Category Archives: learning

On this page:
  • Tweaking the way I write
  • Drawing update
  • Teaching myself to prefer what’s good for me
  • Developing opinions
  • I notice I have cyclic interests
  • Mental hacks for slower speech

Tweaking the way I write

Through writing, I want to:

  • Learn more effectively and efficiently by taking notes and chunking my thoughts
  • Understand and be able to articulate what I’m thinking
  • Keep notes for future reflection and time travel
  • Connect with people who have similar interests
  • Help other people save time

I’m pretty happy with how I’m doing this so far, although it would be even better if I could write more efficiently and effectively. What would that look like, and how could I move towards that?

I pick up a lot of information from reading and from trying things out. If I spend more time reviewing notes and experimenting with concepts, that will help me get more out of the time that I spend reading. Wouldn’t be neat if my personal stash of quotes (my digital commonplace books) linked each note with a blog post reflecting on what I found interesting about it, how I’ve applied it, and what it’s related to? I think that would be handy.

Sometimes I find myself particularly interested in an idea, and writing is easy. Other times, the spark isn’t quite there, or the kindling is scattered. I have a massive outline/list of things to write about. Sometimes it seems a little odd writing about stuff, though. Lackluster? But maybe giving myself different recipes for blog posts can help (a personal story, a book quote, etc.). I can also look at it as practice. I have years and years to write, and I can learn a lot when I practise deliberately and dispassionately.

For reflection and review, I can write regular snapshots of what’s going on in my life and what I’m trying to figure out. These usually give me enough anchors to remember more.

To make it easier to connect with other people, I can ask people if they blog, and I can post more of my personal stories on my blog.

I’ve been writing more selfishly rather than focusing on saving people time, but I’m sure that balance will shift at some point too. I tend to find it easy to blog helpful things when I’m immersed in projects or in answering people’s questions, so it’s probably just a matter of focusing on open source again.

As I write more, I’ll get faster, and I might even get clearer. :) I can build on what I’ve previously written. I’ll get a better sense of what I like and don’t like in writing, and I’ll experiment with the influences of other writers.

So let’s say that it takes me about an hour or two to follow a thought and write it down. I’m not really looking for speed here. I don’t need to be able to crank one out in fifteen minutes. It might be good to be able to work in small chunks (headline, outline, snippets) to take advantage of the moments that come up during a day. It would also be good to be able to work coherently – to build up to more complex thoughts, to untangle harder questions. That’s probably what better writing looks like for me. As for beauty form and flow, I can probably pick that up through analysis and practice, but it’s somewhat reassuring to know that people can think (and share) complex thoughts despite being inelegant writers. (Almost impenetrable, even!)

How do I want to change how I write? Well, I can use my phone more, writing instead of reading when I have a free moment on the go. If I feel a little blah when writing at my computer, I can open my book notes and expound on a passage. I can also pick something from my outline and sketch out the next level, tell a story, or look for ways to test it in life (and add a reminder to come back and write about the results). I can embrace the way that many of my blog posts are more like “here’s where I am, there’s where I’d like to go, here’s what I’m going to try” rather than fonts of wisdom. Hey, maybe it will be amusing (or even useful) looking back, forty years from now. We’ll see!

Drawing update

It’s funny how I drop interests and pick them up again. Based on my sketchbook, there was a roughly two-month period when I did hardly any drawing. Then I had some planning to do that lent itself naturally to being mapped out, and then I ended up drawing a whole bunch, and now I’m reeled back in and looking forward to playing around with this more.

2014-08-13 Learning more about drawing - #drawing

2014-08-13 Learning more about drawing – #drawing

Like so! I took a picture of Leia (who has grown out most of the lion cut we subjected her to), traced an outline in pencil, and experimented with inking and shading it in on my computer. I still have a long way to go before I can do this easily, but I like the way that tracing helps me deliberately practise seeing simple shapes. Likewise, penciling on paper or on my computer (without tracing an image) lets me play with the shape of something until it feels right. As I trace and draw, I’ll get a better sense of how things really look–and the forms beneath those lines.

2014-08-15 Luke, also traced from a picture

2014-08-15 Luke, also traced from a picture

2014-08-13 Leia traced from picture

2014-08-13 Leia traced from picture

2014-08-17 Neko, from picture

2014-08-17 Neko, from picture

Teaching myself to prefer what’s good for me

One of the ideas I’m mulling over from this study of ancient Greek philosophy is this: Instead of using willpower to get through things you don’t like, you can learn to appreciate the things that are good for you or gradually move up through activities that you enjoy and that are a little better for you than what you were doing before.

I’ve been trying this idea in terms of exercise. Having decided that I would be the type of person who exercises, I’ve been keeping up this habit for a little over a month. I usually run with W-. He treats those sessions as recovery runs (he’s much fitter than I am and can run circles around me), and I treat them as “extra time with W- and an occasion for smugness.” I’m not yet at the point of experiencing the runner’s high, but I do feel somewhat pleased by this ability to keep up with the heart rate thresholds that should help me build up endurance. I’ve even gone for runs on my own, propelled by growing custom and the knowledge that I’m going to be able to celebrate whatever progress I’m making. Gradual progress through the Hacker’s Diet exercise ladder is fun, too.

