What should I memorize?
June 30, 2005 10:21 AM   Subscribe

What are some common and useful things I can memorize? I carry a Hipster PDA around, and I'd like to fill an index card or two with poetry, facts, or anything useful to memorize in my spare moments (standing in line, stuck somewhere without a book). I am not interested in scripture or conversion rates.
posted by NickDouglas to Education (48 answers total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
posted by grouse at 10:23 AM on June 30, 2005

The Phonetic Alphabet occasionally comes in handy for spelling things out over the phone or if you have any interest in military or aviation.
posted by bondcliff at 10:25 AM on June 30, 2005

Greetings, "thank you", and "you're welcome" in several languages.
posted by redteam at 10:27 AM on June 30, 2005

The periodic table?

The hiragana might be fun.

Everyone in the US should know the state capitals (although I'm not sure why and don't remember them all myself).
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 10:28 AM on June 30, 2005

Everyone in my family has memorized bits of
the following and we like to repeat them at inopportune times. "A promise made is a debt unpaid" is a favorite of my mother.

The Cremation of Sam McGee, by Robert W. Service

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

Now Sam McGee was from Tennessee, where the cotton blooms and blows.
Why he left his home in the South to roam ‘round the Pole, God only knows.
He was always cold, but the land of gold seemed to hold him like a spell;
Though he’d often say in his homely way that “he’d sooner live in hell.”

On a Christmas Day we were mushing our way over the Dawson trail.
Talk of your cold! through the parka’s fold it stabbed like a driven nail.
If our eyes we’d close, then the lashes froze till sometimes we couldn’t see;
It wasn’t much fun, but the only one to whimper was Sam McGee.

And that very night, as we lay packed tight in our robes beneath the snow,
And the dogs were fed, and the stars o’erhead were dancing heel and toe,
He turned to me, and “Cap,” says he, “I’ll cash in this trip, I guess;
And if I do, I’m asking that you won’t refuse my last request.”

Well, he seemed so low that I couldn’t say no; then he says with a sort of moan:
“It’s the cursed cold, and it’s got right hold till I’m chilled clean through to the bone.
Yet ‘taint being dead--it’s my awful dread of the icy grave that pains;
So I want you to swear that, foul or fair, you’ll cremate my last remains.”

A pal’s last need is a thing to heed, so I swore I would not fail;
And we started on at the streak of dawn; but God! he looked ghastly pale.
He crouched on the sleigh, and he raved all day of his home in Tennessee;
And before nightfall a corpse was all that was left of Sam McGee.

There wasn’t a breath in that land of death, and I hurried, horror-driven,
With a corpse half hid that I couldn’t get rid, because of a promise given;
It was lashed to the sleigh, and it seemed to say: “You may tax your brawn and brains,
But you promised true, and it’s up to you to cremate those last remains.”

Now a promise made is a debt unpaid, and the trail has its own stern code.
In the days to come, though my lips were dumb, in my heart how I cursed that load.
In the long, long night, by the lone firelight, while the huskies, round in a ring,
Howled out their woes to the homeless snows—O God! how I loathed the thing.

And every day that quiet clay seemed to heavy and heavier grow;
And on I went, though the dogs were spent and the grub was getting low;
The trail was bad, and I felt half mad, but I swore I would not give in;
And I’d often sing to the hateful thing, and it hearkened with a grin.

Till I came to the marge of Lake Lebarge, and a derelict there lay;
It was jammed in the ice, but I saw in a trice it was called the “Alice May.”
And I looked at it, and I thought a bit, and I looked at my frozen chum;
Then “Here,” said I, with a sudden cry, “is my cre-ma-tor-eum.”

Some planks I tore from the cabin floor, and I lit the boiler fire;
Some coal I found that was lying around, and I heaped the fuel higher;
The flames just soared, and the furnace roared—such a blaze you seldom see;
And I burrowed a hole in the glowing coal, and I stuffed in Sam McGee.

Then I made a hike, for I didn’t like to hear him sizzle so;
And the heavens scowled, and the huskies howled, and the wind began to blow.
It was icy cold, but the hot sweat rolled down my cheeks, and I don’t know why;
And the greasy smoke in an inky cloak went streaking down the sky.

