February 13, 2004
Leaning - one little thing at a time – and with a little help from friends

Confession time. I depend on my computer, but I'm very bad at learning new stuff I can do with it. This is because my basic method of learning is to be told things, and I don't spend enough time working on my computer in the company of others.

This definitely has its advantages. You try listening to Bruckner symphonies in an office with half a dozen other people in it. Try turning up to work in your pyjamas. But from the learning point of view, working home alone has severe disadvantages.

I am reminded of these disadvantages when circumstances temporarily give me a taste of life without them, but only in the form of a small taste rather than a steady diet.

At my last last-Friday-of-the-month meeting at the end of January, one of my guests witnessed me mucking about in Photoshop with some photos I'd taken. I wasn't changing them, just showing them. And my guest noticed that I wasn't using the "thumbnails" option to find the pictures I was looking for. And I wasn't. I'd never noticed its existence. Like everything involving computers, it was easy once I knew how, but hard to find out about until then.

It doesn't matter whether you understand the details of this thumbnails thing, or of how idiotically obvious it is. All that matters is that you get the general principle, which is that with computers there are, at any one time, about four dozen obvious things which you might be doing more cleverly, or doing at all, if only you realised that you could. I sort of knew that there must be a way to browse more quickly, the way I've seen people doing it in Windows. The way I do it in Windows, for goodness sakes. But I had never got round to learning about it.

And then, following an absurdly ill-informed posting on Samizdata, I further learned that you can search google for images. Yes! That's right! I've only been using the internet for about half a decade, so how was I expected to realise this any sooner? It isn't as if I've been staring this procedure in the face for more than about ten per cent of my life. No wonder I didn't realise it any sooner.

arnold.jpgI now celebrate my new found knowledge by sticking up a picture of the famous Headmaster of Rugby, Matthew Arnold which I found in seconds, armed with my new superpowers. And of course with the browsing thing, it'll be easier for me to find this picture again if I need it again.

In order to learn things, it helps to have sympathetic souls hovering in the background making helpful suggestions. A common word for such people is: "teachers". These teachers watch what you are doing, and they say things like: "Do you mind if I suggest something? Tell me to stop if I'm interrupting, but maybe this would help? Please permit me to demonstrate. There. Like that. Please forgive the interruption. Ignore that if it is of no use to you."

You can't find the answer if you don't ask the question, and even then you may not be able to answer it.

And the trouble with computers is that you have so many questions and if you live the life I do, you spend it saying "I wish I'd remembered to ask X that thing about Y when I last met him." So do I now ring him up? It's just a tiny bit too much bother, the way it wouldn't be if he was right here all the time. That way, I could ask him as and when the question reasserted itself in my mind. (And that assumes I was aware of the question.)

This is a posting for my education blog, because it is about education, and why education alone isn't all that it is sometimes cracked up to be, not least by techno-enthusiasts like me, when I'm in a different and happier mood. But, because it is about the value of being in company, and therefore of the value of companies, run by people in direct face-to-face contact with each other for quite a lot of the time, it is also a posting which I will now go and refer to on Transport Blog. For this is one of the basic reasons why people travel to work, instead of just doing it at home. If you do it at home, you don't learn so much.

Don't get me wrong. I've learned a lot doing blogging, a lot more than I was learning before I started blogging. (The difference has been me writing things down rather than just reading them and writing the occasional set piece piece.) But I haven't learned as much about basic computing stuff as I would have if others had been hovering and offering suggestions and answering casual questions.

Busy day today and a busy weekend, so it's probably now a case of see you Monday.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:48 AM
Category: Technology
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