My Life in One Sobering Graph

by Shawn Crawford

(The following is an excerpt from Crawford’s lecture at the Lausanne, Switzerland conference of The Society of Data Analysts Committed to Reducing Any Complexity to a Single Sobering Graph. Researchers will remember the group’s acrimonious split from the Social Scientists United for Reducing Any Cultural Crisis to a Single Meme. In a classic dispute among the “hard” and “soft” sciences, the two sides exchanged a dizzying array of pie charts and Willie Wonka images with devastating captions to no avail.)

. . . I want to thank Professor Owens once again for his electrifying lecture on determining the outcome of any baseball season by crunching the data from a ten-game sample, reducing the number of games played by 152. Like so much breakthrough research, this also produced an unintended benefit: the freeing up of nearly 10,000 extra hours on TBS for reruns of  The Big Bang Theory. I know we are all grateful.

I still remember Professor Owens bursting onto to the scene when his algorithm, pushing the Sunway TaihuLight supercomputer to its limits, proved conclusively that Dewey had indeed defeated Truman. While his subsequent modeling has produced dozens of legislative fixes for this mathematical reality, we know the current gridlock in Washington continues to thwart his efforts.

When Dr. Harry Lutz from DataTorrent approached me about joining him on the cutting edge of the Sober Graphing movement, I knew I couldn’t say no. While Thomas Piketty appeared to be rapidly consolidating the research space in Sober Graphing, I reckoned Dr. Lutz had a clear edge moving forward: his proprietary Sober Index, able to finally tackle such vexing questions as does the bar graph illustrating the concentration of wealth since World War II achieve Peak Soberness as it relates to income inequality? Using a baseline of soberness, the realization of just how worthless a degree in the humanities will be, Dr. Lutz built out his Soberness Index with enviable precision.

But would Sober Graphing prove as chimerical as Shocking Graphing and Surprising Graphing in offering real advances? The number of graphs required in these areas had also become problematic: if it’s going to take three scatters, a 2-D pie, and a funnel graph to shock me, perhaps we need to revisit the biases lurking in our data field.

Lutz and I became convinced the Sober Index could help us express the answer to any seemingly intractable question in one elegant, sobering graph. Furthermore, we posited the level of soberness, correctly calibrated to the industry or society addressed, could effect lasting and measurable change. But before we tackled broader issues, we decided to test our hypothesis on a basic level: could the essence of my existence be explained in One Sobering Graph, or OSG, now the recognized nomenclature? Read more »

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Down on Orchard Street

by Tamuira Reid

I met Arnie at a Cocaine Anonymous meeting the year before I got sober for the first time. I was high as fuck, eyes lit and hands fidgeting in my lap, then my jacket pockets, then my lap again. Maybe I thought being in a room full of non-high people would help even my scorecard with God. I had a lot of interesting thoughts back then, but I was usually smart enough to keep them to myself.

Arnie was wearing a neon orange trucker hat with the word “Grandma” scrawled above the brim in what looked like sharpie. His long, sixty-something body stretched out from beneath a threadbare track suit, and his sneakers were both untied. I remember being distracted by this, the laces calling my name, Tamuira, Tamuira! Come tie me! I would later learn, over our decade of friendship, that he was claustrophobic, and his feet needed so be able to “breathe better”.

And this was what I found most comforting about about Arnie; his weirdness, his eccentricities. He didn’t need drugs to take him into an altered state because he was already in one.

“Wanna get coffee?”

I rolled my eyes and lifted up my Styrofoam cup, thinking he was just another gross  old-timer in the program,  picking-up on a newbie.

“I have a sponsor already.”

“I’m not hitting on you, honey. I’m gay,” he said, grabbing a cookie off the table and breaking it in half. “Straight guys don’t do neon.”

“I’m not really sober right now,” I confided. Partly to get rid of him, partly to ease my guilty conscious.

