Monday, December 13, 2010

EpicWin Update - Self Discipline Requried

I have been using EpicWin since the program was first released, and it has been exactly the program I was hoping for. While it is not a silver bullet for productivity, just like Supermemo, EpicWin requires self-discipline to be useful. Here is how I use EpicWin.

I keep a task-list within Supermemo (A very, VERY useful feature that I will make a post on eventually). I use the task list to organize and prioritize the various things I have to do. Using this as a guide, I enter the tasks into EpicWin and assign them point values that reflects their importance in Supermemo's task list. Then I accomplish the task. Keep moving onto the next task until all of the tasks are completed, and great peace of mind is achieved.

So basically I use Supermemo to create a "hit list" of tasks, and EpicWin is my task "Assassin" to execute them.

I also use EpicWin to give myself "achievement points" for real life. For example, doing dishes right after I finish eating grants me more points as compared to letting them pile up and doing them later. Also, let's say it snows during the night, and I know that I should shovel the driveway sooner rather than later. Big bonus for doing that! I really don't want to go jogging this morning, but I'll gladly do it if some points are involved. In this manner, EpicWin serves as the "nudge" I needed to get certain tasks done when there wasn't much of an incentive to get them done. In this manner, it has also been useful and (in my eyes) a success.

Although the program/game that I had in my head was slightly different than EpicWin, EpicWin fills the task-list RPG-sized gap in my life, and I'm very pleased with it.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Mind The (Knowledge) Gap

The Supermemo FAQ website is very poorly organized; imagine a very messy desk filled with papers, each paper more interesting than the last. The Supermemo site is like that; filled with interesting information, but not very easy to access.

Supermemo (And other programs that seek to accomplish the same purpose) creates within the user a very interesting way of thinking. (I recall reading this on the Supermemo site, but I forget where) When you encounter a concept that you do not understand, the simple solution is this: Throw relevant incremental reading material at it. Decode the material into flashcards, and retain with Supermemo. If you still find some gaps in your knowledge, simply throw more incremental reading material into Supermemo.

A policy of many institutions is to simply "throw money at" potential problems (Illegal drug trade, problems in the education system, etc.). In that same way (But with greater success than institutions), when you encounter ignorance with yourself, simply throw incremental reading material at Supermemo, and over time the ignorance will go away.

This philosophy of progressive and never-ending learning is very appealing to self-learners because it makes knowledge gaps less intimidating. Too often people are embarrassed to admit to a gap in their knowledge, so rather than try to bridge the gap, they simply don't acknowledge or do anything about it. I think this reaction can be partly attributed to the anticipation of the critical "You mean you didn't know that!?" sort-of response that I frequently hear from others. I hate it when I hear others criticize unintentional ignorance. Willful ignorance is another story, but if someone doesn't understand something, rather than focus on the gap, I prefer to take action in order to fill the gap.

So if you are ignorant about a subject, your response should not be "I don't know about that." Rather, it should be "I don't know about that YET."
With sources such as Wisegeek and HowStuffworks, ignorance is exciting to encounter. Why? Because that means you are about to become less ignorant. The process of becoming less ignorant is one of the best feelings in the world.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

On Motivation and Behavior Modification

Before reading this post, please read following two articles:
What is Operant Conditioning?
What is a Skinner Box?

The Skinner Box is evidence that our behavior can be modified by using response-reward systems. Concepts embodied in the Skinner box have been used to make slot machines addictive. Skinner Box concepts have also been used to make certain video games more addictive, particularly Massively Multiplayer Online RPGs (MMORPGs). This article explains how Everquest contains elements of Skinner Boxes (Everquest is a popular MMORPG released before World of Warcraft, the present MMORPG juggernaut).

As the article says, Everquest creates a network of Skinner Boxes, each tailored to the needs and goals of the player. Under normal circumstances, nobody would want to accomplish the time-consuming and repetitive goals the game requires. But once the implemented psychological tricks take hold of the player, hours can be spent (Or wasted, depending on your view) on the game.

Why is this relevant? Because by using a cleverly constructed game, we can see that boring activities can be made pseudo-exciting. At their base, these games seem to contain algorithms for motivation. If such a system could be harnessed for beneficial and productive activities (Those we need extra motivation for), it could (In theory) make us better people.

My overall intellectual well-being has basically been outsourced to Supermemo, and this provides a great deal of relief and comfort. "If my memory can be outsourced to an algorithm, could other mental burdens also be outsourced to an algorithm?" I thought. Thus, quite some time ago, work began on a "point system" for my life.

For the last couple of years, I have struggled on-and-off to create such a point system. Ultimately these experiments failed after a week or so of use due to the sheer impracticality of maintaining the system, as well as the unpredictability of life itself. I still believe that a workable point system exists, I just believe that my attempts were poor and inadequate. Interestingly, the comedian Demetri Martin has tried to construct a point system for his own life (Albeit it seems slightly different than the ones I've been making). You can read about his point system in this interview. The point system is discussed in the third paragraph.

My final conclusion was that the workable solution to this problem was basically an RPG to-do list. Instead of doing meaningless tasks within the game, this RPG would require that you do real-life tasks. Each time you completed a real-life task, you received some sort of in-game reward. Since an RPG to-do list did not exist, I began to work on creating one for myself. I began to write my ideas down in a notebook. The notebook went on to cover various design layouts, EXP and level progression, and many other aspects of how such an RPG would likely work. (I have played a bit of Persona 3, and this was the overall style I was trying to capture).

