How to Memorize an Entire Chapter from “Moby Dick”: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything

Sometimes, when I can’t sleep, I mentally revisit the various homes of my childhood, wandering from room to room, turning on lights and peering in closets until I conk out.

Turns out these imaginary tours are also handy mnemonic tools, as Vox’s Dean Peterson explains above.

Hey, that’s good news… isn’t the subconscious rumored to do some heavy lifting in terms of processing information?

Peterson conquered a self-described bad memory, at least temporarily, by traipsing around his apartment, depositing vivid sentence-by-sentence clues that would eventually help him recite by heart one of his favorite chapters in Moby Dick.




In truth, he was planting these clues in his hippocampus, the relatively small structure in the brain that’s a critical player when it comes to memory, including the spatial memories that allow us to navigate familiar locations without seeming to give the matter any thought.

What made it stick was pairing his everyday coordinates to extraordinary visuals.

Chapter 37, for those keeping track at home, is a monologue for Captain Ahab in which he describes himself as not just mad but “madness maddened.” Here’s the first sentence:

I leave a white and turbid wake; pale waters, paler cheeks, where’er I sail.

Not the easiest text for 21st-century heads to wrap around, though with a little effort, most of us get the gist.

Let’s not get hung up on literary interpretation here, though, folks. Having settled on his front stoop as the first stop of his memory palace Peterson refrained from picturing frothy spume lapping at the lowermost step. Instead he plunked down a funeral wreath and director John Waters, pale of suit and cheek, weeping. Get it? White? Wake? Pale cheeks?

After which Peterson moved on to the next sentence.

There are 38 in all, and after several days of practice in which he mentally walked the image-strewn course of his apartment-cum-Memory Palace, Peterson was able to regale his coworkers with an off-book recitation.

The time factor will definitely be a let down for those hoping for a low commitment party trick.

Peterson spent three-to-four hours a day pacing his spatial memory, admiring the oddities he himself had placed there.

The incredulous comments from those questioning the efficiency of giving up half a day to memorize a page and a half are balanced by testimonials from those who’ve met with success, using the Memory Palace method to retain vast amounts of data prior to an exam.

That may, ultimately, be a better use of the Memory Palace. Peterson gets an A for spitting out the lines as written, but his expression is that of an actor auditioning with material he has not yet mastered. (No shade on Peterson’s acting talent or lack thereof—even great actors get this face when their lines are shaky. One friend doesn’t consider herself off book until she can get all the way through her monologue whilst hopping on one foot.)

For more information on building a Memory Palace, refer, as Peterson did, to author Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, or to his appearance on Adam Grant’s TED Work/Life podcast. Stream it here:

If you would like to go whale to whale with Peterson, below is the text that he installed in his Memory Palace, compliments of Herman Melville:

I leave a white and turbid wake; pale waters, paler cheeks, where’er I sail. The envious billows sidelong swell to whelm my track; let them; but first I pass.

Yonder, by ever-brimming goblet’s rim, the warm waves blush like wine. The gold brow plumbs the blue. The diver sun- slow dived from noon- goes down; my soul mounts up! she wearies with her endless hill. Is, then, the crown too heavy that I wear? this Iron Crown of Lombardy. Yet is it bright with many a gem; I the wearer, see not its far flashings; but darkly feel that I wear that, that dazzlingly confounds. ‘Tis iron- that I know- not gold. ‘Tis split, too- that I feel; the jagged edge galls me so, my brain seems to beat against the solid metal; aye, steel skull, mine; the sort that needs no helmet in the most brain-battering fight!

Dry heat upon my brow? Oh! time was, when as the sunrise nobly spurred me, so the sunset soothed. No more. This lovely light, it lights not me; all loveliness is anguish to me, since I can ne’er enjoy. Gifted with the high perception, I lack the low, enjoying power; damned, most subtly and most malignantly! damned in the midst of Paradise! Good night-good night! (waving his hand, he moves from the window.)

