How to Manage Your Time More Effectively: The Science of Applying Computer Algorithms to Our Everyday Lives

Who among us has­n’t wished to be as effi­cient as a com­put­er? While com­put­ers seem to do every­thing at once, we either flit or plod from task to task, often get­ting side­tracked or even lost. At this point most have relin­quished the dream of true “mul­ti­task­ing,” which turns out to lie not only beyond the reach of humans but, tech­ni­cal­ly speak­ing, beyond the reach of com­put­ers as well. “Done right, com­put­ers move so flu­id­ly between their var­i­ous respon­si­bil­i­ties, they give the illu­sion of doing every­thing simul­ta­ne­ous­ly,” says the nar­ra­tor of the ani­mat­ed TED-Ed les­son above. But in real­i­ty, even they do one thing at a time; what, then, can we humans learn from how they’re pro­grammed to pri­or­i­tize and switch between their many tasks?

A com­put­er oper­at­ing sys­tem has an ele­ment called a “sched­uler,” which “tells the CPU how long to work on each task before switch­ing.” Sched­ulers work quite well these days, but “even com­put­ers get over­whelmed some­times.” This used to hap­pen to the open-source oper­at­ing sys­tem Lin­ux, which “would rank every sin­gle one of its tasks in order of impor­tance, and some­times spent more time rank­ing tasks than doing them. The pro­gram­mers’ coun­ter­in­tu­itive solu­tion was to replace this full rank­ing with a lim­it­ed num­ber of pri­or­i­ty ‘buck­ets,’ ” replac­ing a pre­cise pri­or­i­ty order­ing with a broad­er low-medi­um-high kind of group­ing. This turned out to be a great improve­ment: “The sys­tem was less pre­cise about what to do next, but more than made up for it by spend­ing more time mak­ing progress.”

The les­son for those of us who habit­u­al­ly list and pri­or­i­tize our tasks is obvi­ous: “All the time you spend pri­or­i­tiz­ing your work is time you aren’t spend­ing doing it,” and “giv­ing up on doing things in the per­fect order may be the key to get­ting them done.” In the case of e‑mail, bane of many a 21st-cen­tu­ry exis­tence, “Insist­ing on always doing the very most impor­tant thing first could lead to a melt­down. Wak­ing up to an inbox three times fuller than nor­mal could take nine times longer to clear.

You’d be bet­ter off reply­ing in chrono­log­i­cal order, or even at ran­dom.” Robert Pir­sig mem­o­rably artic­u­lat­ed this in Zen and the Art of Motor­cy­cle Main­te­nance, whose main char­ac­ter offers advice to his son frus­trat­ed by the task of writ­ing a let­ter home from their road trip:

I tell him get­ting stuck is the com­mon­est trou­ble of all. Usu­al­ly, I say, your mind gets stuck when you’re try­ing to do too many things at once. What you have to do is try not to force words to come. That just gets you more stuck. What you have to do now is sep­a­rate out the things and do them one at a time. You’re try­ing to think of what to say and what to say first at the same time and that’s too hard. So sep­a­rate them out. Just make a list of all the things you want to say in any old order. Then lat­er we’ll fig­ure out the right order.

We don’t write many let­ters home these days, of course, and even e‑mail may no longer pose the direst threat to our time man­age­ment. More of us blame our lack of pro­duc­tiv­i­ty on the inter­rup­tions of instant mes­sag­ing in all its forms, from tex­ting to social media, anoth­er prob­lem with an equiv­a­lent in com­put­ing. That a com­put­er can be inter­rupt­ed by any num­ber of the process­es it runs neces­si­tat­ed the devel­op­ment of a pro­ce­dure called “inter­rupt coa­lesc­ing,” accord­ing to which, “rather than deal­ing with things as they come up,” the sys­tem “groups these inter­rup­tions togeth­er based on how long they can afford to wait.” Even if we can’t elim­i­nate inter­rup­tions in our lives, we can group them: “If no noti­fi­ca­tion or e‑mail requires a response more urgent­ly than once an hour, say, then that’s exact­ly how often you should check them — no more.”

This TED-Ed les­son comes adapt­ed from Bri­an Chris­t­ian and Tom Grif­fiths’ book Algo­rithms to Live By: The Com­put­er Sci­ence of Human Deci­sions. If you’d like to hear about more of the ways in which they apply com­put­ers’ meth­ods of deci­sion mak­ing to areas of human life — home-buy­ing, gam­bling, dat­ing — you can also watch their talk at Google. We also have plen­ty of sup­ple­men­tary time man­age­ment-relat­ed mate­r­i­al here in the Open Cul­ture archives, on every­thing from the neu­ro­science of pro­cras­ti­na­tion to the dai­ly rou­tines of philoso­phers, writ­ers and oth­er cre­ative peo­ple to tips for read­ing more books per year to the pres­i­den­tial­ly-approved “Eisen­how­er Matrix.” By all means, click on all these links; just don’t over­think the order in which to do it.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Use the “Eisen­how­er Matrix” to Man­age Your Time & Increase Your Pro­duc­tiv­i­ty: The Sys­tem Designed by the 34th Pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States

