Memrise – Sharing the love!

Some fads come and some fads go but it’s nearly 4 years now since I started using Memrise, and it’s still my favourite web site and the one I spend more time on than any other. I consider it my favourite waste of time, which isn’t a waste at all.

I started using it to learn Spanish but I use it to learn all kinds of things now. It’s the provision if mnemonics that make it much better than any other learning site, unless you have an amazing memory, which I definitely don’t.

I was walking through Stephen’s Green yesterday which compared to recent weather was surprisingly sunny. And I could name all the trees from their leaves, and all the birds by song, or sight. Which I know is incredibly nerdy, but is also pretty amazing to experience. Hearing all those birds out in the sunshine and knowing every one of them, was like that moment Daniel San stops waxing cars, and starts blocking punches.

I haven’t really had my Karate Kid moment with Spanish yet. Language is a real hurdle for me. I’ve never had a conversation in another language, which after four years learning, maybe isn’t the greatest testament, but I have had moments where I’ve seen Spanish on a page, and realised with wonder that I can understand the whole thing, and have also seen (simple) text in English where I could translate to Spanish. Hat tip to Duolingo also, which has a really great structure for learning languages, and a great app but I still have to use Memrise to actually learn Duolingo!

Other trivia: I can name any country on a map, or tell you it’s flag, or capital, and lots of other random stuff,  which makes up for an awful lot of messing in school. And comes in very handy for quizzes. And then there’s the embarrassing things that I really should have known already but do now at least, like the Streets of Dublin, and all Irish Counties.

Also, Memrise have previously had some trouble with their apps, on my devices at least, but with recent updates they’re all finally working wonderfully. App Store. Google Play.

As the kids say, I heart Memrise.

( Previously: Memrise & Moonwalking with Einstein )

Quincy M.E. and Cameron Diaz doing the La Bamba

Pun intended : you may or may not remember that I have a particular interest in memory. If you read this post you can see why my interest would be piqued by a review of a book called “Moonwalking with Einstein – the Art and Science of Memory“, as it’s a very similar story to mine; someone with an average memory (or in my case, a terrible memory) discovers amazingly effective memory techniques, then spends a year memorizing all kinds of obscure things with ease, but ultimately, realises he still can’t remember where he left his car keys, or his car! and also realises that even though these techniques are very handy for some things, it’s still far easier to write down shopping lists and stick people’s numbers in your phone. The one big difference with my story and this is that I didn’t end up entering a national memory competition.

Joshua Foer is a journalist who began writing an article about the U.S Memory Championships, and then a year later gave as good as the other memory masters. “Moonwalking with Einstein” is bookended by those two events; his attendance at the 2005 U.S Memory Championship, and his entry into the 2006 event. What you get between the book ends is a fascinating exploration of the science, art, and history of memory, mnemonics and memory techniques.

When I first heard of the book, I thought it may only be for people like me who have an interest in mnemonics but it’s selling by the truckload and getting great reviews everywhere. The title “Moonwalking with Einstein” is a reference to the kind of mental image that’s all too familiar to anyone who uses these techniques. When the missus asks me for one of my numerous pin numbers, or the WiFi code, or similar, I say something like, “let’s see that’s a bear on a bike trying to eat a cat in a shell…. that’s 94977165.” So I found reading about someone else’s experience with all this stuff a fantastic read. Though everyone else seems to be enjoying it just as much.

– – –

And from a different angle, but wholly related, about a month ago I came across a website called Memrise. I’ve been meaning to write about it for a while, rather than the usual quick tweet when I come across a site I like. Memrise is a really well thought-out site designed to help your learn, or rather, memorize the vocabulary of various languages. I’ve been on beginners Spanish for the last month. I’ve been on/off trying to learn Spanish for years.

Memrise is by far the best tool language tool I’ve ever used. There’s the usual stuff: english / spanish phrases, with audio snippets. But every phrase has a mnemonic suggestion, a mem. It’s crowd sourced too, so you can add your own mem. For example a Fortnight in Spanish is Los quince Dias. My mem for this is: “Picture a fort at night, and on top, Los lobos have Quincy M.E. and Cameron Dias dancing to La Bamba.” How much easier is that to remember than repeating the phrase over and over and hoping it sticks? I’ll never forget that image, another phrase memorised with ease. And at it’s most basic, that’s all the memory champions do, and to some degree Savants too. And Memrise utilises the technique quite well, you don’t even have to come up with your own mental images.

