Learning vs training

It's very easy to conflate learning and training. I'm not sure if this is because they're both ways of increasing your capability, or because it's convenient to pretend they're equivalent so you can do whichever you find easier. Both, probably.

Learning is a detached intellectual process: to learn, you step back from the activity itself in order to analyse it. This stops you from getting bogged down in the details and reason about the space in abstract. It's a process that provides knowledge and understanding: learning means you know things you didn't know before, but also means you in some sense grasp the structure, connection, or meaning of those things.

Training is an embodied practical process: to train, you dive into the activity and perform it in order to improve at it. Here, the details aren't irrelevant: they're the entire point. You might use abstraction to determine what to train, but training itself is an abstraction-free zone. It's a process that provides skill and intuition: you are able to do something you didn't do before, and, even without reasoning about it, you just have a kind of sense of how it will go.

These two things are not substitutes. You can't learn skills any more than you can train knowledge. If you try to use learning in place of training, you'll end up with a theoretical understanding that you have no ability to execute. You can study music for years and still have no idea what to do when you pick up a guitar. The theory can tell you how your hands should move, but not how to move your hands; they're your hands, so only you can do that.

If you try to use training in place of learning, it's no better. You end up stuck on a plateau, trying and trying again with no substantial improvement. Why? Is it because you just need to try harder? No, most likely it's that you need to try something different. Knowing what to do is an intellectual process, not a practical one, and it requires a higher understanding you can't get until you stop practising and start thinking.

But even if we know there is a difference, I think the temptation will always be there to train when we should learn, or learn when we should train. That's nothing more complex than habit and inertia. You spend a lot of time learning, you get better at learning, you get used to learning. When you need to train, you're comparatively bad at it, so you compensate by learning more. That works up until it doesn't, and then you're stuck with deeply unbalanced development.

Which means the problem with learning vs training is that it's easy to understand the difference between the two, but far more difficult to put it into practice.

Womblin' 5: The Adventures of Tom Wombledrill

Every now and again while walking around, I stumble across some discarded hardware that deserves a second chance at life. I remember when my Dad told me as a kid "If you want to womble some hardware, make a noise like a screwdriver. Then when the hardware comes by you womble it." Works pretty good until you try to figure out what kind of noise a screwdriver makes.

In the happy little treehouse today, a double feature: this slightly-long-in-the-tooth Makita "BHP460" 24v NiMH cordless drill and its positively sabre-toothed great grandfather, a Lightburn "502A" dual-speed corded drill. Drills

You know the, uh... rules, fellas. I want a nice clean bout. No gouging, no milling, protect your eyes and ears at all times, and if you need to press that hard you should really sharpen or replace the bit because you're just going to wear out the motor if you keep that up. Cordless drill with cover off

The Makita only had a few front and side screws to descrew and the case popped right off. Inside was an ode to Japanese minimalism: just a planetary gear assembly, a brushed DC motor, a trigger, and a little battery connector. I believe it was the famous Japanese emperor Sun Tzu who said "perfection is achieved, not when you have nothing to add, but when you stop trying to sprinkle Eastern mysticism on totally unrelated stuff", adding, "seriously, what does medieval combat have to do with your situation? Are you listening to yourself right now?" Cordless drill planetary gears

Like generations of noble Samurai before me, I doffed my fedora and sliced the planetary gear assembly from the motor in one devastating stroke. If you're following along at home, be sure to accidentally drop tiny gears everywhere because they roll exceptionally well and it's a fun game to try to find them again. Cordless drill trigger and MOSFET

The trigger revealed something interesting, though: what are all those extra wires for? And what's that stuck on the back of the motor there? Could it be... a MOSFET? It is! A big beefy 2SK2690. That trigger mechanism isn't some basic switch, but a highly woke and intellectual pulse wave generator. I had to check it out, so I phoned a friend. Cordless drill PWM waveform

And by friend I of course mean oscilloscope. Check it out! That's a 2.5KHz pulse wave, and even though I only ran it at an anaemic 12 volts it was still surprisingly studly. Nice motor, even nicer trigger mechanism. Lightburn 502A side view

So I was excited to see what the ole dog had to say. I actually found a pretty spectacular catalogue page that dates it to sometime in the 60s or 70s. This thing is half a century old, weighs about 5kg, and looks like it was stolen from Flash Gordon's toolshed. It's amazing. Lightburn 502A top view

