2011 01 05

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Feature Cast for 2011-01-05

(00:00:14.097) Intro

  • Thanks to Terry and Robert for their donations over the hiatus
    • I've sent custom nerd merit badges to both of them
    • The fact that Terry forgot about the badges but still donated
      • Is kind of encouraging in its own way
  • December support update
    • Just shy of nine Euro for the month
    • I also want to point out that Flattr now has a subscription option
      • So you can set up a recurring flattr month after month
    • I've added a flattr button for the site and podcast in the sidebar
      • For anyone interested in setting up a Flattr subscription
    • flattr also now offers direction donation, make the service that much more flexible
    • I'll extend the offer of a custom nerd merit badge to any flattr subscriptions
      • And to direct donations that are equal or greater than twenty dollars US
    • One more monthly donor and a couple of generous year end donations
    • The AdBard numbers are getting a little better
      • But still modest at less than three dollars
    • For future support updates, I think I will roll my figures up
      • And just share them quarterly
    • Unless of course folks have a strong preference for continuing the monthly updates
      • Or to decrease the frequency even further or to stop sharing altogether
  • I am contemplating another advertising experiment
    • But I want to run it by my readers and listeners
    • The ad network doesn't have as clear a commitment to principles as AdBard
    • Ads from them would appear as sponsored comments
    • I am inclined to pass on the offer
      • Despite vague claims of triple the industry average for their rates
    • I spend a great deal of time keep spam comments off my site
      • And even spam followers out of my social networks
    • While this advertising network would give me veto control
      • And promises they have a solid algorithm for matching ads to content
      • I am still uneasy about the offer
    • What do you guys think?
    • Would you be put off by ads that aren't as strongly aligned
      • As the ones served by AdBard?
    • I suppose I could just try it as I can cancel at any time
      • With the only penalty being losing any earnings below their payout limit

