Monday, May 10, 2010

'Elephant in the Room' Turns Out to Be Actual Elephant

They didn’t have dental records back then

At banquet given by a nobleman of Thessaly named Scopas, the poet Simonides of Ceos chanted a lyric poem in honour of his host but including a passage in praise of Castor and Pollux. Scopas meanly told the poet that he would only pay him half the sum agreed upon for the panegyric and that he must obtain the balance from the twin gods to whom he had devoted half the poem. A little later, a message was brought in to Simonides that two young men were waiting outside who wished to see him. He rose from the banquet and went out but could find no one. During his absence the roof of the banqueting hall fell in, crushing Scopas and all the guests to death beneath the ruins; the corpses were so mangled that the relatives who came to take them away for burial were unable to identify them. But Simonides remembered the places at which they had been sitting at the table and was therefore able to indicate to the relatives which were their dead. The invisible callers, Castor and Pollux, had handsomely paid for their share in the panegyric by drawing Simonides away from the banquet just before the crash. And this experience suggested to the poet the principles of the art of memory of which he is said to have been the inventor. Noting that it was through his memory of the places at which the guests had been sitting that he had been able to identify the bodies, he realised that orderly arrangement is essential for good memory.

This episode - reproduced here in Frances Yates’ famous retelling - hails originally from book II of Cicero’s De Oratore. But if this is really the seminal moment in the ancient invention of a systematic art of memory, it suggests a bleak motive. Should the lesson be that memory is the art of identifying human remains, of naming that which is dead?

And now, an engram from our sponsors

I have 391 memories. In Evernote, that is. The software’s motto is “Remember everything”. One of the fans of the Evernote group on Facebook took it a step further: ‘Evernote IS my memory’. I duly recorded this on my Evernote account, along with a reminder to tip my hat to Jake and a link to Gordon Bell's alarming dictum ‘I am data’. I needn’t have bothered with that last item, as it turns out, since Bell’s book Total Recall pops up regularly in the corner of the interface reserved for paid advertisements.

Evernote is my memory, and it cuts to commercials. It also has a size limit. If you try to remember more than 40 MB of stuff over a month, you have to go premium and pay a subscription.

Although my main interest in it is how it advertises itself, and I’d much rather recommend Zotero, Evernote really is quite useful. However I find that I get lazy with it and when I do it defies its own purpose. More and more often these days when I receive a recommendation or discover a new interesting page or site on the Web I no longer even bother to give it a preliminary skimming - I quickly tag it and dump it into Evernote for future consideration. The more the list grows, the further back this future time gets pushed. The other problem with this deferral strategy is that by not even reading those entries once, I never allow them to enter the brain, which is where the brewing and the marinating and the slow cooking for the purposes of these writings take place.

When I die I’ll leave my children thousands of these memories, and if they so desire they’ll be able to synch them with their own.

On being enraptured admiring art masterpieces

In other respects I don’t totally lack in discipline. In fact over the years I have developed a reasonably effective memory system. It started during my PhD, when I discovered that I did of some of my best work during the long walks I took to get away from the block-inducing computer screen. At those times I needed to remember either some key phrases, or a logical succession of paragraphs, or a particular connection between different ideas. Writing this down on a notebook instantly killed the creative process, whereas creating mnemonic pathways did just the opposite. But the risk of discovering that everything was forgotten by the time I got back to the computer was ever present. Eventually I learned to create helpful mental vignettes, very much like in a rebus.

For those of you who might not know, a rebus is a pictorial puzzle consisting of letters and images that must be combined to form a series of words or a phrase. Shirley Carran’s banner at the top of this page is in fact a very simple rebus (unlike the Bert Warter artwork I had originally chosen). But a rebus can be a lot more complex than that, as the legendary Italian puzzle magazine La Settimana Enigmistica illustrates on a weekly basis. Here’s an example.

(La Settimana Enigmistica puzzle #607157, first published on 12 May 2001. Click here to enlarge.)

The key to this rebus is 10, 9, 10, 1, 4, meaning that the solution is a five-word sentence in which each word is of the stated length. It’s actually an easy one: the A is placed on the Eastern direction of the compass (est), both R and MM (sia…sia) sit on a map of Iran, D is next to a goose (oca), L floats on the Po River (for the unmistakable profile of the Mole Antonelliana indicates that the city in the background is Turin); R is an old man (avo) in the act of giving () a doll to the little girl and finally R rests on a cup of tea ( – the label says Ceylon, so you know it’s not coffee).

Hence: estAsiaRsiaMMirandocapoLavoRIdaRte, that is to say Estasiarsi ammirando capolavori d’arte – ‘To be enraptured admiring art masterpieces’.

