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How I learned the NATO Phonetic Alphabet

Did it ever happen to you that during a phone call you had to spell something? An airline code, an email, an invoice number, etc. At those situations, I always regretted not having learned the NATO phonetic alphabet.

NATO Phonetic Alphabet

Flash forward to September 2019: I found myself in a talk about learning and memory techniques during the Automattic Grand Meetup. It picked my interest so I decided to investigate a bit and signed up for the Learning how to Learn MOOC.

In this post I’m sharing how I’ve applied my new gained knowledge to learn something useful that I had put off for a long time. I also hope to interest you in the topic of learning how to learn.

1 – Deal with procrastination

The main reason I had postponed learning the NATO Phonetic Alphabet is that I thought I had a bad memory and it’ll be a lot of work — I procrastinated. Procrastination is a mechanism our brain uses to cope with challenging feelings induced by certain tasks: perhaps we believe we can’t do something, maybe it’s boring, makes us feel anxious, etc. Essentially, procrastination is not about time-management, but about emotion-management.

To deal with procrastination means to deal with and rewire our emotions about the task. Doesn’t sound easy, right? The good thing is that there are a few practical things we can do:

  • Time-box short periods of focus, break and reward. Time 20 minutes during which you’ll exclusively focus on the task at hand and do whatever you can: no pressure in the output, just focus on doing anything. Then, give yourself a break and a reward — exercise a little, eat some chocolate, surf the web, whatever works for you. Do not forget about the reward! It’s a crucial part of rewiring your feelings about the task. Finally, repeat the process a couple of times more.
  • Focus on the process, not the product. Planning and have small wins/rewards is an important part of dealing with procrastination. Things like writing down the next tasks you’ll work on at the end of your day or cross-off the ones you’ve done help you focus on the steps. By focusing on the process, not the final goal, it’s easy to control our feelings of discomfort.

For me, the first focused session was about familiarizing myself with the NATO Phonetic Alphabet: essentially, I surfed the web and read about it. Then, I stopped and gave myself a reward. My second session was about how would one go about memorizing all the 26 symbols (see next tip). Break and reward. I spent the third session developing the system I had researched. Again, break and reward. By the fourth session, I was ready to start memorizing.

2 – Tap the visual and spatial memory

Through many thousands of years, our brain has evolved to be amazingly good at remembering places, visual things, as well as anything that involves the senses. When dealing with abstract concepts it’s useful to encode them into memory leveraging those abilities. For someone who hadn’t consciously done this before and feels that has an average memory, this is easier said than done.

If we look around us, though, there are multiple real-life examples we can draw inspiration from:

I hadn’t done it before, so I spent my second focused session thinking about how would I put in practice the things I had learned. I also reviewed what others did for inspiration: the NATO publishes a guide that links images to the words, some people create a song, etc. Of all the things that I found, the approach suggested by Nelson Dellis -4th time winner of the USA memory championship- was the most appealing to me: he creates an image by merging the letter and the word associated with it.

For example, for the pair A-Alpha he pictures sprouts of Alfalfa coming out of the A letter; for the pair P-papa he pictures a cartoon of his dad with the shape of the P; for the pair U-uniform he pictures the U being a basket where you’d store uniforms; and so on. I highly recommend the video if you’re interested in the mechanics of this.

After I knew the system I wanted to use, I decided it was time for a break (and a reward!). After a while I came back energized to create my own — actually, my unconscious brain already had already suggested some ideas (see next tip). Being my first time ever doing this kind of thing, it took around an hour to come up with my own memorable images for each one of the 26 letter-word pairs.

3 – Focus, rest, and recall

Now that I had a system in place, the next step was memorizing. I went through the phonetic list stopping a few seconds in each of the images I had created. After a few rounds, I stoped and did other things. Then I tried recalling them from memory: I didn’t get all of them but I did get many. I repeated the pattern (focus, rest, and recall) a couple of times during the day. The days after I mostly did recall using the Anki app where I had stored the pairs previously.