I do not know how long in the snow I wrestled with grisly fear;
But the stars came out and they danced about ere again I ventured near;
I was sick with dread, but I bravely said: “I’ll just take a peep inside.
I guess he’s cooked, and it’s time I looked;” . . . then the door I opened wide.

And there sat Sam, looking cool and calm, in the heart of the furnace roar;
And he wore a smile you could see a mile, and he said: “Please close that door.
It’s fine in here, but I greatly fear you’ll let in the cold and storm—
Since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee, it’s the first time I’ve been warm.”

There are strange things done in the midnight sun

By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.
posted by slimslowslider at 10:33 AM on June 30, 2005

I second the hiragana (and don't forget katakana). It's always fun when people are all like "OMGBBQWTF u kno jap??//? write me something!!11!" Good for parties, etc.

Also, see the forensics thread for other things to memorize (that's what forensics is; memorizing and reciting works for people).
posted by chota at 10:34 AM on June 30, 2005

Shakespeare's Sonnets.
posted by OmieWise at 10:38 AM on June 30, 2005

I meant, Shakespeare's Sonnets.
posted by OmieWise at 10:41 AM on June 30, 2005

The Doomsday algorithm.
posted by sixpack at 10:43 AM on June 30, 2005 [1 favorite]

Why? No, honestly, why? Are you just memorizing something to be "cool"? In which case baseball statistics from the 1970's are just as cool to one crowd as dead poets to another. If you really want something "useful" then define "useful". "Useful" to get laid? Useful for work? Useful to seem like an intelligent human being?
posted by thedevildancedlightly at 11:00 AM on June 30, 2005

Seconding Shakespeare's Sonnets.
If you're into mathematics, proofs of important theorems. (Depending on how much math you know, this might end at the Pythagorean Theorem or the Quadratic Formula, or it might include the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus.)
And for something actually useful:
Seconding vocabulary, both in English, and in that second language that you are studying/have forgotten most of since high school.
The phone numbers, addresses, and birthdays of all of your friends and family members.
posted by CrunchyFrog at 11:09 AM on June 30, 2005

hey, thedevildancedlightly, provide him with the definition of useful so he can memorize it!
posted by redteam at 11:21 AM on June 30, 2005

I'd print out the lyrics to several Animaniacs song, including The Presidents Song (to help memorize the names of all the U.S. Presidents before Dubya), Yakko's World (to help memorize the names of all the nations, well almost all of 'em), and of course Wakko's America (to help memorize the names of all the states and their capitals).

In fact, I'm gathering a few coins and gettin' a Hipster PDA right now...
posted by icontemplate at 11:24 AM on June 30, 2005 [1 favorite]

In case you're ever trapped in a submarine and can only communicate with the outside world by tapping on the hull, Morse Code will come in handy.

If you're trapped in that submarine with a crew of deaf people, American Sign Language will come in extra-handy. So to speak.

If that crew is easily impressed by random historical knowledge, then reviewing all 42 U.S. presidents might help pass the time while waiting for rescue.

And if that doesn't impress them, then perhaps your command of world geography will.

And it might help you avoid a nasty submarine accident next time.
posted by googly at 11:33 AM on June 30, 2005 [3 favorites]

Devil: Ehhhhh...all of those. I have the first 30 digits of pi down, and katakana sounds cool. Phonetic alphabet, that's awesome, I'll definitely make a card for that.

Now that I think about it, I know a few songs that I can always sing for 30 seconds, then struggle to remember the verses. And a sonnet would be useful. Honestly, if I had some concrete ideas, I'd just Google.
posted by NickDouglas at 11:47 AM on June 30, 2005

I like memorizing ridiculously lengthy/speedy or otherwise complex songs. I suppose you could just focus on lyrics although I like listening to the music as well. Some examples of songs I've memorized that might somehow be useful in other spheres of knowledge would be:

Philosphper's Drinking Song by Monty Python
Picnic of the World by Tom Chapin (Harry's brother)
I am the Very Model of a Modern Major General from Pirates of Penzance
We Didn't Start the Fire by Billy Joel
American Pie by Don McClean (an annotation for this song, similar to the one for "Fire" above, can be found here)

