Remember numbers with the Major system

Another great tidbit that I gained from reading Joshua Foer’s book, Moonwalking with Einstein, is the Major system for memorizing numbers.

Briefly, the Major system is a series of rules for converting numbers into words (usually concrete nouns) which you can then lodge in your memory (or even better, memory palace). For example, if I wanted to remember that the 17 items required for VFR (visual flight rules) flight in an airplane are in paragraph 91.205 of the CFR (Code of Federal Regulations), I would create two words using the consonants B,D and N,S,L, like “bed” and “nasal”. Then I combine them in some graphic way, like imagining sticking a bed up my nose before getting in the plane.

Effectively, the Major system gives you the ability to memorize arbitrary numbers, for the cost of memorizing a mapping of 10 digits (0-9) to consonant sounds. If you need to remember longer numbers, you end up with a chain of images, which you can place into a sequence of memory palace locations to remember them in order. (I already tried out the memory palace method just to remember what those 17 VFR items actually are, and it seems to be working!) I’m looking forward to exercising it some more.

The OK Plateau

In Joshua Foer’s excellent book on the art of memory, Moonwalking with Einstein, he mentions the “OK Plateau” as something that all humans learning anything will encounter. This is the stage you reach once you’ve moved past “beginner” and are able to execute a task with some degree of automation. For example, when you first learn to type, you look for and consciously press the right keys. But at some point you learn where they are and can type without looking (or really thinking about individual keys). Foer pointed out something I’ve always wondered — if we tend to get better at something over time, why doesn’t everyone end up being a 100+ wpm touch-typist?

The “OK Plateau” is reached when you are doing a task “well enough” for your needs, and your brain moves on to focus its conscious effort on something else. So even though you might be typing every day (email, reports, documents, forms), you probably will settle into some particular typing speed that never really improves.

Excellent depiction by imagethink.

This is fine for tasks in which “good enough” is, well, good enough. But there are some things in which you want to become an expert, or at least push your performance to a much higher level. To do that, it seems, you must push yourself back into a conscious awareness of what you are doing and examine and explore where you are making errors or performing suboptimally.

“[Those who excel] develop strategies for consciously keeping out of the autonomous stage while they practice by doing three things: focusing on their technique, staying goal-oriented, and getting constant immediate feedback on their performance.” (Foer)

This means constantly pushing yourself to do more, work faster, tackle harder examples, and so on, and then to learn from your failings or mistakes.

I have been thinking about this in terms of my pilot training. There are significant parts of flying that I can now do with some degree of automation, and it is tempting to declare them “learned” and move my tired brain on to the other big poles. But it is also clear to me that complacency is not something you want to develop in flying – nor in driving – nor anything else that requires a good depth of experience and tuned reflexes. I’ve come across advice in different pilot venues that urge you to continue polishing and refining. How precise can you make your short landing? How precise can you be on airspeed and altitude? If you picked out an emergency landing spot, fly low and actually check it out. Is it as obstacle-free as you thought from higher up?

I expect there is probably a transition you hit once you get your pilot’s license. You go from regular lessons with an instructor (with performance expectations and critiques) to absolute freedom to fly when you want, where you want, with no one watching over your shoulder. At that point, it is up to you to maintain that same level of scrutiny and to critique your own performance. My instructor told me to always have a specific goal when I go out to do solo practice. I’ve encountered the recommendation that, after landing, you give yourself a grade for every flight. What did you do well? What was borderline? What new questions came up that you should research?

Foer describes chess players who learn more from studying old masters’ games (and reasoning through each step) than from playing new games with other players. Studying past games can be more mindful. Pilots can benefit similarly from reading through accident reports to gain knowledge about how things go wrong. AOPA offers a rich array of Accident Case Studies that provide a wealth of scenarios to think through and learn from.

For any hobby or skill, there are similar opportunities to make your practice time more effective at increasing your ability. Instead of playing through your latest violin piece, try doing it 10% faster and see what happens. Try transposing it to a different key on the fly. On your next commute, grade yourself on whether you maintained a specific following distance, how many cars in surrounding lanes you were consciously tracking, how well you optimized your gas mileage, or some other desirable metric.

Employing this approach to everything you do would be exhausting and impossible to maintain. But for those few things that really matter to you, for which the OK Plateau is not good enough, it could be what catapults you to the expert domain. If you’re interested, check out Foer’s short talk summarizing the OK Plateau and his advice for escaping it.

Taking the private pilot written exam

I recently took the written FAA Private Pilot exam. My first challenge was to find the testing location. My registration confirmation indicated that the test would be held at Mt. San Antonio College, but it simply gave a street address, without a building or room number. When I arrived, the college had no idea what I was talking about. When I called the CATS service with whom I’d registered, they didn’t have a building/room number either. However, they gave me a local phone number and I was able to call in and get additional guidance. Whew!

