Learn the Thing – Introduction to Coding

Hi nerds!

Welcome to the first installment of Learn The Thing, a series that I hope will convince you that it is never too late, too early, too difficult, too time-consuming, or too tiring to learn something new.

Now, obviously when choosing to learn a new skill, the hope is that you’re learning something you already have an interest in, or are at least curious about. I will be the first to put my hand up and say that is is nigh on impossible to concentrate on something that you find unutterably boring. Obviously, we can’t always avoid such situations (compulsory philosophy papers, anyone?) but you aren’t here about that. You’re hear to see what I have to say about Learning The Thing.

So! The first thing that I decided to dedicate an installment of this series to is introductory coding. Completing an intro coding course is actually on my Impossible List, so this is a double whammy for me. I get to cross something off the List (eventually!), and I will also hopefully have an easier time understanding some of the more technical articles and papers that I come across in my pursuit of “academic expertise” in the area of cyber counterintelligence. Because, seriously? Some of that crap might as well be in Mandarin Chinese for all the sense it makes to me! European languages major here, and it shows.

However, the way I see it, I’m pretty alright at languages, and coding is just a series of languages with very specific use, meaning, and application. The rules for coding seem to be a lot stricter than the rules for languages, so at the very least I’m hoping I won’t need to become familiar with code slang. I’ve been meaning to do something about my total lack of understanding in this area for quite some time (hence, Impossible List item) and just never got around to it. Which, honestly, seems to be a pretty popular excuse for when we know we need to do something but don’t actually feel like taking the time out of our extraordinarily busy days to actually do it. And I’m not being ironic or sarcastic there, we are way too busy these days (I know I am) and there seems to be no end or rest in sight for most of us. I personally am still hoping to win the Lotto.

Eventually, that excuse gets old. And if you sit down and think about it, you do have time in your day. When you get home and spend an hour on YouTube watching makeup tutorials (ahem) and movie trailers (I can’t wait to see Thor: Ragnarok), or when you sit on the couch and watch three episodes on Netflix (Stranger Things ftw!), or the “power nap” that lasts from three to five pm, you do have time in your day. You’re gonna have to suck it up and sacrifice some of that nothingness in order to learn whatever skill it is that has been on your mind for a while.

Step 1: Research.

Do your research. Can what you want to learn be learned through online classes or resources? Or do you need to go to actual, physical classes? Is there some sort of community group near you that offers lessons in the skill you want to learn? Can it be learned from a book? Does the local library have an resources that you could use? Because I wanted to learn coding, I assumed that there would be multiple sources online to learn from and I was right; there are actually too many. Eventually, based on my own research, I narrowed it down to Khan Academy; Coursera; Skillshare; and Treehouse. Do you have any friends that could teach you, or at least point you in the direction of somebody that can? You might be surprised at just how extensive your communication networks can reach, if you only pull on a couple of strings and and ask a couple of people a couple of questions. When I decided to finally pull my head out of my ass and start learning to code, I posted one message on Facebook and sent one text message. I received no less than six responses, and several recommendations. One recommendation in particular was backed up by four separate parties who, as far as I know, did not know they were doing so. Thus I had my preferred educational source, and it wasn’t one I had found on my own: Code Academy.

Step 2: Sign up to the damn classes.

You know what you need to do to get started. Now, put your head down, dig in your heels and just get started. For me, that next step was to go to the Code Academy website and sign up. Not only is this website free to use (there is a paid premium version, but so far the intro classes are legit and thorough), but people I trust recommended this site to me, as mentioned above. I trust my friends and their contacts, so Code Academy it was. Having signed in, there was actually nothing else to worry about. The page honest to Loki said something along the lines of “we recommend you start with this course” and there was only one option on the page. Awesome. That’s the one I started with. They know better than I.

Step 3: Decide the frequency of your study sessions.

