Bite-Sized Trivia and Fun Facts

Published on Sunday, January 30, 2011 in , , ,

Chris Brogan's Jeopardy logo photoLearning new things can often seem overwhelming. Sometimes, it's nice to just learn new things in smaller, bite-size pieces, so that will be the focus of today's post.

mental_floss blogs - mental_floss has been a long-time Grey Matters favorite, and it's a daily stop for me. The combination of articles, links, puzzles, and trivia makes this worth your while. Their magazine, available both in print and in a digital edition, is just as fun!

mental_floss tumblr blog - Believe it or not, mental_floss is available in an even more bite-size edition than the regular blog, thanks to tumblr! Some are simple factoids, and others are short articles from past editions of the magazine.

Futility Closet - This is a simple, no-frills blog with interesting daily tidbits, mostly about somewhat geeky subjects, but general trivia can also often be found there. The nice thing about this blog is that the subject headings are so well defined, you can easily focus a specific favorite topic, such as crime, oddities, or science and math.

Now I Know - This comes as a free daily e-mail where you learn one new thing each day. There are also complete archives available, so you can get an idea of what to expect in your inbox. Most of the items are about odder moments in history, but that's not a hard and fast rule.

Associated Press' This Day in History Videos - Speaking of history, why not take it one day at a time? The Associated Press (AP) has videos posted about what happened on any given day in history. You can search for a particular date or browse the playlists.

Since we're talking about sources for bite-sized trivia and fun facts, what better place to look than Twitter, where you're limited to just 140 characters per post? Here are a few great trivia Twitter accounts you may want to follow:





These Twitter accounts are also good starting points. Check out their followers, and the accounts they follow, for more great sources of trivia.

What are your favorite sources of quick trivia and fun facts?


Magic and Poetry

Published on Thursday, January 27, 2011 in , , , , ,

Natalie Roberts' magnetic poetry photoI talk about poetry quite a bit, as well as magic. What happens when they're combined?

Once you've got the basics of memorizing poetry down, how do you make it magical?

Surprisingly, if the poem is perceived as challenging enough, just memorizing and reciting the poem can have its own magic. For example, Archie Campbell's recitation of Rindercella and the Pee Little Thrigs, and Saucy Sylvia's Ride Hooding Red are still remembered by many who saw them. All these amazingly-told stories are from the same source, a book called Stoopnagle's Tale Is Twisted.

Besides being amazing in and of itself, poetry can also be used to set the atmosphere for a magic show. A perfect example is Ricky Jay's use of the poem Villon’s Straight Tip to All Cross Coves to simultaneously establish an atmosphere of both con games and academic analysis:

You don't have to stop the show for poetry, though. When you think of this, however, you might think of only using it for a classic, even romantic atmosphere. Certainly, that can be done, such as when Alain Choquette performs his broken-and-restored thread routine. However, it can also be used for other purposes. Penn & Teller use the classic poem Casey At The Bat for not only comedy, but to provide excitement via a time limit for an escape:

Surprisingly, you can even make a magic square edgy through the use of poetry, as Benji Bruce proves:

What if we make the poem more central to the magic? Is there really such a thing as magic with poetry itself? Believe it or not, there is such a thing.

If you remember the discussion of James Grime's videos on the Kruskal Count, as shown as Last To Be Chosen and Last To Be Chosen II, you may remember the routines that used the Declaration of Independence and/or the Wizard of Oz opening paragraph. About 2 years ago, I discussed using the Kruskal Count for poetry tricks in more detail.

As with much of math-based magic, Martin Gardner was there first. Inspired a 1927 book by T. Page Wright, in which the 19th word of every poem was always “rose” and the 31st word was always “love”, he created his own original magic poems, both of which could employed a die to allow the performer to divine the word.

If you're a member of the Magic Cafe, and you have more than 50 posts, you have access to some of the most advanced poem-related magic in Leo Boudreau's routines Poems I and The Raven & The Beatle Decoded. In both of these routines, people choose words from a classic poem, and without any apparent clues, you're able to determined the chosen words.