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

The Dai­ly Rou­tines of Famous Cre­ative Peo­ple, Pre­sent­ed in an Inter­ac­tive Info­graph­ic

The Dai­ly Habits of High­ly Pro­duc­tive Philoso­phers: Niet­zsche, Marx & Immanuel Kant

The Dai­ly Habits of Famous Writ­ers: Franz Kaf­ka, Haru­ki Muraka­mi, Stephen King & More

7 Tips for Read­ing More Books in a Year

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, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

16 Ways the World Is Getting Remarkably Better: Visuals by Statistician Hans Rosling

It cer­tain­ly may not feel like things are get­ting bet­ter behind the anx­ious veils of our COVID lock­downs. But some might say that opti­mism and pes­simism are prod­ucts of the gut, hid­den some­where in the bac­te­r­i­al stew we call the micro­bio­me. “All prej­u­dices come from the intestines,” pro­claimed not­ed suf­fer­er of indi­ges­tion, Friedrich Niet­zsche. Maybe we can change our views by chang­ing our diet. But it’s a lit­tle hard­er to change our emo­tions with facts. We turn up our noses at them, or find them impos­si­ble to digest.

Niet­zsche did not con­sid­er him­self a pes­simist. Despite his stom­ach trou­bles, he “adopt­ed a phi­los­o­phy that said yes to life,” notes Rea­son and Mean­ing, “ful­ly cog­nizant of the fact that life is most­ly mis­er­able, evil, ugly, and absurd.” Let’s grant that this is so. A great many of us, I think, are inclined to believe it. We are ide­al con­sumers for dystopi­an Niet­zsche-esque fan­tasies about super­men and “last men.” Still, it’s worth ask­ing: is life always and equal­ly mis­er­able, evil, ugly, and absurd? Is the idea of human progress no more than a mod­ern delu­sion?

Physi­cian, sta­tis­ti­cian, and one­time sword swal­low­er Hans Rosling spent sev­er­al years try­ing to show oth­er­wise in tele­vi­sion doc­u­men­taries for the BBC, TED Talks, and the posthu­mous book Fact­ful­ness: Ten Rea­sons We’re Wrong About the World—and Why Things Are Bet­ter Than You Think, co-writ­ten with his son and daugh­ter-in-law, a sta­tis­ti­cian and design­er, respec­tive­ly. Rosling, who passed away in 2017, also worked with his two co-authors on soft­ware used to ani­mate sta­tis­tics, and in his pub­lic talks and book, he attempt­ed to bring data to life in ways that engage gut feel­ings.

Take the set of graphs above, aka, “16 Bad Things Decreas­ing,” from Fact­ful­ness. (View a larg­er scan of the pages here.) Yes, you may look at a set of mono­chro­mat­ic trend lines and yawn. But if you attend to the details, you’ll can see that each arrow plum­met­ing down­ward rep­re­sents some pro­found ill, man­made or oth­er­wise, that has killed or maimed mil­lions. These range from legal slavery—down from 194 coun­tries in 1800 to 3 in 2017—to small­pox: down from 148 coun­tries with cas­es in 1850 to 0 in 1979. (Per­haps our cur­rent glob­al epi­dem­ic will war­rant its own tri­umphant graph in a revised edi­tion some decades in the future.) Is this not progress?

What about the steadi­ly falling rates of world hunger, child mor­tal­i­ty, HIV infec­tions, num­bers of nuclear war­heads, deaths from dis­as­ter, and ozone deple­tion? Hard to argue with the num­bers, though as always, we should con­sid­er the source. (Near­ly all these sta­tis­tics come from Rosling’s own com­pa­ny, Gap­min­der.) In the video above, Dr. Rosling explains to a TED audi­ence how he designed a course on glob­al health in his native Swe­den. In order to make sure the mate­r­i­al mea­sured up to his accom­plished stu­dents’ abil­i­ties, he first gave them a ques­tion­naire to test their knowl­edge.

Rosling found, he jokes, “that Swedish top stu­dents know sta­tis­ti­cal­ly sig­nif­i­cant­ly less about the world than a chim­panzee,” who would have scored high­er by chance. The prob­lem “was not igno­rance, it was pre­con­ceived ideas,” which are worse. Bad ideas are dri­ven by many ‑isms, but also by what Rosling calls in the book an “over­dra­mat­ic” world­view. Humans are ner­vous by nature. “Our ten­den­cy to mis­in­ter­pret facts is instinctive—an evo­lu­tion­ary adap­ta­tion to help us make quick deci­sions to avoid dan­ger,” writes Katie Law in a review of Fact­ful­ness.

