Albert versus Jinx

This is an unusual type of post. I did not write it. It is a recently-discovered short story written by my mother's late husband "Rosy" (he himself always used quotes around his name).

The story is a bit of whimsical by-play with no deep meaning that I can detect. The title is mine. 

I have no idea when it was written. It is a rather untypical piece of work. "Rosy" wrote several pieces based on his life experiences as oil rigger, cow rancher, etc. You can find more here.

On a bitterly cold Saturday, Albert Ronoff hurriedly packed the few belongings he possessed into his compact duffel bag. He had been overcome with lethargy all day, for the dreary weather had comfortably surrounded him, but now he was all but comfortable. He quickly straightened his aching back and rolled his shoulders repeatedly. It was definitely time for him to move on to another country. The small-town animal shelter of Sun Valley had served its purpose all too well. He had successfully managed to make fur coats out of five hundred very unlucky little kitties Now Sweden’s cats had reason to be worried. One cat in particular, named Jinx, would be his first victim. Jinx was wanted mostly because he had no tail. Albert’s partner in crime, Gertrude Haag, had found the cat a month before and contacted Albert at once. Albert was more than happy to accept, especially since he felt like he was being watched.

He took one last final look around the room that had been his home for over a year. Cool wisps of air filled his lungs as he tried ever so hard to relax. Where was his taxi? A loud shrill honk that pierced his ears and made him jump interrupted that very thought. He hurriedly picked up the heavy suitcase and two shoulder bags that would accompany him on his trip to make fur his fortune. All at sat in his room was a looming heap of the itchy new sheets he had slept on just the night before and all the other nights. He would miss that harsh feeling against his resting skin.

Tripping and making a fool out of himself, Albert finally plopped into the back seat of the beat up-taxi. “Where to?” grunted the extremely overweight driver.

“Om, the airport. Gate 4C on Delta.”

“Great,” mumbled the driver sarcastically. “So are you traveling for business or pleasure?”

“I guess you’d call it business.”“Hmmm. Where’d you say you were going again? Was it South Korea?”

“Yeah, that’s exactly where I’m going,” lied Albert with all too much ease.


After ten more minutes of lovely conversation with the overly, enthusiastic cab driver, Albert was making his way briskly to the check-in counter at gate 4C departing for Sweden. With an alarmingly fast check-in, Albert was two bags lighter and slowly unwinding in a first-class airplane seat by the window. Life couldn’t get too much better so he let himself slowly enter the magical world of La-La-Land. For the next ten hours nothing would bother Albert because visions of Jinx’s fur filled his head.

“Sir, wake up, we’re in Stockholm.” called the piqued voice of a flight attendant. Albert, confused from sleep, sat up and rubbed his eyes vigorously. After his eyes again refocused, he slowly lifted his body out of the airplane seat and grabbed his two duffel bags from the overhead bin. “Thank you for waking me, madam,” Albert replied with an equal amount of happiness.

An hour later, Albert flipped through the damp soggy airport phonebook in search of Ms. Haag’s phone number. (357)-555-9638 Albert clumsily pushed the miniscule buttons of his cell phone with his fat fingers. “Hello, this is Gertrude,” proclaimed a very business-like voice.

 “Gertrude, this is Albert.”

“Hey, Albert!”

“Hey, I’m at the airport. My plane just landed. I wanted to know where to meet you.”

“Well, I was just heading out the door to the factory, so I guess you can just meet me there. Is that all right with you?”

“That’s fine. Where is the factory?”

“It’s on Smorgasbord Drive”

Albert caught yet another taxi. The trip to the factory was very scenic, even though they drove through downtown Stockholm. The taxi made its way across a dozen bridges that all crossed crystal-clear water of the frigid Arctic Ocean. After missing the tum-off for Smorgasbord Drive three times, the taxi driver finally figured out the confusing streets and let Albert out right in front of the towering factory building free of charge. Albert, with much effort, for he was pathetically out of shape, climbed the fifteen steep cement steps up to the entrance of  Gertrude’s factory. As soon as he walked in he was hit in the face with the warm air that that the factory’s many heaters were producing.
The weather in Stockholm was stifling cold, with a high temperature in the twenties.

