Memorising The Tube

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2016/12/03 - Memorising The Tube ...

Recently I memorised the period table of elements. When I tell people that, the response has generally been a moderate pause, followed by a rather puzzled - "Why?"

So I thought I'd explain.

You may choose to wonder why about this as well ...
Way back in the early 1980's I memorised "The Man from Snowy River," a long, classic, ballady, traditional Australian poem. I memorised it simply by reciting it constantly, with no special techniques.

And it took ages.

And again, I hear the puzzled tone in your thinking as you wonder why. Well, in short, "The Man From Snowy River" is a great poem, exciting, and full of adventure. One of the people mentioned in it is Clancy, so when Rachel discovered that she expressed an interest, but claimed that she is unable to memorise things.

So we did it together.

Fast-forward to 2008 or so, and my wife and I together memorised a similar poem - "Clancy of the Overflow." Again, no special method, no special technique. But afterwards Rachel said that there was a line from a poem:

  • "Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke-stack,
    "butting up the Channel in the mad March days."

She could remember just that line, and while she didn't know the poem she had always fancied learning it.

Ironically, we then forgot about it.

A year or so later, after attending a retail show in Harrogate we were on the train coming home and we remembered. Coincidently, I'd been reading about "Spaced Repetition" (SR), a technique that allegedly helps one remember huge amounts of information efficiently and effectively.

So on a whim I decided to have a go.

On the train journey from Harrogate to Leeds I whipped up a simplistic, user-hostile version of SR (Spaced Repetition). Then found the text of the poem - "Cargoes", by John Masefield - and loaded it into the system. Finally, on the journey from Leeds to Liverpool we memorised the poem.

Yes, both of us. I didn't particularly want to, but I was driving the software (as I said, user-hostile) so I ended up memorising it too, even though I didn't particularly want to. It was distressingly effective.

Scroll forward another few years, and as a bit of gratuitous showing off I decided that, since I was giving a series of talks in Norway, I would learn some of my talk in Norwegian. Once again I turned to my implementation of SR, and once again, it was extremely effective.

But it was on my laptop, and I don't always have my laptop open and on. I wondered if I could make it a web-based implementation, so I futzed about for a bit, and hey presto, there it was. Now I could learn, or revise, anywhere I could get a 'net connection on my phone.

So that was nice.

Of course, some of you will know about Anki, Supermemo, and other similar offerings, and wonder why I did this. Well, I often find other people's user interfaces difficult to learn, and commercial offerings always seem to be overly burdened with features I don't want, and in this case it just seemed quicker to implement the bare-bones myself and use it, rather than find, install, learn the interface, tweak the settings, invest time, and then find that for some reason it doesn't do what I want.
But how effective is it, and how useable is my implementation? A quick tweet, and a hapless victim showed up to have a go at using it. To my surprise, it worked for him as well. In fact, I had a go at learning the data he dropped into the system, and it worked pretty well for me too.

So over a period of about 4 weeks I learned "Ozymandias", the entire periodic table of elements, and the dates of accession of English monarchs from 1066. This is how I came to memorise the periodic table - it was just a convenient set of data to drop into the system and see how well it worked. It wasn't that I specifically wanted to learn the periodic table, it was simply a convenient thing to learn while testing the system. Ending up knowing it is just a side-effect, although not entirely unwelcome - there have been some interesting stories to learn along with it.

But then I noticed something.

The dates didn't stick. The elements did, Ozymandias did, but the dates got muddled, or were more difficult to recall. I wondered why, and speculated that it was the absence of any kind of underlying structure or pattern.

Rachel started to tell me stories about who succeeded whom and why, and that helped a bit, but what really turned the tide was putting in not just the dates of accession, but the period of reign. In that way when asked about Henry III I would say 1216 - 1272, and the 1272 would prompt me to remember that Edward I followed Henry III, and so there was a chaining effect.

And that seemed to work.

So for me, Spaced Repetition might work best - or at all - if there is some sort of underlying structure or pattern, and the "atoms" in the system should be such that the pattern is somehow exposed, or exploited.

Which then leads me to an open question.

If you ask why I will tell you - you know I will.
I now want to use the system to memorise the London Underground. There certainly is lots of structure there, so Spaced Repetition would seem to be ideal. The question is:

  • What are the best "atoms" for memorising the map of the underground?


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