“I can tell. Your jaw is like a goddamn meat grinder.” Read more »

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Security Risk

by Samia Altaf

In October of 2014, a bunch of young men and women did their university proud. A couple of engineers, two finance graduates, a biology major, some finishing accounting and business degrees, and a clutch from the school of humanities and social sciences; Muslims mostly, two Christians, a lone Hindu, one Buddhist wannabe, and two oblivious to religion though aware of its place in other folks’ lives. They came together from Sahiwal, Karachi, Gilgit, Swat, Peshawar, Gujranwala, one from Quetta (non-Baluchi), and two from Delhi via the University of Texas. Though the majority of students and faculty stayed away, these young men and women with similar features and skin tones, in colorful flowing kurtas, chooridars, skinny jeans, funky T-shirts, and hijabs, got together to celebrate Diwali, a festival that celebrates Ram’s return from exile.

Diwali, along with Holi, if not officially banned, have been marginalized in Pakistan as “Hindu” festivals although in the multi-religious society of the colonial period they were celebrated with as much enthusiasm as Eid and Christmas. The largest Diwali celebration in Lahore was held at the famous Laxmi Chowk, home to the Laxmi building, a marvel of Indo-European architecture and once the throbbing heart of the local film industry. All citizens, men, women, children, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, and Parsis gathered to celebrate the return of Ram to Ayodhya at Chowk with the adjoining building lit bright with lamps.

Almost seventy years on, these young people united in defiance to mark this heritage of their plural past. Ignoring looks of puzzlement and disapproval, they lighted the little lamps—diyas—fired with mustard oil as in the past, each lighted lovingly, one at a time, coaxing the hand-rolled cotton wick to sputter and then hold its own—quite like the event—knowing in their hearts that nurturing the flame symbolized a larger, more tenuous, goal. So they celebrated Diwali, and, I suppose, their own lives for the evening was mellow and they are young and alive and still hopeful. (Wordsworth: what a joy it was to be alive). They shared Mithai, music, poetry, thoughts, laughter, tears, and hopes and dreams for this land and its people wondering about their own place in it. They worried about the shape of tomorrow’s world and asked what they could do to make it better. It was a celebration of hope and harmony arrayed against a background of doom and despair—would there really be a return from the long exile? Read more »

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From Plato to Parkinson’s: Reflections on Dance

by Abigail Akavia

A group of young women performing exercises at the ballet barre and an angry mob chanting “lock her up.” These two situations, where the exact same action is performed by a group of people, may have more in common than it appears at first. Kinesthetic empathy, a recent topic of research for neurobiologists, dance theorists and a range of scholars and professionals in between, offers an interesting perspective on this issue, since it points to the emotional effect of physical activities carried out in group settings.

Empathy is a blanket term for a wide range of interpersonal phenomena: it is probably most commonly understood as an other-oriented feeling of concern or compassion. Empathy can also be defined as an ability to imagine what the other person is going through, or as an intuitive understanding of another person, including an understanding that is more physical than mental. Mirror neurons in the brain—for example, those firing both when we itch our foot and when we see someone else itching their foot—are probably involved in such a body-mediated and body-motivated awareness of the other.

It is remarkable that we can also feel empathy towards a fictional character, say in a book, a film, or in the theater. The latter situation is especially interesting because by understanding how audience members relate emotionally to what they see onstage we may gain access to how the audience as a gathering of disparate individuals becomes a group, a collective whose emotions and reactions can be manipulated and controlled. When the aesthetic medium is dance, the nexus of emotional reactions and physical experience is more obvious, even if not easier to parse; for it is through the body and without the mediation of words that we are “moved.” Read more »

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Lice in the Fur of the Big: The Joys of Concertzender

by Joan Harvey

The British Library

I no longer remember how or when I stumbled on Concertzender.nl, an internet radio station located in Utrecht, but it has been with me through changes in location, partners, through raising a son: it has been with me from before they had an English translation on the website and before people from overseas could make donations, before they had an app. According to the website, “Thirty-four years ago, a group of music lovers shared the strongly felt urgency to create a sanctuary where everything revolves around music, music and musicians having the highest word, music in (almost) all its facets can be listened to as it is intended, no boundaries are drawn between genres and styles, almost every music lover comes into their own and no concessions have to be made to non-musical secondary goals.”

