Friday, October 26, 2018

Make it harder, not easier

Twelve lines of text ought to be easy to learn – you’d think. But the first twelve lines of Ephesians chapter 3 – equating to the first seven verses – have proved very hard for my memory to retain.

Considering this, however, I remembered that when I was memorizing music more frequently, in the last couple of years, twelve bars of a fugue by J S Bach took me infinitely longer to get to grips with than twelve bars of a jazz-style piece by Christopher Norton. The Bach was much more complex, making it the equivalent of an abstract text, whereas the jazz piece, while enjoyable to learn, was more straightforward musically.

Last part of a Bach Fugue
Anyway, hacking away at the task of memorizing yesterday I gave myself some additional images to remember for the first three or four lines, since these were the ones that were particularly obstinate in terms of staying with me.

Then I managed to recite the lines backwards line by line. This made my brain claim it was going into overload, but I assured it that it wasn’t.

I still felt I needed something extra to hang onto. 

In our kitchen, where I do most of my memorizing in the mornings, there’s a large clock that was given to my mother many years ago. It has no numbers; instead it has pictures of cats – twelve different ones. Originally, on the hour, a cat would meow, but we all got fed up with the awful sound and switched it off.

A cat clock similar to ours
Yesterday, I recited the twelve lines while working from the cat equivalent of one to twelve. And when I could do that, I went backwards, from twelve to one. The cats aren’t distinguishable enough for my brain to say something like: on the Persian sitting at four, I recite line four, or on the Manx sitting at nine I recite line nine. I just have to think in my head that I’m looking at a cat picture that represents the number four or nine and hopefully line four or nine is there, ready to be recited.

If this seems over the top, it isn’t. When it comes to memory, the brain prefers difficult to easy. Things learned easily tend to be forgotten far sooner than things that are learned with considerable effort.

The authors of the book Make it Stick talk about how a test was done on two groups of baseball players. One group was thrown the same kind of ball over and over – such as a curveball - and of course, they got better at it as time went on. In fact these were already top players, so getting better for them was a considerable achievement.

The second group was thrown a different kind of ball every time, and initially they fumbled and missed, hitting some and not others. But as time went on, even though they were thrown a different ball each time, overall they improved more than the other guys. With the first group, once their brains knew that they’d get a certain ball they relaxed, and didn’t continue to be alert to changes. The second group was continually alert because they didn’t know what they’d get, and so they improved in regard to all the balls that were thrown.

There’s something about the brain that delights in difficulty. If you want to memorise something, then make it harder for the brain, not easier.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Better late than never

This post, which first appeared on Jason Goroncy's blog, should have been copied here at the time...for some reason it got lost in transit, and has only surfaced four years later. Better late than never... 

Some moons ago, I posted an interview with the Dunedin author, composer, and musician, Mike Crowl, in relation to his book, Diary of a Prostate Wimp. Mike is a good friend who has, besides his literary foray on his surgical experiences, published two fantasy books this year for children. One of these was based on a really delightful musical he wrote and produced in 2012, called Grimhilda! (I posted about it here). This month, Mike released a ‘sort of sequel’ to Grimhilda! called The Mumbersons and the Blood Secret.

The Mumbersons is a ‘sort of sequel’ because here new characters take the lead, and only a very few of the people from the first book appear. It’s an approach not unlike that which C. S. Lewis adopts in his Narnia series. The Horse and the Boy, for example, has distinct connections to the earlier book, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but the characters driving the tale are quite new.

Mike’s fantasy world, like Lewis’s, isn’t explicitly ‘Christian’, although much of the strange new world of the Bible underpins the stories. In Grimhilda!, for example, the parents of a young boy called Toby are kidnapped by a witch, who later explains that she’s entitled to do this because they haven’t loved their son; they’ve been too busy with their own lives. After some initial reluctance, Toby sets out with some companions to rescue his parents. In the background to the story we learn of another young boy who tried to do the same thing many years before, and failed, dying in the process. This past sacrifice makes possible Toby’s new life of loving service.

And then there’s the blood. Indeed, a main thrust of the new story is about the secret of Billy’s blood, and whether it can be used for good or evil.

Both stories are adventures, with the heroes having to overcome a number of difficulties, sometimes by their own strengths, sometimes aided by the unlikeliest of gifts. In each story, the boy is accompanied by a female companion: in Grimhilda! she’s a bossy doll who’s come to life; in The Mumbersons, she’s a risk-taking girl with a rather strange family background.