‘Twas not so hard a task. I thought to find one stubborn, at the least; but my one cogged circle fits into all their various wheels, and they revolve. Or, if you will, like so many ant-hills of powder, they all stand before me; and I their match. Oh, hard! that to fire others, the match itself must needs be wasting! What I’ve dared, I’ve willed; and what I’ve willed, I’ll do! They think me mad- Starbuck does; but I’m demoniac, I am madness maddened! That wild madness that’s only calm to comprehend itself! The prophecy was that I should be dismembered; and- Aye! I lost this leg. I now prophesy that I will dismember my dismemberer. Now, then, be the prophet and the fulfiller one. That’s more than ye, ye great gods, ever were. I laugh and hoot at ye, ye cricket-players, ye pugilists, ye deaf Burkes and blinded Bendigoes! I will not say as schoolboys do to bullies- Take some one of your own size; don’t pommel me! No, ye’ve knocked me down, and I am up again; but ye have run and hidden. Come forth from behind your cotton bags! I have no long gun to reach ye. Come, Ahab’s compliments to ye; come and see if ye can swerve me. Swerve me? ye cannot swerve me, else ye swerve yourselves! man has ye there. Swerve me? The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run. Over unsounded gorges, through the rifled hearts of mountains, under torrents’ beds, unerringly I rush! Naught’s an obstacle, naught’s an angle to the iron way!

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The Neuroscience & Psychology of Procrastination, and How to Overcome It

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in New York City May 13 for the next installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

An Animated History of Dogs, Inspired by Keith Haring

That quivering teacup Chihuahua…

The long-suffering Labrador whose child-friendly reputation has led to a lifetime of ear tugging and tail pulling…

The wheezing French bulldog, whose owner has outfitted with a full wardrobe of hoodies, tutus, rain slickers, and pajamas

All descended from wolves.

As anthropologist and science educator David Ian Howe explains in the animated TED-Ed lesson, A Brief History of Dogs, above, at first glance, canis lupus seemed an unlikely choice for man’s best friend.




For one thing, the two were in direct competition for elk, reindeer, bison, and other tasty prey wandering Eurasia during the Pleistocene Epoch.

Though both hunted in groups, running their prey to the point of exhaustion, only one roasted their kills, creating tantalizing aromas that drew bolder wolves ever-closer to the human camps.

The ones who willingly dialed down their wolfishness, making themselves useful as companions, security guards and hunting buddies, were rewarded come suppertime. Eventually, this mutually beneficial tail wagging became full on domestication, the first such animal to come under the human yoke.

The intense focus on purebreds didn't really become a thing until the Victorians began hosting dog shows. The push to identify and promote breed-specific characteristics often came at a cost to the animals’ wellbeing, as Neil Pemberton and Michael Worboys point out in BBC History Magazine:

…the improvement of breeds towards ‘perfection’ was controversial. While there was approval for the greater regularity of type, many fanciers complained that standards were being set on arbitrary, largely aesthetic grounds by enthusiasts in specialist clubs, without concern for utility or the health of the animal. This meant that breeds were changing, and not always for the better. For example, the modern St Bernard was said to be a beautiful animal, but would be useless in Alpine rescue work.

Cat-fanciers, rest assured that the opposition received fair and equal coverage in a feline-centric TED-Ed lesson, published earlier this year.

And while we applaud TED-Ed for sparking our curiosity with its “Brief History of” series, covering topics as far ranging as cheese, numerical systems, goths, video games, and tea, surely we are not the only ones wondering why the late artist Keith Haring isn’t thanked or name checked in the credits?

Every canine-shaped image in this animation is clearly descended from his iconic barking dog.