It turns out this strategy works a lot better than just going through the list over and over until you are exhausted. There are a number of things at play here:

  • Switching between focus and rest states helps your brain digest the information, so to speak. In the focus mode, you’re able to direct your thoughts to a problem. Although you can’t command your diffuse unconscious brain to work on the things you want, you can prime it to do it — aka make suggestions. How? For example, by taking a break after a focused session (go for a little walk, take a one-second nap like Dali or Einstein, do the home chores, etc.).
  • Space the repetition. Once you reach the point of almost no errors, repeating has diminishing returns — it’s just not effective and creates illusions of competence. To store something in long-term memory, you have to modify the forgetting curve instead. How? Spaced repetition. Instead of cramming a 2h session repeating the same material over and over, do smaller sessions spaced through several days. Useful ways to be deliberate about practicing is scheduling your review and study sessions in a calendar, use flashcards to keep track of progress, etc.
  • Recall from memory. Long-term memory is a storage mechanism that prioritizes which memories are consolidated and which ones aren’t that important. By recalling the information, we’re strenghthening the path to retrieve it later. In many ways the mechanism is very similar to paving a cowpath: a memory is strong when it was used a lot during different intervals. Recalling and testing yourself are the most effective techniques you can use to reinforce what you want to learn. Also teaching it to someone else, which is a good technique to uncover the holes in your understanding.

Coda

Although the tips I suggested here are universal, how do you apply them to a specific situation varies from problem to problem.

Take memorization techniques, for example: PAO, Major System, Mnemonics, Memory Palace, etc. Some are useful to convert concepts into images, others to link or inter-connect different ideas. It takes time to know which technique is more adequate to a specific problem. That intuition is only built with practice.

Other essential functions of learning that I didn’t use in this process were understanding and chunking. I had a list of 26 symbols that matched a letter in the alphabet and they didn’t have any other meaning; I also didn’t have any pre-requisite knowledge, so to speak. If I was trying to understand a mathematical formula or how a web-browser works, chunking would have been essential. The process is similar to putting together a puzzle and involves compressing the information, learning to deconstruct the concept you’re trying to understand, reason by analogy, transform the concept to a different mode/language (from a formula to a graph, from graph to simple words), etc. It’s a messy process.

The topic of Learning How to Learn is fascinating. There is so many practical things you can do to improve and some of them are so counterintuitive. It’s also a fun way to challenge the pre-conceptions about yourself and indulging a bit of goofyness while you work hard to grok something.

If this post picked your interest, I recommend checking the Learning How to Learn MOOC and/or the book is based from, A mind for numbers. They are comprehensive and contain extensive documentation and research, while keeping things actionable.

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All English Fortunes

When you go too far up, abstraction-wise, you run out of oxygen.

— Joel Spolsky, Don’t let architecture astronauts scare you.

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All English Fortunes

To learn to make something well can take your whole life. And it’s worth it.

Ursula K. Le Guin.
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All English Fortunes

If you dislike change, you’re going to dislike irrelevance even more.

Eric Shinseki. Hat tip: Ann Dunwoody, Automattic Grand Meetup 2018.
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All English Fortunes

Make it work, make it right, make it fast.

The UNIX way, resurfaced decades later by Kent Beck.

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All English Fortunes

It seems to be much easier to make two small jumps than the one big jump in any kind of mental thinking.

Creative Thinking at Bell Labs (1952), Claude Shannon.
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All English Fortunes

Objectives are like a vaccine for fuzzy thinking.

Why the secret to success is setting the right goals, John Doerr.

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All Books English Library Reading club

The magician’s assistant

This book was the Reading Club assignment for January 2019.

The magician’s assistant, by Ann Patchett, is a family story under odd circumstances. Set around the same time it was published (1997), it touches topics that were part of the life of many, although not part of the mainstream news at the time: violence in the family, how life differs in small and big places, homosexuality, and AIDS.

It’s told from the perspective of Sabine, the best friend, assistant, and wife of Parsifal, a homosexual man that lives with Phan, his partner. Sabine and Parsifal marry when Phan and Parsifal are diagnosed AIDS so Sabine can inherit their state. She is in love with Parsifal.

Upon Parsifal death, Sabine is shocked to learn that his family is alive, despite what he had told her. They are from Alliance, a small place in Nebraska, and want to visit Los Angeles, where Parsifal lived, to get a sense of how life was for him. Sabine agrees and tours them for a few days, in the hope of discovering why he hadn’t told her the truth. Through this tour, you are acquainted with the main characters. It’s like a warm-up before the real match.

