perry is a co-worker of mine. he’s in his twenties, and makes a living doing cafe maintenance. i asked him what he does for fun and he told me, “well, i’m building a boat.”
perry laughed. “you can pretty much learn anything on the internet these days. sure, if i was formally trained i could probably do a better job and make less mistakes. but you can learn a lot of the basics on youtube.”
next, i talked to nelson, a friend who likes to talk about philosophy. “i know a lot of philosophy isn’t immediately useful, but i like learning about it because it’s stimulating.” nelson picks up dense philosophy books from the bookstore, and uses youtube and google to further research terms and concepts that he wants to know more about.
lastly, my friend nat tells me that they are so impressed by how much their friends know. “it seems like everyone knows so much stuff about random subjects. i want to be one of those people, but i don’t know where to get started.”
more and more, when i ask friends how they got good at their hobbies or work, they’ll tell me “youtube” or “google”. this is super exciting to me, and also checks out with how i’ve been learning to program. i embark on a project, get stuck, then google my problem. i look at other people’s code, watch people on youtube, then try again. soon, i am better than i was before without having to set foot in a physical classroom.
the people i want to help are the people like nat – they know they can learn anything but need someone to help them figure out their interests. cultivating curiosity, building your own curriculum, these things don’t necessarily come naturally to folks who are used to sitting in a classroom and having a teacher tell them what they need to learn. i am lucky to know so many interest-driven learners, and i am currently inspired to lend a hand to those who want to become one.
this week i’ve released a couple experiments. one is web app, one is a video essay. neither is perfect, and that’s hard for me to deal with. however, i know i have more to lose by agonizing over the quality of my work than by actually sharing it and moving on.
in this video, i challenge some of cory doctorow’s ideas about copyright, based on my amateur understanding of how the internet works. i am fully aware that i am likely wrong on a lot of points here, and if anything this video is my best attempt at putting my interests into words. i hope to get some feedback or to do further research on copyright so that i can speak more eloquently on the subject. but, in the interest of posting videos weekly, i felt compelled to settle and say ‘welp, this is good enough for now’. it exists and it’s not terrible, and i know it can be better.
secondly, this is an app that i made using glitch. it takes data from your most listened to song on spotify and makes guesses at your personality based on that song. it’s funny, not necessarily built out to its fullest, but it works. writing and learning code is hard, and the majority of the effort was figuring out how to get spotify data from individual users (‘authentication’ they call it). i managed to do it, and the app works for most of the people that try it out. i could have made it more expansive, deep, or user friendly, but again i hit the ‘good enough’ point and knew that i needed to move on to the next thing.
as a perfectionist and a performer, i am often uncomfortable with releasing half-baked work. but, i am putting my focus more on the process rather than the product, and i know by continuing to release my experiments into the world, i will get immediate feedback and learn ten times more than if i were to build private projects and theorize in private.
i just read this article that my friend lito sent me. its thesis is that books and lectures aren’t very good at getting their message across. this is kind of true: books and lectures do nothing if they are not applied and used.
your brain remembers what it uses and forgets what it doesn’t. this is the basis for how a lot of things stay. you could study memory for a long time and discover its peculiarities, but basically if you want to learn something and remember it, you must have some sort of external pressure to actually use the information.
this is something i could talk at length about, but let’s talk about books for a moment briefly. every time i read something, i write about it or talk about it. i am in the habit of always using what i read so that it stays in my brain. for this reason, i am also self-guided to certain books and subjects that are immediately useful. this could be called interest.
from college onwards, i have learned that some of the best research comes from focused play. if you are following your intuition and interest, you are using the information you consume, and playing with it. in turn, you will remember it , and truly know and absorb what you read.
to continue on yesterday’s post on focused play, i also have made it a point to just dig deep into my google docs. what’s funny is that when i am bored i will just poke around in my folders, organizing the files until i suddenly come up with an idea that excites me. and, i realized recently that you can create tiny websites for free with a tool called google sites. i made a small “cool directory” that you can see here.
this small website was a solution to my project problem: i have so many projects that i’ve completed and/or am working on, i realized i needed a google sheet to keep track of them all. the website serves as a more palatable way to navigate the most recent videos and streams i’ve published.
this and yesterday’s mother’s day card are both small, but i think it is important to show off the little things along with the big projects, just because it validates what you’re doing, and provides some momentum for doing more. i hope that by learning one hundred little things, it will make building the big thing that much easier.
my strategy has been to just spend time playing with the tools on glitch in order to see what is possible and what i like. i have limited resources (i’m working primarily from a chromebook and an iphone) so glitch works out really well for me because it is based online. i’ve been having a good time trying things out, even though i don’t have a clear idea of where it will lead me.
i just watched this talk by programming speaker gary bernhardt and didn’t understand a lot of it. this makes sense, since i am not an expert in coding or programming, and this video is intended for “serious” programmers. gary is clearly charismatic and an engaging speaker, so i managed to sit through the video and get a little bit out of it.
growing up, i used to think that i had to understand everything immediately. in late high school, things got difficult, and i found myself floundering because i didn’t know how to study. then, in college, i learned that when i read a book, it’s a good thing if there are certain parts of the text that fly over my head. that’s why i’m in school.
with my professors, i learned to take note of the things that i didn’t understand but wanted to know more about, and to revisit those passages. this is study, and this is how we next level our understanding of anything in a focused way.
i’m currently reading “the future of the internet and how to stop it” by harvard law professor jonathan zittrain. the chapter i am currently on defines generative systems, or things that people can build other things with. a lot of tools online are generative, though some or non-generative. jonathan suggests that generative systems push innovation a little bit better, and are more receptive to new ideas.
there are a delightful couple of pages in which zittrain tells us the difference between generative and non-generative products. legos are generative, while a dollhouse is not. a knife is generative, while a potato peeler is not. you get the gist – a generative tool allows for its user to do a lot of creative things with it. currently, i use a generative system called glitch (link). it’s a website that teaches its users how to code. it is full of tools and building blocks intended to build web apps. i’ve made some tiny vr environments, algorithms that write poems, and yesterday i toyed around with maps.
if you are lucky enough to find yourself in a generative situation, i encourage you to play. you’ll innovate and create something new just by having a good time, and by seeing what directions your new tools create.