Machiko Yasuda

Random access memories: On learning

How my mom learned how to make California rolls, or, reason #321 why my mom is rad

My mom grew up in a seaside merchant town on the southern island of Japan. She grew up learning how to eat a whole fish with chopsticks, carefully picking out the spine out of the fish. She can slice a raw squid without getting the ink all over herself. Of course, she rolls sushi.

But even after she moved to Los Angeles, she did not know how to make a California roll. A California roll, if you don’t know, has rice on the outside — not the inside.

So what did she do? At the local grocery store with a sushi bar and deli, she asked the chef if she could learn some time. He said yes. One morning before I left for first-grade, she woke up extra early and left the house to learn. She got behind the sushi counter and learned from the pros. Now she knows how to make California rolls.

I still remember the first time I rolled a Spanish rr

My journey in learning Spanish started the summer before 8th grade. When we learned the alphabet, I still remember quite painfully — I couldn’t roll my tongue to make the “rr”.

By the time we started a full-year Spanish I course in 8th grade, I still couldn’t get that tongue to move up and down to make the Spanish “rr.” I asked our teacher, Señorita Hyatt, how I could learn, if I could even learn and how to practice. She told me to practice saying “errre”. Just loosen the tongue and practice over and over.

One day, in 5th period PE class after lunch, I was telling my friends how it was so hard for me to learn. We changed in the locker room and walked down the portable slope. And then, like magic, out of no where, a real tip-of-the-tongue “rr” slipped out. In disbelief, I tried it again. And it was a real “rr”! I was so happy. I’ll never forget this moment.

Subject-verb agreement IRL

Japanese is my first language. My parents spoke to my brothers and I in Japanese as we grew up. Until we started pre-school at a local Jewish congregation, we’d never spoken it. Though now English is my strongest language, I grew up listening to the type of English spoken by immigrants — not entirely colloquial, not always grammatically-correct either.

When it came time to learn grammar in school, I remember some of it sounded so wrong to me. So foreign.

But I’ll never forget those days after my high school friends and I had taken the PSAT – the junior level of the SAT – and my friend proclaimed that the grammar questions were so easy. “All you have to do is say the sentences out loud, and you can hear which sentence is correct,” he’d explained afterwards while we were in line at the local movie theater.

“If the sentence is, ‘everyone gets their license at age 16’ it should be ‘everyone gets his or her license at age 16.’ It just sounds correct!”

But it didn’t sound correct to me.

Had I grown up listening to botched English all along? Even on the news radio or cartoons?

It shocked me a little bit. I always got A’s in English class. I could memorize some grammar rules and regurgitate them correctly on a test. But I hadn’t trained myself to hear or speak English correctly, as per the College Board.

I spent the summer trapped in SAT class, learning textbook English Grammar. Now I can read and hear those subject-verb agreement errors as “correct” or “incorrect.” I cringe every time I see a sign at the grocery store that says, “Express Lanes: 10 Items of Less.” I had to re-teach myself how I speak and write English.

The whole experience left me with a bitter memory.

Newspaper copy editors guard grammar, syntax and style rules, not because of the rules themselves, but because following those rules helps readers better understand the text. I’d adopted that view too. I don’t think it’s terrible that the SAT tests whether we can understand these kinds of sentences correctly.

But I felt disadvantaged growing up around people who did not speak it correctly. I grew up listening to that, and that felt correct to me. And we communicated just fine.

Nowadays, I try very hard to speak correctly. Not because I’m a grammar prick, but because I want people to hear what they might get in some stupid standardized test sometime in the future.

are computers bicycles for the mind? or cars?

In this technology-driven world, how do we humans interact with the machines around us? In my mind, there are at least two categories: (1) letting the machine control you, (2) you controlling the machine.

One of the biggest differences in my mind about my car vs. my bicycle, is that it’s not so easy to change parts around in my car. Sure, I can look under the hood, check the oil levels and if I tried really hard, perhaps I could change a few easy parts: a wind-shield wiper or something. It would be a lot harder to swap out the seats, carpet or any machinery inside.

On a broader level, I’m not even sure how it really works. It wasn’t until I was really studying bicycle gearing that I started to understand how a stick shift car operates. It’s easier of course, to see what’s going on with your bike as there’s no hood to take off. As I’m biking, I can look down and see what front chain-ring I’m in.

All of our slick hardware these days – this MacBook Air, an iPhone, a Garmin, Jawbone, iPod, microwaves even – all lock us out of any inside components. Somewhere in between the low price of gadgets, the high turnover of our manufactured obsolescence and attention spans and yearly product cycles, we let ourselves get locked out of any way of controlling the machine. We can’t see inside of it to see how it’s working. On our favorite, beloved Apple products, we can’t even replace the battery.

Sure, you can download apps to your iPhone or laptop, try to get a mechanic to fix a microwave, but you still can’t add new tasks, change their functions. We are stuck. Controlled by the machine. Once it’s broken, we are doomed.

