Book Review: Moonwalking With Einstein, by Joshua Foer

Memory is often taken for granted in a world where paper and transistors store information better than neurons ever could. Moonwalking With Einstein shines a much-needed light on the art of memorization. It could have been a dry collection of basic science and light philosophy on the subject, but Foer makes it riveting by telling the story of his own head-first dive into the world of memory as sport.

I had no idea this went on, but every year, there are regional and worldwide memory championships in which people compete to perform seemingly superhuman feats of memory, such as memorizing decks of cards as fast as possible, or recalling hundreds of random numbers. After covering one of these events, Foer became so curious that he began training to participate himself.

What he discovered is that these impressive acts of memorization actually boil down to a few simple tricks that anyone can learn. While not a how-to manual, the tricks are simple enough that anyone can pick them up just by reading about how Foer learned them. I can still recall a list of 15 unusual items (in order) that Foer’s mentor, Ed Cooke, used to first teach the memory palace technique. It’s only a matter of practice and refinement for anyone, no matter how forgetful, to memorize several decks of cards.

This humanization of the extraordinary carries throughout the book. Foer himself keeps a modest tone about his damn impressive accomplishments, emphasizing that he’s just a regular forgetful dude who lives in his parents’ basement. The other memory championship contestants, too, can do amazing things during the contest, but it’s clear that the ability to memorize a poem doesn’t translate to a successful personal life.

In fact, Foer is critical of those who do profit from using memory tricks. His contempt for Tony Buzan, the entrepreneur who makes millions on books and sessions related to memory, comes through every time Buzan’s name comes up. He might as well add “coughBULLSHITcough” after every claim of Buzan’s. More substantially, a tangent on savantism takes a strange turn when Foer begins to suspect that one self-proclaimed1 memory savant, Daniel Tammet, may have more in common with the memory championship contestants than with Rain Man2. When Foer confronts him about it directly, things get a bit uncomfortable.

By wrapping fascinating facts and anecdotes about memory up with his own story, Foer keeps it riveting throughout. This is one of those books that I literally had trouble putting down. Anyone with even a passing interest in the human mind should remember to stick Moonwalking With Einstein in their brain hole.


1 And expert-proclaimed; psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen (yes relation) studied Tammet and was more convinced of his traditional savantism.

2 The inspiration for Rain Man, Kim Peek, also makes an appearance and is more convincing as having freakish memory naturally.

Review: iOS 5 = Win, iCloud = Fail

Yesterday, Apple released an update to its iPhone/iPad operating system, iOS 5, alongside its new backup/syncing/interweb thing, iCloud.

iOS 5

iOS 5 is beautiful. You can read a complete list of new stuff elsewhere, but some of the new features really improve the devices that iOS powers. Notifications were a useless mess before, but now they’re unobtrusive and easily accessible. Syncing without wires is similarly long overdue; now we just need wireless power and rat’s nests of cables will be a thing of the past.

The split keyboard on the iPad is a nice option, but will take getting used to. Another iPad feature that nobody is talking about, for some reason, is multitasking gestures. Having to double-click the home button just to switch apps was getting pretty ridiculous. Now clawing at it with four fingers will do the trick. The iPad and iPhone are much better devices with iOS 5.

iCloud

Unfortunately, I’m less impressed by Apple’s attempts to extend these devices to the cloud.

The promise of iCloud is amazing. You can update something on one device—add a contact, or work on an iWork document, or take a picture, or start a conversation, or buy a song—and it will automagically appear on all your devices.

For some things, this works beautifully. I cleaned up my contacts on my MacBook today, and without doing anything else, or even plugging anything in, they’re cleaned up on my iPad, iPhone, and on iCloud.com.

Photo Stream

For other things, there are seemingly small issues that end up being dealbreakers. One new feature is that all photos are automatically published everywhere, viewable on any device with Photo Stream. While mildly creepy, I’m fine with that after I opt in for it. What’s not fine is being unable to delete any photos after you take them. Seriously. If you accidentally (or purposefully) take a crappy photo, it will be on every device forever. You can turn off Photo Stream and delete every photo, but you can’t delete just that one photo that was meant to be texted then discarded.

