Sources and Methods #26: Alex Mullen


Alex Mullen 101:

Alex’s Website

Alex’s Twitter Feed

Alex's YouTube channel

The Man Who Thinks Like Sherlock Holmes - BBC Profile


Show Notes:

3:14 (On where it all started) I read the techniques (in Joshua Foer’s book Moonwalking With Einstein) and I was hooked enough, and thought I really want to apply these to my learning life. A lot of people try to market these techniques as a way to improve your daily life, and there are some areas where you can use the techniques to learn things like languages. But to be honest, there’s not a whole lot of benefit. In my mind, it’s not like going from no techniques to using them has a whole lot of benefit to your daily life.

4:55 - My main interest is using these techniques for learning. I read the book, started practicing. I read a book by Dominic O’brien and took it forward from there.

8:25 - In terms of learning, it really took me a long time. I started in March 2013, when I was a junior in college, and it wasn’t until towards the end of my senior year that I started to apply the techniques and failed, and gave up on it, but came back to it when med school started, there’s so much stuff to memorize for med school. So it was nearing two years of exposure to the techniques before I felt that I was using them effectively.

11:02 - What you have to do if you want to make the techniques work is make them as simple as possible. Making memory palaces, struggling to convert information into images, it feels like it’s taking extra time.

12:14 - I wouldn’t say my natural memory has improved at all, it’s not like I remember where my car keys are all the time. But I would say my visualization skill has improved. Maybe not even in the sense of visualizing them more clearly, but more comfortable dipping into visualizing something. Being comfortable visualizing, that’s a transferrable skill.

14:03 (On Memorizing a deck of cards) I memorize card pairs and put them into an image. So I have over 1,000 images - random people, objects, characters from TV shows. So what I’m doing is seeing these people and those objects interact in the locus of the memory palace.

19:02 - Review, even if you’re using memory techniques, is pretty essential.

22:15 - One of the most important things is to not try to memorize everything. I think it’s a fairly common trap people run into.

24:00 - I use Anki pretty much for everything.

30:00 - For medical school, it’s all video podcasts for the most part, and what I do is take notes with Anki. And then I keep reviewing everything inside Anki from there on out.

34:40 - (On learning Chinese) I have a very systematic approach to this (in contrast to learning Spanish). The problem for me was that it’s too different from English. The idea, generally, is you take an English word that sounds like the foreign word and that’s your image for that foreign word. The problem with Chinese is you end up having… problems dealing with tonal nuances. The nice thing of Chinese is that since everything is one syllable, there’s a fixed number of ways you can start out a word and a fixed number of ways you can end that syllable. So the way it works is I have a character assigned to each of the starts, and then a place assigned to each of the ending sounds…. That sounds like a very complicated process, and it is, and it’s taken me a decent amount of practice to get fluent at doing that. I don’t know if I would’ve been up for that before doing competitions.

39:06 - One thing doing memory sports has definitely taught me is that a lot of barriers are psychological. It’s akin to Roger Bannister running the four minute mile for the first time, and within a short time, everyone was running four minute miles.

For me, trying to break plateaus has always been about trying to identify the key skill that needs to be improved, that’s holding you back. A lot of the time for me, for really anything system based, the key skill has been going as quickly as possible from information to an image. Realizing that so many things are psychological just changes your perspective.

44:04 - Learning how to learn is not really taught in school at all. That seems like a pretty huge oversight. Just giving kids the knowledge that you can imagine things like a giant sumo breaking down a tree, if that helps you learn, go for it.

48:43 - I think competitive sports is something that helps me. For most of my life, I was doing some kind of competitive sport, mainly swimming and tennis. I think that’s one of the main things that drew me to memory sports - like it or not, it is a sport, you’re training, you’re trying to get better at something, and the attraction of physical sports is still there with memory sports. Break milestones, it feels like a mental challenge you can work towards accomplishing.

50:39 - Every day I spent a few minutes running through a constricted deck of Anki cards for memory sports. That’s a daily training routine. For memory sports, I have a weekly schedule that I try to stick to. Usually it’s not much more than 30 minutes or so. For Spanish, I’m also using Duolingo. I’m also making my way through a Memrise course. Anki practice for medicine and memory sports. Those are my daily things.


Alex Mullen’s Book:

Moonwalking With Einstein by Joshua Foer

Matt’s Pick:

The Little Book of Talent by Daniel Coyle

Alex Mullen’s Film:


Alex’s Pick:

Harass Alex about learning Kanji

Alex Mullen’s Music:

The Brainfood Playlist on Spotify

Sources and Methods #25: Marou Chocolate

Marou Chocolate 101:

Marou Chocolate

Marou Chocolate on Twitter


Show Notes:

5:27 - Vietnam is a very marginal producer of cacao, it’s less than 0.1% of world production. So that’s why it remains a fairly obscure origin for cacao. As to why we decided to make chocolate in Vietnam it was precisely because there was cacao, but not enough to get the big players interested. So we thought there was an opportunity. The question we didn’t have the answer to when we got started was whether the cacao was going to be any good, or the chocolate we were going to make was any good. Neither of us (his co-founder) had any background in chocolate.