In terms of food, I’m finally beginning to appreciate the sourness of yogurt, the peppery taste of radishes, and other things I’m still not particularly fond of but can deal with.

As for substitution, keeping a range of nonfiction books in the house means I’m less inclined to spend time playing video games. Latin and Japanese flashcards on my phone mean less time reading fiction. A file full of writing ideas means less time spent browsing the Web.

We change a little at a time. It’s good to pay attention to your changing tastes, and to influence them towards what’s good for you. Sometimes you can kick it off with a little bribery or willpower, if you use that temporary space to look for more things to appreciate. Sometimes you can encourage yourself by making better activities more convenient. Good to keep growing!

Developing opinions

How do I develop opinions? What is good to develop opinions about? How can I improve this process?

I’ve been working on teaching myself design. Good designs and bad designs both take effort to implement, so I might as well focus on good designs. I can read all the usability guidelines I want, but I need an aesthetic sense in order to bring things together into a coherent whole. Hence the need for opinions.

Lots of other areas benefit from opinions, too. Opinions can speed up decisions, save time and money, and help me appreciate subtleties. I’d like to form useful opinions while still being open to changing my mind in the face of good arguments or new evidence.

I don’t have a lot of strong opinions. I tend to take things as they are, see the value in multiple viewpoints, and not get too attached to things. I can identify and let go of decisions that don’t matter that much to me. In university, I nearly flunked my classes in literature. Art and music are still pretty opaque for me, although I do have a fondness for representational art and self-referential or otherwise punny music. Even when watching movies, I rely on IMDB reviews and TVTropes pages to shape my appreciation of what I’m watching.

W-, on the other hand, has a surprising breadth of well-informed opinions about things like kitchen knives, bicycle frames, and other areas. He has had quite a head start, though, so I don’t feel too bad.

Anyway, I have a lot of catching up to do. I want to set some parameters on my opinion-forming, however.

  • I want to still be able to enjoy simple things. I don’t want to refine my palate to the point of feeling that I need luxury goods, particularly if this involves artificial distinctions instead of true value. So it’s permissible to develop an opinion about different kinds of lettuce that I can easily grow or get from the supermarket, but I’m not likely to spend several hundred dollars on a brand-name purse.
  • I want to be flexible in my opinions. I should be able to acknowledge situations where the opinion is inapplicable and consider alternatives.
  • I don’t necessarily have to have an original opinion. It’s totally all right to follow other people’s opinions. As much as possible, though, I’d like to be able to articulate the reasons for my opinions (even if I’m choosing someone else’s position). In the beginning, I’ll probably lack the words and self-awareness, but I’ll get there if I keep explaining things to myself.

Okay. It seems that there are four stages in my opinion development:

  1. Anything goes. No opinion on these things yet.
  2. Do some quick research and pick a recommendation.
  3. Go deeper. Compare several approaches. Critically think about them. Pick one approach or synthesize several.
  4. Go a little further from the crowd. Come up with my own hypotheses and test them.

1. Anything goes: There are a lot of things I don’t particularly care about. I’m willing to take other people’s recommendations on them or follow my general principles. For example, I don’t have a strong opinion about most of the ingredients we buy from the grocery store, so I usually pick the lowest unit price and then move up from there as needed. Decisions that have low costs (time, money, attention, risk, etc.) generally stay in this category, although I occasionally invest time in thinking about things based on the frequency of the decision.

2. Quick research: I read a lot, and I’m comfortable digging through whatever research I can find online. Many of my decisions are in this category. I do a quick search to see what other people are saying or bring up points from books I’ve read, and we use those ideas when choosing an approach. W- knows a lot about comparison shopping, and I tend to be the one with notes for communication, personal finance, and education. Sometimes I turn these into blog posts as well, especially if I can follow up with the results of applying that opinion.

3. Going deeper: Sometimes research doesn’t turn up a clear answer, or I have to do the work in putting things together myself. I often request several books on the same topic from the library, reading them all over a couple of weeks so that I can see their overlaps and disagreements. Since it’s easy to forget key points and it’s easy to fool yourself into thinking you’ve made sense of something, writing and drawing help me a lot.

4. On my own: Some things are so uncommon, I can’t easily find relevant research. For example, I’m not the only one who’s done some kind of a semi-retirement experiment at an early age, but I don’t think I’ll find any books or online communities that already have reflections on all the questions I have. For topics where I’m on my own, I have to break things down into smaller questions that I might be able to research or test. Then I can write about what I’m learning, come up with ways to experiment, and share my reflections.

In terms of process, I tend to form most of my opinions by reading, writing, and trying things out. I rarely talk to other people in order to get their opinions about something, aside from the occasional people-related question where I’m curious about the approaches they’ve used. I don’t debate my opinions since I’m hardly ever interested in arguing with people. There’s no changing other people’s minds, anyway; only presenting approaches and helping them change their mind if they want. Ditto for me – people might disagree with something I write about, but I’m more likely to acknowledge a difference in opinion than to change my mind unless I really want to.

