[ExI] Calling all Autodidacts

Emlyn emlynoregan at gmail.com
Sat Aug 27 10:10:07 UTC 2011

Hi all,

Here's a post I just wrote on my blog. I'm looking for autodidacts to
answer some questions about how they do their thing, and maybe chat
about it a bit. Exi-chat is a good place to find 'em :-)


Calling All Autodidacts
Emlyn O'Regan, 27 August 2011.

I’ve been writing here and there about supporting deep learning on the
web, something that’s not been adequately addressed anywhere to date.

My previous posts:


Today I’m thinking about this part of my second post:

“I realised that this is not an idea that makes sense to teachers, who
like carefully curated courses that teach whole areas at once, to
students who just accept what they are being taught. Rather, this is a
system for autodidacts, which should be constructed by autodidacts.
For learners, by learners.”

and this part

“So it begins as a personal learning tool, the autodidact’s friend,
and builds out into a crowdsourced deep learning knowledge base. This
also satisfies the vision “for learners by learners”.

So, what do autodidacts need? What a tricky question! I would consider
myself in this group, but that doesn’t mean I know all about it. Is
there even a profile of an autodidact? How similar are we? What kinds
of dimensions do we vary along?

One guess: Specificity. Some autodidacts will be extremely general,
carving their way through any and all knowledge as their muse takes
them. Others will be specific, confined perhaps to a single discipline
or two. A lot of software people are in this camp, totally
autodidactic within the IT / compsci realms, but much less so outside
of that. This will in fact be a continuum; people will fall somewhere
on the specific <-> general line.

How about process? Do we all use the same one? I tend to be driven by
a project focus, usually containing a question. “How can I understand
the class of techniques used in aural digital signal processing,
specifically related to the human voice, so that I can make construct
my own novel implementations?” or “Why is the internet oriented toward
shallow learning” or “what parts of our culture, that we take for
granted, are actually supremely weird, and how did they come to be
that way?”.

As I think more about this, I realise that my process is mostly
unexamined; I’m not really sure how I decide to proceed. I could
improve on that. But on reflection, some techniques are:

* I try to “feel” my way through material. There’s a sense of flowing,
like water finding the lowest path. When there’s too much I don’t
understand, the flow is obstructed. When I feel that happening, I back
up and see if there’s a route around the block. It’s expensive to have
to go back through dependencies, learning about something more basic
before you can then progress through advanced material. But that’s
still better than not realising you need to do this, leading to loss
of traction, and often a loss of motivation; that’s a way you can
derail yourself, and end up failing.
* Sometimes I don’t even know the name for the things I’m trying to
learn. For instance, it took me ages (half a year at least?) to learn
the term “digital signal processing”, and that was a giant block to my
inital progress on the Esteso Voce. What I do when I’m so ignorant
that I don’t even know which field contains the specialists who could
point me in the right direction, is to ask around. To that end, I tend
to cultivate networks of ridiculously intelligent and well educated
people, who know lots of stuff and like to talk about it. Social
Networking has been brilliant for this, but prior to that I used the
extropian chat list (an intellectual powerhouse). And of course I have
friends in rl, too, who I lean on, but you can’t beat the weight of
numbers in online fora.
* I try to read a lot of varied stuff. Sort of priming the pump? You
can’t have interesting ideas without raw material to work on.
* I don’t horde materials, although I know a lot of people do. Rather,
I try to collect ways of refinding information that I’ve seen before.
Books that I can get on pdfs I tend to upload into Google Docs so I
don’t lose them. Probably my best current resource is Google Web
History (https://www.google.com/history/ + the chrome extension
“Google Web History Updater”) which lets me search only on what I’ve
seen before, like a commonplace book but everything goes in, without
me needing to think about it or take any action.
* I write. Writing helps me get my ideas in order, and keeps a log of
complex thoughts that I’ve had, so I don’t have to go through the
process again. Rereading my blog often gives me ideas, and sends me
spinning further down whatever path I had been travelling. So even if
no one else ever reads anything here, the blog is incredibly useful.

I can’t think of much more along those lines at the moment.

Another useful question might be, do I fail, and why?

I fail a lot. Many big questions are just so hard to penetrate without
a background in the right disciplines (whatever they may be, sometimes
I can’t even find that out). The less pre-existing relevant background
I have, the more likely failure seems to be. Also, if I try to forge
ahead through areas I don’t actually understand, it usually ends in
failure, as I’ve noted above. If I can identify background knowledge I
need, but it’s too onerous to get the bits I need (often true of
specialised academic areas, where they structure the knowledge like a
fortress to keep out the infidels), that can be failure.

I think I also fail when the things I have to learn have too many
unknowns, and the dependencies are too complex. I tend to approach
these things a bit at a time; make a bit of progress, drop it for
months, come back and try a bit more. If the endeavour is too complex,
it can be too hard to do it piecemeal.

Sometimes I fail to penetrate a particular field because I come at it
with incompatible cultural assumptions. Even related disciplines can
be very far apart culturally. Digital signal processing has been
tough, not least because I think like a software developer, but they,
even though doing everything in software, think like electronic
engineers, hardware people, and to some extent mathematicians. Those
ways of thinking are wildly divergent, so it can be very difficult to
understand the texts.

* The Questions

So that’s me. But I need more input. If you consider yourself an
autodidact, whether specific or general or inbetween, I’d love to hear
about your experiences and approach. Some specific questions:

1. Where do you lie on the specific / general continuum? If there are
areas you are more comfortable with, what are they? How much
difference do you find between your well known areas (perhaps where
you have a degree?) and those you don’t know?
2. What’s your motivation / how do you initiate? I think my motivator
is questions in service of a project. Is that true for you? If not,
what’s your thing?
3. When you know your target, what kind of process do you use to get
there? Are you aware of it, or is it largely intuitive?
4. How do you solve the “I don’t know what I don’t know” problem?
5. Do you record your progress? What sort of tools do you use?
6. Do you talk to other people much, or confine yourself to written materials?
7. Do you use esoteric knowledge sources, like academic journals, or
is it mostly Google? Books? Blogs? Wikipedia? Anything else?
8. Do you incorporate structured learning materials? MIT
OpenCourseWare? Actual enrolment in courses of study? Or do you find
structured courses and materials intolerable?
9. Are there tools you use to help? Mindmapping? Diary/Commonplace
Book? Notebooks? Webpages? Blogs? … Where does this fail you, what
would be better?
10. When do you fail, and why?

I’m awaiting your reponses with baited breath (should have brushed my
teeth). Just comment wherever you see this, or if in doubt then
comment on my blog. Please feel free to ignore some or all question,
suggest and/or answer your questions, or just say whatever. Thanks!


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