About Me

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I'm a life-long New Englander, father of 4 challenging kids (I know: I'm supposed to say "wonderful", but while that'd be true, technically speaking, it'd also be misleading), and fortunate husband to my favorite wife of more than 20 years. I've got over 20 years experience breaking things as a test engineer, quality engineer, reliability engineer, and most recently (and most enjoyably) a Product Safety / EMC Compliance Engineer. In the photo, I'm on the left.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Fallible Nature of Mnemonics

Do you make use of mnemonics to learn things? Do you remember My Dear Aunt Sally from algebra? This mnemonic is supposed to help us remember the order of mathematical operations: Multiplication,  Division, Addition, Subtraction. Since I was in school, they've changed this to "Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally" to include Parentheses and Exponents.

"Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain" ring any bells? This phrase is supposed to help us remember the colors of the rainbow (and their order): Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet.
The more sociopathic among you might better recognize "Run Over Your Granny Because It's Violent"

Young Electrical Engineers are taught (or so I'm told) that "Bill Brown Realized Only Yesterday Good Boys Value Good Work" to help them remember the color coding of electronic resistors, which utilize a sequence of colored bands around the component, and the order of the colored bands will tell you what the numerical resistance value is. The colors, in order, are Black, Brown, Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Violet, Gray, White.

Older Electrical Engineers were taught a different phrase: "Bad Boys Rape Our Young Girls But Violet Gives Willingly." We all wanted to know where Violet lived, naturally.

Mnemonics have probably been around since mankind was still in its proverbial diapers, and they certainly have their value; I have made as many for myself that were helpful as I did that were not.

To wit:

I have a pair of nieces who are twins. They are not identical twins, but are fraternal (or, I suppose, sororal). Like many twin sets these days, their parents named the first born with a name that begins with "A" and the second born a name that begins with "B".

Despite their being very, very different from each other, I was unable to get a handle on which was which until they were about 8 years old. How stupid am I, eh? I decided at one point that I could use a nice, easy mnemonic for this.

Baby B has blue eyes! B = Blue, and also = Bertha! Easy!
But not for me...Baby A has brown eyes, and B also = Brown. So, does Bertha have Brown or Blue eyes? No idea.

Did I go instead with A = Andrea and also Azure? Does Andrea in fact have Azure eyes? ugh...I could screw up a nap!

When my beautiful wife sent me for Plain yogurt, I got in trouble for coming home with Vanilla. Doesn't Plain = Vanilla? Isn't the phrase "Plan, vanilla wrapper"? This one I screwed up for years...do I get Plain, or Vanilla?

Am I the only one who screws up mnemonics?


  1. I've never used them. Couldn't remember them lol.

  2. For the colors of the rainbow, I was always taught Roy G. Biv. Like he was some kind of character. I know, such a terrible mnemonic.

    Also, I too failed to learn the difference between plain and vanilla. I thought the two were synonymous. According to a not-so-happy wife, they are not.

    1. I can't tell you the number of items that I've screwed up like that!

  3. First off, vanilla is anything BUT plain - it is the most majestic of the flavors, with a plethora of nuances. The phrase "Plain Vanilla" is a chocolate-led conspiracy whose intent is to hide the fact that chocolate is a single, boring flavor.

    OK, that aside... I never used mnemonics to memorize anything; I'd just memorize whatever list it was verbatim. It's much easier that way for me.

    The one time I did use a mnemonic was for the 7-layer OSI networking model - Please Dad Never Throw Sausage Pizza Away, and its reverse, All People Seem To Need Data Processing. Do you know what it stands for? No, really, do you? Because I sure as heck can't remember. The only thing that sticks in my memory are those useless words. So, mnemonics actually works AGAINST me.

    1. We're going to have to agree to disagree about the chocolate / vanilla thing. But just so that we're clear: you're wrong! :)

      At least you have a decent advantage though: I can't get my mnemonics right AND I can't remember everything verbatim.

  4. Mnemonics don't work for me. Associations do. For the longest time I had trouble calling up the word "arbitrary". Don't ask me why, I just could never recall the word. So for some reason I picture a NYC bus with an Arby's ad on the side. Once I have the arbee sound the rest comes back. A professor many moons ago said there were people visually clued and auditorally clued. I'm visual.

    1. I once reviewed a memory tool that used associations and imagery to help you remember things. It didn't grab me, so I didn't delve too deeply, but apparently this method helps a lot of folks.

  5. I am partial to the "thirty days hath September..." mnemonic.

    1. I use that one all the time, though there is one where you hold your fists up next to each other, and starting at your left pinkie start counting months. Every pinkie is a month in the order of the calendar. Every protruding knuckle is a "long" month, and the "in betweens" are "short" months.