[ExI] Calling all Autodidacts

Kelly Anderson kellycoinguy at gmail.com
Sat Aug 27 18:18:33 UTC 2011

On Sat, Aug 27, 2011 at 4:10 AM, Emlyn <emlynoregan at gmail.com> wrote:
> Hi all,

Obviously, you do some of your own self learning at 4:00 AM.. :-)

> 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 :-)

Clearly. Very few other places talk about as wide a range of topics as
we attack here.

> Calling All Autodidacts
> http://point7.wordpress.com/2011/08/27/calling-all-autodidacts/
> Emlyn O'Regan, 27 August 2011.
> So, what do autodidacts need?

The right information, presented in the right modality for quick
absorption, for the right price, at the right time.

> What a tricky question!

Not at all, though the answers may be different for different learners.

> 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?

I would suppose that the typical autodidact comes in two flavors.
Those who learn for the joy or curiosity of it all, and those who
learn to further some specific goal (How do I DO something). And we
jump from one modality to the other as we learn for work, or learn for
our own enjoyment in our off time. (OK, some people enjoy work
sometimes... so it's not a perfect division)

When learning for joy, I think it's more willy nilly. That is, if you
accidentally learn something on the way to the forum, that's OK. If
you're learning to accomplish something, then it is important not to
be distracted by the squirrels and shiny things.

> 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.

If you aren't autodidactic in computer science, then you aren't in
computer science. It's how it's always worked. The only other choice
is to reinvent EVERYTHING, which is both difficult and inefficient.
You have to be Richard Stallman to succeed. :-)

> 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?”.

Yes, that is a good process when you're aimed at a specific goal, but
sometimes I let myself go to a random Wikipedia page and just let go,
learning whatever strikes my fancy at the moment. As a child, I read
several different encyclopedias, all the way through. I even collected
encyclopedias... I still love article published in the 1929 Funk and
Wagonel's year book about Saccharine... how it was going to change the
world... which I read at the time of the great saccharine scare of the
early 80s. The Internet is SOOOooo much better for this kind of thing.

> 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.

Paraphrasing Socrates: The unexamined life isn't worth living... :-)

> 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.

Perhaps you are describing what some people call "flow" here...

> * 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 have encountered issues like this in my recent venture into the
world of Kinect... I couldn't figure out for months, for example, how
one would publish an XBox application. It's still fuzzy... :-)

> * 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.

Me too. I start with TED as the best source of raw material. I'm a
visual learner, so this is good for me, might not be so much for Spike
and other readers.

> * 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 have a lot of books, but they aren't currently organized enough for
me to use them properly. I have other files, but again, the lack of
organization gets in the way, and with the Internet available, why
bother to? I would like to scan them all in some day though, so I
haven't thrown it all out.

> * 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.

Writing is clearly one of the best ways to organize ideas, especially
when they are read by others. The only better one for me is teaching.
If I have mastered a topic to the point that I can teach it to someone
else, then I believe I have a good handle on it.

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

Pay attention to the modalities that work best for you. Do you learn
better visually, aurally, kinesthetically or by reading or something
else? It is different for each person, so this is a part of your self
examination. I once thought of myself as a visual learner, but now I
believe I'm pretty good at listening in certain contexts.

Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) is the study of human excellence,
with an aim towards rapid reproduction of master skills in acolytes.
There are few other disciplines that are as focused on how we learn
and teach as the NLP crowd. There is a huge literature in the NLP
community about how people learn, what is necessary to learning, and
how to make shifts in thought once a new idea is incorporated into
your individual memeplex to avoid discontinuities in thought and

The NLP approach to your question would be to find autodidacts that
are especially successful, and watch them VERY carefully over a period
of perhaps months. Figure out exactly what they are doing. Reverse
engineer it. Reproduce it, then prune it. Of course, people have
already done this work in the NLP community, and the results include
one of the best speed reading methodologies out there. Good tricks for
spelling well, memorization techniques, etc. etc.

