Tag Archives: productivity

Memorize Anything

Today I read an amazing article in Wired about Piotr Wozniak, the inventor of software that uses spaced repetition to help you learn things permanently. Spaced repetition is where you learn something, then relearn it right at the point where you’re about to forget it. Each time you relearn it, you remember it for a longer period of time. The concept is simple, but requires a computer to determine the exact point at which you need to relearn something.

Wozniak created software called SuperMemo (SM) to implement the spaced repetition algorithm. In essence, it’s the ultimate flashcard program. It allows you to use images, HTML, and sounds, too. His latest feature is “incremental reading”, where you grab a bunch of documents from the web (or email, etc.) and throw them into SM. You prioritize the documents as you insert them; when you have time to read them, SM determines the order. As you read the document, you pull out info nuggets that you don’t want to forget, and these get added to the flashcard stack. Interesting, but it sounds like a bit of work.

Although it can be used to learn anything, the killer app is language learning. Indeed, in Wozniak’s native Poland, SuperMemo has been used extensively by students of English who wish to study abroad. There’s also rampant piracy and use in China and other countries. However, piracy is unnecessary, since Wozniak writes openly about the algorithms he uses, and open source alternatives have arisen.

One standout is Mnemosyne. It also offers support for HTML, images, and sound. One interesting feature is the 3-sided flashcard, which is particularly suited to language learning by including written form, pronunciation, and translation.

Another free program I saw recommended was OpenCards. It is based on OpenOffice Impress, a free PowerPoint alternative. As such, your flashcards can contain anything that can go into a PowerPoint slide, such as background images, animation, video, sound, etc. OpenCards runs on all major operating systems.

One issue I had with this super learning system is that, other than language, I couldn’t think of much that I wanted to keep in permanent memory. It did occur that in addition to foreign words, this is a great way to retain a large English vocabulary and keep it sharp. In On Writing, Stephen King recommends expanding your vocabulary by reading good authors and looking up words you don’t know1. I already do this, but now I can retain them indefinitely. That’s pretty cool.

If I was in school, however, this would be a fantastic way to retain knowledge for tests. I did a lot of cramming, which they tell you not to do. Cramming helps you pass quizzes and tests that cover recent lessons, but when it comes to the comprehensive final, it fails2. High school students who use this system diligently can demolish memorization-heavy AP tests. Not to mention the vocabulary-heavy SAT. Heck, this could make even high school language courses worthwhile! And all of this would lead to a clear advantage in college, where the same system should also work wonders. Later in life, you can brag about graduating magna cum laude – in French! – even though you studied something you never ended up using.

Update/Clarifications (4/23/08)

In case I didn’t sell this strong enough, the Wired article explains how cognitive psychologists and memory researchers are completely baffled as to why everyone isn’t using this technique. They equate it to using torches when light bulbs are available.

Although there is an obvious use for high school students, it occurred to me that placement in accelerated classes starts as early as 3rd grade. In my school system, you had to be placed there by 7th grade if you wanted to take the most advanced math classes in high school. So parents probably should start their kids as early as 2nd grade.

You don’t need to leave your computer on all the time – it will save your progress to disk 🙂 However, it is important to use the software daily. Skipping several days can set you back quite a ways.

Another free program is Anki. While it’s a general purpose spaced rep. program, it has extra features for learning Japanese, English, and Russian. Students of Japanese can also try Reviewing the Kanji. It was also suggested in the Lifehacker forums that Pimsleur language CDs (which are available at your local library if you don’t want to buy your own copy) could be converted to OpenCards decks for optimal aural learning.

Update (6/15/09)

I should have mentioned that Anki is my main program now. I find that it’s the most usable at this time. However, for practicing your pronunciation of foreign languages, Rosetta Stone is pretty good.

  1. As opposed to going out of your way to pillage the thesaurus, or using some other list of vocabulary words without a relevant context. []
  2. How bad it fails is related to how well you learned it the first time, the difficulty of the material, the strength of your short term memory, etc. Before you argue that cramming works, consider that you may be a genius, or, perhaps, you went to a shitty school. Just saying. []

Trouble Sleeping?

Tim Ferriss of 4-Hour Work Week has an article on “hacking” sleep. I’m a night owl, which I don’t consider a problem, but some of his tips might help you if you suffer from insomnia.

The most interesting one to me was the caffeine nap: you down a shot of espresso like it was vodka, set the alarm for 20 minutes, and take a nap. When the alarm hits you’re refreshed and the caffeine is working. It reminds me of Agent Bladerunner’s method, which he learned from a founding father: nap in a chair with a spoon in your hand. Right when you’re about to hit REM, you drop the spoon and wake up. If you do go into REM, you probably need to stay there in increments of 90 minutes or you’ll be really groggy.

Seinfeld’s Productivity Booster

LifeHacker has an interesting story about how Jerry Seinfeld motivates himself to act daily. His advice is simple: get a yearly calendar that has a box for every day, and make a big red X with magic marker every day you make a positive step towards your goal.

“After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain.”

“Don’t break the chain.” He said again for emphasis.

“But Archangel,” you say, “calendars are so expensive!” Well, I’ve got two solutions for you.

  1. Get a free printable calendar
  2. Get a virtual Seinfeldian chain calendar

If you’re looking into boosting productivity, I also recommend the time tracker.

Track All Your Wasted Time

For a while now, I’ve wanted a super-simple time tracking facility to track the various ways I throw my life away. Something where I can just add tasks, then hit a button to start and stop a timer, adding a comment when finished. A very short search unearthed Time Tracker, which provides exactly that. It’s also great if you’re doing consulting, working on different projects for different clients. And you can export your work log in XML or Excel (CSV). I hoping it will really motivate me, seeing just how little time I spend on the important things, like disco dancing, archery, and rape.