Gertrude popped out from behind a dark comer causing Albert to grasp with fright. The coffee from Starbucks earlier had left him quite jittery and extremely jumpy. Gertrude seemed very pleased with herself at scaring him so and stared at him with a smile pursed on her lips. Albert suddenly questioned the woman’s sanity and almost decided to bail out when he remembered what he was there for. He would play her game, he decided defiantly. With newly found confidence, he straightened his back and asked in a clear voice “Where is Jinx?”

“Follow me!” grinned Gertrude excitedly.

She took him through a maze of dark hallways that possessed the aura of a dungeon. Finally, Gertrude paused at the heavy wooden door with a security keypad stationed right beside it. Secretly, she hunched her back just enough so that the highly interested Albert would be unable to obtain the confidential code needed to enter the important room. Three beeps and the dark splintery door slid open. The room was very small and contained only a small dusty television, and sitting in the middle of the room was the cage holding the beautiful cat that would make them both rich. It was just a shame that the cat’s eyes couldn’t be used as something for they were the biggest balls of yellow either one of them had ever seen. Both looked at the confused creature in awe. After Gertrude got hold of herself, she began to spurt off the cat’s history, which was of no interest to Albert until she stated “Jinx is actually King Eric’s kitty.” You would’ve died if you had seen him begging on the news for Jinx back. He even offered a one-million-dollar reward. It’s so pathetic.” Albert’s ears quickly perked up to this. One million dollars! Gertrude was a complete fool! She would never get even near that much money by selling the Jinx’s fur coat. All of a sudden, a very sneaky thought crept into Albert’s mind. What if he was to take the cat and return it to the King himself and get that reward money? The only problem was getting the cat out of the factory without Gertrude being aware. He innocently questioned where the royal palace was. “It’s only two blocks away!” she exclaimed and showed him the elegant structure through the small dirty window in the room. 

Albert thought of a way to get Jinx out when Gertrude announced that she had to go the bathroom. This was his chance, he realized. As soon as the bathroom door was shut all the way, he undid the dinky latch that held Jinx captive in the cold metal cage. Carefully he tiptoed over to the big wooden door with the furry bundle under his thin jacket. Fortunately, you didn’t need the three-number code to open the door, so he quietly continued out the door and through the maze of hallways until he found the main entrance and broke into a full run until the factory was out of sight. Only then did he slow his pace to a jog, which was incredible for his out-of-shape body. Adrenaline pumped through his veins in a tumultuous surge. By the time he fell upon the steps to the royal palace, he was nearly exhausted.

Back at the factory, the unaware Gertrude was just unlocking the bathroom door. As she opened the door, she was quickly let down when she realized that both Jinx and Albert were missing. Her biggest nightmare was now becoming a terrifying reality. Totally sure of defeat, Gertrude did not even bother to search the factory. While breaking down into hysterical sobs, Gertrude decided what she would do. Sadly, on that very cold day in Sweden, Gertrude hopped into an assembly machine and took her life.
Albert, not knowing that his evil decision would cause so much disaster, merrily recovered from his exercise and skipped up the two stairs that led to the palace doors guarded by two watchmen. He quickly explained that he had found the royal cat and even showed them the shivering ball of fur. In a matter of seconds, Albert found himself seated in an overstuffed chair in front of the King’s desk. He was in heaven when King Eric himself came regally into the room and sat in the chair behind the rich mahogany desk. In the King’s hands was Jinx himself sleeping peacefully, seeming to have forgotten the factory and the insane Gertrude. 

“I suppose you know of the reward I put out for the return of Jinx?”

“I certainly do, but you really shouldn’t.” lied Albert.

“No, I insist.”

“All right! Do you think I could hold Jinx just one more time, though?”

“Of course, go ahead.”

