Friday, October 11, 2013

A year of freelance self-education (+ rambling about biology)

It’s been a while since I have decided to drop out of the college/university and keep learning on my own, as I've been doing for a while. Recently I was asked how it feels and if I regret that decision by someone and I think I could share more elaborate answer with you.

I'll start with a quick answer: No, I don't regret my decision. On the contrary, I am very happy about it and educating myself further without the combined variety of pressures of the college life feels much more relaxed and enlightening.

I've learned a lot over the time. I bought myself a bunch of books on various topics outside of my current area of expertise (computer science): most importantly a big biology textbook that covers everything from basic biochemistry to whole ecosystem (and is appropriately lengthy), since the realm of functions of biological “machines” was one of the most unknown ones to me that was also bugging my mind the most.

And when I don’t know almost anything about something, it burns. Not knowing is like extra flammable oil poured into the fire of curiosity. And that’s what really pushes me to learn about things: just my natural curiosity and desire the understand things and how the world works. I don't want to learn things because I have to according to the school curriculum, but because I want to know more about them.

Natural curiosity is good enough motivator to spend hours buried in textbooks and researching materials.

One thing I found during my time at the school is that it can have quite opposite effect and rather suffocate the flames of natural curiosity. The pressures can distort normally captivating study materials into repulsive shapes, making me actually annoyed to go through them, simply because I am forced to.

It’s well known that people have more trouble acting under a pressure and might not find many activities as entertaining. While a lot of the pressure is natural and unavoidable in daily life, some of it might be unnecessary and artificial and these could be eliminated and more importantly should be eliminated.

Even though I found certain topic interesting (although as I often like to say, I find everything interesting) I found myself often annoyed with having to go through it according to some premade schedule. I didn't have much freedom to adapt the learning process to my interests and style. I got annoyed by spending too much time on things I understood well and going too quickly or superficially over things I didn't understand well enough.

Natural curiosity can be suffocated by the school environment conflicting with personal needs of a student and actually have negative effect.

But dropping out of college and using the free time to structure the learning to my own needs did wonders. I found many books and resources on topics that caught my interest or that I needed for some project of mine and I am still finding more and more. I feel literally like a kid in a candy store, with sweets made from knowledge and understanding, not knowing what to learn first.

Nothing is pushing me or forcing me to learn something in specific way or order so instead I chew through the knowledge (and I mean actual understanding of it as well, not just memorizing stuff) candy naturally, how it bests suits me at the moment. If I get tired with particular area, I go do something else for a while, or if I would like to get more details or alternate explanations, I just go and find them.

Learning new things became very natural, relaxing and enlightening experience for me.

One thought that went through my mind, but more importantly through minds of others I encountered is that without school, without the external pressure, I'll get lazy and stop learning.

Learning has also become entertainment for me.

Yet I find myself trying to read more and more every chance I get, sometimes even having to sadly put the book down (or rather close it, since I mostly read electronic variants), because I have to do some work on a project.

I was always very curious, ever since I was a little kid I was always asking questions and always spent hours buried in books and encyclopedias and I’m very glad that I retained this curiosity and hunger for knowing more.

The very act of learning more about how various aspects of this world work is very enlightening, adding data and details to my internal model of it or even correcting some parts is very fulfilling. The better grasp of reality I get, the better I understand why things happen and how can I affect them or use them for my work.

Just a few months ago, I knew almost nothing about how organisms work and now, even though I'm only about a quarter into the Biology textbook (but it’s a pretty thick book) my understanding is much higher.

Whenever I look at animals, plants or even some phenomena involving microorganisms, I think of various biological processes happening inside of them, I think of how they developed, how they got here. And even though I understand only a fraction of all there is to know about these I still feel fascinated by the beauty of it wanting to learn more.

Understanding the world in all its complexity involves finding relations and connecting things, seeing what I actually learned in the world around me and realizing how various areas and fields relate. But the amount of information and details is so overwhelming that thinking I understand things around me fully would be pretentious and arrogant.

I love connecting my new knowledge and understanding to the real world around me.

Biology is fascinating subject and coming from computer science and engineering background makes it even more peculiar. Organisms are essentially complex molecular “machines”, but they're machines without a designer. At least an intelligent one.

When I look at function and processes in a cell, I see chaos. The biological processes result from (semi)-random interactions of molecules, floating around, bumping into each other, forming groups or dissolving and interacting in various ways.

Yet there is an order within the cell, because only the interactions and molecules that are good at keeping the whole system going and propagating themselves remain. The randomness is filtered by the conditions of reality and environment. The natural laws of physics are “designing” and “guiding” the development.

There’s no intelligence involved however, there’s no foresight or sense of elegance and clean design. Organisms are overly convoluted bunch of chemical reactions interacting with each other and often tend to compensate for this chaos by robustness and quantity, so on the outside they seem to function very well with a sense of direction, function and purpose.

But apparent sense of purpose of organisms is just an illusion.

Biology has also some interesting relations to computer science (or vice versa). Ribosomes translating RNA to polypeptides, using a sequence of specific molecules as “instructions” are very like a Turing machine. The cells have various ways of communicating with other cells or environment, a protocol involving various other molecules that trigger whole series of reactions.

Some of the processes even inspire engineers when creating solutions for problems, for example using the principles of evolution in evolutionary programming to sift through a large set of possible solutions with fitness criteria over thousands simulated generations to get the very good ones.

Biology and Computer Science seem to have more in common than one would imagine.

And not just that, we can take the inspiration a step further, because engineers can do what nature generally can’t: Design with a foresight with some intended function and redesign certain parts when they become overly convoluted.

Nature can change the “design” of organisms only by small steps to changing conditions. Much like when you're developing software and your client keeps changing his mind all the time, the constant changes and modifications result in chaotic disorganized code. And we can see that in biology.

But programmer or engineer can do a great thing when this occurs: Erase the whole design and start anew, designing the system from the scratch to handle all the complexities it’s supposed to handle in the most elegant way possible. Unlike nature, he doesn't need to change the system in a series of small steps from something very simple to something more complex.

If life had a designer, it was a brain dead one. "Retarded design" seems to be more fitting than "Intelligent design".

But we can get inspired by biology and take it a step further using our intelligence, which we, funnily enough, obtained by this long process of random variations in biological processes over many generations of organisms. This reminds me of bootstrapping in computer science, where a simple program can initiate a much more complicated one.

I wonder about the day when we will be capable of creating a “super-organism”, a being much more efficient, intelligent and generally well-designed by an actual intelligent designer(s) compared to ourselves.

And to do that we have to understand the world we live in as best as we can. And that’s why I love learning about everything I can. It satisfies my curiosity about the past, how things developed, from galaxies, to intelligent life, about the present and inspires me about the possible future.

At the moment I am captivated by biology (hence the musing about it above), but I already found interesting books on geology, psychology, cosmology or quantum computing and I can't wait to get into these topics as well.

All this fuels me to get more books on various sciences, not just one and hopefully use that to contribute to building a fascinating future as much as I can during my life.

Well… enough rambling, back to learning and working on cool stuff :3

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