The proctor escorted me into a glass-walled room with three computer terminals. She checked my ID and my logbook endorsement, then spirited them away for safekeeping. She went through some paperwork and then called up a “demo” test (one question was “Who is in Grant’s tomb?”) to show me how the interface worked. Then I was left alone to dive in!

You are given 2.5 hours for the test. I had taken 3 practice tests, consuming about 45 minutes each time. But this time was the real thing, so I went slowly and carefully and took about 1.5 hours. I got 62 questions (60 graded and 2 “validation” questions, which are not distinguished). There were questions about weather and aircraft systems and instruments and flight planning, VOR navigation and airspace regulations and aerodynamics. I was surprised that I *didn’t* get a question about computing the heading to fly from A to B given winds of X. In fact, I didn’t get to use my protractor nor my E6B at all! :(

I spent a lot of time, like 15 minutes, on a single thorny question. It asked:

What is load factor?
A) The ratio of the bank angle to the stall speed
B) The ratio of the bank angle to the power-on stalling speed in a specified configuration
C) The maximum weight that the aircraft can support divided by the aircraft’s weight

At first glance, all three seem to be wrong. The first two can’t possibly be right just given a units analysis. Load factor is a dimensionless multiplier that is a function of bank angle. Options A and B are angles divided by velocities (degrees / knots?). Also, stalling speeds are not fixed values, so you wouldn’t be able to compute either one.

But option C has problems too. As bank angle increases, so does load factor. By this definition, an increase in bank angle would have to increase the maximum weight the aircraft can support (???) or decrease the aircraft’s weight (?!??!).

After the test, I looked this up, and I think option C was meant be worded “the maximum weight that the aircraft MUST support,” due to banking, and assuming that altitude is maintained. I am pretty sure that my test didn’t have “must” in the answer, but it’s always possible that I misread and then misremembered it. Anyway, I guessed C and either that was the answer they wanted or this was one of the validation (ungraded) questions. Either way, I think this is a terrible question since it doesn’t get at what load factor really captures — that banking trades vertical lift for horizontal motion. Wikipedia much more intelligibly states that “the load factor is defined as the ratio of the lift of an aircraft to its weight”.

I found these books to be very useful study aids. Do not simply dive into the prep book and trust that to get you through! It is (necessarily) a simplistic skimming of topics more thoroughly covered in the PHAK. But it does give you good example questions to practice on. I found that at least 40 of the 62 questions I got were in this prep book (or slight variants), and the remaining ones were on topics covered by (both) books. There were no surprises.

In the end, I scored 59/60 (98%). I missed this question:

The radius of the procedural Outer Area of Class C airspace is normally
A) 10 NM
B) 20 NM
C) 30 NM

I selected 10 NM because class C usually has a 5-NM low-altitude radius and a 10-NM radius above that. I didn’t recognize “procedural Outer Area” as referring to the larger 20-NM radius within which you’re encouraged (but not required) to establish radio contact. I am now required to receive remedial training on this subject from my instructor before I can proceed to the checkride. :) And maybe that will be one of the things the examiner zeros in on during the oral component!

Why I want to learn more aerobatics

I’ve been trying to put my finger on why my spin training lesson was so enjoyable. I think it comes down to feeling that much of my current regular training is fear-oriented: don’t get too slow, don’t get near a spin, don’t retract the flaps too fast on a go-around, don’t deviate from the centerline, don’t bank more than 45 degrees. This isn’t a criticism of my instructor; much of that fear is self-imposed due to the newness of the experience and the awesome responsibility of controlling a large machine in the air. And those warnings are about avoiding dangerous boundaries and, in some cases, experiences that have killed other pilots. Further, I understand that as a beginner, those boundaries need to be very conservative. But it’s taken a while to move past induced terror to some degree of familiarity, and that is a stressful place to operate in.

Spin training was different. Even though we were doing things that *should* have felt terrifying, it wasn’t scary at all. It felt like pure play. I got to just fly the plane. The plane was so responsive that I felt smoothly in control, even though all the controls were different from what I’m used to.

This has inspired me to do a bit more “flying the plane” while I’m doing solo practice. I’ve experimented with finding the true best rate of climb (when it’s just me in the plane, the speed is much lower than Vy!). Now I can sense when the plane starts to climb or descend by pitch changes in the engine noise. I *still* want to get better at sensing (lack of) coordination (why is that so hard???). I really like slow flight, with that feeling of breath-held tiptoeing, careful attention to rudder, and oh-so-gentle turns, because I can feel that the plane is in an altered, nearly wobbly state.

I also try to come up with variations on the things I regularly practice, to see whether there’s a boundary there or just an unexplored option. I ask my instructor first, to ensure I don’t do something stupid: “Can I try power-off stalls with no flaps? Can I try a power-off stall recovery without using the throttle? Can I practice coordinated rolls?”