“While we still need these instincts, they can also trip us up.” Mag­ni­fied by glob­al, col­lec­tive anx­i­eties, weaponized by can­ny mass media, the ten­den­cy to pes­simism becomes real­i­ty, but it’s one that is not sup­port­ed by the data. This kind of argu­ment has become kind of a cot­tage indus­try; each pre­sen­ta­tion must be eval­u­at­ed on its own mer­its. Pre­sum­ably enlight­ened opti­mism can be just as over­sim­pli­fied a view as the dark­est pes­simism. But Rosling insist­ed he wasn’t an opti­mist. He was just being “fact­ful.” We prob­a­bly shouldn’t get into what Niet­zsche might say to that.

via Simon Kuesten­mach­er

Relat­ed Con­tent:  

Pos­i­tive Psy­chol­o­gy: A Free Course from Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty 

Against All Odds: A Gen­tle Intro­duc­tion to Sta­tis­tics Host­ed by Har­vard Geneti­cist Par­dis Sabeti (Free Online Course)

David Byrne Launch­es Rea­sons to Be Cheer­ful, an Online Mag­a­zine Fea­tur­ing Arti­cles by Byrne, Bri­an Eno & More

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

How to Find Emotional Strength & Resilience During COVID-19: Advice from Elizabeth Gilbert, Jack Kornfield, Susan David & Other Experts

There are many roads through the coro­n­avirus cri­sis. One is denial, which only makes things worse. Anoth­er is ser­vice and self-sac­ri­fice, a choice we hon­or in the med­ical pro­fes­sion­als putting their lives at risk every day. For most of us, how­ev­er, the best course of action is non-action—staying home and iso­lat­ing our­selves from oth­ers. Days bleed into weeks, weeks into months. It can seem like life has come to a com­plete halt. It hasn’t, of course. All sorts of things are hap­pen­ing inside us. We don’t know how long this will last; cur­rent cours­es of action don’t bode well. What do we do with the fear, anger, lone­li­ness, grief, and buzzing, ever-present anx­i­ety?

Maybe the first thing to do is to accept that we have those feel­ings and feel them, instead of stuff­ing them down, cov­er­ing them up, or push­ing them onto some­one else. Then we can rec­og­nize we aren’t by any means alone. That’s eas­i­er said than done in quar­an­tine, but psy­chol­o­gists and inspi­ra­tional writ­ers and speak­ers like Eliz­a­beth Gilbert have come togeth­er under the aus­pices of the TED Con­nect series, host­ed by the head of TED Chris Ander­son, to help.

TED, known for show­cas­ing “thinkers and doers [giv­ing] the talk of their lives in 18 min­utes (or less),” has wise­ly rec­og­nized the need to dig much deep­er. Ander­son and head of cura­tion Helen Wal­ters’ con­ver­sa­tion with Gilbert, above, runs a lit­tle over an hour.

As for that cease­less anx­i­ety, Gilbert sug­gests we should all give our­selves “a mea­sure of mer­cy and com­pas­sion.” We might feel like we need per­mis­sion to do so in soci­eties that demand we con­stant­ly jus­ti­fy our exis­tence. But admit­ting vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty is the begin­ning of strength. Then we find con­struc­tive ways for­ward. The kind of resilience we can build in iso­la­tion is the kind that can out­last a cri­sis. Still, it is hard won. As Ander­son says above, in addi­tion to the exter­nal bat­tle we must fight with the virus and our own gov­ern­ments, “there’s this oth­er bat­tle as well, that is prob­a­bly equal­ly as con­se­quen­tial. It’s a bat­tle that’s going on right inside our minds.”

Rather than killing time wait­ing fit­ful­ly for some accept­able form of nor­mal to return, we can build what psy­chol­o­gist Susan David calls “emo­tion­al courage.” In con­ver­sa­tion with TED’s Whit­ney Pen­ning­ton Rogers, above, David reveals that she her­self has good rea­son to fear: her hus­band is a physi­cian. She also under­stands the con­se­quences of a col­lec­tive denial of suf­fer­ing and death. “The cir­cum­stance that we are in now is not some­thing that we asked for, but life is call­ing on every sin­gle one of us to move into the place of wis­dom in our­selves… into the space of wis­dom and for­ti­tude, sol­i­dar­i­ty, com­mu­ni­ty, courage.” We move into that space by rec­og­niz­ing that “life’s beau­ty is insep­a­ra­ble from its fragili­ty.”

Themes of courage and con­nec­tion come up again and again in oth­er TED Con­nects inter­views, such as that above with Rab­bi Lord Jonathan Sacks and below with author Priya Park­er. Else­where on the inter­net, you’ll find sim­i­lar kinds of advice.

