Failing memory

I’ve been a little concerned of late that I’m losing my memory. Or at least that it’s nowhere near as good as it once was. Of all the bads that come with getting older, I fear those that concern the brain the most. My heart goes out those suffering from Motor Neuron’s disease. What it must be like to have an active, engaged brain, while your body shuts down bit by bit is beyond even my vivid imagination. To have a perfectly fit, active, healthy body while your brain unhinges is the stuff my nightmares are made of.

I had a couple of incidents in Costa Rica recently whereby I would have bet the house that I was right, that I’d done what I said I’d done just minutes before. There wasn’t a shred of doubt in my mind. I was 100% certain that I was right. 100% certain. And both times, witnesses told me I was wrong. We’re talking minutes here – the times it takes for a bartender to mix a drink or a waiter to bring the food to the table. And it scared me senseless. I can feel a cold sweat breaking out even now, as I write.

I’ve been watching myself very carefully since and while I have no incidents as serious as those two, I have noticed that my memory is going. It’s getting worse. And yes, a lot of it is walking into a room and forgetting why I was there. Or going to the shop and coming home with everything except for what I went for. Or trying to find my way back to whatever it was I was doing before I got diverted online. Those I can put down to being busy, too busy to be mindful. But the Costa Rica episodes? I can’t explain those.

Meeting up with cousins over the weekend, it was natural that childhood stories would be retold. I have very little recollection of any of them. I have no memory of being in places with people in a given year. And what’s worse, I can remember clearly being places with people in a given year when everyone else swears I wasn’t. So is it me, or is the world wrong?

Working on some course text recently, I came across a reference to a conversation written up by Plato around 370 BC: Phaedrus.  Theuth, the Egyptian god of inventions, was telling King Thamus of the advantages of  a new technology: writing.

Here is an accomplishment, my lord the king, which will improve both the wisdom and the memory of the Egyptians. I have discovered a sure recipe for memory and wisdom.

Sounds just what I need. But Thamus was a little sceptical.

Those who acquire it will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful; they will rely on writing to bring things to their remembrance by external signs instead of their own internal resources.

I’m with him there. I have my lists. I even have lists of lists. If it’s not written down, then I’m guaranteed to forget it. And perhaps in relying so heavily on lists, I’ve lost the ability to remember. I used to be able to rattle off phone numbers and now the only ones I know are my parents’ landline, the landline of a house I lived in in Dublin, and the number of my bank. And that I blame on technology – it’s made it far too easy for us to forget. The list of birthdays I can recall without any aide memoirs is dwindling. As for anniversaries? Enough said.

Anyway, Thamus goes on:

What you have discovered is a recipe for recollection, not for memory. And as for wisdom, your pupils will have the reputation for it without the reality: they will receive a quantity of information without proper instructions, and in consequence be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant. And because they are filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom, they will be a burden to society.

Damning words indeed. In memorising facts, we can sound far more intelligent than we are. In trotting out quotations, we can approach a modicum of wisdom that is suspect at best.

This does nothing to assuage my concern that I am losing my mind – but it comforts me to know that it was being talked about thousands of years ago. I might get lucky. I might get to the end of my days with some grey matter intact. In the meantime, it’s back to practising mindfulness. If I could only remember what it is…

Sputnik and tomorrow's living room

I’ve never given much thought to the evolution of modern telecommunication save to marvel at how clever my smartphone is (and I can safely say that I am only using it to about a tenth of its full capacity). I am old enough to remember the old dial-up phones with receivers so heavy that you needed a shelf nearby on which to rest that elbow. I can still recollect the freedom that came with the advent of the cordless phone and the even greater sense of freedom I experienced when I realised that it worked outdoors, too. As for the mobile phone… I can remember the brick my mate Gerry had in Dublin back in the late 1980s – one of the first car phones – I never did think it would catch on.  Today, my phone would talk to me, if only I could find the button to press to make this happen.

IMG_2837 (800x600)At the heart of global telecommunications sits the ITU (the International Telecommunication Union), one of the oldest international organisations in Geneva. Its job is to connect all the world’s people… [to] allocate global radio spectrum and satellite orbits, develop the technical standards that ensure networks and technologies seamlessly interconnect, and strive to improve access to ICTs to underserved communities worldwide.

