Lessons learned from trying to recite the digits of Pi

How O.J. Simpson helped me memorize numbers, and other pie-related thoughts

pi day keith brandon
Network World

Today is Pi Day (3/14), which is a pretty big deal around here at Network World. Our resident Pi expert, Brandon Butler, has been chronicling the holiday for readers with ideas of how to celebrate the day for the past five years.

As mentioned in a previous Cool Tools blog post, we were looking for ways to celebrate the day today that was a bit different, as well as add some video elements to our coverage. The first thing we did was to put together an animated video highlighting the origins of the day, which you can see here:

While I may not be a huge fan of Pi, I am a huge fan of pie, as well as video stunts and generally making a fool of myself for the folks at Network World (ride a VR roller coaster, dress up like an elf, get buried in sand for a photo shoot). So when we were brainstorming ideas, the notion of having a pie in the face naturally rose to the surface. Originally I wanted to put the pie in the face of Brandon if he couldn’t memorize a certain number of digits, but then the notion of a competition came up, and I was recruited.

Watch the video of the actual challenge, and then read on for my “lessons learned”

OK, here’s what I learned from this experience.

* Whipped cream in your face is not an entirely comfortable experience. In fact, some of it went up my nose, and for the rest of the day everything I smelled had a whipped cream smell to it, which wasn’t pleasant. It smelled a bit like spoiled milk. Not fun. Also, even though I wiped off the whipped cream from my face, dried up bits kept flaking off my skin for the rest of the day. One editor joked that whipped cream was an exfoliating treatment – if you ever are subjected to this, wash the face with water, don’t just dry/wipe it off with a towel.

* Memorizing the digits of Pi isn’t as hard as I had assumed, as long as you take it slowly. We broke down the first 100 digits into groups of five and went from there. I always knew the “3.14159” part because of songs I was taught as a student, and the next part (“2653”) I knew because of the famous day in 2015 – 3/14/15 at 9:26:53, highlighted in our origin video. After that, it was a bunch of memory tricks to apply, which include both utilizing photographic memory skills (in my brain, I tried to picture the image of the digits that I had printed out to remember which row I was on), as well as brain tactics like associating the number with a word in my brain. For example, after 53 I knew it was 58 because I just added the 5 – then 979 was an easy number to recite. For “32384”, I thought of O.J. Simpson, because 32 was his number and I was recently watching the FX series on Netflix. The “4” was a bit tricky to recall (especially later when I used the same trick for “38327”, but with enough practice I was able to keep it in the long term memory. If you’re interested in other memorization techniques (including the visualization and “mind palace” tricks), check out this LiveScience article.

* I probably should have practiced more. Brandon was able to memorize 60 digits and I screwed up at the 42-digit mark. In my practice sessions I could get to 60 as well (I had a neat trick for the “97494” sequence), but I did keep messing up the “16939” part (I had replaced that with “16751” in my brain, and that’s where I messed up during the challenge). But as a science-fiction geek, there’s a nice harmony in my being able to recite 42 digits at least.

* The pressure of doing this on video – even if it’s not live – is real. I’ve been on video a LOT during the past decade, and before that I’ve appeared on stage in a variety of settings (I hosted the old Network World Technology Tours, and I’ve moderated panels at tech shows, and even performed in school plays and such). But even with that experience, being expected to do the memorization part with the cameras rolling added some additional nerves. Was that the reason I messed up? Maybe. Both Brandon and I agreed that it was easier to recite the digits to each other in the office. I’m happy that Brandon got to 60 digits, as during our promo shoots he messed up after the 7th or 8th digit.

* Brandon gets his revenge after I made him ride a VR roller coaster. I think that was his motivation all along.

Big thanks to Brandon, Bob Brown (our referee) and the IDG.TV video guys (Chris and Doug) for their fantastic work on this. Next up? Star Wars Day on May 4! (Star Wars trivia anyone?)

pie in face brandon butler keith shaw Pi Day Network World

Brandon Butler, winner of the Network World Pi Day Challenge, puts a pie into the face of editor Keith Shaw, who should have studied harder in his memorization techniques.

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