Saturday, January 21, 2017

A Digression into Cold-Reading

Many people, particularly those of /r/scienceofdeduction, enjoy deductive exercises in which one is presented with a picture and from it, attempts to extract as much meaningful information as possible about the owner/taker/subject of the image. Much to the surprise of the original poster of the image, people can be quite good at this game. Personally, I love that people have taken the time out of their day to practice such things.

Unfortunately, community learning tends to suffer from a lack of rigor. One of the problems I have seen with games like this (problems which I attempt to avoid as much as humanly possible when engaging in this activity) is that people tend to conflate the ideas of "doing deductions" with something called "cold reading" in a(n) (sometimes subconscious) attempt to make their results sound more impressive.

Cold reading is a technique used both to gather information about a subject, and to artificially increase the validity or importance of the information already collected. It is used by magicians and performers who wish to appear more knowledgeable or perceptive than they actually are. While it can be quite entertaining, it strays from the art of detection in subtle ways that I will attempt to elaborate upon.

It's Easy to Backpedal
First of all, those who perform cold reading will often wrap their assertions in uncertainty by using words such as "perhaps" or "maybe" or "possibly."

It's fine to be unsure, but be sure the parties involved are aware of your uncertainty in order to avoid stepping over the line into being overtly mysterious. A good rule of thumb I use is that if someone were to announce that they had proof that your deduction was incorrect, it would have to be iron-clad evidence to even introduce a shred of doubt into your mind.

Always lean towards saying too little, keeping the rest for further meditation than saying too much, forcing other people to cherry-pick the facts from the guesses.


It's Vague

Cold readers rely HEAVILY on what I'll call "fortune-cookie statements." You've seen them. They are those phrases you see so often in horoscopes that say things like, "You've recently suffered a loss of some kind," or "you tend to get stressed when your plans fall apart."

These phrases might have some truth to them, but be wary - it is only the truth that you yourself ascribe to them. That's the point. A cold-reader doesn't know the truth, so they say things that allow the audience/mark to fill in the blanks in their own mind. They can be dangerous as they tend to create the idea that the cold-reader has an incredibly complete picture of the subject and is thus qualified to make personally relevant statements, knowing that the subject will know what it means. It is not the case.

Fortunately, there is an easy 2-part vagueness test one can apply to statements such as these. It goes as follows:
  1. Is this statement true for lots of people? Not what you think the statement refers to, but the literal statement itself. Most people experience "loss of some kind" many times a week.
  2. Are the supporting reasons for the statement clear? While intuition is a powerful source of detecting power, a good detective should at least be able to articulate a reason for a particular assumption. (Ex: "The table seemed weird, perhaps because of the empty space in the middle here. It feels like there should be something there due to the arrangement of the other items.")
If the statement is true for many people, discount it. If the statement is unfounded, discount it.

It's Not Truth-Seeking

Cold-reading is certainly a skill that takes a lot of practice to cultivate. It can be a wonderful means of extracting information when necessary, and tends to create a dramatic flair which so many of us are quite fond of.

Sadly, because it lacks the rigor of detection, it cannot be relied upon as a means of advancing one's knowledge, only a means of suggesting new places to look for it.

Any method of collecting information that depends for its effectiveness on the receptive nature of its subject cannot accurately be called detection. Perhaps it falls into the purview of interrogation. In any case, cold-reading is less about getting the truth and more about the appearance of doing so.

Beware fellow detectives of inadvertently saying more than you know. You may appear clever, but it's much harder to improve as a result. Cold-reading allows for a sort of safety-net when making wilder assumptions. We don't need it.

This is not meant to be a lecture - I am guilty of relying on a safety-net from time to time as well. It is meant to be a reminder that the truly great detectives don't require one, and that practicing with one is good until it ceases to be helpful.

Happy deducing!

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Thinking Silly

Something that few people know, and even fewer understand, is that memory is a creative act.

