The First Week of School, and, How to Remember Things

So we’re back in the flow of things for the most part. Once again my calendar is completely booked all day long, and I truly don’t mind it. Something about constantly having something to do, with a system to track all of these things, is very nice.

I’ll take this opportunity to comment on that system. First, a little background. When I was about 13, I started really learning to speak Portuguese. I had spoken as a little kid (along with German and English) but when I was five we moved to the States from Germany, and I began speaking only English. When I was 11 I started going to visit my family in Brasil and Germany during vacations from school. This really was an incredible fortune, and  can’t claim anything but gratitude to my family for making it possible. The first times I was in Brasil, I was very shy and didn’t speak much. I just listened and watched. Man, Brasilians really have some of the best body language ever made – you can understand a lot from watching a conversation in Brasil! Still, reading body language doesn’t let you understand the jokes or puns or the really fun stuff, so I was still pretty clueless about what was going on most of the time.

This is where Katia comes in – Tia Katia, my aunt on my dad’s side, is an incredible person in pretty much every way. She’s a self-made English teacher in Brasil, and she’s done a hell of a lot of things in her life aside from support the family and be generally awesome. She’s been my other mom since we reunited 6 years ago – she would bring me around, explain the history and customs, translate when I had no idea what was up. When I started going to Brasil alone, I stayed between her and my grandparent’s houses. She got me started really speaking Portuguese, and I haven’t got words for what an incredible gift that is (Obrigado Katia). So, slowly I began learning the language, speaking more and more each time. But I began to notice another thing: as I learned more Portuguese, my short-term memory went straight to hell. Maybe this is a part of adolescence, the part where you stop being able to remember what you had for lunch yesterday or actually what people you met yesterday, or maybe it’s just me. Fortunately I’m very good at retaining ‘material’ – this is the term I use for things such as concepts presented in lecture, or generally anything technical or scientific in nature. I’ve spoken with friends about this and they suggested that maybe I just don’t value information like names and dates as much as algorithms and approaches to problems, so I don’t retain that information. They’re probably right. All that I can say is, at this point in time I’ve got a terrible short-term memory for tidbits and tasks.

This is the problem though – you can be a great problem solver and still be completely useless if you can’t keep track of what problems need to be solved when where why. It’s also a really useful thing to be able to remember people’s names and information about them, because we’re all in this together and kinship can never hurt. The only question is how to do it? And so I present to you, a List of Things I’ve Tried:

1. Pad and Pen

A Programming Problem from my Notepad. Can you write a solution in less than 10 minutes?

A Programming Problem from my Notepad. Can you write a solution in less than 10 minutes? (My solution is at the bottom of the post)

This is the most basic approach, it’s the way I started, and it’s the one approach that I still use. Simplicity is typically the best solution to every problem. I got my first paper pad at a little office supply shop in Brasil when I realized I couldn’t remember shit. I wrote a big ‘1’ on the inside cover with my name and address if it got lost, and kept it in my back pocket with a pen in my front pocket. That pad gained a reputation pretty quickly because any time I heard a word I didn’t know, I wrote it down. Anytime I had a conversation with anyone, they could expect that something they said was going to be written down. Somehow, just from writing the word, I would be able to remember it and what it meant without ever really looking back at it. Just the act of writing solidified it in my head. Sure, there were times the word didn’t stick – for those words, I’d say them three times as I wrote them. I still do this today, cuz there’s still so much I’ve got to learn.

The reason I still carry a pad with me (now number 13) is because it’s the best form of note-taking without question. You can use it to write the name of a band or a book that someone recommends to you (and the name of that person if you forget that sort of thing), you can use it to draw pictures if you need to explain or understand something in a conversation, you can use it to do quick math, you can use it to write down your number for someone you like – and best of all, it’s persistent memory. Each one represents a snapshot of your day-to-day activities during a point in your life. You can keep old pads on a shelf and flip through them for nostalgia, toss them, give them away, anything. Most of the time the old pads are ‘useless’ in the sense, ‘without utility’. But I’m still surprised how I can suddenly remember all the things I usually don’t just by looking at a few pages in an old pad. Turn to one sketch, and the memory suddenly pops back from nowhere. Just now I flipped through an old pad and remember sitting in Tank writing down a failed solution to Zo’s calc homework, and another time trying to figure out the stress put on a girl’s foot by high-heels using a force diagram – while at a bar in São Paulo with my cousins (Vitória and Fernanda). I don’t drink and I was bored, but I’ll remember that night anytime I see that crappy sketch.

Yeah I know, my nerdiness is showing. This is who I am, I won’t be shamed for it. Sorry if I was boring, Vi.

2. Calendar (Application, if you like)

The most important event in my calendar.

The most important event in my calendar.

I use iCal because it’s what comes default on the iPhone and supports CalDav subscriptions like all good calendar apps should. I’ve got a number of calendars that are managed from this device, either Google or iCloud based. There seem to be some issues between Google and Apple with event modification (specifically reminders, sometimes you’ll lose a custom reminder on a Google calendar event) but generally you can be sure that an event will be there once you set it.

