Calling all Autodidacts…

At the bottom of this post are a bunch of questions for autodidacts. Feel free to skip my blathering and go straight there.

I’ve been writing here and there about supporting deep learning on the web, something that’s not been adequately addressed anywhere to date.

My previous posts:

Today I’m thinking about this part of my second post:

“I realised that this is not an idea that makes sense to teachers, who like carefully curated courses that teach whole areas at once, to students who just accept what they are being taught. Rather, this is a system for autodidacts, which should be constructed by autodidacts. For learners, by learners.”

and this part

“So it begins as a personal learning tool, the autodidact’s friend, and builds out into a crowdsourced deep learning knowledge base. This also satisfies the vision “for learners by learners”.

So, what do autodidacts need? What a tricky question! I would consider myself in this group, but that doesn’t mean I know all about it. Is there even a profile of an autodidact? How similar are we? What kinds of dimensions do we vary along?

One guess: Specificity. Some autodidacts will be extremely general, carving their way through any and all knowledge as their muse takes them. Others will be specific, confined perhaps to a single discipline or two. A lot of software people are in this camp, totally autodidactic within the IT / compsci realms, but much less so outside of that. This will in fact be a continuum; people will fall somewhere on the specific <-> general line.

How about process? Do we all use the same one? I tend to be driven by a project focus, usually containing a question. “How can I understand the class of techniques used in aural digital signal processing, specifically related to the human voice, so that I can make construct my own novel implementations?” or “Why is the internet oriented toward shallow learning” or “what parts of our culture, that we take for granted, are actually supremely weird, and how did they come to be that way?”.

As I think more about this, I realise that my process is mostly unexamined; I’m not really sure how I decide to proceed. I could improve on that. But on reflection, some techniques are:

  • I try to “feel” my way through material. There’s a sense of flowing, like water finding the lowest path. When there’s too much I don’t understand, the flow is obstructed. When I feel that happening, I back up and see if there’s a route around the block. It’s expensive to have to go back through dependencies, learning about something more basic before you can then progress through advanced material. But that’s still better than not realising you need to do this, leading to loss of traction, and often a loss of motivation; that’s a way you can derail yourself, and end up failing.
  • Sometimes I don’t even know the name for the things I’m trying to learn. For instance, it took me *ages* (half a year at least?) to learn the term “digital signal processing”, and that was a giant block to my inital progress on the Esteso Voce. What I do when I’m so ignorant that I don’t even know which field contains the specialists who could point me in the right direction, is to ask around. To that end, I tend to cultivate networks of ridiculously intelligent and well educated people, who know lots of stuff and like to talk about it. Social Networking has been brilliant for this, but prior to that I used the extropian chat list (an intellectual powerhouse). And of course I have friends in rl, too, who I lean on, but you can’t beat the weight of numbers in online fora.
  • I try to read a lot of varied stuff. Sort of priming the pump? You can’t have interesting ideas without raw material to work on.
  • I don’t horde materials, although I know a lot of people do. Rather, I try to collect ways of refinding information that I’ve seen before. Books that I can get on pdfs I tend to upload into Google Docs so I don’t lose them. Probably my best current resource is Google Web History ( + the chrome extension “Google Web History Updater”) which lets me search only on what I’ve seen before, like a commonplace book but everything goes in, without me needing to think about it or take any action.
  • I write. Writing helps me get my ideas in order, and keeps a log of complex thoughts that I’ve had, so I don’t have to go through the process again. Rereading my blog often gives me ideas, and sends me spinning further down whatever path I had been travelling. So even if no one else ever reads anything here, the blog is incredibly useful.

I can’t think of much more along those lines at the moment.

Another useful question might be, do I fail, and why?

I fail *a lot*. Many big questions are just so hard to penetrate without a background in the right disciplines (whatever they may be, sometimes I can’t even find that out). The less pre-existing relevant background I have, the more likely failure seems to be. Also, if I try to forge ahead through areas I don’t actually understand, it usually ends in failure, as I’ve noted above. If I can identify background knowledge I need, but it’s too onerous to get the bits I need (often true of specialised academic areas, where they structure the knowledge like a fortress to keep out the infidels), that can be failure.

