Archive for February, 2015

Three steps to mastering a topic

February 21, 2015

1. Read: read a book on the topic. Not any book. Read a book written by someone who is an expert on the topic and has a genuine gift for explaining things clearly.

2. Implement: write software that implements the topic you are learning, or solve a bunch of problems relevant to the topic, or write a paper on the topic.

3. Teach: create a bunch of Powerpoint slides along with a bunch of lab exercises and then go share your knowledge with some people.

Climbing the Matterhorn is safer than crossing a street in Manhattan

February 15, 2015

The following is from the wonderful book: Flow, the Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

[Consider] activities that involve serious risks, activities that to an outsider would seem to be much more potentially dangerous than the affairs of normal life. People who practice hang gliding, spelunking, rock climbing, race-car driving, deep-sea diving, and many similar sports for fun are purposefully placing themselves in situations that lack the safety nets of civilized life.

It is usual to explain the motivation of those who enjoy dangerous activities as some sort of pathological need: they are trying to exorcise a deep-seated fear , they are compensating, they are compulsively reenacting an Oedipal fixation, they are “sensation seekers.” While such motives may be occasionally involved, what is most striking, when one actually speaks to specialists in risk, is how their enjoyment derives not from the danger itself, but from their ability to minimize it. So rather than a pathological thrill that comes from courting disaster , the positive emotion they enjoy is the perfectly healthy feeling of being able to control potentially dangerous forces.

The important thing to realize here is that activities … are so constructed as to allow the practitioner to develop sufficient skills to reduce the margin of error to as close to zero as possible. Rock climbers, for instance, recognize two sets of dangers: “objective” and “subjective” ones. The first kind are the unpredictable physical events that might confront a person on the mountain: a sudden storm, an avalanche, a falling rock, a drastic drop in temperature. One can prepare oneself against these threats, but they can never be completely foreseen. Subjective dangers are those that arise from the climber’s lack of skill—including the inability to estimate correctly the difficulty of a climb in relation to one’s ability.

The whole point of climbing is to avoid objective dangers as much as possible, and to eliminate subjective dangers entirely by rigorous discipline and sound preparation. As a result, climbers genuinely believe that climbing the Matterhorn is safer than crossing a street in Manhattan, where the objective dangers— taxi drivers, bicycle messengers, buses, muggers— are far less predictable than those on the mountain, and where personal skills have less chance to ensure the pedestrian’s safety.

A better repository of knowledge: Stack Overflow or Wikipedia?

February 6, 2015

Personally, I find that I increasingly get my information from Stack Overflow.

I can’t think of the last time that I visited Wikipedia; it’s probably been a couple of years.

For me Stack Overflow is a richer, more vibrant and useful repository of knowledge.

Wikipedia is an on-line version of an encyclopedia. Perhaps the encyclopedia paradigm is dead?


185 billion events to be enjoyed over our mortal days

February 1, 2015

At this point in our scientific knowledge we are on the verge of being able to estimate how much information the central nervous system is capable of processing. It seems we can manage at most seven bits of information— such as differentiated sounds, or visual stimuli, or recognizable nuances of emotion or thought— at any one time, and that the shortest time it takes to discriminate between one set of bits and another is about 1/ 18 of a second. By using these figures one concludes that it is possible to process at most 126 bits of information per second, or 7,560 per minute, or almost half a million per hour. Over a lifetime of seventy years, and counting sixteen hours of waking time each day, this amounts to about 185 billion bits of information. It is out of this total that everything in our life must come— every thought, memory, feeling, or action.

From the wonderful book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience