Learning about the Internet (An introduction for the curious)

I am often surprised when I meet incurious people. As a curious person myself, I am always trying to understand. I love to know the particulars about a subject, but I often find that the most useful knowledge is general – how do the basics of banking work? What are the main types of animals and plants? About how many people live on each continent?

Antarctic Penguins

And how many penguins?

This kind of general knowledge lends insight into daily questions – underlying concepts help frame new data. For instance, knowing a tiny bit about how the international money supply works means that when I see the headline “IMF’s global forecast is most optimistic since crisis,” I know that

  • IMF is the International Monetary Fund, and that
  • if the global forecast is optimistic, they may be more likely to lend, which will probably
  • impact negotiations in and about Ukraine.

Not that this particular information changes things, but you can see how earlier curiosity about the general Way Things Work pays off.

So, what are the basic things everyone ought to know?

This question has plagued me and many others since forever. Should we read all the Classic literature? How far do we need to go in Math? Science? Geography, History, Politics? Pop culture? Classic Movies? I call the general problem of ‘what content to choose’ the Selection Problem. I don’t have a name for this specific subproblem, the “what should everyone know?” question, but I have thought about it lots and still only have musings, not a solid answer.

The big, starry universe.

It’s a big ol’ place. And complicated! (image not to scale)

It seems likely that we ought to know the basics about the big stuff – the things we interact with every day, the things that shape our lives. We ought to know how our food and water get to us, how people and the universe work. A passing familiarity with money and politics and geography and history are likely candidates. From the post title, you can probably guess that I would also include a basic knowledge of the technology underneath the Internet.

With the onward march of technological progress, there has been a growing movement for young people to learn more about technology, particularly coding. It’s mostly worked! Lots of people have at least seen code, and maybe written a little bit. They still don’t know the big picture stuff, but at least they know that computers are good at following specific directions and bad at knowing what you want them to do.

Even if you have seen some code and you’ve remember from somewhere that the Internet was started in 1969 by some scientists or the military or someone somewhere,

1) You are reading this on a computer, and probably 2) have only a fuzzy idea of how the words got to your screen.

Lucky for you, I just built a website (knommon.com – go check it out!) and through that process, I learned a ton about how the internet works! I’m here to share what I learned with you.

(Note: This is just an intro, and might be flawed: there are lots of other places to read about this, in any level of detail. Search on the terms mentioned here to find literally thousands of pages explaining what’s going on)

So, the Internet is a series of tubes. Right? Haha, ah, hahaha. ha.

All jokes aside, tubes is not a very useful analogy. I think a much better image is a food court! That’s the one I’m sticking with.

A food court

A fancy one, with lanterns! (also not to scale, though it is closer)

So, you have your computer, and there are lots of other computers around the world. Some of the computers are like yours – desktops, laptops, phones – in our analogy, the hungry mall-goer looking for a bite to eat. There are also big, professional computers, the ‘servers’ that you have heard about but maybe not grokked. They are like the kitchens behind the food court storefronts, ready to produce your food for you.

What does a meal consist of? How do you find it and get it? In a food court, it’s pretty easy. On the internet, it’s less familiar.

Let’s start with what you already know – what you do to access the internet.

You fire up a web browser, Chrome or Safari or Firefox or Explorer or Opera (okay, not many of you are on Opera). You use the search engine or enter a url into the address bar. The page shows up, or it gives you an error. You do whatever you came to do, browsing, reading, clicking links, playing games, signing in and out, adding items to a virtual shopping cart – generally, conducting transactions.

What happens back in the kitchens that lets you get the food you want? Underneath the pretty layout of your browser, and floating in ‘the cloud’ is the cool software that makes web browsing possible. Step by step:

1. You enter a url (Uniform Resource Locator – the address you type at the top, it starts with ‘http’)  in the browser. This is like you deciding what type of food you want to eat – for this example, Chinese. But, your browser doesn’t know where to look to find that page – so it has to look!

2. The browser tries to find out what server that url represents. To find out, it does a Domain Name System (DNS) lookup. DNS is big and hairy and complicated (like some of the mall maps I’ve seen), but you can think of it as asking some mall staff person where to get Chinese food – they might know, or might not, but if they don’t, they’ll at least point you to someone else who knows. Your browser sends a message to the local DNS server, probably the one provided by your internet provider e.g. Verizon, which might or might not know the location of the server you want – it might ask some other DNS server.

3. DNS lookup returns the Internet Protocol (IP) address that corresponds with the url that you entered. The IP address lets your browser locate and send messages to the server where the webpage you want is stored. It’s like knowing which restaurant in the food court to go to if you want Chinese food.

4. Your browser sends a request to the server located at the IP address it found through the DNS lookup. Once you know where to get the food, you go and put your order in. With the request, your browser sends useful information, like your computer’s IP address, so that the server can send back what you want.