Here's a nice shot of the nameplate, speed switch, and a spirit level that I can only assume is full of a 1970s-safety-compliant mix of mercury, arsenic, and malted asbestos. So far so good, let's open it up and see what's inside. Lightburn 502A insides

Mother of god. That's some nasty grease. I tried to block out the smell of lithium and concentrate on that awesome trigger switch. Sure, that young switch might be firmer, more environmentally conscious, and able to get off the couch without grunting, but can it give you the satisfying mechanical clunk of a trigger clearly designed for launching Sidewinders at the commies? Lightburn 502A motor

Much scraping later I excavated the rotor, stator and brushes from their liquefied dinosaur graves. I considered trying to get it to run, but I figured it might be better not to mess around with unearthed mains tools of questionable provenance. Its drilling days are probably well behind it, but I think it could have a fulfilling retirement as a prop laser gun. Just need to clear all that grease out. Lightburn 502A and a bunch of awful grease


What I found most interesting about these two drills was how they were totally different designs, but both so simple. I see this as a great example of engineers fitting the solution to the domain. Because the motor type matched the power source, there was no need for power management. Both drills had speed control, but electronic speed control used to be complex and expensive, so papa drill just did it with a gear selector. The modern drill is lightweight, perfect for the modern typist-handyman, while the classic is solid steel, suited for both drilling and post-apocalyptic shelter combat.

So, all in all, two drills both alike in dignity, from ancient sludge to newfangled machinery, whose greasy parts my greasy hands can't clean. Seriously, this shit is everywhere. If you'll excuse me, I need a shower. And then my shower needs a shower.

Moral load

In a world with only good people, would you still need laws?

Okay, sure, we need to define some things. By good I don't mean some impossible god and/or trolley driver who can solve any moral dilemma, just a regular person who, faced with a moral decision, would always do what the law would have them do anyway. It's illegal to steal, but who cares? They know it's wrong to steal so they won't do it.

Obviously, there can be unjust laws, in which case breaking the law might be morally good, or at least not bad. There can also be moral decisions that the law doesn't cover (like whether to donate to charity) and laws for things that aren't moral decisions (like standard license plate formats or whatever). Those might be interesting, but let's ignore them for the sake of this argument.

So if we consider just the laws that are intended to enforce generally-agreed moral behaviour, and take a society full of people so moral that none of them would ever act immorally, do those laws still need to exist?

You might think the answer is no, but I'd like to make an argument for yes, based on the idea that, much like making a decision between ice cream flavours is effort, making moral decisions is also effort. I'll have a chocolate sorbet, waffle cone, and paid for, not stolen, thanks.

It probably doesn't feel like you're deciding not to steal whenever you pay for something, but I think that's exactly because we live in a society with laws against stealing. When there's a large enough cost for an action, it just disappears from your candidate set of choices, the same way you (hopefully) don't think "maybe they have different ice cream flavours at the other shops, I should check them too".

In other words, though the main goal of laws that enforce moral behaviour is, in fact, to enforce moral behaviour, they also have the side-effect of making it easier to engage in moral behaviour, because you can rule out certain immoral behaviour as infeasible or unreasonably costly without having to actually think it through. I think of this as decreasing your moral load: the effort it takes to make moral decisions.

In a world with imperfect moral agents, this is particularly important, because maybe a high enough moral load would cause people to stop making good moral decisions. Even in moral utopia, though, nothing says the citizens never want to act badly, just that they don't. Perhaps the moral load costs them in other ways: making their other decisions worse, using up their time and energy, or even just making them unhappy, which is pretty rude to do to perfectly moral agents.

So perhaps the world with only good people would get together and decide to establish a totally useless legal system that only exists as a peculiar kind of economic specialisation: a centralised conscience that allows everyone else to get on with other things.


I've been thinking about an idea inspired by some recent AliExpress interactions. It's very difficult to do general-purpose language-to-language translation, but what about special-purpose concept-to-language translation? Rather than writing in your language and trying to translate into another language, you could instead use a graphical interface to construct what you want to say, which constructs sentences in both languages simultaneously.

