Category Archives: learning

On this page:
  • Coming to terms with online courses
  • Becoming a better reader
  • Avoiding spoilage with bulk cooking
  • Learning from the Alternative Uses Task
  • Learning with the end in mind
  • Routines

Coming to terms with online courses

There are lots of free online courses available on sites like Coursera, but I’ve always had a hard time sticking with them. I don’t like listening to lectures; they feel too slow. Slides and subtitles are inferior to properly-formatted tutorials or books. I sometimes sign up for courses, but then I wander off when I lose interest.

I decided to try online courses again, since one of the other Hacklab members spoke highly of the R course she was taking on Coursera. This time, I tried skipping the lectures, focusing instead on answering the quizzes and doing the programming assignments – essentially, treating it as an open-book exam. That worked out pretty well, actually. I quickly completed all the quizzes, and it took me a few more hours to get the programming assignments sorted out. Many of the programming assignments had self-checking mechanisms, so I didn’t have to wait for peer evaluation.

I like that a lot more than the old way I used to try to get through these online courses. By focusing on the assessments, I can get through the course quickly, identify anything I want to dig deeper into, and try something new with the ability to check my work. Sure, I miss out on testing my ability to retain more information and I might miss out on important points not covered by quiz questions, but at least I’m getting some value out of online courses. I’m sure I’ll get the hang of other ways to study later on!

Becoming a better reader

My particular weakness when it comes to reading is that I can end up skimming lots of books without deeply absorbing new insights or triggering new actions. I get practically all of my books from the library. I check their lists of new acquisitions (updated on the 15th of every month) and request all the titles that look interesting. Having gone through a huge number of books, I find myself less patient with books that don’t teach me something new, or at least say things in a more memorable way.

When do I get the most value from the books I read? How do I shift my reading to more of that?

2014-08-29 Becoming a better reader

2014-08-29 Becoming a better reader

E-books might  expand more of my reading time to the subway, displacing gaming time. If I read by topic instead of getting most things through new releases, then I’ll be reading more intentionally. What am I curious about these days? Skills, mostly, along with the occasional bit of personal finance and small business management. Those topics lend themselves easily to application and experimentation, so then I’ll learn even more from experience. I also enjoy coming across the context of familiar quotes and concepts, so that’s part of the reason why philosophy books are interesting for me.

I’ve got lots of notes that I haven’t turned into blog posts, experiments, and follow-up posts. I like how I’m starting to get a hang of the connections between books. Reviewing will help me connect those dots.

Maybe I should get back to sketchnoting some of the books I read – perhaps my favourites, as a way of sharing really good ideas…

Avoiding spoilage with bulk cooking

We’d been letting some vegetables and cooked food go to waste, so I’ve been tinkering with how we prepare our meals in order to reduce spoilage. Here’s how we now cook in bulk.

During the weekend, we review the past week’s leftovers and freeze them as individual meals. We packaging food in individual lunch-sized containers (~500g, including rice) until the freezer is full or the fridge leftovers are done. I label the containers using painter’s tape and a marker, writing down the initials of the recipe and a number for the month. For example, chicken curry prepared in July is labeled CC7.

I prepare one or two types of dinners. I usually pick bulk recipes based on what’s on sale at the supermarket. If there are unused groceries from the previous week (sometimes I end up not cooking things), I prepare a recipe that can use those up: curry, soup, etc. I start a large pot of rice, too, since I’m likely to use that up when packing individual meals and we go through a lot of rice during the week. We’re more likely to enjoy the variety if it’s spread out over the coming weeks. Freezing the leftovers means we can avoid spoiling food out of procrastination.

After the food is cooked, I put portions into our large glass containers. That way, we have a little room to cook fresh dinners during the week (which W- likes to do), but we also have some backups in case things get busy. We alternate the prepared dinners for variety. For some meals that are inefficient to portion out, I just keep the entire pot in the fridge. If there’s more, I’ll freeze the rest as individual portions. If the freezer is full, I’ll keep the extras in the fridge.

When it comes to the freezer, individual portions are much more convenient than larger portions. You can take one to work and microwave it for lunch. Sometimes I pack larger portions (ex: pizza, pasta sauce), so we need to plan for that when defrosting them. If a dinner portion is thawed in the fridge, it has to get eaten since it can’t be refrozen (unless we re-cook it, which we rarely do).

Our costs tend to be between $1.50 and $3 per portion. For example, the Thai curry I made last time resulted in 20 portions out of $22.39 of groceries. Even if you account for the spices and rice in our pantry, it still comes to a pretty frugal (and yummy!) meal. Sure, there’s labour and electricity, but I enjoy cooking and we schedule it for the lower electricity rates of the weekend. Well worth it for us, and we’re working on getting even better at it.

Aside from reducing spoilage, I’m also working on increasing variety, maybe cooking smaller batches and cooking more often during the week. I’d still like to use the freezer to spread out meals over an even longer period of time so that we can enjoy different tastes. Getting the hang of spices, ingredient combinations, and cooking techniques will help me with variety, too. So much to learn! =)

Learning from the Alternative Uses Task

There’s a creativity test called the Alternative Uses Task, where you’re asked to come up with as many different uses as you can for an everyday object (for example, a paperclip or a brick). I was thinking about it recently because I was curious about programming and creativity, and how my clients sometimes tell me, “I had no idea XYZ could be used for that!” (Javascript, AutoHotkey, etc.). I like coming up with alternative uses when programming, and for things in general. I was wondering how I could get even better at divergent thinking based on what I can learn from the research into it.