On the Tim Fer­ris show, you can hear inter­views with Jack Korn­field on find­ing peace in the pan­dem­ic, Esther Per­el on nav­i­gat­ing rela­tion­ships in quar­an­tine, and Ryan Hol­i­day on using Sto­icism to choose “alive time over dead time.”

Sto­icism has gath­ered a par­tic­u­lar­ly rich store of wis­dom about how to live in cri­sis. In his own med­i­ta­tion on iso­la­tion, Michel de Mon­taigne drew on the Sto­ics in advis­ing read­ers to “reserve a back­shop, whol­ly our own and entire­ly free, where­in to set­tle our true lib­er­ty, our prin­ci­ple soli­tude and retreat…. We have a mind pli­able in itself, that will be com­pa­ny; that has where­with­al to attack and to defend, to receive and to give: let us not then fear in this soli­tude to lan­guish under an uncom­fort­able vacu­ity.” In oth­er words, the road through iso­la­tion, though fraught with painful emo­tions and uncer­tain­ties, can be, if we choose, one of sig­nif­i­cant per­son­al and col­lec­tive growth.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Free Cours­es on the Coro­n­avirus: What You Need to Know About the Emerg­ing Pan­dem­ic

How Stress Can Change Your Brain: An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion

An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to Sto­icism, the Ancient Greek Phi­los­o­phy That Lets You Lead a Hap­py, Ful­fill­ing Life

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

A Brief Animated History of Alcohol

Almost any­thing can be pre­served in alco­hol, except health, hap­pi­ness and mon­ey…

Rod­er­ick Phillips’ Ted-Ed les­son, a Brief His­to­ry of Alco­hol, above, opens with a bon mot from ear­ly 20th-cen­tu­ry quote maven Mary Wil­son Lit­tle, after which, an unwit­ting chim­panzee quick­ly dis­cov­ers the intox­i­cat­ing effects of over­ripe plums.

His eyes pin­wheel, he falls off a branch, and grins, drunk as a monkey’s uncle.

And though the sub­ject is alco­hol, this pri­mate is the only char­ac­ter in Anton Bogaty’s 5‑minute ani­ma­tion who could be hauled in on a drunk and dis­or­der­ly charge.

The oth­ers take a more sober, indus­tri­ous approach, illus­trat­ing alcohol’s promi­nent role in ear­ly med­i­cine, reli­gious rit­u­als, and glob­al trad­ing.

Ancient Egyp­tians har­vest the cere­al grains that will pro­duce beer, includ­ed as part of work­ers’ rations and avail­able to all class­es.

A native of South Amer­i­ca stirs a ket­tle of chicha, a fist­ful of hal­lu­cino­genic herbs held at the ready.

A Greek physi­cian tends to a patient with a gob­let of wine, as a near­by poet pre­pares to deliv­er an ode on its cre­ative prop­er­ties.

Stu­dents with an inter­est in the sci­ence of alco­hol can learn a bit about the fer­men­ta­tion process and how the inven­tion of dis­til­la­tion allowed for much stronger spir­its.

Alco­hol was a wel­come pres­ence aboard sea­far­ing ves­sels. Not only did this valu­able trad­ing com­mod­i­ty spark live­ly par­ties on deck, it san­i­tized the sailors’ drink­ing water, mak­ing longer voy­ages pos­si­ble.

Cheers to that.

Edu­ca­tors can cus­tomize the les­son here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Beer Archae­ol­o­gy: Yes, It’s a Thing

5,000-Year-Old Chi­nese Beer Recipe Gets Recre­at­ed by Stan­ford Stu­dents

How Carl Jung Inspired the Cre­ation of Alco­holics Anony­mous

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Join her in NYC tongight, Mon­day, Jan­u­ary 6 when her month­ly book-based vari­ety show, Necro­mancers of the Pub­lic Domain cel­e­brates Cape-Cod­di­ties (1920) by Roger Liv­ingston Scaife. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

How to Improve Your Memory: Four TED Talks Explain the Techniques to Remember Anything

Offered the abil­i­ty to remem­ber every­thing, who among us could turn it down? For that mat­ter, who among us could turn down even a slight increase in our mem­o­ry capac­i­ty? If we’re old­er, we com­plain of for­get­ful­ness. If we’re younger, we com­plain that so lit­tle of what we’re sup­posed to learn for tests sticks. If we’re in the mid­dle, we com­plain of being “bad with names” and hav­ing trou­ble prop­er­ly orga­niz­ing all the tasks we need to com­plete. What­ev­er our stage in life, we could all use the kind of mem­o­ry-improv­ing tech­niques explained in these four TED Talks, the most pop­u­lar of which offers Swedish “mem­o­ry ath­lete” Idriz Zoga­j’s method of “How to Become a Mem­o­ry Mas­ter.”