5. The server responds to your request. For most websites, the server does some internal processing on the information from your request, so that it knows what data to send back to you. Server side processing, like all of the topics I am introducing here, is a huge topic that I can’t even begin to do justice to here. Some of the things it might involve are:

  • Finding, adding, updating, or removing information in a database
  • Complicated math to make sure your data is secure from hacking
  • Piecing together information and code and turning it into the response it will send to your browser

All of this is like what is going on in the kitchen and even in the business office of the Chinese Restaurant. They buy food, they prepare it, they cook it, they do all kinds of steps necessary to making your dish that you don’t have to worry about. Servers are like that too, only even less visible.

6. Your browser interprets the response from the server and renders a beautiful webpage for you to view and interact with. The response it gets is usually in the form of a page of HyperText Markup Language (HTML) with some other files that help make it beautiful and useful. These often include Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), Javascript files, and resources such as images or videos which populate the page. The browser knows the rules to put all of these files and resources together, and it follows them, like you putting the sauces and toppings on your food just how you like it.

Then you eat! Of course, unlike at the food court, you probably want to visit lots of sites and many different pages on each one – like ordering six items at nine restaurants at an enormous food court with millions of options.

The basics are still the same – when you click a link, your browser sends a request to the server. If it already knows where the server is, it doesn’t need the whole lookup process, but links to other sites do. When you fill out a form online, your browser turns it into a different kind of request for the server (POST instead of GET), but the general steps of the process are the same.

Sometimes, the server will send along extra data, so that when you click a button or through a slideshow, your browser already has what it needs, and doesn’t need to request anything more from the server. This is particularly true for games and videos, where a large file will load with a single request.

What’s best, your browser handles all this for you! And you didn’t have to cook.

Chinese-style fish

Just like this fish. Don’t worry about it.

So that’s how it works! Of course, there are lots more details to learn if you want to really get it. It took actually building and getting a website hosted for me to understand what I do understand about the internet. If for you it means sitting down and writing some code, I highly encourage it! If it means reading more blogs and articles, that’s good too.

I introduced this post by talking about curiosity, and how we ought to be curious about the world we interact with. Here’s a much better post about curiosity over on LessWrong, which, if you haven’t stumbled on before, is a great site for learning and being smarter.

Curiosity is better than solemnly valuing The Truth. Hopefully I have, through my wonderful analogy, made the inner workings of the Internet a little bit less intimidating, so your curiosity can carry you the rest of the way. I could point you to some links, but, wouldn’t it be better if you explored on your own?

Go forth!

Understand ALL The Things

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Learning to listen (part 1)

It’s a noisy world. Listening is hard. Listening means lots of things to lots of people, and everyone recognizes that it is pretty important. I am gonna make this a multi-part post, since there is lots to talk about. This is part 1, and I’ll link to part 2 when it goes up! (Edit: here’s part 2!)

Listening is hard and important, which makes it a good candidate for learning and practice. TED talk:

Julian Treasure does a little bit of unsubstantiated fear mongering with an undertone of luddite Gen-Y bashing, sure. BUT, he has mindfulness exercises for listening, and exercises are wonderful, so it probably balances out.

Even if we aren’t losing our listening, we don’t practice the receiving end of communication nearly as much as the broadcasting end, at least not explicitly.  Listening is a skill we ought to think about and work on.

There are lots of things we listen to. Music, the thumping about of roommates, construction noise when we try to work. All kinds of online ed materials: Podcasts, lectures, TED talks. What does it mean to be good at it? How does one become a ‘good listener’?

Just as we mean different things when we talk about listening, doing it ‘well’ has different meanings. Today, I’ll focus on choosing the things you listen to and developing interpersonal listening skills.

Listen intentionally and choose the things you listen to.

If what we learn is who we become, and we learn through our ears, we should be selective about what we listen to, and how closely we listen to it.  I listen to C-SPAN radio as I drive. If I get stuck listening to C-SPAN callersNPR is often good too. I try to process what I am hearing, especially when there is a good interview or speech. I make connections to what I already know, but also consciously note information that is new or did not fit with my previous understanding. I think of questions that I would ask to clarify or delve further into particular issues. I have gotten good at filtering subtle, meaningful insight from what is not. (I might do another post on learning to recognize and learn from experts rather than others, since most people are mostly wrong about most things.)

You don’t have to listen to C-SPAN. That might not be your scene; that’s totally cool. I am me in part because of what I listen to. Maybe you like Ted talks, maybe you just want your Beyoncé playlist. It’s all good, as long as you know that choosing is part of defining who you are. So, choose!

C-SPAN or no,   discerning bull from not-bull is an awesome skill. If you are mentally engaged with what is being said, you will notice more and, consequently, learn more. Don’t tune out talking heads as background noise like you did when you were five – some of them are actually okay. Others are crappy. Telling one from the other is hard, and takes practice, but I believe in you.

