Saturday, March 18, 2006

Kernels & Marbles

At this point in life, I find myself thinking a lot about how to pass knowledge down to my children. Learning is often like putting a jigsaw puzzle together. There are so many pieces that almost fit, that look like they should fit, but they don't. Eventually, the right piece piece is found, the piece that fits perfectly in the puzzle and reveals an important aspect of the greater whole, and the accompanying insight brings with it distinct and intense senses of satisfaction and achievement. Richard Feynman was a master when it came to finding perfect kernels of truth to offer as explanation. How does one go about finding and categorizing those little kernels? Those little kernels offered that make it possible for some other human mind to make a leap?

In the past year, I've found myself reading research in unfamiliar fields such as bioinformatics, trying to cull relevant information for reapplication to the problems with which I contend. An old Norbert Weiner quote I once offered about the insular nature of various disciplines applies here. In one area, you'll find Principal Component Analysis, in another it's the Hotelling Transform, or the Karhunen-Loève transform. There's frustration and joy in finding there's been a lot useful work done in some discipline under some other code name. You're happy you found it, but you wish there was more standardization in terms of terminology across disciplines. (Of course there's so much information out there, experts within their own disciplines often prove already proven theorems or publish the already published.)

Finally, after absorbing more knowledge, I find myself wanting to throw it in a blender, mash it up and redistill it into a more cohesive whole. If there's any secret to applying knowledge effectively, I think it's having it properly organized in one's head. Every once in a while, we hear about being able to keep three things in our heads or being able to consisently remember only seven digits. In Geekspeak, it seems our brains have pretty small L1 caches. Given that, I believe it's extremely important to organize the knowledge inside our heads as effectively as possible. If I ask you to remember the positions of 10,000 marbles, good luck, but if I tell you they're all in a box, you only need to remember two things, the position of the box and the fact that marbles are inside it. With the right organization, problems get easier.

(Random song recommendation: Swingset Chain by Loquat)


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