Like the other two books, The Mumbersons and the Blood Secret has been published as an e-book [and also a paperback] on Amazon, and is also available at the Dunedin Public Library. Again, Mike has worked closely with Cherianne Parks, his co-author, whose ideas ‘permeate the story’, as he notes in the Acknowledgements. You can read more about Mike here.

It isn’t necessary to have read Grimhilda! to understand the new book. Although, of course, knowing the background of the earlier story will add to the enjoyment of the sequel.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Abstract and concrete

The initial letters technique (ILT) that I used recently on Vassar Millar's poem, Morning Person, worked well with that piece. I think this was because the poem is quite 'concrete' in the sense that there are lots of images throughout, and it's all very active. 

This may be the reason ILT works well with playscripts. A few playscripts have speeches that are fairly abstract, but for the most part, dialogue in plays is more active and is about specific things and events.

I've learned several chunks of the Book of Ephesians over the years, and thought I'd try and finish off the book (over the next several years probably). I found that there were several verses at the beginning of chapter three that I'd never learned. I'm not sure why. 

So I tried the ILT on those verses yesterday. Things didn't go nearly so well.  

I read through the section several times. It didn't seem to be sticking in any sense. In fact it wasn't an easy section to understand straight away at all. Paul's sentences tend to go on at length, and though I had broken down the text into shorter lines, it was still hard to grasp. 

I sat down and wrote out the initial letters. After a few attempts I was able to read back from the code, but as soon as I put the code away the text became a kind of blur. Once I'd done a few other things with the day, there was almost nothing in my head of what I'd been working on. 

Today I came back to it, and it was like starting from scratch. I suspect that because the text is quite abstract, as a lot of the epistles can be, there aren't many hooks to hang your memory hat on. I don't mean that the text is obscure, but just that it's not about everyday things you can easily visualize. 

Nelson Dellis
Having understood that, I knuckled down and did more old style work on it, and it became to stick.

Slowly. I actually started with a couple of lines from the end of the text, and once those were holding, worked backwards line by line. I'd been getting stuck trying to start at the beginning for some reason. I sometimes find the same thing happens with music. Instead of learning the opening bars, as you'd expect to do, I go to the end and learn a few bars there, and then learn the bars in front of those. This means I already know the 'goal' of the piece, how the climax works. As each new section is added I have a better sense of where I'm going.

Nelson Dellis has a video on You Tube in which he memorizes the first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence. He doesn't use the ILT approach, as he does in another video, and I think the reason is that the Declaration has the same kind of language Paul uses in Ephesians. It's abstract language:
When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
Hardly a concrete thing in sight. 

Dellis takes a double approach. First he divides the paragraph into eleven short sections, takes a map of the USA and finds eleven cities in a rough pattern. These cities each have a significant image connected to them (such as the Liberty Bell in Boston). This map becomes his pathway through the paragraph. 

But on top of this he links the significant things with other images, connecting them to the DOI's words, and also uses homonyms (which and witch) so that he has images even for the words that are likely to be forgotten. This is something I've often done myself  in the past when I'm likely to forget important little words. 

It may seem like a lot of work for 71 words, but the time spent is necessary to ensure the brain keeps the information.  

His video is worth a look. It's just over thirteen minutes long. 

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Darwin's Secret Sex Problem

Darwin’s Secret Sex Problem: Exposing Evolution’s Fatal Flaw—The Origin of Sex, by F LaGard Smith. 

For many years the thing that seemed to me most unanswered in the evolution 'history' - even more than how the eye could have evolved in such complexity by chance - was how a male and female could suddenly appear together at the same time, out of the blue, within the same part of the world, and thus set humanity on its course. There seemed no possibility that all the complex requirements of both male and female could come together at the right time. This was the same for all male/female species, of course. 

And then I came across this book, and found someone else who saw the absurdity of believing that a male and a female had suddenly appeared on the evolution horizon at the same time. Thanks, Mr Smith, for this alone you deserve five stars.

The book, truth to be told, is too long, and certainly in the earlier chapters, seems rather repetitive. But there is so much evidence for Mr Smith's point of view that the more of the book I read, the more I enjoyed it and appreciated his arguments. 

It's been obvious to me for many years that evolution was more of a religion than a science, though there are some science factors to it. There are many religious aspects to it as well, though evolutionists won't admit to this. 

I think the saddest part of this book is the discussion of well-known Christians who somehow manage to keep a Biblical worldview in tandem with an evolutionary one. Mr Smith doesn't see this as possible, and I don't either. You have to make a choice in the end. To my surprise, there was a time when C S Lewis, who for the most appears to have one of the soundest Christian minds of the 21st century, could have for so long contemplated the possibility that evolution was true. 

