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Me and Piotr Wozniak

by Tomasz P. Szynalski

My first exposure to Piotr Wozniak was through SuperMemo 6.7 for DOS (1993), a program that my friends and I used with great success to learn English in high school. He was the “Dr. Wozniak” behind the program’s help file, which started with the words: Welcome to the world of SuperMemo - your gateway to better life, better self-image and better future for all of us. It was powerful — a promise of higher intellectual powers based on modern science and computer technology. An idea like that had to appeal to nerds like me and my friend MRW.

Screenshot of the SuperMemo 6.7 help file
Screenshot of the SuperMemo 6.7 help file

Five years later, with thousands of items in my SuperMemo database and near-native English skills, I wrote to SuperMemo World (the publisher) about a Y2K bug I had discovered in SuperMemo 6.7 for DOS. Instead of a typical tech support reply, I got a personal response from Piotr Wozniak, the man who started it all.

Over the next few years, Piotr and I exchanged many e-mails (all of them in English, even though we are both native Poles). We corresponded about everything: bugs in SuperMemo, my plans to launch Antimoon, our personal lives. It soon became obvious that Piotr was interested in much more than just keeping facts in his memory — he was set on reshaping his whole life to maximize his knowledge and creativity.

The list of Piotr’s optimizations (or, if you prefer, eccentricities) is very long indeed. Even though he lives in Poland, he will speak only English to anyone who can understand it, including his Polish wife and closest friends. At university, he would shock his professors by refusing to speak Polish during oral examinations. His SuperMemo collection contains hundreds of thousands of items and he spends many hours a day reviewing them. His day is divided into “time slots” (SuperMemo, creativity, sports, etc.) to which he sticks religiously.

Around 1999, Piotr started to optimize the way he acquires new knowledge by adding interesting articles to a tasklist, assigning priorities to them, and splitting them up into small chunks suitable for memorization with SuperMemo. With this system (called incremental reading and first incorporated into SuperMemo 99), he no longer has to worry that he might forget to read an interesting article or waste time on an unimportant one. Everything is in the hands of his software.

In early 2000, I was one of the recipients of an e-mail message in which Piotr announced that he would ditch his alarm clock and adopt what he called “free running sleep”. He would go to sleep whenever he felt sleepy and wake up whenever his body felt like it. Piotr considers this practice beneficial for his intellectual performance, but it has also meant that his sleeping hours are constantly shifting forward and his “night’s sleep” often falls in the middle of the day, making it a challenge to keep appointments or do shopping.

Over the few years in which we corresponded, Piotr’s ideas exhibited a clear tendency towards a more rigid, more organized lifestyle. He became attached (in my opinion, excessively) to the idea of managing all his activities from a centralized system in which all his tasks have numerical prorities. He came to dislike all unpredictable events, as they were not amenable to algorithmic optimization. What good was all his prioritization if it could be overridden by an unexpected visit by a friend?

It is perhaps no wonder that at some point in his life, he decided that his knowledge-oriented lifestyle was incompatible with normal social relations. To some extent he was right. When your priorities tell you that you should be writing an article and you get a phone call from your friend, how rational is it to interrupt your work and pick up the phone? You don’t know how important the business they are calling you about is and you don’t know how long the call is going to take. It could be something critical, but it also might be some trifle that sucks up an hour of your valuable creative time. When you meet with someone, you never know if the conversation is going to be interesting or how long it will take. Things like that are impossible to predict and most of us just accept the risk.

Piotr, however, loathed the lack of control and his solution was to eliminate all such unknowns from his life. He removed his doorbell and stopped reacting to unexpected visitors to his apartment. Even though he is the lead developer of SuperMemo software, he can never be seen at the SuperMemo World headquarters, nor does he attend any company meetings. He never answers his phone, not even for his closest friends and business associates, and he declines requests for personal meetings.

All his friends and associates were eventually forced to adapt to his way of doing things: If you want to contact Piotr Wozniak, you have to send him an e-mail. The e-mail will be placed on a SuperMemo tasklist and he will give it a numerical priority. When your message floats up to the top of the tasklist, it will pop up on his screen and will be either responded to in less than one minute or split up into smaller bits which will be given individual priorities and put on the tasklist again. In practice, this often means that you get replies to various parts of your e-mail at different times, usually with a delay of a few months.

This system, while hard on other people, fits perfectly with Piotr’s philosophy. Unlike phone calls and meetings, e-mail puts him in the driver’s seat. He can slice messages up, prioritize them, and answer them whenever it suits him. He can control the exact amount of time he spends on each message and is free to ignore the parts he considers unworthy of his attention. All this is much easier than managing live humans.

I was reading an old message from Piotr earlier today. I had written to him about some problems in my personal life. He wrote that he had some great ideas for me, but he was only able to send me a short note because SuperMemo had sounded an alert telling him to proceed to the next task in his schedule. His brief message was nonetheless full of encouragement and he seemed genuinely sorry for not being able to write more. I imagined a sympathetic human trapped by a HAL 9000 of his own making, hearing an implacable monotone: I’m sorry, Piotr, I’m afraid I cannot let you do that.

But then I thought — perhaps I am reading too much into this. Maybe Piotr’s surrender to an algorithm is really his best shot at attaining a sense of purpose. Maybe he is really as happy with his lifestyle as Gary Wolf portrayed him in Wired Magazine. And perhaps his dogged persistence with tasklists and items will eventually turn him into a polymath genius such as humanity has never seen before. At 46, he still has plenty of time.