The cycle just goes: Purchase, use, buy more accessories for it, re-charge, use until the battery dies (or you buy another one), throw away the product and said accessories, repeat.

Learning bicycle mechanics and more recently, programming, has put me out of that boring cycle. I’ve put my 1993 swap meet Bridgestone XO-3 through at least five iterations now with narrower up-right handlebars, platform pedals, wider tires, new rack and panniers. I experimented with what saddle and handlebar height I liked better, what handlebar tape I preferred, which location for the brake levers were best for city riding.

After many experiments and parts swapped, the bike fits on me better and is more like a natural extension of my limbs. I’m a rolling, two-wheeled machine.

Every time I change out parts, your body will notice how it has to change its actions to better fit the bike. I don’t have to brake as early or as hard, not that my levers are right by my hands. I’ve aligned the derailleur so many times, I know exactly how many gears I have and where I need to set the shifter to get it there. The bike does not control me; I control, shift, twist and change it to my needs. I don’t have to look down at my gears — I can feel where it is. If there’s ever a derailleur hangup, I can hear it and usually, fix it with my hands. As long as I keep the chain lubed and tires pumped, my body can move over 15 miles per hour, no sweat.

“And that’s what a computer is to me. What a computer is to me is it’s the most remarkable tool that we’ve ever come up with, and it’s the equivalent of a bicycle for our minds.” — Steve Jobs, 1990

But have you ever watched someone bike up a hill in his largest (hardest) gear? It’s painful to watch. He might not understand why he’s in a gear that’s too hard to pedal, and might not make it up at all. You cannot let the bike control you.

To me, this is the key between merely consuming the machine and controlling it.

If a bicycle is a computer for our minds, we must learn how the machine talks, listens and understands the commands we give it.We have to learn how to get it into the right gear to go up hills or down. Fix flats and bugs. Keep the chain and battery in top shape.

This is what is missing from our education today. When I hear a school district is buying everyone laptops, iPads, the new technological phenomenon the skeptic in me thinks about how we’re just teaching our children to follow the corporation and consume, consume, consume. Buy more apps. Nag our parents to buy more TV shows or games. Yet we aren’t teaching the most crucial thing: how to make apps and games, how to open up the iPad and learn to speak its language and make the iPad to things for us.

In my 6th grade driver’s ed, I learned how to drive and how to consume more gas. I didn’t learn how to fix flats or even really how cars worked. Looks like our schools may be headed towards teaching how to buy apps, change your typeface on your PowerPoint, take photos with PhotoBooth and Instagram — but will they teach how to make apps and talk to the machine?

week one

Learning how to type, mouse, click efficiently is all part of learning how to make your computer do stuff. It’s part of communicating with the machine itself. Like constantly practicing and training your bow hand and fingering on the violin, you aim for precision and speed with keyboard shortcuts and typing. I’m liking Notational Velocity (for notes), iTerm2 (Command Line) and a combination of Vim and Sublime Text 2. This week I learned about SizeUp, which I’ve been using to divide my 13 inch MacBook Air screen into tiles of apps. Especially for those with smaller laptops and no extra monitors – highly recommend trying SizeUp.

day two: on reading v. writing

The learning process for a creative act like coding or writing includes more steps than say, an skill like bicycling in traffic or up hills.

There’s still the same amount of memorization, then understanding what you’ve memorized (like how cranks work and why the shifters are on which side and which way they move.) As far as performance, bicycling is muscle memory and strength and practice. Performance is all practice. There’s some unquestioned notion that the more you practice, the more your skill will increase.

I’m not sure if that’s the same with coding. For one thing, after you come to the point of understaning, you can start to read code and understand it.

But when confronted with a blank page, or even a detailed wireframe, it can be difficult to pull it all from your memory and put it back together into something coherent.

Sure, some things will be repeated in every project — that might be part memory, part convention. But the true creativity must come from somewhere else.

day one

“One of the biggest problems on software development teams in communication.”

Try to tackle learning by problem-first, project-first, rather than requirements-first.

The first part of a project is coming up with the problem, planning the data structure and sketching a wireframe. The data structure tree and the wireframes are mostly a communication tool — you can bring it up to colleagues and bosses and start talking about specifics.

In the same way we’d plan how to schedule our project time, we can schedule our learning as well.

What I’ve done so far

Start from the beginning:

  • Learn Command Line the Hard Way
  • Codecademy: Web Fundamentals
  • Code School: HTML5, CSS3, Responsive Design, Sass, Try Ruby, Try Git
  • Learn Ruby the Hard Way, Zed Shaw
  • Learn to Program, Chris Pine
  • Codecademy: Ruby, Using APIs with Ruby
  • Ruby Koans

Ignorant humility

More gems from Ellen Ullman’s “Close to the Machine”:

“And I’ll have to muddle through without certainties. Without my father’s belief that the machinery of capital, if you worked hard and log, was benign in the long run, so benign you could even own a piece of it. Without my generation’s macho leftism, which made us think we could smash the machine and build a better one… But all that can wait.