Really, there are lots of songs you can be annoying at parties with (there's another thread on AskMe about speedy songs). A personal favorite is Mari-Mac by Great Big Sea

Finally, if you like PinkStainlessTail's suggestion for memorizing the periodic table, I can't think of a better method than listening to Tom Lehrer's "The Elements" song
posted by nelleish at 11:59 AM on June 30, 2005

Your library card #.
I second Sam McGee. A cousin of mine sometimes recites it late at night at family reunions and it's oddly appealing.
Memorization is also a great way to understand poetry. I once had to memorize a poem by Silvia Plath that I thought was pretty stupid but I kind of loved it by the time I was done.
Tongue twisters.
Poems by Shel Silverstein are great to amuse children with.
Here's an old call and respone thing that's fun.
1st person: One hen.
2nd person: One hen.

1st person: One hen, Two ducks.
2nd person: One hen, Two ducks.

1st person: One hen, Two ducks, three squawking geese.
2nd person: One hen, Two ducks, three squawking geese. etc.

One hen . . . four limerick oysters.
One hen . . . five corpulent porpoises.
One hen . . . six pairs of Don El Verzo tweezers.
One hen . . . seven thousand Macedonians in full battle array.

One hen . . . eight brass monkeys from the ancient sacred crypts of Egypt.

One hen . . . nine apathetic, sympathetic, diabetic old men on roller skates with a marked propensity towards procrastination and sloth.

One hen . . .ten neutramatic synsthesizing systems owned by the seriously cybernetic marketing division shipped via relatavistic space flight through the draconian sector seven.
posted by BoscosMom at 11:59 AM on June 30, 2005

All the popes. In order. Chicks dig that.
posted by jmgorman at 12:01 PM on June 30, 2005

I'm with thedevildance on this one.

If you are so ambivalent toward what you should memorize that you are asking the public for suggestions, then it seems like an enormous waste of time to copy down and memorize a bunch of poetry, facts, area codes, etc. (two wastes of time, really: copying useless info and memorizing useless info). Why memorize things just for the sake of memorizing?

If you are trying to be productive while waiting in lines, etc., why don't you think about the things in life you just don't have time to do or the things you do while you should be doing other things. If you don't have time to keep up with your correspondence, print out on labels the addresses of friends and family and keep the labels and some stamped envelopes clipped into your hipster PDA. When you have some spare time, write out short notes on index cards, stick in envelope, attach label and drop into nearest mailbox. If you find yourself spending too much time reading articles and whatnot online, print some out, clip them in and read them while waiting in line. Print out some crossword puzzles.

If you are simply determined to memorize something, memorize something that is useful or means something to you. Use a card to catalog all the unfamiliar words you come across while reading, then, when you have time, jot down the definition. Use your downtime to study/memorize/practice using in sentences.

If you are determined to memorize things that have little personal relevance, quotations and logical fallacies are always are always fun.
posted by necessitas at 12:01 PM on June 30, 2005

Why does he need a reason to memorize something? Is it so wrong to want to know something just for the hell of it? It's like knowing how to juggle, nothing you really *need* to know, it's just fun to know it.

Back on topic:

It's technically scripture, but I've always wanted to memorize the thing Marsellus Wallace would say right before he popped a cap into yo' ass. Or perhaps Christopher Walkin's scene from the same film.

Ogden Nash's poetry is good to know. I bet you could recite your way out of a fight with that shit.
posted by bondcliff at 12:14 PM on June 30, 2005

How about the Dewey Decimal Classification system? There is a nice intro pdf at the OCLC site (Warning - pdf file).

Memorize the hundreds, and maybe some of the important 10s. Snicker at Melvil Dewey's attempt to classify all knowledge in a logical way. Impress librarians.
posted by QIbHom at 12:34 PM on June 30, 2005 [1 favorite]

The Gettysburg Address; the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution:

Especially the last one, because you can sing it like in School House Rock:

We the people, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice and ensure domestic tranquilty, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
posted by sic at 12:54 PM on June 30, 2005

Spend the time learning to use a powerful memory system. You could start from this Wikipedia article on mnemonics, also you should be able to pick up one of Harry Lorayne's books cheaply which are fun to read.

