Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Foreign Policy reviews the year

One of the reasons I started this blog was to recall moments in our collective life that have quickly passed m thought. Haven't kept too true to that, but luckily, Foreign Policy has done a much better recap than I ever could.

How many of these moments have slipped from your mind already? 

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Brain's Memory "Buffer"

It's ironic but appropriate that I don't remember how I happened upon this  article on scientific research into the cellular differences between short term and long term memory storage. The newspaper is called The Hindu, and so it's not one that I come across in my normal web wandering.

It's probably more informative to read the article, but just to move this info from my short term memory to something a little longer, I'll summarize by saying that scientists have found evidence that short term memory is held in single nerve cells in the front of the brain, for a minute or longer. "Permanent" memory (to me a dubious concept) is formed when the amino acid glutamate stimulates nerve cells in the brain to reorganize and strenghten their connections with each other. But this process takes time and is to slow to deal with rapidly incoming information--as what isn't these days?

Enter metabotropic glutamate transmission. A rapid fire signal stimulates single cells to be temporary storage for moment to moment information. The example the article uses is that of a card shark counting cards in a game of blackjack. This would seem an oddly random example, except it goes on to say that casinos have figured out that it the type of memory that is most sensitive to disruption by alcohol and noisy distraction.

"It's more like RAM [random access memory] on a computer than memory stored on a disk," Dr. (Don) Cooper said. "The memory on the disk is more permanent and you can go back and access the same information repeatedly. RAM memory is rewritable temporary storage that allows multitasking." 

The researchers also did experiments on mice to see how these findings work with addiction. Apparently, a neurochemical called dopamine is what helps focus attention and make fast decisions, but after mice were given repeated doses of cocaine to simulate addiction, the  short term memeory "buffer" cells were no longer
as easily stimulated. Even adding dopamine after did not have the effect of focussing the mice's thought processes.

"If we can identify and manipulate the molecular components of memory, we can develop drugs that boost the ability to maintain this memory trace to hopefully allow a person to complete tasks without being distracted," Dr. Cooper said. "For the person addicted to drugs, we could strengthen this part of the brain involved with decision-making, allowing them to ignore impulses and weigh negative consequences of their behavior before they abuse drugs."

Maybe, maybe not. As usual with these things, though, I mainly feel sorry for the mice.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Orwellian memory hole

I don't know where I came across this concept in recent months--I just noted it down as something to explore at a later time. Although I have read  Orwell's 1984, it has been quite some time, so I didn't immediately remember this passage:

In the walls of the cubicle there were three orifices. To the right of the speakwrite, a small pneumatic tube for written messages, to the left, a larger one for newspapers; and in the side wall, within easy reach of Winston's arm, a large oblong slit protected by a wire grating. This last was for the disposal of waste paper. Similar slits existed in thousands or tens of thousands throughout the building, not only in every room but at short intervals in every corridor. For some reason they were nicknamed memory holes. When one knew that any document was due for destruction, or even when one saw a scrap of waste paper lying about, it was an automatic action to lift the flap of the nearest memory hole and drop it in, whereupon it would be whirled away on a current of warm air to the enormous furnaces which were hidden somewhere in the recesses of the building.

So, of course, over the years, these literal memory holes have expanded in meaning to include all kinds of memory holes--not just pneumatic tubes, but any way in which information of all kinds has been made to disappear or been doctored to say something different than it was originally intended to say.

I was curious to see what the modern manifestations of this phenomenon might be. As it turned out, several examples came up pretty quickly, and I thought I'd mention them here. The funny thing is that some of them at least will be quite familiar, but have already some what faded into memory, without making quite the stir they should. Which is perhaps Orwellian in its own way.

The first is the well publicized circumstance of Orwell's work itself  slipping down a memory hole. In brief, it vanished overnight from many Kindles when Amazon learned that the uploader did not have the rights for the book and were in copyright violation. People learned then if they hadn't figured it out already that they did not actually own the books on their Kindles, but had only been given the license to them, which could be revoked without even notification. Although Amazon promised never to do it again, in fact, they have now shown the world that they do have the power to do this, and any other copyright holders who might have a beef can no longer be told that withdrawing the copies "can't be done". Meanwhile a student from Detroit was suing Amazon over taking back the copy that his personal annotations were attached to, rendering, he said, his notes largely worthless.

