Artificial Perception Technologies

transforming continuing professional education

into entertainment

Details - Continuing Education

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Self directed continuing professional education has never been easier than it is today.

This is especially true for the case of software development, where vast repositories of information are available for free, on web sites like YouTube, and StackOverflow.

Yet some experienced professionals, and for that matter, recent college graduates, are far more well informed than others.

Why is that ?

Are the well informed always much smarter, or much more industrious, than the less well informed, or is it sometimes true, that the well informed merely take a very different approach to what is called "studying" than those who find it mind-numbingly dull ?

The Nobel prize winning physicist Richard Feynman, once said that everything is named slightly wrong, and that this makes learning everything, slightly more difficult than it otherwise would be.

In an episode of the television series Cosmos, the astronomer Carl Sagan, suggested that not all knowledge is equally worthy of being acquired, and that in a human life, there is only enough time to read a very small fraction of any typical suburban library, so it behooves readers to choose carefully.

Feynman's observation suggests that sometimes, rather than attempting to memorize what has been written in an authoritative text, it is more productive to attempt to discover what the author meant to say, or should have said. In other words, in such circumstances, it can be more productive to behave like a detective, than to merely read and hope to understand.

What exactly does that mean in practice ?

What specifically can you do when faced with confused misleading prose ?

You can give up the idea that it should be possible to read, and understand all scientific, mathematical, and technical documentation, merely by reading it, as you would read a novel.

If you read something that does not quite make sense, feel free to write down precisely worded accurate complaints, that describe your objections. Explain what you do not understand, what you dislike, and what it is that you do understand. For example, write something like "I think page 793 is describing how to build a barn in Antarctica, although I have no idea why anyone would want to do such a thing, or where one would obtain the building materials to do so. Is the word 'barn' being used in the ordinary sense, namely to denote a building for housing farm animals, or is the author using some obscure alternative meaning that is familiar only to oceanographers"

Also, don't feel you have to understand everything in one pass. Use a breadth first approach, and accept uncertainty and incompleteness in the body of all technical knowledge that is familiar to you, just as you do in everyday life. A physicist named Bob Brown, once said to a class full of undergraduates, that many conscientious but inexperienced students fall into the trap of trying too hard to understand everything too soon, and that the less you understand, the faster you should read. You can fill in the gaps later, more easily, once you understand the big picture. It's like learning a new town in a foreign country. You just drive around. You don't try to memorize each street corner. You enjoy the sights and sounds. You do not agonize over the fact that you will never know how many blades of grass there are on the post office lawn, or what precisely the mayor had for breakfast.

On the other hand, it is possible to go too far. Not attempting to memorize everything, is not the same as not attempting to understand anything. Feel free to identify misnomers, write down why you think they are misnomers, come up with better terminology that is not misleading, and talk yourself into accepting that the widely used unavoidable bad terminology, should be regarded merely as abbreviated terminology for your new and improved alternative terminology.

The act of writing down your complaints, or telling them to other people, using accurate complete sentences, will cause useful ideas to pop into your mind, as will summarizing what you do understand using the simplest possible language.

Doing this will help you formulate competing hypotheses about what an author is trying to communicate and for what purpose, so you can then go on to search for evidence, preferably from multiple sources, for and against those competing alternatives.

Feel free to rephrase confused or misleading explanations, and write down your improved explanations for future reference.

Feel free to deface your textbooks and scientific journals, by writing references to your explanations in them, and try to talk yourself into accepting that even the most prominent writers, who have made astonishing contributions to science, mathematics and technology, can at times write garbled, unnecessarily complicated prose. Their words are not sacred, and they do not expect you to worship them.

Here is a concrete example. On page 32 of their outstanding Numerical Linear Algebra book (ISBN 0-89871-361-7), Trefethen and Bau write that "The SVD makes it possible for us to say that every matrix is diagonal - if only one uses the proper bases for the domain and range spaces".

