Memory tricks we forgot

Every Spring, the ConEd building in Manhattan hosts an unusual tournament; the contestants compete to remember, among other things, a poem, a deck of cards, biographical information about strangers, and strings of numbers. In case you’re thinking this is just a MENSA meeting with expensive parking, let me add that the contestants aren’t geniuses. Nor do they have photographic memories.

The truth is actually more impressive, as Joshua Foer explained when he spoke at our university a few days ago. He said that these champions of recall hone their craft with practice. They simply maneuver their brains to get around natural human limitations of rote memorization. And he should know—he is one. Having chanced upon bouts of memory as a science journalist, Joshua was hooked. To write about it, he studied it the best possible way. He became a memory champion. His book, Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, describes his experience and notes these skills etched inside our brains.



In it you’ll understand how orators remembered their speeches many generations before the teleprompter. Back then, the pages of history were passed down from teachers to students through speech and memory. The last few centuries saw major changes. From Gutenberg to the iPhone, every time an invention enhanced our lives, it reduced our need to remember details. And we lost these nifty tricks that our ancestors had devised.

But the same technology that we can now blame for forgetting our wives’ birthdays allows us to scan people’s brains while testing their memory. fMRI studies of regular people and memory champions as they try to memorize things reveal a key difference—the champions use the spatial part of their brains, as if they are laying out the random items on a map-like structure inside their brains. Psychologists call this elaborative encoding. Let’s use Joshua’s examples.

If I told you that a guy’s name was Mr. Baker, you’re less likely to remember it than if you were told that the guy was a baker—because you associate a baker with a white hat, sweet smell, and hands covered with flour. ‘Mr. Baker’ doesn’t inspire anything nearly as vivid.

If you show chess grandmasters a photograph of an ongoing game, they can reconstruct the board from memory. But show them a picture of a randomly arranged board, and they remember barely more than a layperson. Context is everything. The position of a pawn in an ongoing chess game is part of a story, and a random one is not.

But what if you could generate context, or manufacture a story, for random bits of information?—or imagine baguettes and cakes when  introduced to a Mr. Baker? You can do that using the memory palace, a structure you must train yourself to imagine, which holds the things you want to remember encased in layers of fabricated context. And the more evocative the context—the brighter, smellier, noisier it is—the smoother your recall. Your verbal memory doesn’t hold a candle to your visual/spatial memory, which you should mobilize. You don’t have to memorize thousand digits of pi,  but you’ll always know where your keys are.

But really, can just anyone do this with practice? Yes, Joshua says, provided you remember to call upon this skill whenever you get information. Most of all, you must remember that you can do this. And the images should be really wacky. Here’s one of Joshua’s gems: you know how he remembers to begin speeches with the unusual memory contest? He imagines nudist bicyclists racing towards his front door with sweat glistening over their fat, jiggly bodies (antithetical to all that cardio they’re getting if you ask me.)

Joshua’s TED speech


This is my attempt to write a short story in the first person from a woman’s POV and in the present tense. I won’t be surprised if I’m bad at interpreting the feminine condition. Here goes…

 You’ll never catch me at a bar before 1 am. To do what—ripen other tomatoes by contrast? No thanks. Let the lawyers and stockbrokers make their withdrawals of the nines and tens. If I’m early, I’ll wait outside. A woman who sits too long at a bar un-approached takes a cab home, alone. I know my limitations and what they can fetch. You’ll say that I have a pretty face, but you’ll add that I’m not hot. Dolled-up, I turn a few heads with competition out of circulation. And I always wear high heels. They’re too conspicuous—they make me look short. Still, better than not being looked at. Whenever I put on makeup, I think how shallow I must be to give in to the standards of men. Do I really want the men who are all about height and tits and ass?

Who am I kidding? These are the men worth it. The others want the same stuff—they are just too cowardly to reach. Guess how many promotions and raises they get.