In a perhaps more purely Orwellian example, because it has to do with government and government archives, I found this article about Whitehouse.gov, which made such claims about being away for the American people to connect to the executive branch, disheartening. I would have thought the Obama White House would be better archived than Bush's, but according to this writer, it is not the case.

And finally, I found this little rumination from The Atlantic about how Orwellian our age really is or isn't interesting. A professor had made an effort to delete an unwise diatribe he had written from the world wide web, deleting it. In this age, though, nothing is ever truly deleted. The author, James Fallows, says that in this sense our world is worse than the one Orwell conceived, because it's not what goes unremembered but what is remembered that comes back to haunt us. A reader posted in, though, and pointed out that Orwell had, in fact, anticipated this too...The last line is worth reading through to the end for. 

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Myla Goldberg, The False Friend

It's been awhile since I posted here, but I heard a very good interview on Rick Kleffel's show tonight with Myla Goldberg, and they had a lot to say about memory. You can listen to the whole thing here:


Thursday, September 23, 2010

September 23rd, 2010

I think it's safe to say that no one in the entire country is in love with what happened with health care reform six months ago. You wanted more, you wanted less, you wanted something completely different.

Fine. Me too. No polemics are intended here. I am just going to mention that six months ago, a healthcare reform bill was passed and whatever you think about it, today was the day that certain fairly significant changes became law.

Here, as reported at http://www.americasfairhealthcare.org/ , they are:

No More Getting Dropped After You Get Sick

You no longer can be cut after the fact, period.

Immediate Access, Even If You Have Pre-Existing Conditions

Children younger than 19 no longer can no longer be rejected from health care plans due to pre-existing conditions, and new plans cannot exclude adults or children from coverage for a pre-existing condition.

No More "Lifetime Limits"

Insurers no longer can stop your benefits because you have "maxed out".

Tax Credits for Small Businesses Providing Coverage to Workers

Qualified small businesses will get tax credits to help cover up to 35 percent of their workers’ premiums.

•Medicare Prescription Drug Rebates for Seniors

Medicare Part D enrollees who hit the Medicare prescription drug benefit gap in 2010 automatically will receive a $250 rebate check.  
Whatever you may think of the total package, you may one day have reason to thank your lucky stars that one of these changes is in effect. Don't forget about them...

Monday, September 6, 2010

Brain Rules

Here's an interesting website promoting John Medina's book, Brain Rules. This particular segment deals with short term memory. Medina says that memory is volatile. I hadn't really thought of it that way before.

Do I remember how I came across this?   Uh, no...

Sunday, August 22, 2010

American Amnesia

Our American inability to hold even recent historical facts in our head is fascinating to me, and being an American, I really don't know if citizens of other countries are afflicted with this syndrome or not. It would be nice if I could say that this was a recurrent theme on this blog, but as it is, I kind of forget...

Here's a brief Slate piece on our amnesia about government spending.

Friday, August 13, 2010

ba dum chhh

Bit of a cheat, this one, as I lifted it from some sort of joke-a-day site that my mom subscribes to...Does it help that I'm telling it from memory?

An elderly man, let's call him Dave, runs into a pal of his--uh, Herb.

Herb says, "So I hear you've been going to some sort of memory loss clinic. How's that going?"

Dave says, "Oh, it's fantastic. They've taught me to do active imagery, meditation, all sorts of stuff."

Herb replies, " Sounds great! What's the name of this clinic, anyway?"

Dave falls silent. He looks off into the distance for a moment. "Oh, I know! What's the name of that flowering plant that grows in the garden and is covered with thorns?"

"A rose?" Herb ventures.

"That's it!" Dave says, his face lighting up. He turns to his wife. "Rose, what's the name of that memory loss clinic I've been going to?"

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Maybe it Should Be, "Tell, don't show."