If you have any experience with magic and poetry, I'd love to hear about it the comments!


Free Memory Training Videos

Published on Sunday, January 23, 2011 in , , , ,

Ultimate Memory logo by eReflectRecently, a company called eReflect released their new memory-training program called Ultimate Memory (Windows only). While much of the training is done through exercises and progress tracking, it's also done partially through videos, many of which they've generously made available for free!

The free memory training videos are posted on eReflect's YouTube channel.

They comprise such a wonderful education in the basics of memory training, I thought they were worth posting here.

Avoid Memory Robbers!

Food For Thought

Remembering Lists and More

Have a Fit Mind!

Remember Quotes Word-For-Word!

Remember Words, Language, and More

Even Memorize an Entire Speech


Bizarre Poetry

Published on Thursday, January 20, 2011 in , , , , ,

Tony Roberts' poetry book pictureIt was just back in September when I explored memorizing poetry in detail. The question of what poems to memorize is always the biggest one. You can memorize classic poems, but today I'm going to focus on poems that are a bit more bizarre.

Where to start? How about with the basics, working through the alphabet A-Z. Normally, all you get is things like A is for Apple, B is for Ball, and so on. Sorry, that's too normal for this post! For a geeky turn on the alphabet, be sure to check out The Geek Alphabet from Geeks Are Sexy!

Edward Gorey's The Gashlycrumb Tinies goes beyond just being geeky. As shown in the animated version below, each letter represents a child who dies a grisly death:

Shel Silverstein's approach in Uncle Shelby's ABZ book is well known to many already, but if you're not familiar with it, there are several screen captures in this review that will give you an idea of what to expect.

The late Shel Silverstein is still probably the reigning king of fun and bizarre poetry. A quick look at the number of Shel Silverstein-related videos on YouTube will confirm that. He's hardly the only current poet to consider, however.

I've mentioned Kenn Nesbitt's poetry before on this blog, as he puts such a whimsical view in each of his poems, while still not being afraid to delve into the strange and even morbid side. My favorite poem of his is Katy Ate a Crate of Dates, a tongue twister that perfectly embodies his style. His most recent book of poetry is The Tighty Whitey Spider, but he does have a new storybook out entitled More Bears!.

Trace Beaulieu, whom you probably know best as Dr. Clayton Forrester from Mystery Science Theater 3000, has also recently released a book of original poetry in his own bizarre style, entitled Silly Rhymes For Belligerent Children. Last summer, Trace read some of excerpted poems (Winkle Tinkle is my favorite):

Let's not forget parody. Just this morning, the good people over at mental_floss introduced me to Dylan Curry and one his creations, Humpty Dumpty in the style of Edgar Allan Poe.

Who better than to turn to for parody poems than Frank Jacobs, who has been parodying poems and song lyrics for MAD Magazine for over 50 years! In his book Pitiless Parodies and Other Outrageous Verse, there's whole chapters devoted to his parodies of Mother Goose, The Raven, and Casey at the Bat, including one called Casey At The Dice. Longtime MAD readers will probably find many familiar works in his MAD For Better or Verse collection. His Hollywood Jabberwocky, a reworking of Lewis Carroll's classic poem with movie stars, is both amusing and amazing:

As with any collection of poetry, I can only begin to scratch the surface of the amazing, silly, and bizarre poetry that's out there. However, if I've captured your imagination, and you're now looking for a good place to begin exploring on your own, check out the poems category over at Futility Closet.

What are your favorite bizarre poems? I'd love to hear about them in the comments!


How to Solve Rubik's Clock

Published on Sunday, January 16, 2011 in , , ,

Stephen Morley's Rubik's Clock photoRubik's Clock is a two-sided puzzle featuring 18 clocks, with 9 clocks on each side. The challenge is to set all the clocks so that the hand in each of the clocks points to 12. What makes it challenging is that you can only set the 4 corner clocks directly, with 4 buttons in the face of the puzzle that affect which of the other clocks are affected by the turning of the corner clocks.