Max Roach. Contemporary Korean music. Electronic female artists from around the globe. Artie Shaw. Italian “infernal industrial” band Satanismo. Schnittke and Ustvolskaya. “Theremin genius” Dr. Samuel J. Hoffman. Bach. Abbey Lincoln. Gregorian Chant. Songs by Kurt Weill. Music for the oboe family. Chanson. Motets. Makossa, the popular urban music movement originally from Cameroon. Mudhoney. Hummel. Liszt. Psychic TV. Frank Bridge. The Swans. Songs about refugees. Gogol Bordello. Bollywood Bhangra Disco Masala.

The is just a tiny fraction of the variety of music to be found on Concertzender. One click opens up a vast musical world. Read more »

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How Complex is too Complex? On the Accessibility of Analytic Philosophical Writing

by Joseph Shieber

Recently I came across Jonathan Rose’s thesis that it was no accident that the literary tastes of the working classes in Britain lagged behind those of the educated classes. According to Rose, the educated classes adopted ever-more-complex literary forms (read: literary modernism) to distinguish themselves from the “great unwashed”. (H/t Matthew Wills at the JSTOR Daily blog.)

Reading this account of the ascendance of literary modernism as a reaction on the part of the educated classes to rising literacy rates among the lower and working classes made me think of the role of complexity and difficulty in writing. Is it merely gate-keeping and/or signaling (to give a shout-out to my previous post)?

One of the criticisms of analytic philosophy that I often encounter is that it’s too complex or difficult. And there’s no question: it often IS extremely complex and challenging writing.

For example, here’s Geoff Pullam, a well-known linguist … not a philosopher, on this topic. In an essay entitled “Writing on Philosophy: It’s Not Rocket Science. It’s More Complicated Than That” for the unfortunately now-defunct Lingua Franca blog of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Pullam addresses the complexity of analytic philosophical writing:

I don’t know any academic field whose writing regularly indulges in sentence structure as complex as what you find in analytic philosophy.

Let me exhibit for you a wonderful sentence from Page 182 of a recent philosophy book by Ruth Garrett Millikan, Beyond Concepts: Unicepts, Language, and Natural Information (Oxford University Press, 2017). I thought I might have it embroidered on a wall hanging. I omit only the initial connective adjunct “Second” (since the link to the previous paragraph is not relevant here) and a reference date (1957) at the end.

“In arguing for his analysis of non-natural meaning, Grice made the mistake of arguing from the sensible premise that a hearer who believed that a speaker did not intend by his words to produce in the hearer a certain belief or intention would not acquire that belief or intention to the invalid conclusion that a hearer who merely failed to believe that a speaker intended by his words to produce a certain belief or intention in the hearer also would not acquire that belief or intention.”

That is an 86-word sentence, so by the usual standards of readability it’s off the charts, even for high-school students. Yet it is perfectly formed; don’t imagine that I’m criticizing it. It’s just extraordinarily complex and demanding.

When Pullam notes that Millikan’s sentence is off-the-charts in terms of readability, he’s not exaggerating. Its Gunning Fog Scale Level score is 40.78, and its Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level is 36.92. Read more »

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Wine Worlds and Distributed Agency

by Dwight Furrow

Discussions of the factors that go into wine production tend to circulate around two poles. In recent years, the focus has been on grapes and their growing conditions—weather, climate, and soil—as the main inputs to wine quality. The reigning ideology of artisanal wine production has winemakers copping to only a modest role as caretaker of the grapes, making sure they don’t do anything in the winery to screw up what nature has worked so hard to achieve. To a degree, this is a misleading ideology.  After all, those healthy, vibrant grapes with distinctive flavors and aromas have to be grown. A “hands off” approach in the winey just transfers the action to the vineyard where care must be taken to preserve vineyard conditions, adjust to changes in weather, plant and prune effectively and strategically, adjust the canopy and trellising methods when necessary, watch for disease, and pick at the right time.

