Inconsequential Childhood Memories

14 Sep

brain vs braun

Memory is a funny thing. Some people remember everything from a decade ago crystal clear. Others can’t remember where they parked their car an hour ago.

Of course a certain amount of memory can be trained. I read part of the book “Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything“, where a journalist with an average memory spends a year training for the U.S. Memory Championship. It’s an incredible insight into what is possible if you have the right system – check out a Slate article he wrote for a quick overview.

But that’s only one type of memory and the author said he still loses his car keys. There is a completely different type of memory freaks that are even more interesting. There was an awesome 60 Minutes episode interviewing a handful of the rare people that have what they call “superior autobiographical memory.” If you ask them – “do you remember what you did on April 7th, 1973?” – they’ll be able to tell you exactly what they did that day, the day of the week, what they wore, and what they were thinking about.

Sleep is also crucial to your memory. I learned somewhere that the last few hours (5-8) of sleep are when most the transfer of memory from RAM (short-term) to hard-drive (long-term) happens. So if you don’t get a full 8 hours of sleep, you aren’t learning as effectively as you could be. The fact that people sleep less these days than a few decades ago can also be partially blamed for a whole bunch of other things, like getting fat. Maybe New York should mandate 8 hours of sleep a night rather than banning sugary sodas? Hard to tell which would be more effective, but one gets all the blame.

Inconsequential Childhood Memories

I got thinking about memory because of a couple memories I have from 4th and 5th grade. Recently I’ve been spending a lot of time with kids this age, so I’ve been going back into my past to see what I remember. Some of these things are so inconsequential, I have no idea why I remember them but not more important things:

  • We did mental math problems every day in Ms. Barth’s class – “Start with 7 … multiply by 3 … add 4 … divide by 5 – what’s the number?” Well I remember one time we did it, we started with the number of hours you sleep in a night. So I started with 9. I got it wrong because we were supposed to start with 8.
  • In Ms. Walker’s 5th grade class she read off everyone’s name and you were supposed to respond if you did your homework. One time I said “yes” and she thought I said “oven” (don’t ask me how). So from then on I would answer with a household appliance. But one time I didn’t do my reading and didn’t get to say an appliance. This was the start of my 15+ year run of becoming less cool every year.
  • We read Babe – they sat us down to explain the word bitch and that we shouldn’t use it.
  • The TV show South Park came out – I had a friend named Kenny and we thought it was funny he dies in every episode (even though we didn’t watch it, we just knew that it happened!)
  • We had a Tic-Tac-Toe tournament in our class. I made the finals where I faced off on the overhead projector against someone that also figured out how to win or tie every time. After we tied a half dozen times I got bored and tried something different so we wouldn’t just tie for all of time. I lost.

Do you have any memories from 4th or 5th grade that are just as inconsequential?


Kickass quote from the author of Moonwalking with Einstein that can be applied to any skill you are learning:

The OK Plateau is that place we all get to where we just stop getting better at something. Take typing, for example. You might type and type and type all day long, but once you reach a certain level, you just never get appreciably faster at it. That’s because it’s become automatic. You’ve moved it to the back of your mind’s filing cabinet. If you want to become a faster typer, it’s possible, of course. But you’ve got to bring the task back under your conscious control. You’ve got to push yourself past where you’re comfortable. You have to watch yourself fail and learn from your mistakes. That’s the way to get better at anything. And it’s how I improved my memory.


Starbucks Treat Receipt – The Best Idea Ever?

23 Aug

Starbucks is one clever company. I have been impressed by their promotions: like donating $5 to create US jobs for every pound of coffee purchased. I have been impressed by their fearless embrace of new technology: like signing up to process all credit card payments with Square. And I have been impressed by how deeply they have climbed into my head: the Starbucks Treat Receipt.

If you buy something from Starbucks before 2 pm, show up after 2 pm with your receipt to get any medium cold drink for $2. Yes, that includes the $4.50 ice cream drinks (aka Grande blended frappuccinos).

Why is this deal so awesome for Starbucks? Who goes to Starbucks twice in one day? Maybe if you are up early, but who goes after 2 pm? It is way easier to convince a paying customer to do it again than it is to get a new customer entirely. They must be crushing it on repeat customers during this promotion.

This deal is extremely appealing – I find myself saving receipts now. I tell myself “well, you might as well hang on to the receipt just in case you want to go later.” Then every time I reach into my pocket I find the receipt and think of Starbucks. Logically, it doesn’t make sense. I don’t want a sugary drink in the afternoon. And the iced coffee and iced green tea are cheap enough that the deal wouldn’t really save me any money. But I still save the receipts. I have gone back once for an afternoon treat and they are bound to get me again soon. Probably tomorrow…

There is even more cleverness, so much so that I will switch to bullet points:

  • “Treat” receipt. Yes, even the name is encouraging you to get one of those expensive sugary drinks. You deserve a treat. And then you are addicted. And probably pregnant.
  • The promotion is limited to one month. This makes it way more appealing. I think to myself, “well Brian, you better take advantage of this now because you won’t be able to later.”
  • The hot summer time promotion. You’re hot, thirsty, and have a treat receipt in your pocket. No brainer.
  • The oh so close to a rhyme – “treat receipt”. It is music to the ears.



Back to School Again – My First Experience with Coursera

6 Aug

In the spring I sat in on a class at Stanford – “Startup” taught by Peter Theil. I definitely learned a ton, but it wasn’t until I noticed I achieving perfect attendance that I thought I might enjoy taking other classes from time to time just for fun.