Don’t bail on this. While the hardest thing to do is actually begin, the next most difficult step is actually committing to a timetable or a time frame, depending on the structure of your course or the skill set you want to pick up. I personally try to do at least five minutes of coding study per day. It doesn’t seem like much (it isn’t), and it may not seem worth it but it is. Don’t try and rush through your lessons and get through the material as fast as you can. That way leads to madness and not really being able to do anything once you’ve “finished”. The course I started with is “Learn HTML and CSS” which I’m sure seems very basic to you computer nerds out there, but I legitimately did not even know what those acronyms stood for when I started. My first day was spent learning what the hell HTML and CSS even were, and then what they were used for. HyperText Markup Language and Cascading Style Sheets, in case you were wondering. Go team!

Step 4: Keep to your damn schedule.

Don’t be a dick. Future you won’t appreciate it. You want to learn this skill, or you wouldn’t have gotten this far. You’ve already signed up, and committed to learning. So learn. You don’t have to do five minutes a day. You could do twenty minutes three days a week or an hour on Thursday evenings. That’s up to you, but keep to the damn schedule you’ve set yourself. I added coding to my Habitica task list, to remind me that I need to do it but also because there’s this psychological imperative whereby I don’t want my little avatar dude to suffer for my poor decisions, so I have to do coding or I’m causing him to suffer and that’s not cool. In addition, eventually this addition to your schedule will become a habit, so integrated into your routine that you don’t need to actively force yourself to do something. This makes you resent the learning process a little less, and also eases the path to mastery a little by not making you regret your life decisions. Nobody regrets brushing their teeth (I truly hope), it’s just a fact of life. You do it (at least) twice a day because that’s just how we roll.

So there we are, my first post on how to Learn The Thing.

As of Monday, 2th August 2017 I have completed 21% of the Code Academy course on intro HTML and CSS. Am I going to become a developer? Unlikely. I’m not doing this for a career change, although as it turns out many people do, and more power to them! I mainly want to be able to understand my own area of research from a different perspective, and maybe even work out how to translate computer geek to standard, something which has thus far eluded me and resulted in a lot of blank stares. One can only hope.

Is there anything you particularly want to learn, but have put off for far too long? Anything you have just started learning, or resources you think are really worthwhile for the learner to have in their arsenal? Leave a comment below, or send me a message through the Contact Me page!

Stay weird xxx

KIT System 1 – Notes on Readings

Hi nerds!

The first installment of Keep It Together is dedicated to taking notes on readings, whether that be books, chapters, papers, articles, whatever.

One of the most important parts of developing good systems and habits as a student is understanding precisely what it is that you are reading, and developing a good note-taking system is, I think, a crucial part of that. The most crucial part is of course the reading, which I have a separate KIT for.

Now, I’m not going to sit here and harp on about my excellent note-taking skills. Learning is a process of constant evolution, and my note-taking style has changed a multitude of times over the years that I have been a tertiary student. However, in the last few years there are some base rules that I have developed in my own note-taking. These have lasted longer than previous methods I have used, and as they continue to make sense to me I shall continue to use them. This is important; do NOT use a system, any system, that you struggle to understand or remember. That way leads to frustration and madness, and usually to really crappy notes. Wasted time all around, not to mention the inevitable headache and whining about spending all that time and learning precisely zip.


Tip the first: pick a system that works for you, that you can remember, that is easy for you to use and understand.

Tip the second: stick to that system. I speak from experience when I say that there is nothing worse, when prepping for an exam, than flipping through notes that start out formatted and written one way and then just gradually devolve into bullet points that don’t make sense even to the person that wrote them. You know that feeling, that you’ll know what you were talking about when you read it again later? That voice in your head that says “I don’t need to write anything else here. I’ve done the reading, I will know what that refers to, so it is a waste of time to write anything else here.” That voice is a damn liar. You absolutely will not remember what that three-word bullet point means six weeks after writing it, three hours before your exam. Stick to your system: you settled on it because it has value, so don’t get lazy about being serious at school.

