Monday, September 24, 2012

The Loom of Language

Tim Ferriss recommends one of my favorite books as a great way to learn languages (36:43 into his long now talk audio here). Tim Ferriss wrote the wildly popular self help books "the 4 hour work week" and "4 hour body" and his favorite language book can only be bought second hand.

This book about European languages written in 1942 by Frederick Bodmer is sadly hard to get nowadays. Bodmer had Chomsky's job in MIT before he retired. Which in the linguistics world is a bit like being the opening act for Jesus.

The book was written with the encouragement of and edited by his friend Lancelot Hogben. Hogben had a vaguely Victorian project, entitled optimistically "The Age of Plenty", to write good books in a few different areas so that people could educate themselves.

Mathematics for the Million (1936) and Science for the Citizen (1938) were the first two and "History for the Homeland" the fourth. Hogben seems to have been quite a Victorian kind of guy with a certain smoking jacket cool

Hogben was mocked by Orwell for his staid writing style. But if you judge a man by the quality of his detractors Orwell is a great one to have. To Hogben's eternal credit he fought against the cloven hoof of eugenics at a time when it was horribly popular.

The loom of langauge is like a secret handshake among language nerds. When you start talking to someone else who has read it a few hours later you escape the conversational black hole where you've been ignoring everyone else. I can't keep a copy as I keep giving mine to people. The loom of langauge 'has always been my favorite book about learning languages' is just one example of the gushing reviews the book gets on language blogs.

'It is the only book that actually teaches languages instead of simply teaching how to learn languages.' The first section is a history of human language and alphabets. Next is a morphology and syntax of several languages and then a classification of languages throughout the world. The second section is mainly about how to learn vocabulary lists by taking advantage of similarities among languages particularly regular sound shifts from one language to another.

It is an old fashioned book in the sense it deals with European languages and pretty much ignores the fascinating languages of the rest of the world. But what it does do is lay out through history and logic where German and Latin languages come from. How they work and how they morphed and combined into English.

Mathematics for the million was really influential in the past. For example there is a great post here about how the book inspired him in his career. However nowdays the book seems not to be popular in the same way as the loom of language is. Still the mathematics book in 'the age of plenty' series is a classic and it should be available to more people.

This book was published during the second world war with the express intention that language learning could bring people together. The general principle of the age of plenty series was that we could and would learn if we just had access to the knowledge. I still think that is true and with smartphones, Gutenberg, librivox and other cool projects this really could happen. Hogben and Bodmer went to an huge effort to write this book and found 700+ pages during wartime rationing to try get us to talk to each other.

Maybe now 70 years after this book was written we can achieve its aim far easier than the authors imagined. If the book was released into the public domain everyone with a smartphone or computer could read it. Which is an audience of billions and much more than the million the mathematics book was written for or the '1,800 million people on this globe' when Loom was written. With smartphones we can achieve Bodmer's books aim easier than he could have imagined.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Memorise a Pack of Cards

Memory is about imagination. Try as vividly as possible to imagine this. Sitting on your bed is a giant hen. She is chirping around scratching at the sheets. On the windowsill is a big pile of cash, smell the new banknote smell. At the door a beehive buzzes around. One of them stings you on the arm, imagine the pain. In your minds eye go to the nearest toilet to your bedroom and see Adolf Hitler sitting on the toilet ranting away. In the sink a tiny Jack White plays Seven Nation Army.

Each of these items is actually a playing card and you are well on your way to memorising the order of a pack of cards.

Derren Brown's in his book 'Tricks of the Mind' describes a peg system where each number reminds him of a sound.

In his system

0 sounds a bit like z

1 looks like an L

2 is n as it has has two down strokes

3 is m as it has three downstrokes

4 is r because it sounds like fouR

5 is v because fiVe

6 looks like a b

7 looks like a T

8 has a gh/ch/j sound in it

9 looks like a g

Now when you need to remember a number the digits become sounds and those sounds become words. With cards the suit of the card becomes the start of the word. So hearts H, Clubs start with a C, Spades S and Diamonds are words starting with a D.

A hen is 2 of hearts

Cash is 8 of clubs

Hive is five of hearts

Adolf Hitler is Ace of Hearts each of the picture cards I represent with a person. Kings are people with the surname King.

Jack White is the Jack of hearts. Jacks are younger men. Queens are famous queens or actresses you have played the queen.

It is vital you make the memory as vivid as possible. Change the objects size so it looks ridiculous like a Tiny Jack White in a sink. Have the thing doing something that produces an emotional reaction like the bee stinging you. Rude things are really memorable so use them when you can.

I won't list out exactly what words go with what cards. It is better you pick words that mean something to you. The six of clubs could be Cob a Cub a Cube or a Cab pick whichever one is most vivid to you. When you have a word for each card buy a deck and write the word on each card. Then shuffle the deck and walk around the house putting each card down in a location. Talk out loud about what is happening. "The Dinosaur in the Shower is really scared of the water and is screeching as it tries to escape". Dinosaur is 2 of Diamonds for me. When every card has been placed start back at the first card and try and list what the next one is before you pick it up. Name the object do not worry about the card it represents yet, you will remember the connection in time.

People have great memories for locations. You can probably describe the route and details along it of a walk you took on holiday years ago but be unable to think of anything you discussed that day. Great memorisers use this ability in what is called the method of loci to put things to be remembered along a known walk. Everyone knows their house well so that is a good location to use to practice memorising a deck of cards. To memorise a poem or mathematical constant a walk near your house might be ideal.

This method of remembering things is ancient. The story goes that about 500BC Simonides of Ceos snuck out of a banquet for a sneaky smoke when the building collapsed crushing to death everyone inside. Making the best of a bad situation Simonides realised he could remember where everyone was sitting and point out the spot so the realtives could dig out their loved ones. This trick of using locations for memory was borne out of this unlucky event.

Building were always falling on the Greeks. Take the case of histories worst loser. Kleomedes of Astypalaia was an Olympic boxing champion in the early fifth century BC. In 496 he killed his opponent at Olympia with a foul blow. Because of this fouling offence (not because of the death of his opponent which was considered fine) the Olympics judges took away his victory.

Kleomedes became depressed. On his return to Astypalaia he destroyed a school by pulling down the pillar which kept up the roof in a flash of insanity and so killed all sixty children present. The inhabitants of the city formed a mob and tried to kill him.

He hid in the temple of Athena, from where he disappeared miraculously. His confused pursuers consulted the oracle of Delphi and were told that Kleomedes had become a hero. From then onwards he was honoured with sacrifices. Think about that one next time someone talks about how clever the ancient Greeks were or how mass killings are an entirely new phenonomen. Also this story does illustrate quite how much random stuff I am willing to put into a blogpost.

Memorising large amounts of data even random looking data is quite easy with a system to turn the data into something concrete. I recommend Derren Browns book on how to improve your memory and Joshua Foer's 'Moonwalking with Einstein' a few simple techniques and a few minutes practice everyday can have you performing feats most people find unbelievable.

What is on your bed? If you remembered a giant Hen you are well on your way to memorising a deck of cards.