I make the last puff count. Living on twenty cigarettes per day is not easy—luckily it’s not true either. I pull out the Newports I save for emergencies. Newports, because if they were Marlboros I’d smoke them all before buying more. Even if I run, I won’t make it to 6th and 7th before Frankie leaves for the night. Frankie sells buttlegged cigarettes on 7th Avenue between 6th and 10th streets. He gets them from Virginia and sells them as loosies—one for seventy-five cents, two for a dollar. Because I have a pretty face, or so he says, he can let go of two packs for fifteen bucks. I know my pack-a-day habit isn’t healthy, but I don’t understand people who don’t smoke at all. The smell of a cigarette in the morning is my Starbucks. If only more people understood that, smoking wouldn’t have that stigma. People are so arbitrary about vices. Some habits are cool, others sin. But it’s not like I’m addicted. In Paris, I smoked fewer than ten in fifteen days, tired of asking Puis-je fumer ici? everywhere. Most people don’t understand that I don’t want to quit. To them, smoking is a pathology that people need to be socialized out of. Nobody thinks it’s impolite to drown someone in tales of doom as long as he’s dangling a cigarette. Try lecturing a guy on sodium as he’s about to eat a hot-dog. Speaking of which, the fat, black guy-at-the-door at Sehrgut is asking an obvious teenager what her sun sign is. Hey, if you have made up a sophisticated test for carding, at least update it now and then. He probably asked her mother the same question fifteen years ago. And it’s pointless too; the ones with the fake IDs have every detail memorized. I exhale upwards to avoid the menthol fumes—I hate smelling them and hate smelling like them.

I’m not carded when I enter Sehrgut at one fifteen. It doesn’t matter. I beat another woman in a polite race to the just-emptied empty stool at the far end of the bar. “Long time,” mouths the bartender. It’s deafening in here. He pours my Aventinus Eisbock into a glass, and immediately tilts his head and smiles when he remembers that I like pouring my own. It starts to get crazy. The bar plays Alicia Keys and Jay Z’s Empire State of Mind even though it’s so old, just so out-of-towners can go Newww Yawwrk. Only someone not from the city can enjoy that song. It irritates New Yorkers. Just like any other tribute to New York, it takes a piece of the city and hands it to outsiders to enjoy. As if they earned it. I start to pay, but the bartender waves me off, his fingers nearly knocking the credit card off my outstretched hand. “Compliments of…that guy,” I follow his finger with a smile ready, but my benefactor is already walking towards me.

“Hi. I’m Sam.”

“Meera. Thanks.”

“Sure. I’m from Chicago; here on vacation.” The stool next to mine becomes empty, and he is quick.

“Oh. I’m from here,” I say.

“That you are. The bartender clearly knows you. You’ve always lived in the city?” I can’t help but smile. He is awful at this. He is not bad-looking and seems sincere. But can he even taste his beer with gum in his mouth?

“I’m from here. But I moved back from DC a year ago.”

“Work?” he asks.

“Yup.” Not true, but no way I’m visiting that topic with a stranger in a bar. This type of situation always makes me uneasy. My pulse is making my wrist feel weird. His face rests on his fist as his elbow digs into the counter—he is trying to look casual. I’m worried that there will be a knuckle-impression on his cheek. Luckily, he switches topics and positions.

“You’re really beautiful, you know?”

“Thanks!” I say.  Amazing how he swooped for the kill. I had not figured him to be aggressive. At least he’s looking at my eyes when he is saying it. And it’s not 3 am—that’s when guys go for backhand cross-court winners.

“What do you do, Sam?” I ask, my turn to objectify him.

He said, “I teach Mathematics at the University of Illinois in Chicago,” his last words apologizing for his first. Anybody who expands the word math is probably too serious for me. Suddenly he looks closer to forty than thirty.

I persist. “Nice. I took some grad-level calculus in college.”

“As an undergrad? That’s impressive.” His eyes twinkle. Can eyes really twinkle? “Yeah. I had a crush on this math professor. I worked extra hard. He was impressed, and he asked me to take a few of his graduate courses. It was a fun couple of semesters.” I say.

“You mind if we go someplace where I don’t have to read your lips?” he asks. I haven’t even answered, but he is standing and offering me his hand like I’m stepping off a carriage not a barstool. Thanks Lancelot.

“I know a good place,” I say. There are over two hundred bars in the lower east side.

We walk a few blocks north of Houston to a half-basement. It is louder than Sehrgut in here. People jostle us as they’re walking in, walking out, finding a place to sit, and stealing chairs with jackets wrapped around them. A lady is singing in some Russian sounding language, and at least forty people clap in a place that should really hold twenty. The restroom line goes all the way to the front door.

“I’m sorry. It’s quiet on most days, and they make great vodka infusions,” I say.

“I guess everybody in Manhattan found out. No worries. I know a place.” We walk back to Houston past my favorite overpriced juice stall.

“Nice,” I say, “This can’t be your first trip to the city. How did you find this place?” I look at the dust on the shelves, the refrigerator with beers I can’t recognize, the menu written in chalk with common words deliberately misspelled, the lady behind the counter with all those tattoos, and the shelf with books so eclectic I wonder how their readers ever ate at the same place. The sign reads Leave a book, take a book.

“I found this place the last time I was in the city drunk at 4 am, which is to say the last time I was in the city. I was hungry.”