I will be creating two new games in the Training Regimen section of the blog specifically relating to mnemonics and how one can better practice this particular facet of Holmes' character, but for now, let's discuss what, for me, is the most fun facet of memory, and perhaps the Holmesian arts as a whole.

I find, as a general rule, that images and sensory experiences that induce noticeable physiological responses are the ones that your brain will most easily hold onto (increased heart rate, laughter, eyes tearing up). But why is that?

Your brain evolved over the course of human history to do one thing - keep you alive. In order to do that, it came up with some neat shortcuts. Your long term, association-based memory is one of those shortcuts. Your brain is the most powerful computer in the universe, but why should it have to recalculate the optimal decisions for every situation? Why not use some of that hardware for storing useful information for later?

Fine. But how does it know what to store? How does it know what's important?

Actually, the answer to that one is pretty easy - whatever keeps you alive - things that keep you safe, fed, and able to make lots of little versions of you in the future.

As such, your brain latches onto some very specific categories of things. You have a built-in GPS so that you can remember where your cave is, where you found those delicious berries yesterday, where you saw that bear so you can keep your distance. You have great face memory, an analog Friends List that helps you to know in a moment when you are in the presence of a threat or an ally. Things that are funny, sexy, and scary all stick in your brain amazingly well because they are all things that your brain already decided were important for one reason or another.

The most under-utilized of the above is humor. It's really easy to think of things that scare you, but it's usually quite difficult to take those things and remove them from the scary situation they belong in. It's a little easier for sexy images, but they tend to suffer a similar problem - they seem weird and out of place once you remove the context.

That's when we begin to notice the evolutionary hack that is humor. Things look silly when they are out of place, in locations and situations they weren't before. A duck isn't particularly funny until you give him a shirt and hat and call him Donald. Neither is a cat chasing a mouse... until the mouse hands the cat a stick of dynamite and flies off in a paper airplane he made himself. It's very easy to think up silly things - just think of a perfectly normal thing and change it until it doesn't quite fit anymore.

That, before anything else, is the most important trait you bring to the art of memory. Sure, you have the ability to recognize silliness. But even more importantly, you can make it. You can generate new silly things just by thinking about them and put them wherever you want in that built-in GPS of yours.

The best memory technique is one that comes naturally. If it still feels like a device, there's still room for improvement. It has to come organically and naturally, and the most organic way I've ever found is being silly.

Reader Challenge:

Next time you're out and about, meet some new people. Take their name and do something silly with it. Maybe smash that together with a silly thing you see in their face, or how they smell, or the shirt they are wearing, etc.

See how much better it sticks in your head when you're thinking silly.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Pegboards - How and When to Use Them

Most of the mnemonics-related information discussed so far is related to a particular technique known as a mind/memory palace, journey method, etc.

Essentially, it involves taking information, converting it into an image, and storing that image, usually in a linear manner, in a well-known place in your mind.

But what if you don't need a list? What if you need immediate access to information, but don't know exactly which piece?

Restated for you computer scientists out there - What if you don't want a linked list? What if you want an array? What you need is instant access to any one item, not the ability to iterate through many items.

Introducing... (funny trumpet noise) ...the Pegboard.

A pegboard is a method of linking pieces of information without the need to spacially locate images. The trade-off is that your images typically need to be WAY more ridiculous than they usually are, as the association is the only thing keeping it stuck in your brain.

Okay, but how does it work?

I'm glad you asked, well-timed bold font.

Let's say you want to be able to remember 3 things. We don't know what they are yet, we just know how many there will be. Let's start by creating some pegs.

Peg #1, where we will hang our first memory, will take the form of a GIANT foam finger, the kind you see at sporting events.

Peg #2 will be poop. That's right, poop. A deuce. Number two.

Peg #3 shall henceforth be a large tree. It can be any tree you want, so long as you can see it in your mind.

