Learning List 05-12-2011

Browsing Hacker News yesterday, I came across this interesting little idea via Matt Swanson: a learning list. The idea is to take ten minutes writing down those topics that you wish to learn in a stream of consciousness style (something that I will be experimenting with in the coming weeks in a completely unrelated way). You sit down with a writing utensil and paper and record everything that comes to mind, anything that you feel you want to learn no matter how far out or how mundane. As Matt puts it, "Don’t stop to rank the items or debate whether or not you really want to learn something, just record your stream of consciousness and get it on the page."

The idea is that it helps to solve a few problems that people encounter when trying to learn new topics. For one, it helps you to actually remember the topics you want to learn: having the list around is handy for recall purposes. But the process of writing it down helps to actually gather the ideas from the reaches of the mind as opposed to letting them sporadically rise to the fronts of your consciousness. And once they are all out on paper, you can review them to search for patterns, to pick out what matters most or least and to maybe even learn something about yourself.

So I took the following approach:

  • No ten minute time limit, no time box of any sort: keep writing until there is a sufficiently long pause before another item is appended to the list. This is subjective, yes, but I find that my mind will function better in something this open-ended when there is no hard deadline in my way.
  • When something comes to mind (that you want to learn, not what you want to eat in a few hours or how pretty the sky outside of your window looks), write it down immediately.
  • When something comes to mind that you have already written down, do not make any special note of it, such as a tick mark or a star. The inner workings of the strange loop of the mind are too complex for me to be able to say that something arising in my mind four times is more important than something arising in my mind three times. Some may counter that this is still lost information, but I posit that taking the time to scan the list looking for duplicates at each new idea would be too detrimental. As such, when an idea comes to mind and you do not immediately know that you already recorded it, write it down.
  • Do not think about it beforehand, after setting up this idea, wait a day or so and whenever the prospect of actually making the list pops up in your head, do it immediately. The idea is to try to enter into the process as fresh as possible, without the bias of prior contemplation.

I wrote the above yesterday afternoon and left it alone until just now when the idea re-surfaced. Thus, I sat down to figure out precisely what I would like to learn. All together, I spent some 14 minutes on this, and ceased once close to one minute had passed after writing the final item and I felt a curious inability to think of anything else (though, interestingly enough, once I stopped and looked over the list a few more items came to mind and even more are coming to mind as I write this very sentence). So, without further ado, my learning list, exactly as it appears on paper:

  • Lisp (Scheme, Clojure, CL?)
  • More Ruby (better grasp of language, more gems, Rails)
  • How to play piano
  • Photography
  • Astro-photography
  • Amateur observational astronomy
  • Haskell and a better grasp of functional programming in general
  • How to whistle!
  • HBase, Hadoop
  • Node.js
  • More Javascript and also Coffeescript
  • Internals of the JVM
  • Quantum mechanics
  • Deeper inner workings of Nihilistic and Existential philosophies
  • Marine biology and aquatic ecosystems
  • Physics of black holes, dark matter, more "exotic" areas of the Universe
  • Economics (more so macro- than micro-)
  • Deeper knowledge of AI models
  • Zen Buddhism
  • Environmental activism
  • Proper bonsai care
  • More web development (technology stacks, techniques, trends)
  • More mobile development (specifically iOS)
  • Adaptive systems
  • Topology
  • More cooking and chef-ery
  • Compilers and interpreters
  • Recommendation engines
  • Abstract art
  • Surrealism

Thirty items in total! So if we try to do a bit of categorization of these topics, we see that there are some definite trends: eleven items related to engineering and technology in general (of which four directly reference programming languages), eight related to mathematics and science, eight related to the arts (I'm including "Proper bonsai care", "More cooking and chef-ery" and "How to whistle!" in this tabulation), two related to philosophy (surprisingly low for me!) and one related to environmentalism. If you were to conjure up a list of things that interest me and the list read "Technology, science, art, philosophy and environmentalism", you would be off to a good start.

Of course, some of these items could most likely be decomposed into multiple items, some could potentially be synthesized into a single item (Photography and Astro-photography, for instance) and some of these could definitely fit into multiple categories. But the most important aspect of this content is not analysis or pattern-matching thereof, but simply the ideas themselves. Many of the ideas are related to what I do as a career, some are hobbies that I have intended to pursue, some are simply things that I have always found myself interested in or are related to projects I have had in the back of my head for a while, but each of them is something new to explore, to discover and to learn.