I found this link through Very Short List. Usually, this blog is about things that we forget with the passage of time, but today I'm posting about what we forget in a few seconds. The following test was a research experiment to see how well people remembered things visually. Apparently not too well.  The experiment is over, but they've left the game up. I'd say it's fun to play, but actually it's slightly exasperating. I didn't really find it a test of memory so much as reminder of how little I see in the first place.  Anyway, go knock yourself out. (They ask a few questions first, but as it is no longer 'data', I suppose you could lie if it made you feel better.)

Visual Memory Test

Monday, July 26, 2010

Unmaking history--Burmese, er, Myamar style

I'm gradually reading Emma Larkin's  Finding George Orwell in Burma, and came across this interesting passage:

"'Mandalay' is one of the few place names in Burma that has not been changed by the Burmese military government. In 1989 the regime renamed streets, towns and cities across Burma. Maymyo, the old British hill station that Orwell visited, became Pyin-Oo-Lwin, and Fraser Street in Rangoon became Anawyatha Lan in Yangon. Most of the old names were Anglicized Burmese names that had been used by the Birtish colonial government and the regime claimed that the changes were a long-overdue move to discard these colonial tags. But there was a deeper-rooted motive. The generals were rewriting history. When a place is renamed, the old name disappears from maps and, eventually, from human memory. If that is possible, then perhaps the memory of past events can also be erased. By renaming cities, towns and streets, the regime seized control of the very space within which people lived; home and business addresses had to be rewritten and relearned. And, when the regime changed the name of the country, maps and encyclopedias all over the world had to be corrected. The country known as Burma was erased and replaced with a new one: Myanmar.

"The crucial event which triggered this rewriting of the past was the people's uprising of 1988. At eight minutes past eight in the morning on the eighth day of the eighth month of that year, students launched a countrywide demonstration against almost three decades of poverty and oppression under military rule. Thousands of people flooded into the streets of cities and towns all over Burma shouting, 'Dee-mo-ka-ra-see! Dee-mo-ka-ra-see!' The government response was brutal: that evening, soldiers marched into the streets and strafed the crowds with machine-gun fire. In Rangoon, doctors and nurses, overwhelmed by the wounded, hung a sign outside the general hospital begging the soldiers to stop killing people. The sign was written with the blood of the wounded and dead. When a column of nurses joined the protest in the streets, wearing their white uniforms, they too were shot. Among those who died during the days of chaos that followed were high-school children, teachers and monks. Smoke billowed from crematoriums as the authorities rapidly disposed of their corpses. The uprising did not end until more than 3,000 people had been shot or bludgeoned to death by government soldiers."

As if we didn't have enough  problems with memory without governmental forces actively working to undermine them...

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Haiti--Six Months Later

Even though this blog has turned out to be about a lot of other things related to memory, my apparently faulty memory of its inception is that it was going to be to revisit event, once riveting, that had fallen off the media charts. Sadly, I don't seem to have been much 'on task' when it comes to this project. But luckily, when it comes to Haiti, Ray Suarez of the PBS Newshour has. He's got a week long series in which he accesses how Haiti is doing right now. Tonight's interview with the Haitian president Rene Preval brought out the interesting concept that the Haitian government should actually be involved somehow with the coordination of priorities of how to use the money that flooded into Haiti directly after the earthquake.


Monday, July 5, 2010

Removable Memories

No, I didn't come up with that title on my own. It comes from the  second segment of William Salatan's Slate piece on "The Memory Doctor". This piece focuses first on how pathetically easy it is to get someone to remember something that didn't happen, and then goes on to dissect the life of Loftus herself. Loftus comes across as a bit queasymaking, but it's also a kind of clumsy piece, which surprised me a little. It's as if Loftus herself was a subject hard to remember long enough to accurately record.

The main thing I got from this excerpt, though, is that memory is not like a recording machine. It seems to resemble something more like silly putty--pliable and infinitely ready to take whatever image is impressed upon it. Frankly, I don't get it, and I don't in the end really believe it. I start to feel as though there is a surface memory function that you can lie to and implant with things but beneath that a deeper memory, perhaps a memory of the body itself that is incapable of lying, or of accepting lies. We shall see as this blog goes along.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Slate Magazine's The Memory Doctor

Slate's William Salatan has recently written up an eight part series on false memories. I knew at once that this blog should form a link to it, but wanted to wait till I had at least  had a chance to read a bit. I've now read the first segment, in which Slate conducted its own experiment on implanting false memories by asking people to respond to a questionaire where they were asked about three true large political events and one of four false ones.