I downloaded the iPhone SDK late one night and went to sleep. The next morning I found the following Youtube video making the rounds of my frequently visited web sites:

How happy I was to realize that another company had already gone through the work of making such an application! Unfortunately, I will probably never see the to-do list RPG that I had seen in my head, but this will have to do for now.

Less than a week ago EpicWin was released, and I've been experimenting with it. While there are a number of obvious improvements that will be fixed very soon (They are waiting on Apple approval for their latest patch), the basic functionality is there, and I am very satisfied with it.

After choosing your avatar and name, you can create tasks, or "quests" as they are referred to in EpicWin. There are six different levels of importance you can assign to each "quest." The higher the priority, the more XP you gain, and the more progress you make on your "overworld map."

The rewards you get for accomplishing "quests" come in two forms: 1.) Leveling up your character and 2.) Loot (Items). The current maximum level is 20, therefore you will not level up as frequently as you will find loot. None of the loot you collect can be equipped by your character, which is mildly disappointing; but I suppose since there is no real game to speak of (You don't actually fight monsters), it's not that big of a deal. This feature might be added in the future, I would imagine.

Thus, while certain features will be added and certain tweaks need to be made with EpicWin, (More excitingly) the application itself is a basic but customizable Skinner Box. Within the last week of use I can already tell that it will be a useful motivator to help me in doing things I usually don't want to do.

For example, I am content with eating the same foods day after day, but I am also aware that trying new things is a good habit (I'm just not very good at it). Today, when purchasing a drink for lunch, instead of buying a flavor that I knew I would like, I thought to myself, "I don't want to drink something different, but if I'll get points for it, I will." I then put my predictable choice back and chose a flavor that I had never tried before. After doing this I entered "Try something new - drink" in EpicWin and received points for doing it. Another example: I don't like to dance. When a few friends invited me to some free Salsa lessons, my gut reaction was initially "absolutely not." Then I thought to myself "How many points would I get if I did go?" I then decided to get a big point payout by doing something that was really out of my comfort zone. I went dancing, made a few new friends and had a fantastic time.

In both examples (There are more), this shallow but consistent system of points motivated me to do things I did not want to do. And because the results in real life were very positive (I enjoyed dancing, I tried a new drink) and the results within the game were positive (I scored points and won a hat!), I can see myself using this program for quite some time. In the long-term, I hope to use EpicWin to establish good habits. Here is how I think it will happen over time:

1. Use EpicWin to do action x (Something I don't want to do).
2. Keep repeating action x because I'm getting points for it.
3. After some time (21 days? 30 days?), action x becomes a habit, and I no longer need EpicWin to keep doing it.
4. Repeat with action y

So (For me) EpicWin is basically the habit and motivation-creating algorithm I was hoping it would be. Maybe it will be useful to you also (Provided you have an iPod Touch or iPhone; If you plan on purchasing an iPod Touch, wait for a few weeks and a new one will likely be released by Apple.)

To conclude, here is an excerpt from a presentation about video game design and how Skinner-box-like psychological tricks are becoming part of our everyday life. Certain aspects of this theoretical implementation are quite interesting, while others are quite scary. Here is the presentation in its entirety. The entire presentation is worth watching. (Warning: The presenter uses some profanity). Also, this is EpicWin's official site.

In regards to the frequency of posting (Or lack thereof): Just because I can post a lot of stuff doesn't mean that I should do so. Rather than post a great deal of mediocre information, I would rather infrequently post interesting information. If I don't have anything interesting to post, I will simply not post anything. I don't want a blog filled with "Sorry I haven't posted anything recently, here's a funny picture of a cat" posts.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Tragedy Of The Shallow Mind

I recently read a very interesting book called "The Shallows." The book's message is about the various unforeseen cognitive downsides to the (over) use and (over) reliance on the internet. Downsides mainly have to do with an inability to concentrate, reflect and synthesize thoughts and information and a constant push towards a constantly distracted state of mind. If you have the free time, I encourage you to read it.

(A number of the thoughts presented in the book will form the basis for a few posts)

There was a very informative section on memory (I did not expect memory to be discussed in so much detail). I learned that as a short-term memory becomes a long-term memory, the number of synaptic connections grows by more than 100%. Therefore, each time you review and recall something you have already learned, it is as if you "relearn" the information, and you form newer connections with other (Previously not yet "connected") pieces of knowledge (Such knowledge becomes more "sticky"). Each time we learn something new or recall learned information, we are (slightly) modifying our brains to make it easier to learn more ideas and skills in the future.

As our "memory storehouse" becomes larger and larger, we are able to form more and more connections. This allows us to do something that the human brain is VERY good at: finding patterns. These patterns only will emerge from the deep and thoughtful consideration of a subject, not the shallow analysis that comes from a few superficial "bites" of knowledge that are glanced at and quickly forgotten (The internet encourages such actions).

That is why the overuse of the internet (And the flawed view of intelligence and study advocated by society) poses such a big problem for the intelligence of the masses. In the minds of most, memorizing things is a waste of time, perhaps being useful in memory contests or when trying to impress people at a party. "Why bother remembering information if I can access it in just a few clicks?" "Why should I read this long narrative and follow the line of logic and reasoning if I can simply get the bullet pointed summary on website xyz?" "Why remember if the internet will remember for me?"

But when we remember, and our brain makes connections with other things, this not only serves as an index for memory access, but this shapes the mind, our very consciousness. Connecting IS thinking. Connecting IS the self. If we stop connecting, in a way, we stop thinking.

Outsourcing certain jobs to technology has been a great help to the human race. But once we begin to outsource our memories to the machine, we risk losing part of what makes us human. As people become less and less able to think deeply and concentrate on a subject, they become satisfied with more shallow and superficial knowledge, which causes their intelligence becomes more and more artificial, like the very machines they use.

