30 Sep 2018 c.e.
On Fluency

This feels like a strange post to write. It's strange because nothing has changed -- my code still gets bugs, I still struggle with programming, with problems that require thinking through. I don't feel any amount of better at problem solving or actually writing code itself. But something is different. Within the last few weeks or months, my perspective on computing and programming, as a field and academic endeavor, has totally shifted.

Of A Mindset Past

I don't know how to convey the depth of certainty and absolute conviction that I had about my relationship with the 'field' of computer science, the years of passive curiosity and detachment. I have been working as a programmer for over six years, confident and vaguely content at the self-classification I had reached: one of "code plumber". I didn't love the type of work that I did with code, but I was managing to find opportunities to learn new things, and stretch myself in new ways.

It was nice to be so certain about a thing in life, to know that computer science was not a field for me. I've long talked of going back to school, as a retirement project even, but always knew that it wouldn't be in computer science. It was simply obvious that I'm not a 'computer science' type of person.

There's a history to this, a history of approaching computer science as a realm of very smart people, of a type of smart that I was not, nor had any hope to be. I took an algorithms class a few years back, when I was first starting to get into programming and it largely confirmed a lot of suspicions I had held about my capacity for 'CS'. The class was an online one, taught by Tim Roughgarden. I did ok, but I certainly didn't excel at it. I learned enough to sound notionally knowledgeable about big O notation, and to fully internalize a complex about 'algorithms' as a subject matter that I would never master. Since then, I've had a tendency to shy away from anything related to 'real CS'.

Mental Shift

Something has changed though, just in the last few weeks. I find myself able to follow the basic mathematics that are used to describe and evaluate algorithms: set notation makes sense to me. I'm working my way through an algorithm's book with my sister - exercises in it that even a few weeks ago might have been a struggle to really understand are now decipherable.

Further, I've found that I can read highly technical papers and piece together the systems that they're describing. I churned through Tanenbaum's Distributed Systems book in a week. The Bitcoin BIPS, which as early as April of this year were a struggle, are now intelligible. I can read a single book on C, and directly and frictionlessly apply that knowledge to a complex C codebase.

It is the most unsettling and yet riveting experience that I have ever had. The only thing that comes close to this is the moment that I realized I was fluent in Portuguese. Real, true fluency is an unforgettable experience. It's as if a veil is pulled away and you're suddenly swimming in a wide, expansive, boundless ocean. You open your mouth, and where once there was stumbling and a stunted desire for expression, suddenly there are only words. Full, coherent words.

The power I feel from this newfound technical fluency is intoxicating and terrifying. There are books that I want to read, so many code libraries I can just look at and understand. There's so many new places to go, so many new things to learn. I want to learn about cryptography and physics. I want to learn more about set theory notation. Most terrifying of all, spending all of my time learning and exercising my fluency feels like the most natural and right thing I could ever imagine. Computer science, despite my best intentions, has found me.

What the fuck has happened to my brain. Why did the switch flip? And how? Because something has happened, my way of seeing the world has irrevocably changed.

A Series of Cascading, Unrelated Events

If my experience in becoming fluent in Portuguese is any indication, finding your way to it is never a straight nor predictable path. It felt like a series of random difficulties and struggles that suddenly, without any warning, magically flipped into comprehension. The experience I've had with computer science literature feels incredibly similar. The path to learning a foreign language, however, is fairly well known: take classes, immerse yourself in the language, if at all possible, put yourself into a situation where that language is the only one you can hear and communicate in, for months. How one gets to fluency in a technical field was far less straightforward and arguably much longer; here's a few things that I've done recently that I believe strongly contributed to the mental shift.

In the last year, I've read a lot of philosophical books, specifically Hannah Arendt's The Human Condition and The Origins of Totalitarianism. Arendt's work is incredibly difficult -- it's also deeply rewarding. So rewarding in fact, that I found myself incredibly motivated to fully understand it. I spent hours reading The Human Condition, and even more going through Origins. In order to understand a philosophical work, there is a particular form of world building that goes on. Philosophers, good ones at least, build a coherent and consistent world through a few definitions and primitives. Understanding a work, then, requires building the same logical framework in your mind, from the description that they've established on the page. This ability to construct real, localized and personal meaning from a written account is incredibly similar to the process I find myself going through as I read technical papers and textbooks.

I've realized that I can actively seek out the answers to longstanding holes in my knowledge. Let me give you an example. In July of this year, I found myself in a small hotel room in Redding, California with a couple of hours to burn. Before I sat down to read Ingrid Burrington's book on the Networks of New York, I tried to write down everything that I know about computer networks already. I got down to IP in the network stack and then blanked out. I read the book, which didn't get anywhere near the network stack. Instead of letting it go, I went and looked up the IP RFC and read it. It was a lot more readable than I was expecting.

The third experience came from a tweet. Mary Rose Cook published a small code reading experiment that I came across a few weeks ago. In it, she presents you with a small JavaScript function, which you're then asked to guess what the output will be, for a given input. She's set it up as an A/B test so there's no guarantee that you'll see them, but in exercises I did, the code questions were accompanied by writing prompts. At the beginning, you answered a prompt asking what you were hoping to accomplish by the end of these exercises -- I put down the truth, which was that I wanted to become much faster at reading code.

Reader, I did terribly. After every botched attempt, another prompt would pop up asking me to reflect on what I had done incorrectly. It finally dawned on me that the real problem was that I didn't understand the subroutines that her experiment was calling. That, the real goal of understanding code wasn't speed. That you can't magic your way to speedy code reading. There are no shortcuts to reading code. The only way to really, truly understand how code, any piece of code, no matter how small, works, is by reading it. By actually sitting your butt in the chair and finding the goddamn code that is being called and executed. Until you do that, any hope for accuracy is as good as gone. And what use is speed without accuracy? Needless to say, after a few exercises, I completely and totally and forever abandoned any hope of being a 'fast code reader'.

My goal had, and has, changed; now I want to understand it.

On Fluency

Across these experiences, at a low level, my brain has recognized that it can understand things, that given the time and resources, I can figure out what is going on, in almost any domain!

More than anything, it's this newfound confidence in my ability to understand that's really changed the game. It's a confidence built from hard extracurricular reading, and curiosity, and relaxing the arbitrary time constraints that I've put on myself in the past. I give myself the space now to figure things out.

There is no struggle now; it's just pure fun, bounded only by my own curiosity and the number of hours in a day.

#computer-science #knowledge #fluency
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