It was the best of times … An Introduction

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

A Tale of two Cities – Charles Dickens (1859)

There are not many better introductory passages than Dickens’ A Tale of two Cities. The introduction to this blog will not hope to meet that high standard (I was tempted to crowbar in “great expectations” but though better of it); it will only briefly outline what type of content can be expected in future posts, with an aside about human memory.

There is a wonderful anecdote about John Von Neumann in relation to A Tale of Two Cities. It is recounted in Herman Goldstein‘s The Computer from Pascal to von Neumann (source – retrieved December 28th 2014):

As far as I could tell, von Neumann was able on once reading a book or article to quote it back verbatim; moreover he could do it years later without hesitation. He could also translate it at no diminution in speed from its original language into English. On one occasion I tested his ability by asking him to tell me how the ‘Tale of Two Cities’ started. Whereupon, without pause, he immediately began to recite the first chapter and continued until asked to stop after about ten or fifteen minutes.

This left a strong impression (and the linked article’s contents in general) in my teens and instilled a deep interest (that I still enjoy at 27) in the possibilities of a trained mind. I was also fascinated with stories of equally impressive feats: memorisation of pi to hundreds and thousands of digits, memorisation of dictionaries, human calculators, hyperthymesia etc. These feats seemed alien and far beyond my reach. I had what could be described as a good memory, and a flash of intelligence, but 1000 digits of pi?

I was always rather sceptical about the truth of the Von Neumann anecdote in the hyperbolic sense claimed by Goldstein: photographic memories do not exist, and I doubted Von Neumann was able to recite any book he had read. (There are very interesting stories that I will no doubt remark upon in future posts, not about the famous Solomon Shereshevsky but Eug­enia Alexeyenko, Kim Peek, Stephen Wiltshire and others who may possess something as close as is possible to a photographic memory).

I later came across Norman Macrae’s Biography of Von Neumann where the myth was dispelled. Macrae makes pains to state that this ability was restricted to texts Von Neumann had “fearsomely concentrated” on:

His powers of memory were awe-inspiring, but only about matters on which he had fearsomely concentrated his mind. He could recite verbatim pages and pages from books such as Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities which he had read fifteen years before … This was because he had concentrated hard when first reading them … [in the case of A Tale of Two Cities] he was trying to get a feel for proper English syntax before emigrating to the United States.

This is something that I, or anyone in fact, can do with a little technique and effort. (Things of this kind will no doubt be discussed in this blog). Inspired by Von Neumann, I can recite the introductory passage from A Tale of Two Cities, and it was achieved with surprisingly little concentration; it could not be described as fearsome anyway. This is along with many more impressive feats that are equally as achievable.

What will this blog contain?

In this blog I will post musings mathematical, physical, computational and any other topic(s) of interest (book reviews, recent research etc.).

I currently work in IT and will, from time to time, post interesting cases that may provide some useful insight for others working on similar problems.

A lot of my free time is spent self-studying higher-mathematics with a side interest in physics and the theory of computation.

I hold many other varied interests: history, literature, poetry, chess, psychology, film, memory, magic, language, politics and art to name a few. All I am sure all will feature at some point.

I don’t expect the blog to be widely read, it is more for myself. If you do find anything interesting, take issue with an exposition, or feel compelled to comment, all feedback is welcomed.

In each post, as an addendum, I will always try to include a quote or quotes, be they pithy, profound or frivolous, that in some way relate to its content. The reason for this is not pretension, it is that during my reading I always find that a thought I have had (recently, rarely or often) is so consistently expressed more concisely, cogently and skilfully by another mind, that I tend to collect them, or their impression leaves an indelible mark.

Put another way I often encounter …

What oft was thought, but ne’er so well express’d

An Essay on Criticism – Alexander Pope

I hope to post at least weekly, and that at least one person will find it useful.

The End

A book is made from a tree. It is an assemblage of flat, flexible parts (still called “leaves”) imprinted with dark pigmented squiggles. One glance at it and you hear the voice of another person, perhaps someone dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, the author is speaking, clearly and silently, inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people, citizens of distant epochs, who never knew one another. Books break the shackles of time ― proof that humans can work magic.

Cosmos – Carl Sagan

This entry was posted in general, memory and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to It was the best of times … An Introduction

  1. Jeyna Grace says:

    You really have well assorted interests 🙂 Never thought a scientific mind would love literature and fiction.

    Liked by 1 person

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