Posts Tagged ‘encoding’

I recently had my first experience standing in line to get a favorite author to sign his current book.  I’ve never done this before and had some somewhat skewed expectations for the experience.  So when it didn’t go as expected I didn’t end up making the most of the experience that was somewhat different than the one I had scripted in my head.  And then I spent the fifteen minutes driving home going over the scenario over and over in my head whilst beating myself up about how I could have managed things differently.  Fortunately Alicia, who has more experience with readings and signings, did an excellent job of pulling me out of that loop quickly.

But I think this is a good (or bad) example of something that I ran across in the Memory and Human Lifespan lectures.   Professor Joorden’s example is that when taking a trip he just assumes that three things will go wrong, so rather than obsessing over each thing that goes wrong he just counts them off.  The thing is, I had a great time at the reading that preceded the signing.  I want to remember the good parts of that overall experience.  But because I tend to obsess over my mistakes, if I don’t cut that out, the part of that experience that will be the clearest is the bad part.  This is classic elaborative encoding.  Pick at the problem from a whole bunch of directions until it’s completely etched in your memory.

On the other hand, I think there is a reason to pick apart mistakes.  Because if you never think about your mistakes at all you are doomed to repeat them.  But figuring out how to stop as soon as you’ve done the initial analysis and landed on a thing or two to do differently the next time seems to be the hard part.  I think one of the ways to make this easier is to find ways to practice important skills in more incremental ways.  This was one of the key takeaways from The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How. where one of the examples was the claim that Brazil became a hotbed of soccer greats only after a street game became popular that used similar skills but in a much smaller space which allowed children to make (and correct) mistakes at a much more rapid rate than children that just played soccer.

So if I want to have a better experience at book signings, one way would be to go to more signings.   And going from once in a lifetime to once a year or even a few times a year might work somewhat.  But that doesn’t really meet the goal of quick iteration.  Perhaps a more effective idea might be to spend more time engaging strangers.  So if you see me on a bus anytime soon, watch out – I might actually speak to you!

And more importantly, I suspect that the right take-away from the book signing experience is to go back to enjoying readings and not spend the time and money on the actual signing part of these events if that detracts from the overall experience.  And to cherish the memories of the part I enjoyed rather than pick apart the part that I think could have gone better.  As obsessed as I am with learning, picking my battles is an essential part of the process.

Alicia and I spent an afternoon in The International Spy Museum and I failed the spy test.  She passed.  Hmmm.  This is a great museum with lots of fun interactive stuff, cool artifacts, and of course plenty of Bond, James Bond.  My favorite part of the museum was being able to see the actual devices that spies used, some of which were absolutely Bondesque.

But the thing that struck a chord from a personal perspective was the skills that a successful spy must develop and how incredibly bad I am at most of them.  Since a large part of what I’m trying to do this year is get better at learning in general it seems like this may be a hotbed of uncharted skills to play with.

Here are just a few of the things that a spy must be able to do well:

  •  add convincing details to a cover story on the fly and then be able to regurgitate them quickly under pressure
  •  massively impressive observation and memory skills (was that piece of tape on that pole yesterday, if not could it be marking a dead-drop?)
  • make decisions on the fly with sparse data
  • write and read coded messages (this could be really fun)
  • recognize people that you’ve only seen once even when they’re in disguise
  • Change the way you look, walk, speak, and hold yourself with or without the assistance of a physical disguise
  • Combat skills (or combat avoidance skills)

Now of course I could go on and on with this list just from what I saw in the museum, but I think there are a couple of interesting patterns here.  One is that some of the creativity around being a spy overlaps pretty heavily with writing fiction.  Another is that there seem to be several underlying ‘core’ skills – memory, creativity, and quick twitch decision making.  It seems to me that  developing any or all of these would be pretty useful in general, even if I never land another (oops I mean a) job as a spy.   And on the flip side, there are some concrete aspects to spy skills that seem like they might be quick tests of skill acquisition.

