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Sideways Looks #4: Learning about Learning, also Birthday

Updated: Aug 1, 2021

Hello you,

Welcome to the fourth Sideways Looks newsletter. This week, my birthday! Also more importantly, approaches to learning. Even more importantly, a pub recommendation.

As always, thanks for your subscriptions and nice comments. Please do pass on to any friends, colleagues, lovers, enemies, or anyone else who may be interested. Previous newsletters can be found here.


Thought for the Week: Learning about Learning

I’d gone into my first-year undergraduate physics revision class feeling pretty good about myself. I had diligently spent the Easter holidays going through all the lecture notes, typing out condensed versions. I’d then gone through those and condensed them again into handwritten memos in a series of tiny notebooks.

The supervisor looked horrified. ‘I hope you still did some practice questions?’ he asked. I had not. I did badly in the exams.

With the benefit of hindsight (and more sleep), there was a lot wrong with my approach. Firstly, solving science problems – like a lot of other tasks – is a skill, not a memory game. I was trying the equivalent of learning a language by memorising a dictionary. There was also an element of compulsiveness; once I’d started copying out lecture notes, it seemed stupid not to finish them (see: sunk cost fallacy). It was also a displacement activity: writing out notes feels virtuous, but it doesn’t actually stretch the brain too much. But without the exams, I may never have realised the folly.

Some years later the civil service introduced me to 70:20:10 learning. This suggests that 70% of learning should come from tasks, 20% from developmental relationships, and 10% from dedicated learning activities. In my revision I had maxed out on the 10%. Since then I’ve focused on the 70%. One example: I was bad at coding during my undergraduate. So when I had to learn to code for my PhD I focused on just creating stuff I needed, rather than learning coding from the ground up (despite great free resources available). This approach worked much better - and given my PhD took nearly four years anyway, it’s probably good I didn’t give myself more to do.

But task-focused learning comes with risks. As I discussed in the first of these newsletters – and as a certain Dominic Cummings has suggested at somewhat greater length this week – a relentless focus on what is immediately in front of you can bring problems. It can mean you don’t fully understand the field, discover best practice, or really challenge how you are doing things. When you’re a lone PhD student, you maybe produce some shonky code. For many other decisions, that can have severe knock-on effects for other people.

I’ve had an interesting week of re-learning technical stuff I used to do in PhD and think-tank days, in particular topic modelling and network analysis (more on those in a later newsletter). This time, I’m focussing less on just producing stuff and much more on understanding the theory behind it.

But that’s become quite hard: it feels very unproductive, and sometimes even overwhelming, to absorb swathes of information which might potentially be useful sometime. Without a task, I find it hard to know whether I’ve learned ‘enough’. Doing more of that 10% learning might also be making the 70% harder. Learning more ways to accomplish a task can, paradoxically, produce indecision and make you wonder if you are actually doing it the best way.

But ultimately, learning to answer those issues is a skill in itself. And it’s a great luxury to have time and space to focus on developing that skill. It’s a luxury afforded in a few workplaces; some armies give officers extended periods away from the field for learning, and sometimes people do academic courses alongside their jobs (huge respect to them). But I’m lucky enough to be doing so without having to study late nights, or actually be in an army. And I’m wondering if - and how - that luxury could be afforded to more people.

Fun fact about: Birthdays

It’s my birthday on Monday. I shall celebrate by gifting you my favourite birthday fact. In 2017, Finland celebrated its 100th birthday (i.e. independence from Russia). But what do you get a country for its birthday? Maybe a mountain?

Mount Haiti sits on the Norwegian-Finnish border. A Norwegian geophysicist called Bjørn Geirr Harsson campaigned, to some acclaim, to move the border so Finland would get a new highest peak. Unfortunately, it turns out moving borders is legally extremely hard. But it’s the thought that counts.

Relatedly – I had heard previously that when Estonia became independent in 1991, following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Finland offered it an old telephone network. Estonia declined, built its own, and became one of the most technologically advanced small states in Europe. However, sadly, I’ve not been able to find any actual evidence for this memory.

What I can tell you is the President of Finland has an excellent dog called Lennu who is very bad at waiting patiently during gift-giving ceremonies, as evidenced throughout this article.


Self-indulgent recommendation, but hey it’s nearly my birthday. I entered an essay competition called the Nine Dots Prize, answering the question “what does it mean to be young in an ageing world”. The prize is $100,000 and a book deal. I wrote an essay about whether world run by 'adult politics' allows much room for 'youth politics', and how much that's a good or bad thing. I did not win. But the winning answer looks extremely interesting, and I had a great time writing the piece (especially given lockdown). More on that, including my essay, here.

The Wired Podcast had an interesting episode on people who are ‘Facebook famous’. Some good discussions on historical (if 5 years counts as history) and contemporary differences between platforms. Also an important point that amount of articles written by tech journalists about new platforms does not correlate to their actual popularity (Clubhouse being the key example they mention on the podcast).

The Financial Times did a couple of pieces on Team Biden’s economic theories, AKA ‘Bidenomics’. I particularly liked this one, which shows how old economic orthodoxies are being challenged and experimented upon in real time. (Paywalled but I have some shareable links available).

Finally, in the previous Sideways Looks I signed off by saying I was going to my first ‘inside pub’ of 2021. The pub in question was the Princess Louise in Holborn, one of my favourite pubs. It’s a Sam Smiths, so it does interesting beers at a good price. But also, it has a fun horseshoe shaped bar surrounded by lots of little ornate booths. Which are not only aesthetically pleasing, but also feel Covid secure. Having looked up the history of the pub, apparently the background of these so-called “snob screens” is not a particularly positive one - so nice to see them serving a more hygienic use today.

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