Vignesh Natarajan bio photo

Vignesh Natarajan

Promises, stories, books, tutorials and some code


Whatever you do, write

A piece of information is really defined only by what it's related to, and how it's related. There really is little else to meaning. The structure is everything.

How many times have you looked up for a tutorial on the internet about something you're trying for the first time and have been disappointed with the lack of a good guide. I am not saying there aren't any. There are plenty of excellent resources from where I have immensely benefited. Right from how to write a simple web crawler, till how to make my own knit pattern on a sweater, I can find detailed blogposts which I can follow step by step to solve my immediate problem. This got me writing about a lot of things I do.

In a world where everyone is fighting for patens and againt intellectual property theft, I think we have to do our best to make the lives of the general populace easier. This can be done in the comfort of your house, office or even while commuting from and to work. I am not kidding, how many tweets do you post on a daily basis? I tweet atleast 20 times a day. 20 tweets can make a wonderful blog post about how to and how not to do something elementary. Like setting up a tumblr with comments enabled on disqus. It doesn't take 10 minutes for someone who is familiar with computers to set it up, but imagine someone who want to share stories or art or recepies. The first thing they do is go seek the help of Google. "How to start a cookery blog?". If I search using such queries I would get excellent responses, but none so direct and simple at the same time most helpful. Go ahead, write one today.

I love to teach. To call it teaching is probably exaggerating so I'll call it directing. I have always wanted to teach so I started volunteering to help people out. I reached out to people I knew, my friends. Asked them to learn new things, pointed them to resources, kept telling them what the use of learning a particular programming language was. Told them what's the use of reading a particular book would be and what's the use of getting familiarized with some software or a text editor would be. It worked great initially, but it did not allow me to gauge their progress with whatever they undertook so I ended up advising them in vain. This happened not because they were reluctant to learn, but I was giving them new tasks and exciting things to learn every so often that thet didn't have enough time to spend with each task. Though these were mere suggestions like "Learn to use Matlab" or "Read 'Surely you're joking, Mr. Feynman'", someday when they're bored they would pick it up and learn. And some other day down the line, it would come in handy.

I got wondering as to how to make myself useful. Then came MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses). Education was free. It was a wonderful initiative. I wanted to capitalize on it and subscribed to 5 courses at the same time. I couldn't even finish one. I knew I was biting more than I could chew but then what the hell. It was amazing to go around proclaiming that I was taking 5 courses online apart from college coursework. After months of futile video watching and unsubmitted assignments, I realized the need to spend time and engage with the material inorder to master it. As I have written in a lot of my posts and answers, learning something is like falling in love. It takes time to get acquainted with the subject, it takes time to know the ins and outs of it, and if you keep at it consistently, the subject will love you back. Whatever the task at hand be. I used to be very bad at writing online. I started a blog in 2009, wrote nonsense. Sometimes I collected quotes from wallpapers and compiled them as posts. It was of no use to anybody, but I never stopped for some reason. It helped me. Now I am able to articulate properly and use proper words and I do not digress as much as I used to.

Coming back to MOOCs, I started taking the courses one by one. I started watching archived videos. This happened on weekdays as well. I sleep very late every night and this gave me another reason to do so. A lecture would start at 10 in the night, go on for an hour. And after the lecture, I used to go through my notes and sometimes it would be disappointing. The notes would lack information and I would feel that this shouldn't take an hour. So I started transcribing those lectures. I started with Machine learning as it is my favorite topic and it helped me sort of teach a class on it. It wasn't much of a class as the turn out exponentially dropped from 50 to 5, but the 5 people turned up for every class there after which made me keep at it. It was more direction than teaching as all I would do is tell them so and so topic exists and this is what it fundamentally is, and this is how you can explore it further. I compiled all the unnecessary details (theory, math and those that need little to no explanation) as notes and mailed them regularly. This worked magic on me as I loved doing this. I started taking more courses and transcribing them. Though I do not post regularly mostly due to inherent laziness, I do and I get great feedback. You can check out links to those on top of the page.

The point I am trying to make it, when I, who isn't an expert at whatever I have so far written about, can make people read and understand something that in turn helps me understand the material better, why can't everyone else do the same? I mean you're good at so many things yourself. It needn't be programming. It needn't be engineering or math or science. It can be anything. It can be a neatly written article on how to behave in a classroom by someone who has positive experiences as a result of behaving in such a way. It can be an article on how to write a good e-mail. What you think as a trivial idea, could be the crux of what someone has been lacking so long. Sometimes a good e-mail is all that's stopping someone from getting that interview. Sometimes a good tutorial on how to set up a website is all that's stopping someone from showcasing their beautiful art to the outside world.

I was one of the so many people who were so excited about this idea:

The ability to code has become something of an inevitability, but later I realized "so should everything else be.". The knowledge that with an iPad, which is common in most households today, you can set up a very good baby monitor should be accessible to everyone else more than the resources to learn to code which somehow or the other you can find a workaround for.

The world needs more FAQs and it needs more people taking up resposibilities to archive such FAQs. I take immense pride in what I compile and put up online because however mediocre it is, I am putting up an hour's effort for reducing someone else's workload. Why am I doing this? Because I owe it to the person who put up yet another tutorial from where I learned to write my first lines of code. I owe it to Professor Donald Knuth for taking time of his immensely valuable research and developing a typesetting language, just so that my thesis full of figures and equations can look immaculate. You do too.

So the next time when you do something, be it going for a trek or assembling a furniture set from Ikea, post a write up on how to do it and how not to. It will develop you as a person and help someone loooking for something which took hours for you to find. Imagine how many man hours you would be saving. It is a great habit, and you get something out of it too. Isn't this what Tim Berners Lee meant when he said,
"When somebody has learned how to program a computer … You're joining a group of people who can do incredible things. They can make the computer do anything they can imagine."
"The web is more a social creation than a technical one. I designed it for a social effect — to help people work together — and not as a technical toy. The ultimate goal of the Web is to support and improve our weblike existence in the world. We clump into families, associations, and companies. We develop trust across the miles and distrust around the corner."

Whatever you do, write.

Image courtesy: Wikipedia