One of the things that I intended to do when I started my reboot year was to build a list of crazy fun small skills to knock off as interesting both in themselves and as a way of learning how to learn.   This is even more interesting as I learn more about learning, because I keep seeing that attacking smaller tasks so that one can make mistakes and learn to correct them quickly is a much more effective way to learn than taking on the big tasks first.  The classic example is that if you want to be a writer, you should start with short stories rather than novels (even if you think your natural length is a novel) because your cycle time is measured in days or weeks rather than months or years.

But I got involved enough in larger things that I didn’t manage to start attacking any of the small ones.  One of the first things I’d like to attack is a small memory task.  Another thing might be to learn Morse code.  Oh, and then I could tap dance Morse code, hmmm.  Anyone have suggestions for small fun skills to attempt to acquire?  Spy related or not?

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Anyone who knows me is quite aware that I’m an atrocious speller.  The advent of the spell checker is nothing short of a miracle as far as I’m concerned.  And I’ve been writing in English in excess of four decades.  And I write quite a bit.  And I read even more.  Well, I finally figure out why this is so.  Okay, so call me slow (you won’t be the first).  The relationship between how a word is spelled and how it sounds is only marginally related at the best of times.  And it requires an expert in descriptive linguistics to even put forth a plausible theory about why we spell things in a particular way in some of the more extreme cases.

This doesn’t appear to be the case in Spanish.  I’m only six weeks into an introductory course on Spanish at this point so I’m sure as I dig deeper things will get more complicated.  But at least for now things are almost completely rational.  Hallelujah!  I may just switch permanently (sorry, non-Spanish speaking friends and family – we’ll figure out some way to communicate).  Had I known this at 13 maybe I would have taken Spanish rather than French in high school and kept it up.  Then I’d be writing this blog in Spanish (or living in Spain).

So what does this have to do with Multiple encoding?  First, multiple encoding is a term that I learned in this lecture series about memory but haven’t found a great reference for on the interwebs.   I like the term though, so I’ll use it.  Briefly, think about the different methods you use to etch information into your memory (which is generally described as coding or encoding) – these are things like repeating something verbally over and over again, trying to visualize something, embedding the information in a broader context or solving a problem related to the information so that it can be retrieved.  If you use more than one of these methods, this is what one would call multiple encoding.  Almost every memory trick or technique I’ve seen can broadly be described as multiple encoding although some rely most heavily on one method of encoding with minor support from others.

Professor Joordens uses the example of the “ROY G. BIV” acronym for remembering the colors of the rainbow — each color is associated with a letter, and the letters are encoded as a name.  Coming up with your own acronym would then add elaborative encoding to the system and make it even more effective.

And that brings me back to spelling in Spanish.  It seems like as I actually internalize the pronunciation (see, needed the spell checker for that word) rules for Spanish, I find that I can work at memorizing vocabulary from two directions, the spelling and the sound.   At least for me this has significantly improved my rate of vocabulary acquisition (this time auto correct took care of it).  And I think this counts as a form of multiple encoding as describe above.  The flip side of this is that it is probably part of the reason that I was making very little progress by doing a predominantly audio series, even one that was recommended and apparently pretty well designed.

The other aspect of multiple encoding that I’m finding to be pretty compelling is use of the link words system.  This is the idea that for each word in Spanish you find an English word or phrase that sounds like the Spanish word and then you build an image that relates the sounds like word and the definition word together.   As an example – The Spanish for RICE is ARROZ (pronounced ARROS), so imagine ARROWS landing in your plate of RICE.  As a supplement to other study, combined with the rational system that Spanish uses to spell that gives at least three, possibly four different memory systems a chance to grab onto new vocabulary and reinforce each other.  Much improved over just hearing the word, I think.  Of course once the word gets really embedded all of the learning techniques will drop away and I’ll just be able to retrieve the word, but that’s a bit in my future, at least for a broad vocabulary.