Fram­ing his talk with the sto­ry of how he trained him­self to com­pete in the World Mem­o­ry Cham­pi­onships (yes, they exist), Zogaj rec­om­mends remem­ber­ing by mak­ing “a fun, vivid, ani­mat­ed sto­ry,” using all your sens­es.” “And do it in 3D, even though you don’t have the 3D gog­gles. Your brain is amaz­ing; it can do it any­way.” Telling your­self a sto­ry in such a way that con­nects seem­ing­ly unre­lat­ed images, words, num­bers, or oth­er pieces of infor­ma­tion gives those con­nec­tions strength in our brains.

In “How to Triple Your Mem­o­ry by Using This Trick,” Ricar­do Lieuw On rec­om­mends a sim­i­lar­ly sto­ry-based method, but empha­sizes the impor­tance of con­struct­ing it with “bizarre images.” And “if you tie these bizarre images to a place you know well, like your body, sud­den­ly mem­o­riz­ing things in order becomes a lot eas­i­er.”

In his TED Talk about dai­ly prac­tices to improve mem­o­ry, Kris­han Cha­hal divides “the art of mem­o­riz­ing” into two parts. The first entails “design­ing the infor­ma­tion or mod­i­fy­ing the infor­ma­tion in such a way so that it can catch your atten­tion,” mak­ing what you want to mem­o­rize more nat­u­ral­ly palat­able to “the taste of human mind” — sto­ries and strong visu­al images being per­haps the human mind’s tasti­est treat. The sec­ond involves cre­at­ing what he calls a “self-mean­ing sys­tem,” the best-known vari­ety of which is the mem­o­ry palace. The Mem­o­ry Tech­niques Wiki describes a mem­o­ry palace as “an imag­i­nary loca­tion in your mind where you can store mnemon­ic images,” typ­i­cal­ly mod­eled on “a place you know well, like a build­ing or town.” When mem­o­riz­ing, you store pieces infor­ma­tion in dif­fer­ent “loca­tions” with­in your mem­o­ry palace; when recall­ing, you take that same men­tal jour­ney through your palace and find every­thing where you left it.

The mem­o­ry palace came up here on Open Cul­ture ear­li­er this year when we fea­tured a video about how to mem­o­rize an entire chap­ter of Moby-Dick. Its cre­ator drew on Joshua Foer’s book Moon­walk­ing With Ein­stein: The Art and Sci­ence of Remem­ber­ing Every­thing, and if you want a taste of what Foer has learned about mem­o­ry, watch his TED Talk above. Foer, too, has spent time at the World Mem­o­ry Cham­pi­onships, and his ques­tions about how mem­o­ry ath­letes do what they do led him to the con­cept psy­chol­o­gists call “elab­o­ra­tive encod­ing,” the prac­tice of tak­ing infor­ma­tion “lack­ing in con­text, in sig­nif­i­cance, in mean­ing” and trans­form­ing it “so that it becomes mean­ing­ful in the light of all the oth­er things that you have in your mind.”

Elab­o­ra­tive encod­ing under­lies the effec­tive­ness of mem­o­riz­ing even the dri­est lists of facts in the form of sto­ries full of strik­ing and unusu­al sights. (Foer him­self opens with a mem­o­ry-aid­ing sto­ry star­ring “a pack of over­weight nud­ists on bicy­cles.”) No won­der so many of the great­est sto­ry­tellers have had a the­mat­ic pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with mem­o­ry. Take Jorge Luis Borges, author of “Shake­speare’s Mem­o­ry” (pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture) and the even more (dare I say) mem­o­rable “Funes the Mem­o­ri­ous.” In the lat­ter a horse-rid­ing acci­dent robs a rur­al teenag­er of the abil­i­ty to for­get, bestow­ing upon him an effec­tive­ly infi­nite mem­o­ry — a pow­er that has him tak­ing an entire day to remem­ber an entire day and assign­ing a dif­fer­ent name (“the train,” “Máx­i­mo Perez,” “the whale,” “Napoleon”) to each and every num­ber in exis­tence. As much as we all want to remem­ber more things, sure­ly none of us wants to remem­ber every­thing.

