Learning to Understand

Becoming more self-reliant, while learning to think less (by pre-thinking)
On becoming a smart human, pre-thinking and learning to rely less on google, alexa and siri. Neil Keleher.


Learning to Understand

If we understand something well enough, we shouldn't have to check with google.

The trouble with google, (and siri and Alexa) is that it makes it so easy to look things up, or find things, that it can take away the incentive to learn.

And so this article is about the benefits of learning something to the point where we don't need google with respect to what we've learned.

It's about the advantages of learning something for ourselves, with some hints on how we can go about learning things effectively. And it's also about what it means to actually "learn" something.

Ironically, google itself provides a good example of how to learn.

As a programmer, I love google

As a beginner programmer, I love google.

Prior to building my first app, a Chinese Dictionary app with an easy lookup system for Chinese characters, I had to learn swift. To do that I took a course on udemy (with Angela yu from the App Brewery). I watched just enough to get the basics of what I needed.

Though it did talk alot about tables, which was helpful, it didn't cover collections which was what I needed to learn about, but that's where google helped. I found various pages that provided the information that I needed.

Eventually, I learned enough that I didn't need to review the course, or check with google. I could simply do what I needed to do in Swift.

Learning Python to reduce my dependency on Excel

Later on, I began dabbling with a programming language called python. The intent was to reduce my dependency on excel.

I found that as my spreadsheets grew, I began running into memory limits. And so I had to refine my spread sheet layout. Even then I found that I was running into memory limits, and/or I found that excel was simply just slow.

A couple of times I found that buying a new computer with more memory helped to solve the problem. But that was a temporary fix. (While there are a lot of things I detest about apple, not being able to upradge memory easily being one of them, there's a lot more that I dislike about Windows.)

Python seemed to offer everything I needed to wean myself of excel, and so far it hasn't let me down.

The trouble with python, or actually, my trouble with python, is that while I use it regularly, I am constantly checking google for how to do certain things.

That means that I don't really understand python that well.

I should be able to develop my scripts without having to look on google (I generally use w3schools for my reference, but I haven't even taken the time to memorize that!)

I used to be an armourer

When I was in the army, my job was fixing guns. I was an armourer. The mindset at the time was that we had to learn not only to fix guns, but also create parts where needed. And the mindset was that we shouldn't need to reference manuals. And so they taught us the ins and outs of each weapon we had to work on. We learned to understand the weapon when it was working properly, the parts, how they went together, what happened inside the weapon during each mode of operation.

We then learned common problems, how to detect those problems, and then how to fix them.

We got enough training that we could then also deal with uncommon problems.

Creating a "built-in manual"

We didn't have google to rely on. And while we did have manuals, we never used them. Instead, we relied on the "built-in" manual that training had given us.

Basically we had a model of each weapon in our consciousness and that provided the tools necessary to figure out problems and fix them.

This model is what gave us understanding.

For myself, because I have to keep googling things when writing python code, what this indicates is that while I can find, via google, how to do something easily in python, it means that I might have some difficulty if I didn't have google.

And so one thing I can try to do is to wean myself of google, i..e. work on learning.

Why bother?

Learning a sequence of poses by memorizing them first

When I first started yoga, I took the time to memorize the sequence of poses. I was studying ashtanga yoga at the time. I memorized the poses a few at a time, practiced from memory, then reviewed my practice.

If I did make mistakes, I could then work on correcting those mistakes prior to adding the next few poses.

Building a mental model

Basically, what I was doing was improving my mental model or idea of Ashtanga yoga as I built that model.

I learned it to the point that I could practice the whole series from memory.

With the series of poses memorized, I could focus on improving the way I did the poses, if I chose to.

I should point out that one big pain in the ass with Ashtanga is that you have to do the poses in order, and each time you do the practice you have to start from the beginning.

Not an ideal way to learn.

But I digress.

Lazy learners

I later learned the second series and sometimes I would go to the studio in the morning to practice with other teachers.

One of the other teachers was doing 2nd series with me, and at the end of each pose she's ask me what pose was next.

So here was me, doing my own practice from memory, only to be interupted constantly becasue my fellow "teacher" hadn't memorized the poses.

I got a little bit pissed off with it.

Google tends to be pretty patient. It doesn't yell back at you "learn the fucking information honey".

Instead it just provides answers, sometimes before you finish typing it.

As a result, it's easy to take the lazy way out as I've been doing with python.

Smart humans

If you read Lynne Kelley's Memory Code and its follow up Memory Craft, you can learn how prior to the written word, us humans memorized lots of information. And we did it accurately.

Nowadays we store all of our information on our phones or devices or "in the cloud".

Because our devices are smart, we don't have to be (smart).

And that's the same with google. We don't have to think about things to figure them out for ourselves, we can simply check google, or ask alexa or talk to siri.

As a side note, I use notes as a general writing pad. Till now I've trusted apples version of the cloud. Recently it messed up.

Somehow a folder with about 700 of my notes, including drafts for articles, no longer appeared on my computer. Probably my fault for saving so many notes without going through them once in a while.