I think I also fail when the things I have to learn have too many unknowns, and the dependencies are too complex. I tend to approach these things a bit at a time; make a bit of progress, drop it for months, come back and try a bit more. If the endeavour is too complex, it can be too hard to do it piecemeal.

Sometimes I fail to penetrate a particular field because I come at it with incompatible cultural assumptions. Even related disciplines can be very far apart culturally. Digital signal processing has been tough, not least because I think like a software developer, but they, even though doing everything in software, think like electronic engineers, hardware people, and to some extent mathematicians. Those ways of thinking are wildly divergent, so it can be very difficult to understand the texts.

The Questions

So that’s me. But I need more input. If you consider yourself an autodidact, whether specific or general or inbetween, I’d love to hear about your experiences and approach. Some specific questions:

  1. Where do you lie on the specific / general continuum? If there are areas you are more comfortable with, what are they? How much difference do you find between your well known areas (perhaps where you have a degree?) and those you don’t know?
  2. What’s your motivation / how do you initiate? I think my motivator is questions in service of a project. Is that true for you? If not, what’s your thing?
  3. When you know your target, what kind of process do you use to get there? Are you aware of it, or is it largely intuitive?
  4. How do you solve the “I don’t know what I don’t know” problem?
  5. Do you record your progress? What sort of tools do you use?
  6. Do you talk to other people much, or confine yourself to written materials?
  7. Do you use esoteric knowledge sources, like academic journals, or is it mostly Google? Books? Blogs? Wikipedia? Anything else?
  8. Do you incorporate structured learning materials? MIT OpenCourseWare? Actual enrolment in courses of study? Or do you find structured courses and materials intolerable?
  9. Are there tools you use to help? Mindmapping? Diary/Commonplace Book? Notebooks? Webpages? Blogs? … Where does this fail you, what would be better?
  10. When do you fail, and why?

I’m awaiting your reponses with baited breath (should have brushed my teeth). Just comment wherever you see this, or if in doubt then comment on my blog. Please feel free to ignore some or all question, suggest and/or answer your questions, or just say whatever.  Thanks!

Calling all Autodidacts…

5 thoughts on “Calling all Autodidacts…

  1. You rang, Emlyn O”Regan? At least your post at rang true to me (and please transfer my comment to there if you feel like it). First, though, I must remark that your fellow authoeress Ellen (Somebody) in The New York Times a week ago came up with a wonderful variant of “autodidact” in an article she wrote about a fellow in New York City who devotes his life to researching autpdidactically the life of the artist Andy Warhole. She offhandedly called the guy an “andy-didact”. Now, about your “specific questions”:

    “1. Where do you lie on the specific / general continuum?”

    I do my autodidactic thing for very specific goals.
    In high school it was to teach myself German.
    Over the rest of my life, it has been to come up
    with a theory of how the brain works and to teach
    myself computer propgramming in order to
    create an artificial Mind with artificial intelligence.

    “2. What’s your motivation / how do you initiate?”

    The general motivation is to achieve something in life
    of philosophical value and of potentially human value,
    along the lines of “the greatest good for the greatest
    number of people,” although creating superior intellects
    with super-intelligence may destroy the human species.

    “3. When you know your target, what kind of process do you use to get there?”

    The process is to slog away at coding the artificial Mind.

    “4. How do you solve the “I don’t know what I don’t know” problem?”

    That question is difficult to deal with, because one must constantly
    survey the target field of endeavor and try not to miss out on
    important ideas which would have a bearing on one’s own

    “5. Do you record your progress? What sort of tools do you use?”

    The progress towards the artificial Mind has been recorded
    since Day One, first on paper in written journal entries,
    then electronically in local or Web-published entries
    in the MindForth Programming Journal (MFPJ).

    “6. Do you talk to other people much, or confine yourself to written materials?”

    The autodidactic “independent scholar” in AI joins AI-related on-line
    mail lists and AI forums, which are actuially quite abundant.

    “7. Do you use esoteric knowledge sources, like academic journals,
    or is it mostly Google? Books? Blogs? Wikipedia? Anything else?”

