S. J. Farthing



A quote from the Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, (Ch 2, approx 7th paragraph). The speaker is Holmes.

"You see," he explained, "I consider that a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now, the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that the little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it, there comes a time when, for every addition of knowledge, you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones."

Of course Sherlock Holmes is a fictitious character, but these were probably also the views of the author Arthur Conan Doyle himself, but anyway I agree with it and could not express it better.

When applied to my work and other activities my approach is to not memorise facts which can easily be obtained from a reference book etc. It is only necessary to memorise a selection of key facts, such as where the required information can be found, rather than the information itself. This approach is slowly becoming more acceptable in the world of technology.

Often job interviews and appraisals ask for detailed knowledge of things which can easily be found in reference books, as if learning history at school. Simply learning lots of facts was always something I didn't like. My strength is in my ingenuity and skill. I also like to think I memorise what I need to, and so can find things out in the most efficient way. I do not know all the information, but know how I can find it quickly. It is a bit like being a cybernaut, half man, half machine, where I work in harmony with my resources to achieve maximum productivity and can vastly increase the extent of knowledge available to me.

In my field of computer programming employers expect their employee or applicant to have memorised every detail of the syntax of a programming language. People with such expectations are simply being old fashioned. The interviewers are often recent graduates who have themselves been brought up in such a culture. That was the criterion by which they were judged, and so it is the criterion they apply to those they are appraising.

My method of programming is to have access to a library of software code which covers all the likely requirements of any new code I may write. I simply find something which most resembles what I want to do, and adapt it.

Computer people, more than others should especially be aware of the efficient use of resources. They should be taught the difference between using fast access, but low capacity resources such as memory, in comparison to slower access large capacity resources such as disk storage. The parallel between computer memory and human memory is very close, and that is why computer memory gets its name.


Unfortunately employers do not take Conan Doyle's view of memory. They seem to expect their workers or job applicants to memorise everything. This seems to be particularly true in the case of programming and the electronics industry.