How I learn things (Learning Things: March 20, 2023)

Some things I want to learn, including how to make DIY paranormal investigation gadgets.

a stack of books drawn digitally in a watercolor style

I spend a lot of time learning things. From researching paranormal subjects for my podcast to deep diving into my many hobbies, I almost always am juggling multiple projects that require me to delve into different areas. That learning style might be overwhelming for some folks (and I'm sure it's not as efficient as it could be), but it's just right for my neurotype. I love to always have a handful of projects in the hopper so I can jump between things depending on what I'm feeling most interested in at the moment.

I want to talk more about learning

I'm still working out exactly how I want to do this weekdaily blogging thing, but because I'm always consuming a lot of information and tinkering with things and ideas, I'd like to try out a new thing! On Mondays, I'll focus on what I'm learning and link to things I've been reading, watching, and listening to over the past week.

Since this is the first installment, I'm going to spend a bit more time talking about my learning goals over the past year and for the coming year, as well as some of my philosophy about learning. (I'll include links to other things starting next week--this post was getting too long already, without me including a link roundup.)

I love reading about other people's goals and learning methods, so if you're like me, this is for you! And if not, check back tomorrow, when I'll be back writing about Polaroids, nostalgia, and the paranormal.

Learning goals

I'm not really one to sit down at the beginning of a new year and plan out my goals for the next twelve months. That's because I have a ton of different interests, and my rule is to follow them wherever they lead me—even if it seems like they're taking me down a strange avenue to something that seems useless or irrelevant to the other projects that I'm working on. I've found that in almost every case, subjects that I have been obsessed with at one point or another end up coming in handy later on. (Even if it's years later.)

That being said, while my learning can be somewhat unstructured and whim-driven, I often find out that I've set a learning goal without realizing it. I'll suddenly find myself doubling down on developing a new skill, and when that happens, I try to focus on it and then build out goals.

Here's what that has looked like for me over the last year or so:

2022 learning goals

A few months into 2022, I realized that there was a specific technical skill I wanted to work on: I wanted to develop the ability to confidently create vector-based illustrations.

I'd worked with vector-based art previously, but I had always been modifying or working with illustrations drawn by someone else. I didn't feel confident in my ability to create my own vector-based illustrations.

Because I had always used Adobe Illustrator in the workplace, I started out there in early 2022, but I quickly found that the software was too bloated and difficult to use from a performance standpoint. Even after I swapped out my old laptop for a fairly high-powered desktop PC, Adobe Illustrator crashed constantly, and the amount of troubleshooting I was having to do from a technical standpoint just wasn't worth it. I was spending more time researching why the program kept crashing than I was actually learning to use it.

Also, as most people know, the Adobe suite of products have a truly awful and predatory pricing model that may be fine for corporations with deep pockets, but that suck for individual artists, especially hobbyists. (Also they employ dark patterns to wring even more money out of their users when they try to quit. For example, like many users, I unknowingly signed up for an "annual plan, billed monthly" meaning that cancelling "early" would incur a fee of hundreds of dollars.)

So I switched to the Affinity suite of products, in particular Affinity Designer, and I have not looked back since. Affinity's software is lighter weight, works equally well on the iPad and PC, and each program is a one-time purchase that barely costs more than a single month of Adobe.

I'm happy to say that I now feel good about my ability to do vector-based illustration. Now that I've mastered the basic skills, I have been doing vector-based illustration a little bit less frequently, just because it's more time-consuming than raster illustration. But I still use Affinity Designer on a near-daily basis to clean up and finalize stuff that I've drawn in other programs. And I'm excited to continue building up those skills.

Other things I was learning in 2022

In 2022, I also had a few other specific areas of interest that took a bit less time and effort to learn about.

Many of those were work-related (I became self-employed in 2022, so I spent—and continue to spend—a lot of time honing skills related to my work.) But when it comes to fun things, in addition to my usual interest in the paranormal and the weird, I also got really into:

  • Solarpunk ideas and fiction (which I talk about a bit more on my podcast episode "On mylar balloons and forgotten futures.")
  • Improving my digital art skills in general. Technically, I've been drawing digitally since the late 1990s, but I slowed down a lot after 2004 or so (when life got busy), and since then had mostly done physical art and occasional drawings in Krita. Last year, I bought an iPad and committed myself to drawing on it (nearly) every day.
  • The zettlekasten note-taking/PKM method. I set that up for myself in Obsidian, and have been using a zettlekasten-inspired note-taking strategy on a daily basis. I don't know how I lived without this method, which is ideal for researchers and creators. (I'll have to elaborate on it another time.)