Basically, memory techniques depend on your ability to form memorable images associating the data to be remembered. In order for this to work with numerical data you need to be able to associate images with numbers. To do this really well you need to memorize "peg words" - so for example the word "cow" might be associated with the number 7. You pretty much need to rely on "natural memory" to learn these peg words - although techniques like Lorayne's make it easier for you by using a consonant to digit mapping it still takes an investment of time to learn even all the numbers up to 100, let alone 1000. But once you've done it, you'll be able to memorize a list of 100 items in and out of order which is pretty cool. Different peg word systems exist for things like playing cards as well - learning to memorize a deck of cards is not that hard and is also a cool trick.

To be honest, I've never put in enough time to get good at this stuff on a consistent basis but I've experimented with these techniques enough to be confident that they do work, and that it is possible to live your life without ever having to rely on paper to supplement your memory for things like phone numbers if you get good enough. Memory techniques can of course help you to commit whatever you want to memory including the other good suggestions here.
posted by teleskiving at 1:34 PM on June 30, 2005

Study up on your local sports teams. Learn the players' names, positions, and statistics. It could come in handy if small talk turns to sports.
Also, if you live in a big city, memorize all the major streets or subway stops, in order, so you'll know how to get everywhere or give proper directions.
posted by rocket88 at 1:35 PM on June 30, 2005

I like OmieWise's suggestion but I'll also note that there's a dictionary of medical eponyms for the Palm which I quite enjoyed.
posted by orthogonality at 1:38 PM on June 30, 2005


I actually wouldn't mind knowing half of these.
posted by cyphill at 1:44 PM on June 30, 2005

The poetry of John Donne.
posted by brownpau at 1:49 PM on June 30, 2005

morse code.
posted by 31d1 at 1:50 PM on June 30, 2005

Second sixpack's recommendation of the Doomsday algorithm. At least, to the point where you can determine DOTW for dates in this year and next (I haven't gone whole hog and memorized the part for finding the DOTW for dates in any given year, and I haven't found the need to either). It's one of those things that just seems like a clever parlor trick at first, but comes in handy more often than you would think. And thanks to sixpack for posting it as well; the January refinement wasn't there when I first saw it a few years ago, and that will indeed make it easier for January dates.

The proof that the square root of 2 is irrational is elegant, and requires no math beyond basic algebra, though perhaps not particularly useful in everyday life. It also provides an example of the technique known as reductio ad absurdum (assume the opposite of what you wish to prove, and show that the assumption leads to a logical contradiction).

Assume sqrt(2) is rational.
Thus, there exist integers p and q such that (p/q)2=2.
Express p/q in lowest terms, i.e., p and q are coprime.
Since q is an integer, q2 is an integer, and 2q2 must be an even integer.
p2 is even.
p is even. (squares of odd numbers are odd; squares of even numbers are even)
Thus, there exists an integer r such that r=p/2.
q2 is even
q is even
But the conclusion that p and q are both even contradicts the stipulation that p and q are in lowest terms; if they were both even, you could divide both by two.
Thus, there are no integers p and q such that (p/q)2=2.

posted by DevilsAdvocate at 2:11 PM on June 30, 2005

Throw the thing out. This time you'll be ahead of the next trend. The hard part will be letting people know you've had one and gotten rid of it.
posted by yerfatma at 2:16 PM on June 30, 2005

Ooh, seconded on logical fallacies.
posted by ITheCosmos at 2:20 PM on June 30, 2005

metric -> imperial conversion? Other weights and measures?
Pi? e?
posted by Kwantsar at 2:21 PM on June 30, 2005

Poetry seconded (or, like seventeenthed. Whatev). Not just any one poet, though. Start with something pretty famous (I'm partial to Yeats, myself; I memorized Adam's Curse years ago for a class and I still enjoy having it floating around in my head. Or Keats; my wife and I were just talking about what a masterpiece To Autumn is) and, if you enjoy it, start looking around for other--perhaps more obscure--pieces to memorize.
posted by willpie at 2:38 PM on June 30, 2005

Also, the subway stops idea was genius.
posted by willpie at 2:41 PM on June 30, 2005

I once had all the block numbers memorized for the center of my hometown so I could tell you what the nearest cross street for any given address was, as well as which side of the street it was on. That was a fun trick.
posted by grouse at 2:54 PM on June 30, 2005

No time to google----

--but CHISANBOP would be REALLY useful to know. It is the Korean method of doing large-number arithmetic on your fingers. It's kinda of like a manual abacus.

