at home in... w| Gerald Zhang-Schmidt

Look Closer, Learn More, #GetAtHome In This World

Tag: learning Page 1 of 5

Why Learn When You Can Google

All those little facts, such clutter in a brain, right?

Learning in school already seemed a useless amassing of facts long before internet search engines ever came along.

Historical dates without context; mathematical formulas with little use beyond test questions; grammatical points of foreign languages hardly ever used…

The modern Silicon Valley-ized approach to learning has only reinforced this view.

Calling for a focus on “learning to learn,” all those pesky small details that are so hard to remember seem even less necessary now than ever before – especially when you can just look them up online when and if you need them.

Matt Britt’s partial internet map from years ago: Try finding your way through this without prior knowledge.

Clive Thompson, in his celebration of the knowledge gain from the internet, “Smarter Than You Think” (cross-read here), celebrates the ability to not remember the name of that red-haired female singer with a feminist bent, and to have the name “Tori Amos” pop up easily enough in a web search with just those few details.

In his proof is the problem.

If all you are looking for is a simple fact that sits in the realm of common knowledge, let alone popular culture, then it has become easy enough to quickly find it online and spare yourself the “mental bandwidth” required to record that fact yourself.

There are only too many situations nowadays, however, in which people want to argue that learning is unnecessary as long as the fact can be looked up or the problem can be solved by someone else or something else.

Manners Make Man, Facts Form Faculty

Even when it comes to those facts we so hate to learn by heart, though, we need to know them if there is some way we need or want to dig deeper into the issue in question.

Of course, just learning facts and figures as Jeopardy-style factoids all sitting in separation, with no connection between them, isn’t going to make them well-learnt and useful.

Only knowing where to look up when what event in world history transpired won’t help understand how different events and developments influenced each other over the course of history.

However, learning them in connection requires previous knowledge to connect them to and makes it easier to learn more of them and see more connections.

Being able to quickly look up what formula relates different factors in physics to each other does not imply an ability to see how (and why) a certain formula can lead to a useful result while another cannot.

However, having learned the formulas and their use cases and applied them is the only way to get to the expert knowledge where one intuitively knows what formula needs to be used.

For learning itself, more facts learned in relations and as the stories they tell will help learn and remember yet more, not take away from mental storage space.

In fact, without the scaffolding of previous knowledge, not only would it be difficult to learn anything new, it’s difficult even just to know whether a fact found online is truly a fact or just somebody’s well-presented fiction.

Funnily, the more you know, the more you can actually find where there are gaps in knowledge. Even relatively simple things (or rather, things that seem that way) often do not yet have answers.

Try googling that, then.

You will, of course, need to find out where to spend your time and focus your attention.

Yet, with all the time used for entertainment and all the memory easily expended on gossip and news and assorted pop-cultural geekery, the potential to learn more that will be of greater use in other situations, in (other sides of) real life is there.

“I have always found that it is always good to know something.” Goethe, Talks Shortly Before his Death

And there’s quite enough that it may be good to know.

From languages to first aid.
From survival and self-defense to cooking and, hell, house-keeping.
From the big sweep of history to the little happenings in your backyard and neighborhood.

It’s always been good to know things, and in a time when ignorance seems on the rise as (and maybe partly because) the world’s information seems only a fingertip away, but too few people bother to transform it into knowledge, it only gets better to know.

Next time there’s no internet or the heat goes out in the middle of winter, particularly so.

Bad Experiences Not to be Missed

Half a year in a pretty different country (again), in the diverse capital of one of the oldest civilizations on Earth, in terrible air quality, with dubious food, and without my wife.
Beijing, China, as “international migrant worker.”

That was my second half of 2014.

It’s a great example of the way such things go.

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Ways We Are Not ‘at home’ 3: Not Being the Bodies We Are…

It is one of the great things about us that we have such a rich life of the mind.

Sure, we may be misled by it, ending up fighting over ideologies when we’d really much rather get along, falling victim to stories we tell ourselves of how life is, other people were, and we ourselves are… “You’re Not So Smart” (both book and podcast) is an excellent resource on that.

But, we can also learn. Beyond the abilities of all other animals, we can imagine, anticipate, ponder, and study things.

In thinking about ourselves and our minds, however, we keep talking of “our bodies” as something separate from the brain, and completely different from the mind.

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Ways We Are Not ‘At Home’ 2: Buying Rather than Being

Sure, there are nice things out there.
We all probably have some things we dream of having. And even if it isn’t things we are dreaming of so much as experiences, money seems equally as necessary for that, too.