Another interesting thing that NLP practitioners have discovered is
that confusion often precedes real learning. If you are reading this
paragraph and think that you know NLP is so much hog wash, then you've
already decided something that could block real learning. Confusion of
the nature "what the hell is this NLP shit?" is much more likely to
lead to real learning in the near future.

So maybe, just maybe, NLP is just one of those breakthrough terms
you've never run into before like DSP. :-)  Do understand that there
are as many factions of NLP as Christianity... so it's a little hard
to find the right religion out there... ;-)

> 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.

Sometimes, it's OK to hire a teacher. If the discipline is too
foreign, hire the knowledge you need. You can do this at a university,
of course, but these days it's also possible to hire people in far
away places to help for a not too large a price.

> 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.

Agreed. This is when you hire help, IMHO.

> 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.

Some things aren't worth learning IN DEPTH. Understand them
superficially, and hire out the details. www.vworker.com and the like
are really good for this sort of thing.

> * 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?

I have a degree and a half in computer science. I am a deep learner in
this area. I am a broad shallow learner in most other areas. There are
some areas that I just agree with myself I don't need to know very
much about (automobile repair, computer networking, databases). I have
a general curiosity about virtually every area of science, psychology
and history. The psychology came later in life when I determined that
a lot of my problems were related to the fact that I was clueless as
to how other human beings think.

> 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?

Sometimes. Often, it's what am I interested in? In Steven Covey terms,
that's "Sharpening the Saw"...

Interesting side note. Steven Covey shows that with enough
intelligence, you can extract meaningful memes out of larger
memeplexes. What he did was take the "efficiency" memes out of Mormon
culture, remove the religious aspects, repackage it, and sell it to
the great unwashed masses. Genius! This is exactly the sort of thing
that comes out of the NLP approach. Whether Covey did this consciously
or not, I do not know.

> 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?

If I need to learn something deeply, I'll join a mailing list. There's
nothing better for me. Eventually, I move on. If I'm posting actively
to this mailing list in three years, I'll be surprised (pleasantly)...
because I usually learn what a group has to offer, then move on to the
next topic that excites me.

> 4. How do you solve the “I don’t know what I don’t know” problem?

Just like Donald Rumsfeld. Go into battle with the army you have.

> 5. Do you record your progress? What sort of tools do you use?

Lots of notebooks. I rarely go back and read them, but the act of
writing things down tends to make it stick better.

> 6. Do you talk to other people much, or confine yourself to written materials?

Mailing lists. Vital to my way of learning. I get to teach... and that
jams the stuff further into my own head. Writing this email to you,
for example, is self serving in that it is reinforcing and reminding
me of things I already know, and prompts new thoughts as well. Whether
this email works for you or not, it was still worth the effort for me.

> 7. Do you use esoteric knowledge sources, like academic journals, or
> is it mostly Google? Books? Blogs? Wikipedia? Anything else?

These days mostly the Internet. I live far from the nearest library,
but I like those too. The damned technical journals still aren't
publishing to the web, darn them all to heck!!!!

> 8. Do you incorporate structured learning materials? MIT
> OpenCourseWare? Actual enrolment in courses of study? Or do you find
> structured courses and materials intolerable?

I went back and took a semester of university courses in 2004, but
that was an unusual luxury. I learned well, and I liked it, but it
might have been an inefficient use of time overall.

> 9. Are there tools you use to help? Mindmapping? Diary/Commonplace
> Book? Notebooks? Webpages? Blogs? … Where does this fail you, what
> would be better?

I'm sure I could improve. I have attempted blogging, but tend to do
better on mailing lists.

> 10. When do you fail, and why?

Frequently, usually because of a loss of interest, or a failure to focus.

> I’m awaiting your reponses with baited breath (should have brushed my
> teeth).

MMMmmmmm worms in 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!

Sure thing. Hope this serves some purpose to you as it has to me.


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