This is so ridiculous that it’s almost as if they released iCloud without it by accident. I’m guessing it’ll be fixed pretty soon, but it’s dumb to have left it out initially. Maybe Apple’s just waiting for a scandal to drum up free advertising.

iMessage fails at carrying across devices

iMessage

iMessage isn’t technically part of iCloud, but it’s sending messages over the internet, so maybe it should be. iMessage mysteriously detects whether the person you’re texting has an iOS device, and if so, sends them a message via data rather than text messaging. It’s very cool if you don’t have an unlimited texting plan, or drop out of cell phone coverage a lot. Even cooler is that it works on the iPad and iPod touch as well, so you can finally text from them. Since they don’t have phone numbers, you set up an email address to iMessage with. There is also the promise of being able to start a conversation on one device, but continue it on whatever other device you switch to.

Where it fails is that, from what I’ve seen so far, it doesn’t deliver on that promise. iMessage doesn’t associate your phone number with your email address(es), so if you’re texting between phone numbers on an iPhone, then switch to an iPad, now you need to start a new conversation using the email address you set up on the iPad. You could use the email address the whole time, but that defeats the purpose of making it a texting alternative; coordinating this with people will be almost as bad as having to exchange PINs on BlackBerrys. This messy confusion sinks what was supposed to be a simplification of messaging.

Update Oct 15: I’ve managed to unify all my messages, at least with one person. It took some combination of the following: both of us added all of each other’s iMessage phone numbers and email addresses to the same contact. We also made sure our “caller ID” (which has nothing to do with calling) in the message settings was the same on all of our devices (i.e., on an iPhone, it has to be changed to an email address instead of a phone number). Now, all communications show up in the same conversation, which syncs across all devices, just as promised. It’s even smart enough to know that if you see the conversation on your unlocked iPad, it doesn’t need to bother alerting you on your iPhone too. Cool. So it’s possible to achieve the promise of iMessage, but it takes a lot of fiddling and coordination between the two people, and it’s still not really clear how to do it.

iWork in the Cloud

I’m wondering why more people aren’t complaining about this next problem. I think most early reviewers just assumed this wouldn’t be a problem, and didn’t actually try it.

The aspect of iCloud I was most excited about is the ability to work on a document from any device, and have it always be synced up between devices, automatically. Currently, this works wonderfully for syncing a document between iOS devices. So, you can type up something on your iPad, and it will automatically show up on your…uh…iPhone I guess? But why the hell would you want to do word processing on an iPhone?

Yeah. There is no way to have iCloud sync documents with an actual computer. It syncs photos and contacts just fine with OSX, but nooo, creating documents, the one thing that’s still done best with a large screen and a keyboard, you can’t do that on a computer.

I’m sure this feature is coming, but I’m baffled as to why this, what I think is the most useful application of iCloud, wasn’t a priority to get out right away. As it is, iCloud is nothing more than an automatic backup for iWork documents.

But Still…

I don’t wanna get into #firstworldproblem territory by complaining about nitpicky details in the OS of a supercomputer that I can carry around in my pocket. But still, these are some odd omissions among software that is so improved in every other way. I didn’t see these problems addressed elsewhere, so I thought I’d get this up on the internet for other complainers to find. It’ll probably all be fixed tomorrow, and then I’ll be back to blissful Apple fanboyism.

Evolution’s Failures

I think it’s hilarious to imagine evolution’s failures.

Think of how our digestive systems are able to function no matter which way we’re sitting or lying, carrying food to the right place in a peristaltic wave, even if it’s going against gravity. Think of the pre-human who didn’t get that gene. He’s all like, “check out this handstand!”, then as soon as he’s upside-down, all the wooly mammoth he ate earlier is pouring out of his face. He suffocates, dying before he ever had a chance to procreate, and his shitty genes never get passed on. Hilarious.