While we can’t explain the omission, we can direct readers toward Jon Nelson’s great analysis of Haring’s relationship with dogs in Get Leashed:

They’re symbolic of unanswered questions, prevalent in the 80s: “Can I do this?” “Is this right?” “What are you doing?” “What is happening?” Dogs stand by people, barking or dancing along, sometimes in precarious scenarios, even involved in some of Haring’s explicitly sexual work. Dogs are neither approving nor disapproving of what people do in the images; their mouth angle is neutral or even happy. In some cases, human bodies wear a dog’s head, possibly stating that we know only our own enjoyment, unaware, like a dog, of life’s next stage or the consequences of our actions.

Visit Ethnocynology, David Ian Howe’s Instagram page about the ancient relationship between humans and dogs.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in New York City April 15 for the next installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Buckminster Fuller Rails Against the “Nonsense of Earning a Living”: Why Work Useless Jobs When Technology & Automation Can Let Us Live More Meaningful Lives

We are a haunted species: haunted by the specter of climate change, of economic collapse, and of automation making our lives redundant. When Marx used the specter metaphor in his manifesto, he was ironically invoking Gothic tropes. But Communism was not a boogeyman. It was a coming reality, for a time at least. Likewise, we face very real and substantial coming realities. But in far too many instances, they are also manufactured, under ideologies that insist there is no alternative.

But let’s assume there are other ways to order our priorities, such as valuing human life as an end in itself. Perhaps then we could treat the threat of automation as a ghost: insubstantial, immaterial, maybe scary but harmless. Or treat it as an opportunity to order our lives the way we want. We could stop inventing bullshit, low-paying, wasteful jobs that contribute to cycles of poverty and environmental degradation. We could slash the number of hours we work and spend time with people and pursuits we love.




We have been taught to think of this scenario as a fantasy. Or, as Buckminster Fuller declared in 1970—on the threshold of the “Malthusian-Darwinian” wave of neoliberal thought to come—“We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery…. He must justify his right to exist.” In current parlance, every person must somehow “add value” to shareholders’ portfolios. The shareholders themselves are under no obligation to return the favor.

What about adding value to our own lives? “The true business of people," says Fuller, "should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.” Against the “specious notion” that everyone should have to make a wage to live--this "nonsense of earning a living"--he takes a more magnanimous view: “It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest," who then may go on to make millions of small breakthroughs of their own.

He may have sounded overconfident at the time. But fifty years later, we see engineers, developers, and analysts of all kinds proclaiming the coming age of automation in our lifetimes, with a majority of jobs to be fully or partially automated in 10-15 years. It is a technological breakthrough capable of dispensing with huge numbers of people, unless its benefits are widely shared. The corporate world sticks its head in the sand and issues guidelines for retraining, a solution that will still leave masses unemployed. No matter the state of the most recent jobs report, serious losses in nearly every sector, especially manufacturing and service work, are unavoidable.

The jobs we invent have changed since Fuller’s time, become more contingent and less secure. But the obsession with creating them, no matter their impact or intent, has only grown, a runaway delusion no one can seem to stop. Should we fear automation? Only if we collectively decide the current course of action is all there is, that “everybody has to earn a living”—meaning turn a profit—or drop dead. As Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—echoing Fuller—put it recently at SXSW, “we live in a society where if you don’t have a job, you are left to die. And that is, at its core, our problem…. We should not be haunted by the specter of being automated out of work.”

“We should be excited about automation,” she went on, “because what it could potentially mean is more time to educate ourselves, more time creating art, more time investing in and investigating the sciences.” However that might be achieved, through subsidized health, education, and basic services, new New Deal and Civil Rights policies, a Universal Basic Income, or some creative synthesis of all of the above, it will not produce a utopia—no political solution is up that task. But considering the benefits of subsidizing our humanity, and the alternative of letting its value decline, it seems worth a shot to try what economist Bill Black calls the "progressive policy core," which, coincidentally, happens to be "centrist in terms of the electorate's preferences."

via Kottke

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

An Ancient Egyptian Homework Assignment from 1800 Years Ago: Some Things Are Truly Timeless

Every generation of schoolchildren no doubt first assumes homework to be a historically distinct form of punishment, developed expressly to be inflicted on them. But the parents of today's miserable homework-doers also, of course, had to do homework themselves, as did their parents' parents. It turns out that you can go back surprisingly far in history and still find examples of the menace of homework, as far back as ancient Egypt, a civilization from which one example of an out-of-classroom assignment will go on display at the British Library's exhibition Writing: Making Your Mark, which opens this spring.