[EDIT: Forgot to mention Night Vale, which is super cool. Got any cool podcasts or things you listen to? lemmeknowinthecomments]

Listen to those around you

Another habit or set of habits has to do with interpersonal listening – one on one and in groups, where your role is both listener and speaker. I’ve had the amazing chance to learn a bunch of good listening skills as a counselor at the Help Center, UMD’s peer counseling and crisis intervention hotline. Still, it takes effort and concentration to actually listen to friends and siblings, especially when I have opinions on the subject under discussion.

Some things to focus on:

  • Actually hear the words they are saying. Seems obvious, but there are times when a few words go unheard and we shrug it off, since we got the gist. Instead,
  • Ask clarifying questions. Even if it is “can you say that again?,” asking for clarification works to help us understand what someone is saying.
  • Don’t judge, jump in, or interrupt. Basically, listen instead of talking. This one is especially tough for the extroverts or those with strong opinions. I’m still no pro at this in some settings, but I’ve found that focusing on how much I should be speaking as a fraction of the number of people in a conversation helps. If I am one of three people, I should have one third of the speaking, or thereabouts. If I am one of twenty, a twentieth, and so on. Of course it is a guideline and there are exceptions, but it helps me shut up more.
  • Use nonverbal or monosyllabic cues. Nodding, saying ‘mhm,’ eye contact, generally using active listening skills. It can feel silly to overdo it, but it’s harder than you would think.
  • Summarize and reflect your understanding of what they said. Don’t worry about sounding dumb. If you don’t understand, it doesn’t mean you or your friend are bad people – communicating well is really hard!

Actually, wikihow has a wonderful post about listening well, with illustrations and generally more time and thought put in than I have. It’s worth actually reading.

Like most actual skills, listening takes time and practice for the benefits to show. It’s worth it. Your relationships get better, you retain more information, and the world sounds better. Pretty neat!

Music for now:

Note: Part 1 was about deciding your listening environment and tips for interpersonal listening. Part 2  includes thoughts about inferential distance and the difficulty of communicating, plus the concept of listening to stakeholder groups as a society, plus classrooms and listening to students. 

Learning language

7 billion people in the world, uncounted words to read and listen to. Lots of the words are English – far more than I could hope to slurp up in eighty or ninety years. Far more are in other languages. I’ll return in later posts [EDIT: Hold me to that, please] to the question of which words to pay attention to. The Big Selection Problem, content overload, is one of the more compelling questions for curious minds, ever more so with our increasing access to stories and studies and blogs like mine.

Today is about learning languages. Speaking multiple languages is one way to be smarter – this NYT article says it fights Alzheimer’s and improves children’s ability to sort colored shapes. Cool.

Even if you aren’t a professional block sorter, the research seems to show your brain grows more robust when you learn to switch between different languages. On top of that, multiple language proficiency has become a big ol’ status indicator with real career implications. Plus it is fun and cool. Travel and stuff. Seems like the reasons in favor are overwhelming. 

But it’s hard! It takes time you don’t have, energy you can’t afford, and who’s to say if you could even do it, even if you decided that you wanted to? And don’t you lose the ability to learn language once you get old and start reading blogs?

I took Spanish in high school and did okay. I wanted to keep going with it, but didn’t have people to practice with or any particular goal in mind in terms of fluency. When I went to Norway last year (spring semester ’13), I picked up enough to follow a few conversations, but not hold one myself. I felt bad, but everyone spoke much better English than I spoke Norwegian, and it seemed much more important at the time that we communicate than that I painfully practice my pitiful language skills. In retrospect, it was a huge missed opportunity! Although, if I had my choice, maybe I would pick a language with more than 5 million speakers…

Thankfully, technology.

I started with Duolingo about a month ago, and I’m at level 6 in German. Where that actually places me in my learning, I don’t know – I know a couple hundred words, probably. Still, it’s free and fun and simple and it only takes ten minutes a day, and I have learned words that I certainly did not know before. Learning a whole language will still require tons of time and effort, but it somehow feels manageable – it’s just a quick lesson. Just a bite-sized chunk of time. I can handle that. I can make that a habit. It helps that I have friends registered too, so I can compete with them and reinforce my learning socially.

This will be a recurring theme. Technology makes it easier to put massive hours into learning. Whether it is e-readers or apps or that thing that blocks facebook for you, it’s all getting easier and closer. It’s okay to feel intimidated, right?

I can’t tell yet if I will learn a whole language for free online, but I feel more excited than scared about it.  Language learning seems like a thing that the internet should be able to do. Das Internet ist gut. Lernen ist gut. Zusammen sind sie wunderbar!

Auf Wiedersehen!

P.S. Let me know how you like your posts – quick and topical, like this one was (sort of), or meandering and journally? I am definitely planning on including  tools like Duolingo that you might not have known, which are making the world a more fun place to learn. Let me know what you think! It’s your blog too!