Learning by Fermentation

Last night I started—finally—entering in all my QuickBooks data. It took a few hours to figure out the best way for me to enter the financial data, but once I figured out how QuickBooks was architected beneath the layers and layers of GUI, it became a lot simpler to understand. Starting over also helped, and knowing I’ll be able to do some pretty cool reporting is very exciting. It’s about time I got my crap together.

As I entered the various accounts, vendors, and items on-the-fly, I realized that part of the reason I’m able to deal with QuickBooks now is that I’ve been doing my own business taxes for about 8 years now. As a result, I have a good idea of the various expenses are, and I have a basic “My First Book of Accounting, For Ages 4-7” level of understanding regarding AP, AR, cashflow, etc. And the Tax Code starts to make a weird kind of sense when you realize that it’s driven by one basic principle: if you receive a benefit, through any means, above and beyond what the government deems as the baseline, they want a piece of the action. And unless you have something to do with churches or babies, they will take their piece. Reminds me a bit of the Mafia.

Anyway, I’ve noticed a learning pattern in myself: I can be introduced to a new process and set of ideas once, and even if I don’t do anything directly related to them, in about five years something seems to ripen and the task is easier. I actually first tried to use QuickBooks about 5 years ago, and found it confusing and lame. In the five years since, I became more familiar with relational database concepts, the idea of categorizing expenses, and the tax filing process. All these experiences have percolated together for a long time, creating a rich base that made my 2005 QuickBooks Initiative more successful. Of course, the product itself may have also improved in terms of user interface. To me, though, it still acts like two separate pieces of software: the database-driven accounting engine, and the wizards-based GUI. They don’t quite mesh, because the overall principles that drive the system aren’t expressed in a system view that clearly relates the two activities. But I digress…what’s interesting is how some kinds of learning are akin to fermentation of concepts over a long period of time. Suddenly, you just get it.

I’ve experienced the inexplicable ripening of ideas in several areas. For example, my understanding of low-level computer programming (that is, assembly language) is entirely shaped by an old Apple II book called Beneath Apple DOS, a classic tome which detailed the inner workings of the core disk drive read/write/track/sector routines: RWTS. I was particularly interested in the inner workings of disk drives because they allowed me to copy game disks, back when software had protection schemes. The process of deprotecting the games was sometimes more rewarding than the game itself…very clever programming on both sides of the fence.

Initially, none of Beneath Apple DOS made any sense at all to me, and no one I knew could explain it to me. As I started to read more about computer hardware, I realized that digital electronics was similar to the children’s game MouseTrap; that laid some foundation. Additional programming gave me the experience to understand how systems of data storage were implemented (data structures). Then one day, I was trying to figure out how one of Electronic Art’s Apple II games loaded SO FAST—EA’s games were unique in that they showed a graphics image as soon as the disk was booted, almost before you could blink. Imagine if you booted your computer and it was just ready for you with no waiting…it was on that level of amazement. I wanted to make my own version, so I started “boot-tracing” the disk. This is a technique of interrupting the computer at the moment it has loaded the first sector of the floppy disk (which always contained code for Apple II bootable floppies). Then, you can inspect the code to see what it does; on the Apple II, it was always code that loaded MORE code from the disk (hence the term “boot”…it’s short for “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps”). When you understand that, you modify the process so it interrupts a little later so you can

To make a long story shorter, I got to a part where there was a lot of looping and tricky memory lookups. It eventually dawned on me that this was actually reading data from the disk drive, and it was in fact a highly-tweaked RWTS. And then at that moment, everything about disk drives came together in an enormous flash of insight…five years of study and confusion. For the first time, I really understood the genius of Wozniak.

What I’m trying to say is there are certain moments in learning that are the culmination of a long process of percolation over time. When people think of learning, usually it’s in the form of a class or a concentrated burst of activity. Not necessarily, I think. Can this be actually formalized and applied consciously in day-to-day life?

