Posted by bob on August 24, 2022

When we are young we believe that we will never forget.

What is your favorite memory? Was it a person, a place, an event, or a thing? Do you have so many good memories that you cannot rank them, but just keep them together in a general collection?

What is your most unhappy memory? If you are like most people, that phrase makes you cringe a bit and hope that you have forgotten whatever it was in your past. You also might be hoping that other people have forgotten.

Many memories are neither favorite nor unhappy—they are simply factual. There was a time in my life when I wrote thousands of lines of microprocessor assembly code. Today, I don’t remember those lines of code, but equally, I really don’t expect to remember them.

Here is a funny story about memory. Once upon a time, an engineer (let’s call him Bill, for that is not his name) had spent an entire long day debugging an operating system driver for a floppy disk controller. The coding steps were small, but critical with regards to error handling and retries of failed reads or writes. At the end of the day, Bill was reasonably sure that he had figured out the problems and implemented appropriate changes. The revised code was carefully (and perhaps ironically) saved onto a floppy diskette that Bill placed on a lab table where he could quickly find it the next day.

Just as Bill finished up, his wife brought their toddler (maybe 2-3 years old) over to the office and the child was happily running around discovering any new items that he had never seen before. Bill busied himself clearing off his desk in the next room in preparation for the next day. After a few minutes, his wife walked in from the adjacent room, with a horribly bent and mangled floppy diskette in her hand. It looked as if it had been trampled by a herd of elephants—or perhaps one toddler. “I hope this wasn’t important,” she said. Unfortunately, Bill recognized the disk and label immediately, since that precious disk had been the container for his previous 8 hours of work.

“Take…the…boy…home……now! I will call you in a couple of hours.” She picked the child up and left, understanding that staying even a single minute more risked a reactor meltdown in Bill.

Armed with a sugary snack and a few minutes of quiet, Bill pulled out an older version of the driver. He also had a printout of the early version and he realized that during the day he had scribbled down several notes while debugging. As he scrolled through the code on screen, he was surprised at how easy it was to remember and recreate the new lines that had been so painful to reach just hours ago. Bill realized that he did not need to reproduce all of the debugging steps that had led to understanding of the problems. He just needed to remember where the problems had been and then his understanding quickly supplied the lines of code. In less than an hour Bill had recreated the driver update and fully retested it. Multiple copies and backups of the new driver were created and saved with clear version labels. Then all of the physical copies were carefully placed well out of the reach of a child.

I have a family member who has been suffering from a memory-loss disease. It has hammered home for me the importance of not simply relying on our ability to remember. The situation only reinforces my urgency to share this message: Write Stuff Down.

I know you are young and I know that you are convinced you will never forget some things. You are mostly wrong.

If we did a series of one hundred tests of a new circuit, and I suddenly asked you, “What was the twenty-sixth voltage measurement we took for the output stage,” I am pretty sure you won’t be able to pull that number from your memory. But if you were careful, and recorded all of the measurements for the hundred test cycles it becomes trivial to count through those tests; finding and reporting any of the values needed.

  • Write down the factual stuff and be meticulous about it.
  • Write down your happy memories, because someday you will revisit them and find great joy there, especially if you had forgotten some of them. This is true for happy photos and video too. Save them and keep backups.
  • If you are compelled to write down your unhappy memories, then be sure to file them away and don’t publish them. If necessary, you can perhaps dredge those unhappy memories up later, but you will probably find that you don’t need them anyway.

 In fairness to the reader, I should note that I wrote a somewhat similar blog post back in 2019 about the topic of Memory. I guess I forgot.