This helped me to realize that even though it can be said that Supermemo is only a tool to memorize (what one could argue as being 'seemingly static') information, provided one puts meaningful information into Supermemo, the cognitive benefits are far more than simply committing said information to memory.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Knowledge Formulation

I got a comment recently asking about how I formulate items. Currently I have 41,600 or so items (I add about 50 and delete maybe 1-3 a day due to bad formulation, the info is not valuable, duplicate item, etc.). I realized that constantly posting how many items I currently have is a waste of space and comes across as being overly conceited and arrogant. Not quite as annoying as the loud guy wearing a bluetooth ear piece (Especially when he wears it all day, even when not on the phone), but I don't want to do anything that reminds me of such a person.

Formulating knowledge is a skill that one constantly improves on. Every month or so I reread the "20 commandments" on formulating knowledge, a must-read for anybody serious about making long-term flashcards. There always seems to be some aspect of flashcard formulation that I can improve in. Efficient wording, learning sets of information, so much room for improvement.

The main thing that I try to keep in mind when formulating items is this: "Keep it as short and as context-independent as possible."

With the precision of a military sniper, hit only what is necessary to make you recall what you want, then leave. For example, let's say I read this article about Robert Oppenheimer. Let's take the last paragraph and make flashcards out of it:

After the war, Oppenheimer chaired the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. He opposed developing an even more powerful hydrogen bomb. When President Truman finally approved it, Oppenheimer did not argue, but his initial reluctance and the political climate turned against him. In 1953, at the height of U.S. anticommunist feeling, Oppenheimer was accused of having communist sympathies, and his security clearance was taken away. He had, in fact, had friends who were communists, mostly people involved in the antifascist movement of the thirties. This loss of security clearance ended Oppenheimer's influence on science policy. He held the academic post of director of the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton, and in the last years of his life, he thought and wrote much about the problems of intellectual ethics and morality. He died of throat cancer in 1967.

"Science is not everything, but science is very beautiful."

Interest dictates how thoroughly the article is dissected and ultimately how many articles are made. You have to determine how valuable this knowledge is. Once you get the hang of placing a value on any knowledge that you encounter, using Supermemo is a whole lot easier.

Let's imagine that I want to know as much as possible about Robert Oppenheimer, so I read this article and thoroughly analyze it, and make flashcards of the interesting information.

Rather than repeat what the 20 Rules are, maybe it would be a good idea to read it, and then look at the examples below to see how the rules apply.

After WWII, Oppenheimer chaired what US Commission? The US Atomic Energy Commission.

How did Oppenheimer feel about the hydrogen bomb? He opposed the development of it.

What did the government accuse Oppenheimer of? Being a communist.

In what year was Oppenheimer accused of having communist sympathies? 1953.

Did Oppenheimer have communist friends? Yes. How were his friends involved with communism? They were involved in the antifascist movement of the thirties.

What caused Oppenheimer to lose his influence on science policy? The loss of security clearance.

What was the cause of Oppenheimer's death? Throat cancer.

In what year did Oppenheimer die? 1967.

Oppenheimer quote: "Science is not [...], but science is very beautiful." (Answer: Everything)

Oppenheimer quote: "Science is not everything, but science is v[...]." (Answer: ery beautiful)

In regards to his final years and writings, if I were really interested in learning about Oppenheimer's life, I would find more articles about those subjects, and incrementally read those instead of adding the seemingly vague information contained in this article (At least it seems kind of vague to me, not specific enough to merit their own flashcards).

Certain things require more context (Science, historical battles, events in religious texts, and so on), but experimentation eventually shows you how to word flashcards so that they adhere to the 20 rules of formulating knowledge. For example, "In [battle abc], [character x] was killed by [character y] for [reason z]." (Each [bracketed item] becomes a separate cloze deletion flashcard.) "In battle abc, character y killed character x by [method a]."

You are basically isolating what makes the knowledge significant and snipe at those pieces of important information. It might seem like you are making too many flashcards, but because the knowledge is easier to recall, recalling and maintaining such knowledge becomes quite easy. Also, by dissecting knowledge in this manner, by the time you are finished making the flashcards, you will understand and grasp the information much better than you did before.

Hopefully this answers your question/comment :)

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Response - Knowledge, Society And The Universe

Thank you for the interesting comments, I seldom meet others that wish to have a deep discussion on this subject.

"In the past information just to be the most valuable treasures. People would kill, literally, for some new information. Philosopher Locke was educated on this culture, but he change the way commonplace book where written, for him the most important part of taking notes about any thing interesting was the possibility of retrieving them."
Indeed, in the past, information and knowledge were most sought after by man due to the sheer scarcity of its existence. Today, knowledge of every type is abundant, but when something is abundant, it is easy to take such things for granted. Today, knowledge seems to be more valued at how entertaining it is.

"I find that people like your self are the type, that believe that information should be free. But then starts a philosophical dilemma, up to what point should we share our knowledge?, or what kind of knowledge should we freely share?"
Absolutely, I believe that certain knowledge should be free. Nobody can copyright reality or claim it as their own. If knowledge is simply uncovering the truth about our existence, this present reality, nobody should be able to claim it as their own. Reality is reality, it is not mine nor yours. Therefore, under ideal circumstances, knowledge should be free. But knowledge can be used for good purposes and bad purposes. What if someone would use such knowledge to kill millions of people? "He should not have access to knowledge, then." But we cannot read someone's mind and know their intent. Much like cutting the top of a weed but leaving the root, left to our present methods, man will only be able to tinker with the symptoms of the evils that plague us (By building prisons, amending laws, etc.).