Such modesty about winery interventions has not always been the norm. For a brief moment in time, beginning in the 1970’s and continuing into the first decade of the 21st century, the winemaker as auteur, a wizard at winery tricks, was ascendant. During this time, new winemaking technologies, viticultural methods, and remarkable advances in wine science were introduced into a formerly artisan practice. Only the wealthy, educated, and connected had access to these advances so the flying winemaker, a globetrotting consultant who made his knowledge and expertise available to the wider community, was common. Grapes were a blank slate upon which the winemaker’s vision could be implemented. This too was misleading; despite new technologies you cannot make good wine from bad grapes. Read more »

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January 13, 2019

Nick McDonell Counts the Innocent Lives Lost in the Post-9/11 Wars

Matt Gallagher in Time:

Nick McDonell has spent the past decade going in and out of war zones across the Middle East. He’s a conflict journo, through and through, with a background interesting in a whole different way—he began his career as a teenage novelist who wrote about privileged Manhattan youth. He’s found a lot of darkness there, but also something else, something much more important yet so often dismissed by an American society numb to foreign war: life. The everyday lives of Afghans and Iraqis caught up in that war, a war that is anything but foreign to them.

These civilians – we called them “locals” in the Army, a bit dehumanizing, perhaps, though far better than some alternatives – often serve as backdrops in contemporary war literature. McDonell brings them to the forefront in his dark and electric new book, The Bodies in Person: An Account of Civilian Casualties in American Wars.

The Bodies in Person braids together personal testimonies from survivors of our post-9/11 wars (generating what McDonell calls “the power of specificity”) with his own journey through the byzantine American military bureaucracy to find an answer to a very simple question: just how many innocents is it okay to kill while pursuing enemy?

More here.

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Sunday Poem

Exodus

The street is empty
as a monk’s memory,
and faces explode in the flames
like acorns—
and the dead crowd the horizon
and doorways.
No vein can bleed
more than it already has,
no scream will rise
higher than it’s already risen.
We will not leave!

Everyone outside is waiting
for the trucks and the cars
loaded with honey and hostages.
We will not leave!
The shields of light are breaking apart
before the rout and the siege;
outside, everyone wants us to leave.
But we will not leave!

Ivory white brides
behind their veils
slowly walk in captivity’s glare, waiting,
and everyone outside wants us to leave,
but we will not leave!

The big guns pound the jujube groves,
destroying the dreams of the violets,
extinguishing bread, killing the salt,
unleashing thirst
and parching lips and souls.
And everyone outside is saying:
“What are we waiting for?
Warmth we’re denied,
the air itself has been seized!
Why aren’t we leaving?”
Masks fill the pulpits and brothels,
the places of ablution.
Masks cross-eyed with utter amazement;
they do not believe what is now so clear,
and fall, astonished,
writhing like worms, or tongues.
We will not leave!

Are we in the inside only to leave?
Leaving is just for the masks,
for pulpits and conventions.
Leaving is just
for the siege-that-comes-from-within,
the siege that comes from the Bedouin’s loins,
the siege of the brethren
tarnished by the taste of the blade
and the stink of crows.
We will not leave!

Outside they’re blocking the exits
and offering their blessings to the impostor,
praying, petitioning
Almighty God for our deaths.

by Taha Muhammah Ali
from So What
Copper Canyon Press

 

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Virginia Woolf? Snob! Richard Wright? Sexist! Dostoyevsky? Anti-Semite!

Brian Morton in the New York Times:

Not long ago, during an Amtrak ride, I met a college student who told me he was a fiction writer. I asked him what he’d been writing and reading, and he said that he was writing a novel about time travel, and that he was reading — well, he had been reading Edith Wharton’s “The House of Mirth,” but after about 50 pages, he said, he’d tossed it into the trash.

“The House of Mirth,” which was published in 1905, describes the efforts of a young woman named Lily Bart to find an acceptable husband. The student explained that he had been sailing along until he came to a description of one of Lily’s suitors, Simon Rosedale: “a plump rosy man of the blond Jewish type, with … small sidelong eyes which gave him the air of appraising people as if they were bric-a-brac.” At that point, the student said, he lost sympathy not only for Lily, but for the novel as a whole.

It would have done no good for me to lecture him about the difference between a character’s point of view and the author’s. Whenever Rosedale appears in the novel, Wharton describes his repulsiveness with such gusto it’s clear that she isn’t just describing Lily’s feelings; she’s describing her own.