"Beginning with the origins of writing in Egypt, Mesopotamia, China and the Americas, the exhibition will explore the many manifestations, purposes and forms of writing, demonstrating how writing has continually enabled human progress and questioning the role it plays in an increasingly digital world," says the British Library's press release.




"From an ancient wax tablet containing a schoolchild’s homework as they struggle to learn their Greek letters to a Chinese typewriter from the 1970s, Writing: Making Your Mark will showcase over 30 different writing systems to reveal that every mark made – whether on paper or on a screen – is the continuation of a 5,000 year story and is a step towards determining how writing will be used in the future."

That wax tablet, preserved since the second century A.D., bears Greek words that Livescience's Mindy Weisberger describes as "familiar to any kid whose parents worry about them falling in with a bad crowd": "You should accept advice from a wise man only" and "You cannot trust all your friends." First acquired by the British Library in 1892 but not publicly displayed since the 1970s, the tablet's surface preserves "a two-part lesson in Greek that provides a snapshot of daily life for a pupil attending primary school in Egypt about 1,800 years ago." Its lines, "copied by this long-ago student were not just for practicing penmanship; they were also intended to impart moral lessons."

But why Greek? "In the 2nd century A.D., when this lesson was written," writes Smithsonian.com's Jason Daley, "Egypt had been under Roman rule for almost 200 years following 300 years of Greek and Macedonian rule under the Ptolemy dynasty. Greeks in Egypt held a special status below Roman citizens but higher than those of Egyptian descent. Any educated person in the Roman world, however, would be expected to know Latin, Greek and — depending on where they lived — local or regional languages." It was a bit like the situation today with the English language, which has become a requirement for educated people in a variety of cultures — and a subject especially loathed by many a homework-burdened student the world over.

via Livescience

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

John Lennon’s Report Card at Age 15: “He Has Too Many Wrong Ambitions and His Energy Is Too Often Misplaced”

In September 1956, a young John Lennon took home a dismal report card--the kind that many smart, wayward kids can probably relate to.

French teacher: "An intelligent boy who could be very much better with a little concentration in class."

Math teacher: "He is certainly on the road to failure if this goes on."

Physics teacher: "His work always lacks effort. He is content to 'drift' instead of using his abilities."

Religion teacher: "Attitude in class most unsatisfactory."

Head master: “He has too many wrong ambitions and his energy is too often misplaced."

Guess they had him all figured out...

via @Michael Beschloss

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How Peter Jackson Made His State-of-the-Art World War I Documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old: An Inside Look

There are very few working directors today who can do what Peter Jackson does so well—create extraordinary spectacles on the grandest of scales while also staying tightly focused on character development and emotional depth. He’s made missteps. His Hobbit trilogy felt bloated, busy and unnecessary, but one reason it so disappointed was because he’d already shown himself a master of fantasy filmmaking with what many considered the unfilmmable Lord of the Rings.

Of course non-Tolkien-related Jackson films like Heavenly Creatures also showcase these strengths, on a smaller scale: the ability to retain the human dimension amidst cinematic spectacles and inhuman darkness (a quality he mined explicitly in his years as a horror director). All of these sensibilities, including a pronounced streak of dark humor and talent for manipulating his audiences, make him the ideal director for a documentary on World War I.




It's a conflict that makes little historical sense to most of us, that unfolded on a scale few of us can imagine, with few identifiable heroes and villains and a complicated geopolitical situation that can feel out of our grasp.