8:01 - Chocolate, like the beer industry, is immensely concentrated. Three or four huge companies that people don’t know the names of that make probably 80% of the chocolate consumed world wide. You have Hersheys, Mondalays, and others… that operate on enormous scale and produce most of the world’s chocolate.

10:59 - A century ago if you were a chocolatier, you would buy beans and make your own chocolate. But nowadays, out of 5,000 chocolatiers in France, you have less than 50 that buy their own beans.

The difference with bean-to-bar is you start with the raw material, you start with cocoa beans and we think it’s a much more exciting approach. Through the processing of the chocolate, every step of the way, and most importantly the selection of the cacao, you select your flavor profile… and it won’t taste like your standardized industrial chocolate.

14:02 - I think wine is kind of the model, they’ve had centuries to refine that model, and if you get into it it’s kind of exasperating because there’s so much snobbery but at the same time it’s really exciting. Chocolate is nowhere near that stage.

15:45 - If you’re looking at the factors that are going to make beans taste different from one place to another, you’ve got basically three big variables. First is the variety. The second is a mixture of climate and soil. The last factor is probably the most important, and it’s the fermentation of the cacao. Cacao is a fruit that grows on a tree, but to transform this to beans that you can make chocolate out of, there’s a step called fermentation and drying, and it’s a key step.

20:24 - To generalize Vietnamese chocolate quite a bit [the biggest difference with chocolate from here] it’s fruitiness. We see a lot of similarities with chocolate from Madagascar, for example. Bright fruit notes, sometimes more citrus-y. A lack of bitterness.

40:56 - I think the fairtrade model has flaws, and they are widely recognized even by people who are a part of the FairTrade ecosystem, but for us in Vietnam, there’s one major problem. It’s that some of the rules that have been built into the FairTrade system - for instance… It cannot be fairtrade if you do not buy from a co-op. You can see where that comes from - the idea that the buyer has the power to divide the farmers, so the farmers are more powerful if they’re united in a co-op, in theory it’s fine - but it assumes that the buyer is a bad guy and the seller is a poor peasant who cannot fend for himself. In Vietnam, it feels irrelevant.

Mast Brother’s Official Page

How the Mast Brothers Fooled the World Into Buying Crappy Hipster Chocolate

The original blogposts that provoked that article

(The effect of the article): 45:11 - For insiders I think it was fascinating and fairly horrifying to watch the whole thing. Parts of me think the original expose about how the Mast Brothers may have cheated about bean-to-bar was well-argued. They weren’t exactly what they were pretending to be. At the same time, it’s something that happened years ago. The real problem, the reason why you could take them on such a small issue and blow it into something huge was because of something the Mast Brothers had come to symbolize - being this sort of hipster, food company, poster-child for your Brooklyn-based hipster company.



Samuel’s book:

Chocolate Wars - Deborah Cadbury


Matt’s pick:

A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit


Alex’s pick:

Japanese Kanji | Remembering The Kanji


Samuel’s movie:

Mad Max, because it depicts 'a bleak future without chocolate'


Sources and Methods #24: Ben Anderson

Ben Anderson 101:

No Worse Enemy (

The Interpreters (

Ben on Twitter

Show Notes:

3:58 - (On where curiosity about the rest of the world started) It was the Invasion of East Timor that I read all about, and how Britain supplied weapons to Indonesia. I wrote to John Pilger, and he wrote back to me at 17 years old.

5:00 - I had dreams of being a novelist, of being a writer. I eventually switched to journalism.

One of my first big stories involved funeral homes, which I secretly filmed and exposed. After this, got contacted by the BBC and Donal MacIntyre.

7:03 - When George W. Bush made his Axis of Evil speech, John Bolton then added three more countries to the list, so there’s an A List and a B List. A List was Iran, Iraq, and North Korea, and B List was Syria, Libya and Cuba. [So I went to all of them] with a small handheld camera, went and filmed reality there, life from the streets up. It ended up being a really popular film, and that’s almost what I’ve been doing since.

8:15 - (On the importance of journalism / film school) - If you can go somewhere  and learn the basic tools, then great. I’m not sure you can be taught to have the curiosity you need to really do this job well, you need the kind of curiosity where it’s your entire life, where you’re willing to go somewhere for months on end and endure all kinds of hardships and possibly sometimes take on some risk as well. I’m not sure you can teach that. Curiosity. Empathy. An ability to genuinely listen and not just have views confirmed.

If there’s somewhere you can learn how to edit, how to shoot, the basics of writing, then great, but I’m pretty sure of all the people I admire the most, much of them didn’t go to journalism school.

9:50 - I copy writers far more than I copy filmmakers. George Orwell was number one hero.

