Thursday, March 22, 2018

Answer: How to find dimly remembered things?

And we remember... sometimes with help... 

If you're like me, you probably constantly re-searching for things you only vaguely remember.  A few years ago, my friend Jamie Teevan of Microsoft Research did a study about how often people try to re-find information that they'd already found.  She found that 33% of the time, people are doing web queries that they'd done before.  That suggests that people really are looking for memory support--a way to find things they've already found, and need to recover from the dusty halls of memory.  

We all have moments like this--a bare memory of something that you'd like to recover.  But how can you do it? 

This week is about how to do that.  Let's start with the first Challenge.   

1.  I remember visiting a bunch of colleges in the Eastern US with my daughter (who was checking out different institutions as a prospective student) and hearing a remarkable story at one of them.  The story was that this concert hall was the one that staged a concert of a piece of music by a slightly crazed but rather famous composer who wrote a piece for orchestra and a complicated color-light display keyboard.  The thing is, his vision exceeded the ability of the tech at the time.  So, roughly a century later, this institution was able to ACTUALLY perform the piece as written--orchestra, light-show performance, and all of the special effects.  Questions:  What was that piece?  Who was the composer?  And what university concert hall held this event? 

Here's a real problem:  I remembered some things about this.  It's easy for me to remember things around the thing I'm trying to remember.  I remember that I'm in the Eastern US, with my daughter, at a university.  

All that context information might be useful IF I was looking for a photo, or trying to pin down the date of my exposure to this piece of music.  In this case, I also remembered some things about the music itself (around 100 years ago, it's orchestra + light-show, with a complicated color-light display keyboard, performed at a university).  

For a question like this, I'm going to start with a simple search for a piece like that.  Here was my first search: 

     [ orchestra piece university light-show keyboard 1900..1920 ] 

Note that I included a number range (1900..1920) because I wanted documents that mentioned possible dates in that range.  (A subtle point: This is a number range, not a "date range" restriction.  I'm just hoping that people who write articles about this will happen to include the year in their articles.) 

The very first result is a link to an article about Yale's 2010 performance of Scriabin's "Prometheus," with full light-show in the Woolsey Concert Hall.  As it points out, this will be the "...first full-production of this multimedia work to benefit from contemporary lighting technology and the recent discovery of the composer’s hand-written directions for its execution."   

Checking my memory:  Yes, Yale is a university in the northeast, and now that I see it, I remember walking through Woolsey Hall and hearing this story about Scriabin.  Wonderful that can then look up my notes and find an image from that visit.    

Woolsey Hall, place where Scriabin's "Prometheus" was performed with full orchestra and a working luce device.

A little background... Scriabin was a well-known, if controversial, composer and pianist.  (I first learned about him in my piano studies.  His works are fairly difficult.)  

In 1978, a first-edition score from 1913 was found with Scriabin's hand-written annotations, intended to give guidance for the performance of Prometheus: Poem of Fire.  In it, Scriabin gives detailed annotations for the luce (the keyboard that drives the colored-light special effects) part.  These instructions gave directions for color and lighting, along with special effects as tongues of flame, lightning flashes, and fireworks.  For obvious reasons, this piece has been difficult to perform.  It was probably beyond the technology of the time.  

It's worth watching (link to YouTube performance of "Prometheus" in Woolsey Hall from 2010), if only to get a sense for what the future of music looked like from 1910.  

I have to admit that I got lucky with this dimly remembered memory.  It was the first hit, and then seeing the front of the concert hall tickled my memory.  Yes, it WAS there that I first heard about it.  The rest was easy. 

2.  You probably remember that childhood song about "Four and twenty blackbirds, baked into a pie."  Question:  Was that for real?  Or is it a corruption of some other song / phrase from the older parts of our culture?  (I mean...  blackbirds?  Really?)  
One thing I know about old nursery rhymes--they're complicated.  Things are rarely as they seem.  So I know I'm going to want to find a number of different sources on this.  

      [ four and twenty blackbirds baked into a pie ] 

The first thing I learned is that the name of the poem is "Sing a song of sixpence," which gives me a whole other thing to search for.  

But as I read the Wikipedia version of the poem, it seems to give a reasonable analysis, particularly in its breadth and cautionary notes.  