In addition, humans possessing any great deal of power (Political, financial, etc.) are prone to abusing it. In my opinion, the system man has built up is too flawed and beyond hope of reform. Add to this religions that are designed to exploit this system of rule and the people within it, and you have a very combustible combination simply waiting for the spark to ignite it. Regardless of the bright forecast that others (Such as politicians) might present for the future, I fear that unless some sort of drastic action is taken soon, the total collapse of society is imminent. I only hope that after the smoke clears away, there are still people standing.

I am not some sort of paranoid anti-government tin-foil man, but no matter how I think about the various problems, I cannot see a happy ending within easy grasp. A while ago in a book I found an interesting quote by Henry Kissinger, and I put it in Supermemo: "Every civilization that has ever existed has ultimately collapsed. History is a tale of efforts that failed, or aspirations that weren't realized... So, as a historian, one has to live with a sense of the inevitability of tragedy." I feel the same way.

"I hope it doesn't sound greedy, you know I like sharing my related experiences, but are constant questions on my mind."
I love sharing experiences also. The goal of this blog is to prevent others from repeating the same mistakes I made when using Supermemo.

"More and more, I think certifications should come with expiration dates."
That is an interesting observation, I never thought of it that way.

"I don't like using many of PW references because he is just to different then most people, he seems to be learning for learning per-se, without some obvious purpose..."
Yeah, I kind of get that same impression.

"Ahh, I welcome singulary, one were singularians have emotions, but were this emotions don't rule over rationality anymore."
The more I learn about science, the more I get the impression that the universe is made up of a set of very elegant and simple principles and patterns that are implemented beyond our comprehension. The more you magnify the small things or look further away at the big things, they all follow the same patterns and resemble one another, like an endless series of boxes within boxes. I will never learn all there is to know, but I will have a lot of fun finding out as much as I can about the universe.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Response - Remembering before Learning, What Constitutes Studying and What Makes You Happy?

This was written in response to a comment in the previous entry; it started to get long, so I figured "Why not make give it a home?"


Learn Meaningful Things Before You Remember
Supermemo is only as useful as the knowledge you put into it. If something is put into Supermemo, it should somehow be useful to your existence. If you fill Supermemo with things that are irrelevant to you, then a great deal of satisfaction will go away.

In the past, I have created a number of "test collections," filling them with a considerable amount of flashcards. Usually they are made up of big collections of Chinese and Spanish vocabulary words, science charts, etc. I had no prior encounter with the knowledge in these flashcards, I saw them for the first time in Supermemo. Also, I didn't really care about the knowledge itself. This was simply an experiment, "something to do."

Generally I found these collections to be frustrating and easy to forget. In time those collections were either abandoned altogether or "absorbed" after a great deal of time (and struggle, for I got them wrong many times).
I learned first hand that if I didn't spend time learning what I was trying to remember, Supermemo is a waste of time. Something must be learned first, then remembered later.

Which Wastes More Time?
As far as how much time is required to use Supermemo, compared to traditional systems of learning, Supermemo saves a great deal of time. This is because a majority of traditional learning entails cramming until a test, then forgetting the material after the test. Many hours and a great deal of stress is spent, with nothing to show for it but a receipt (In the form of some certificate, diploma, report card, etc.) that proves to the world you can spend many hours cramming and passing a test. It has proved to be a very inefficient system for most cases.

Rather than being a tool for short-term cramming, Supermemo works to ensure the long-term stability of your memories. The more one "outsources" their studying and remembering to Supermemo, Supermemo becomes more and more of a way of life. When you are making flashcards, or rewording and refining flashcards, THIS CONSTITUTES STUDYING; the very act of adding and refining flashcards MEANS that you are learning new things. This doesn't mean that you are wasting time, it means you are making progress.

For right now we have no choice but to deal with the constraints placed upon us by a flawed educational system. Still, Supermemo can help to soften the blow dealt by such a system. Much like trying to eat a three-course dinner in a brief span of time, schools expect one to process a great deal of material in a short amount of time. Because schools are obsessed with only the short-term results, long-term retention isn't viewed as the gigantic loss that it truly is.
If the amount of material is too great, one possibility is that you could cram the traditional way and and process the information in Supermemo after the test is over. Not an ideal solution, but we're not working in ideal circumstances.

Usefulness of Knowledge
In regards to the usefulness of knowledge, it is very true that knowledge itself carries no value until it is acted upon. The APPLICATION of knowledge should be the eventual goal of acquiring knowledge.

Rather than try to articulate this point, I would feel better pointing you to an article on the Supermemo site: ""

One of the main points is that 'Skills require learning, which requires knowledge. Learning does not have to be a process that simply occurs as time goes on, but technology can make learning into more of a controlled and conscious process.'

In regards to valuing knowledge when encountered in incremental reading, it is not necessary to determine the absolute value of information on first contact. You merely have to highlight and extract information that MIGHT be valuable. The real value will be determined as you review the information over the coming days and weeks. If deadlines or your circumstances require that you immediately go from reading to making flashcards (Therefore determining the value of information right away), that is certainly an option, but by no means a requirement.

Your comment also smacks upon a very core principle (Which I don't think I've posted on here): "What makes you happy?" While I very much enjoy learning, what matters most to me is connecting with other people. Absolute knowledge and principles are not subject to change and are predictable by nature, but PEOPLE possess such a wide spectrum of emotion and can express themselves in an infinite number of UNPREDICTABLE ways. The simple act of conversation, the exchange of ideas, the unique perspective, the humor, everything that ensues can be such a delightful and stimulating experience! While I enjoy learning new ideas, I enjoy discussing those ideas with others (Possibly more than the act of learning itself).