(00:05:53.794) Listener Feedback

(00:08:57.240) Hacker Word of the Week: FISH queue

(00:09:41.462) Confessions of an Autodidact

  • I've been thinking a lot lately about the challenges of being self taught
    • In the spirit of my monologue on my habits as an infovore
    • In the case of my time and task management practices
      • My goal was to pause and take stock
    • Doing so for how I approach my ongoing learning makes sense
      • But it is an area of my life that is far less settled
    • There is an opportunity to do more than reflect
      • To perhaps identify some opportunities for growth
    • ¶ I have certainly touched on learning while discussing other subjects
    • The entire hacking 101 series is oriented more towards
      • Those still acquiring foundational skills on which more advanced ones are based
    • I wrote an Inner Chapter of learning about four years ago
    • As far as I can tell, I never published it
      • And the notes I have for it are really quite minimal
        • As many of my early notes are
    • Clearly this is a topic that demands a lot more thought than others I've pursued
    • Usually writing a piece on some experience or practice is enough for me
    • It is very rare that I feel like there is more to consider, for a later re-visit
    • Perhaps the nature of the challenge is more complex or larger
    • Contemplating the subject now, to gather my thoughts for this latest effort
      • It is pretty obvious that it defies being encompassed by a single discussion
    • ¶ I think there is a unique character to self guided learning
      • As compared to other methods of acquiring new knowledge and skills
    • My experiences trying to teach myself are quite varied
    • For some fields of knowledge, I have been very successful
      • But for others, I definitely feel like I am struggling
    • My default behavior of acquiring or borrowing more books and just reading
      • Isn't working very well for me as it once did
    • It seems unlikely to me that I have outgrown my ability to learn
    • In the past couple of years, I have tackled several new technologies successfully
    • I've built several small analysis and reporting tools in Python
      • A language I learned just recently
    • My biggest accomplishment with Python to date has been flashbake
      • Which was definitely as much a learning exercise as it was a useful tool
    • I am deeply immersed in the world of post-relational databases
    • It is too early to say whether I have fully absorbed what I need to know
      • But so far, I've been able to hold my own
    • When it comes to writing essays I feel like I am missing something
    • I worry that I am not getting better at composing and sharing my thoughts
    • By sheer word count, my volume has increase
      • But that doesn't mean that I am improving
  • The role of motivation
    • Learning so that I can build something functional
      • Really seems to have made a huge difference
    • All of my earliest experiences picking up new programming languages and tools
      • Focused on specific projects
    • Most of those were for work but it was early on in my career
    • I was young, currently employed as a network engineer and help desk technician
    • There were a lot of exciting ideas in the air
    • This was the early to mid-nineties when programming was expanding
      • From heavy client-server applications to the first web applications
    • I learned HTML through a friend explaining how to view source
      • And given me a very quick rundown what a tag is
    • Moving from working in the browser in college
      • To starting to include code on the server seemed very natural to me
      • And my desire to view sources drove me to teach myself CGI, then ASP
    • When I say project, here, I don't even necessarily mean anything formal
    • I remember just hacking around on internal web sites for my employer
    • They certainly wanted more dynamic, easier to maintain pages
      • But with one exception, didn't bother to engage me formally
    • I distinctly remember doing more than was necessary
      • Even including some easter eggs just so I had more to work on
    • In consulting with one of my friends and fellow podcasters, Chooch
      • He reminded me that more often than not
        • The desire to accomplish something specific drives self learning
    • Some new skill or knowledge is incidental
      • It is solving a particular problem that comes first
    • I would say the vast majority of my earliest projects fit this model
    • It is easy to forget, now, how much the urge to do something new
      • Led me to an area where I had no knowledge or experience
    • Very often the ideas I wanted to pursue simply didn't fit any formal situation
    • Like the famous hacker drive to scratch our own itches
      • Teaching myself was often just the most efficient way forward
    • I didn't have to wait for someone to prepare and shared material
    • Chooch also suggested that it is hard to draw the line
      • Between being an autodidact and a hacker
    • Really that's much closer to the point
      • That the desire to learn empowers us to blaze our own trails
      • Especially coupled with the wherewithal to just jump right on, experiment, try, fail and succeed
    • There definitely is a joy in simply having learned something new
    • I've mentioned this before, as a very hackish aspect of self satisfaction
    • On getting some particular, new trick working, I often call someone over to share it
    • Coworkers and collaborators over the years have as often shown off such new skills to me, too
    • It's also very consistent with the hacker mentality of scratching one's own itches
    • We rarely, if ever, wait around for someone else to show us how to do something
  • BREAK
  • Building your own syllabus
    • The biggest difference between hacking and other pursuits
      • Is the larger framework of concepts I have assembled through coding
    • Despite lacking a formal computer science degree
      • I have accumulated a lot of information and skills
      • Covering many diverse areas of knowledge
    • I know enough to realize that there are still many subjects
      • Wit which I am entirely unfamiliar
    • That recognition of the gaps in my understanding is critical
    • When coding, the feeling arises most strongly when it feels like
      • I am working harder at a particular problem than seems appropriate
    • The extra effort could be a signal that there is some class of algorithms or tools
      • That is more appropriate to the task at hand
    • I've seen too many coders just bull through this
      • Without seeing an opportunity to learn
    • The challenge, then, is how to map out your own ignorance
      • To form a plan of attack?
    • Merely thinking to ask if there is a better way, some knowledge you are lacking
      • Is a good enough start to broaden the circle of your self tutelage
    • Formal education provides a sound approach you can take as inspiration