Try out the puzzle for yourself with this online version (Click on the help button to learn how to play it). Once you understand the basics of the puzzle, and it has begun to frustrate you, come back here, because we're going to examine how to solve this mind-bending puzzle!

The simplest solution to learn is the one at Jaap's Puzzle Page. It's simple, and a repetitive enough that a few tries will help you quickly solve the puzzle.

To help make this solution more clear, cubedude7 has put together a 3-part video series on how to solve it. First, he shows how to solve all the non-corner clocks on both sides:

Now that you've got the first 10 clocks solved, it's time to deal with those stubborn corners:

That's it! Your Rubik's Clock is now solved. Seems kind of simple, doesn't it? Well, cubedude7 does help you go faster when you encounter some lucky special cases, too.

Jaap's Rubik's Clock Page has a few other links. Among the more interesting ones are a speed-solving solution, and a solution that solves 1 side separately, then the other.

Still too easy? Then it's time to really go the extra mile. Try learning to do it blindfolded:


Yet Again Still More Quick Snippets

Published on Thursday, January 13, 2011 in , , , , , , , , , ,

LinksSince the previous edition of snippets focused on math, we'll focus on memory in this one.

• Back in 2008, I reviewed a flashcard program for the Mac called Mental Case. It's been through several upgrades and adaptations since then, including the addition of an iPhone/iPod Touch version and an iPad version, which have now been combined into a universal app called Mental Case Flashcards HD (iTunes Link).

Before the end of summer 2011, they're preparing to upgrade the Mac version to 2.0 followed shortly by both iOS versions. The 2.0 version will only be available via the new Mac App Store. Unfortunately, the only way for current owners to migrate is to purchase the current version at some point on the App Store. To help ease this transition for current owners, Mental Case at the Mac App Store will be half price ($14.99) until January 18, 2011.

On a semi-related side note, AppShopper has announced it will be adding Mac App Store support soon.

• Looking for something to memorize with Mental Case? How about the periodic table of the elements? Some do this by memorizing Tom Lehrer's Elements Song, but it's often criticized for not being in numerical order. In response, there's now a version with the elements sung in order, to the tune of Billy Joel's We Didn't Start The Fire.

Alternatively, there's the acrostic mnemonic approach. By remembering a few sentences taught in this video, you'll have all the elements memorized quicker than you might expect!

• The Phonetic Peg Memory System is another great way to memorize things. Encouraged by the recent Magic Café thread on free Phonetic Peg Memory System resources, I went looking for more.

Since first coming across that thread, I've discovered PinFruit, a number-to-mnemonic converter like Rememberg and the Phonetic Mnemonic Major Memory System Keyword Database. I also ran across the Number Thesaurus for the first time, which reasonably settles what the Major/Peg System should be properly called.

When looking for mnemonic for a given number, I recommend trying it in all 4 of these sites, as you'll get a more complete picture of the possibilities. All of these new resources have been added to the Memory Tools page.

• I'll round out this edition of snippets with some fun challenges. First, there's cow-pi.com, where you can sign up to pit your knowledge and recall of Pi digits against others online! There's even a practice mode if you're not sure of your abilities yet.

If words are more your thing, mental_floss blogger Sandy Wood often features puzzles known as word ladders or doublets. At this writing, the most recent one asks you to go from BOOK to FILM.

If you find these word ladder puzzles challenging, the Wolfram Alpha search engine can help. Using the BOOK to FILM puzzle linked above, we need to find out what words are one letter away from the word BOOK. We start by entering the word _OOK in Wolfram Alpha (note the underscore in place of the missing letter), which then lists the words that it could be. For a more complete picture, we also search for B_OK, BO_K, and BOO_. From there, you can decide which words will take you closer to FILM. This is a nice tool, and doesn't ruin things by solving the puzzle for you.