The fundamental characteristic of rebuses of this kind is that none of the images resemble any part of the solution: in this instance, there is nobody being enraptured admiring art in the picture. Now I’m not that much of a purist (in fact I’m a pretty poor solver of rebuses), but in my little mnemonic vignettes I use sometimes an image of the thing I need to remember – say, a piece of chess for the game of chess –, sometimes an image that points to an alternative meaning of a word – say, a very hot day with the sun at its zenith for Jeff Noon – and sometimes I break a phrase into syllables like in a proper a rebus. The key, as the ancient Roman rhetoricians taught us, is to make the images as vivid and detailed as possible, and to link them together in order to produce a redundancy. Perhaps you’ll forget the old man and his doll, but you won’t forget the two maps of Iran, or the other way around. Either way, recalling part of a sentence or concept will help you remember the rest.

The most valuable aspect of this method is that it allows me to compose a rough draft of, say, an entire essay or blog post without having to sit down at my desk, where the rather more slow-going and mechanical act of actual writing would be much more likely to throw up blocks in my way before I’ve had time to come up with the whole argument. Given the time constraints that life puts on my blogging, I’m more indebted than ever to this technique.

Some things I need help with

I started my doctoral thesis in 2002, when Usenet was still going quite strong. So in the early going, when I was gathering my primary sources, I was able to simply pick some newsgroups and ask film or mainstream literature or science-fiction enthusiasts to help me compile my lists. This was invaluable, but by the time I got to acknowledge it in the finished manuscript I did so with some sadness, for those groups had become but a shadow of their former gloriously chaotic, periodically troll-infested yet still vital and useful selves.

Every now and again I’d still like to be able to compile such lists. For instance, I’d like to write about the film trope whereby the protagonist burns or otherwise disposes of mementoes of his or (less frequently) her beloved. It happens in The Road, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Memento. But where else? And where does one ask a question like that these days?

(A couple more tropes I’d like to explore: sole copies of book manuscripts that are lost or destroyed; characters in action films having to wait for the progress bar on a computer reaching the end before they can make their exit and escape the bad guys who are closing in on them.)

More and more, I also think I should learn some coding. This is really not realistic. But I’d like to know more ways to break out of the blogger template, or at least to be aware of what is possible to do. For instance: take this sentence. I wonder exactly how many of you saw the phrase ‘take this sentence’, and how many a string of webding characters?

Results will vary, that much I know, but I also wish I knew how to force the display of one set or characters or the other by the remote browsers. If it’s even possible. Graphical presentation is crucial to conveying meaning, and in some respects the Web increases our awareness of this, but it also and more fundamentally promotes the separation of form and content. I’d like to take some of that control back from time to time.

Another thing, trickier still I’m sure: further to last week’s post and Noon’s idea of a library in which the books’ contents disappear in the act of reading, I wonder if it would be possible to make it work on the Web. Could a web page be constructed so that its text disappears when the user scrolls down the page?

…and one thing I no longer need help with

After a friend posted the following image on Facebook, I made repeated attempts over several months to find its source.

I entered into Google a dozen of so variations of Masaccio and McDonalds and expulsion from paradise, but to no avail. As it happens, I spoke to my friend again and she gave me more information and I was able to finally locate the source just last night. Still: does anybody know if there’s a way to search for a picture by finding a file match? Are the headers of JPEG files indexed anywhere? Assuming the image wasn’t modified since its was downloaded from the Web, could exact file size be used as a search criterion?

(There is, of course, the fascinating world of Query By Image Content, whereby some day you could ask a search engine to locate, say, all paintings in a certain collection featuring hats. It’s all very rudimentary still, but I like from time to time to have a little play with the QBIC engine at the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg, which hasn’t really improved at all in the last several years. I take perverse comfort in that.)

Two books are up

I have scanned and uploaded to a free filesharing service the books About Dustmen (from this post) and USSR – The People’s Well-Being (from this post). They’re both long since out of print and each download will set you back 25 MB or so.

Comment is sacred

And finally: of all my favourite blogs, there are just three that don’t allow comments. I see the thinking behind that decision: sometimes it’s just untenable, the extra thing you cannot devote yourself to. Mark Fisher intimated once that he wrote Capitalist Realism in the time he would otherwise have spent reading and answering blog comments, and if that’s true then I’m glad he made that choice. In my case however I’ve lost count of the occasions in which the comments to this blog have been far more exciting and valuable than the post that originated them. I’m very proud of that, and full of appreciation of the time and thought expended by the commenters, and I think I ought to say it more often. I also wish I could somehow demand from time to time that people catch up with the discussion on the previous week’s post before they even considered reading the new one. Perhaps if I introduced homework and tests?

On the subject of cherished contributions, I have updated Harvest Bird’s Compendium. As always, an utterly pleasant task.