Upshot? People will pretty much believe anything you want to tell them about Hilary Clinton. Also? A whole lot of people will believe that they went up in a hot air balloon when they were a child if you have the doctored photo to prove it.

Actually, it's a lot more interesting than that if you check out the link. But coincidentally, I've just been reading a fun mystery novel,   A Dog About Town, by J.F. Englert. The series is narrated by a supersleuth labrador retriever named Randolph, and this is what Randolph has to say about memory:

Memory is a fickle thing. Ask ten people at the scene of a traffic accident what each saw and you will get ten different stories. The car was red. No, the car was black. The driver was old. No, the driver was little more than a child. The victim dove in front of the car. No, the victim slipped on a banana peel. This phenomenon is the bane of attorneys and the playground of neuroscientists and all those interested in the workings of the brain. The question is further complicated by emotion. Even those with the best memories should be aware that there is a process that colors what they remember with feelings. It is not simply a question of wanting to remember something a certain way, but of the hidden connections between positive and negative feelings, sometimes long past, that change the way we perceive the present even as it is happening.

I'd spell it out in alphabet letters if I could, but TRUST RANDOLPH.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Bringing Them Back

(The photo, Memorial Day at Arlington National Cemetery, is by John Moore, via Getty Images)

In honor of Memorial day, I thought I'd post this link to a Wall Street Journal article that came out a couple of days ago. Came across it by chance and thought it would be fitting for this post over this weekend. Basically, we may assume that bringing back the bodies of the fallen was always considered necessary. But that's a collective lapse of memory. It's a fairly recent development. Of course, seeing those massive graveyards of American dead in European ground from World War II should have made that obvious. But of course we forget...

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Oil, Oil Everywhere

It's funny, but this is the blog I often have the most trouble thinking up ideas for. Right now, though, I am spoiled for choice. As the Gulf of Mexico oil spill is perhaps the most pressing at the moment, though, I'll mention two sources that show how we have already been here time and time again. The first comes from a Talk of the Town piece by Elizabeth Kolbert about the 1968 accident off the California coast, showing both that we knew everything we needed to know about this stuff way back when, but also mentioning how such catastrophes can, at the right cultural moment, be catalysts for change.

That seemed enough, but then I caught the Rachel Maddow show tonight, which shows how, in 1979, we went through a very similar experience in the Gulf of Mexico. (No, I don't remember it either--that's sort of the point around here, though.)

Tuesday, April 27, 2010


I'm not sure that this April's eruption of the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull really ties into the theme of a lapse of memory, since it's hard to forget something that you've never heard of before. Still, I found it quite intriguing that something we don't actually think about all that much was able to so swiftly bring much of the European economy to a halt and through something that most of us had never heard of--the vulnerability of jet engines to spewn volcanic ash.

But obviously it's someone's lapse of memory, otherwise either it would have been common knowledge, or no one would have known it and whole airline fleets would have flown out, none the wiser on the potential peril. It always interests me when knowledge that some people had all along suddenly emerges and becomes our common knowledge so quickly. It happens when presidents have major or even minor surgery, for instance, and it's always rather heartening me that, given the right incentives, people of all ages and opinions can be like sponges in their capacity to learn.

Anyway, in stumbling around for ideas that might link to why I thought volcanoes might be a good Lapse of Memory post, other than the fact that I haven't posted here for awhile, I came across this site on the top 10 volcanoes in geologic history. As these type of memory tests are supposed to be good for the brain, why not test yourself and see how well you do?

