This is where Adam Spooner writes.

I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand. Confucius

Education is what remains after one has forgotten everything he learned in school. Albert Einstein

Tools for Learning

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Learning new things can be difficult. I’ve already discussed that, so I won’t dive into it again. What I’d like to talk about are a few tools that can help ease the pain as you begin your adventure in learning something new.

The most important tool for learning is the brain. That’s a given. There are, however, a few psychological tools that most of us probably don’t consider when learning that can empower our brains to learn faster and retain information better.

Curiosity is probably the most effective tool you have for learning. A curious mind doesn’t accept a simple answer. It wants to know, not only the what, by the why and the how. Walt Disney is noted for saying, We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.

If curiosity is the wick of the candle, then excitement is the wax that keeps it burning. Excitement for learning a new topic will help you get through the really difficult parts. Trust me, there will be difficult parts. A lack of excitement is why you hated linear algebra—or whatever class you hated.

I quoted Aaron Hillegass’s advice for learning new topics in a previous post. What I didn’t quote was the sentence that preceded his advice, The second trick is to stop thinking about yourself. This claim doesn’t make much sense out of context, so I implore you to read the full quote. Mr. Hillegass is saying that you lose site of the goal—learning something new—when you focus on yourself. I couldn’t agree more, and that’s why I think selflessness is so important when learning something new. It’s not about you; it’s about what you’re learning.

Sleep deprivation has some really nasty side effects, although it can be used to cure depression. There is, however, a direct correlation between getting more sleep and better grades in school. That’s why sleep is the most important physiological tool at your disposal for learning.

A healthy diet has been known to result in better scores on standardized tests, greater attention spans, and less hyperactivity. I won’t go into any more detail on this. Just remember that breakfast is the most important meal of the day.

If you would know how a man treats his wife and his children, see how he treats his books, has long been one of my favorite Emerson quotes. Not just because I’m meticulous with my books but also because I love my wife. That said, it brings me physical pain to watch someone treat a book maliciously—tearing its cover, dog-earing its pages, tossing it to and fro with no concern for its well being. Okay, it doesn’t bring me physical pain, and I’m not overly concerned with how others treat their physical possessions. I am, however, a firm believer in treating books with some respect. They’ll last longer, and you’ll, therefore, be able to reference them for years to come.

Post-It flags are a great investment for more than just keeping books in pristine condition. They allow you to mark off certain sections for quick look up. It’s a better approach than dog-earing a page because you can pinpoint the exact location of what you’re marking, jot a small note on the flag, and never put the book in harm’s way.

Another extremely useful tool is a book stand. I read a lot of books about programming languages, and every author strongly suggests—as do I—that you actually implement their code. This can be quite cumbersome with a book that is prone to close when left unattended. A book stand holds the book at a good angle for reading and keeps your pages held open. There are plenty of options to choose from, ranging from inexpensive to ridiculously overpriced. I use the Easi-Reader Bookstand. It’s inexpensive, folds up for easy storage, and doesn’t get in the way of page turns. It Just Works™.

The following tools are very specific for the material I usually ingest, namely programming languages and general technology books. I like to keep notes, mark my progress, and rate what I read at Readernaut. Readernaut is the resource for bookworms. Give it a try. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it as much as I do.

Every Mac ships with a great little application called Dictionary. Chances are you don’t have the English language completely memorized, and while contextual clues are a great way to guess a word’s meaning, it’s better to know for sure.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. There are hundreds of tools that can aid you in learning. This is just a list of tools that I find extremely useful. There are a lot of different learning styles. Be pragmatic in your approach. You might find the way you were taught in school wasn’t the best fit for your brain. Learn well and enjoy.

Stupidity and Learning

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I am currently learning how to program in Objective-C and Cocoa, and as any Mac developer would tell you, the best book to start with is Aaron Hillegass’s Cocoa Programming for Mac OS X.

The first chapter ends with some advice on learning that should be emblazoned at the beginning of all books and the entryway to every school,

When learning something new, many students will think, “Damn, this is hard for me. I wonder if I am stupid.” Because stupidity is such an unthinkably terrible thing in our culture, the students will then spend hours constructing arguments that explain why they are intelligent yet are having difficulties. The moment you start down this path, you have lost your focus.