It's important to note here that there's no reason your pegs need to be these images. Anything that provides a reliable association with the numbers will work great.

Now that we have our pegs, let's try remembering some stuff. The first item we will attempt to memorize is a bright green plastic drinking-straw. In order to lock this into our pegboard, we simply combine it with the image for peg #1. For example, I imagined an angry fan getting his coffee spilled at a football game and, as revenge, stabbing the straw through the massive foam finger held by the man who bumped him. Now the straw is poking through the foam finger and maybe even whistling in the breeze a bit.

The next item we need to remember is a leather briefcase. The scene that pops into my head is one of a snobbish businessman brushing past me on the way to the elevator because he believes that his time is much more important. However, I have acted quickly and have switched his case for an identical one filled with excrement. Just as the elevator doors close, I see the case pop open. The contents spill out and the man is forced to ride up the elevator with a small crowd of people who believe he brings his poop to work.

I'll leave you to  come up with a funny story that explains how item #3, a grand piano, came to be involved with peg #3, a tree. I'm sure it will be wonderful.

Now, in order to recall the memorized items, we simply need to recall the peg they were stored on, and the ridiculous story we have created will shoot back into the forefront of our mind, filling in the missing information.


"Oh I sure do wish I could recall what item #2 was. I know that peg 2's image was poop, but past that, I'm not sure....

Oh! That's right! I put poop in the businessman's leather briefcase!"

(Giggling fit ensues)

This technique can be expanded almost infinitely, as it is limited only by the number of pegs you create for yourself. In addition, the pegs themselves do not need to be numbers. They could be letters of the alphabet, names of people on mail slots, evidence tags, etc. Any data that needs to be linked to other information you don't know yet can serve as a peg in a pegboard.

Here's a link to a Wikipedia page on pegboards for further reading.

They go through a slightly longer example, and touch on some of the ideas behind actually choosing peg images, like rhymes.

Happy memorizing!

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Guess What?

We're back, guys.

Now that I'm finally graduating (B.S. in Computer Science), I'm finally free to devote a larger chunk of time to this blog. I intend to get into a good, fairly regular rhythm with the posts, as well as try a couple cool things I've been thinking about while I've been gone.


I was recently contacted by a person who works at a place that is responsible for placing people in front of other people to perform a skill for entertainment purposes (very vague, I know - I will explain more once I verify that I'm not in violation of any agreement to do otherwise).

Essentially, someone was perusing mnemonics-related websites looking for people for a project, and they found the link to my blog! So a huge thank you to everyone who has read the blog, or talked about it, or posted links to it, etc. I'm always surprised to hear when people get a kick out of this blog, as it was initially meant to be a personal experiment. Now that it's apparent that people actually read and enjoy this project, I have even more reason to get it back up and running smoothly.

Let's get to work!

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Mind Palace - Conversion

So far, we've talked about the basic framework for a mind-palace, and the general idea behind setting one up. Today, we're going to examine what goes in to actually internalizing information in a really concrete way. In order to do that, I thought I'd take you through one of my pet-projects that I work on when I'm bored - memorizing Pi.

NOTE: This is advanced. If you cannot use your mind palace to remember a shopping list, a list of 20 random words, AND the order of songs on your favorite album first, DO THAT FIRST. THIS IS YOUR ONLY WARNING. Everything after this will assume you are at a level where you are capable of the above tasks or better.

Now, since Pi is an infinite non-repeating decimal, you'll never actually be able to get it memorized by virtue of the fact that there's always one more number you haven't stored away (for more information, please Google "Pi"). This element of futility makes Pi an excellent way to "score" your mnemonic prowess. You'll never actually complete the job, but you'll have a number to point to - you'll be able to say, "I've stored X digits of Pi in my mind palace, and I know them backwards and forwards." For me, that number is currently 78. Nothing crazy, but then, I'm not trying to win any competitions.