While many of the above suggestions are quite useful and some really novel, this is the one I can see most everyone using almost every day.
posted by sourwookie at 3:01 PM on June 30, 2005 [1 favorite]

The Apostle's and Nicene Creeds.
posted by brownpau at 3:23 PM on June 30, 2005

Primary instruments for flying IFR/under the hood. (self link)
posted by tss at 3:53 PM on June 30, 2005

The presidents and vice-presidents not just in order but by date of election, and their parties.

The geologic eras, periods, and epochs and their dates and emergent lifeforms.

The names of all Shakespeare's plays in probable order of production.

All the named moons in our Solar system - there are 139 now!

All the ranks in each branch of the US Military.

The elementary particles and their rest masses and spins.

The names of the children of Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel.
posted by nicwolff at 3:56 PM on June 30, 2005 [1 favorite]

First off, you'll want to know all the important historical dates for the entire world. This is a great way to just get a good, though shallow, grasp of history. And people who know the date of German unification are just cool.

Scripture is a great thing to memorize. With certain people, quoting the Bible is a great way to close up shop. Plus there are some great lines in that book.

Along the same lines, quotes are a good thing to memorize. Latin quotes, quotes from continental philosophers (in their original German and France of course), and finally quotes from comedians.

There are a few songs out there worth memorizing.

If you're going to do poetry, do Blake.

Geography. Start with NYC, LA and then move on to Europe and Asia and the rest of the world. (The rest of the US is pretty boring).
posted by nixerman at 4:02 PM on June 30, 2005

Why memorize things just for the sake of memorizing?

I can't answer for NickDouglas, but in my own experience memorizing long passages or sets of data has a meditative quality. When I go for walks I bring a page with something on it, and work on it bit by bit as I go. It has has the odd dual nature of increasing my focus, but also making me lose track of time. This is great for me, because the same neighborhood every day gets pretty boring.

Also, once you've got that data in your head, you find that the same effect happens when you reverse the process -- reciting rather than memorizing. For instance, when I make the 3 hour drive to visit my parents, there are long sections of road with no radio reception, so what I do instead is play back all the poems, speeches, monologues, et cetera that I've got stored up, and it makes the time fly by in the same way that a really good conversation will.

I got this practice from an English professor who'd been memorizing poems peripatetically for 30 years, and besides keeping him in good shape, it made him pretty much a walking goddamn library... which is a benefit in itself (not just for English professors).

There are probably also benefits to over all memory associated with consciously memorizing things, but I'm not aware of any studies that say this. Intuitively you'd think it would.
posted by Hildago at 4:10 PM on June 30, 2005

Memorize some good recipes.
posted by sled at 5:14 PM on June 30, 2005

I don't think you should memorize facts, because they're so easily at your fingertips these days.

That said, this question suddenly becomes intensely personal. I have gotten a lot of mileage from Tennyson's Ulysses; like a rabbit's foot, I take it out from time to time and go over it. It has brought me much inspiration and comfort.
posted by ikkyu2 at 6:45 PM on June 30, 2005

The Bene Gesserit Litany against Fear.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 8:16 AM on July 1, 2005 [1 favorite]

If you have any experience of learning a language, rekindle it and learn vocabulary.
posted by penguin pie at 8:47 AM on July 1, 2005

I agree with ikkyu2 that memorizing easily accessible facts isn't the best idea. Instead, why not use your hipster to help you memorize stuff about your friends, family and significant other? While knowing the NAT phonetic alphabet is pretty cool (and I should know), you're going to get a lot more mileage out of those "trivial" details about the people you care about in your life.

If you're interested in morse code, though, check out learnmorsecode.com. They have a hipster-pda-card-sized morse code chart!

posted by joshuaconner at 11:50 PM on July 1, 2005

gah, NATO phonetic alphabet.
posted by joshuaconner at 11:51 PM on July 1, 2005

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