What information do I incrementally process? I work part time so I can pursue my own interests, so it is not necessary to incrementally read for my job; most of the learning I do is because of my own curiosity and interests. I enjoy understanding how things work. Even though certain pieces of knowledge are not very applicable in the real world (For example, understanding how owls are able to hear and determine where sounds are coming from), this brings order to the unknown, and this act brings a certain satisfaction and happiness.

But I must confess, the most valuable and enlightening information I have incrementally processed would have to be my ongoing study of the various works of philosophy, religion and science.
It is my goal to hear any meaningful attempt to answer the basic questions of life and purpose. I might not like some of the answers I find, I might not even agree with them, but the least I can do is understand that different perspective and make an informed decision about whether any theory, way of life, etc. is good or not.
It is my personal belief that the true meaning of life should not be determined by pandering to emotion, petty fear-mongering, pious self-righteousness/arrogance, etc., but rather it should be firmly rooted in knowledge and rationality. If there is a tao (道 - "Road," or "Way") of knowledge, rationality and wisdom, that's where I want to be.

Monday, April 5, 2010

How to Incrementally Read Anything

When I first started using Supermemo, it appeared that Incremental Reading was a valuable feature, but I never really used it.

Once I began experimenting with Incremental Reading (Successfully) and adopting the Incremental Reading mindset when I look at learning material, I am now fully convinced of its superiority for nearly all of my intellectual needs. It is light years ahead of its time, and like the core concepts that power Supermemo, eventually it will likely be utilized on almost every level of the educational system (However many years that takes). Until such a time comes, we can rely on the quirky program Supermemo to accomplish this task in a basic way. (I have my own vision of 'the perfect implementation of Superemo,' but I'll save that for some other time)

The only problem is that Incremental Reading in Supermemo works only with a pure electronic text that can be highlighted, copied and pasted. What if you have a pdf file, a physical book, magazine, etc.?

I have recently adopted a crude but (At least for me) workable solution for using the incremental reading mentality to process non-electronic books (Real books), pdfs, magazines, etc.

Simply create a new topic and use it as a bookmark for whatever you are reading.

For example: If I am reading a new Popular Science magazine (That I cannot yet get a digital copy of), I create a new topic within Supermemo and I title it: "Popular Science - April issue". I take the actual magazine and read it until I get bored, have to do something else, etc. If I find an interesting passage, I transcribe the sentence or paragraph into that topic and create an extract of that passage. When I stop reading I make a note of that in the topic; for example, If I stop on page 28 on the third paragraph, I change the topic to say "Popular Science - April issue; Resume on page 28, paragraph 3."

I then place the magazine in a box next to my computer labeled "Incremental Reading." When I see the topic "Popular Science - April issue," I resume reading. Create extracts only of interesting material, read until I stop, change the topic bookmark to reflect my progress, place in Incremental Reading box. Repeat until the magazine has been read.

I realize the proposed solution would not be ideal for all situations, but considering the limitations of the current technology, it will have to do. Also, your reading material (and a highlighter) can travel with you, and you can "save your progress" when you get back to your Supermemo pile.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

From the Internet to Supermemo

I have an iPod Touch, and I've ended up using it a GREAT deal more than I ever thought I would.

Two unexpected uses of my iPod have been:
1. Free, very comprehensive foreign language dictionaries (Which can be quite expensive) and
2. Instapaper. Instapaper is a program that takes articles you find on the internet and sends them to your iPod or iPhone as text (With maybe a couple of pictures). Because an iPod lacks a constant internet connection, this is a great way to read interesting material found on the internet when on-the-go. Since I've begun using it, Instapaper has become my preferred means of reading internet articles.

But what if I find something that I want to remember? How does this application relate to Supermemo? The answer is the useful screenshot function in the iPod and iPhone. To take a picture of your iPod's screen, press the Home button and the power button at the same time. You will see a flash and hear a camera shutter sound. Whatever was being displayed on the screen is now a picture, and those pictures can be accessed using the "Photos" app.

So here is how knowledge "flows" from the internet into Supermemo:
1. Find interesting article
2. Send to Instapaper
3. While reading on my iPod, take a picture of an interesting passage, statement, etc.
4. Periodically go through my photos and enter the valuable information into Supermemo

Thus, even when you're out and have a few minutes of free time, you can do some learning which will ultimately go in Supermemo (Just make sure you don't use it while watching a sunset, talking to a loved one, or during any other inappropriate occasion). The reason I post this now is because: 1. I'm a huge fan of Instapaper, and 2. Instapaper is going to be a launch application for the new iPad. Such an application could help rationalize an iPad purchase as an "educational expense" if I tried hard enough to convince myself.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Flashcard Zen? (My Morning Routine)

Because Supermemo (As well as other Spaced Repetition programs) requires that you review a piece of information a minimal number of times, the number of items you must review on a daily basis goes down quite quickly.

For the past couple of years, I have probably reviewed only 200-350 items per day. Thanks to being able to use a Nintendo Wii Remote with my computer, I can now review items almost as quickly as I can recall them; very little time is spent actually pressing buttons (Mainly the A and B buttons on the Wii Remote).

After a bit of reluctance, I have started increasing the number of items I add on a daily basis. As a result, the average number of items has jumped to around 500-650 per day. But strangely, the amount of time I spend on them is around 1 to 1.5 hours; this increased workload has not changed my morning routine much at all (Wake up, do Supermemo, jog, eat breakfast, leave). In fact, rather than feeling more stressed ("Oh no! I have 600 items today!"), I feel more refreshed and excited in general.

