Infinite Loop: Theory and Practice Revisited.

I’ve unlocked a new achievement as a blogger, or a new milestone as a life-form. As a dinosaur telling the same old stories over and over again.

I started drafting a blog post, as I always do since a while: I do it in my mind only, twist and turn in for days or weeks – until I am ready to write it down in one go. Today I wanted to release a post called On Learning (2) or the like. I knew I had written an early post with a similar title, so I expected this to be a loosely related update. But then I checked the old On Learning post: I found not only the same general ideas but the same autobiographical anecdotes I wanted to use now – even  in the same order.

2014 I had looked back on being both a teacher and a student for the greater part of my professional life, and the patterns were always the same – be the field physics, engineering, or IT security. I had written this post after a major update of our software for analyzing measurement data. This update had required me to acquire new skills, which was a delightful learning experience. I tried to reconcile very different learning modes: ‘Book learning’ about so-called theory, including learning for the joy of learning, and solving problems hands-on based on the minimum knowledge absolutely required.

It seems I like to talk about the The Joys of Theory a lot – I have meta-posted about theoretical physics in general, more than oncegeneral relativity as an example, and about computer science. I searched for posts about hands-on learning now – there aren’t any. But every post about my own research and work chronicles this hands-on learning in a non-meta explicit way. These are the posts listed on the heat pump / engineering page,  the IT security / control page, and some of the physics posts about the calculations I used in my own simulations.

Now that I am wallowing in nostalgia and scrolling through my old posts I feel there is one possibly new insight: Whenever I used knowledge to achieve a result that I really needed to get some job done, I think about this knowledge as emerging from hands-on tinkering and from self-study. I once read that many seasoned software developers also said that in a survey about their background: They checked self-taught despite having university degrees or professional training.

This holds for the things I had learned theoretically – be it in a class room or via my morning routine of reading textbooks. I learned about differential equations, thermodynamics, numerical methods, heat pumps, and about object-oriented software development. Yet when I actually have to do all that, it is always like re-learning it again in a more pragmatic way, even if the ‘class’ was very ‘applied’, not much time had passed since learning only, and I had taken exams. This is even true for the archetype all self-studied disciplines – hacking. Doing it – like here  – white-hat-style 😉 – is always a self-learning exercise, and reading about pentesting and security happens in an alternate universe.

The difference between these learning modes is maybe not only in ‘the applied’ versus ‘the theoretical’, but it is your personal stake in the outcome that matters – Skin In The Game. A project done by a group of students for the final purpose of passing a grade is not equivalent to running this project for your client or for yourself. The point is not if the student project is done for a real-life client, or the task as such makes sense in the real world. The difference is whether it feels like an exercise in an gamified system, or whether the result will matter financially / ‘existentially’ as you might try to empress your future client or employer or use the project results to build your own business. The major difference is in weighing risks and rewards, efforts and long-term consequences. Even ‘applied hacking’ in Capture-the-Flag-like contests is different from real-life pentesting. It makes all the difference if you just loose ‘points’ and miss the ‘flag’, or if you inadvertently take down a production system and violate your contract.

So I wonder if the Joy of Theoretical Learning is to some extent due to its risk-free nature. As long as you just learn about all those super interesting things just because you want to know – it is innocent play. Only if you finally touch something in the real world and touching things has hard consequences – only then you know if you are truly ‘interested enough’.

Sorry, but I told you I will post stream-of-consciousness-style now and then 🙂

I think it is OK to re-use the image of my beloved pre-1900 physics book I used in the 2014 post:

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