2002/09/24
 
17:11

Mindware

I remember ads for a form of shorthand that taught you how to save time by eliminating redundant letters. I think it was called "Speedwriting". I never took the course, but I was inspired by the ad itself to develop my own shorthand for the rare times when I don't have a keyboard handy. I have a trident-like symbol that represents the "ment" suffix, while a longish dash terminates words that end in "tion" (e.g. sta— = station). "Of" is a little check-mark and the word "whatever" (which I often use in my notes) has its own little glyph.

I find Speedwriting and my derivative system interesting because they are examples of data compression at a human level. It's one thing to ask your computer to smoosh a text file, but it's something else again to memorize a bunch of rules to do the job manually.

This kind of mental exercise is akin to those mnemonic memory systems that guarantee that you will recall the names of everybody you met at last night's cocktail party before you fell into the punch bowl. Some years ago, I studied a marvelous system called Herigones Number Alphabet. Actually, I don't think that's actually what it was called – I just searched for it on Google and got squat. Hey, it was designed for remembering numbers, not facts.

The basic idea was that you'd map each digit of, say, a phone number to a choice of consonants. You'd then insert some vowels and come up with a phrase, which was easier to remember than a string of digits.

I liked the basic idea, but at the time I was young and brash and wanted to see if I could improve upon the concept. I wrote a program to analyze the use of consonants in the English language. After all, I reasoned, somebody named "Herigones" (or whatever his name actually was) probably didn't have English as his first language.

On the basis of my analysis, I came up with pairs of consonants that would work well. I assigned every digit a commonly used consonant (TNSHRDL are the most popular, in that order), and also "punished" each digit by giving it a less viable choice, balancing things out with the principle that the digit that got the best pick (i.e. "T") should get the worst alternative.

"Campbell's Number Alphabet" worked very well for me – for a while.

The problem is, I just don't have that many numbers I need to remember. Moreover, as a safety measure I printed out a tiny little card that I keep in my wallet that lists the phone numbers of everybody I think I might call. As a result, I eventually forgot the original mapping between numbers and my number alphabet.

To this very day, I still remember one of the numbers I memorized over 20 years ago. Or to be more precise, I remember the mnemonic: "Camp Keep Near". I think it's the phone number for a holiday resort in eastern Ontario, but I'm not sure. Since I've forgotten how my number alphabet works, I have no way to check.

Memory is a strange thing. If you want to find out just how strange it can be, search Google for "Elizabeth Loftus" – she's a scientist who has done much work on how we can remember things that never happened. This is an important issue. Click here for an article illustrating just how significant this matter is.

There are lots of systems we can employ to try to use our minds more efficiently. It's in our nature to upgrade our mental software whenever we can, because there's not much we can do to improve the hardware. I like thinking about thinking, but just because I do it every day doesn't mean I'm an expert. Quite frankly, I don't think anybody has created a system that really makes us think "better" since the invention of writing.

I could be wrong about that, though. I'll have to think about it.

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