From “Evaluating the Alternative Uses Test of Creativity” (Caitlin Dippo, National Conference on Undegraduate Research, 2013), I learned that while the first few responses tend to be pretty common, the more responses you make, the more you tend to come up with original ones. “Divergent thinking: strategies for generating alternative uses for familiar objects” (Gilhooly et. al, 2007) identified a number of strategies that people used when coming up with ideas: memory, property use (breaking it down into properties), broad use (looking at broad categories), and disassembly use (considering its parts). I also remembered the forced association tips from various creativity games – when you try to relate two different ideas together, your brain’s pretty good at filling in the gaps.

2014-09-10 Alternative Uses Task test

2014-09-10 Alternative Uses Task test

How can I use that to be more creative? Well, coming up with more answers helps – especially more different ones, not just variations on a theme. Elaborating on ideas and smooshing them together is fun, so I wonder how I can incorporate that kind of play into my learning – maybe through drawing, or brainstorming alternative uses for the tools and tech I have?

2014-09-10 Applying insights from the Alternative Uses Task Test and brainstorming research

2014-09-10 Applying insights from the Alternative Uses Task Test and brainstorming research

Hmm…

Learning with the end in mind

I like thinking about what I want to learn and how well I want to learn it. This helps me accept my limits and prioritize my time. I’m not going to master everything. I want to learn just as much as I need. Maybe a little more, so I can do other interesting things. There’s this idea of a minimum effective dose (recently-ish popularized by Tim Ferriss). It makes sense to me because I like paying attention to diminishing returns, when more effort on something doesn’t pay off as well (and could probably be diverted to more effort on a different thing which would).

So, what are some of the things I’d like to learn more about? To what end do I want to learn them–what are my higher goals? Thinking about secondary goals helps me see if I’m wandering off-track or if there are more effective ways to reach those higher goals. To what extent do I want to learn? What’s too little, what’s too much, and what would be just right?

2014-08-29 Ends and extents - #my-learning

2014-08-29 Ends and extents – #my-learning

Design is one of the things on my to-learn list. I want to learn more about design because that will help me with development. Programming helps people save time, but you save the most time and create the most value when people keep using your tool because it’s useful and understandable. You can’t just pick up good design off a book or in a course, unfortunately. Well, you can get the basics of design, but I’m not sure if there’s any way around sheer exposure and experience. I don’t just want to know the theories and the rules – that would be too little. I don’t need to win any awards, though. I would like to be able to build decent-looking prototypes that are pleasant to use, and to be able to quickly shape the prototypes based on user feedback. That should help me get around the challenges of building for people who are not me, since I’m happy with admittedly arcane interfaces.

Development is another useful set of skills to focus on because it helps me make stuff. I can add more tools to my toolkit, and I can go deeper. I don’t want to learn tutorial-level skills for a dozen languages just to be able to say that I know them – that would be too little. But I don’t need to do deep wizardly things, either. If I can build little tools and prototypes, gradually applying more of the accepted practices like testing, I should be okay.

I lump writing and drawing together. For me, they’re about thinking through, capturing, and sharing ideas. I want to be able to think clearly and take good notes so that I can live better and make better decisions. Just knowing the mechanics of grammar or layout is too little. But I don’t need to write award-winning prose or draw realistic art, either. I want to be able to write notes that I can make sense of years later and that other people might find useful, and I want to be able to quickly draw recognizable things that unlock memories for me and make ideas approachable for other people.

What are the things you’re focusing on learning? To what ends, and to what extents?

Routines

Routines are like solidified learning, the habits shaped by little pay-offs. You make all these decisions one at a time, and as you find things that work, they get absorbed into your routines.

I love having fairly stable routines. They minimize thinking and allow me to estimate time well. For example, my regular breakfast is rice and one fried egg, so it’s easy to make sure I’ve got both in stock. My morning routine takes me about an hour from the time I wake up to the time I head out on my bicycle or go to the subway station, although I can compress it by skipping blogs and having cereal instead of rice and egg. It takes me about fifty minutes to get downtown. My evening routine involves an early dinner (heating up stuff from the fridge), some exercise, cleaning up, and some writing or drawing. My weekends are a little more flexible. As long as groceries, cooking, laundry, and tidying up happen, we’ll be set for the next week.

2014-08-20 Routines

2014-08-20 Routines

I have a lot of routines, but I don’t want them to ossify. I like turning my attention on one routine at a time, being mindful during it, looking for little ways to tweak it. For example, there are lots of ways I could tweak my evening routine, especially during jogging days. If I make the sequence dinner-tidy-read-jog-exercise-litterbox-shower-snack-draw, I think that would work out better in terms of winding down – less waiting for my hair to dry. I If I can juggle the timing so that the jog happens before the library closes, bonus!

2014-08-20 Evening routines

2014-08-20 Evening routines

I’m tweaking my thinking/drawing/writing routines too, so I expect some growing pains – things might get a little weirder before they become smoother. It’s good to anticipate this, because otherwise you get stuck at a local maximum instead of being able to explore. In particular, I’m experimenting with drawing more reflections during the week, and then using them as springboards for writing during the weekend. This should spread out my computer use a little bit, encourage me to practise drawing, and possibly lead to interesting places.

It’s fun to be deliberate about your habits. You get to ask yourself, “Why do I do things that way, and in that sequence? How can I experiment with this?”