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How to remember lots and lots of stuff

I’ve been slogging away in nostalgiaville, writing obscure stuff over at Wikipedia again (once an addict, always an addict, even if the addiction hurts you), and I started wondering about something. Why is 20 years ago easier for me to remember than last week?
I think there are two reasons for that, but if I go off exploring those, I’ll never get back on track. I stumbled across a web site today called Supermem. It extols the virtues of repetition for memory. It’s really heavy reading and not terribly eloquent, at least I don’t think. I think the author’s strategy is showing off how much stuff he can remember and trying to make you jealous, in the meantime arguing that even ordinary people, given enough knowledge, can become geniuses. And maybe the people he cites in his stories are examples of people who became geniuses through knowledge.

And I’ve mostly summed up what he spent pages and pages saying.

The basic premise is that knowledge isn’t everything but it sure can add value to anything else you have, and from the outside, sometimes knowledge can look like everything. But we forget lots of things. The key to remembering things is repetition. The hard part is coming up with a strategy for repetition that works.

Of course he has a solution. As you might have guessed, he wants to sell you something. In this case, it’s a piece of commercial software.

The only reason I didn’t scramble for the back button right then and there was because old versions of the program–specifically, the DOS and Win3.1 versions–are now public domain. And the program inspired a similar Linux program called Memaid. So you can try it out without spending any money.

So here’s how it works. Take some things you don’t want to forget, then figure out how to phrase them in the form of a question. Then you enter those things into the program. It drills you. And it figures out how often you need to repeat something in order to retain it.

The idea is to establish a pattern. Seek out things you won’t want to forget. Then figure out how to restate those things in Q&A form. Enter them into the program, then spend 30 minutes a day with the program. If you do both–learn at least one new thing every day and drill on the old stuff–you’ll accumulate a body of knowledge.

Here are a couple of examples from my job:

Q: What’s the optimal Linux command to create/write images of floppy disks? (The device name will vary in other Unix-like environments)
A: dd if=/dev/fd0 of=(filename) bs=18k
dd if=(filename) of=/dev/fd0 bs=18k

Q: What’s the DOS command to rewrite the boot record on a hard drive that won’t boot or has been corrupted by a boot-sector virus?
A: fdisk /mbr

Q: What’s the web site I can go to in order to find the geographic location of an IP address?

And I would do well to add some specific questions to the list as well, such as, “What’s the primary nameserver at our Sunset Hills office?”

So if you want to sound like William F. Buckley Jr. and not come off like an idiot–like one person I know who likes to pepper the word of the day into everything he can, except he frequently misspells or misuses it–add that. If your goal is to lose as many coolness points as possible, put things like Vanilla Ice’s real name in there. If I’d known about this program when I was in college, I’d have put my Spanish vocabulary words and verb conjugations in there, and today I’d be able to say more than just hablo pocísimo español without embarrassing myself. (And for all I know, you’re not supposed to put the -ísimo suffix on poco and when I do it, I come off like someone who would say no sabo. OK, so I guess I do remember a little Spanish, but not enough to hold much of a conversation.)

It’s an interesting idea. I think I’m going to give it more than just a try.

Putting every question I ask Charlie (along with the answer) in there would be a good start.

3 thoughts on “How to remember lots and lots of stuff”

  1. Learning to sound like William F. Buckley would be an affectation, learning to think like William F. Buckley might be an accomplishent.

  2. I can not believe that I just read a commentary from Dave on how to remember something….


  3. Pointy-haired boss(es), I write what I need. In the immortal words of Peter Hook, “We write for ourselves. If anyone else likes it, then that’s fine.”

    Now I’ve just got to figure out which one of you I’m talking to…

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