In order to memorize something like Pi, which (after you get passed the 3 and decimal point bit) is just a series of numbers, you're going to need to figure out a few things in advance.
  • Chunk Size :
    • You're obviously not going to make one gigantic image by just combining all of the numbers together. This is a bad idea for two reasons. The first is that, depending on how you set it up, your image might change dramatically with every new number you add. The second is that even if you didn't hit the first problem, eventually your image would be so complex that you'd be better off just trying to remember the numbers in another way (perhaps a song?).
    • So what we're going to do is "chunk" the number up into manageable pieces that we can memorize and add to a list. If you're a world champion mnemonist, you may end up using a system that has 9 digit chunks. The system I use has 6 digit chunks (I'll explain why in a bit). If you're a total beginner, you can chunk 1 digit at a time too (of course, if you're a total beginner, perhaps memorizing Pi shouldn't be your first exercise).
  • Conversion Method:
    • We need to find a way to convert the data we want to remember (strings of numbers) into something our brain can more readily process (sensory-enriched images). So they question is, how do we convert a 6-digit string into an image?
    • Enter the PAO System (Person, Action, Object). The PAO system is one of the more popular systems for encoding any data that can be "chunked" into 3's. Essentially, we convert the first chunk into an image, the second into an action, and the third into an object to create a little scene which we can place into one of the loci in our mind palace.
    • But wait, above I said that I use chunks of six digits at a time. Still true. We're just going to use the PAO system to break it down further into chunks of 2. So for the purposes of this memorization exercise, the smallest mnemonic unit we'll be using is a 2-digit number. Sound fair?
  • Setup:
    • The setup required to create a successful PAO system is a tad daunting. For a 2-digit PAO system, basically you need to think of 100 people - numbered 00-99 - each one of these people has a unique action and object that is associated ONLY with them. They don't have to combine to create a sensible image as long as you can use any one to get back to the number associated with the person.
      • Ex1:     14 - Albus Dumbledore, Blackening His Hand, Elder Wand
      • Ex2:     15 - Albert Einstein, Writing Equations, Chalkboard
      • Ex3:     92 - Napolean Bonaparte, Posing For A Painting, White Flag
    • The above examples make use of a technique called the Dominic System, which you can feel free to Google at your leisure. Essentially it maps numbers onto letters, turning all 2 digit numbers into sets of initials, which you can use to associate people with numbers.
    • This is not the only way - feel free to use direct association as well (Ex: "01" could be George Washington).
    • From there, all you need to know is the location of the number in the chunk. We'll get there.
Now, once you've got all the legwork done, you're ready to actually memorize the data (I know, so excited).
  • Conversion Itself:
    • For this, we'll use as our example the very first numbers in Pi. It begins, for those of you who do not know, as 3.141592653589793.......
    • STEP 1: Chunk by 6 - Since I already know Pi begins with a 3 and a decimal point, we'll start just to the right of the decimal. This results in a 6-digit chunk of "141592."
    • STEP 2: Apply the PAO - The PAO System breaks down our chunk into 3 pieces, resulting in "14 / 15 / 92" where the 14 is the person, the 15 is the action, and the 92 is the object.
    • So "14 / 15 / 92" becomes "Albus Dumbledore / Writing Equations / White Flag."
    • From there, all you have to do is create a little scene out of the above phrases. For me, it's an image of Albus Dumbledore furiously scribbling equations onto a large white flag, accidentally tearing it in places from his efforts.
Then, take that image you created and place it in your mind palace. Finally, just repeat the conversion step for every successive chunk of 6 numbers and add the resulting image to the next location in your mind palace.

As always, if you have any questions, need some clarification, or just want to add a suggestion, please feel free to leave a comment (or on Tumblr, just PM me). Happy memorizing!

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Where to Look - Keys

Some of the most telling aspects of our appearance are the elements which are common from day to day. A perfect example of one of these elements are our keys. They tell us about our daily routines, our possessions, our level of organization, and the things we don't want to be without.