Importantly, I was able to retrieve them from my phone, and in the process I was forced to actually go through all of my notes and decide which ones I should get on with publishing. But, what it did point out to me is that relying on others, particularly big-tech, can be fraught with peril.

I enjoy programming (and solving problems)

Personally, I enjoy programming. I enjoy the problem solving aspect of it. I enjoy creating tools that make learning easier and that doesn't end up with me relying on those tools once the learning is over.

As an example of this, I've been working on a Chinese dictionary project for the last 15 years. As a result, you'd think my Chinese would be good. Well, the purpose was to create a tool to make it easier to learn Chinese.

Learning to read Chinese

The actual building of the dictionary didn't help my Chinese. I was spending all of my time working on the tool itself versus improving my ability to read and speak Chinese.

That said, it did build up a database of words and symbols on my computer. And I've build some tools using python that has allowed me to create my own version of google translate based on that database. But, I don't need the internet, and I don't need google to use it. And I can customize it to suit my learning needs.

And that was a worthwhile endeavour.


Because now I can learn to read Chinese using material that I actually enjoy. I touch-type text from the Chinese translations of novels that I enjoy, and my bespoke tool outputs those characters with their translation and pinyin, in a layout that I can use to easily help me learn.

So now the task I have is building a database of Chinese words and characters into my skull, not as an electromechanical augmentation, but simply by memorizing words and symbols both so that I can recognize them and output them either verbally or by writing them or typing them.

And so I'm using my dictionary as a tool for helping me to learn to read and write Chinese characters.

Learning to become self-reliant

With Chinese, my goal is to learn to the point that I am not reliant on my dictionary.

And that's what I hope to start doing with python, learn to the point that I don't need to keep checking the online manual (which google helped me to find.)

And in a way that's also what I try to do when I learn my body.

I'm trying to learn my body to the point that I don't need to post on a facebook page a question about how to do something or fix something.

I want to learn my body well enough that I can figure it out myself.

And that's pretty much what I've been doing for the last 20 years. (30 if you count the time when I managed to hid the fact that I had flat feet during my army medical.)

Google as a model for learning how to learn

Interestingly, the process via which google became what it is offers a good example of how to learn and what learning is.

Google started out with two ideas.

Building a model of the internet

Google sends out search-bots are regular intervals to "canvas" the web. These bots look at a website and it's pages. They scan each page and index it for all relevant "ideas" and then rank the page for those ideas based on the website and based on links from other websites. As a result, google has a constantly updated model of the entire internet stored in its databases.

This model isn't the internet. Instead it's a representation of the internet with each page indexed for the subjects it contains, and with a rank for each of those subjects.

Note the interesting thing that while google started of as a project for downloading the web and indexing it, now it is actually a part of the web. And it affects the internet as a whole because now everyone designs their pages and websites so that google ranks their pages, ideally near or at the top.

But basically what google has is a version of the web with each page ranked with respect to other pages.

How google becomes "responsive"

Because it has "learned" the web (and is constantly re-learning it) it can provide answers to search requests in a flash. It doesn't have to think about the answer. It doesn't have to look at the web again to check it's results. It simply responds.

Through the process of scanning the web, indexing pages for ideas and then ranking them, it learns the web. And because it continues to do this, it continually updates its model, its idea of the internet.

As a result, it can output search results in a flash.

Learning to respond without having to think

When google responds to a search request, it doesn't have to think. It simply responds.

And that's what we can learn to do if we learn something well enough.

It's like learning lines for a play so that we don't have to have a copy of the script. As a result we can act. We don't have to search for what line is next. Instead, we can focus on the other actors and we can sink into the moment.

Driving, or riding a motorcycle, if we learn well enough, we don't have to think about how to brake or turn or accelerate. We can do those actions without having to think about how to do them. As a result we can respond to changes in the road or traffic.

Learning to write Chinese characters as an art form, if we memorize a poem or phrase (and obviously, the characters that make them up), we can paint the characters not by rote, but with expression, making them come alive as an expression of how we feel, an expression of our spirit as we brush each stroke.

When I learned swift, I learned it to the point that I could do a lot of it without having to reference google. The times I did check google were when I was trying to learn something new.

The problem for me with python is that I'm always checking on google for things that I have already done, a good sign that I don't yet "understand" python even though I've used it lots and love it. I haven't built up a good enough model.

The benefits of learning to understand

So how will I go about learning to understand?

By practicing.

I'll break things down, and then re-integrating them. Or by trying things out without relying on google. I'll make mistakes (ideally making it safe to fail) and learn from those mistakes.

What are the benefits?

It's a freedom of sorts.

When we've learned something well enough, without requiring outside references, we can express ourselves through what we've learned. But another advantage, perhaps the biggest one, is that it allows us to enter the flow.

Being able to respond to change as it occurs

The flow is a state of consciousness where we aren't thinking. We don't have to think because we've taken the time beforehand to develop models necessary for doing whatever it is that we are doing.

Instead, we can sink into the moment, responding to change as it occurs.

Published: 2021 08 24
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