According to a recent study by Professor Timothy Salthouse, our brain power begins to lessen at age 27, and our ability to remember starts dwindling at age 37. I just turned 27 this year, and I feel like I can learn new subjects quickly. So I must be to the right of the bell curve.

Regardless of where you fall on Professor Salthouse’s bell curve, learning new things can be just plain difficult.

I urge you to burn Mr. Hillegass’s advice into your memory—I find sticky notes to be helpful. Some things are hard to learn. You’re not stupid. If you get stuck, stop, break the problem down into simpler steps, and try again. Still too hard? Rinse and repeat. This is when patience really pays off.

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler. Albert Einstein

On Learning

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As technology progresses at a rate faster than Moore’s Law, we, as a species, are trying to keep up. Those passionate about learning new technologies will be tempted to cut corners, and that’s what I’d like to address.

In the late 1940s Percy Spencer accidentally invented the first microwave oven. This was one of the first technologies to forever warp our idea of time needed until consumption. It’s true the wheel, the automobile, the airplane, et cetera are all inventions that help us get what we want faster, but the microwave is something that most of us can relate to. It’s a device that gets food from the shelf to our mouths in the shortest amount of time. I say this has warped the idea of time needed until consumption because the same meal that used to take about thirty minutes can now be ready in about three.

There are numerous health concerns associated with microwavable meals. They’re usually saturated in sodium, partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, and food additives that wreak havoc on our bodies.

Preparing a warm, healthy meal the old-fashioned way—with a conventional oven and range—can take thirty minutes or more. We have to plan the meal, pick out the ingredients, think about each spice and its effect on the taste, and orchestrate it all by dinner time. Odds are you won’t get this right on the first try. Cooking the old-fashioned way takes practice. It takes patience. It requires a few subpar meals before getting it just right. But the benefits of a home-cooked meal are priceless. You have the satisfaction of knowing what you’re eating, the therapeutic side effects from creating something, and all the joys associated with a healthy diet.

The principle of least effort, herein referred to as PLE, postulates that animals, people, even well designed machines will naturally choose the path of least resistance or effort. PLE perfectly annunciates the zeitgeist in which we live. We’re a microwave society dependent on quick fixes, fast information, and doing things the easy way. Much like the microwave, this fast path to consumption isn’t always healthy.

I’m not arguing that the PLE is bad or wrong. I think it’s utterly dependent for the evolution of our species. I’m arguing that there is a time and a place for adhering to the principle and a time and place for using a conventional oven, so to speak.

I like real world examples, so here’s such an example of the PLE. Say you need to know what a ligature in typography is because you overheard someone talking about ligatures the night before at dinner and it piqued your curiosity. So, you ask a friend who’s really into typography. Your friend tells you it’s just the combination of two or more graphemes into one glyph. You smile, nod, and walk away. You’re now equipped with the basic definition of a typographic ligature. You may still have no clue what a grapheme or glyph is, but you’re okay with that limited understanding. You’ve successfully applied the principle of least effort. This is neither bad nor wrong. Alternatively, you could have purchased a book on typography and read in detail about the history of ligatures, why they’re used, etc. This would have, possibly, been the path of greatest effort, and you’d be fully equipped with not only the definition of a typographic ligature but the understanding of why they’re used, when they were first used, and what graphemes and glyphs are. Do you really need to know everything about ligatures? Probably not. So you may be asking, “What’s the benefit of having that information, and more importantly, what’s your point?”

I’m arguing that the principle of least effort is causing for a society in which knowing the bare minimum is acceptable and truly understanding a topic is going the way of the buffalo. There’s nothing wrong with knowing the bare minimum about a certain topic, but knowing more than enough has positive side effects, namely, it leads to understanding and clarity. Do you need to know assembly language in order program a for loop? Not at all. Can knowing assembly language clarify what is happening in your for loop? Definitely.

Taking the path of greatest effort is not for the impatient. It takes time, planning, and a lot of reading and even more time practicing. It’s the conventional oven method for learning in a microwave oven society.