A couple weeks ago my latest class began – “Software Engineering for SaaS” (software as a service) offered by Coursera. It is adapted from a UC Berkeley computer science course for seniors. Why am I interested in this? Because it teaches a modern technology stack – Ruby on Rails – that is widely used and incredibly useful. If I were to start a new web application project a month ago, I would have struggled and wasted a lot of time getting started despite all my programming experience.

Why is that? Web programming isn’t exactly covered for most students in the computer science program. Rather, they take the fundamentals they learn and apply them to making websites. Sometimes this can be the same programming language, but often times it is not. I simply haven’t put in enough hours to be very comfortable in this area.

The hours that I have put in are in ancient technologies – PHP (used to power WordPress, and thus my websites) and ASP.NET (used by my old company because they had to use the Windows technology stack for conservative law firms that don’t want anything to do with open sources software (they’d have no one to yell at if something goes wrong!)). The SaaS class covers (or forces me to get experience on my own): Ruby on Rails, GitHub, HAML, EC2, Heroku, RESTful APIs, MVC, Agile, Cucumber, Capybara, and more buzzwords I’m forgetting.

I’m glad I’m getting a formal introduction to these because I believe it will lead to a better education than learning on my own. More importantly, I’m glad that I’m learning now before I have a project I’m trying to push out and cutting corners to get there.

Udacity is the other online advanced learning site making waves. Where Coursera adapts existing university courses for online, Udacity creates new courses from the ground up for online content. People aparently like this better. I think this chunking of content into smaller online bites, gamifying, interaction to keep your attention, whatever, only has potential to dumb the course down. What’s wrong with long-form classes? Not everything has to be a tweet, and for difficult concepts, I think long-form has an advantage.


The Mindset and Demeanor of Favorite vs. That of an Underdog

13 Jul

I am a competitive guy. Compared amongst Stanford “I must overachieve”rs, I am more competitive than most. Compared to the athletes I have encountered over the years, I am more competitive than most. Even compared to the Stanford athletes crew I roll with, I am more competitive than most. But I am quiet about it and the casual observer might never know.

Why is this? Why do some people show their fire while others keep it inside? More specifically, why am I the way I am? I have a theory.

It involves the demeanor of a favorite and that of an underdog. As a favorite you want to be intimidating. You execute perfectly. You don’t show emotion. Nothing affects you. If you hit a snag, it is simply an expected obstacle on your path to glory. If things are going well, it is as expected and no reason to celebrate. If you are winded or struggling, you hide it in hopes that your opponent will mistake you for a machine.

The mindset of an underdog is different. You want to place a hint of doubt in the head of the favorite. You want to show that you want it more. That you are willing to work harder. That you have luck on your side. You believe that momentum will have an actual affect on the next play, and maximize this momentum with celebration. If you are winded or struggling, you wear it as a badge of honor, in hopes of showing just how far you are willing to go to win.

In my competitive infancy, I was a favorite way more than an underdog (in most cases not due to my contributions, so this list is in no way bragging). In 7th grade I played on a basketball team that rolled through every youth team in the city. My freshman year I played on a football team that went undefeated in an area where football is a big deal. In high school I played on volleyball teams that made it to the LA section championship 4 years straight, in the best volleyball city in the country. My senior year of high school, I played on a volleyball team that won the club national championship in convincing fashion and apparently had the most top 50 recruits of any volleyball team in history.

This was the time that I was developing my competitive nature. In most cases when my team walked into the gym, we were better than you and we knew it. And this formed my demeanor and mindset in competition. To this day I act accordingly, even though I find myself an underdog more than not.

An incident last Friday night got me thinking about this. I was a little bit stiffly (I got sick for the 2nd time in almost 4 years of being a vegetarian, which is way way way less than before) and was heading to bed around 10 to get a good nights sleep. But I figured I’d have a hard time falling asleep so I put on a movie and watch part of it. When I realized I had seen the Magnificent Sever before, I put in Miracle. Oops. 5 minutes in, I was wide awake. It got my competitive juices flowing instantly. Two hours later, the movie ended and I was wide awake. I was so jacked I was awake for another hour.

Photo: Ryan Policky


All That Is Man – Cory Booker Drops Knowledge on Stanford Graduates

26 Jun

A little over a week ago Stanford had its 121st commencement ceremony. The speaker was graduate, former Stanford football player, Rhode Scholar, and current New Jersey major Cory Booker. I first heard about this guy a few months ago when he allegedly juked out his bodyguard to run into a burning building to save a woman. Some versions of the story say he punched out his bodyguard to get by him. Either way, pretty baller.

Here is the whole speech for you to check out. It’s quite inspirational.

For those of you that won’t invest the time in the video, here a couple quotes I felt compelled to get out of bed to write down.

“Democracy is not a spectator sport” – funny how we expect everything handed to us. I suppose if we aren’t willing to do the job of a politician or even participate by doing anything more than voting, we have less of a right to complain. Along the same lines, Booker says most people resort to “sedentary agitation”. Great term!

“Fear is a precondition to discovery” – bam! Think about that next time you’re scared.

And ladies, unlike most of our men featured in our All That Is Man series, Booker is both alive and single. What are you waiting for?

This speech ties together the last two books I’ve read. One about a grad student that spent years hanging out in the Chicago projects to learn how they live – Booker did something similar in Newark. The other about Obama’s 2008 campaign – Booker is also a strong African American politician with an extensive education and roots in community organizing. Funny how connections like this seem to happen …