So, what do I want to get better at forming opinions about?

I’ve already mentioned design as one of the areas I plan to focus on. Philosophy is another: forming opinions about how I want to live and what I will do. Developing opinions on exercise will involve trying things out and paying close attention to how I feel.

I could probably work on my opinions about business, too. Reflection might turn up more opportunities that are in line with my current interests.

In terms of tech, I can become more opinionated about good programming practices, patterns, and frameworks.

Some consumer things are probably worth developing more opinions about because of their cost or frequency in my life. It may be good to develop an opinion about bicycling.

Cooking is a good area for opinions, since it’s all a matter of taste anyway. I can learn more techniques, get better at those techniques, and try different recipes. It might be good to develop opinions about gardening (particular cultivars? gardening practices?), although I’d probably need to develop the skills and infrastructure to start plants from seed first. Maybe start with salad green types? That’ll have a faster growth cycle, and I can also test things by buying different kinds of greens from the market.

Do I want to continue with my current process? Are there ways I can improve it?

One easy step for improving my opinion-building process is to capture more of it as blog posts. If I write about opinions as I’m forming them, I benefit from the explanation and the review. Other people might be able to share tips, questions, or ideas. There are lots of little opinions and opinions-in-progress that I haven’t shared on my blog yet. It could just be a matter of making blogging even more a part of my thinking process.

I can experiment with talking to more people while I’m forming opinions. I should probably be careful with that, though, since advice is a funny thing.

It might be interesting to be more explicit about the assumptions and hypotheses related to my opinions.

Hmm… Is this something you’ve thought about? How have you improved your opinion-forming processes?

I notice I have cyclic interests

I learn about some topics in sprints, then let them go for a bit, and then come back to them. For example, my time logs for Emacs show:

  • June 2012
  • Mid-March to mid-April 2013
  • April-June 2014

2014-06-23 20_42_29-Emacs - quantified awesome

Oh. Actually, that’s an interestingly seasonal pattern. I hadn’t realized that the months lined up like that. (Although to be fair, I probably wasn’t tracking it as a category before May 2012, and it’s only very roughly lined up.) I wonder what it is…

Anyway, I feel myself shifting temporarily to other things. I know I’ll be back, but it’s just not at the forefront of my mind.

What am I thinking about instead? What am I learning more about? What am I spending more time on? Oh, the sparklines are surprisingly useful. I can just scroll down looking for patterns. Non-Emacs coding, apparently. Learning about other things. Playing video games, relaxing. Gardening. I’m spending nowhere near as much time biking as I used to, but I do spend more time walking.

Where would I like to direct my shifting interests and attention? I want to focus on building solid habits around health and fitness. That’s probably 15-30 minutes of exercise a day and preparing even better food (salads, variety). Once I’ve internalized those, I think I might circle back to Latin (I can mostly remember the declensions now, although I still make errors), and maybe either Japanese (so I can read and listen) or Cantonese (so that I can chat with W- and with the fellow gardener up the street). There’s drawing practice, too. Time to swing non-technical or non-computer-based for a bit? Hmm…

Fortunately, taking lots of notes along the way helps. I’m sure I’ll be back to this someday!

Mental hacks for slower speech

When I’m excited, I say about 200 words per minute. The recommended rate for persuasive speech is in the range of 140-160wpm, although studies differ on whether faster speech is more persuasive or if slower speech is. (Apparently, it depends on the context and whether people are inclined to agree with you…) It’s good to be flexible, though. I’m getting used to speaking slower. In the videos I’ve been making, I experiment with a lower voice, a slower pace, a more relaxed approach. When I record, I imagine the people I know who speak at the rate I want to use. I “hear” them say things, and then I mimic that.

I’ve been talking to a lot of people because of Google Helpouts and other online conversations. I help them with topics that they’re not familiar. Sometimes there are network or technical issues. I’ve been learning to slow down and to check often for understanding.

I think the biggest difference came from software feedback, though. I did the voiceovers for a series of videos. My natural rate was too fast, even when I tried reading at a slower rate. I adjusted the tempo in Audacity and found that I still sounded comfortable at 90% of my usual speed. The sound quality wasn’t amazing, but it was interesting to listen to myself at a slower rate and still recognize that as me.

It’s funny how there are all sorts of mental hacks that can help me play with this. I find it fascinating when a person’s normal pace is faster than the average pace I’ve been nudging myself towards. I’m not used to being the slower conversationalist, but it’s kinda cool.

I still like speed. I do some bandwidth-negotiation in conversations. I ramp up if other people look like they can take it. But it’s nice to know that I don’t have to rule out podcasting or things like that. I can slow down when it counts, so that what I’m saying sounds easier to try, seems less intimidating. It’s the auditory version of sketchnoting, I guess. Sketchnotes help me make complex topics, so it makes sense to do the same when speaking.

Hmm, maybe I can transcribe my recent videos and recalculate my words per minute…