Beyond the essentials, however, we don’t really need much in order to live well, and we don’t need to be able to buy in order to live better, so much as we need to be.


I have a particular problem with the notion of “not buying things but experiences” as good gear can help be a lot more active and for a lot longer than a fast-bought “adventure”. It just depends on whether you use it that way or not, so you can consider the cost-per-use.

This misunderstanding may easily be the most problematic way we are not truly at home in our lives, for it is simultaneously the easiest to break, and the hardest.

It is so very easy to break because all it takes is for us to decide we have enough, get up, and get going.

We just need to explore more, of our surroundings, of life, of the world, and we can discover more.

It works both physically, by moving and getting fitter and developing new physical skills and capabilities. And it works psychologically, by exploring new landscapes out there or of the mind, learning and studying and putting the knowledge gained to use.
Both interact with and positively contribute to each other…

But it is also the hardest to break.

All those easy things that we could do and that would make us be more and live better are just too many things to easily decide what to try and find what will really satisfy – and they all require that we ourselves take our lives and learning in our hands, even as the potential result seems unclear and may be a long time away.

The next great experience, meanwhile, seems just the swipe of a credit card away, and with guaranteed immediate results, and the next new product that promises to be so much better than the one that came before, and promises to make our life so much better, also just awaits (and gets pushed on us with a lot of promising marketing)…

It is the most noticeable – once you stop to think about it, anyways – how strongly we get immersed into the customer’s approach to life if you look at all the great and anti-materialist advice columns that tell you to “Buy Experiences, Not Things!”
True, there is a lot to be said for experiences and for putting “experientialism” over consumerism – but a consumerist anti-materialism (that may not even be against a true materialism but itself an expression only of a shopper’s attitude to a cheap life that makes life itself cheap) isn’t *it*, either.

To get around this, two approaches may be recommendable:

One, keep a diary. Write down what product has lured you, what you expect and why you want it, and if you end up getting it, also note when it frustrates you and doesn’t turn out quite that good. It may help the next time you’re tempted to change your life by shopping.

Also write down what you’ve done beyond shopping and what that has done for you. Chances are, especially with the effect of memory coming in, experiences turn out even better.

Above all, however, make a habit of active living. Preferably, not just a shopping habit but one of things you do for yourself and to make your life more interesting.

Go for walks, try out new things in the kitchen, see more, stop and smell the roses – or plant some…

Ways We’re Not ‘At Home’ 1: Seeing and Seeking Only the Outstanding

Sure, we all have places we’re familiar with, life situations we don’t think much about, circumstances in which we feel comfortable.
Even (if not especially) in such familiar circumstances, however, we often remain on the surface, skimming over things like tourists rather than delving deeply and making ourselves at home.

One way this is happening, especially now that we could learn more and go deeply, but are driven to the extreme and superficial, is by only noticing the extraordinary and seeing only the outstanding.

Case in point for the power of the non-familiar sight to excite - and remain superficial: Views from the plane, here over the United Arab Emirates

Case in point for the power of the non-familiar sight to excite – and remain superficial: Views from the plane, here over the United Arab Emirates

It is only natural that we should react to novel things more strongly than to things we are used to.

Adaptation to the familiar keeps us from expending too much energy on that which we already know; novelty-seeking makes us aware of that which has changed and could present a danger or an opportunity.

No animal needs to see every individual tree in a forest anew every day, but the one that has started fruiting or been marked by a potential mate or competitor is interesting. Likewise, we don’t have to notice every single thing around us.

Our problem, however, is that we will often notice only the novel even when it would do us good to see what we have.

We notice the new functional food making great promises but overlook the real food we have always seen but never learned to appreciate and prefer (even as there would still be a hundred new ways we could prepare it).
We notice the new gadget we hadn’t seen before (and don’t have), but overlook the gadgets we have, feel familiar with, but don’t much play around with anymore just because they feel old (even as they would still offer many more functions we never learned to use to their full potential).

Even, and perhaps most obviously, in places we have grown up and lived all our lives, we often notice only those things that obviously change, but never deviate from our habitual routes, never stop to look anew and learn more about these places, and never notice how much we actually don’t know about them.

Ask yourself this:

Do you know all the fruits and vegetables in the market you usually go to? Do you know how to prepare them well?
Where you often go, have you ever taken *this* road rather than that road you usually take?
When was the last time you picked up a book to learn more about the world that surrounds you, or picked up a tool/toy you own and looked at more of its functions or possible uses?

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