Unhappiness and confusion will plague any motivated reader, who encounters the above quote without pausing to figure out, that it should be interpreted as abbreviated loose terminology whose precise meaning is "The fact that every matrix has a Singular Value Decomposition , can be regarded as equivalent to the observation that every linear transformation has a representation which is a diagonal matrix, if only we choose appropriate bases for the domain and range of the transformation".

It is satisfying to object, and then guess that the original wording, can be regarded merely as an abbreviated way to write the above presented alternative, and to remind yourself that in the context of linear algebra, every matrix is the representation of a linear transformation, and every linear transformation has a matrix representation.

It is a rare textbook, or scientific publication, that does not provide opportunities to conduct such detective work.

Furthermore, such detective work is fun in and of itself. It is far more fun than for example, creating and attempting to memorize flash cards, filled with material that you don't understand.

It is true that the best way to learn something, is to do it, rather than to read about it. For example the best way to learn software development, is to write software. The best way to learn math, is to solve math problems. The best way to learn basketball is to play it. However, for many complex tasks, learning a little about what others have done, before you practice doing it yourself, is far more efficient than incessantly re-inventing the wheel, and it is for such learning, that the detective approach is useful.

With the detective approach, there is no need to attempt to memorize anything. The detective work is so time consuming and engrossing, that you will inadvertently learn the material to which it pertains, without having to make any effort to remember anything, and without noticing the passage of time. Students who are studying under intense time pressure for poorly designed closed book exams might not be able to afford such an approach, but professionals who need to actually understand what they are doing, most certainly can and should.

What exactly does it mean to "understand" something ? How is understanding different from memorizing ? A cheap tape recorder remembers everything, and understands nothing. Do not waste your mind trying to compete with tape recorders and five dollar calculators. At the very least understanding a topic means being able to answer lots of questions about that topic, including many questions that have not been posed by the author whose work you are reading. The pursuit of understanding, as described above, is inherently fun. There is no need to attempt to "make learning fun" by introducing irrelevant "gamification", in the form of songs, or contests.

By performing the above described detective work, you will be replacing the mind-numbingly dull task of memorization, with the fun, and creative task, of posing, and answering, countless questions of your own design.

When you do this, be careful to avoid unnecessary complexity. There exists an unfortunate human propensity, to glorify that which is difficult, rather than that which is useful. Those whose ambitions exceed their abilities, sometimes exploit this, by aiming for incomprehensibility, hoping readers will react to their work by thinking: "I can't understand anything he says. It must be very lofty. He must be very smart. "

Writing explanations that are unnecessarily complicated, is like hiding a needle in a haystack. It it is easy to do, and in no way implies that the person who did the hiding, is able to find a needle that has been hidden by someone else.

There exists a simple recipe for writing incomprehensible prose. It includes coining new terms, and using them without defining what they mean, preferably in an inconsistent way. It includes assigning counter-intuitive meanings to ordinary words. It includes replacing well known words, with less common words, and recursively replacing individual words with their definitions. It includes using an inappropriate level of detail, like for example claiming the output produced by a disassembler is a software package design document, or describing what you did yesterday, using a very long list of rotations of your joints: "I woke up and rotated my left foot 20 degrees counter clockwise, ... [1000 pages describing 12 hours of activity deleted]..., then I concluded by rotating my right foot 15.45123424 degrees clockwise and fell asleep". It includes explaining what to do while withholding a description of what the end goal is, and why the end goal is relevant, as well as burying that which is useful and relevant in a sea of facts that are irrelevant.

If you are in the unfortunate position of having to learn material that has been written by an author who used some of the above techniques, and more talented authors are for whatever reason not available to you, it is a far better use of your time, to attempt to translate what that author has written, into a new explanation that does not have the above cited deficiencies, than to read the authors work again and again, hoping that it will eventually make sense, and that sheer repetition will make it possible for you to remember it even if you are never able to actually understand it.

This is especially true given that preferences pertaining to level of detail, and information density vary drastically across people. By describing material you want to learn, in your own words, using the level of detail that you prefer, using metaphors and analogies based on concepts that are already familiar to you in particular, you can create explanations that are far more well suited to your unique needs and abilities than something that has been created by a professional author for a mass market.