Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Study, study, learn

Lenin once called everyone to “Study, study and again study”. I would prefer for it to include some result of actually, you know, learning something, hence the modified post title. I stand on the shoulders of giants.

Odd Fact: A replica of his mummy is on show in Moscow.

Really I just want to encourage myself and everyone to study — and learn something new, — all the time. I believe it is vital to one's internal success (not really measured by salary or whatever other crude metric one may have), to get the rare precious pleasure of learning and applying something new — at work and at home.

My Experience

This inspirational urge comes from the classes I've been taking lately on Coursera. One was on Human-Computer Interaction (really insightful in defining gradual steps of prototype fidelity vs ease of radical change), another (still in progress) is an introduction to Algorithms. What I take from these lectures and assignments, apart from good knowledge, is pure joy of expanding my views, believing that I can still achieve something (priceless!).

And I don't just talk about structured lectures — of course, there are tonnes of articles, tutorials and podcasts (if you're into inefficient methods of communicating textual data ;)) that we can and should keep our eye on. Use any source you can! Yet I've come to enjoy the structured approach too, it has an key difference from just googling solutions to your immediate problems — you may learn about problems you didn't know you had, or about ways to solve them that you didn't think of before.

For example, the Algorithms course starts off with a simple algorithm of solving a problem I don't really care about, but on that example it explains important basic principles in building, analysing and improving one's solutions. And I loved it, as you could tell, as I can already apply those principles to my current tasks.

Or keep your brain clean?

One objection I heard (and was quite surprised, frankly) was that our brain capacity is limited, so we shouldn't overload it with “spurious” details. The conversation was about learning a new programming language (Scala — I hope to undertake that in October, to enter the wonderful world of functional programming). To that end I'd say that it depends — on how you imagine your brain to work.

If you imagine your brain — namely the memory and problem-solving skills, — as a file cabinet with limited number of boxes to put stuff in — then, well, yes, you could get stuffed (literally!) by learning too much. In that case, hold your horses before you try to memorize the name of that really nice girl you met last night. How tragic.

Your brain? Could be a lot of boxes, yet still a limited number. Not my brain!
(photo by Alex Ford)

On the other hand, meet Neuroplasticity, a (relatively) new theory in town. What is says, essentially, is that our brain is constantly adapting to its life situation — it creates new storage when we learn something, it may rebuild existing storage as it becomes less important (it can even reroute important functions to another areas of the brain if an injury causes). So in a way looks like the ridiculously overloaded “Transformers” designs from Mr.Bay's movies, lots of tiny details shifting around, sizes and masses never constant, everything to provide moviegoers with viewing pleasure.

Design mistakes aside — the conclusion we can make is that you become smarter if you keep learning. Heh, this is what my first teacher tried to explain to me, if I am not mistaken.

So — study. All the time.

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