Wharton’s anti-Semitism, the student said, filled him with rage. “I don’t want anyone like that in my house,” he said.

Anyone who’s taught literature in a college or university lately has probably had a conversation like this.

More here.

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Unprovability comes to machine learning

Lev Reyzin in Nature:

During the twentieth century, discoveries in mathematical logic revolutionized our understanding of the very foundations of mathematics. In 1931, the logician Kurt Gödel showed that, in any system of axioms that is expressive enough to model arithmetic, some true statements will be unprovable1. And in the following decades, it was demonstrated that the continuum hypothesis — which states that no set of distinct objects has a size larger than that of the integers but smaller than that of the real numbers — can be neither proved nor refuted using the standard axioms of mathematics24. Writing in Nature Machine IntelligenceBen-David et al.5 show that the field of machine learning, although seemingly distant from mathematical logic, shares this limitation. They identify a machine-learning problem whose fate depends on the continuum hypothesis, leaving its resolution forever beyond reach.

Machine learning is concerned with the design and analysis of algorithms that can learn and improve their performance as they are exposed to data. The power of this idea is illustrated by the following example: although it seems hopelessly difficult to explicitly program a computer to determine what objects are in a picture, the Viola–Jones machine-learning system can detect human faces in real time after being trained on a labelled sample of photographs6. Today, we regularly interact with machine-learning algorithms, from virtual assistants on our phones to spam filters for our e-mail. But these modern real-world applications trace their origins to a subfield of machine learning that is concerned with the careful formalization and mathematical analysis of various machine-learning settings.

More here.

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‘Extremists’ Like Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Are Actually Closer to What Most Americans Want

Margery Eagan in Common Dreams:

On “60 Minutes” Sunday, Ocasio-Cortez talked about a 70 percent tax rate for Americans earning more than $10 million a year. She said this would fund a Green New Deal: big money for renewable energy and technologies to avert climate catastrophe.

That’s soak-the-rich, prosperity-killing insanity, conservatives claimed.

But many economists, including Nobel Prize winners Paul Krugman and MIT’s Peter Diamond, agree with Ocasio-Cortez. Diamond argued years ago for a top rate of 73 percent. Krugman recently wrote that the “right’s denunciation of AOC’s ‘insane’ policy ideas serves as a very good reminder of who is actually insane.”

And of who’s pulling a fast one: the billionaire campaign donors arguing for debunked trickle-down economics. Why? To keep more of their billions.

But many forget that the top tax rate was more than 90 percent during the 1950s, and 70 percent for all income above $216,000, right up until Ronald Reagan became president, in 1981. He then declared government the enemy and slashed taxes for the rich. Thus ended the most successful period of middle-class economic growth in America’s history.

More here.

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The Privatization of Hope

Ronald Aronson in the Boston Review:

Hope is being privatized. Throughout the world, but especially in the United States and the United Kingdom, a seismic shift is underway, displacing aspirations and responsibilities from the larger society to our own individual universes. The detaching of personal expectations from the wider world transforms both.

The phenomenon is usually described as “individualization” resulting from broad trends of social evolution, leading as Thomas Edsall described it in the New York Times, to “an inexorable pressure on individuals to, in effect, fly solo.” This suggests that the individualized society is a normal phase of historical development. However, the privatization of hope is a more compelling framework by which to understand this moment. It refers to political, economic, and ideological projects of the past two generations, including the deliberate construction of the consumer economy and then the turn toward neoliberalism. We have not lost all hope over the past generation; there is a maddening profusion of personal hopes. Under attack has been the kind of hope that is social, the motivation behind movements to make the world freer, more equal, more democratic, and more livable.

Not only does this privatization weaken collective capacities to solve collective problems, but it also deadens the very sense that collectivity can or should exist, as the commons dissolves and social sources of problems become hidden.

More here.

