Learning things (by alaric)
I love learning new things. I'm usually struggling to find new things to learn; the last fun bit of computer science I learnt about was Bloom filters, and they didn't hold my attention for long. The last really fun bit of computer science I learnt about would be content-addressed storage, and I'm still having fun with that, but I can't find any more to learn about it. I'm having to make stuff up myself, which is rewarding in its own way, but much harder work.
Of course, this past week I've been learning TIG welding, which has been awesome. It's been a while since a whole new field of things to learn has opened up to me, and it's nice to work on a new class of physical skills. My routine physical learning is my weekly Krav Maga training, but I crave variety. My lust for learning benefits more from intensive two-week courses than an hour a week for years. I'd love to go and take a proper welding course at a college, but I can't spare the time; I have to practice when I can in the evenings and weekends. I'm getting good at horizontal/flat welds, but I'd like to master vertical and overhead (because if I work on anything large, such as the festival trolley, in my cramped workshop, I often can't rotate everything around to be nice and flat). Also, suspecting that the trouble I was hitting with stick welding is at least partly to do with the limitations of my old cheap AC welder, I want to use my new welder's capability to do nicely regulated DC stick welding and see if I can learn to do good stick welds. And I'd like to get some practice in welding aluminium and stainless steel, as I have applications for both of those.
So that's physical skills sorted, for now. Mentally, I've been learning how antennas work. There's no particular reason for this; it's something that's always puzzled me somewhat, but what's triggered the recent interest was a birthday gift from an old friend, of the ARRL handbook, which goes into some detail; and then meeting an interesting guy at a Cheltenham Hackspace Open Evening who turns out to design broadcast transmission antennas for a living, who answered a load of questions left open by the books. I still want to get a better intuitive grasp of the quantities involved - how many volts and amps appear on an antenna feeder line? What field strengths in volts per meter would you expect to find at what distance from an antenna? Does that relate to a corresponding magnetic field strength in tesla?
I've also been learning Morse code. This is quite interesting. I thought I'd memorise that table of dots and dashes and that'd be that, but it turns out that this technique tends to maroon people at slow morse speeds, as they mentally record a sequence of dots and dashes then mentally look it up in the table to find the letter. To get fast Morse skills, which tend to tend towards one or two characters per second, you need to learn to recognise the sound - "di di dah" - as a letter directly. So I've been using a combination of the Farnsworth and Koch methods to learn Morse; growing my "vocabulary" a letter at a time, and using an enlarged inter-character spacing. The latter is because I was tending to find that I'd hear a character, and write it down, but while I was writing it another would have been and gone, which was confusing. I want to reduce that inter-character gap, but I might wait until I've learnt the entire alphabet via the Koch method, so I can mentally be writing entire words rather than concentrating on a letter at a time - with a reduced alphabet, Morse training tends to involve writing down random gibberish (so far, I know M, K, R, U, S and O; at least the old Nokia SMS beep now makes sense to me... di-di-dit dah-dah di-di-dit!). Again, I have no particular reason to learn Morse - I learnt it as a child, but then forgot it through not using it, which had always faintly irritated me. I've often wondered about using it as a crude interface to tiny embedded computers, although it'd be frustratingly slow for most uses. The usual reason to learn Morse is to do CW amateur radio; that's an idea I've toyed with in the past, but being able to talk to random people over radio holds little appeal (I can talk to random people over the Internet much more cheaply and easily). However, I'd be interested in getting an amateur radio licence as a mental challenge, or as a means to some other project that requires radio communications capabilities, so I might go for a course if one comes up at a good time. I'd like to be able to operate a radio transmitter in an emergency situation, too.
I love to learn things, but I feel sad about not using the skills I pick up. Ok, I don't want to use my Krav skills - they tend to involve hurting people, and are only useful when already under danger of harm coming to me or people I'm protecting, which is nothing to be happy about. But I practice welding because want to make metal things. But by no means do I only learn things when I have a need for them; I learn stuff because it looks interesting and the opportunity arises, then I try and find applications. I've already been excitedly thinking about how aluminium welding will simplify the construction of one of my old back-burner projects - making a hiking staff out of aluminium tubing, that has a stack of lithium-ion batteries inside it at the base, a computer with a keyer in the middle so I can interact with it, and a high-brightness LED lantern on the top so I can have a variety of illumination options (white all around, white forwards only, red all around, etc). I had been working out complex systems of brackets and bolts to hold it all together, but TIG welding it would be much easier, neater, lighter, and stronger. Now, I had considered having a button that could be used to strobe the lights for Morse emergency signalling - and the logical next step was to include a co-axial semiconductor laser in the top that could shine a bright beam for signalling in Morse (and, at a pinch, be used to light fires; you can get 2W laser modules off the shelf these days, and all those lithium ion batteries are going to be able to source a lot of power...). So perhaps I should get a ham licence, and make the staff in sections joined together with insulators, and make it be a two-meter band dipole antenna (which is one meter long) with a CW transceiver inside, so it can also send and receive Morse by radio? That might be fun, and not much extra hardware as it'll already have a decent ARM microprocessor inside.
For now, though, I'd better focus on finishing off my server chassis (which I'm building my welding skills up towards), and make a new welding bench (mine is curved, and wobbles because the floor is uneven and the legs are too weak), and do some metalwork that's needed around the house... I'd like to do some more focussed Lojban study, too; right now I'm just picking up vocabulary by looking for words for things I don't know yet when I need them, but re-reading the reference grammar to remind myself of bits I rarely use would be good!