“I’ve managed to stay in a perpetual state of learning only by maintaining what I think of as a posture of ignorant humility. This humility is as mandatory as arrogance… There is only one way to deal with this humiliation: bow you head, let go of the idea that you know anything, and ask politely of this new machine “How do you wish to be operated?” If you accept your ignorance, once you really admit to yourself that everything you know is now useless, the new machine will be good to you and tell you: here is how to operate me.”

“The corollary to constant change is ignorance. This is not often talked about: we computer experts barely know what we’re doing. We’re good at fussing and figuring out. We function well in a sea of unknowns. Our experience has only prepared us to deal with confusion. A programmer who denies this is probably lying, or else densely unaware of himself.”

Start at 0

For now, I’m just going to enjoy where I am: beginning of a new contract, the rocket-takeoff learning curve, the exquisite terror of it, the straight-up ride against gravity into a trajectory not yet calculated.

The next time I drive down to the company, a fog hangs lead-gray over the bay. It lingers over all the East Bay cities. Then, where the freeway turns inland, the fog lifts and thins, and the sky turns a sheer glare-white. I race past the trucks, the hills shine deep green in the clear light, and for that moment, I’m just where I’m supposed to be: driving a fast car to a place I don’t know yet, where anything can happen.“ — Ellen Ullman, Close to the Machine

Something funny happened between moving out, moving around to a small town you never knew existed, where you don’t know anyone at all. I remember after the third, fourth, fifth day of coming home from work and running the same routine of dinner, radio, reading. We joked with friends we needed to “find hobbies” or something.

Fast forward many more days — what seemed like a dull small town was actually a blank canvas for learning and trying new things. I read over 60 books – or over 20,000 pages – nearly all from local libraries. I bicycled hundreds and hundreds of miles, up the steepest climbs on Highway 150, along the Pacific Ocean on the 101, along the Ventura River, in the video game maze of obstacles that is downtown LA.

I rode in a group of people twice, thrice my age (who are still much stronger than me). I once rode in a women’s bike shop ride – the “Serious Beginners” group. A serious beginner.

I committed to memory the names of bicycle frame parts. I looked at diagrams, wrote my own and made sure to incorporate the vocabulary into my speech. I rode every weekend. I had no expectations for myself – I was just exploring. I never thought of myself as athletic, this was just for fun.

Other things come from a combination of muscle memory, mnemonics and understanding the logic: right hand controls rear brake and rear gears. You have to turn your bike upside down and watch the derailleur move the chain up and down. And after a nearly-never-ending uphill ride, I still remember how my right fingers felt when I realized I had reached my lowest gear. After that hill-climb shifting fiasco, I read a book to learn gear ratios and strategies. I watched videos, got my hands dirty while learning how to fix a flat, fell off the bike as I learned clipless pedals. (I cried after the first time.) (I almost gave up. But I didn’t.) Something about that satisfaction of making it up a hill you’d never think of doing and getting over it kept me going.

If I learned anything at all, it was how to learn. Just start. Repetition, enthusiasm, curiosity. Don’t do it alone. Learn something, teach something. Find a good book (or two). Read some history. But most importantly, drop all expectations and anxiety and just start.

def print_hello(name)
  puts "Hello, #{name}"
end
print_hello('World')
#=> prints 'Hello, world.'

Emancipation proclamation

Today I continue to pedal on through a never-ending learning journey to make (web) apps.

By September 15, 2013, I will learn how to develop websites from back-end to front-end.

Two-thousand-and-heaven

On the last day of the year, I found myself at the barre. I had hurried down the 405, pushing the speed limit yet again (though no tickets, thankfully), arrived to the calm but crowded studio.

“Make a goal for this hour. A tiny one. Or a big one. Anything. Visualize it in your mind.”

I’m struggling to relevé. My left leg is already in the air, in arabesque. You only know you’re in the right position when it hurts. Inhale. Plié. Exhale.

“If you’re not pushing yourself out of the comfort zone — it’s not exercise.”

Twenty more. Then the right left. Thirty more.

I’m in a small classroom with twenty, thirty women on Sawtelle and Le Grange, between the YMCA and the 405. I don’t know anyone here. Maybe that’s a good thing. I’m standing on one leg, on the balls of my foot, making the smallest movements, again and again.

“When we work outside our comfort zone, then we can change. We change.”

My mind is somewhere between ignoring all pain and monitoring every muscle. It’s not in tomorrow or yesterday, or three hours from now or tonight’s plans. Just here and now and me.

This is not my comfort zone.

Neither is moving to a small farm town where I know no one, living in an apartment without internet, shooting tape on deadline. Neither is climbing fifty feet into the air, biking on Pacific Coast Highway. And so many things. And I hope to stay here, always out of my comfort zone.