Understanding through Building
  • building things has been my go-to way to gather deep understanding
    • implementing small demos with creative-coding ideas
    • implementing papers to be able to "interact" with them
    • building Realtalk-like system after visiting Dynamicland
    • building interactive sketches when exploring the solution space of a research problem
  • maybe the main reason it works, is that it forces effort, but I have an inkling that maybe there's something more here
    • seems like something special happens when I do something vs when I watch someone do something - this makes sense for something like sports, but why does it matter for knowledge work?
  • can this act be deliberately practiced?
    • I could record myself building experiments, open question: would that provide enough signal over noise, so feedback is possible?
    • I could create more constraints for better understanding: not using external libraries, using a different language than the one I'm used to, etc.
  • I keep finding people who gather deep understanding about things by reading and immediately using what they read in some context - this doesn't seem to be always possible though, especially for abstract concepts
  • there also seems to be overlap between building a lot and publishing a lot, and being able to find work which allows for building more - interesting feedback loop:

    The sheer volume of your work is what works as a signal of weirdness, because anyone can be do a one-off weird thing, but only volume can signal a consistently weird production sensibility that will inspire people betting on you. The energy evident in a body of work is the most honest signal about it that makes people trust you to do things for them.

    — Venkatesh Rao - https://mailchi.mp/ribbonfarm/the-breaking-smart-ama-part-1

Fixating on Solution Aesthetics can Lead to Solving Wrong Problems

  • this might be important for understanding through building - when prototyping things to learn, it's important to focus on the actual problem, instead of trying to "stroke the aesthetic ego" by polishing rounded corners, playing with type systems, etc.

Knowledge Work Should Accrete

  • another example would be building small experiments testing small hypotheses orbiting around a bigger theme - of course balance is important here, so when you're using a project to learn new technology, you probably shouldn't also try to do something "wild"
Szymon Kaliski © 2020