is an inevitable “thermodynamic cost of forgetting,” which governs the development of more energy-efficient computers. The maximum entropy of a bounded physical system is finite– so while most engineers dealt with practical limitations of compacting ever more circuitry onto tiny chips, Landauer considered the theoretical limit: if technology improved indefinitely, how soon will it run into the insuperable barriers set by nature?

A so-called logically reversible computation, in which no information is erased, may in principle be carried out without releasing any heat. This has led to considerable interest in the study of reversible computing. Indeed, without reversible computing, increases in the number of computations per joule of energy dissipated must eventually come to a halt. If Koomey‘s law continues to hold, the limit implied by Landauer’s principle would be reached around the year 2050.


“Every history is a map”*…

Antoni Jażwiński’s Tableau Muet, based on the original “Polish System” for charting historical information, later revised in France and the United States, 1834 — Source.

How does one visualize history and chart time? Is it a line, moving forever outward in one direction? A Grecian temple, as Emma Willard envisioned, with Ionic columns representing centuries, receding from view toward a vanishing point at the world’s origin? Or could it be a corkscrew ascending upward, allowing us to look down from our present position into past events similar to our own? 

For the Polish educator Antoni Jażwiński, history was best represented by an abstract grid — or at least it was for the purposes of remembering it. The so-called “Polish System” originated in the 1820s and was later brought to public attention in the 1830s and 1840s by General Józef Bem, a military engineer with a penchant for mnemonics. As Anthony Grafton and Daniel Rosenberg catalogue in their Cartographies of Time, the nineteenth century brimmed with new methods and technologies for committing historical information to memory — and Jażwiński’s contribution (and its later adaptations) proved one of the most popular. 

The Polish System — which almost anticipates Piet Mondrian’s abstract checkerboards and the wider modernist fascination with grid figures — coupled chronology to the map-making traditions of geography. In Jażwiński’s original chart, each main 10×10 box is a century and the rows separate decades. Within a century box, each individual square is a year, each color a nation (with shading for different monarchs or governments), and symbols can stand for marriages, wars, treaties, and other types of events. Should one become proficient with this system, they can peer down on the history of the world, summarized on a surface not much larger than a chessboard… 

More on this proto-modernist memory palace: “Visualizing History: The Polish System.”

* Jacob Bronowski


As we picture the past, we might recall that it was on this date in 1965 that the FBI Laboratory declared the lyrics of Louie Louie to be officially “unintelligible at any speed.”

In February 1964, an outraged parent wrote to Robert F. Kennedy, then the Attorney General of the U.S., alleging that the lyrics of “Louie Louie” were obscene, suggesting that “The lyrics are so filthy that I can-not [sic] enclose them in this letter.” The Federal Bureau of Investigation investigated the complaint, and looked into the various rumors of “real lyrics” that were circulating among teenagers.  In June 1965, the FBI laboratory obtained a copy of the Kingsmen recording and, after 31 months of investigation, concluded that it could not be interpreted– and therefore that the Bureau could not find that the recording was obscene.

In September 1965, an FBI agent interviewed one member of the Kingsmen, who denied that there was any obscenity in the song. The FBI never interviewed songwriter Richard Berry nor consulted the actual lyrics that were on file with the U.S. Copyright Office.

Snopes suggests that while some teenage mondegreens were indeed pretty filthy, the song itself was clean.

“Last time I checked, the digital universe was expanding at the rate of five trillion bits per second in storage”*…


Oz in DNA


… and rising.  Happily, technologists are keeping up:

The intricate arrangement of base pairs in our DNA encodes just about everything about us. Now, DNA contains the entirety of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” as well.

A team of University of Texas Austin scientists just vastly improved the storage capacity of DNA and managed to encode the entire novel — translated into the geek-friendly language of Esperanto — in a double strand of DNA far more efficiently than has been done before. DNA storage isn’t new, but this work could help finally make it practical…

The full story at “Scientists Stored “The Wizard of Oz” on a Strand of DNA.”  The UT release, here.

* George Dyson


As we reconsider Kondo, we might send carefully-stowed birthday greetings to Jay Wright Forrester; he was born on this date in 1914.  A pioneering computer engineer and systems scientist, he was one of the inventors of magnetic core memory, the predominant form of random-access computer memory during the most explosive years of digital computer development (between 1955 and 1975).  It was part of a family of related technologies which bridged the gap between vacuum tubes and semiconductors by exploiting the magnetic properties of materials to perform switching and amplification.

And close to your correspondent’s heart, Forrester is also believed to have created the first animation in the history of computer graphics, a “jumping ball” on an oscilloscope.

Jay_Forrester source



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