Relat­ed Com­ment:

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

How to Focus: Five Talks Reveal the Secrets of Con­cen­tra­tion

What Are the Most Effec­tive Strate­gies for Learn­ing a For­eign Lan­guage?: Six TED Talks Pro­vide the Answers

This Is Your Brain on Exer­cise: Why Phys­i­cal Exer­cise (Not Men­tal Games) Might Be the Best Way to Keep Your Mind Sharp

Play Mark Twain’s “Mem­o­ry-Builder,” His Game for Remem­ber­ing His­tor­i­cal Facts & Dates

Hear “Shakespeare’s Mem­o­ry” by Jorge Luis Borges

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­maand the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future? Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

Why Learn Latin?: 5 Videos Make a Compelling Case That the “Dead Language” Is an “Eternal Language”

“I tried to get Latin can­celed for five years,” says an exas­per­at­ed Max Fis­ch­er, pro­tag­o­nist of Wes Ander­son­’s Rush­more, when he hears of his school’s deci­sion to scrap Latin class­es. “ ‘It’s a dead lan­guage,’ I’d always say.” Many have made a sim­i­lar­ly blunt case against the study of Latin. But as we all remem­ber, Max’s edu­ca­tion­al phi­los­o­phy over­turns just as soon as he meets Miss Cross and brings up the can­cel­la­tion to make con­ver­sa­tion. “That’s a shame because all the Romance lan­guages were based on Latin,” she says, artic­u­lat­ing a stan­dard defense. “Nihi­lo sanc­tum estne?” Max’s reply, after Miss Cross clar­i­fies that what she said is Latin for “Is noth­ing sacred?”: “Sic tran­sit glo­ria.”

From ad hoc and bona fide to sta­tus quo and vice ver­sa, all of us know a lit­tle bit of Latin, even the “dead lan­guage’s” most out­spo­ken oppo­nents. But do any of us have a rea­son to build delib­er­ate­ly on that inher­it­ed knowl­edge? The video at the top of the post offers not just one but “Three Rea­sons to Study Latin (for Nor­mal Peo­ple, Not Lan­guage Geeks).”

As its host admits, “I could tell you that study­ing Latin will set you up to learn the Romance lan­guages or give you a base of knowl­edge for fine arts and lit­er­a­ture. I can tell you that you’ll be able to read Latin on old build­ings, hymns, state mot­toes, or that read­ing Cicero and Vir­gil in the orig­i­nal is divine­ly beau­ti­ful.” But the num­ber one rea­son to study Latin, he says, is that it will improve your lan­guage acqui­si­tion skills.

And lan­guage acqui­si­tion isn’t just the skill of learn­ing lan­guages, but “the skill of learn­ing oth­er skills.” It teach­es us that “thoughts them­selves are formed dif­fer­ent­ly in dif­fer­ent lan­guages,” and learn­ing even a sin­gle for­eign word “is the act of learn­ing to think in a new way.” Study a for­eign lan­guage and you enter a com­mu­ni­ty, just as you do “every time you learn a new pro­fes­sion, learn a new hob­by,” or when you “inter­act with his­to­ri­ans or philoso­phers, inter­act with the writ­ers of cook­books, or gar­den­ing books, or even writ­ers of soft­ware.” Latin in par­tic­u­lar will also make you bet­ter at speak­ing Eng­lish, espe­cial­ly if you already speak it native­ly. Not only are you “unavoid­ably blind to the weak­ness­es and strengths of your native mean­ing car­ry­ing sys­tem — your lan­guage — until you test dri­ve a new one,” the more com­plex, abstract half of the Eng­lish vocab­u­lary comes from Latin in the first place.

Above all, Latin promis­es wis­dom. Not only can it “train you to con­cep­tu­al­ize one thing in the con­text of many things and to see the con­nec­tions between all of them,” it can, by the time you’re under­stand­ing mean­ing as well as form, “grow you in big-pic­ture and small-pic­ture think­ing and give you the dex­ter­i­ty to move back and forth between both.” Just as you are what you eat, “your mind becomes like what you spend your time think­ing about,” and the rig­or­ous­ly struc­tured Latin lan­guage can imbue it with “log­ic, order, dis­ci­pline, struc­ture, pre­ci­sion.” In the TED Talk above, Latin teacher Ryan Sell­ers builds on this idea, call­ing the study of Latin “one of the most effec­tive ways of build­ing strong fun­da­men­tals in stu­dents and prepar­ing them for the future.” Among the time­less ben­e­fits of the “eter­nal lan­guage” Sell­ers includes its abil­i­ty to increase Eng­lish “word pow­er,” its “math­e­mat­i­cal” nature, and the con­nec­tions it makes between the ancient world and the mod­ern one.

Latin used to be more a part of the aver­age school cur­ricu­lum than it is now, but the debates about its use­ful­ness have been going on for gen­er­a­tions. Why Study Latin?, the 1951 class­room film above, cov­ers a wide swath of them in ten min­utes, from read­ing clas­sics in the orig­i­nal to under­stand­ing sci­en­tif­ic and med­ical ter­mi­nol­o­gy to becom­ing a sharp­er writer in Eng­lish to trac­ing mod­ern West­ern gov­ern­men­tal and soci­etal prin­ci­ples back to their Roman roots. And as the School of Life video below tells us, some things are still best expressed in Latin, an eco­nom­i­cal lan­guage that can pack a great deal of mean­ing into rel­a­tive­ly few words: Veni, vidi, vici. Carpe diem. Homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto. And of course, Latin makes every expres­sion sound weight­i­er — it gives a cer­tain grav­i­tas, we might say.

