Learn By Not Doing (Then Doing Again)

There are so many disheartening trends in the world — not to mention the ultimate disheartening trend, that entropy is an immutable law of the universe and all things disperse into cold chaos — that it can be refreshing to recognize a tendency of life that’s heartening.

Have you noticed that when you do something for a while and then put it down and then pick it back up again, you are better at it than you were earlier?

The first time I noticed this was with fiction writing. I will get into voluminous spurts of writing for months at a time, and then that becomes a strained trickle. No new ideas, out of ideas and feelings, all the same stuff. Then I put it down. And then months go by, and then I’m in another spurt again, and it’s all better than it had been.

Home Inventory - Bedroom.png

That’s a pretty nice trend. Maybe it doesn’t work with everything. It probably doesn’t work with exercising, but it does work with writing fiction. And, I’m learning, it works with programming.

Right now I’m working on a portfolio project using Sinatra and ActiveRecord. It’s a simple home inventory app: you can make a user, login, add rooms to your house, and (by some time this weekend) add items to those rooms. The assignment called for an app with those kinds of interactions, without any styling or anything, but looking at ugly browser default HTML renderings was bumming me out, so I used Bootstrap and some custom css to make it look nice enough.

It’s not going to win an Apple Design Award or anything (especially because those aren’t given to privately hosted webpages) but but it beats unstyled text with no padding.

But the main point is, I remembered how to do things I hadn’t thought of for months: that Bootstrap even exists, how to use it, how to add custom styles, CSS with complicated selectors, etc. Stuff I was worried I starting to forget. But instead of forgetting, I had somehow improved at it in the time off.

The more I learn about anything the more I see how it’s all the same. Writing fiction, and writing a Sinatra web app, and living one’s day to day life have fundamental aspects in common.

Which gets to my big 2018 goal: bringing it all together.

“Add ‘em up, Bobby. Add ‘em up.”

Nothing a few rounded buttons and some ASCII art can’t fix. 

Nothing a few rounded buttons and some ASCII art can’t fix. 

The Magic of No Magic

On a recent episode of This America Life, Teller (of Penn & Teller) said this wonderful thing about practicing magic:

"If you understand the good magic trick, and I mean really understand it right down to the mechanics at the core of its psychology, the magic trick gets better, not worse."

I love magic, and Teller might be my favorite magician, so there was something lovely and surprising about hearing him say this (in his also surprising Brooklyn accent). The more you know about a trick, the better it gets.

Penn & Teller doing the "Cups and Balls" trick with clear plastic cups.  Source

Penn & Teller doing the "Cups and Balls" trick with clear plastic cups. Source

As much as I love watching magic, I'll never be a very good magician because I'll never put in the time to learn it. As practice, it just doesn't hold my interest.

But since I was a kid, I have steadily learned more and more about computers. Over the course of the last few years, it's become a slow-burning obsession of mine to figure out how they work. From top to bottom. How do individual transistors produce these lush worlds of meaning and interconnectedness?

At some point, it became clear that I would never understand computers without learning how to use one as a tool. A tool that I can personally wield. It's a happy accident that you can also make good money these days by knowing about computers, and maybe one day I'll do that too.

At another point, a bit later than that, I realized that programming is fundamentally the manipulation of words. Words! Hey, I know words! Each program is a thoughtful letter to the computer telling it what you would like it to do.

That's how it feels anyway. And in a sense that's right, but in another sense I'm just sending electrical impulses through keyboard strikes into a machine able to assemble them into something that appears meaningful to you and me, but which is nothing but electrical states (billions of them) to the computer.

Knowing that only makes the trick better.