Review: Art of Memory and Mental Math (iOS)

Published on Sunday, January 09, 2011 in , , , , , , , ,

Mimir logoA software company called Snarp recently released two new iOS products, one teaching memory techniques, and the other teaching mental math techniques. This line is called Mimir, after the learned figure in Norse mythology. In this post, we're going to take a look at both of these native iOS apps, which work on the iPhone, iPod Touch, and the iPad.

Art of Memory

Both the Art of Memory (iTunes Link) and Mental Math apps open by asking you for a user name, a feature that helps if more than one person is using the same iOS device to train. After that, you are taken to the main menu (all screenshots are from the iPad versions, courtesy of Snarp):

Mimir Art of Memory main menu
Change User is self-explanatory. The settings are simple enough, you can turn the sound on and off, and set the program to run in English or Deutsch (German). Most of the time is spent in the Lessons and Training sections.

Even if you don't know the first thing about memory techniques, Art of Memory is very helpful, and starts you off with a simple introduction. From there on out, each of the remaining 9 lessons are taught in a clear manner, immediately followed by training sessions that help you practice the techniques you just learned.

These training sessions are done with visual images, which helps emphasize how you should envision the objects you're memorizing anyway. The training usually happens in 2 parts. First, you're given the images to memorize, and then you're quizzed on the information. When the training involves more images than are on the screen, the native iOS gestures are supported for moving around the list. This gives the training a very intuitive and friendly feel.

The Training section itself is basically identical to the Lessons section, except with all the written lessons removed, of course. Here's a screenshot of the Object List quiz:

Mimir Art of Memory object list quiz
This section of the training starts with 5 images in a row, and as you can see here, you're presented with not only the same images in a different order, but several images that weren't included, as well.

The techniques taught include how to make mental links, and then how to use this to remember lists in and out of order, as well as more specific lessons in the loci system, remembering names and faces, long numbers, foreign words, and even playing cards.

If you're already familiar with the techniques involved, the training portion of the program is a great way to practice and test your skills!

Mental Math

Being part of the same Mimir family, Mental Math (iTunes Link) naturally uses the same basic interface.

The first thing you notice about Mental Math, though, is the default background, which is a kind of deep blue pattern that moves like the snow on an empty TV channel. Personally, I found this distracting, and used the settings to easily switch it to the static paper background.

Mimir Mental Math main meny
Instead of 10 sections, like Art of Memory, the Mental Math app features 27 different sections! Most of the lessons are on various aspects of multiplication, division, and squaring. There are lessons on addition and subtraction, as well.

Grey Matters readers will be especially interested to know that the final lesson is in determining the day of the week for any date! Interestingly, unlike my lessons, which use the 1900s as the basic century, Mental Math uses the 2000s instead. Those who are learning this for the first time from this app would also be well advised to get the Art of Memory app along with it, to help with the memory requirements.

One major difference between Mental Math and its sister app, Art of Memory, is that the training doesn't take you to a menu, but rather starts you off with the first addition quiz. I'd really like to see this part of the app redesigned with a menu, akin to the one in Art of Memory. Until that time, it's easy enough to get to any quiz you want simply by going through the lessons.

Obviously, with mathematical lessons, you can't employ the rich images as you can with the memory app. However, Snarp still managed to make this app's quiz interface useable and fun by employing a keypad approach. Every time you touch the keypad, a fingerprint appears on it briefly, which is not only a fun touch, but lets you know whether you hit the key you wanted.

Mimir Mental Math main meny
One other thing I'd really like to see in a future version of Mental Math is settings for the date quiz, such as being able to set a date range for the years on which you're quizzed. Settings for the difficulty of many of the other sections could also be helpful.

Final Thoughts

I've talked a lot about the downside of Mental Math, but being about a month older than its sister app, Art of Memory, you can see that Snarp learned plenty from their previous app. Also, the quizzes in Mental Math feature a level indicator which is strangely absent from Art of Memory, but would be just as useful in that program.