Interesting. Math geek who likes to get drunk and knows weird places to eat in the lower east side. We talk about this and that for an hour. I surprise him by describing Goldbach’s conjecture. He surprises me by saying that he has to leave early tomorrow morning for Chicago, and that he had fun. I take a cab home, alone.

Eulogy – Part II

(This is the concluding part of a two-part series. Please read Eulogy – Part 1 before you read this.)

He yawned loudly. Somehow he always remembered to cover his mouth when he yawned. Even in private. She had reformed his bohemian ways a long time ago: her eyes large as saucers and an admonishment of ‘be polite’, with her hand gently covering his mouth. He wryly wondered how she expected him to improve such behavior while she doled out such delicious punishments. Nothing like that now. He was still drawing a blank. There was nothing he could think of that was profound enough to be said at a podium, but impersonal enough that it could be shared without causing any embarrassment.

His family had been extremely cooperative and understanding. His wife had stopped scowling at him, and had interrupted him only once to announce that the Fedex package he’d made her track would arrive only on Monday. Damn! The stuff that R had left for him would probably have steam-rollered through his writers’ block.

When I need you, I just close my eyes and I’m with you, and all that I so wanna give you, is only a heartbeat away…

What a freakish Karan Joharesque coincidence that the radio would blare out this song while he was thinking about her! She had sung this song to him once in expression of her love. True romantic that he was he had pointed out how the tune of the song was exactly like tumse milke, aisa laga tumse milke…. Her reply, of course, was less than charitable.

“Idiot! That song is a copy of the English one.”

“Oh! I thought you had composed the lyrics of this one for me, and simply Anu Malik-ed the tune!”

Anyone else at any other time would have assumed that the song was merely being alluded to, but the sheer spontaneity of R coupled with her literary promise allowed no such conclusions. If anything, one was more inclined to believe that she had extemporaneously composed the whole thing.

Again, that moment was too trivial to be shared. Also, no one else would understand what he felt there. Without any warning, his writers’ block dissolved and thoughts words started flowing in his head. He started scribbling furiously like he did during history exams whenever he was afraid that the answer would simply evaporate from his head.

He read and re-read it to make sure it was just the way she would have wanted it, which was an irony in itself. From then on, it was like someone had pressed a fast-forward button; the next moment of coherence he experienced was at the podium, in front of her weeping family, the staid-expressioned extended family, and the various acquaintances to whom this was merely another social call. It was an out-of-body experience as though he could float over the happenings and actually observe the man in the blue suit giving a sweet eulogy.

“The fact that you’re all here in no way means that R meant equally to all of you. In fact, knowing R as I did, I’m sure some of you are here to make sure she’s really gone.” There were small knowing smiles among the family and friends, and looks of pure horror on the acquaintances’ faces.

“R and I were very intimate at one point of time and drifted apart rather cynically. We were never in touch and surprisingly her probate attorney contacted me with her wish that I give this eulogy. This surprised me in two ways. One: I did not think I meant so much to her after all this time, and two: she was an extremely private person who had opened up to me very slowly. The thought that she would want a speech inspired by one of her most intimate life-periods to be made in front of (quite frankly) pure strangers would have been ludicrous to me fifteen years ago. I suppose she changed a lot in these years, but then, you know her more than I do now. What I do know, is what she was then. I would like to talk about something from that space-time.”

Her eleven-year old or so daughter was staring at him at this point with those very eyes…

“Of all the moments we shared, and we shared some great ones as friends and many more as a couple, the unlikeliest choice for this occasion would be the time we parted ways. For some reason, as I thought about what epitomized her personality; this somehow allows me to convey the most while saying the least.

It was a warm night in Manhattan. (Those things come once in a while!) I remember her eyes burning a hole in mine. She had the ability to appear ice-cold while seething and fuming inside. She said, ‘I love you and a part of me always will. This is just not working out. No matter how much we are attracted to each other, and how much we miss each other when away, we can’t seem to allow the other to breathe freely when together. I am unhappy in a quiet desperate way without you, and I am kicking and screaming while crying myself to sleep when I’m with you. There just seems to be no solution here. I love you a lot and want more than anything else for you to be happy. Neither one of us is happy when we’re together, and no matter how much we pretend otherwise, we both know that our relationship is volcanic and tempestuous, sans stability. Now that we’re parting ways, I am going to feel like I made a ridiculous mistake, and that being without you is like slowly choking to death, but this is a feeling I can overcome, and I will move on. I am sure it will be even easier for you.’