I wrote on Twitter the other day: "I long for the day in the future when Evolution is remembered as a fairytale our ancestors used to tell us, claiming it held the truth for everything, when in fact it explained almost nothing..." Of course that immediately aroused the sarcasm of evolution believers, as you'd expect, though surprisingly, very little of it. 

Mr Smith makes the point that we no longer regard the earth as being at the centre of the solar system, but that this took centuries to change. And those who were most opposed to the idea were scientists more than Christians. So that gives me hope that one day evolution will go the way of the dodo. It certainly deserves to do so.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Testing the new technique

Vassar Millar

A couple of posts ago I wrote about experimenting with using the initial letters of a piece I wanted to memorize. The initial letters act as a kind of code for reminding you how the words run in the piece you’re learning.

I wasn’t greatly impressed with the results, but I felt I might have done the system a bit of an injustice, so I tried a different piece this morning – a poem: Vassar Millar’s Morning Person, which is about the Creation.

Some years back I had some problems with the muscles in my right leg, and now in the mornings, I exercise my legs while doing my memorizing. This morning, I started by reading the poem over and over as I exercised. Normally I just bowl on in and begin memorizing from the word go.

This time I first got the feel of the piece as I read and re-read it - it’s fifteen lines long, so not huge - and saw how things fitted together, and where there were internal rhymes and so on. It’s a very energetic poem, which helps in the learning, though it doesn’t have an obvious metre to it.

When I’d finished the leg exercises and the readings, I sat down and coded the poem into the initial letters. Working from these, I soon discovered that while some things had stuck fairly easily, others hadn’t; a quick reference back to the words helped. I also wrote the poem out, by hand, in full. 

To my surprise, after several attempts I was speaking the poem without errors – for the most part. One or two lines or phrases, as is always the case, kept zipping off and leaving me, but I wasn’t under pressure to have it memorized instantly.

The end result, however, was that after about half an hour, I had the thing under my belt. This is definitely interesting. And quite unusual for me. I’ll keep reviewing the poem during the day, and see what the state of things are tomorrow.

One other thing that helped, I believe, is that unlike most mornings lately, there were no distractions from other people in the house. And being a Saturday morning I didn’t have to rush to get anything else done.  

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Working with Psalm 119

Back in March 2013 I mentioned that I was (yet again) beginning to learn Psalm 119, that largest of all the Psalms. In it the same theme is worked over time and again - making it extremely difficult to get your head around which line belongs where.

During 2014 this was almost the only thing I tried to memorise, and I got it under my belt completely. But of course, as soon as I left it alone, it would disintegrate, and all my hard work seemed to be for nothing. 176 verses of two lines apiece down the drain, it seemed.

I'd tried on my first effort at learning this Psalm to link up the verse number with an image, and the image was supposed to help me remember what the verse was. It kind of worked, but I didn't put the effort in to retain what I'd learned, although for a few weeks there it was a bit of a party trick being able to recall any random verse just from the number.

When it came to my attempt in 2014, I didn't start with much of a plan, which was a bit foolish. However, I soon noticed that there was a key word in the beginning of each of the first three stanza (each stanza has eight verses) that linked up to the 2nd, 3rd and 4th letters of the alphabet: B, C, D. (Just in case you've forgotten what they are!)

That gave me an idea. If I could at least remember how each stanza started, I'd have some way of keeping track of where I was in the Psalm. But the fourth stanza didn't have any relevant word in the first line that began with E. It did have the word cleaves (my soul cleaves to the dust). This registered in my head with one of Henry the Eighth's wives, Anne of Cleaves, and so Anne found herself as a signpost in the series.

But to add random names to the stanzas would be to add another complication which I could do without. So while Anne stayed for E, I chose a name beginning with F for the next one, the name of someone I knew. I did this with every subsequent stanza. Friends and relatives became signposts throughout.

Learning the eight two-line verses within each stanza was another issue again, which I'll write about another time. But using people's names as signposts, alphabetically, gave me an additional benefit. It showed me how I might keep track in my head of all the other poems and sections of Scripture I'd learned over the years. Because I'd learned them randomly, there was no order to them.

So I made a list of the memorized pieces, and linked a person's name to each one, in alphabetical order. Yes, I had to learn who belonged to what, and it took regular revision, but the list is now intact (most days). I'm now reaching the end of the fourth run through the alphabet, and have to remember people's names for 98 pieces. (It was a bit of a trick finding names beginning with X and Z and so on.)  Some still catch me out at times, but overall this method is working.