Albert picked up the cat with feigned affection. He again sat down in the chair across from the King with Jinx in his lap and began to make small talk when he felt something wet and slimy on his hand. He looked down and realized slowly what the wet liquid all over his hand was. Albert sprang from the chair and launched the cat through the air, yelling “You disgusting beast! I should’ve made you into a coat when I had the chance!”

The King watched the drama with his mouth hanging wide open, almost causing him to drool. When he realized that Albert was not indeed a hero but a thief, he quickly tore up the check that he had been writing. Five guards posted outside of the door quickly busted into the room and carted the hysterical Albert off. The King rushed over to his hurt kitten and yelled to his guards to behead the evil Albert.

Now, a month later, with thieves Albert and Gertrude dead, the King had two fur coats sent out to each mother with a letter written by that King explaining the incident. Although the King never received a thank-you note back from the mothers, he didn’t care, because he had his beloved cat Jinx safely at home with him.

Mnemonic Tip: Bring a Palace Home from Your Next Trip

Photo by David Yu

The second in a series of short posts on new wrinkles for old mnemonic techniques. What all have in common is that I have found them useful and have seen them described nowhere else.

Many contemporary computers include a GPU, a special-purpose chip for rendering 3-D graphics. This is a big help for computer games that involve running around in a 3-D environment and blowing things up.

There is then considerable interest in hacking the GPU; that is, using all that heavy computing power to do other computations that have nothing to do with graphics. Cracking passwords is one of the shadier options.

I mention this because I like to think of mnemonic techniques as hacking the human brain in a similar way. If we could see a schematic of the brain's design, it would include all kinds of special-purpose processors. There is one that recognizes faces, for example. We know this because in some people the face-recognition processor appears to be broken. Most mnemonic techniques recruit parts of the brain that would ordinarily not be involved in a particular task—by encoding numbers as images, for example, This has been at least partly verified by neuroimaging, and gives some substantive meaning to the unscientific statements one hears that "most people use X% of their brains, but I use Y%." Mnemonic techniques allow you to use more parts of your brain to remember things.

The "Palace" in the title of this post is a memory palace. The point of a memory palace is to leverage the brain's ability to associate things with particular locations for purposes of memorization. The "palace" need not be (and indeed usually is not) an actual "palace", but rather any kind of place familiar to the individual with several sublocations. Generally one visualizes something in each sublocation of the palace in order to fix it in memory. Later, the memorized objects can be recalled by mentally visiting the sublocations in an orderly fashion.

Almost always a particular sequence of sublocations is defined so that the memorized items can be recalled in order. It need not be so, however. One could use the mental map to place memorized items on a two- or even three-dimensional grid. This is a subject for future study.

An obvious choice for a memory palace would be your own house, office, school, etc. This has the advantage of familiarity. It does not, however, make for much fun. After all, you see your own house every day; there is little thrill in thinking about it.

I much prefer to use a location that I enjoy visiting. This way, using the memory palace is not only practical but brings to mind pleasant memories.

For example, the first memory palace I constructed was based on my trip to Svalbard, mostly the town of Longyearbyen, where I spent most of my time (and had an awesome time). The first location is the tarmac of the airport:

(This is how all airplane trips should end. You know you've arrived some place.)

The second location is the airport's single baggage-claim belt:

(Calm yourself, the bear is not alive. The town of Longyearbyen probably has the world's largest per-capita ratio of mounted polar bears. You run across them everywhere. I picture a scene wherein every time some poor decrepit polar bear wanders into town, they shoot it with a sigh and then call around, "All right, who wants this one?")

And so on and so forth, for a total of 54 locations (which is where I ran out of ideas).

I commit the palace to memory using Anki—a card for each location, tying the sequence number to a description of the place. The description only has to be good enough that I will recall what it means. For example, "gear shop interior".

For my last trip, I added a new wrinkle. On the trip I make a point of photographing locations for a memory palace. This differs from usual vacation photos in that it includes a lot of locations that people don't usually bother to photograph—a hotel vending machine, for example. The photos go into the Anki deck, which again raises the pleasure factor of reviewing the cards. One can also cull photos from Google Streetview, Flickr, hotel websites, or the Internet in general.

