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July 25, 2013 / A

Memory and Ali Baba

From The Design of Everyday Things, p. 61-62:

Remember the story of “Ali Baba and the forty thieves?” Ali Baba discovered the secret words that opened the thieves’ cave. His brother-in-law, Kasim, forced him to reveal the secret. Kasim then went to the cave.

“When he reached the entrance of the cavern, he pronounced the words, Open Simsim!

“The door immediately opened, and when he was in, closed on him. In examining the cave he was greatly astonished to find much more riches than he had expected from Ali Baba’s relation. He quickly lade at the door of the cavern as many bags of gold as his ten mules could carry, but his thoughts were now so full of the great riches he should possess, that he could not think of the necessary words to make the door open. Instead of Open Simsim! he said Open Barley! and was much amazed to find that the door remained shut. He named several sorts of grain, but still the door would not open.

“Kasim never expected such an incident, and was so alarmed at the danger he was in that the more he endeavoured to remember the word Simsim the more his memory was confounded, and he had as much forgotten it as if he had never heard it mentioned.”

Kasim never got out. The thieves returned, cut off Kasim’s head, and quartered his body.

I’ve encountered something similar in the Ashtadhyayi, but nothing so drastic as poor Kasim. Sometimes a rule will float at the edge of my memory and bound out of reach when I try to recall it forcefully. Instead it’s often easier to just wait for the rule to come to me.


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