Monthly book roundup – 2020 February

Books finished in February:
(Warning: reviews are unpolished and quickly written.)

North (2018) by Scott Jurek. Jurek’s story about his record-breaking (46 days, 8h, 7 min) run of the Appalachian trail in 2015. Struggles with motivation and form in the beginning, but manages to pull through. Far-out feat–running 76km/day for 46 days. Gets invaluable help on the way by many friends and strangers, but most importantly and consistently by his wife Jenny. Recommended.

Ultralearning: Master Hard Skills, Outsmart the Competition, and Accelerate Your Career (2019) by Scott Young. Inspiring and possibly useful book about learning.
Contents:
Chapter I Can You Get an MIT Education Without Going to MIT?
Chapter II Why Ultralearning Matters
Chapter III How to Become an Ultralearner
Chapter IV Principle 1-Metalearning: First Draw a Map
Chapter V Principle 2-Focus: Sharpen Your Knife
-Starting. Recognize. Get over the limited time of maximal boringness, painfulness. Pomodoro technique. Carve out time in calendar, but must follow. Ok to go back one stage.
-Sustaining. 15-60 minutes. 1 Environment. Adjust. Test. Avoid multitasking. 2 the task itself. Hard, less opportunity to just go through the motions. 3 the Mind. Refocus. Guide back to task.
-Right kind of focus. Arousal and task complexity. Narrow focus and high arousal for low complexity. High comp may benefit from lower arousal. Self test, optimize.
Improving ability to focus.

Chapter VI Principle 3-Directness: Go Straight Ahead
Learn in a way as close as possible to how the skills will be employed. Ex: software for architecture work, having conversations instead of words and phrases for language. Learning by doing. The problem of transfer of learning. Overcome with directness, closer better. Communicate to others also helpful. More knowledge makes transfer easier.
How to learn directly. Effective but hard. Tactics: 1. Project based learning, make something, eg. a thing, paper. 2. Immersive learning. Language canonical ex. Joining communities, eg. software forums. 3. Flight simulator method. If cannot learn irl. 4. Overkill approach. Increase pressure and demands. Aim for the stars.

Chapter VII Principle 4-Drill: Attack Your Weakest Point
Practice weak points that slow you down. But also other points to free up cognitive resources. Tension with directness, but resolve with direct then drill approach. Initial feedback, then drill. Finally back to direct practice. Drill may not work, must evaluate. Often uncomfortable, overcome with: time slice, one skill like tones in Mandarin even if will be used with other skills, copycat eg copying other’s drawings, magnifying glass on one subskill, starting too hard then go back and learn prerequisite.

Chapter VIII Principle 5-Retrieval: Test to Learn
The difficulty itself is important. Retrieving info from memory more effective than passive review. Start to test before feel ready. Optimal delay of test. Take end test before start. But may learn wrong ways?
Useful retrieval methods:
Flashcards. Software. Well for pairing between specific cue and a particular response. Eg. Foreign language words, maps, anatomical diagrams, definitions or equations. But with variable contexts like programming less well.
Free recall. Eg. after reading an article.
Question book method. Rephrase notes as questions. Try to ask about main point/bug idea rather than unimportant fact.
Self generated challenges.
Closed book learning.
Produce the answer rather than simply reviewing it.

Chapter IX Principle 6-Feedback: Don’t Dodge the Punches
Essential, but must be of the right kind and not over or under react to it. Often uncomfortable, but very valuable if can be overcome.
Outcome, informational, corrective feedback. Outcome aggregated. Info tells what does not work, elemental. Corrective gives guidance, how to fix. Be critical to the feedback.
How quick? Quick, but need to perform the full retrieval task. And with review, See spacing.

Chapter X Principle 7-Retention: Don’t Fill a Leaky Bucket
Nigel Richards scrabble. Active recall and rehearsal. Intense learner, practice.
Understand forgetting. Exponential decay, then taper off. Both during a project and later. Software and simpler systems used. Four mechanisms:
Spacing. Don’t cram, spread out. SRS, flashcards. Single facts, etc. Refresher projects a method.
Proceduralisation. Know how, part of a routine/procedure. Eg. typing, recall with pretend to use a keyboard.
Over-learning. A little extra.
Mnemonics. Pictures, visuals. But requires large upfront investments and use may be a little slow in use. Mostly for specifics.

Chapter XI Principle 8-Intuition: Dig Deep Before Building Up
Solve a lot of concrete problems to build intuition.
Want to give up? Struggle timer.
Prove things oneself.
Think we understand things, but draw bicycle or can opener…
“Feynman technique” write down problem, then as explanation to someone else, explain solution method and why good, if unclear or stuck go to textbook.
Visual version of problem.

Chapter XII Principle 9-Experimentation: Explore Outside Your Comfort Zone
With learning resources
Techniques
Style
Experiement with active exploration
Some strategies to try:
Copy, then create.
Compare side by side, varying just a single element, split tests.
New constraints, must explore.
Combine skills, eg. engineer and public speaking.
Explore extremes, search possibilities.
Experimentation also applies to the principles.

Chapter XIII Your First Ultralearning Project
Do research.
1. Topic, scope
2. Primary resources. Books, people, software, activities.
3. Benchmark. What have others done? And learnt. See eg. in Forums.
4. Direct practice activities.
5. Backup materials and drills.
Schedule your time. Decide how much to allocate in advance. And when. Consistent schedule good. Length of commitment. Divide if very long. End by schedule in your calendar. Pilot week may be good.
Execute your plan. Check if you are following principles well, what works or not.
Review after completion.
Maintain what is learnt, either through spaced repetition, or better, integrate into life. Relearning also possible. Mastery, by continued practice or new Ultralearning project, best.
Alternatives to Ultralearning: 1. low intensity habits, speaking a language more, program because necessary for work. Ultralearning nevertheless good because gets you to a level where learning more becomes easy and fun.
2. Formal, structured education. Credentials may be necessary. Edu may create good environment or community.

Chapter XIV An Unconventional Education
Polgar Sisters. Sees the principles, intensive learning.
Applicable at home, in schools, organizations, etc? Suggestions:
1. Create/let people create inspiring goals.
2. Be careful with competition. Should provide right kind of feedback and maintain motivation.
3. Make learning a priority.
Learning something opens up new possibilities and interests.

I do not doubt these strategies worked well for young, however, they may not work for others. Probably just have to try and experiment. My problem is that I often know what is needed, it is the commitment and just doing it that lacks. Most useful with the practical tips. Mentions people not undertaking learning projects for financial gain, then writes much about why do it for career reasons. The biggest issue that is not discussed in the book is selection – how many tried these things and failed? Some dropped out, those who stuck with the process may be different. One way to summarize the content: Concepts, facts, procedures. Some time, e.g. 10% for research. Starting, sustaining and optimizing quality of their focus. Anyway a highly inspiring book. Recommended.

Ratings and previous books are in the library.

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