But ultimately, I want to learn more aerobatic skills and really feel where those boundaries are. This article captures some of what I’m looking for:

“Aerobatic training will give you a feel of what it’s like to be at the edge of the envelope, and you will eventually be able to feel the changes as the aircraft passes in and out of its flight envelope, thus reacting appropriately and therefore avoiding any life-threatening stall or spin accidents.” From Why fly aerobatics?

Instead of “just don’t do that”, I can learn “here’s how that happens, what it feels like, and how to get out of it.” And maybe even “here’s how to do it on purpose”, like Patty Wagstaff :)

So now I just need to finish off my pilot’s license, and then there’s so much more I can learn!

Sibling dynamics in picture books

This week for my History of Youth Literature class, we were tasked to pick out three picture books, written in different decades, that portray family dynamics, and compare them. Here are the three picture books I chose, spanning 1964 to 2008:

1. A Baby Sister for Frances (by Russell Hoban, 1964)

This is a story about the challenges of a new sibling entering into the family (in this case, a skunk family). Frances feels left out and unimportant; her dress doesn’t get ironed before school, and there are no raisins for her oatmeal. “Things are not very good around here anymore,” she says, and decides to run away. She packs her things and runs away to the dining room. Her parents talk about how much they miss her, so as to be deliberately overheard. “A family is everybody all together,” they say. She comes back and her mom makes a chocolate cake.

2. Rosie Runs Away (by Maryann Macdonald, 1990)

This story about a rabbit family has almost the exact same plot as A Baby Sister for Frances. Rosie struggles to compete with baby Mat for Mama’s attention. Rosie tries to help by shushing Mat, then taking him outside to play, but she gets in trouble for this. She packs her things and runs away to sit under a tree, far enough to see her house but not be seen. She reflects how even if Mama doesn’t miss her, Mat and dad will. She comes back and bakes pies with Mama.

3. Kitchen Dance (by Maurie J. Manning, 2008)

This story begins with a mystery; the children wake up to strange noises coming from the kitchen. They investigate and find mother and father dancing around while washing the dishes. When they are discovered, their parents pull them in for some whole-family dancing, then gently put them back to bed. There is a strong atmosphere of love and acceptance. There is no sibling rivalry or competition.


In all three books, children are indulged. Frances is allowed to “run away” and then provided with affection that compels her to choose to come back on her own. She negotiates for a higher allowance because she’s a big sister now. Rosie also runs away and is welcomed back with hugs and pie-baking. Rosie does get reprimanded for taking Mat outside by herself (and getting him dirty), but the feeling is exasperation rather than anger. These messages can help children work through their own feelings of frustration and sibling competition for attention without fearing punishment.

The children in Kitchen Dance are not chastised for getting up at night, but instead embraced and included. The magic in this book, I think, is the fascination kids have with the mystery of what adults do, once the kids are in bed, and the feeling of being drawn in and loved and included in that special time.

For the first two books, from 1964 and 1990, the gender roles are very traditional. Frances’s mom feeds the baby (from a bottle, not her breast), gets Frances ready for school, knits, and bakes a cake. Rosie’s mom bakes and tends to the baby. Frances’s dad (literally) reads a newspaper, smoking a pipe, in a comfortable chair. Rosie’s dad only appears on the last page, when he comes home (with groceries), and in a fond memory Rosie has of telling him jokes when he “comes home tired”, presumably from work. (In the picture, he too is sitting in a very comfortable chair with a newspaper on his lap.)

Kitchen Dance departs from the traditional view in that both parents share the domestic duties equally – washing dishes and putting the children to bed. They are equally domestic and nurturing. We don’t get to see what they do for work or childcare during the day.

All three families are two-parent families with a mom and dad. No extended family are present. The first two books have animal protagonists, but they feel very “white.” Kitchen Dance is explicitly hispanic. The father sings “Cómo te quiero,” a phrase that is repeated multiple times in the book. The family members all have dark skins rendered with beautiful colors.

The theme of conflict between a single child and a new sibling is one with enduring appeal and relevance. Still, I was surprised to see almost exactly the same plot in books written 26 years apart. Kitchen Dance portrays sibling dynamics in a subtle way; when the narrator (the youngest child) wakes up, she wakes her older brother to include him in investigating the noise, rather than seeking out parent time for herself.

There is also a consistent theme about food providing comfort. At the conclusion of the first two books, the family celebrates being back together by baking a cake or a pie. Kitchen Dance occurs in the aftermath of (presumably) a family dinner.

From this small sample, I would conclude that traditional family structures and gender roles continue to appeal to authors, illustrators, and readers. Our lecture notes for the week discuss the 1980’s and 1990’s as a time when working mothers were more recognized and social issues like divorce and out-of-wedlock pregnancy began to be portrayed, but these books don’t touch on any negative aspects. Overall, I enjoyed having this chance to dive into the world of picture books!

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