She said that and walked away slowly. I knew she would not turn back to look at me even once. The amazing part of this woman was not that her resolve never weakened. It was that she anticipated those moments and took precautionary measures. I just kept watching her leave until she became a humanoid speck on the horizon and then nothingness. Her last words lingered like an eerie echo. ‘…I will move on. It will be even easier for you.’

Friends and well-wishers, as we say goodbye to a truly exceptional human being, all I can say is, ‘She was wrong.’

He climbed down the podium tearfully and walked straight into his wife’s embrace. It was a beautifully conducted funeral.

The next day Fedex brought over the package that should have arrived on Saturday. It contained an old love letter he had given her, and a neatly printed-out letter he had never seen before. Written above the heading, in that scrawl he had loved so much were the words, ‘This is the eulogy I want you to give. It is nice enough, and has nothing personal. I have loved you all these years.’

He laughed through his tears at the control-freak he now missed so much.


PS: Snafu celebrates its 100th post! I hope to keep writing, and writing more frequently. A warm thanks to all readers.

Eulogy – Part 1

“Sit up straight.” he still heard her voice in his head. R had had a booming voice—feminine, but strong. He chuckled at how she would have responded to this description. Come on, he scolded himself, you’re a writer; this should come naturally to you.

He had fought with his wife early that morning. Twelve years into a marriage, fights and quarrels were commonplace, but this one was weird off the bat. Unlike other fights, in this one, he knew she was right even though he kept fighting with her. The reason was obvious when you thought about it. Everything started the previous evening, around 6 pm.

He winced as soon as he heard someone knock on his door. He had warned his secretary, “No calls!” Well, if she had still let someone through, it had to be important. Damn it! He didn’t want anything important to disturb his Friday evening reverie. “Come in”, he said, hoping his unwelcoming tone would make things obvious to the intruder.

A wiry, bespectacled man entered wearing a hand tailored suit. It was exquisite. The man kept it short. He was a probate lawyer for R. Probate and R in the same sentence could mean only one thing. How did it happen, he asked. Automobile incident was the lawyerly reply. Why could these legal bozos never say simple words like road accident? So, why was this attorney here? Well, R had left him some special things and a dying request. “What things, and what request?” he asked and immediately regretted the order of his questions.

The lawyer responded that the items were in a box which would be Fedexed to him the next day. She requested that he give her eulogy. This Sunday? Yes. In two days. Shouldn’t be too hard for a writer. The lawyer left with as much discreetness as he had entered.

The sun came blazing through the open window and drenched his table in golden luminescence. He was doing that circling thing with his pen again. An observant friend in school had pointed out that he moved his pen in circles only when pondering something about rotation or uniform circular motion.

He strained his eyes to concentrate. He was sitting with a pen and paper for an hour now, with no words yet. The only words he had come up with were, “words cannot describe the impression she made on my life.” She was an ex, but more than that. He had been in three relationships before his marriage, each one with their own versions of pain. This one was strange. There was a didactic tone to this one. She taught him: something the others had not done. This was without doubt the most educational relationship he had been in. He could not say that: how was anyone to understand what that even meant? He could not even explain to his wife the importance that another woman held in his life. Understandably, she had pouted for about two hours before ‘allowing’ him to give the eulogy.

He remembered that evening in Manhattan. He hated walking in TriBeCa but she dragged him as always.  She had a keen eye, and spotted what looked like a presidential dollar coin on the sidewalk. As she tried to pick it up, there was a scream of April fool! as she realized that the coin was stuck to the ground. He laughed spontaneously and she did too, but as the joke grew on her, a tear started to roll down her eye. He realized that a reprimand was coming. She was the one person he knew who could combine maturity and  petulance into one mood. As he pacified her, he realized that this high-maintenance female was exactly what he wanted and she made him happy. He couldn’t write about this either. Too trivial an incident and no way someone else would see the meaning in it.

What to do then? He sipped his coffee and closed his eyes. Maybe a nap would do him good. The evening might be better. After all most of his best works were a product of a tearing hurry caused by an impending deadline, and the more desperation the better.

Eulogy Part 2

Manhattan delights

A dear friend of mine once described a concept called ‘patel shots’. When I asked him to elaborate, he said that they were postcard-type photos taken by tourists near all the garden variety tourist spots around a popular city. This guy loved all the nuances of NYC that I could show him, but make no mistake, he could give the patels a run for their money (which is bucketloads, by the way!) in the quest for the unparalleled patel shots! (No offense meant to actual patels!)The other part of Manhattan, that only residents can show you, are the quaint coffee shops, the small but amazing brick oven pizza joints run by the temperamental Italian owners whose moodiness is not only tolerated, but appreciated, all due to their culinary genius.What I am gonna give a preview of right now, is a part of the Lower East Side of Manhattan…a little further off NYU campus. For a long time, the lower east side has been associated with the student and worker crowd, which brings with it fashionable pubs, bars, cafes and well slightly proletariat experience altogether. It was not out of character for the rents to be lower here than say the upper west side (endorsed by the sitcom Seinfeld, as it is based entirely in that area).