Tip the third: flag the important bits with a post-it as read, and take your notes after you finish the reading. For me at least, I gain a better understanding of the material if I read all the way through first, and then go back to the important bits. That way, I can mull over the concepts I flagged as important on the first go round, thereby increasing my information uptake and understanding. Then you take the notes, in your own words as much as possible. I do insert word-for-word sections in my notes if I think something is particularly important and I cannot personally think of a better way to articulate a point, but try not to overdo it. The act of thinking about what you are taking notes on helps to cement that knowledge into your brain.

Tip the fourth: pick a colour system. Yes, I highlight my own notes. It has actually become invaluable to me as a PhD student when I am looking for something specific in the notes I have taken. There is nothing quite so infuriating as being absolutely, positively CERTAIN you wrote down that thing about that other thing and then being completely incapable of locating it in your notes. If you have a working colour-code, this task becomes so. Much. Easier.

As you can see in the gallery above, there are four colours that form my primary code: pink, orange, blue and green. Each of these colours performs a different function, and indicate to me their content.

Pink indicates (for the most part!) a new section or, as in the example notes above, a new chapter. This lets me know that my notes are about to shift focus to a new topic. Sounds stupid, but this sort of indicator is actually really useful and a lot of the time it is overlooked.

Orange indicates an incident, operation, or event that I think is of interest. As a cyber scholar, there are a LOT of incidents, operations and events that are of (academic) interest. This just allows me to skim through my notes for particular cases, and then I can read the notes surrounding them.

Blue indicates important concepts and terms. Again, because I am a cyber scholar there is a lot to learn, and very often I come across terms or concepts which are new to me. Blue highlights let me know that these are concepts that are important to understand.

Green indicates actors or parties that are active in cyberspace, or potentially have an interest or stake in an incident, operation or event. This familiarizes me with the names of individuals, groups, agencies and militaries that are or have been active in cyberspace. Knowing these names can help you make connections you may not otherwise have seen as you move through the body of literature for your topic.

Other colours like yellow or purple are used here and there, but not in a systemic fashion; sometimes, just to emphasize something that doesn’t really fall into one of my system categories, which I think is still worth highlighting.

Tip the fifth: Save your work. I know these are only notes, but for the love of little green apples save them somewhere. I personally use Evernote and Evernote Scannable; I scan my notes once finished and save them to a notebook in Evernote. The photos above are just photos taken with my phone, and if you don’t want to use a scanner app go right ahead and just take pictures and email them to yourself or whatever. The point is, just friggin save your notes. Imagine what an absolute waste of time this would all have been if they get lost, stolen, or destroyed. Then where will you be when exam prep rolls around?! That’s right, you’ll be just fine because you did as I said and you saved your notes somewhere.

As an academic and a long-time student, I know this all sends like a hell of a lot of work, especially when you sit down and think about actually doing this for each and every assigned or important reading that you do. HOWEVER: it is going to be useful to you, and not just to exam prep. More and more often recently, I find myself turning to notes that I have taken over the past couple of years because they all of a sudden are pertinent to a new paper I am writing, or a proposal I am polishing, or better: I suddenly realize that a book or article I have notes on is actually the perfect reference for such-and-such section of my thesis. Huzzah! In addition, you may find that as you take these notes and break down the meaning the authors are trying to communicate, you will actually start percolating article ideas of your own. Understanding someone else’s work can lead you to further, publishable work of your own. That, my friends, makes all the effort of note-taking valuable far beyond exam preparation.

And as a bonus? You know stuff. Sort of the whole point of why you’re a student, isn’t it? To know stuff? All of this, all of the reading and the note-taking and the classes and the learning and the knowing stuff contributes to a foundation of knowledge that will eventually earn you the title of “expert in your field” that we Ph.D. candidates value so highly.

I hope this KIT system has helped you, or at least entertained you for the ten or so minutes this post took to read. If you do use this system or something like it, let me know in the comments or by sending me a message through the Contact Me page; I would love to hear from you!

Stay weird xxx