Category Archives: learning

My current book workflow

I pick up a lot of information from books. We have an amazing public library system, and I’m at the library at least once a week. Here’s my current workflow for reading and taking notes on books.

Finding books to read: I check the library’s new releases for interesting titles. I have a Ruby script that extracts the information and puts it into a text file. I delete anything that doesn’t interest me, and then I copy the IDs into another Ruby on Rails system that requests all the books for me. Sometimes I search for books by topic or get recommendations from other people.

Reading books: I’ve successfully weaned myself off the bad habit of folding over the corners of book pages (dogearing). Instead, I use book darts to point to the passages that I want to copy into my notes. I have only one tin of them, so that encourages me to harvest the notes from books before moving on to other books. If I don’t have my book darts handy, I use strips of paper, but they’re not as awesome.

I also keep paper and pen handy (index cards, or the small notebook I always have in my vest) so that I can take notes on ideas, questions, and other things that aren’t directly in the text of the book.

I mostly read non-fiction, so that’s easy to skim for interesting bits. I usually check the table of contents to get an overview of the book. I have no qualms about jumping straight to specific chapters and then wandering around a bit, or even picking just a few pages out of a book. I rarely use the index (and most books don’t have a good one anyway), although maybe I should check that more often.

Taking notes: I keep individual text files named after the title of the book (and sometimes authors as well). I usually include the ISBN so that I can easily look up a book later. The text files contain quotes, ideas, TODOs, and other notes.

If no one else is around and I feel like patiently dealing with speech recognition, I open Dragon Naturally Speaking and dictate the passages from the books. This helps me train Dragon’s speech model as well, which might be handy someday. If other people are around, though, I’ll just type in the segments from the book.

I usually type in my paper notes so that they’re more coherent (since I tend to write keywords instead of full thoughts). If I want to scan my index cards or notebook pages, I pop those into my Fujitsu Scansnap ix500 and scan them as JPG. I convert the JPGs to PNG and rename them with the date and title, and then I move them to a folder that gets automatically imported into Evernote. Evernote lets me search for text, and it also tries to find text even in scans of handwriting. It’s not perfect, but it’s decent, and I’ve learned to write more clearly because of that.

Looking things up: Since most of my notes are text, I can use grep to search through them.

Sharing what I know: I sometimes include excerpts or ideas in my blog posts. When I do, I link to the blog post from my text notes as well, so I can see what I’ve digested further and shared. If I’m reading a book that I know I’ll want to share with other people later (or if the authors have asked me nicely =) ), I sometimes visually summarize the book.

Following up on ideas: I add TODOs to my Org Mode agenda. I can also schedule reminders for things. I’m a little hesitant to add my books directory to the org-agenda-files list that Org Mode checks for TODO items (I have hundreds of book notes now!), so I’ve defined a custom agenda command that looks at just the book directory instead. Alternatively, it’s easy enough to grep the TODO keyword.

Planned improvements: I’m curious about the idea of a syntopicon, which I picked up from Adler and van Doren’s How to Read a Book. A syntopicon is a map of ideas across multiple books. With Org Mode’s support for indexing and links, I should be able to make something like it. I’m also looking forward to writing more about what I do with what I’m learning from books. This helps me challenge myself to learn actively instead of just letting a book flow through my brain.

Mmm, books!

If you’re curious, you can read about my past workflows:

Planning little improvements

I like re-planning when things are a little bit clearer and when things change. It’s nice to take a look at where I am, where I might get to, and maybe what I can do with more reinvestment.

wpid-2014-11-01-Baselines-and-possible-improvements-part-1.png wpid-2014-11-01-Baselines-and-possible-improvements-part-2.png

A year still feels a little abstract. A 12-week span might be interesting for concrete goal-setting and momentum; maybe something to experiment. In any case, here’s a small achievement list I can work towards…

  1. Development
    • Propose a calendar of prototypes with business-value descriptions
    • Design prototype and help team members write it instead of coding it myself
    • Think syntactically
  2. Reporting
    • Make Tableau reports snappy
    • Identify business questions for a valuable regular report
    • Analyze my own data in R
  3. Writing: Put together the intermediate Emacs config guide
  4. Drawing: Sketch people quickly
  5. Cooking: Map the families of recipes I want to try, and try them
  6. Learning: Map the things I know and what I want to learn, and maybe find a coach
  7. Tracking: Do grocery tracking in Quantified Awesome
  8. Making: Sew those box cushion covers
  9. Organizing house stuff
    • Simplify wardrobe
    • Tile floor
  10. Biking: Maybe bike in winter
  11. Pet care: Get Luke used to the toothbrush
  12. Exercise: Do the exercise ladder for twelve weeks
  13. Relationship: Work on more projects together
  14. Community:
    • Set up Emacs hangout experiment
    • Hang out at Hacklab during winter

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…