11:53 - An important thing was figuring out the story while I was recording, so as a result, the story felt far more vibrant than a lot of the stuff you see which is clearly set up and controlled.

12:20 - You look at a lot of people in American TV news, and the whole point of going [wherever] is that they get seen with a flak jacket on somewhere vaguely dangerous. It’s probably a military base, which is probably one of the safest places in that country. And there’s probably nothing happening behind them except helicopters taking off and landing, but you know the point is to get that live shot that looks like they’re reporting from the front lines. I think that’s almost worse than not going at all, because it gives the impression they’ve actually been out and seen something, so what they’re saying holds validity. I’ve seen some shocking things [regarding this]. I’m amazed at how common this seems to be.

14:06 - (On writing a book after making films) If you asked me to come up with 10 documentaries that changed my life, I’d struggle. But I could name 100 books right away that I would say you have to read this before you do anything else. I’ve always respected writers.

I just want to get everything I’ve seen into one place so that if someone is curious enough, it’s there, somewhere. I’ve heard people say in the past that they ‘had to write a book’ and I was always skeptical when I heard that, but I really did feel like I had to just to, as simple a form as possible, just get it all down on paper in one place so that if at any point someone does want to know what this actually looked like from 2007 to the present day, then there it was. I don’t know how much of a difference it actually made, but it felt very logical to do it.

15:53 - The great thing about making documentaries is that you can make a living do it (in contrast to writing). Some documentaries are seen by 20 million people, whereas I think my book sold 15,000 copies. And the publishers were happy with it as well, but I thought it was a depressingly low number. But when someone reads a book, you assume they’re focused on reading it, rather than watching TV, where they could be making tea at the same time.

18:33 - (On returning again and again to Afghanistan) It was never my intention to go back so many times. I think Afghanistan is probably second only to Israel / Palestine in terms of once you get there and actually talk to people, it’s so far away from the country you read about or see reported. That made me keep wanting to go back. To try and show some side of what it’s actually like. As you know, the people you meet in Afghanistan are some of the most hospitable, wonderful people in the world, and I wanted to tell their stories.

24:55 - El Snarkistani on Twitter (on statements that are ludicrously removed from what’s happening on the ground, specifically in Afghanistan).

27:45 - I don’t know how much of what I see is what journalists are able to do vs. what they can do. I know for many, the idea of them being sent to Helmand for a month or two without even knowing without they’re going to do, I don’t know many people who would get that level of support. I’m grateful for the support I get here at Vice.

38:01 - (On how the book came together) It was embarrassingly simple. I’d got to the point where I’d had a few really close shaves and thought it was time for a bit of a break. So I got all of the footage I’d ever shot in Afghanistan and sat down with a really good friend of mine who was a translator, and got everything I’d shot translated word for word, which I’d always wanted to do anyway, and I rented a small house in southern Italy, and watched every single tape from start to finish and wrote down everything of interest, or worth describing.

Then I would go through it and remove as much fatty tissue as possible, again and again. The first draft is always ugly and clunky, and you go through and polish and polish and polish and eventually there are passages where you think, actually, I’d like someone to read this. Very chronological order. I started off very innocent, without having an opinion.

41:38 - (On sources of emulation) George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. Evan Wright’s Generation Kill. I read a lot of Hunter S. Thompson.

44:50 (On prepping for a project) If it’s somewhere I’ve been before, then it’s just talking to people I know on the ground, reading whatever has been written recently, trying to rest as much as possible. The 2-3 days before you leave are always the worst.

If it’s somewhere new, that’s fairly daunting, I see if any of the writers I love have written anything about this. I read everything there, and that gets my curiosity going and I usually really want to go, start seeing possibilities of what I might be able to film.

Also, I don’t think it’s all about courage. It’s really all about curiosity. If you’re curiosity is right, then that just takes over above fears for your physical safety. You want to see things that much that you becomes more important than concerns about safety.

52:14 - The only thing I read cover to cover each week is the New Yorker, but otherwise I read pretty much what everyone else would read. But that’s just what starts the curiosity. Newspapers and magazines are starting points. Twitter is an incredible tool.

53:55 - With that, the Twitter abuse is quite difficult. And arguing on it is completely pointless I’ve learned. Which is a shame. It’s turned into this playground fight all day long instead of the free flow of information.

59:22 - It’s of course easy to make fun of Fox News, but the left-wing ones are almost just as bad. [I’ve gone on a few of these shows and] It’s like you have to be a trained actor by which you respond with these few canned lines, there’s no discussion on any of these. News coverage, particularly election coverage, is almost like sports commentary. The talk about ‘tactics’ is leading. The talk of actual policy is almost non-existent.


Ben’s picks:

Book: The Complete Essays of George Orwell

Film: Benda Bilili

Music: Manteca - Dizzy Gillespie


Matt’s Book:

The Twilight War: The Secret History of America’s Thirty Year Conflict With Iran by David Crist


Alex’s Book:

Deep Work by Cal Newport