How To Remember A Fact


Remembering things used to be an essential skill. But these days it’s only really needed by podcasters who are recording in front of a convention audience a live episode where they discuss whether Star Trek V was a bad movie or not. Everyone else can mostly just look stuff up or decide that they don’t need to remember a thing after all. In the old days, you needed a certain kind of person who could tell you, oh, what the code words were to trigger Shipwreck’s hypnotically suppressed memory of a formula to make water explode in that one episode of G.I.Joe where he wakes up seven years in the future. Today, we have Google to tell us whether water ought to be exploding. It ought not.

But it remains a fun hobby, among a certain kind of person, to have things that they just remember. And there are different kinds of things to remember. There are things that you are expected to do or to not do. I don’t mean to talk about that, even though it seems like that covers everything possible. That breaks down quickly when I ask if you’ve ever written a note to yourself so that you potholder. I repeat the admonition to your confused face. Then we get into a debate about whether ‘to pothold’ is a verb and, if it isn’t, then is ‘potholdest’ a comparative? In the confusion I can sneak out undetected.

But I don’t. I want to discuss remembering facts. Any literate, well-informed person could encounter nearly 96 facts worth remembering by their age and decaying range of knee mobility. But how to keep them available? How to keep them from turning into this, a typical remembered fact:

By the time he was 42(? 44? 32?) years old, Ludwig von (van? van der?) Beethoven had been part of over (nearly? under?) 120 (20? 220?) without once [ something ] except for the ~one time(s?) in [ Bonn / Vienna / ^W with E T A Hoffman ].

Reference: Harpo Speaks!, Harpo Marx and Rowland Barber.

There are two good ways to ensure you will never forget a fact. The first we know from that time you were in fourth grade, and were prepared to give the most thoroughly awesome presentation on “water” that your science class had ever seen. And you even had real actual cubes of ice stored in the thermos bottle to show off alongside some water you got from the one water fountain in school that didn’t just dribble a tiny trickle of warm, indistinctly smelly water down the spout. And how you began by declaring how aitch-two-oh was the technical name that scientists gave the water “molly-cah-loo-la-lee”. And how since that day you have known the generally agreed-upon pronunciation of “molecule” with the thoroughness that somehow everyone else in your class knew because why would they laugh so much? And you know it with such thoroughness that you feel jabs of embarrassment whenever you see the word “molecule” in print, or hear someone talking about molecules, or you make use of a molecule of something.

So tying a fact to embarrassment lets you remember it easily. Indeed, oppressively, to the point that you cannot possibly forget even facts you wish to. This is what makes mnemonics work. Bind a fact you wish to know to something too dumb to let anyone know you know. Once you’ve composed:

Roses are red
Violets are blue
Sulfuric acid is
Formula aitch-two-ess-oh-four

The terror that someone will learn about the meter of that last line will ensure you’ll never mistakenly put roses in your heap of “things which are blue”.

You don’t need to use embarrassment to commit facts to memory, no. But the second way to sear a fact into your eternally-present memory is to tie it to shame. And, you know, look around your country. Whichever country you’re in right now. There’s enough you’re ashamed of as is. We don’t need to add to that heap of shame by trying to use it to remember which chemical element is abbreviated Ci. It is cinnamon. You’re looking at a “periodic table” of spices. Stick to embarrassment.

Shipwreck’s hypnotic activation phrase was “frogs in winter”. I’m not going to try to convince you Star Trek V was good, but I will insist William Shatner’s directing was solid. If you find your water starting to explode try smothering the blast with the good, stern look your fourth-grade science teacher gave the class after she finished smirking. That’ll help.

Me Week: Facing The Fun Fact Of It All


I need to get myself a little more ahead of deadline than I can get just by writing something fresh every day. So I’m going to take most of this week and talk about one of my favorite writers: me. I’ve long been an influence on me, and have tried to let myself mould my writings into better forms. It’s not easy. There’s a lot of ways that I want to be funny and not all of them are exactly compatible.

One of my other big influences is Ian Shoales, stage persona of Merle Kessler. Now and then I write something that’s quite directly in his style of social commentary mixed with absurdity. I don’t run as absurd as he does, but then, I only intermittently get a good comment going.