Calendars accomplish what a notepad can’t by letting you see your obligations in time-space (not to be confused with space-time) – this is a big deal for me because people frequently ask if I’m available at some time and I won’t have any idea. I’ve defaulted to reaching for my phone any time there are plans to be made.

To keep an accurate calendar is also important because of what Mr. Man talks about with the GTD system (I haven’t included a link because I’ve got something to say before you read the wikipedia article just yet) – in order to be accomplish tasks and remain relaxed about your life, you need to quickly take them out of your head and put them into a system you trust. This is an incredible idea! Why? Because it makes you a cyborg! Every time you write something down to remember it, you’re writing it into a form of external memory, just as a computer does! Any time you plan your day, you only need to step through each task one at a time, just like a serial processor.

Now, I don’t use GTD, because I find that there’s too many things that Mr. Man wrote about that don’t matter. I prefer simplicity over everything. So, the calendar forms one part of the system I’ve made – the ‘where do I need to be now?’ part. This way, I have no concern about where I need to be in one hour – I just look at the calendar after I finish one task, and trust that my scheduler (myself) has taken care of programming what I need to do next. In this way I just move from place to place and remain (almost) totally in the moment – which means I can be more involved in what I’m doing and, more productive. Hot stuff.

Another big plus: Never forget anyone’s birthday, because you set a reminder to go off a week before, two days before, the day before, the day of, and the night after that special day. Mind == Steel Trap.

3. Todo List (Digital, if you like)

Written Todo lists follow the second law of thermodynamics.

Written Todo lists follow the second law of thermodynamics.

This is a tricky one. The first todo lists were just pages in my pad where I wrote down what needed to be done, with a little box so I could check it. I did this for a year before I started looking for a new medium. The problem? Paper and Pen are persistent memory – they’re great for recording something so you don’t forget it, but they’re not good at reorganizing or modifying data after it’s been recorded. My lists would start off neat, and slowly become incomprehensible as I finished part-but-not-all of a task, delayed a reading, updated an assignment. These modifications usually happen as you’re walking between classes too, which means your handwriting goes to hell as well. Bad Stuff.

So, I started with just programming time into my calendar to accomplish tasks – but this worked poorly, because that’s a stupid idea. Things will always take at least three times longer than you expect. So, I moved to Remember the Milk, but it just didn’t jive. Something about it was wrong, and I have no idea what it was. I tried EverNote too, but there were too many options. Note to developers: Providing too many options can be worse than providing no options at all. The Linux model is nice when the user audience is heavily involved in personalized setups – it’s not so great when you’re trying not to overthink a workflow. Just an opinion. So, I eventually came to Wunderlist. This was just the thing I needed – one event with one checkbox, plus event categories, deadlines, and reminders. That’s it. I set up categories for each of my classes, plus general, life and work, and things were cool. Wunderlist has since been updated to major version 2, but the simplicity is still there. I see some things I don’t care about, but they’re not in the way so it doesn’t matter.

Selected events from this week's list.

Selected events from this week’s list.

This rounds out my system – the ‘what needs to happen by when’ part. Anything that needs to be accomplished goes here immediately, with a due date – the due date is important! Wunderlist doesn’t display things without due dates in the Daily/Weekly views, and if you don’t see them there then you’re likely to forget about them. Also, holding yourself to deadlines is good if you don’t want tasks to pile up. Colette said it best:

Keep – your station – clear! When the meal rush comes, what will happen? Messy stations slow things down. Food doesn’t go, orders pile up, disaster!

Phew! So, that’s what I got. I think the important thing to take away is not the details of this list, though – it’s the concept of being a cyborg. Don’t get bogged down by my specific implementation, because I’m crazy and I write a lot of shit. The point of this all is: remember the sci-fi stories where humans have computer-chip-augmented brains that allow them to learn quicker and remember more than ever before? Well, we’ve had all that power since those clay Cuneiform tablets – it’s just not as glamorous as you’d expect. We can already remember 200+ points of information and learn a century’s worth of knowledge in just a month, all at the same time. It’s called taking notes and going to class. Why should we treat life any differently? I feel that it’s a silly idea to pride oneself on remembering all the things that need to be done without aid, because this always comes at with a cost. Free up some space, give yourself a safety net, relax. You can be a robot too.

Though I will concede, things can get ugly when the internet goes down. Be prepared to go analogue, if for nothing other than preparing for the robot apocalypse.

Next time, I hope to write down my mountain-climbing adventure in Ischia from this past summer, complete with pictures, videos and self-shaming! (Many apologies to Carrie, to whom I promised to tell this story long ago)

Here's my solution to the problem. You'd have to iterate down the edges of the image to separate all the lines, but this is one way to do it. I'm still not sure what the running time will be - I assume it's O( Vs * (E + V*log(V) ) ), where Vs is the number of vertices composing a vertical side of the image.

Here’s my solution to the problem. You’d have to iterate down the edges of the image to separate all the lines, but this is one way to do it. I’m still not sure what the running time will be – I assume it’s O( Vs * (E + V*log(V) ) ), where Vs is the number of vertices composing a vertical side of the image.


One thought on “The First Week of School, and, How to Remember Things

  1. Pingback: Vertex Form considered Harmful | Bread-Nauseam

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