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Memory is a fragile thing

September 29, 2010

Jack Ganssle-September 29, 2010

I remember being able to remember, well, pretty much everything. A flood of facts and anecdotes were daily stashed in the seemingly infinite non-volatile sections of my brain.

But age takes its toll. In the 40s, an increasing percentage of grey matter moves from flash to DRAM, whose refresh logic periodically fails for no apparent reason. So early-middle-agers develop a stable of jokes about their memory hiccups. Time passes and those Alzheimer chuckles aren't so funny anymore as we become caregivers for failing parents. Our future becomes shockingly apparent. Thankfully, we soon forget those fears.

With the sixth decade just a few years off, I find myself getting up to do or get something, and seconds later puzzling over why I'm up. My friends tell the same tale. Generally this is only annoying, though no doubt I once had the solution to life, the universe and everything … and dropped those bits.

But at any age we all share some forgetfulness so I've always carried some sort of memory-jogger, even when just puttering around the house. I've tried pretty much everything with mixed success: a PDA for a while (too bulky). A voice recorder. But I never remembered to play the messages back. A wallet-sized notebook from Daytimer. That worked for decades. But with the advent of smart phones, all of my contact info, previously stored in the Daytimer, is now in e-form. Why carry two somewhat duplicative thingies? I did try storing notes in the phone (and do keep some lists there) but for that quick jotting of a random thought the phone is simply too slow and cumbersome, and is impossible while driving.

Today my preferred note-keeping device is a slip of paper whose contents I read at least every morning. Some of the notations get dismissed as useless errant thoughts from a wandering mind. Others go into various computer files, such as ideas for articles or algorithms to play with as time permits. Some are to-dos that either go into my time manager (currently Time and Chaos from www.chaossoftware.com, although I'm looking for a more integrated solution) or that get taken care of immediately. But that little piece of paper is the metaphorical string around the finger that keeps me on-track.

When asked for advice by young engineers, I offer several thoughts, one of which is to take notes. You will forget. It's best to log too much, as recreating a lost thought is often very costly if not impossible. That new cool idea that's worth a mega-startup could flitter away by the time you step out of the shower.

An important corollary is to be outrageously organized. That's merely an extension of the old proverb "if you have to do something once, do it. If you have to do something twice, write a program to do it." There's no excuse for flipping through stacks of paper to find things or digging around a hard disk trying to locate a file.

Bitter experience has taught me the value of discipline even when engaged in hobbies. For instance, I can never remember how to set up a glue-line router bit. No problem: my workshop has its own dedicated notebook where I record all of these hard-to-remember bits of information. It has tool setup information, notes on sharpening procedures, a log of every knife-change on the jointer and planer, and much more. The information is easy to find and cannot get lost. Memory may be unreliable, but that engineering notebook is probably my most-used woodshop tool.

My sailboat has its own set of notebooks. They record every bit of work done on the engine, part numbers of replacement items, and all of those things one may want to know. A friend maintains his sailing notebook online, an effort that requires a discipline I simply cannot muster.

Is all of this anal-retentive? Maybe, but who cares? I'm a systems guy, and when a system has a problem—like imperfect memory—I try to create a solution. (Another bit of advice to young engineers: Don't apply systems thinking to your marriage.)

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