So here I’d like to point to a January 2015 piece I wrote, very much in the Ian Shoales style. It’s titled The Fun Fact Of It All, and it’s inspired by a Peanuts page-a-day calendar, as will happen. I think it came across with some juicy ideas about facts and it maybe needs two drafts to really catch what I want. I was fibbing about Mrs Furey in this piece; she wasn’t, in truth, so careful about the nonsense of a potentially false fact. But it works well to have a character putting forth that point.

On The Convenience Store Shelves


So there sitting on the bottom row of the convenience store cooler, beside the Towne Club flavors, was something new to my experience. Snap Punch. I didn’t get it, what with their having Diet Ruby Red Squirt. But if I read the label right, they’re offering the decent yet slightly watery taste of Snapple, plus interesting and I guess true enough facts like “Beavers were once the size of bears”, topped off with way more hitting. So we’d get to ponder things like, “Wait, does this mean beavers used to be a lot larger, or did bears used to be smaller? Ow! OW! Quit that! OWWW!” It’s a weird business model, but you never really know what’s going to work until you try it.

Facing the Fun Fact of it All


I have a Peanuts page-a-day calendar because otherwise I’d only be reading three different Peanuts strips online every day, and on the back of every page is a miscellaneous bit of stuff, like a word puzzle or a sudoku puzzle or a note about what the day’s an anniversary of, which would be kind of useful if I saw it before I tore the page off the next day. On the back of January 27 they had this:

Fun Fact

Corporate executives consider Tuesday the most productive day of the week. It’s the day to get down to business and start crossing off items on to-do lists.

Is this a “fun fact”? I’m not a fair judge of whether something is fun because I own multiple books which explain the history of containerized cargo, and I’ve been thinking seriously about picking up James Q Wilson’s Bureaucracy for recreational reading. I know that sounds like a joke, but I got interested in Wilson’s book because of some reading I was doing about Harry S Truman’s 1946-1949 director of the Bureau of the Budget, so you see why that all makes sense. You can tell me whether corporate productivity assessments are fun.

But is it a “fact”? People have a complicated relationship with facts. We like them, because we’re pretty sure knowledge is built out of them, but just how that building gets done is a mystery. You can check in the World Almanac and find out how many tons of steel the United States produced in 1945, if you were trying to look up when Arbor Day is and had some trouble with the index, but all that really tells you is how much steel the American Iron and Steel Institute was willing to admit was made back then. And really, all you learn is how much the World Almanac claims the American Iron and Steel Institute claims was made back then, and they’re pretty sure you aren’t going to go checking, what with Google being a much easier way to find out when Arbor Day is. Knowing what you do about American steel production rates in 1945 doesn’t give you any idea about why Arbor Day.

We want facts to be on our side, as we get ready to do cognitive battle with the world, but they’re not reliable allies. A fact can be pretty hard to dispute — that steel-production figure has got to be pretty sound if I could figure out where I left the World Almanac so I could look it up — but then it’s also too dull to enlist except on a game show; it’s got at most the power to make you go “huh” and move on. Facts that are about anything interesting are graded and qualified and have subtleties and need other facts to help them out. If we, say, want to know what made World War II happen and what we can do to prevent a recurrence we can’t really grab anything concrete and have to content ourselves to not calling that area “Prussia” anymore.

We want facts to speak for themselves, as long as they stick to our scripts. When we run across a treacherous fact that doesn’t seem to care if it supports us we could say something about how we might change our minds based on “this fact, if it’s true.” This should cause Mrs Furey to pop up from seventh-grade English class and berate our intellectual carelessness. If it isn’t true it isn’t a fact, by definition, which is a kind of fact used to divert an argument we might not win into an argument everybody will walk away from, losing and bitter. We can get away with the carelessness because it’s a big world and Mrs Furey might need years before she can get back to us.

That’s all right; only the old-fashioned try to change minds with facts anymore anyway. Now it’s all done with the right colored lighting, appropriate background music, and the vague scent of vanilla, which research into the psychology of decision-making shows will cause us to decide, never mind what we said before, we are going to buy whatever it is that’s in front of us, whether it’s a Snoopy doll, a footstool, a bowl of keychains, or a 2016 Toyota Something Limited Edition (pre-recalled for your convenience). At least that’s what the facts they report say and who are we to quibble?

If there’s a fact I am pretty sure about, it’s that the calendar company started putting this stuff on the back of their pages at the same time they stopped printing separate pages for Sundays. That’s fourteen percent of the year they’re hoping I won’t miss if they put in a sprinkling of fun facts. I bet they decided to do that on a Tuesday.