I only knew a few and one of them was due really to a wonderful children's book that imprinted it vividly on my memory. If anyone's curious, just drop a note here and let me know.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Black Beauty--or The Secret History of Anna Sewell

Well, not secret so much as forgotten and obscure. I was at work yesterday and one of our used book buyers showed me an old copy of Black Beauty and this brought back some of my own memories of the book. I read it or at least some abridged version of it in my horse-obsessed girlhood. I empathized deeply with Black Beauty's plight, but being seven or eight, did not exactly read the story critically.

I must have been in my twenties when the book--again, some old, forgotten, illustrated version, maybe even the same one--resurfaced at my sister's. We spent an evening laughing, perhaps with gallows humor, at the unrelenting woe that filled its pages. And then promptly forgot it again.

What I remembered yesterday, though, was a wonderful article I'd read in The Believer four or five years ago. It was written by Paul Collins, which of course I had not remembered, and takes up the subject of Black Beauty and the life of Anna Sewell about midway through. I think I'll save the fascinating, but tragic facts he comes up with as the background of the novel, as you can read the whole thing in it's entirety here. I'll summarize for the less inclined by saying that Black Beauty is sad for good reason.

But one of the things that struck me this time, and made it a worthy subject for this blog, is Sewell's almost completely forgotten and unknown status.

Here's a taste of the article:

Black Beauty has been translated into everything from Swedish to Hindustani, and made and remade many times over in both silent and sound movies, as well as a TV series. It has also generated sheaves of sequels—including Son of Black Beauty, which sounds like a swell idea for a book until you recall that Black Beauty was a gelding. No matter: he is an unstoppable force. Nearly everyone has heard of him, many have read him, and few have any notion whatsoever of his origins.

I cannot find a single academic monograph dedicated to examining Black Beauty. The book’s critical obscurity is matched by that of Anna Sewell herself; the only full-length biography devoted to her, The Woman Who Wrote Black Beauty, has been out of print for thirty years, and was more about mother Mary Sewell than about Anna herself. As biographer Susan Chitty readily admitted, Anna was almost impervious to biography: her one surviving diary is a tatty notebook of fourteen pages in length. Compare this to Sewell’s rival in the shut-in spinster-genius sweepstakes, Emily Dickinson: she, at least, left hundreds of letters behind. Of Anna Sewell we have little but what comes, so to speak, straight from the horse’s mouth.

But oh, how he spoke!

MFA scholars in search of a topic, take heed. You will be doing the world a favor.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Iran--or The Revolution Isn't Over Just Because American Television Isn't Covering it Right Now

One of the original things I wanted to do with this blog, though I've gotten a bit away from it, is tracking events that caught our attention at one point, but have slipped away from our media driven memory. Last year's Iranian revolt is hardly history, and in fact I got a message from Amnesty International just in the last few days asking for urgent action for protesters at Ashoura:

Two women, Leily Afshar and Atieh Yousefi, and one man, Reza al-Basha, are among hundreds of people believed to be held incommunicado following mass arrests on 27 and 28 December 2009, around the Shi’a Muslim holy day of Ashoura. All of those arrested are at risk of torture or other ill-treatment.

I encourage you to visit the Amnesty International website. However, what I really wanted to do was post about an Iranian blog or two and then maybe add them to my blog roll here. It doesn't turn out to be that easy to find the active bloggers though. Understandably, some of the blogging fever that was part of the uprising has subsided. This article explains a bit more about that.

Another site that has quite a comprehensive list of blogs in English is Iranians' Blogs. Although the list itself might be a bit overwhelming, the blog roll shows blogs that have been active recently. And then there's United for Iran , which hosts frequent updates on the situation "on the ground".

As a Californian, I feel a certain connection to Iran. Before the fall of the Shah, there were a lot of Iranian students studying here, and a friend of my sister's, Mariam, was studying at UCSC at the same time I was. She represents to me the bright flowering of the Iranian student movement then, which makes me feel an affinity to the Iranian student movement now.

It's relatively easy to protest in America these days, even if sometimes we don't feel like it accomplishes much. But even with great polarities, our civil rights tend for the most part to be protected. It's not the same thing in places like Iran. I can't imagine the guts it takes to take to the streets, or blog. It's worth your time to take a moment and read the reportage of some of the brave souls who, armed only with their courage, do still manage to do this.