If all these argu­ments have sold you on the ben­e­fits of Latin, or at least got you intrigued enough to learn more, watch “How Latin Works” for a brief overview of the his­to­ry and mechan­ics of the lan­guage, as well as an expla­na­tion of what it has giv­en to and how it dif­fers from Eng­lish and the oth­er Euro­pean lan­guages we use today. You might then pro­ceed to the free Latin lessons avail­able at the the Uni­ver­si­ty of Texas’ Lin­guis­tics Research Cen­ter, pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture. The more Latin you acquire, the more you’ll see and hear it every­where. You might even ask the same ques­tion Max Fis­ch­er pos­es to the assem­bled admin­is­tra­tors of Rush­more Acad­e­my: “Is Latin dead?” His moti­va­tions have more to do with romance than Romance, but there are no bad rea­sons to learn a lan­guage, liv­ing or oth­er­wise.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Learn Latin, Old Eng­lish, San­skrit, Clas­si­cal Greek & Oth­er Ancient Lan­guages in 10 Lessons

What Ancient Latin Sound­ed Like, And How We Know It

Hip 1960s Latin Teacher Trans­lat­ed Bea­t­les Songs into Latin for His Stu­dents: Read Lyrics for “O Teneum Manum,” “Diei Duri Nox” & More

Why Should We Read Virgil’s Aeneid? An Ani­mat­ed Video Makes the Case

The Tree of Lan­guages Illus­trat­ed in a Big, Beau­ti­ful Info­graph­ic

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.

How Sleep Can Become Your “Superpower:” Scientist Matt Walker Explains Why Sleep Helps You Learn More and Live Longer

“I’ll sleep when I’m dead”: those words have been a mantra to hard-liv­ing types every­where since War­ren Zevon first sang them back in 1976, but as Berke­ley sleep sci­en­tist and Why We Sleep author Matt Walk­er sees it, tak­ing them to heart is a “mor­tal­ly unwise” choice. The exam­ple of Zevon him­self, who died at the age of 53, would seem to val­i­date that judge­ment, but it also comes backed by seri­ous research. In the TED Talk “Sleep Is Your Super­pow­er” above, Walk­er builds on what we all know — that we need to sleep, reg­u­lar­ly and with­out inter­rup­tion — by explain­ing “the won­der­ful­ly good things that hap­pen when you get sleep, but the alarm­ing­ly bad things that hap­pen when you don’t get enough, both for your brain and for your body.”

Not only, for exam­ple, do “you need sleep after learn­ing to essen­tial­ly hit the save but­ton on those new mem­o­ries so that you don’t for­get,” you also “need sleep before learn­ing to actu­al­ly pre­pare your brain, almost like a dry sponge ready to ini­tial­ly soak up new infor­ma­tion.”

As any­one who has tried to pull an all-nighter before a big test has felt, sleep depri­va­tion shuts down your “your mem­o­ry inbox,” and any incom­ing files just get “bounced” with­out being retained. But deep-sleep brain­waves, as Walk­er puts it, act as a “file-trans­fer mech­a­nism at night, shift­ing mem­o­ries from a short-term vul­ner­a­ble reser­voir to a more per­ma­nent long-term stor­age site with­in the brain, and there­fore pro­tect­ing them, mak­ing them safe.”

Improp­er sleep threat­ens not just learn­ing but life itself: com­pro­mised sleep means a com­pro­mised immune sys­tem, hence the “sig­nif­i­cant links between short sleep dura­tion and your risk for the devel­op­ment of numer­ous forms of can­cer” now being dis­cov­ered. “The short­er your sleep, the short­er your life,” as Walk­er stark­ly puts it. As far as how to improve your sleep and, with luck, elon­gate your life, he has two main pieces of advice: “Go to bed at the same time, wake up at the same time, no mat­ter whether it’s the week­day or the week­end,” and “aim for a bed­room tem­per­a­ture of around 65 degrees, or about 18 degrees Cel­sius,” slight­ly cool­er than may feel nor­mal. We’d also do well to remem­ber the impor­tance of break­ing the habit of stay­ing on the inter­net late into the night — or more specif­i­cal­ly, hav­ing stayed up well past mid­night writ­ing this very post, I’d do well to remem­ber it.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Sleep or Die: Neu­ro­sci­en­tist Matthew Walk­er Explains How Sleep Can Restore or Imper­il Our Health

How a Good Night’s Sleep — and a Bad Night’s Sleep — Can Enhance Your Cre­ativ­i­ty

Dr. Weil’s 60-Sec­ond Tech­nique for Falling Asleep

240 Hours of Relax­ing, Sleep-Induc­ing Sounds from Sci-Fi Video Games: From Blade Run­ner to Star Wars

Buck­min­ster Fuller’s Dymax­ion Sleep Plan: He Slept Two Hours a Day for Two Years & Felt “Vig­or­ous” and “Alert”