(Update on remembering Chinese words: It is indeed working, and I am able to remember words very quickly, although not as quickly as I did Japanese words; before they are "locked" in my memory, I usually get the tones wrong a couple of times.)

Tuesday, March 16, 2010


Sorry this post took so long. I wanted to make sure that this method worked (It does) before posting. To test this, I put Chinese vocabulary words into Supermemo. Usually it takes a week or two for new information to be truly "remembered" with Supermemo, as you need to review them two or three times (Successfully) before you can say to yourself "OK, I know this word now."

KanjiTown was a mnemonic system that made Japanese vocabulary acquisition a piece of cake. When I began to study Chinese, I thought "A slightly modified version of this would have to work just as effectively for Chinese, right?"

The goal was simple:
1. Group together Chinese characters based on their pronunciation
2. Somehow link all of those characters together
3. Learn vocabulary at an absurd rate (Just like Japanese)

For the past year I have struggled to complete step two in this process. I attempted many different ways of linking the characters together, but none of them worked as well as KanjiTown did. I now realize that the main error was this: I tried to remember both the pronunciation and tone of a character with the same story at the same time. This resulted in too much mental clutter, too many images moving around in the mind. Rather than try to remember both the pronunciation and tone, I should simply focus on the pronunciation first. Should I want to design a system for remembering the tones of characters, that can be done later.

But honestly, I don't think there will be a need for a tone mnemonic system. Why? Japanese does not have a tone system, but stress is placed on certain syllables, and not on others (For example, you do not say "konNIchiwa," it is "KONnichiwa"); when I was studying Japanese, never was it necessary to create a mnemonic system to remember them, as proper placement of emphasis came naturally with time and exposure to the language through downloaded TV shows, radio, etc. Although Chinese tones do not sound as natural as sense stress does in English or Japanese, I have a feeling I will learn them like I learned Japanese sense stress.

When you have a hammer, sometimes everything seems like a nail. In this case, I was mnemonically trigger-happy, and was trying to use mnemonics to do a job they weren't cut out to do.

Now that I've learned my lesson, here is my present method for Chinese character memorization:

Once you have grouped the Chinese characters together, the next step is to assign a specific INDIVIDUAL to each group. This individual could be a real person or a fictitious character. After you have assigned an individual to one group, each character in the group somehow becomes an attribute of that individual.

Let's take an example: JIA. JIA sounds a lot like JACK, so let's assign Jack Nickelson to the JIA group. After we find a list of characters all pronounced JIA, we somehow link them to Jack Nickelson. For example, the character for "armor" is pronounced "Jia," so imagine Jack Nickelson in knight's armor. He will wear the armor for the whole duration of the story (Like the Japanese KanjiTown, these stories should somehow connect with one another when possible to ensure memory stability). JIA can also mean "to support, frame, rack." So imagine our knight Jack Nickelson trying to stabilize someone on a big ladder, so that they don't fall, perhaps fighting off a dragon at the same time (He is wearing the armor, after all).
Also, it is good for each story to have a primary objective that the character works towards. Rescuing a girl, climbing a mountain, fighting a dragon, etc.

(This is merely an example, I am not actually using the above story.)

So where KanjiTown focused on location, "ChinaTown" focuses on people. I imagine it would be preferred that the people used for "ChinaTown" be those that have not appeared in KanjiTown (I'm assuming this would not work; I could be wrong, but I don't want to test this for fear that it could disrupt my memory).

I have assigned a few individuals to a few groups of characters, and I can recall words that include those characters with great speed compared to my previous attempts at retaining Chinese vocabulary. Now that I know the process, it's simply a matter of time before Chinese is conquered, one little group at a time!

("Jack Nickelson" is a song by "Bloodthirsty Butchers," a Japanese band. I enjoy their music.)

Edit: I changed the posting date to reflect the fact that I finished the post recently. I started the post about a month ago.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010


Japanese characters can usually be read in at least two ways. There is the "ON" reading of the character and the "KUN" reading of a character. Many different characters share the same ON reading, but very few share the same KUN reading. Therefore you can easily group together characters based on their ON reading, but not based on the KUN reading.

The only problem is that many characters with the same ON reading have very little to do with one another. They bear no resemblance strong enough that they could easily be grouped together and remembered. This is what KanjiTown is for.

Basically, KanjiTown is a catchy way to say "Group characters based on ON reading, then think of a unique location to correspond with each group." Locations can be real (Your high-school math room) or imagined (A dungeon in The Legend of Zelda). Recently I googled KanjiTown to find someone that took the same method but instead of using locations used different MOVIES for different kanji groups. What a good idea! If you are a gamer, I imagine you could have different GAMES correspond to different kanji groups. Or if you are a literature nut, different BOOKS could be used for the different groups.

I found that using this method of grouping kanji was my other "secret weapon" for Japanese fluency (Supermemo being the first one). When I saw a kanji, the ON reading seemed to "jump" out in my mind. Not only did I recall the reading and meaning quickly, but reading Japanese felt like reading quotes from my favorite movies and TV shows ("Oh, I remember when such-and-such character did such-and-such-action, that was awesome!). Also when I hear a word I don't know, it is surprisingly easy to correctly guess what the word is based on the hints provided by the pronunciation. The more you do this, the better you get at guessing.