And the benefit of this memory palace works both ways. Not only is it a tool for memorizing shopping lists or lists or whatever, but by using the palace over time you will reinforce your knowledge and memories of the place in itself, how to find your way around and what's where.

Batman's Sock Drawer

So look what happens at about 1:15 into the following video segment:

Notice what you do not see here: Batman opening a drawer and rummaging through it... "Where is that grappling hook?" That would be bad. Assuming he locates it eventually, he would be distracted and hardly in shape to run out and confront the Joker.

Switching movies for a minute, consider the (hypothetical) mind-expanding pill that forms the basis for Limitless. What is the first thing that Eddie Morra does after taking the pill and becoming a genius? He cleans up his apartment.

Note also that Paul Kyriazi's Rule 3 of the James Bond Lifestyle is: "My base of operations is clean and organized."

A clean, uncluttered environment promotes a peaceful and efficient mind. Or conversely, a cluttered environment is stressful and depressing. Women seem to understand this intuitively better than men, and sometimes cope with stress or melancholy by cleaning house. This is a good idea. It takes little mental or physical energy and promotes a feeling of well-being.

But let's get back to Batman and his organizational skills. Notice how everything he needs is right there. All he need do is reach out and pick it up.

What do you want to bet that Bruce Wayne's sock drawer is just as organized? No digging through the drawer looking for the socks with the little bats on them. All he does is open the drawer and immediately he sees his favorite socks.

You may think you are managing pretty well by at least keeping your socks in a separate drawer from your spoons, but why not level up your life is a small way by organizing your sock drawer like Batman? Thanks to one of the deleted scenes, which inexplicably consists of twenty minutes of Alfred folding laundry, I can now demonstrate for you just how Batman folds his socks:

You can then lay them out in your drawer just like Batman's supply of ninja-bat-stars. Perhaps, though, you have so many socks that the bottom of the drawer is covered before you run out of socks. I can suggest two ways of handling this.

One is to put the socks in edgewise, so that they take about 1/4 the horizontal space. You can fit four times as many socks and still see all of them at the same time. If you still don't have enough room, then face it, you have just too many socks.

The other option (which I use) is to stack socks as necessary, but always stack like on top of like (since I have several identical pairs). Then you can always see one of each type at a glance.

I confess to being inspired somewhat by decluttering guru Marie Kondo, although I haven't read or watched enough of her to actually copy anything. Marie Kondo is about the least Batman-like figure you can imagine, but I gather she does present a spiritual aspect to decluttering.

Learn Foreign Languages like James Bond

Check out the podcast I contributed to the Being James Bond site on learning foreign languages.

Mnemonic Tip: Use a Standard Shopping List as Pegs

The first in a series of short posts on new wrinkles for old mnemonic techniques. What all have in common is that I have found them useful and have seen them described nowhere else.

A prosaic use of mnemonic techniques is to memorize a shopping list. Several standard methods approaches would be suitable. Simplest would be to link each item to the next in a chain. Or if one has a set of numeric peg words, one could associate each item on the list to a peg word in sequence. Briefly, having memorized a set of objects ("pegs") corresponding to numbers, one creates vivid mental images linking each peg with an item on the list. Mentally running through the list of pegs brings to mind the items on the list. 

Or one could use a memory palace, visualizing each item at a location in the palace sequentially. This is generally what I do, using a memory palace based on the time I spent in Svalbard (more to say about this in a future post). The method works well (why wouldn't it?); however, I noticed that I ended up using the same images repeatedly, or worse, little variations on the same image, with only a slight change in location. Because of course there are certain items that I buy repeatedly, and the sequence of items on the list is irrelevant.

So I decided to turn it around. Make a numbered list of my most popular groceries. Commit it to memory, and then the grocery items themselves become a list of numeric peg words available for other purposes.

Self-revelation time: Here is my list.

1. Bananas
2. Milk
3. Dr. Pepper
5. Eggs 

Which is not to say that this is all I eat, but merely that these particular items I end up buying more often than anything else.

