Learning in Public

Draft of 2016.07.26

I am of an age where I need to do arithmetic to remember the year something happened. It’s 2016 now, and my Mom died in 2011/2012, and I was last actively blogging… ten years ago or more.

That’s an eye-opener.

I enjoy writing. Indeed, I thrive on writing. But all it takes is a series of deaths of close friends and family, a long illness or two of one’s own, an economic depression or two, and whoopsie-daisy all at once it’s decades later and my how the time flies.

That said, I spent most of that decade doing good work. I helped launch, and then save, Workantile. That honestly makes me proud, and also thankful to the strong help of committed leaders like Trek Glowacki, Tom Brandt, Dave Nelson and Steve Kemsley and all the rest.

But it’s time to pick up the proverbial pen again. For a bit more than a year I’ve been working on the Klapaucius interpreter, and it’s long past time the documentation is written and all the wonderful things it does are explained. I was an organizer for this year’s (thirteenth annual!) Genetic Programming Theory & Practice workshop, and next year I’ll be heading the organization again. And there’s something more I want to do, something I’d have to call “life’s work” to be honest, and which all that other stuff—Workantile (a community of peers), and the genetic programming stuff, and the blogging as well—all that feeds into it.

It’s time to teach by learning.

A long time ago, last century and more, I’d run tutorials and workshops. Stand in front of a room wearing a fancy tie and shiny shoes, and people would pay good money and try awfully hard not to fall asleep. I’d teach classes on agent-based models, emergent engineering, complex systems, multiobjective optimization, all that fun stuff: engineering and science and philosophy and above all else practice. But then I started a startup, and there was a war or two, and… well here we are. Whoopsie-daisy, as I said.

And also a long time ago, last century and now and then since, I’ve been a research consultant. I’d get called in to know shit. I’m the Insight Guy. Clients would fly me here and there, and I’d slump in a chair in the middle of the long side1 of the huge conference table in the departmental meeting room and ask pointed questions and suggest the right way to do stuff, and all this of course after a seventeen-page Nondisclosure Agreement that in many cases prohibited me from even saying the name of the company who hired me. But then I realized I wanted to tell people what I was doing, and instead of signing nondisclosure agreements I proposed to my prospective clients that if they thought the stuff we were doing was that important that they wanted me to sacrifice my ability to share it enthusiastically and widely, then they should be paying me hush money. And… well here we are. Whoopsie-daisy, as I said.

And also a long time ago, more than a decade now, I went back to graduate school (my third PhD program at that point) and… well here we are. I wanted to teach advanced technical skills and mindful exploratory research practices to computational scientists, but realized that to be honest academics hate mindfulness as a matter of professional self-definition.

All these things, over and over, conspired to make be think that people just don’t want to know what I have to say. Now I am the first to admit that’s probably true for the majority of people in the world—but the majority of people in the world don’t want to hear what anybody has to say. So nothing special there.

I mean, rather, that teaching by telling people what to do was not working out.

Ron Jeffries, a few years ago, stumbled on an approach I now think of as “the way forward”. He doesn’t think of it as anything special, but I confess that I do. I even named it. I call it learning in public.

Here’s a blog post of Ron’s in that style, and I think you’ll see what I find unusual about it. It’s not the answer to your Stack Overflow question, and it’s not a tutorial, it’s not feigned naiveté affected as a pedagogic ruse to get the audience to answer your questions for you, and it’s not even designed so you can discover the “right answer” at the end. It’s a narrative account of what he’s thinking, how he’s working, all the mistakes he makes, his confusion…. It’s what happened.

… This worked fine and results in the halt you see in the final video below.

But we noticed one more thing. Because the ant selects its edge randomly, it has a good chance of selecting an edge that has a spider coming the other way, with tragic results for our poor ant. So we changed things to give the ant its own way of selecting an edge. That turned out to be a bit tricky but not bad:…

I’ll make the argument somewhere else—at excruciating length, in fact—that this is an important innovation, this “learning in public” voice. It can skitter quickly off into frustrating and boring territory if one write carefully, or if the reader approaches it with the wrong expectations. But the most important point I want to make (and will revisit another day) is that it surfaces the way the thing you’re attempting resists your plans.

And that’s important.

That’s how science and engineering and art are really done. The things we make—the things we want to make—we begin that making with sometimes outlandish notions about the world and how it works. And as soon as we begin, as soon as we have made a little part of the Thing Made, then that Made Thing is empowered to act on behalf of the laws of nature to tell us—in no uncertain terms—that we are wrong wrong wrong about the way the world works. Maybe it’s that our aesthetics are cockeyed or glib, or maybe it’s the materials we picked or our ontology is askew or the tools we’re using to build it are the tools for some other thing but not this one… but in any and every case the Thing Made will be talking back at us, resisting us, complaining, communicating, fighting. And to progress, we must accommodate. Otherwise… well here we are.

Whoopsie-daisy, as I said.

So a path has been found, and today I am here to follow it. I’ve just launched—quite possible prematurely—my Patreon page, and will be quickly filling in the missing pieces of what I mean by learning in public. And I will be accommodating, and listen to what the Thing Made is telling me about the nature of the world.

And I will share what I learn with you all.

  1. Always sit on the long side of the huge conference table. You can see the faces of at least half the team that way, and watch the lines of power and influence form and re-form as they talk, and assess just who it is you should be talking with and helping along. Never sit at the head of the huge conference table.