Brute-force learning: making the most of your always-on brain

The title comes from this post. I love the term: brute-force learning. And it seems to describe my attitude toward constant information, so I’m adopting it.

We’re all learning, all the time. We may be learning nothing more than that we really like sleeping or that Brangelina’s kids are really cute — but we’re still learning. The idea of brute-force learning is to make to most of that process, to barrage yourself with information in a productive way.

A constant stream of information can be a lot to take in, and sometimes you’ll want to slow it down or take a short break. And that’s OK. There are both small ways and large ways to implement BFL, and in my experience, it’s well worth it.

A few small ways to learn more:

  • Keep up with the news. Read newspapers and magazines. Listen to NPR. Subscribe to a hundred RSS feeds. Get a basic grasp of what’s going on at the local, state, national and international levels, and then focus on what interests you most. But don’t be afraid read/watch/hear something you wouldn’t usually — if the goal is to expand your mind, boxing yourself in isn’t going to cut it.
  • Learn a new word every day. Use it.
  • Ask questions.
  • Google everything. (People make fun of me for this, but I can’t tell you how much it’s taught me.)
  • Talk to people about their interests, especially if they’re different from yours. Find out why they like what they do. Sometimes, if they get on a roll about their passion for whatever, you wonder why you’ve never tried whatever yourself or what you missed about it when you did. It’s an inspiring feeling.
  • Question yourself. Question your motives, your tactics, your preconceptions. You might be justified; you might not. But explaining it to yourself keeps your thinking skills sharp.
  • Teach someone else. Share the information you’ve learned. And if you find you’re unable to explain it — well, it’s time to learn some more.

Those are fun. And they’re helpful. But even more important, I think, are the big BFL installations: projects. Sometimes projects start out as projects; sometimes you realize they’re projects partway through. Sometimes they’re explicit; sometimes they’re implicit. But projects are what make you a true brute-force learner and not just a trivia hound.

It’s hard to define a project, but it’s one of the things that keeps you up at night. Here are some of the ones I’m working on now:

  1. Cultivating an online persona and “personal brand.” I’m building this blog, keeping up on my Twitter, developing my FriendFeed and experimenting with social bookmarking. I’m owning my Google results and connecting everything. I’m working on what to say and where to say it.
  2. Reading up on Internet culture and business. I’m reading about the value and uses of social networking, business models for the Web, search engine optimization and other related topics. It’s broad, but everything’s tangentially related, and one thing leads to another.
  3. Reading up on world religions. I’ve recently started doing this again, but religion is a topic that’s fascinated me since I was in high school. Maybe junior high.
  4. Exploring Greensboro. There are so many things I want to do and places I want to see. I’ve heard great things about the Edward McKay bookstore. I’m hoping to see an old movie at the Carolina Theatre. And I just want to do some more wandering.
  5. Becoming an effective and somewhat active Wikipedia editor. Some people don’t approve of Wikipedia, but I think it has a lot of potential, especially for background information and as a jumping-off point for research. (On a side note, in most of upper-level academia, tertiary sources like encyclopedias are already off-limits. Why do professors feel the need to single out Wikipedia?) I thought I’d give back a little to the “community,” and I’m starting off small. The culture and protocols of Wikipedia are more complex than you’d think. My goal, eventually, is to expand at least one stub into a real article.
  6. Writing a manifesto. I haven’t actually started the “writing” yet. But I’ve been thinking about it. Inspired by things like this and this, I’m preparing to write down in black and white the things I believe in. This one gives me goosebumps.

Wow, this post is of epic length, and half of it’s basically about me. How self-important of me. So for your feedback, feel free to talk about you: What are your BFL strategies? How do you deal with information overload? What are your projects?

Obituaries are better in print?

The Washington Post has a blog post by obituary writer Matt Schudel going behind the scenes of its Michael Jackson obituary. This, in itself, is not a problem — in fact, some backstory posts fit well with the idea of radical transparency, of which I’m a fan.

Even Mr. Schudel’s praise of his co-writing colleague, though overly long and quoting too heavily from the obituary, is not offensive.

But in the very last paragraph, the post turns ugly (at least from my perspective), as Mr. Schudel turns it into a self-congratulation of print media:

The TV networks broke into regular programming, and snippets of Michael Jackson’s videos are all the place, but even in the diminished state that newspapers are in, sometimes it takes ink on paper to make sense of the inexplicable in our world.

But the Post is not alone. Chicago Tribune reporter Wailin Wong wrote this about how the news of Jackson’s death was reproted:

Gossip site TMZ.com, owned by Time Warner, was out in front with Jackson news and digital-era pipelines spread the word, as has happened before with other major celebrity news stories. But it was old media stalwarts that did the heavy lifting, with giants such as The Associated Press and the Web site of the L.A. Times, sister paper of the Chicago Tribune, reporting the fastest, most credible information on the emergency call for paramedics and ultimately his death.

Michael Jackson’s obituary is not about Michael Jackson, or his fans, or his legacy — it’s about making sure you, the reader, recognize the important role of newspapers and newspaper institutions! Now you know.

(Thanks to my friend Rick (@rouanr) for pointing out the Washington Post quote, though I think he gathered something entirely different from it. Chicago Tribune via Romenesko.)

News breaks on Twitter, but *you’re* probably not breaking it

Many social-media and news people have, in the past year, expressed their excitement about the news-breaking and news-spreading capabilities of Twitter. It’s true that Twitter is extremely over-hyped, but it would be foolish to deny that Twitter is how a lot of people first heard about the disputed election in Iran or about the return of S.C. Gov. Sanford or about Michael Jackson’s death — as a certified Twitterholic, I’ve been known to first hear news there myself.

That said, most people are not breaking news on Twitter or even spreading recently broken news to people who haven’t heard. And some Twitterers are OK with that, content to add a thoughtful analysis or a snarky comment about a news item. But a lot of people are accidentally clogging the pipes with old news.

To be fair, what counts as “new news” is a much narrower category today than it was just five years ago. Nowadays, if you’re two hours behind, you’re out of touch on Twitter.

These people are almost 18 hours behind (screenshot at 11:36 a.m.):

Picture 1

Is it fair to criticize people for not knowing about an event when not even 24 hours have passed? Probably not. After all, not everyone is a news junkie, and not everyone is glued to the Internet at all times.

That being said, Twitter is not the place to share a declarative news event a half-day later. How do you decide that something has been overexposed? Most of the links I share on Twitter are features or analysis, but when I do share news-news, I usually run a quick search to see how many times it’s been mentioned. If there are two or more pages of results, or if I’ve gotten e-mail notifications from the New York Times or Washington Post, I usually don’t treat it as news. (My criteria might be too harsh, depending on your Twitter social circle. How do you define “new news”? Let me know in the comments.)

At this point when it’s no longer “news,” you need to add analysis: You might share how Michael Jackson’s death affected you. You might recount your earliest or clearest MJ memory. If you’re into black humor, you might even make a borderline-offensive joke.

Although this, proving that nothing is original, might be taken as a cautionary tale in Twitter jokedom:

Picture 2

Thoughts?