The article also pointed out that the first couple of stanzas of the poem are:

Sing a song of sixpence,
A pocket full of rye.
Four and twenty blackbirds,
Baked in a pie.
When the pie was opened
The birds began to sing;
Wasn't that a dainty dish,
To set before the king.

There are more verses, but I want to point out that in the poem, the blackbirds begin to sing once the pie was opened.  That's encouraging--I had horrible visions of 2 dozen tiny birds in a strange version of a chicken pot pie.  But since they're singing, maybe it really IS, as the Wikipedia article has it, merely a fake crust with the birds inserted from below just before serving.  It's a kind of joke pie that has live birds inside, so when the unsuspecting diner cuts into the pie, birds sing and fly out.  

And there ARE recipes and notes from the Renaissance about such goings-on.  Birds, frogs, and even dwarves could appear from pies.  (Not unlike the modern equivalent of having someone pop out of a large cake!)  

Interestingly, there is a article asking if this nursery rhyme was a secretly coded pirate recruiting verse.  (See on "Four and Twenty Blackbirds") The big surprise is that this is listed as a big TRUE!  However... if you read carefully (something I always recommend), you'll see a "More information about this page" link at the bottom.  

Whenever you see a link like this, always check it out...   In this case, the link take you to a cautionary page on the Snopes site:  

This page explains that 

"... If you’re reading this page, chances are you’re here because something about one or all of the entries in The Repository Of Lost Legends (TROLL) section of this site struck you as a tad suspect, if not downright wrong.
If any or all of the stories in this section caused your internal clue phone to ring, we hope you didn’t let the answering machine take the call. That niggling little voice of common sense whispering to you in the background was right — there was something wrong with what you read.
You’ve just had an encounter with False Authority Syndrome.
Everything in this section is a spoof."

I've had more than one of my students get caught by this.  Mind you, Snopes has these pages as an object lesson.  They are explicitly telling you to be cautious of all authority--including theirs!  

In particular, their tale about the "Four and twenty blackbirds" pie is one of these "Lost Legends," and utterly made up.  Do not be fooled.  

3.  I have a couple of tools that I use every day to help me find things, particularly when I'm searching through my personal content. What tools do you use to search your personal content?  (Of course, we all use the search engines of the world--Google, Bing, Baidu, Wolfram Alpha, etc.)  But if you're looking through YOUR stuff, what tools do you use to search through that?  
 The comments in last week's post are pretty interesting.  People made all kinds of good suggestions (such as Michael Michelmore's suggestions on folder naming and structuring your personal data, or Debra Gottsleben suggestion to bookmark things).  

I have a problem (maybe you do too) that my "personal content" is spread across 2 email systems (my personal and my corporate), two Google Drive accounts (personal and corporate), and my hard drive.  

My strategy is to first search my hard drive using Apple's Spotlight search function.  This is a wonderful application that gives very fast access to everything on my drive. 

With the query [ Journal IBM ] it lists all of the documents and folders that have both IBM and Journal in them.  Note that this includes file names as well, so if I dimly remember the name of a file, say, that PDF with the Google logo, I can do a Spotlight query like this: 
[ Google logo .pdf ] 

I use this probably 50 times / day, particularly to look up people's names and places in my Work-log like this query I used to look up the first time I met my friend Nadiene Zylstra.  (I could have looked in my email as well, but I wanted to see what year I should check.  As you can see, it's 2013.)  

This is on the Mac, but there's a similar app for the PC universe as well.  I've used  X1 in the past, and completely loved it. (I really wish I had it on the Mac--hint-hint!)  It is as fast as Spotlight, but lets you do all kinds of metadata filtering as well..  

Truthfully, I'm not sure what I'd do without Spotlight.  It definitely makes everything I do on the Mac just that much faster.   

Search Lessons 

1.  Remember number range!  In my first query I searched for numbers in the date range I was interested in.  It's not YEARs we're searching for, but NUMBERS in that range (which will very likely be years in a text document).  

2.  The Snopes spoof reminds us to read carefully.  When you read think that don't seem to make sense.. check carefully! Or, as Roman Mars (99% Invisible), always read the plaques.      

Search on!