Monthly Archives: January 2013

Moonwalking with Einstein

412iIGkcCpL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA278_PIkin4,BottomRight,-65,22_AA300_SH20_OU01_The title of this non-fiction masterpiece is somewhat misleading but certainly memorable. I’m only partially through it so I still do not know why the author chose this title, but I’m enjoying this book that reads more like a novel than a non-fiction book about memory. The author, Joshua Foer, spent a year hanging out with “memory athletes” and challenged himself to improve his memory and compete with them.

The old joke is, “there are three signs of old age, the first is memory loss . . . I can’t remember the other two.”  According to Joshua Foer, we need not give in to our aging memory and we can do something about it fairly easily with practice. He shares the astonishing statistics on memory athletes, one of whom can remember more than 1,500 items in order.

We long ago learned that the human brain is hard wired to remember some things and forget much of what lands in our sensory path. We have no use for most of what we encounter, so being able to forget those bits of information is useful. Foer also tells about individuals born with amazing memories for information but who cannot process it. A great memory does not just recall data, but also applies the information usefully. Our brains are designed to seek context for information so that it is available when needed.

In the fifth century B.C., Simonides used and taught the “Memory Palace” as a technique for memorization and it is still used today. By relating information and sequences to familiar landscapes or building interiors, we can store information for later recall. We use our visual memory of a familiar place to cue us for recall of new information we hope to retain.

410B5huH1PL._AA160_Foer mentions George Miller’s pivotal research in 1954 that resulted in the article, The Magic Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two that suggests most of us can store seven chunks of data with short term memory, but some can handle nine and some retain only five chunks, thus seven plus or minus two. John Medina’s Brain Rules, another great book based on the physiology of the brain, is a great companion read for this book, because it specifies how the brain encodes memories and explains the interaction of the animal brain, amygdala and hippocampus with the cerebral cortex.

Joshua Foer’s journey to the U.S. Memory Championship is the thread that leads you through his fascinating book. I’m looking forward to the rest of it. And I am already practicing some of the techniques. You can teach an old dog new tricks, if you can get him to read a good book.

– Tim Merriman


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Great Books Have Long Lives: Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

Just about a zillion years ago I read a story about stolen candlesticks in an English book in middle school. I remember the main character’s name, Jean Valjean. Now I know that was just an excerpt from the classic book by Victor Hugo (1802–1885), Les Miserables. If you read on digital media, the book is very affordable since it is offered FREE. The book was published in 1862 and endures in many forms: book, E-book, movie, and musical.

41SbXYXgaPL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA278_PIkin4,BottomRight,-64,22_AA300_SH20_OU01_I just watched Jon Stewart on The Daily Show as he interviewed Anne Hathaway, an unforgettable, haunting Fontine in the recently released movie. Jon quipped that he usually only cries at Mets games, but . . . without saying it he alluded to having shed a few tears. Lisa and I enjoyed the movie, shed a lot of tears and simultaneously felt emotionally crushed and uplifted. It is a powerful story, powerfully told through dialogue and song in the movie. Lots of Oscars, Golden Globes and other awards are likely.

Now I have to go back and read the book. There are few short stories from English Literature classes that I still remember. Why do I remember Jean Valjean and the stolen candlesticks? The emotional power of this story of a convicted man who steals silver from a church and is caught by the police is compelling. The priest who befriended and protected Valjean also protects him from the law when he is caught. That act of love, forgiveness and humility changes him forever.

Hugo used the personal stories of friends, acquaintances and events of the times to craft the many subplots in this 1,500 page book that carefully moves from very dark places like prostitution and hunger to the joys of love and camaraderie. He intended it be transformative and it is. As a musical, some of the incredible actors sing better than others, but all of them capture your heart. Hugh Jackman explained in an interview that they sang the final versions of each song as they filmed the action, not dubbed in later from a studio setting. Anne Hathaway told Stewart that she sang one song for eight hours trying to find just the right feel. The fourth take from early in the day is the one that appears in the movie.