    • Most education programs combine survey courses earlier on
      • Followed up with more in-depth focused courses later
    • If you are a fan of technical books, reference style books
      • Can offer an overview, a little bit of everything
    • In my experience, few of them explicitly attempt
      • To help you build a conceptual framework
    • They often assume you already know the material but need a quick lookup
      • Or focus on small examples, hands on work
    • The latter is especially true, I find, if teach yourself titles
    • I've stopped buying and reading a lot of these kinds of books
      • Because much of the same material can be found online
      • And with either, the burden is on me to deduce the underlying principles
    • A few authors do set out explicitly to provide sound basis
    • When I was first learning Java, there was Bruce Eckels Thinking in Java
    • Alex Martelli's Python in a Nutshell served me well more recently
    • In thinking about these examples, the thing they have in common
      • Is that the authors also work as trainers, teaching developers in a traditional setting
    • Looking at author bios, then can help separate the narrow, deep books
      • From the broad, more conceptually focused works
    • This sames heuristic may be helpful when sifting through online resources
    • Usually reading a forum thread, mailing list message or blog post
      • Is much less of a commitment than digging into a book, even an electronic edition
    • Recognizing the background of an author, though, may help
      • In tracking down further online writings, to match what you are looking for
  • Seeking a mentor
    • An advantage I had at the start of my career was working with mentors
    • It is important to distinguish between a mentor and a teacher
    • I have studied with some teachers over the years
      • Whether that has been short term like in a two or three day training class
      • Or longer duration like the Tai Chi classes I have been taking for more than a year
    • A mentor differs in offering more than just knowledge
    • Mentorship I think addresses more of what a student needs to learn
      • Not just teaching some subject or skill regardless of genuine benefit
    • This relates to my point about building out a syllabus
    • A mentor provides experience and insight to suggest resources, courses and ideas
    • In formal education, student advisors fill this role
    • They are often explicitly tasked with helping to chart a course of study
    • Regardless there needs to be some shared context, like education or a project team
    • Outside of more structured educational environments such relationships
      • Tend to follow organizational lines
    • Continuing to look for mentors on my own has been a dead end
    • I suspect it is because of the more senior roles I tend to fill
    • More often than not, it is expected that I be a mentor than receive mentoring
    • That doesn't eliminate my desire for support and guidance
    • Despite all the years of experience I've accumulated
      • I still struggle with questions of direction in my self tutelage
    • I've often felt that even when I've worked as a manager
      • There should be room for support from executive managers like VPs, CTOs
    • I've rarely worked with people in those roles interested in mentoring though
    • One other aspect of being on the giving end of mentoring
      • Is that all successful relationships of this sort
      • Do offer as much to the mentor as to the student
    • A student's own interests will vary from yours
    • They may take you well off the map of your own focus
      • And into new terrain that is exciting and fulfilling
  • BREAK
  • Experimentation, resources and practice
    • I suspect that I can tackle new coding related skills
      • Because more often than not the cost of experimenting is cheap
    • This is why I especially enjoy free and open source software
    • The barrier to noodling around with something is incredibly low
    • I've been thinking about how to cultivate this quality more explicitly
    • Specifically I want to lower the cost of failure for non-coding pursuits
      • From the meta-concern of the direction of my career
      • To other hobbies and skills with which I have less experience
    • I don't have any good answers about career experimentation
      • Other than to build a responsible household budget and manage it closely
    • Risk in changing jobs, even changing fields arises in possibly having to accept pay cuts
      • Especially if the move also requires taking a lower level job to accumulate new experience
    • If you are in a position to start a new business
      • Or pursue another independent course like contracting
        • Then that fiscal responsibility may have to extend to covering your own benefits
    • For non-professional pursuits, things are a bit easier
    • My return to home brewing is an informative example
    • I am fortunate to have a good friend who has all the necessary equipment
    • Helping him brew on his gear a couple of times let me determine
      • That I was interested in brewing again, enough to acquire pieces of my own kit
        • That have gone missing or that I gave away in the years I wasn't brewing
    • For technology, user groups can offer a similar experience
      • Bringing together resources and experience of which you can avail yourself
    • Many non-technology but still technical hobbies and interests
      • Often attract enough like minded people to form clubs
    • When you bridge the gulf between interest to reading then to practice
      • Low risk ways of working hands on are key
    • The point of practice, after all, is to be forgiving of mistakes
      • Until you've learned enough to exercise a skill more correctly
  • You are never so alone or wanting as you think
    • Your interests will undoubtedly lead you to like minded folks
    • It may not be a formal setting like a class room
      • Or a deeper connection like a mentor
    • I've mentioned user groups and clubs as valuable resources in this vein
    • I think I fixate on the more traditional forms of study
      • That I overlook ad hoc opportunities and more peer oriented learning
    • Working on a project team has certainly helped in my learning various coding skills
    • Team mates can provide guidance through code bases, point out articles of interest
    • Sometimes just being able to chat, to talk through some new concept
      • Helps to cement some new knowledge as well as exposing areas for further study
    • I think that is one of the key qualities of self learners
      • Being outgoing enough to take advantage of any opportunity to learn and practice
    • Chances to advance your knowledge and skills are always around you
    • You have to have the curiosity to look in the first place
      • And find the wherewithal in yourself to pursue chances when you find them

(00:26:41.841) Outro

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