For the key ring in the above example, we can make the following deductions (which I will break down below). The subject most likely:

  • has two primary modes of transportation, a Hyundai car or SUV (pretty sure Hyundai doesn't make non-commercial trucks - an exact model could be determined by visiting a local hardware store and comparing the picture against the key blanks for Hyundai cars) and a bicycle.
  • is fairly computer savvy.
  • lives in a gated community or apartment complex.
  • lost a dog (dead, missing)
  • stores his/her keys in multiple ways or regularly removes keys from the key-ring

We should all be fairly aware of how to identify car keys at a glance at this point, but just in case, here's a tip - it's the big one. From there, it's a simple matter of recognizing the insignia (which will normally appear on both sides of the key) and going from there. Next, house keys will usually (not always, especially if it is a custom key) have the triangular holes in them like the key in the top left corner of the picture. That leaves two keys (one standard, one weird), a dog-tag, and a flash-drive. The flash-drive is easy - if the subject didn't use it / know how to use it, it wouldn't be in such an easily accessible location. The weird key is for a bike lock (P.S. It would serve you well to know how to identify bike lock keys - I may create a post to this effect at a later date). The dog tag appears to be for a dog named "Sherlock" (great name), and it not being ON the dog would seem to signify that he (probably a he) no longer has need of it.

Now for the tricky one. We arrive at the final key - a standard silver 5-pin key with "ACE" (name of a hardware store) on it. This would seem to signify that the key was is a copy and was manufactured with a key machine at an ACE hardware. If the key was for a padlock, it would have the brand name of the padlock on it (ex: "Master"), so it can't be that. It can't be a mail key due to the fact that the post-office maintains and distributes the keys to lockable mail-boxes (and therefore would not use ACE to make copies). What does this leave? We know it's a copy, so a logical next question is, "Who has the original?"

  • A roommate (flatmate) perhaps? But we already have a house key.
  • A friend/relative - perhaps the subject has been given a spare for surprise visits/emergencies. While possible, the subject would need to visit quite often for that to be the case. In order for such a key to be included on the key-ring, it would have to be more important than a mail key, which is not present on the key-ring. Result - such a key would probably be on a separate (secondary) key-ring with the mail key.
  • A landlord/property manager? But what key would a landlord need OTHER THAN a house key that a tenant would need as well?
It is also possible that an extra key may mean multiple different locks on a subject's place of residence. For example, one key may be for the deadbolt, the other for the door handle itself. If that were the case here, why would a single subject have the original of one and a copy of the other?

I submit that the key is for EITHER the main gate to the complex in which the subject lives (if one exists) OR a key to a communal area, such as a shared laundry room.

If anyone has any more questions about keys/key-rings (in general or specifically), or would like to provide some information, or feel I may have missed something, feel free to leave a comment (Blogger), send me a private message (Tumblr), or drop me an email: (either).

Happy Sleuthing!

Monday, February 2, 2015

New Schedule

Sorry friends, the start of the semester has been crazy. In addition to a few other life changes, I will be instituting a new schedule on the blog. Unless otherwise noted, I'll be posting once every two weeks minimum (should be more often). I have also been reading your suggestions and comments which I will be incorporating into these new posts. I'll be posting more "What to Look for," and I will be putting any references I find useful on the blog as well.

I also will continue to encourage viewer-submitted pictures of desks, rooms, etc. Those can be submitted here, or you can attach it to an email to Quick note about submissions - while I think your computer screens are fascinating, they are not the type of thing that I'm going to select. Your computer is configured according to very specific preferences you have. This means that any judgments made according to observations of your computer (particularly a screenshot of the desktop) will be based entirely on things which are completely within your control. In a perfect world, there are no scuffs, dings, scratches, or blood spatter. It is precisely because we live in a perfect world that the art/science of making deductions is possible and useful.

With that in mind, happy sleuthing!