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August 20, 2019

Do You Know Where You Are?

By Steven Gollmer

How many numbers can you memorize?  Have you tried it recently?  As a freshman in college, I met a student from Chicago who participated in Pi Day competitions by memorizing digits of the mathematical constant π.  (By the way, as of the writing of this article, the Guinness World Record is held by Lu Chao of China, 67,890 digits.)  As attested by my wife, numbers go in and out of my mind with few sticking long term.  Cell phones are both a blessing and a curse with regard to this.  I don’t have to remember phone numbers, but what happens when I don’t have my phone or it dies suddenly?  Instead of phone numbers, what if I am trying to memorize my location using Global Positioning System (GPS) coordinates?

In 1974 Harry Lorayne and Jerry Lucas provided a solution to my problem.  In chapter 10 of The Memory Book they associate the digits 1 through 0 to phonetic sounds.  To memorize a number you string the associated phonetic sounds together to form words and sentences.  Vowels are freely substituted in, where necessary, to make the sentence work.  The authors find that people remember words and concepts much easier than they do abstract digits.

This philosophy is applied to GPS coordinates by the company What3words (https://what3words.com/).  Instead of using the digits reported by your phone’s GPS sensor, What3words breaks the earth’s surface into 57 trillion squares.  Each of these squares is 3 meters by 3 meters, or 10 feet for us in America.  It then assigns a combination of three words to each square.  This requires the use of 40,000 address words.  The What3words address for a location is formatted as follows: ///sorry.sorry.sorry.  This puts you in Manahawkin, New Jersey.  More specifically, it puts you in a forest near the Garden State Parkway.  From Google Earth, the associated GPS coordinate is 39.71054 N, 74.27458 W.  Lorayne and Lucas could make a game out of finding the most memorable phrase for these coordinates, but I find three words much easier.

To get 40,000 address words, What3words uses nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs, as well as, plural and past tense forms.  If you don’t want to use English, What3words supports 35 languages.  The words forming an address are random so ///sorry.sorry.sorry is not near ///worry.sorry.sorry.  This is by design so that a partially remembered address may be corrected using additional data like “it should be in Indiana.”  This is no different than reporting to the police a partial license plate number along with the description that the vehicle was a green Mustang.

What3words came to my attention through a BBC article (https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-49319760).  It sparked enough interest for me to download the app and try it out.  I don’t know if it will catch on or just be another technological novelty, but I hope it is the former.  Maybe we can discuss it some time if I happen to bump into you at 9:55 near ///luggage.glassy.exhibitions.


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