Wednesday, May 7, 2008


SuperMemo is a program that keeps track of discrete bits of information you've learned and want to retain. For example, say you're studying Spanish. Your chance of recalling a given word when you need it declines over time according to a predictable pattern. SuperMemo tracks this so-called forgetting curve and reminds you to rehearse your knowledge when your chance of recalling it has dropped to, say, 90 percent. When you first learn a new vocabulary word, your chance of recalling it will drop quickly. But after SuperMemo reminds you of the word, the rate of forgetting levels out. The program tracks this new decline and waits longer to quiz you the next time.

However, this technique never caught on. The spacing effect is "one of the most remarkable phenomena to emerge from laboratory research on learning," the psychologist Frank Dempster wrote in 1988, at the beginning of a typically sad encomium published in American Psychologist under the title "The Spacing Effect: A Case Study in the Failure to Apply the Results of Psychological Research." The sorrrowful tone is not hard to understand. How would computer scientists feel if people continued to use slide rules for engineering calculations? What if, centuries after the invention of spectacles, people still dealt with nearsightedness by holding things closer to their eyes? Psychologists who studied the spacing effect thought they possessed a solution to a problem that had frustrated humankind since before written language: how to remember what's been learned. But instead, the spacing effect became a reminder of the impotence of laboratory psychology.


"Piotr would never go out to promote the product, wouldn't talk to journalists, very rarely agreed to meet with somebody," Biedalak says. "He was the driving force, but at some point I had to accept that you cannot communicate with him in the way you can with other people."

The problem wasn't shyness but the same intolerance for inefficient expenditure of mental resources that led to the invention of SuperMemo in the first place. By the mid-'90s, with SuperMemo growing more and more popular, Wozniak felt that his ability to rationally control his life was slipping away. "There were 80 phone calls per day to handle. There was no time for learning, no time for programming, no time for sleep," he recalls. In 1994, he disappeared for two weeks, leaving no information about where he was. The next year he was gone for 100 days. Each year, he has increased his time away. He doesn't own a phone. He ignores his email for months at a time. And though he holds a PhD and has published in academic journals, he never attends conferences or scientific meetings.

Amazing piece on Wired about Piotr Wozniak, inventor of SuperMemo, the rest here.
(courtesy of Mithridates at Night Hauling)

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