Now, however, the paradigm shift has come where the quaint coffee shops are quaint not because they cannot afford to expand, but because the yuppie mindset is tired of the chain stores and eateries and now covets the European bistro/cafe experience. Coffee now costs $4.50 at some places, and people are happy to shell out the duddu.

I am in the process of discovering places which serve great food. Now there is one place I ate just today morning. It is a small breakfast place, where there are long lines on weekday mornings just to get a table for two. If you are in a group of four or more, the reservation card handed to you may as well say “Are you kidding me!” The breakfast was awesome, I had a salmon based entree, with some fresh squeezed orange juice and my cousin had something similar. We wound up the meal with coffee, and the check came with the number $50 on it, which I duly passed on to my cousin, whose face had the calm of a person who had eaten there before, compared to my jaw which was somewhere between the table and the floor! The amazing thing is, with unemployment increasing at the rate of knots, the lines outside places like these (and there are many, mind you) have not been affected at all. You gotta love NYC. There are other reasons too.

Rents are going up as people are now wanting to live here. I, of course, am enjoying the delights of this region as I visit a cousin of mine every weekend, and mooch off him while he picks up the tab, with me realizing all the while that pretty soon, I would have to do this for someone else. Duniya gol hai!

This is the first post of mine where I have rambled on without much direction or purpose, and I really feel indulgent today. You might scoff at my desperation to have my blog read that I did not forewarn the readers of this randomly ambulatory post.

Café speak

“A grande latte please, no cinnamon…”

“Boy! You’ve not changed a bit I see…”

“Hey, if old habits are allowed to die hard, I think coffee preferences deserve immortality”

“Double cappuccino, just a hint of cinnamon, less foam…”

“Wow…living on the wild side, I’ve never seen you order cinnamon…speaking of old spices I hate, there’s Sam…”

“Sam…surely you mean Sameer, don’t tell me he has Americanized his name too…he is just in his second semester…”

“I know, it is presumptuous of an international PhD student to become red, white & blue before he clears his comprehensives.”

“Ah! What the hell…I heard the NMR machine in his lab is a 600MHz! Is he using it now?”

“Not unless you count the new Taiwanese MS student being spread-eagled on it succumbing to his lecherous advances as research!”

“Well…chemistry manifests itself in weird ways!”

“That stab at humor was passé even for you”

“Hey…you should have ordered a decaf I guess…the last thing you need is more caffeine at your crabbiest best…I take it your animal protocol was turned down again?”

“I will never understand how a person who regularly endorses the slaughter of cows and pigs by sauntering into Burger King can cry like a baby if the protocol has a lower quantity of anesthesia than regarded as appropriate…for god’s sake I am researching pain management, how can I do that without causing the animals some pain…”

“Calm down, they are doing their job…we can’t have people being callous about animal handling in the name of research…so tell me do you get time to spend with your girlfriend at all?”

“Not really, between her trips to the polytechnic department for the gel filtrations and my constant bickering with the animal department and numerous protocol addenda…we manage to squeeze a phone call in every 3-4 days or so…”

“She lives three blocks away…her lab is three buildings away from yours…I think one or both of you might be consciously avoiding the other…”

“I need a refill…what about you?”

“Yeah…tell the waitress to repeat mine too…so I got lucky last night”

“God! I noticed that grin on your face ever since we sat down…I knew if I did not ask you, you would certainly rub in my face all the action you’ve been getting…so who is she?”

“Remember that cute ABCD biomed student of mine…well…she is not my student anymore, so I asked her out and she came in if you know what I mean”

“Your innuendoes never cease, do they?”

“Yeah whatever, while you spend your nights playing pocket-billiards mulling over doses of propofol, I am playing the game…did I mention I am up for an NIH grant?”

“F#$% you…all the fun and yet you get the laurels too…you cell culture waalahs get your own way on everything!”

“Well, not to sound too churlish, but animal research is like having a girl friend- lots of work and negotiation and not much scoring…cell culture is like my life…scoring all the time and no adjustment!”

“Hey…I have a lab meeting in half an hour…need to shave, shower and order pizza…”

“You are proving my point!”

“Same time, same place, next week?”

“Until then!”

“Bye bro…bye Sam (a little louder)”

“Bye…Hey Sam…guess who I banged last night…”

If you liked this post, you might also enjoy The Precipice