Because of Supermemo and KanjiTown, Japanese no longer requires a significant amount of time to study (Aside from review in Supermemo). I spend a minimal amount of time every week finding Japanese words I don't know and putting them into Supermemo (I'm trying to learn slang words, internet terms ("2828" is ツンデレ, for example) and onomatopoeic words to spice things up). Nearly all of the terms are learned and retained with very little effort (Thanks Supermemo!). If learning Japanese is an MMORPG, now I am in the "endgame" phase now.

Please don't get the impression that I'm bragging. This is simply the result of the methodical application of useful tools. I am convinced that if others used the same tools (With effort, of course), the same result could be achieved.

The reason I post this is because I've struggled to put together a similarly useful system for recalling the pronunciation of Chinese characters. Based on how well the Japanese system has worked, I knew that a Chinese system was possible, but I wasn't sure how to do it. To make a long story short, I recently "cracked" the mnemonic "code" to make such a system work for Chinese, but before I went "gung-ho" into remembering Chinese I wanted to do a thorough check to make sure all of the Japanese kanji were properly "archived" in Supermemo (Both the meaning and the pronunciation of the character). Before I started another big project I wanted to make sure the first one was done.

Tonight I finally finished this project, and I can say with confidence that all of the kanji I studied are in the hands of Supermemo, never to be forgotten (Or at least 90% of them).

Next post: How to beat the crap out of Chinese vocabulary acquisition.

(Just to clarify, KanjiTown is purely for vocabulary purposes. Grammar is a separate beast. )

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Supermemo History

Before I decided to use Supermemo as my primary flashcard system, I created many paper flashcards. As the number of paper flashcards increased, so did my struggle with them. Managing hundreds of cards began to feel overwhelming. Many words were forgotten. Hopelessness started to set in; next came anger, which led to the discarding of flashcards and dismissal of their relevance. "I'm better off without them," I thought to myself, only to realize that my language skills had become even more dismal. Indeed it was a very discouraging cycle. Now that Supermemo handles the scheduling, this is no longer a problem.

Recently I began to wonder, "What were the older versions of Supermemo like? Are the newer versions really better than the older ones?" Some web sites (Scroll to the bottom) mention that Supermemo has changed in how it calculates future repetitions (Relying on E-Factors, Optimization Matrices, and other complicated-sounding words). Some claim that the change was for the better, some say that it needlessly complicates things.

On the Supermemo web site, there is a history of the algorithms used for the various versions of Supermemo. One has even been adapted for paper flashcards. Both to satisfy curiosity and to (hopefully) more fully understand how Supermemo works, I am going to be involved in an ongoing experiment: I will use paper flashcards to learn completely new information (Greek, Arabic, Hebrew and Korean characters), using older Supermemo algorithms to calculate the next review date.

I plan on learning about each iteration of the Supermemo algorithm and how it calculates the next review date. Once I think I fully understand how one version of Supermemo works, I will make a post about it.

Right now I am using the paper version of Supermemo. After the fifth repetition using paper flashcards, I will put the information into my main Supermemo database.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

My Story - Chapter 3 "A Lifestyle of Learning"

So Supermemo seems to help one to learn anything. This was very exciting to realize. Learning no longer had to be a hit-and-miss process; it could be broken down into a very simple and finite set of steps. Regardless of my intelligence, potentially any subject could be broken down and retained forever. How exciting!

(Slight topic change)
Among many, tangible progress seems to be one very compelling reason to play a video game. Progress (Even if it is an illusion) creates motivation, which creates a pattern of action. This can be unhealthy for those that spend hour after hour consumed in a world of fantasy (And often filled with sadistic violence), further isolating and distancing oneself from reality. Everything in moderation, but games (And entertainment in general) seem to encourage and reward a lack of moderation. There are other sources of time drainers, but I am particularly vulnerable to this one (Hence why I bring it up).

Learning things did not bring the same tangible progress as playing a game did (Or almost any other form of media). Some subjects can be difficult to learn and learned information can easily be forgotten. I think that for the above two reasons I remained fairly unenthusiastic about learning as a hobby (Autodidacticism), and spent most of my time enjoying the general pursuit of entertainment (Games, light reading, artistic things with no real purpose, etc.). When I began to realize the potential usefulness of Supermemo, I began to see learning as more of a tangible thing. If I was ignorant about a certain subject or topic, after I put a sufficient amount of information into Supermemo, I became less ignorant than before; but more than this, whatever progress I made would never be lost (As long as I used Supermemo regularly). Intellectual progress was now almost as tangible a thing as collecting coins in Super Mario Bros. or eating dots in Pac-Man.

Since I have made this connection, my goal has become the following: "Learn as much as possible from as many different sources as possible."
I am trying to devote most of my free time to learning various subjects. But there are many things that drain my free time, things and activities that aren't really contributing to my happiness or goal of learning lots of stuff. Therefore recently I've been trying to simplify my life, and the "minimalism movement" I've found online has provided some inspiration in that regard. If you google "Unclutter" or "Minimalist living" you'll find some blogs and articles pertaining to the subject.

At present I am at this stage: Trying to adopt a minimalist lifestyle and get rid of things I don't need. Once I have fully achieved this, I will be very happy with myself.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Incremental Reading and Meditation

As I was responding to a comment about Incremental Reading, the comment became very long. So I thought "Let's make it into another post!" Here it is:

One of the major features of Supermemo is called "Incremental Reading."

The purpose of incremental reading is to process reading material and turn its contents eventually into easily digestible flashcards. You start with a few pages of text, and similar to highlighting a physical book, you highlight and "extract" (Alt + X) relevant information, creating smaller and smaller chunks of text. This works best with digital text, but the same can be done by highlighting text in a physical book and manually inputting relevant information into Supermemo.

For example, let's say you want to incrementally read the article "White's Tree Frog" from Wikipedia.