When books are made into movies, I usually like the book better and wonder at the choices a screenwriter and director made in subverting the choices of the author. Hugo is not around to complain, but movies like this will drive many of us back to the original text, not to be a critic, but to fully understand the nuance behind the story. The emotional power of the movie reminds me that there is a deeper experience in the book to be enjoyed.

Lisa, my wife, has seen Les Mis performed many times on stage and sings along with enthusiasm when she plays the soundtrack from the stage play. Using an inordinate amount of restraint in the movie, she silently mouthed every word through each song. I liked some of the songs but did not love them before seeing this movie. Now my throat swells with emotion when I hear even a few notes of One Day More. I am there on the ramparts in the streets of Paris cheering for freedom from the oppressive monarchy.

Great books live on for centuries through remakes in movies, musicals, and games. And in so doing, this one allows Victor Hugo to live on as a great storyteller of his time. If you need a good cry and liberation from your own problems, go to the movies soon and see Les Miserables. Or download the book for free and lose yourself in one of the world’s greatest works of historic fiction.

– Tim Merriman

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Before You Publish Your Book, Read . . .

51MCjhgAmaL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA278_PIkin4,BottomRight,-70,22_AA300_SH20_OU01_I just finished reading APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur – How to Publish a Book by Guy Kawasaki, former Chief Evangelist at Apple, and Shawn Welch, an app developer. I heard Guy give an inspirational talk many years ago at a national conference and it was memorable. He is still on the cutting edge of entrepreneurship. Shawn Welch is a skilled technician/developer providing the explanations of how to convert files to the varied specific formats required for electronic sales at Amazon, Apple, Nook, etc.

If you are writing a book or have written one, you may already know the frustrations of trying to find a publisher and an agent. Kawasaki has written more than a dozen books and has had many of them published by mainstream publishers. He explains why that is not the most viable option these days. Even major publishers often will not promote your book to get sales. Unless you are already a well-known name, your mainstream book can still languish without readers. And even if you are well known, publishers may not find your book to be a priority. In that case there is little you can do except promote it yourself.

Many writers have observed that the creative act of writing a book, designing the cover, and going to print can be more rewarding when they do it all themselves or at least oversee it all. Kawasaki refers to this as “artisanal” publishing, rather than self-publishing. He points out that writers such as Walt Whitman and John James Audubon have done this in the past. It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that publishing became the province of large companies or corporations.

I have read half a dozen books about self-publishing this past year. I am aware that we learned much of this the hard way by trial and error.  APE is the best of those I have read in terms of being readable, comprehensive and great advice. Guy’s portion was the most useful to me. I imagine that the technical advice from Shawn Welch on formatting and related matters is good, but we have preferred to contract with others to do the technical work. I am fine with the “Do it yourself” business when it comes to website design, merchant services and fulfillment, but the more technical application of Indesign software is still somewhat mystifying to me and not what I want to spend time learning. Others might enjoy this portion of the book.

414+iPgRf0L._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA278_PIkin4,BottomRight,-64,22_AA300_SH20_OU01_The authors point out the varied ways to work with diverse electronic publishing platforms but land where I have landed. The Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) by Amazon is probably the right starting place for a person publishing her or his own E-book or printed book. You can upload your own Word file on the site and preview it to make certain it looks like what you expect. It can even have color photos, since many of the new E-reader devices can handle color. If you place your book in the KDP Select program, you must exclusively keep your e-book at Amazon and not place it with Apple or other options. They give you five free days every three months to give away your book as a promotion and this really builds reviews, if you promote the book well through the many sites that keep readers informed of free books.

Dan Poynter’s book, KDP Select: Navigating Kindle’s Freebie Day has also been helpful. It explains the ways that “free days” can be effective in putting your new book in front of lots of readers. He also explains how to get promotion on varied free day websites. Author Marketing Club has made that even easier. They provide one page with all of the best connections to having your free book day listed.

Even if you are fairly experienced at publishing your own book, you may read APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur – How to Publish a Book and still garner some new ideas. It is rich with suggestions that will make you more successful as an author, publisher and entrepreneur. It is good to read as many resources as you can find, but I can highly recommend APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur – How to Publish a Book.


–Tim Merriman

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