Of Trivial Value? Lessons From Using SuperMemo
After receiving a link to a Wired article written by Gary Wolf and a software (in its 15th version) by Polish computer scientist and biologist named Piotr Wasniack, Steven bought the software and found out how it actually works. The program helps their user to develop some sort of super human memory. In this talk, Steven discusses the lessons from using SuperMemo, he describes using spaced practice to learn things and increase curiosity.
In 2008, my brother sent me a link to a Wired article to a note along the lines of this idea is crazy so you will probably be into it. Incidentally, that article was written by a certain Gray Wolf and it was about a Polish computer scientist and biologist named Piotr Wasniack and a piece of software. He wrote in 1987 and has actually been developing ever since and I believe it’s in its 15th version.
And the program is called Supermemo and it seemed to help the user of it develop some sort of super human memory. Instead of being highly skeptical of how this could actually even exist as a normal person would, I immediately started having dreams of becoming some sort of a memory genius. And I think this maybe because I actually have a below average memory, my girlfriend’s current and in the past can testify to that.
Si the idea of impressing people with pithy quotes and obscure facts appealed to me, but that’s only because I up to that point I had to desperately insist I’m a big pictures guy, a big ideas person and details aren’t really that important.
So I bought the software and found out how it actually works. You create flashcards, and then Supermemo will schedule times to test them on you. It tracks whether or not you got it right and then decides the best time to review I again.
And it begins with a standard model memory in terms of the rate at which you forget things and over time it adjusts itself to your actual memory. The key idea here actually is best put by Gary Wolf when he put that Supermemo is based on the insights that’s there an ideal moment to practice what you’ve learned. So brevity sake I’ll leave out the algorithm works, infact to use it I don’t need to know anything about it really; I was just a dumb end user. If you think about Supermemo was quantifying me and acting on that information all I had to do was show up and go through my repetitions.
So for me I began entering the definitions of word I encountered and did know, and in about a couple of months I had about 500 words and I immediately saw an affect. First off the software seemed to work really well. I picked up what these words meant and when I’d read I found out I knew what authors were saying and so just assuming I could tell from the context, no that wasn’t actually the case so looked him up.
So here’s how I actually got the words from the page off the books I was reading into the program. Well first off I was reading I would mark them off with flags, and then later I would use a scanning pen to capture the word. Not only the word but the sentence I would use. to use as a sort of an example sentence, and that goes directly into my computer and then I’d use this website EasyDefine I guess it sound like EasyDefine, which would batch grab all the definitions and made it a lot faster. And yeah, that’s what a flash card looks like in the end.
So I was well on my way of becoming scary smart or so I hoped, and then at that point I decided I wanted to sort of test the software, give it a sort of challenge to see how well it really worked. Besides, if you aspire to be a savant of some sort, you’re going to need a store of trivial knowledge to have at the rate to impress people right. so for myself I decided to memorize all the locations of all the countries in the world and their capitals. Truly trivial information, and again it worked brilliantly.
But what’s interesting is as I went through the process of memorizing all this geographical information something interesting occurred that I did not expect. I noticed that when I was working in the news I was becoming a lot drawn to world news. So if I saw an article about and uprising in Mali, the first place in my mind goes to is okay Mali, where is that? Its east of Mauritania south of Algeria, and I think okay, well what’s the capital Bomaco. Actually just as an aside I’ll just mention that my mnemonic for memorizing this is, so you have to try whatever you can to help your memory.
Anyway, back to the article, so after that it kind of draw me in and I see it as an opportunity to flush out my mental picture of what Mali is. At this point it’s just a location a city. So in this example you know I’ll read through it and perhaps sat okay, the rebellion is led by a group of people called Tuareg. Some of them are advocating for Shar’ia law and Mali and it looks like there a military coup last week. So when you look at it this way you can pull out a lot of information just from one article. And then what I’ll do after that is I can put it into an email that gets sent to a special end box. And then Supermemo goes in, scoops it up and then I later turn it to flash cards. And what’s amazing is I can read this one article and then I will have that information and I’ll know that stuff essentially well until I die, hopefully if I stick with them.
So what’s remarkable here is that I only took knowing one bit of information in a sense of countries locations to keep my interest. I’m much more likely to follow the situation and see how things developed in Mali. I can tell you before Supermemo there’s no way I would have read that article in the first place and if I did I probably would remember the information for about a day or so until it was completely forgotten, so that would be time spent with zero learning.
And also what’s interesting is that you know just knowing just where Mali is. The capital of Monaco doesn’t tell me anything about the country so it encourages me to fill the gaps and it’s almost I have a drive to add more. And so for the first time I have a sense of what the psychologist Ellen Winner meant when she coined the phrase ‘Having arranged the master.’
It created the drive in me to test the knowledge I required. I saw this with the definitions actually before that in that I began to seek out more difficult books almost because it gave me an opportunity to exercise my newly acquired vocabulary.
So that’s a mini glimpse of the actual many ways that I use Supermemo and what I’ve learnt from it.
To conclude I’ll mention that quantifying my memory and making it more efficient to learn helped me actually stoke my curiosity in a way than nothing else had, and by focusing on actually becoming familiar on a lot of different subjects I now find it a pleasure and connecting ideas across disciplines. And it’s funny looking back I realized that my wish for a perfect memory was born out of insecurity really and not feeling as intelligent as people around me.
And tackling learning this way took me out of that state of fear and made me more eager to actually test my knowledge and having that effect of really opening up the world and making it an even more fascinating place to explore and learn from.
Thank you for your time.