Thanks for the lack of memories

After the news hit last year that Navy SEAL Team 6 got Osama bin Laden, the Twitterverse lit up with 13-year-olds tweeting, “Who’s Osama bin Whatever? Was he in a band?” And, really, how would they know about something that happened when they were in diapers?

The sad thing is that they weren’t asking their parents who Osama was, or Googling him, or looking him up on Wikipedia, or looking him up in their history books. They were asking those infallible fonts of all knowledge — other 13-year-olds, which is the same place they get all their answers about sex, drugs and nutrition. What could go wrong?

I mention this only because it’s easy to forget that with all the brain rot on Facebook and Twitter, there’s still lots of room left on the Internet for amazingly useful stuff. I just enrolled in a free online class in computer programming that promises I will be able to build my own search engine after just seven weekly classes.

You may ask, “Why on earth would you want your own search engine?” There is no good answer to that except that I’m hoping to regain some of the brain cells I lose every day by using Facebook and Twitter and their latest partner in time-sucking crime, Pinterest.

By learning to build my own search engine, I will also learn a lot about basic programming. And someday, because I took this free course, I may end up inventing the next Facebook, thus becoming the world’s next (and oldest) multibillionaire, which has been a dream of mine since, oh, last week.

Far-fetched as it may seem, my chances of becoming an Internet billionaire are actually much better than they are of winning the jackpot in the Powerball lottery. I know, because I just Googled it. And then I spent half an hour online checking my mail, my Twitter, my Facebook and my Pinterest accounts. I watched some funny videos of cats my sister sent me and a few viral videos, then got down to work.

Many college courses and lectures are available for free online. I’ve watched several lectures from professors at Yale, MIT, Princeton and Stanford, schools that certainly never would have let me in as a paying student but don’t mind me watching their classes for free.

But I’m finding out the high-tech world has made me a worse student, not a better one. I’m finding out that memory is a muscle, and if you don’t use it, you lose it.

When was the last time you memorized something? A phone number. A poem. A shopping list. Why bother? If we need them, they are a click away.

I know a 90-year-old man who can recite verse after verse of poems he learned in grade school. I can’t even remember grade school, and I completed more than a few of the grades twice.

So I watched the first lecture on how to build my own search engine and took all the quizzes and was buzzing right along. Piece of cake — until the homework.

”Write code that assigns to the variable URL a string that is the value of the first URL that appears in a link tag in the string page.”

I’m sorry, what? It was as if I couldn’t remember a word of a lecture I had heard moments before. It seemed so simple when the professor wrote it on the whiteboard. “Of course,” I thought, “that makes perfect sense. Why, a child could do it.” Now that he was gone, it made no sense at all.

How would I ever become the next Mark Zuckerberg if I couldn’t even do the homework from the first of seven lessons? It was like singing along to the radio in the car. The words come effortlessly. Now do the second verse, by yourself, without hearing the song. Not so simple, is it?

Let me tweet someone for help — maybe a 13-year-old.

Jim Mullen’s book “Now in Paperback” is now in paperback. You can reach him at

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