2023 learning goals

I started 2023 without any specific goals, but in January, I ordered a soldering kit, because there have been a number of tech-related projects that I'd like to tackle sometime in the future—but they require soldering skills.[^1] I also ordered a soldering practice kit that included a DIY EMF meter.

I didn't get a chance to work on those kits or learn soldering at all during January or February, because those months ended up being hectic, but I planned to begin learning the skill in mid-March.

In early March, I had the opportunity to use some ghost hunting tools that I had never gotten to try before, which then got me thinking about what sorts of ghost hunting gear I could DIY.

I was already aware of and interested in the DIY REM pod build using the MadLab Junior Theremin kit (which some commercial REM pods have been known to use). But then I started thinking: could I use a Raspberry Pi or Arduino to build devices akin to the Ovilus or Onvoy? What about something like the Plantwave and other biodata sonification tools? (The Plantwave, which "convert[s] changes in electrical conductivity of plants into audio" isn't a paranormal investigation device, but I think it has major potential. It's based on an open-source design that has a variety of decent-looking DIY instructions online.) I have a ton of ideas for different tools that I'd like to experiment with when investigating. And I can see a pretty clear path to making many of these devices, if I acquire the right skills.

What skills are those and what steps do I need to take? I'm still building my list, but so far I've got:

  1. learn to solder
  2. learn to build basic electrical circuits
  3. get to know how a microcontroller like an Arduino works, and how to integrate it into the circuit and with various sensors
  4. get comfortable cobbling together code that does what I want it to do
  5. tackle some basic/easy projects
  6. once I feel good about my basic skill level, scope out the more complex projects that I want to try and execute them in order from simplest to most complex
  7. ideally, in the longer term, I'd love to learn how to model things for 3D printing (so I could have cases, etc, printed), but this feels very much optional at this point

It's a long-ish list, but I feel pretty good about it. I've now watched a ton of online tutorials about building circuits and using Arduino microcontrollers, and, reassuringly, a lot of them seem to be geared towards artists and people who have never done this sort of thing before, so it seems I'm in good company.

I learned the basics of soldering last weekend (with middling success; my DIY EMF meter would light up, but didn't seem to detect EMF changes—it just says that everything has a high EMF all the time. My best guess is that I screwed something up with the potentiometer and it's essentially stuck on a too-sensitive setting, but I'm not sure.)

I had hoped to continue to practice soldering this past weekend—by making one of the theremin kits I bought—but my entire weekend got derailed by a surprise carpet beetle problem in my apartment, which took many (12+) hours to deal with. So fun stuff had to wait. I'll keep you posted when I do get around to the theremin kit/DIY REM Pod build.

Other things I'm focused on in 2023

Other than wanting to gain the skills to build some fun gadgets, here're some of my other current areas of interest and smaller goals:

  • I got a sewing machine for Christmas, so I have a number of small things that I want to make and/or alter. (I have lots of sensory issues so am constantly modifying all of my clothes.) I suck at reading patterns, so I'll be keeping it to easy stuff that I can do without patterns for now. Improving my sewing skills in a real way will have to wait for another year (and I already own plenty of clothes; it's not like I need to make more right now) so this year it'll be all about practical, easy projects. But I do want to get more comfortable using my sewing machine and to get through my backlog of easy things I want to alter/mend/make.
  • I'd like to find a way for me to incorporate art into my paranormal investigations/interactions (through automatic drawing, etc.)
  • I want to polish up one of my (many) draft novel manuscripts and get it ready for me to use it to either find an agent or to self-publish it. [^2] (By the way, if you're a fan of queer romance novels—usually with a hint of fantasy—and are interested in beta reading, hit me up!)

Wrap up

So those are some of the (probably many) themes you can expect me to give progress updates on, as well as share links and research about.

If you have expertise in the subjects I'm trying to get better at, I'm very open to advice! Also, I'm super curious about how other people structure their learning and research, so drop me a line if you want to share your methods and philosophies for learning.

[^1] If you're curious, I would like to do the mechanical keyboard mod for my Alphasmart 3000 (I do most of my nonfiction writing—like my blog posts and episode scripts—using dictation software, but I still like to type most of the time when writing fiction, and I love using Alphasmarts as a drafting tool.) Also, I have an inkling that I will want to make some modifications to my already heavily-modded Koss Portapros sometime in the future, but the additional mods I am thinking of require soldering.

[^2] There are pros and cons to both, so I'm very much on the fence about whether I'd want to go the traditional vs. indie publishing route. We'll see.