Thing is, one day that guy will be us.

Evolution is not only biological, but technological. We already pity the people of the past—most of human history—who didn’t expect to live past the age of thirty. Technology has doubled our lifespan just by tuning up our default biological hardware from the outside. Think of what we can do once technology moves inside.

It’s a near certainty that we will merge with technology. We already rely on it, and there’s gotta be a better way of interacting with it than through our fingers. When our brains and bodies are made more of bits and bytes than nerves and leukocytes, the people of today will be the pre-humans.

Looking back, we’ll think that our squishy biological way of doing things was hilarious. “That’s right son,” we’ll say, to our sons. “We had computers we plugged into walls, but our own method of recharging was—hah, it’s so gross, but get this—we mashed up other living things with our teeth then let them slide down our throat. There were actually people who couldn’t find things to eat, and they died. Forever! They didn’t even have a backup.”

And our sons, they probably won’t even understand how (or why) we managed to get through the day.

Evolution makes failures of us all.

Spoiled

You know how outdated media companies could combat piracy? By seeding file sharing sites with files that have spoilers in the file names. I’d be reluctant to try searching an illicit download site if I’m likely to come across Harry_Potter_6(DVDRiP)_SNAPEKILLSDUMBLEDORE.avi or SurvivorS01E11_Richard_Wins.XviD or Six_Feet_Under_hey_guess_what_everyone_dies.mov.

I don’t want to encourage them, but it’s not like dying industries read blogs or are capable of trying anything creative.

This new Apple TV, however, is at least a step toward aligning media distribution with this newfangled “internet” thing. There is a sweet spot where it becomes worth paying money to avoid the hassle of searching for something that is otherwise free. At $99 for a device that can instantly dish out 99¢ TV episodes, that sweet spot’s hit, at least for me. I’d rather just pay my loonie than take the time to hunt an episode down across multiple sites, download it into submission, then drag it back to the device I consume it on. Sometimes it’s better to just order a burger instead of killing your own cow, y’know?

Plus, if I can cancel my cable subscription, it’s a net gain.

By the way, I have a full time job now, so all my blog posts will either be really short, or rambling nonsense that randomly goes nowhere, fueled by sleep deprivation and the crushing weight of adulthood.

So, how about baklava eh?

The Emotional Ramifications of Bleeps and Bloops

The iPhone needs more options for the new text message sound. There are only six beeps, bongs, and honks available, with no ability to add new ones.

I say this not out of a vain need for customization, but for the emotional well-being of iPhone users.

This is modern life:

You meet someone you like, and she likes you enough to give you her phone number. You send her an innocuous text, then wait with breath abated for a reply. BONG, an innocuous text in return. You do this back-and-forth a few times and soon each message contains not just neutral words but embedded emotion.

Eventually it’s BEEP BEEP here are your plans for the evening; DING! here comes a compliment you’ll remember for the rest of your life. You precede those consequences with that sound enough times, and they become inextricably linked. A smile hits your lips and your heart leaps into your throat with every buzz of your pocket.

Maybe you go on a few adventures. Maybe you screw. Maybe you make plans for the future. But nothing lasts forever, and when things inevitably go sour, all the positive associations with that tone become ambivalent, then negative. Finally, DONG! we need 2 talk.

Those associations are embedded deep, and they never quite go away. Alerts for even the most frivolous texts now make your mouth go dry; they’re Pavlov’s bell in reverse.

It doesn’t take long to cycle through all six tones.

Technology is so embedded in our lives that we must increasingly consider not only its practical ramifications, but the full spectrum of human emotion as well.

Book Review: Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card

You could describe Ender’s Game as Harry Potter in space. It’d be a pretty crappy way of describing it, since Ender came long before Harry , but the similarities are there. We’ve got a school full of kids who are special, an upcoming war, a sport that involves flying around and reaching a goal, and one really special angsty kid who’s destined to save the world.