Parsifal’s family turns out to be fine people, and the tragic event that made Parsifal break with them is revealed to Sabine. Fast-forward: she’s invited to a wedding in Nebraska, which she agrees to attend as an opportunity to connect with Parsifal’s childhood and find some rest. So we now have Sabine embedded in an environment so different to hers: a small town with little to do and few opportunities to reinvent yourself, a conservative society, and a family that had struggled (and still is) with domestic violence. This is the real match. We have now a vessel (Sabine) to cross the river of understanding: in one shore, a liberal society where you can be whatever you want; in the other, a conservative community that pressures you to be like the others.

The story ends with the liberal Sabine realizing that the only way that conservative family can break the vicious loop they find themselves in is by providing them an escape hatch. Perhaps this is also the message Ann Pratchett wants to convey: let’s be less judgmental and more empathetic.

This book is beautifully written. The rhythm is slow but steady, with enough details to fill your imagination but not too many to get in the way of the story. The use of magic as a second thread and the dreams to feed us information was great. It is a straight story, doesn’t have many layers to it. To a modern reader, it may feel perhaps a bit dated and certainly stereotypical in some ways (Nebraska, anyone?), but if you consider the time it was published (1997) I think it was actually a very brave book to publish.

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All Books English Library Reading club

Forest Dark

This book was the Reading Club assignment for December 2018.

This is a character-driven story. Jules and Nicole are successful by most standards: they are wealthy, well-known, and have family and friends. They are also suffering an inner transformation. Jules’s parents have recently passed away and that event is the catalyst that pushes him to reconsider his life, put an end to his marriage, and give away his possessions. Nicole is a writer that’s suffering a block that has lasted for too long and has triggered an irreversible inner change. They’re both non-practicing Jews living in NYC and visit Israel as part of his longing for something else in their lives.

Chapters alternate Jules and Nicole. Jules is written in the third-person while Nicole is in first. Nicole’s part feels like a stream of inner thoughts at times, like a diary: raw, unconnected, unpolished, and without a clear place in the story. Jules’ is a bit more focused, but still rambly.

The plot has some under-developed areas and dead ends. I think this is intentional. Based on how well some parts are written and some vivid and rich scenes, I don’t think the author lacks the ability to write a novel. To the contrary, it felt like a sort of a meta-layer to the story, a post-modernist experiment to subvert the implicit reader-writer contract. The reason I think this is because, in the story, Nicole is fond of Kafka, and the fact that Kafka’s work was published after his death (although he wanted it buried because he considered his work incomplete) has a big role in the story; to the point that she plays with the idea that someone else has heavily edited Kafka’s manuscripts and created Kafka’s mythology. It leads me to believe the own Forest Dark is a little unfinished on purpose.

I’d say this book isn’t for everyone, I’d recommend a little research before reading. Although I tried hard to engage, the ratio of words that contribute to the story VS words that sound smart but are empty was remarkably low for my taste. It ended up being a little more experimental than I like.

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All English Library TV

1983

What if, in 1983, the polish national resistance was slaughtered after a terrorist attack attributed to them? What if, as a consequence, in 2003, Poland would be governed by an authoritarian state, the Iron Cut would be still in place, and Al Gore the president of the United States? That’s the premise of 1983, the first Polish tv-show produced by Netflix.

The main characters are Kajetan Skowron, a law student whose parents were killed by the bombs; Anatol Janów, an investigator who wants to get back his old job after a rank demotion; and Ofelia Ibrom, the leader of a rebel movement whose life goal is to kill the members of the government.

Maybe freedom is overrated?

— Agnieszka Holland

It follows dystopic arcs that have been filling our TVs since the beginning of the decade, from Hunger Games to The Man In The High Castle. The aesthetics resemble those of cyberpunk such as Altered Carbon and Blade Runner – music, photography, and plot are dark. Also, like them, the focus is on a criminal investigation as a MacGuffin to discuss bigger topics. It has obvious connections to 1984. The plot reminded of Death of a Red Heroine by Qiu Xialong, only that 1983 is an alternate reality, not historical fiction – its goal is to comment on the present, not the past.

One of the things that dragged me to this film was that it was created by Polish for Poland. I thought that was very bold and gave it more load, so to speak, given the country’s past and present. The 1st season lived to its expectations and entered the top-three tv-shows I’ve seen in 2018.