    All of the above.

    “8. Do you incorporate structured learning materials?”

    As you get out in front of the pack, you regret that you
    can no longer read the so-called “experts” to glean
    ideas, because you have advanced beyond the
    experts and the new, exciting material must come
    from inside your own mind.

    “9. Are there tools you use to help?”

    Both “AI Lab Notes” as a kind of formal journal,
    and one’s own private diary for a rambling overview.

    “10. When do you fail, and why?”

    Failure is not an option.

  2. I have been an autodidact since the beginning of time. One of my greatest thrills is when I finally began to understand calculus at the tender age of 13. You can imagine all the mathematics I had to learn preceding that. With no help from anyone.

    My approach is to just dive right in and start swimming. If it’s a textbook, I will bounce around in it, looking up unfamiliar phrases and concepts as I go along.

    Eventually, you develop a large enough knowledge base that you can approach any subject with vigor, whether it’s quantum mechanics or the fall of the Roman empire. I create “place holders” for unfamiliar stuff, like unknown terms in an equation, and fill in those gaps later. Sometimes I can infer what must be in those gaps.

    As far as “you don’t know what you don’t know” problem, I don’t worry about it too much. Eventually you will bump into something that will alert you to the fact that you don’t know it, and you know what to do then!!!!!

    As an autodidact, I have to accept that my approaches may leave lacuna in my knowledge base. But that’s the tradeoff to having broader coverage.

    I am both a generalist and a specialist. I become very specialized when an issue of utility arises. And the generalized disparate knowledge base is in most cases a strong aid, as things unrelated in subject may have a relationship at a deeper conceptual level.

  3. David Xiao says:

    “1. Where do you lie on the specific / general continuum?”
    Due to my recent engagement with large philosophical questions concerning models of truth, problems around concepts like authenticity, or faith, my engagement lies much on the general side of things.

    However my other engagement with formal music theory, is an extremely technical and specific endeavour.

    “2. What’s your motivation / how do you initiate?”
    I have difficulty answering this question. Mostly from gut feeling and a propensity to engage rather than to not.

    “3. When you know your target, what kind of process do you use to get there?”
    The process is to slog away at coding the artificial Mind.

    “4. How do you solve the “I don’t know what I don’t know” problem?”
    Flail wildly, or look for someone who is at that point of understanding and try to intuitively understand the ‘psychological’ aspects of their understanding.

    “5. Do you record your progress? What sort of tools do you use?”

    Don’t have a formal method, mostly lie my faith in the idea that if it’s the ‘truth’, i’ll probably encounter it again.

    “6. Do you talk to other people much, or confine yourself to written materials?”
    I oscillate between engagement, and withdrawal.

    “7. Do you use esoteric knowledge sources, like academic journals,
    or is it mostly Google? Books? Blogs? Wikipedia? Anything else?”
    Key academic texts hold most of the information i need. Most academic work is detailing those easy things which can be intuited. Sometimes minor academic works with a idiosyncratic approach hold great value in helping determing the value of all works in a field. Especially in literary criticism.

    “8. Do you incorporate structured learning materials?”
    Only in technical fields.

    “9. Are there tools you use to help?”
    I have trouble with formal planning or personal management tools, i use mediums or genres to exercise my facility (like essays or sonatas) in the pursuit of higher general topics (philosophy, or harmony (music))

    “10. When do you fail, and why?”
    I fail when exterior demands (deadlines) place a pressure on my intuitive processes which force it’s hand- to ready mistakes, (especially with large philosophical themes)

  4. David Xiao says:


    “3. When you know your target, what kind of process do you use to get there?”

    A variety of engagement, depending on my mental state, if I am tired, then I do functional exercises or work on other areas of my personal life, If I feel mentally astute, I can go for up to 2 days, slogging away at a problem.

    If I feel equipped, I can usually go at a good pace and make highly original observations and can quickly develop an idea or question in several directions. If I feel inadequately equipped then I usually bicker over the same question and try to grasp and map out what I do not understand.

    I rarely ever know my target, and when I do, the problems are usually not very difficult, or unimportant.

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