The Pow­er of Pow­er Naps: Sal­vador Dali Teach­es You How Micro-Naps Can Give You Cre­ative Inspi­ra­tion

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, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

The Venice Time Machine: 1,000 Years of Venice’s History Gets Digitally Preserved with Artificial Intelligence and Big Data

Along with hun­dreds of oth­er sea­side cities, island towns, and entire islands, his­toric Venice, the float­ing city, may soon sink beneath the waves if sea lev­els con­tin­ue their rapid rise. The city is slow­ly tilt­ing to the East and has seen his­toric floods inun­date over 70 per­cent of its palaz­zo- and basil­i­ca-lined streets. But should such trag­ic loss­es come to pass, we’ll still have Venice, or a dig­i­tal ver­sion of it, at least—one that aggre­gates 1,000 years of art, archi­tec­ture, and “mun­dane paper­work about shops and busi­ness­es” to cre­ate a vir­tu­al time machine. An “ambi­tious project to dig­i­tize 10 cen­turies of the Venet­ian state’s archives,” the Venice Time Machine uses the lat­est in “deep learn­ing” tech­nol­o­gy for his­tor­i­cal recon­struc­tions that won’t get washed away.

The Venice Time Machine doesn’t only proof against future calami­ty. It also sets machines to a task no liv­ing human has yet to under­take. Most of the huge col­lec­tion at the State Archives “has nev­er been read by mod­ern his­to­ri­ans,” points out the nar­ra­tor of the Nature video at the top.

This endeav­or stands apart from oth­er dig­i­tal human­i­ties projects, Ali­son Abbott writes at Nature, “because of its ambi­tious scale and the new tech­nolo­gies it hopes to use: from state-of-the-art scan­ners that could even read unopened books, to adapt­able algo­rithms that will turn hand­writ­ten doc­u­ments into dig­i­tal, search­able text.”

In addi­tion to pos­ter­i­ty, the ben­e­fi­cia­ries of this effort include his­to­ri­ans, econ­o­mists, and epi­demi­ol­o­gists, “eager to access the writ­ten records left by tens of thou­sands of ordi­nary cit­i­zens.” Lor­raine Das­ton, direc­tor of the Max Planck Insti­tute for the His­to­ry of Sci­ence in Berlin describes the antic­i­pa­tion schol­ars feel in par­tic­u­lar­ly vivid terms: “We are in a state of elec­tri­fied excite­ment about the pos­si­bil­i­ties,” she says, “I am prac­ti­cal­ly sali­vat­ing.” Project head Frédéric Kaplan, a Pro­fes­sor of Dig­i­tal Human­i­ties at the École poly­tech­nique fédérale de Lau­sanne (EPFL), com­pares the archival col­lec­tion to “’dark mat­ter’—doc­u­ments that hard­ly any­one has stud­ied before.”

Using big data and AI to recon­struct the his­to­ry of Venice in vir­tu­al form will not only make the study of that his­to­ry a far less her­met­ic affair; it might also “reshape schol­ars’ under­stand­ing of the past,” Abbott points out, by democ­ra­tiz­ing nar­ra­tives and enabling “his­to­ri­ans to recon­struct the lives of hun­dreds of thou­sands of ordi­nary people—artisans and shop­keep­ers, envoys and traders.” The Time Machine’s site touts this devel­op­ment as a “social net­work of the mid­dle ages,” able to “bring back the past as a com­mon resource for the future.” The com­par­i­son might be unfor­tu­nate in some respects. Social net­works, like cable net­works, and like most his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tives, have become dom­i­nat­ed by famous names.

By con­trast, the Time Machine model—which could soon lead to AI-cre­at­ed vir­tu­al Ams­ter­dam and Paris time machines—promises a more street-lev­el view, and one, more­over, that can engage the pub­lic in ways sealed and clois­tered arti­facts can­not. “We his­to­ri­ans were bap­tized with the dust of archives,” says Das­ton. “The future may be dif­fer­ent.” The future of Venice, in real life, might be uncer­tain. But thanks to the Venice Time Machine, its past is poised take on thriv­ing new life. See pre­views of the Time Machine in the videos fur­ther up, learn more about the project here, and see Kaplan explain the “infor­ma­tion time machine” in his TED talk above.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Venice Works: 124 Islands, 183 Canals & 438 Bridges

Venice in Beau­ti­ful Col­or Images 125 Years Ago: The Rial­to Bridge, St. Mark’s Basil­i­ca, Doge’s Palace & More

New Dig­i­tal Archive Puts Online 4,000 His­toric Images of Rome: The Eter­nal City from the 16th to 20th Cen­turies

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

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