Thursday, 29 March 2007

Don't turn to the back of the book

Sometimes laziness has strategic advantages. When I was doing my PhD I did my literature review very late in the piece. This had the advantage of not contaminating me too much with existing ideas early on. And when I did get around to it I knew enough from my own trials and tribulations to be able to read the literature intelligently and critically.

I had a similar experience while teaching myself Operations Research in my first significant job in Industry. I had done a one-semester course -- not long enough to learn too much -- and so I was able to produce the real-life problems with a degree of freshness, rather than trying to (mis-) apply the known "solutions".

Generally speaking, I advocate mastery of fundamental ideas and techniques. These are often the most portable and adaptable. By contrast the advanced techniques can be quite specific, like an organism that has a evolved to fill a very narrow niche.

Turning to the back of the book, listening to lectures etc. may seem faster, but taking the slow hard road is a richer path. And in saying this I am in excellent company ...

Clearly Feynman was of the "no, don't tell me the answer" school of learning":

The deal this time was that Feynman would teach Fredkin quantum mechanics and Fredkin would teach Feynman computer science [27]. Fredkin believes he got the better of the deal:

`It was very hard to teach Feynman something because he didn’t want to let anyone teach him anything. What Feynman always wanted was to be told a few hints as to what the problem was and then to figure it out for himself. When you tried to save him time by just telling him what he needed to know, he got angry because you would be depriving him of the satisfaction of discovering it for himself.’
Feynman constantly emphasized the importance of working things out for yourself, trying things out and playing around before looking in the book to see how the experts’ have done things.

From Richard Feynman and Computation [pdf]

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