Monthly Archives: August 2010

Remembering dates with the major system

When Goethe was born, he was fat and white and bore a certain resemblance to a beetle larva. His parents said, “He’s a funny fat grub!” When he died, all Germany turned out to his funeral, and the priest was amazed to see so many native men. (The phrases in bold are major system code for 08.28.1749 and 03.22.1832, respectively — the dates of Goethe’s birth and death.)

As for me, when I was born I was so quiet and small that when the hospital janitor first saw me he didn’t realize I was an actual baby. He thought I was just some doll to pick up.

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Effortlessly learn pi to 50 decimal places


I just typed that from memory after only a few minutes of memorizing. Yesterday, all I knew was 3.1415…. I used a slight variant on the major system, a mnemonic system for representing numbers as strings of text, which are more meaningful and therefore much easier to remember. Each digit is mapped to one or more consonant sounds, and vowels (including the semivowels /j/ and /w/ and the voiceless vowel /h/) can be added freely to turn the resulting string of consonants into a meaningful word or phrase. I use the following mappings:

0 = /s/ or /z/ — “s,” “z,” soft “c”
1 = /t/ or /d/ — “t,” “d”
2 = /n/ — “n”
3 = /m/ or /ŋ/ — “m,” “ng”
4 = /r/ — “r”
5 = /l/ — “l”
6 = /tʃ/, /dʒ/, /ʃ/, or /ʒ/ — “ch,” “j,” soft “g,” “sh”
7 = /k/ or /g/ — “k,” hard “c,” hard “g,” “q”
8 = /f/, /v/, /θ/, or /ð/ — “f,” “ph,” “v,” “th”
9 = /p/ or /b/ — “p,” “b”

The numbers from 0 to 3 are easy to remember if you know the ASL alphabet:

Alternatively, you can remember “z for zero” and mentally rotate T, N, and M to get 1, 2, and 3:

For 4 = /r/, just think fourrrrrrr! Or you can remember it as “river” (r + IV + r)

For 5 = /l/, you can think of Roman numerals (L = 50), or you can picture the Russian letter Л turned on its side, looking the top part of a 5:

To remember that 6 stands for the palato-alveolar sounds, think of El Chapulín Colorado. That’s that Mexican guy who dresses as an insect (six legs) with a big “CH” on his chest.

Alternatively, think “j for Jewish” and think of the six-pointed Star of David.

For 7, you can remember that G is the 7th letter of the alphabet, think of the seven days of the weeK, or picture the letter K as being made up of two sevens:

For 8, think of a cursive f, which looks a bit like an 8, or think of a digital-clock 8 as a theta:

As for 9, you can think of it as a mirror-image P or a rotated b.

Once you’ve got that down (and I recommend taking the time to do so; it’s a great system for remembering phone numbers and such), just memorize the following passage:

My dear Taliban,

Shalom! Will the big bomb in my Virage injure Imam Haytham in Kabul? Say no! They fear to be caught shopping by bomb cults.

Recite it in your mind, reading off each consonant as a digit (my = 3, dear = 14, Taliban = 1592, etc.), and you too will be able to rattle off the first 50 decimal places of pi.

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Who on the bread of life will feed,
will live forever—so we read
in that same book which oft is read
as if it were itself that bread.
But in that book is also told
how manna stinks when it is old,
in but a day breeds worms and reeks—
Then what if it were kept for weeks?
Or months? Or many a yawning year?
How would the manna then appear?
When centuries had past it paced,
how would the bread of life then taste?
And were it served at such a date,
what would become of them that ate?


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Trends in Mormon scripture citations 2: Who cites what

I’ve been playing with BYU’s LDS Scripture Citation Index again. This time, instead of looking at general trends over time, I focused on the citation habits of individual church leaders — all Apostles and First Presidency members who have at least 300 citations in the database, 48 individuals in all. (Heber J. Grant is excluded, as are all Apostles junior to Henry B. Eyring.)

In the social network diagram below, gray ellipses represent church leaders (labeled with their initials; GaS is George A. Smith, GAS is George Albert Smith, and jfs is Joseph Fielding Smith). The darker the shade of gray, the more recently the person was ordained an Apostle. Colored rectangles represent books of scripture. A link between a leader and a book means that the leader’s number of citations from that book (measured as a percentage of his total citations) is at least one standard deviation above the average for the 48 leaders in the database. Six of the 48 leaders analyzed — including current church president Thomas S. Monson and the late James E. Faust, recently of the First Presidency — don’t show up on the diagram at all because their quoting habits are so utterly unexceptional. (The other four are Heber C. Kimball, Franklin D. Richards, George Q. Cannon, and Joseph F. Smith.)

The links do not necessarily indicate which books a given leader cites the most often. For example, Brigham Young quoted from the New Testament twice as much as from the Old (46% and 23%, respectively) — but when you compare those figures to the average rates of citation (40% for the New Testament, 15% for the Old), he stands out as an Old Testament man.

The diagram illustrates very clearly the recent rise of the Book of Mormon, pioneered by Ezra Taft Benson and followed by every apostle ordained under his leadership.

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