On any trip to the grocery store, I run through this list to see if I need anything on it. Other items go into the Svalbard memory palace as usual.

And, then again, suppose I want to memorize the five members of "The Greatest Concert Ever" Jazz Quintet. I could do it as follows:

1. Bananas→Charlie Parker, saxophone. Charlie Brown attempts to play a saxophone sitting in a parked car, but only bananas come out.

2. Milk→Dizzy Gillespie, trumpet. Trumpets emerge from the udders of a cow, swirling around until they make the cow dizzy. (Udders are generally my mental symbol for "milk"; "Gillespie" is not going to be a problem since I know only one jazz musician [only one human being, for that matter] named "Dizzy".)

3. Dr. Pepper→Bud Powell, piano. A chili pepper wearing a head mirror (my standard image for "Dr. Pepper") examines Colin Powell. Ah, here's the problem! This flower bud growing out of your nose. We'll smash it under the piano lid.

4. Kind bars→Charles Mingus, bass. Charlie Brown (him again) smashes a priceless Ming vase with a huge Kind bar. The bass that was swimming inside flops around on the floor.

5. Eggs→Max Roach, drums. Mad Max cracks an egg on the edge of his drum. Roaches swarm out.

Mnemonics for Arabic Vocabulary

Leveling up my Arabic is one of my projects for 2015. A particular point of difficulty with Arabic (at least for me, though not for native speakers) is the large number of consonant sounds, quite a few more than English. It follows that the closest English sound to a given Arabic consonant cannot be unique, including a surprising variety of sounds produced in the back of the throat.

Long ago, I was a guest in an Moroccan family's home. While I was there, something occurred which greatly upset the fifteen-year-old daughter of the house, who remonstrated loudly and vigorously with her parents. I sat there awestruck at the ability of her throat to handle this variety of scrapings and gluggings at high velocity with no apparent damage.

In some cases, the Arabic consonant is so alien to English that the mind gives up on finding an equivalent sound. Prominent example: the very word "Arab", in Arabic, begins with a consonant written ع, a kind of gagging sound. But apparently the first Europeans who borrowed the name balked at even trying to approximate it in their own language (whatever that was).

I will not be giving tips on Arabic pronunciation in this post, sorry. Please look elsewhere for such—I assume that you know at least the basics. This post will likely make no sense to you without at least a basic familiarity with Arabic script and phonetics.

I will, however, make a few remarks about Arabic grammar, because these are relevant to the working of the mnemonic system. One interesting aspect of Arabic (like other Semitic languages) is that words are generally composed of a root and a pattern, The root carries the core meaning, and is composed strictly of consonants, usually three. The pattern consists of vowels and sometimes additional consonants. The root and pattern are interleaved to make up the word.

We see a faint echo of this in English, if we consider, for example, the words "bear", "bore", and "burden." We could think of the core meaning as carried by the two consonants b-r. Combining this two-consonant root with patterns 1ea2, 1o2e, and 1u2den yields the three given words. Here I have described the patterns using numerals 1 and 2 to mark the position where the consonants would go.

Similarly, in Arabic, there is a root ك ت ب (k-t-b) which has to do generally with writing. Some of the words formed from this root by fitting it into different patterns would be:

كَتَبَ (kataba = k-t-b × 1a2a3a) "he wrote"
كِتَاب (kitaab = k-t-b × 1i2aa3) "book"
مَكْتَبَة (maktaba = k-t-b × ma12a3a) "library"

I hope my notation for combining root and pattern is fairly obvious. For example "k-t-b×1aa2i3" means insert the k, the t, and the b into the 1, 2, and 3 positions of the pattern, respectively, to yield kaatib "writer."

So recalling an Arabic word is a matter of recalling both the root (which usually consists of three consonants) and the pattern (which consists of vowels, possibly some additional consonants, with defined locations for inserting the consonants of the root). I use a different method for each of these.