Fermentation comes to mind because I am reminded of the cheesemaking process: The cheese maker starts with raw materials, which are processed under controlled conditions to guide the fermentation process until the final product is ready, ripe, and delicious. Any fact, any controlled process that takes place over a few months or longer—wine making, coffee roasting, tea making come to mind—are very much dependent on human judgment and perception. You can’t automate these processes and maintain the same level of quality…when it comes to judging peak ripeness for human consumption, it takes human guidance. Our best sensors are our noses, our eyes, and our brains.

The two personal examples I gave aren’t the result of a controlled process…they just happened. I’m sure that’s how cheesemaking got started in the first place, then someone had the bright idea that this could be systemized into a process. So the question is: How can I take this to the next step in long term learning? Is it a viable technique? Here’s my thoughts so far:

  • What I’m calling “long term learning” (to coin a silly phrase: “fermentative learning”) is a process of acquisition. New ideas, relations, some practical real-world know-how, and time come together to create a proto-insight. This I’m defining as a collection of ideas/relations/experience that is not quite a full insight. but may be able to link with other proto-insights that spontaneously arise. This is, I think, also an element of “the school of life”.
  • Everyone possesses a number of these proto-insights, but they are unable to combine because of compartmentalized thinking across social and functional lines. We’ve been conditioned this way from the 7th grade and up, at least here in the U.S, and it continues in our work lives. However, ideas are transportable, with adaptation as needed, across all lines. This allows more proto-insights to mingle, making the possibility for a critical-mass insight reaction to occur far more likely. And I don’t mean just “assessing” or “considering” a proto-insight. You’ve got to really experience it for it to be useful, to see how things fit together spontaneously. Assessment causes a delay in action, which can be an experience-limiting factor. If it won’t kill you just try it.
  • Continuity is essential. As we live our lives, we weave a narrative about ourselves. As I grow older, I find this is more important that “what I do” or “who I am”. The narrative of our experience becomes the context for our thoughts and actions, which drive the creative impulses that we all share. In the formation of proto-insights, continuity is an essential nutrient. This is my gut feeling right now; I can’t otherwise justify it.

You know, continuity tends to get shattered in the educational context, at least here in the States. Up to the 9th grade, we have a single teacher who gets to know us over the year. In high school and college that officially goes away. The remaining sources of continuity are, of course, family and best friends. Then there are the special teachers you admire, mentors in real life, and so on. If you are lacking in any of these sources of continuity, it’s that much tougher to self-motivate. One exception is when your OWN sense of personal continuity is so strong that it requires nothing else. Even in that case, I think alloying personal continuity with other sources makes the individual less “brittle” if something traumatic happend.

If I were to think of standard education as cheesemaking, it seems designed to make, on average, mediocre cheese because the process doesn’t take the type of raw material you’re getting. The raw materials are individuals of different backgrounds, interests, and talents. You now proceed to put them all through the same process. The ones that thrive on the educational system will become fine cheeses. The ones that don’t mesh don’t turn out so well. Now bear in mind that there are thousands of kinds of cheese, all of them delicious, that are made from different kinds of milk with different additive ingredients and aging procedures. You can’t transplant the process for making aged gouda to cottage cheese. You can’t substitute goat’s milk for cow’s milk. Even the region matters, as do available local resources. If you’re not keeping an eye on your cheese as it ages, turning it every so often and brining it appropriately, you also might get a bad cheese. But still, the potential for creating great cheese no matter where you are exists.

I know I’m not saying anything new about education here…I just happen to have some nice gourmet cheese in my refrigerator right now, so I have it on the brain. But I am thinking that creating the conditions for fruitful learning can occur over the long term if you design a process to:

  1. Seed experience with proto-insights. This is like getting the ingredients for your cheesemaking.

  2. Remove boundaries of experience and function, at least experimentally, so the proto-insights can mingle and form new ones. As time goes by, they will start to produce significant insights. This is akin to providing the environment in which your cheeses age.

  3. Provide continuous lifelong continuity, relevant to what you want to learn. The cheesemaker watches the cheeses develop under a careful eye…I bet the artisan cheese makers get to know each wheel of cheese under their care.

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p>This idea seems a bit raw…I think it needs to sit for another week :-)