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Glory, beauty, epiphany, imagination: how to do moral philosophy

Richard Marshall interviews Sophie Grace Chappell in 3:AM Magazine:

Don’t start with a moral theory, start with where you actually are. Here is a question that I think ethicists should be asking alongside Nagel’s famous question about bats (at the moment I want to use it as the title of Epiphanies Chapter 4): “What is it like to be a human being?” So start with that. Start with what it’s like to be you, with your subjectivity here and now, with what looks serious and real and important and beautiful and (yes, why not?) fun to you just as you are, from your own viewpoint. Because actually that’s the only place you ever can start from, really, and one tendency of systematising theories is to obscure this truth.

3:AM:  What made you become a philosopher?

Sophie Grace Chappell: For a long time it wasn’t obvious to me, or anyone else, that I would become a philosopher. I didn’t actually know that that was going to happen till I was 27. I had some philosophical interests from a very early age indeed, in particular an obsession with Socrates and Heracleitus; from about 6 or 7 I devoured Lewis’ and Tolkien’s books, and read everything I could about their world-view. And once I sat down with an exercise book and tried to write down in it every truth there is about what exists, in a single systematising summary. Or perhaps I mean a Summa, because the next thing I knew I found a copy of Aquinas in the town library in Bolton, and I realised someone else had already done pretty much that, and the name for that game was “metaphysics”. At the time I was a bit miffed to be beaten to it. I was about 12.

But besides philosophy I had lots of other academic interests as well, in poetry and literature and opera and history and politics and languages for instance: I spent a lot of my childhood inventing fantasy languages and alphabets.

More here.

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The shrinking space for public intellectuals in India

Ramin Jahanbegloo in Live Mint:

Talking about the public role of intellectuals in today’s world, and more specifically in India, is of great significance given changes taking place in culture and politics. It is not simply enough to talk about the role of Indian public intellectuals in the making and preserving of critical mindedness and democratic engagement in Indian academia. One should also pay attention to the role which could and should be played by public intellectuals in promoting moral and political excellence and civic friendship among the future generation of Indians.

However, to do so, public intellectuals in India need to challenge the traditional assumptions that have reinforced positivistic methodologies, apathetic scholarship and an increasing fascination with a calculative leadership which refuses to listen and to learn instead of leading.

Fortunately, many Indian intellectuals—such as Romila Thapar, Ashis Nandy, Dipankar Gupta, Arundhati Roy and Bhiku Parekh—continue to engage with Indian public and strengthen the concepts of democratic dissent and civic questioning. Yet, we should not forget that the notion of critical thinking and the business of questioning, more than being an act of political partisanship, are essential components of the definition of “intellectual” in modern times.

More here.

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Train Your Brain Like a Memory Champion

Bryan Clark in The New York Times:

You slide the key into the door and hear a clunk as the tumblers engage. You rotate the key, twist the doorknob and walk inside. The house is familiar, but the contents foreign. At your left, there’s a map of Minnesota, dangling precariously from the wall. You’re certain it wasn’t there this morning. Below it, you find a plush M&M candy. To the right, a dog, a shiba inu you’ve never seen before. In its mouth, a pair of your expensive socks.

And then it comes to you, 323-3607, a phone number.

If none of this makes sense, stick with us; by the end of this piece you’ll be using the same techniques to memorize just about anything you’ve ever wanted to remember. The “memory athlete” Munkhshur Narmandakh once employed a similar combination of mnemonics to commit more than 6,000 binary digits to memory in just 30 minutes. Alex Mullen, a three-time World Memory Champion, used them to memorize the order of a deck of cards in just 15 seconds, a record at the time. It was later broken by Shijir-Erdene Bat-Enkh, who did it in 12. We’re going to aim lower, applying these strategies to real-world scenarios, like remembering the things we often forget at dinner parties or work-related mixers.

At the start of this piece, we employed two mnemonic strategies to remember the seven digits of a phone number. The first, called the “Major System,” was developed in 1648 by historian Johann Winkelmann. In his book “Moonwalking With Einstein,” the author Joshua Foer described this system as a simple cipher that transforms numbers to letters or phonetic sounds. From there we can craft words and, ultimately, images. Some will, no doubt, be crude or enigmatic. Others may contain misspellings and factual errors. It doesn’t matter. This system is designed to create rich imagery, not accurate representations.

More here.

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