In both apps, the navigation could be greatly improved. Currently, everything assumes that the user is moving forward from lesson to training in the order set up by the developers. Often, the only way to break out of that direction is the house icon in the upper right corner, which asks for verification before letting you proceed.

Also, the fact that this house icon is used for both taking you from an individual page to that section's menu AND to go from a section's menu to the main menu can be a little confusing. The navigation problems could be made much clearer with labeled back and forward arrows, such as those on a browser.

Also, many of the lesson pages in both apps look like they have insufficient instructions merely because it's hard to tell that you need to scroll downward to read more. Something simple like a button, and arrow, or even a simple border could be used to tell the user that there's more text available if they just scroll down the page.

Can I recommend these apps? Yes! The only quibbles I really have with them are a few interface quirks. If you focus on the navigation troubles over the content, you're not going to get as much out of them as you should.

Overall, the lessons are clear, and the quizzes are very helpful. At only $1.99 each, Art of Memory and Mental Math do provide a good value, especially considering that you can learn and practice these skills anywhere you like. I recommend them both.


Day For Any Date in 2011

Published on Thursday, January 06, 2011 in , , , ,

Dafne Cholet's Calendar* photoHow would you like to be able to know the date for any day in 2011? Here's how to do it!

The method to do this is quite simple, and is known as the Doomsday method, originally developed by John Horton Conway. Don't worry, learning this method for one particular year is very simple.

The "Doomsday" from which the method gets its name always refers to the last day of February, whether it's the 28th or 29th. For 2011, the "Doomsday" is Monday (Feb. 28th, since it's not a leap year). If you think about it, you can already work out any date in February using just this knowledge.

For example, Valentine's Day, Feb. 14th, must also be a Monday, because it's exactly 2 weeks before Feb. 28th. How about Feb. 2nd (Groundhog Day)? Well, Feb. 7th is a Monday, and Feb. 2nd is 5 days before that. What's 5 days before a Monday? The answer is Wednesday! Therefore, Groundhog Day will be on Wednesday in 2011.

It's also fairly simple to learn the even-numbered months. There's a very simple pattern to remember them: 4/4 (April 4th), 6/6 (June 6th), 8/8 (August 8th), 10/10 (October 10th), and 12/12 (December 12th) will always fall on the same day of the week as the "Doomsday" (the last day of February, remember?).

On which day will Christmas fall in 2011? We know December 12th is a Monday, so 2 weeks later, December 26th, is also a Monday. Since Christmas is one day before that, it must be on a Sunday this year!

The odd months aren't much harder, but the patter is not the same. 5/9 (May 9th) and 9/5 (September 5th) will also always fall on the Doomsday, as will 7/11 (July 11th) and 11/7 (November 7th). This is easy to remember with the following simple mnemonic: "I'm working 9 to 5 at the 7-11". It helps you remember that 9 and 5 always go together, as do 7 and 11.

When is July 4th this year? It's exactly 1 week before July 11th, so it must be a Monday, as well. If you've got all the previous dates down, you've already got the mental capability to determine the date for 10 out of the 12 months!

The easiest way to handle March is to think of Feb. 28th as also being "March 0th". Working forward from March 0th, it's easy to see that March 7th, 14th, 21st and 28th will all be Sundays. St. Patrick's Day, March 17th, is 3 days after March 14th, so it's 3 days after a Monday, making it a Thursday in 2011.

In January, it's usually the 3rd day of the month that falls on the Doomsday. In a leap year, however, January 4th falls on the Doomsday. Remember it this way: "3 times out of 4, it's January 3rd. On the 4th year, it's January 4th." In 2011, since it's not a leap year, you only have to remember that January 3rd falls on the Doomsday (Monday, for 2011).

January 15th is Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday, but what day does it fall on in 2011? January 3rd is a Monday this year, and so is January 17th (2 weeks later). Take back 2 days, and we get January 15th being a Saturday this year!

With the above knowledge, and a little practice, you can quickly and easily determine the day of the week for any 2011 date. You could get practice at the Day For Any Date (Mentalist Challenge) page, changing the year to 2011, and then trying to determine the date before you click the Show button.

