Ming the Mechanic:
The little book on how to do anything

The NewsLog of Flemming Funch
 The little book on how to do anything2004-08-02 09:50
4 comments
picture by Flemming Funch

"dewf" mentions in a comment a concept I've often thought about.
I've always wanted to see websites which have a hierachical introduction to topics. This is done to some extent now with hyperlinks, but generally you get a table of contents and then the details. Books try to do this to some extent, but a lot of times, they are more linear than hierarchical. Funny that we learn mathematics and chemistry and such from the bottom-up, instead of top-down.

What I'm thinking is that a how-to or informative book should start with one paragraph which tries to explain the whole gist, then maybe a 1 page explanation of the very same thing, then a 10 page explanation.
Personally, I much prefer to learn that way. Give me a paragraph first that gives the core ideas. Then I know the key importances, and I'll have a mental framework that further details can fit into. But it is usually not how learning materials are presented. So often you have to wade through hundreds of pages before you get the simplicity, if you even ever find it. And so often you'll just keep it to yourself, once you've found it, as a reward for working hard at discovering it.

Several times I've had to install a payment gateway between a shopping cart program and a credit card processor. The first one was CyberCash. They gave you 20MB of information to explain how to do it. Many hundreds of pages, in dozens of files. Most people said at the time that it on the average took a month to install it. But, really, what I ended up with after digesting it was 5 lines of PHP code that did the trick. It was really very simple, and I could have done it in 5 minutes, but the simplicity was a secret, so it took a lot of work.

The way you sometimes get it is by running into somebody who's a master in a certain subject, and after dinner, when you'e built up a bit of trust between you, he might casually share one of the core simplicities of his subject. Something that suddenly makes it simple, rather than complicated, for you. Something that would have made all the difference if you had known it earlier.

Not just any simple one-paragraph piece of information will do. The key is that it needs to be action oriented. It needs to enable you to do something. Actually enable you as much as possible with the smallest piece of information possible. Maximum knowledge exchange in the smallest unit.

Let's say I wanted to learn to speak Esperanto. Random House's dictionary will give me a good one-paragraph definition of what it is:
an artificial language invented in 1887 for international use, based on word roots common to the major European languages.
Well, that's good. Tells me what it is. If somebody mentions it, I know that it isn't a fruit or anything, and I can pretend I know about it. But it tells me zero about how to actually do it. OK, in this case it is unusually simple, so there actually are people who've provided what I'm asking for. The sixteen simple rules of Esperanto. There it is in one page. If we put it in one paragraph, it might be:
Nouns all end in -o in singular and -oj for plural. Add an -n if it is the object. La is the definite article. Adjectives end in -a, adverbs in -e. Personal pronouns: mi, vi, li, ŝi, ĝi, si, ni, vi, ili, oni, meaning, I, you, he, she, it, oneself, we, you, they, they/one/people. Verbs have these endings: -as; past time, -is; future time, -os; conditional mood, -us; command mood, -u; infinitive mood, -i. Use the word ne to make things negative. You can put the words in the order that suits you. Everything is pronounced at written. Accent always on second-to-last syllable.
And that's about it. You'd need some vocabulary, obviously, but there's the majority of the grammar rules.

OK, French would be harder. But I'd kind of like to start with some kind of inventory. Like:
There are 9 different types of words: nom, d├ęterminant, adfectif qualicatif, verbe, pronom, pr├ęposition, adverbe, conjonction de coordination, interjection. Verbs are conjugated in 3 main groups, for infinitives ending in -er, -ir, -re. There are 6 different modes of verbes: indicatif, subjonctif, imperatif, conditionnel, infinitif, participe. 19 different tenses. The language has 18 consonant sounds, 16 vowel sounds, and 3 semi-vowels.
OK, takes work, and doesn't really enable you to do it, but it gives some kind of framework. Some expert could do a good job there. But I'd be hard pressed to find this kind of overview anywhere. Like one paragraph overviews of all languages.

Simple how-to information would be useful in any field, of course. But there are various fields where it maybe is more readily available, or where the need for it is more recognized. A Survival Manual is obvious. You go into the wilderness, and you can manage carrying one book that might tell you how to get out of various situations you'll run into. How to find water, how to navigate, how to know which mushrooms you can eat.

Obviously in home improvement. There will be books with nice color diagrams and step-by-step instructions for how to do your own plumbing or how to put up drywalls.

Look at this site, that I incidentally did the database for: Bagelhole, collecting low-tech sustainability how-to's.

Now, then, what would be involved in making a platform for gathering how-to's from any field, organized from simple and short towards gradually longer and more detailed versions? Kind of like wikipedia, except for the multiple levels, and the focus on enabling action-oriented how-to information.

Simple enough to make a site organized like that. But would it sort itself out simply by being a wiki that people could edit? Or does it take something more complex to be able to select the best simplicities?

A problem is of course that not everybody will agree on what the one-paragraph version should be. So maybe alternatives need to compete and be rated. Maybe there needs to be different versions depending on what one is really trying to do with the subject.

Mainly it all needs to be available in a unified structure.

How does one make metal? How does one find water? I'm sure the information is on the web. But where's the one-paragraph summary?

When people's cars break down while driving, most of them get out and open the hood and poke around. What do they actually do, and what is the best practice for actually fixing something? I don't know, I'm a software guy. I'd like the one-paragraph or one-page version, please.

If it were a book, I'd want the book that tells me briefly how to do just about anything. It is probably better suited to be a website, as I'd want to drill down into further detail if the first paragraph doesn't do it for you. But I'd like those first paragraphs to be good enough that it would be meaningful to carry them all around with me. Or to look them up via my cellphone.


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4 comments

10 Aug 2004 @ 06:37 by Dewayne Mikkelson @156.153.254.10 : Exactly
"Give me a paragraph first that gives the core ideas. Then I know the key importances, and I'll have a mental framework that further details can fit into."

That is it in a nutshell! Flemming I have found that Google can do something along these lines if you get "just the right" Search parameters. I have been doing this quite a bit recently whenever I have to do something in programming that I have never done before. Of course getting "just the right" Search parameters can take quite a while.  



29 Dec 2004 @ 11:17 by Norma @81.211.110.171 : Not just for finding specific info
It would also be great for an "overview of everything".  


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