What other language courses fail to do is give you the tools to learn. It’s a bit like buying a wardrobe from Ikea but they don’t give you the tools to build it. Memrise supply the phrases, and the tools to memorise them. By the way, I swear I have absolutely nothing to do with the site, I’m just very impressed by it. Oh and it’s also free. Completely free, as in no ads either. It also works quite well on an iPad. It’s as good as an app, without having to install an app.

The site also uses gamification pretty well too, something else I have a passing interest in that’s growing in popularity. Memrise gamifies language learning by daily quizzing you on your phrases. You get points for every correct answer, and creep up the league table. It becomes quite addictive, like in any game, always wanting to improve your high score and go higher in the league.

They also employ the metaphor of a memory garden, which works quite well. You have to plant seeds (new words), and harvest plants (add them to the quizzes), tend to your garden (practise new words) and water your wilting plants (practice old words). I guess it’s a bit like Farmville, except, instead of annoying everyone else on Facebook, you learn a new language. I’m just so impressed by the level of thought and execution that has gone into this site, without any profit in mind.

– – –

And the thing that ties in “Moonwalking with Einstein” with Memrise is that over the course of the book, there are a few characters who coach Foer in his memory techniques, members of the K7 memory masters, whose initiation is memorizing a deck of cards in a minute, drinking two beers and kissing the knees of three women. Or variations thereof. And it is these two guys Ed Cooke, and Ben Whately who have setup memrise. So I feel like i’ve been surrounded by these guys for the last few weeks.

So there you go if you’ve any interest in memory or learning new language, there’s a 5 star book and a 5 star web site.

p.s. I was discussing this with a colleague, very recently, who happens to speak Spanish fluently, and he asked me “why don’t you just remember Los quince Dias, instead of dancing on forts and shit?” and I guess some people can, but he’s just reinforcing my idea that a lot of people make the terrible assumption that everyone else learns, and thinks, and remembers exactly like them.


Tricks of the mind

TV. I spend a lot of time giving out about it. That soul-eating suckbox sitting in the corner, dominating all your senses. Slowly eating your life. Hours where you could be making, creating, living, loving. Or even depleting the long list of depressing chores, to live a more clutter-free life. Not just ridding the pile of unironed clothes but the cobwebs in your head. A night on the sofa, wasted life-hours, ending with a fat gut, laden with guilt, like the soiled sock hidden under the bed of a teenage boy.

Woah. I’d just intended to post that I read Derren Brown’s book recently and I’m looking foward to his Trick or Treat show again tonight and all that bile just spilled out. What I’d intended to say is that while I do loath the tellybox at times and would love to see it in the bin, I do love good TV, rarity that it is. I’ve a few heroes I love to watch on the box; David Attenborough, Roy Mears, Richard Dawkins, Armandi Ianucci, Charlie Brooker, Stephen Fry. And I love a good film, or a good quiz (not to be confused with a gameshow).

I just hate when we end up sitting in front of the stupid thing watching crap as if its some kind of domestically social event. And I hate that late night plastic soap plaguing the screens; neither serious nor funny. Desperate Housewives, Ugly Betty, Plastic Polly, Fucking Funty. They’re all the same shallow numbeties. And I despise the kind of TV programming designed to reel you in and suck on your very soul, either for the rest of the night (Top 100s) or the rest of your robotic life week after week (soaps). And Fridays are the worst, just when you’re too tired to do anything else, they lay on the thickest excrement from the bottom of the barrel.

Woah. Let’s try again. Derren Brown’s Trick or Treat is on tonight. I like Derren Brown and I find his work intriguing. He could so easily be dismissed as an annoying magician, and he often is. But he doesn’t do magic. Psychological tricks, amazing memory feats, and general head fucking but no magic. And he’ll be the first to admit, nay shout from the rooftops, that anyone who claims to read your mind or predict the future is nothing but a shyster.

I read his book, Tricks of the Mind recently and it’s highly entertaining. Actually it starts off a little bit puerile, with the kind of bad jokes and puns, that people new to writing haven’t learned to resist yet. Like people dabbling with electronic music using too much reverb, or budding design enthusiasts using too much drop-shadow. Resist! But the silly puns are gone by the end, as are the silly tricks, from the start of the book. There are fascinating insights into lie detection, cold reading, hypnosis, NLP and memory. Not that showing you the tricks of his trade makes it easy, or possible, to do likewise. Could you fly a plane after reading the manual? The second half of the book is a scathing attack on all forms of mumbo jumbo, from fortune tellers and psychics to healers and religion, which puts him into hero ranks for me.