By the way, on my last revision of Psalm 119, it was intact...

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Trying a new memory technique

In my last post I talked about a nonfiction book idea that I'm now pursuing instead of the children's fantasy I'd been writing. It's going to be focused around how we memorize text, such as poetry, chapters of the Bible, playscripts and more. In this post, and future ones, I'll be exploring some of the ideas that will go into the book. 

I’ve been memorizing poetry and Scripture for several decades now, and am always interested in hearing about alternative methods of memorizing.

Recently I came across an idea for the first time which was touted as being a great way of learning text really quickly. The idea isn’t new; in fact I’ve just found in a Facebook discussion on memorization that an acting friend told me he'd been using it for years.

This is how it goes:

You read through a particular speech a few times, getting to know something of the words, but not memorizing it.. Then you sit and write down the initial letters of each word, along with any punctuation. With poetry, it’s good to stick to the layout of the poem as well.

These initial letters become a kind of code. It's surprising how quickly you can read through these letters and remember the text you’re learning.

That’s good, and seemingly some people with better memories than me can be word perfect the next day when they have to deliver a speech, using this method alone. 

Or so it appears.

I tried it for the first time on Psalm 63, which happened to be the next item I wanted to learn.

I broke the text down into four sections and only worked on one section each day, over four days. The first day it all seemed very easy, and I could recite back the words with relative ease. But before the day was out, I’d pretty much forgotten what I’d learned. Away from the code, I had smatterings of it, but there were gaps and I wasn’t sure exactly what some words were or how they fitted together. 

A little discouraged, I came back to the first section the next morning, and, using the initial letters I’d written out again, found I could quickly remember the lines. So I carried on with the second section.

Next morning, the first section – without using the initial letters – was kind of there, but not really learned. The second was mostly missing. And so it went on, until I’d worked through all four sections.

By the time I'd got through all four sections I found I had to start working on the lines in my usual way: checking for similar letters in a phrase, for words that rhymed with each other (wings, sings and clings all turned up within two lines), for connections to other pieces I’d learned (my Auntie Joyce is a usual reminder of rejoice and has been used when learning another Psalm), for words that remind me of something else, and so on. All long-established techniques.

The thing was still not really sticking…

Lying in bed on the sixth day (or thereabouts) I decided to use the technique known variously as the Memory Palace or the Mind Palace or the Place of Loci. All of them basically mean using real places that you know well in real life and letting them be the link to getting you from A to B in the piece.

I chose the road outside our house, leading to my neighbour’s fence (where my generous neighbours, in imagination, were standing), upstairs in my house where I was lying in a bed, and then to my other neighbour’s place, where relationships between us aren’t so good. 

These were starting points, but I needed to add in other things: the motor scooter shed in our drive, a hand mower being lifted over the fence, eating a marrow without cutting it, someone wielding a
A substantial marrow
sword, and a King and Auntie Joyce holding hands.

Now the thing started to be more fluent. And now, a few days later, it’s at the point where I’m much more likely to remember it than I was using the initial letter code on its own.

So the point is, I think, that if you want to learn something and retain it, you have to use a variety of means to keep it alive in your head.

I’ll talk about something called retrieval in my next post. This is another essential element to retaining things that have been learned.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Death of a story

Some sad news...for me, if not for the few readers who actually read my kids' books. I'm abandoning book four in the Grimhilderness series. Something's just not happening, in spite of all my efforts, and I can't even blame procrastination anymore.

My 'sounding board' person stated about my idea of bringing back characters from the previous three books: 'I think it's fraught with pitfalls.' Not a bad sentence in itself, and maybe worth using somewhere.

Though that pronounced sentence sounds like a death knell in itself, the life had already gone out of this book. I'm putting it in the famous bottom drawer until one of my grandchildren discovers it and says, 'I wonder why granddad didn't pursue this extraordinarily good idea.'

Except they won't find in the bottom drawer, because there is no bottom drawer on the computer. Might have to invent a folder named that. Maybe I should just call it Atlantis, instead of 'Bottom Drawer.'

Meanwhile, on a more positive front, I've decided to pursue a nonfiction idea I've toyed with for some time. I've written about this subject on and off since I first started writing articles, and it's been a topic that's intrigued me for decades.

I'm not going to spill the beans about the idea in this blog post, but keep an eye out in future ones, where I'll start to discuss different facets of what I want to work on, and explore the ideas in short bursts.

An Afterthought