Here is one paragraph from that article:

"The Green Tree Frog is larger than most Australian frogs, reaching 10 centimetres (4 inches) in length. The average lifespan of the frog in captivity, about sixteen years, is long in comparison with most frogs. Green Tree Frogs are docile and well suited to living near human dwellings. They are often found on windows or inside houses, eating insects drawn by the light."

This is far too big for one single flashcard, so we would highlight and "extract" pieces of this text so that we have smaller, more manageable chunks. Here are a few examples:

"The Green Tree Frog reaches 10 cm (4 inches) in length."
"The Green Tree Frog has an average lifespan of 16 years in captivity."
"The Green Tree Frog is often found on windows or inside houses because they eat insects drawn by the light."

Notice that the wording has to be changed slightly so that each chunk stands on its own without the other sentences. Replacing "they" with "Green Tree Frog," etc.

These three facts are now separate text chunks that would now be floating around in Supermemo. Eventually, we want to make flashcards out of these pieces of text; we don't want to simply read these three phrases passively over and over. So if we made them into flashcards, they might look like this:

"The Green Tree Frog is how many cm in length? 10cm (4 inches)"
"The Green Tree Frog has an average lifespan of how many years when in captivity? 16."
"The Green Tree Frog is often found on windows or inside houses. Why? They eat insects drawn by the light."

So with Incremental Reading, we are eating a big piece of text, digesting it, and extracting the nutritious useful bits of knowledge (Which will be retained forever, assuming that you are using an SRS program). One big benefit in doing this is that once a book or text has has been processed in this way, there is usually no need to read the book again. Useful concepts and knowledge contained in the book are now in your head; the book's job is done. It is like accomplishing a quest in an MMORPG. (Definition from WowWiki: "A quest is a task given to a player character that yields a reward when completed.") You completed the task, you have the reward of retained knowledge. Once you've done this, it's time to go on another quest and learn something else.

From what I read, "Swiss-cheesing" seems to be randomly looking at different passages within a text. While such a method no doubt is fun and satisfying, the purpose seems to be different then that of Incremental Reading. Incremental Reading is supposed to allow you to process information, extract valuable knowledge, then move on to other information. If a book or article has been read through Incremental Reading, never again should it be necessary to re-read the entire book. You might find smaller details that you missed (Like an artist "touching up" a finished painting), but the bulk of the information has been retained.

I'm not trying to criticize the "swiss cheese" method, I just think that the two accomplish different things.

Incremental Reading is like a slow-moving steamroller. It might take time to go over something (A large book, demanding class, etc.), but once it has been successfully read and processed, you'll never have to thoroughly read it again.

One benefit I've noticed is that when I use Incremental Reading to learn and process material, even though I am doing this by myself, I feel as if I am conversing with the authors of the material. Simplifying the wording of extracts and trying to make them context-free forces you to "kick around" different concepts in your head until you understand those concepts well enough to represent them in an articulate and concise manner.

I think that (For me) this is the most enjoyable part of Incremental Reading: As various ideas are running through my mind, as I try to follow the logic set forth in the reading material, making sense of it becomes almost like a mental dance; information from the past becomes as alive as ever, and as I work with those ideas, the universe ends up making a bit more sense than it did before. It feels similar to when I am in deep concentration, drawing a picture. I am totally absorbed in seeking symmetry of thought; the 'self construct' fades from my consciousness and for that moment I feel as if in a meditative state, as if I'm "at one with the world." Nothing has ever felt so mentally engaging and satisfying.

Here is a simple Incremental Reading chart to help visualize it.
Here is the Incremental Reading entry on Wikipedia.
Here is the Incremental Reading section on the Supermemo web site. While I can't say that I understand every aspect of the claims made, I can't disprove it. I have a feeling I'll agree once I'm more skilled at using Incremental Reading.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

My Story - Chapter 02 "I Know Kung-Fu"

For nearly a year, Supermemo remained strictly a Japanese learning tool. From time to time I would insert non-Japanese material.

Then came an intense training course for my job. For two weeks I attended a class during the day, and studied for the next day of class during the evening. I went to sleep, woke up the next day, did Supermemo (Only required 15 minutes or so), and went to class. After the first day of class, I thought to myself "This information is very valuable, and I'm spending a great deal of time learning it; I should at least TRY to use Supermemo to remember this stuff." For the remainder of those two weeks, after attending class, I would look over my course book and type out any relevant information that was discussed in class into a text document. At the conclusion of the class, I had about 200 good, solid statements that would be beneficial to commit to memory.

Over the next several months, I put these things into Supermemo, and I recalled them with as much ease as I did Japanese vocabulary. If I had trouble recalling them, the reason was likely that I structured the flashcard in an incorrect way. While on the job, I was talking with someone that attended the same class. I asked, "Do you remember such-and-such point?" My co-worker said "No, was that in the class?" This same thing happened with a number of others that attended the class; clearly it wasn't a fluke. What was the reason? We all went to the same class, experienced the same things, took notes over the same things, yet I seemed to be one of the only ones that could recall them all with such clarity. Was it because I was smarter or more talented? No, I was much younger and I'm just as prone to forget things as anybody else. I concluded that it was only because of Supermemo that I could recall this information.

The true value of this tool began to dawn on me. Not only could it be used to recall foreign-language words with ease, but it seemed that I could implant ANY thought or concept into my head, and (In theory) such things would be FOREVER at my disposal. It was like being a character in a computer game, and being granted access to the programmer's code. I suddenly realized the GREAT deal of potential control I had over my rational thought processes.

"The rules of the game had officially changed."