I’m suddenly reminded of an otherwise clever young guy who constantly regurgitates a line that I reckon some lecturer told him and he thought it was clever. He reckons that Irish Atheist are just rebelling against the Irish Church and it doesn’t reach any further than that, which is the biggest load of cock I’ve ever heard repeated. Like most Atheists, I despise all forms of superstition: fortune tellers, mind readers, lucky black cats, unlucky magpies, psychics, mediums, the number 13, prayer, heaven, hell, god, afterlife, auras, amber beads, luck, souls, ghosts. It’s all the same mumbo jumbo to me. Catholic or Muslim, Jew or Gentile.

Woah. Let’s try again. Derren Brown’s Trick or Treat is on tonight. It’s an entertaining little show. Last week was a ‘Treat’, a guy was shown how to add facts from hundreds of books to his short-term memory and kicked ass in one of the biggest pub quizzes in the UK. In tonight’s episode, a girl picks the ‘Trick’ card and has to wrestle with her conscience over the torture of a cat. I’m guessing that it’s Brown’s version of that famous obedience to authority experiment carried out by psychologist Stanley Milgram.

Trick or Treat

10.00pm. Channel 4.

Then turn it off and play some scrabble, or bake a cake, or see what fun you can have with some facepaint and a sleeping child. Or… maybe… just watch Peep show on straight after Derren Brown. Then if you’ve had a few cans, Balls of Steel might seem like a good idea. And then before you know it, it’s 2AM and you’re woken by the stale beer spilling onto your lap in a cloud of self-loathing on another wasted night.

The Persistence of Memory

100 Paintings

A few years ago I got sick of having a terrible memory. I’ve since nailed it down to a slightly bizarre portion of bad memory in that I can’t for the life of me remember proper nouns; pubs, shops, roads, restaurants, people etc. However, like most people I’m better with faces, much better though, I could see a bloke walk by in the street and remember that he was two people ahead of me, in a queue in a chipper, in Dun Laoighre, eight years ago.

So apart from my otherwise terrible memory, I have a pretty good visual memory and when I came across a book called Master Your Memory by Tony Buzan, I scanned the back cover and saw that it had a system to improve your memory through your visual memory. So you can remember long numbers as images in a story for example. But it didn’t really make any sense without it’s  precursor Use your memory. So I bought that and spent every morning on the bus to work practicing the techniques in both. And they are fairly amazing techniques. Definitely a step above your average self help book.

The first thing I memorised, just for practise, was Pi to 500 decimal places.
The second half of Master Your Memory contains lists of trivia to memorize so
I went to work on them.

  • All the countries of the world – including their capitals and currency
  • The periodic table – including atomic number, atomic weights etc
  • 100 most frequently used words in Spanish
  • 100 Painters – including a famous work, its location, the artist’s lifespan, nationality and school of art

For the list of painters, I tracked down all the paintings on the web to make it a bit easier, and then discovered that the a lot of the data isn’t that well researched on any of the lists. When I reviewed the book on Amazon, I slated the content (while praising the system) for not researching any of the material properly even in it’s later editions. And Tony Buzan is definitely not short on pennies.

So, after quite a bit of waffle, the main point of this post is that list of paintings – if you’re looking for all the paintings in this list like I did, or just want to have a look through 100 famous paintings, here’s my list of 100 Artists, thoroughly researched, and backed up by a few books I’ve read over the years. And more importantly, there’s an image to go with each painting. There were a few cases where I couldn’t find the famous work that Tony Buzan chose, the fact that they were so hard to find was testamant in itself that they weren’t the most relevant works. In a couple of other cases I chose a different painting anyway just because it seemed much more relevant – but in most cases, I stuck to the original list as much as possible – apart from correcting all the mistakes, which were mostly dates and locations of paintings.

By the way, after years of this ‘Brain Training’ I still have a terrible memory! It didn’t do a thing to improve my day to day memory. Arsebags! Still an amusing way to pass the time at the bus stop though as you have to keep going through these lists in your head. Specially if you have a head like a sieve, like I do.

100 Artists – 100 paintings