When you're demonstrating this ability for someone, it's nice to be able to prove that you're right about the date. I use QuickCal on my iPod Touch (similar calendar are available for many portable devices). If you prefer a non-electronic version that's portable, download and print the 2011 Thumb Calendar.

If you have any experiences or thoughts you'd like to share about memorizing the 2011 calendar, I'd love to hear about them in the comments!


Grey Matters' New Design!

Published on Sunday, January 02, 2011 in , ,

Happy New Year 2011!Here's the surprise I promised in my previous post - a completely new 2011 design for Grey Matters! This new design has been created largely to work with the growing number of touch-based mobile devices used to access the web.

If you're reading this on the main page, come on into the main post, and I'll detail the new features for you! How? Just click or touch anywhere within the grey box surrounding this post, and you'll be taken to the full post.

Oh, good! You made it inside! I'll start with the new features of posts themselves, and work my way outward.


First, on the main page, you can click on the post anywhere in its summary box to be taken to the main post. In the former design, you had to click exactly on the post title. If you're on a mobile device, especially one with a small screen, you'll quickly appreciate this larger target.

Also, since not all mobile devices play Flash videos or animations, the videos will display on those devices as an HTML5 video when possible. In cases where an HTML5 video isn't possible to play, a link will be displayed where the content can be seen on such devices.

For example, below is a YouTube playlist about several US states. Even though individual YouTube videos can be displayed on devices without Flash, they haven't developed the same capability for embedded playlists. If you're watching this on a device without Flash, you'll see a link to the video playlist, instead of the embedded playlist.

Among a few minor touches in the posts, the bubble up top with a number in it displays how many comments there are for the associate post. Also, the date and post labels are now displayed directly underneath the title. The post date and labels are also repeated at the bottom of the page.

Look down below, though, and you'll see plenty of major additions!

If you like an article, I've made it easier to share on your favorite social networks with just one click, in the new SPREAD THE LOVE, SHARE OUR ARTICLE section.

The new RELATED POSTS section allows you to see the top 5 most recent posts with similar tags. The more tags a given post has in common with the post you're currently reading, the higher it will rank among the related posts.

The comments and the ads follow the posts.


The sidebar now features a site search. Simply type in your desired search term, and you'll taken to the new search page which now searches every page of this site.

Below the store ad, you'll also find the full blog archive by month, and a complete listing of all the labels below that. Both the archive and the label links work just like the posts, in that you don't have to hit the text exactly, just anywhere in the same general area as the label or month you're trying to access will take you to the appropriate section!

Top Section

At the very top, immediately to the right of the new smaller logo, you'll see links to the various static pages of the site, including About, Contact, Downloads, Social (feeds and social links), and Memory Tools. These are great sections to explore, because there are lots of links and other free goodies there just waiting to be discovered!

The featured post slider on the main page has been enlarged, and made easier to use. Instead of numbers, the tabs now have meaningful names, and the start/stop button over at the right side allow you to pause or resume the slideshow as you wish.

Blog Areas

All your favorite areas of Grey Matters are still displayed at the top, but there are two changes. First, the areas at the top are no longer drop-down menus, but direct links to the main pages of each section.

The other change is even bigger, however - the other sections have all been turned into Blogger blogs! Each blog section is also color coded. The Mental Gym is highlighted in green, Presentation in red, Videos in pink, and the new Mobile section in white.

Much of the redesign effort was spent on improving the function and looks of these sections. For example, the original version of the Planarity game required Flash to play, but the new Planarity can be played on any mobile device!

Take a look at this tab in the new 400 Digits of Pi tutorial, and you'll note that the look and function of the tabs and the tables have been greatly improved!

That's a look at all the major new features. There are plenty of other minor improvements, but I won't rob you of the joy of discovery.

As with any new design, this is also a work in progress. If you have any suggestions or criticisms, contact me or let me know in the comments!