Many documentaries on the war are informative but, frankly, quite dull. In striving for objectivity, they lose sight of humanity. Rather than adopt the voice of god and newsreel look that characterizes the usual fare, Jackson has taken an active role in shaping the narrative for us with cutting-edge blockbuster cinematic techniques. He gives us characters to care about in showing the horror of trench warfare, the confusion and camaraderie of war. Though he uses original footage, it is digitally enhanced and colorized, screened in 3D, with recordings of remembrances from the soldiers themselves dramatically overlaid to create the sense that the figures we see onscreen are speaking to us.

The result, as Guy Lodge writes at Variety, “is a technical dazzler with a surprisingly humane streak…. So dazzlingly transformative is the restoration of this footage that it may as well be the product of a movie shoot.” Indeed, once the credits roll, viewers see the same “veritable army of magic-working technicians’ names” as they would on any big-budget action movie. Jackson has, in effect, produced “the world’s most state-of-the-art educational film,” applying all the emotional levers and pulleys of feature filmmaking to a historical archive.

Like most of us, students have trouble understanding the scale of the war and connecting with the lives of people so indistinctly photographed and far away in time. Jackson makes sure that they can do both, and his film will be sent to every high school in the U.K. Those schools will not, of course, be able to reproduce the 3D effects. Yet even these, though they sound “gimmicky on the face of it,” writes Lodge, prove “to have an experiential purpose, conveying the juddering movement and chaos of a conflict many of us have largely viewed through calcified still images.”

In the interviews and behind the scenes videos here, we learn how Jackson and his team solved the film speed problem to make the old reels look natural, how they created a color palette and removed blurriness and blemishes. Jackson also talks about his own personal stake in the project, imagining what his grandfather endured in the Great War. This connection seems to have spurred him all the more in the effort.

"To memorialize these soldiers a hundred years later," he says, "is to try to bring some of their humanity back into the world again, to stop them being a black and white cliché.” In creating this moving memorial, Jackson goes far beyond the mandate of an educational film. He has used all the techniques at his disposal to make good on the promise in Robert Laurence Binyon’s 1914 poem “For the Fallen,” from which the documentary takes its title:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Solar System Quilt: In 1876, a Teacher Creates a Handcrafted Quilt to Use as a Teaching Aid in Her Astronomy Class

Dedicated teachers often go well beyond the call of duty, sacrificing large amounts of free time for the betterment of their classrooms and their pupils.

Any teacher who’s ever paid for supplies out of their own pocket, then spent the weekend constructing an elaborate bulletin board display, will appreciate the herculean efforts of Sarah Ellen Harding Baker.

Baker, a teacher and astronomer in Cedar County, Iowa, is rumored to have spent 7 years embroidering a beautiful appliquéd quilt to use as a visual aid in lectures.




Finished in 1876, the quilt is large enough that even a near-sighted student could see its planets and moons from the back row.

Orbits are indicated with silken threads against a black background.

A comet in the upper left is thought to be Halley's Comet, whose last appearance would have been in 1835, 12 years before Baker’s birth.

The Smithsonian National Museum of American History, where Baker’s quilt is housed, notes that astronomy was deemed an acceptable interest for 19th-century women, which may explain the number of celestial-themed quilts that date to the period.

Author and quilt historian Barbara Brackman includes a few on her Material Culture blog, while her Historically Modern blog visits some more recent examples, including one that makes use of a stars-and-earth hot-iron transfer published in Good Housekeeping magazine, to accompany an article celebrating the winners of its 1939 World of Tomorrow Quilt Contest.

Baker got just ten years out of her quilt before succumbing to tuberculosis at the age of 39, the mother of 7 children, 5 of whom survived her.

via Messy Nessy

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC this December for the 10th anniversary production of Greg Kotis’ apocalyptic holiday tale, The Truth About Santa, and the next monthly installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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