You'd start with the agents (ie subjects & objects in the statement), move on to things you want to say about them or actions you want to describe etc. So the top level might be "a statement concerning me and you", followed by "a statement expressing my feelings towards you", followed by "I like you".

There'd be some complexities, for example "a statement expressing my feelings about <another statement>" would require creating and reasoning about another statement, but I think you can solve that by making statements themselves able to be agents in the scene. In other words, you could express your feelings about another statement the same way you would express your feelings about a person.

The other thing is that in many situations there would be a complexity explosion for certain kinds of essential vocabulary, like concrete nouns and verbs. These can probably be handled by just selecting them from a big list. However, specialty nouns (ie, the name of a particular product, local celebrity, or obscure Yoga pose) would be infeasible to enumerate, so I think you'd need some kind of free text entry for those.

The key to the idea, though, is to reduce the degrees of linguistic freedom in a natural way. Having a hundred ways to express the same thing is great for creativity, but bad when all you really want is to get something done with words. A lot of communication is purely functional or transactional, like in that recent Google Duplex demo, and this seems like it could be an interesting approach to transactional communication

The set of constructions doesn't have to be universal: the complexity can be cut down a lot by only including domain-relevant ones. And by constructing in your own language at the same time as the target language, you can check that what you're saying makes sense even if it's not your words.

Womblin' 4: Womble Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Every now and again while walking around, I stumble across some discarded hardware that deserves a second chance at life. Hardware comes in many shapes and sizes, but whether you're big or small, round or angular, shiny or matte, you should know that someone out there sees the beauty inside you, and wants to harvest it from your recently discarded body.

Getting the hose again today, this Brother "MFC-8880DN" laser printer/scanner combo: Laser printer

Oh my god, Becky. Look at that scanner. It is so big. It looks like one of those office guys' printers. You know, who understands those office guys? They only use it because it looks like a reasonable price-performance point for the small to medium enterprise, kay? I mean, that scanner. It's just so big. Laser printer with the feeder removed

I started at the top, beheading the paper feeder to extract the sweet, sweet macguffins inside. This appeared to be comprised of an intricate plastic gear assembly that I put aside for later, some solenoids, and that board down the bottom left which gives the distinct impression that someone owed a favour to their brother-in-law at the nearby connector factory. Laser printer scanner assembly

With the paper feeder and scanner bed removed, I got to meet the big beautiful scanner assembly. I don't really do a noteworthy amount of scanning, but I do have a deep and enduring fondness for linear actuators, especially ones this large. Hopefully with a couple more of these I can put together a fun plotter or CNC finger mangling machine of some kind. Laser printer side panel

I tried to keep working methodically down the printer, but I got kinda stuck on the top at this point so I started wailing incoherently at the sides. In due course, they fell off, possibly out of pity, but hey I'll take what I can get. This was the printer's good side, containing the main control board and drive assembly. Laser printer drive guts

Some carefully crafted insults aimed at the psychological weak points of the drive assembly totally annihilated its self-confidence, causing it to break down into a big brushless drive motor, yet more solenoids, and oh so very many plastic gears. Laser printer laser module

With my spirits renewed by the heady thrill of plastic drivetrain disassembly, I went back to the top of the printer and discovered that the power to remove it was inside me (and inside some hitherto undiscovered plastic tabs) all along. My confidence was rewarded with this big container full of lasers. The label warns against "defeating the interlock", which sounds so heroic as to be un-warn-against-able. Laser printer paper feed plastic gear assembly

I also went back to disassemble the whole paper feed gear assembly, just because it looked so cool. I have no idea why you need that many gears to move paper into a scanner, but I bet a printer gear train expert somewhere could justify each and every one of them. I also got a truly excessive number of little metal rods and rollers and things. Laser printer part pile

By this point I was really beginning to realise the scale of a modern printer/scanner. This wasn't even one of the huge commercial-scale ones, and still I ended up with all of this stuff. Highlights include 6(!) solenoids, 2 steppers, 1 BLDC drive motor, exactly one zillion optoswitches, a bunch of PCBs including one at the bottom-right whose purpose I do not understand at all, and of course plasticgearpocalypse 2018. Laser printer plastic junk pile

Oh, and not to mention, a knee-high pile of plastic junk. Don't do printers, kids.