The similarities “end” there, though. Ender’s Game is not fantasy, but hard science fiction. For a geek like me, it was a delight to read the intricate details of how to maneuver in zero gravity; not only how it affects people physically, but mentally as well (“the enemy’s gate is down”).

The sci-fi doesn’t come at the expense of character development, however. Ender is a flawed, rounded out character. Flawed in a Jack Bauer kind of way though; you always know he’ll figure out a way to deal with any obstacle. Often violently.

I was amazed at the prescience of Card’s vision of the future. The short story the book is based on was written in 1977, yet many of the technologies described are just coming to maturity in 2010. The Internet plays a large role (especially in the interesting but ultimately rather pointless side plot about Ender’s sister), taking over media and political influence in a way we are sure to see soon. He even threw in a line about kitchen appliances being online; in the 80s, the idea of a human being able to type something up then post it for the entire world to see (hi) would have been mind-blowing, but somehow Card was already imagining Twittering fridges.

Part of his genius was keeping descriptions just vague enough that your mind fills in the details with plausible technology. For example, the students’ “desk” computers are described as fitting on a lap and having a screen, but the exact control mechanism is never specified. Of course, I imagined them as iPads.

Speaking of which…I got an iPad. This is my first post written on it. My typing is slower and I can’t figure out a way to include a picture, but I still feel like I’ve arrived in the friggin future. Full impressions coming up later.

Podcamp London + Contemplative Goose

On Saturday I attended Podcamp London. A podcamp is a gathering of people interested in blogging, podcasting, social media, and other technologyish internetty stuff. It’s referred to as an “unconference”, because the format is unconventional. There are few rules, and anyone is free to throw a presentation onto the schedule. I guess I count as “anyone,” so I inserted myself into the timetable, and prepared a little presentation.

I talked to a packed room about internet fame, blogging, and how social media and the accessibility of the internet are changing the way creative people do their thing. I was a bit nervous, since I’d never done anything like that before, but I ended up enjoying the hell out of it.

If you wanna see my slides, you can get a clickable Quicktime movie (showing my spiffy slide transitions) here, or a PDF with all my secret notes (ruining the illusion that my witty jokes were improvised) here.

Actual audience reaction. I am mildly amusing.

I got a lot of flattering feedback, and some good suggestions for the coffee blog. From the always-creative Nik Harron came the idea for putting despair in coffee. That is, tears. I wonder if tears of shame taste difference than tears of mourning?

I imagine the former are a little more spicy.

It made no sense btw.

Also: I won a pool for predicting how many dongs would show up in Chatroulette in a 30 minute period (six). I’m like a psychic predicting how many children you’ll have, except it’s how many dongs you’ll see. (See also). It was good times.

There were more substantial thrills to be had, too. The sense of community was palpable. I have another psychic prediction: good things are coming in London Ontario’s future. There is an increasingly-less-underground group of diverse personalities who are passionate about making great things happen in this city and beyond. Upcoming projects like Changecamp London and UnLondon are just a few examples.

Between Podcamp itself and the sloppy after-party, I came across this Canada goose:

I’ve seen him there 3 or 4 times, always just standing there looking at his reflection in the window. He’s, like, a metaphor for life, man. Just staring, all day, pondering his place in this crumbling city. The goose is us, man. The goose is us.


Update May 10 9:30pm: I have been informed (thanks a lot @BillyW64) that the goose stares at his reflection because he thinks it’s his mate that he lost last year. There was a story about him on A Channel (I guess they interviewed the goose to obtain this information). The goose picture is now more sad-deep than intelligent-deep. Man.

Update May 11 3:15pm: Here is the fluffy A Channel story about the goose (thanks @joeradman, you are rad, man). Not sure about the veracity of the story or if it’s even the same goose (mine is in a totally different location). Maybe geese are just vain. Still, it’s sad to think about. There is also a Facebook page for him/her.