First we deal with the root. The basic idea is to find an English word or phrase whose consonant sounds encode the three consonants of the Arabic root. Complications arise from the fact that Arabic has more distinct consonant sounds than English—this makes it impossible to simply use one English consonant for each Arabic consonant. Certain Arabic consonants such as ع or ء correspond closely to nothing in English, while sometimes more than one Arabic sound resembles a given English sound (such as س and ص, which both resemble English s). On the other hand, certain English consonants, such as p, have no close equivalent in Arabic.

The first step is to match each Arabic consonant with an English sound. I have made the two similar where possible—this is not essential, but it makes the system easier to learn. However, there are significant exceptions. By no means take these equivalents as a guide to Arabic pronunciation:

ب b, B
ت t
ث th
ج J, SH, ZH
ح NG
خ ch, CH
د d
ذ TH
ر r
ز z
س s
ش j, sh, zh
ص S
ض D
ط T
ظ Z
ع g
غ G
ف f, v
ق K
ك k
ل L, l
م M, m
ن n
ه ng
و F, V
ي R

Note that I have assigned capital letters in some cases and small letters in others, in order to distinguish ق (K) from ك (k), although both Arabic letters sound at least something like English k. This raises the issue of keeping capital and small letters distinct, which we will deal with later. Note also: the th written above (whether capital or not) can be either the unvoiced th in "breath" or the voiced th in "breathe." I avoided using the English sounds w and y because these blur the lines between consonants and vowels: this is why Arabic ي, which sounds like y, was matched up with R instead. And I avoided using English h, because its pronunciation in certain words such as "wheel" comes and goes according to the speaker.

So the basic principle is to take the three letters of the Arabic root and generate the corresponding three English consonants. For example, the forementioned root ك ت ب (k-t-b in Arabic) turns into English k-t-b or k-t-B. (The k and t must be small but the b can be either capital or small.) (Note also that in ك ت ب the ك comes first and the ب comes last, because Arabic is written right-to-left.)

Or again the root ص ي ف, which has to do with "summer", would turn into S-R-f, or S-R-v, where the S and R must be capital and the f or v must be small.

The next step is to find an English phrase or word which contains the given sequence of consonant sounds. Here we must confront the issue of capital-versus-small letters, since these cannot be distinguished by sound. We handle this by appending a fourth English consonant sound which encodes the pattern of capital and small letters. There is a system to this: a combination of a binary coding and the Major system of  memorizing numbers, but with only eight patterns you don't need a system; it just makes it slightly easier to memorize if you understand both binary numbers and the Major system. There are eight possible patterns of capital (C) versus small (s), encoded thus:

sss: coded with s or z or f or v
ssC: coded with t or d or th or p or b
sCs: coded with n
sCC: coded with m
Css: coded with r
CsC: coded with l
CCs: coded with ch or sh or j or zh
CCC: coded with k or g

As before, these refer to sounds rather than letters.

So, now let's try some examples. As previously explained, the root ك ت ب, which relates to writing, translates to the English sequence k-t-b or k-t-B. Appending the corresponding pattern of capitals and smalls: sss (s, z, f, or v) or ssC (t, d, th, p, or b), we get a choice of English four-consonant sequences. We only need to represent any one of these with a word or phrase. I couldn't find a single word, but two-word phrases are easy: for example, k-t-B-t could be "cat bite" or "cut bait" or "cute boat" or "cat bathe", etc.

The root ص ي ف, which has to do with summer, translates to the English sequence S-R-f or S-R-v. Appending the corresponding pattern of capitals and smalls: CCs (chshj, or zh), we again get a choice of English consonant sequences, for example S-R-f-sh. And again I couldn't find a single English word containing all four consonants, but two-word sequences are easy: "sour fish", or "surf witch", etc.

I felt pretty good about this system, since it uses only four English consonants to encode three Arabic consonants. As mentioned previously, three English consonants do not suffice to encode three Arabic consonants, so in a sense this is the best attainable.

This leaves us with the question of how to represent the pattern, the complementary part of the Arabic word. Fortunately, this is a far simpler business, and I will describe it in an upcoming post.