Keep this in mind when you start learning a new topic. Don’t feed the temptation to cut corners by reading quick tutorials on the internet. Rather, plan your time wisely: read a lot of books and spend twice that amount of time practicing what you read.

On Teaching

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When asked why he teaches, Milton Glaser responded,

Fundamentally I teach because it makes me feel good. It’s helped me certainly clarify my own objectives. There’s nothing more exciting than seeing someone whose life has been affected in a positive way by something you’ve said. There’s nothing more exciting than seeing somebody change from a sort of condition of inertness or inattentiveness to a mind that begins to inquire about meaning. I think if you don’t do something to project into the future that way the possibility for total self absorption and narcism becomes very much greater.

This quote was taken from a short film on the Hillman Curtis Web Site. Hillman Curtis has a plethora of great interviews in his Artist Series. Each short runs around eight or nine minutes. Take some time and watch a few; the collective wisdom of these prolific designers is well worth your time.

On Getting Started

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Daniel Jalkit and Manton Reece co-host a podcast called Core Intuition where they hold casual conversations about Mac Development and other ephemera. It’s a terrific podcast, and I highly recommend it if you enjoy podcasts, Apple, and the indie Mac developer community.

A few episodes ago, they started answering questions from users. This past episode, Episode 15: The Extra Long Episode, Mr. Reece answered a question about getting started. And I thought I should chime in since this journal is all about getting started. I mean, what better way to start a journal about starting new things than a post about getting started!?

The question posed to Mr. Jalkut and Mr. Reece was,

How do you get or stay motivated to work on your personal projects? Do you just wait for the mood to strike before putting more hours into, say, Wii Transfer? Or do you have a fixed work schedule? Or do you have something in between?

Mr. Reece paraphrases a quote—around 39:32 in the podcast—from the inimitable Ollie Johnston about thinking, thinking, thinking and then doing, doing, doing. I’m not sure if he was referring to his quote on splitting time between planning and animating or a more popular quote from his animating cohort, Frank Thomas, Observe Everything. Communicate Well. Draw, Draw, Draw. I like to think he was referring to the latter.

I like numbers, and I like words. I like to think that people appreciate both in conjunction, so let’s take a deeper, more mathematical, look at Mr. Thomas’s excellent advice. The quote is composed of seven words: five verbs, one pronoun, and one adverb. To reiterate, there are five verbs, you know, action words. That’s a little over seventy percent of the sentence focused on doing something, and sixty percent of that is in actually implementing the final product, drawing. It seems Mr. Thomas was an advocate for practicing your craft, for actually doing whatever it is that you do, for getting started.

A lot of people seem to have a fear of getting started. Maybe it’s a fear of failure brought on by perfectionism. I don’t know, but I see it all the time. People have great ideas, but they’re afraid of getting started. I have a different thought: maybe, just maybe, they’re not really all that serious about it. Maybe they’re just lazy. It really boils down to what Gary Vaynerchuk talked about at Web 2.0 Expo in New York: patience and passion. Mr. Vaynerchuk has a few priceless quotes in his talk. The first relates to passion, There is [sic] way too many people in this room doing stuff they hate. Please stop doing that. The second relates to getting started by working in your spare time, Everybody has time. Stop watching fucking Lost.

Being passionate about something is priceless. There is no barrier to entry for someone who is passionate. Mr. Vaynerchuk is dead on, stop doing what you hate and stop wasting your time. The great thing about this is that one breeds the other. You’ll sacrifice all the free time in the world when you’re passionate about something. The barrier to entry dissolves in the face of passion.

So, how would I answer the question posed to Mr. Jalkut and Mr. Reece? Be passionate. You’ll do amazing things when you’re passionate about them. Getting started won’t be a problem at all.

I’ll leave you with this: Use your free time wisely. You may have to forfeit spending time with friends. You may lose a lot of sleep. You may have to miss an episode or two of Lost. I promise it’ll be well worth the sacrifice when your product comes to fruition. So, why are you wasting time reading this journal entry? Get started, now.