In Geneva as part of the policy immersion phase of the Capacity Development Programme in Multilateral Diplomacy for Pacific Island States, a visit to the ITU was on our agenda. And it was fascinating.

IMG_2855 (600x800)This fully interactive exhibition – ICT Discovery –  maps the progress of telecommunication through the years. And perhaps unusually, it encourages visitors to touch and feel and poke and press. You can pick up a tablet at the start and compete against others in the gaming area or simply wander through the 90-minute tour, engaging with each element as you move along. It’s well signposted and very detailed. The years fell away when I saw the Nokia P-30, which came out in 1989, and weighed in at a hefty 800 grams (nearly like holding a bag of sugar to your ear). Or the Amstrad PPC512 from 1988, with its 8 MHz processor,  52 kB memory, 9-inch screen (non-backlit LCD), two floppy disk drives and one hour of battery life. And in 1988 it was a marvel. PPC stands for personal portable computer, by the way… and here I am complaining about the weight of my laptop.

IMG_2848 (800x600)IMG_2850 (800x600)Seeing the evolutionary path of technology laid out in one room is really quite impressive. We tend to take so much of it for granted even if stopping occasionally to marvel would give us a healthier appreciation for just how good we have it. The replica of Sputnik 1, the first satellite in orbit around the Earth, launched back in 1957, is a sight to behold. I’d imagined it to be much bigger than its 58 centimetres. To see something of its size and realise that during the 92 days it was in orbit, it went around the Earth 1440 times… and then to realise that this happened more than 50 years ago? The mind boggles. And a quick view into the future was equally jawdropping.

IMG_2859 - Copy (800x600)Being in the company of Pacific Islanders – from Fiji, Vanuatu, Cook Islands, Samoa, and Solomon Islands – made it even more inspiring. For them, a region that includes ca. 30 000 islands in the Pacific Ocean, only 2000 of which are inhabited, communication is vital. Eighteen countries and territories lay claim to a total of 550 000 square km of land spread over 180 million square km of ocean, comprising 36% of the Earth’s surface. With these distances in mind, good telecommunication can literally be a matter of life or death.

If you’re in Geneva, check it out. ICT Discovery, ITU, 2 rue de Varembé, Geneva  +41 22 730 6155 [email protected]​ The tour is free but reservations are required.


Ask my phone

I was sitting in the Abacus Hotel in Herceghalom on Friday, having lunch, when the chap beside me picked up his phone and spoke to it. Not in it. To it. He asked it to check to see when Csaba someone or other was free to meet on Monday.

I was a tad uncomfortable, thinking he’d lost the run of himself. It had been a while since I’d been outside the city limits and I was feeling a little light-headed. I thought perhaps that the fresh air and sunshine had gotten to him, too.

But then he looked at the screen, read the reply, and then again, spoke to his phone saying: Yes, Siri, go ahead and set up a meeting with him for Monday at 11am.

siriCuriosity won out. I asked who Siri was. He was surprised that I (a) didn’t have an iPhone (and there was me thinking I was technologically posh with my Samsung Galaxy) and (b) hadn’t heard of Siri. Apparently everyone knows about Siri.

Siri lets you use your voice to send messages, schedule meetings, place phone calls, and more. Ask Siri to do things just by talking the way you talk. Siri understands what you say, knows what you mean, and even talks back. Siri is so easy to use and does so much, you’ll keep finding more and more ways to use it.

Is that scary or what? I get great amusement out of my dad asking me to ask ‘the computer’ who’s winning the golf and yet for all my cheekiness, I felt just as he must feel when I was confronted with Siri.

Talk to Siri as you would to a person. Say something like “Tell my wife I’m running late” or “Remind me to call the vet.” Siri not only understands what you say, it’s smart enough to know what you mean. So when you ask “Any good burger joints around here?” Siri will reply “I found a number of burger restaurants near you.” Then you can say “Hmm. How about tacos?” Siri remembers that you just asked about restaurants, so it will look for Mexican restaurants in the neighborhood. And Siri is proactive, so it will question you until it finds what you’re looking for.

The mind boggles – both at how far behind the times I actually am, and how much further behind the times I’d like to be.