Paarth Madan

A medium to iterate on my own thoughts.

Making Connections

Posted at — May 3, 2020

The magical feeling of making a connection.

I think there’s beauty in making connections.

That “aha” feeling when you take two seemingly unrelated entities, and draw a mental line between them is creation at its finest.

The gratification I get when making a connection between two ideas is one that is unmatched. It’s what has, and continues to, push me to strive for deeper understanding.

The learning process, as a graph.

I like to think of the internal learning process as a graph – the discrete math kind. In short, a graph consists of a set of nodes, and edges between these nodes.

Following this analogy, learning is a graph where every unique idea you’ve learned is its own node, and the edges between them denote a connection you’ve made.

The basis of learning is creating nodes.

The basis of understanding are the edges between these nodes – the connections.

Seeking connections: a means to deepening understanding.

Seeking out connections between the ideas you’re learning is an active, and effective method for learning – at least one I’ve had personal success with.

I’ve experienced it a handful of times, where what I’m learning makes sense, yet I don’t understand it at a level where I can internalize it.

I can reason with it, but I can’t navigate or apply the ideas on my own.

I then proceed to explore other material, and only then, through other often unrelated concepts, derive more context and a better, more true, understanding of the idea.

The relation you create between these ideas, and that “aha” moment, where things finally seem to make sense, is your mind actively drawing this connection.

That, in and of itself, strengthens your understanding, and consequently the foundation you carry forward to learn and understand more.

A personal case study: understanding the word “syntax”.

To further explore this power of making connections, I reflect on an moment I could recall.

In school, as part of my studies in language arts and English, we learned and applied the meaning of syntax to our writing.

As per the Oxford dictionary, syntax (linguistics) is defined as, “the way that words and phrases are put together to form sentences in a language”.

My understanding at the time was scoped to the context we were learning it in. So, I associated syntax with the English language, and the structure of words in the context of prose, or poetry etc. I learned what syntax meant, and the meaning, and applied it – on the surface.

At the time, I probably thought I fully understood the definition and what syntax was.

The understanding deepened a few years later, when I was first introduced to syntax in the context of programming.

Programming languages, like natural human languages, consist of syntax. The ordering of specific keywords, the placement of certain punctuation, characters, and special symbols, all help to eliminate ambiguity and ensure the program accomplishes the intended goal.

Syntax is important in all languages because it establishes a set of rules that govern the structure and elements that form sentences. This is important, because it enables us, to collectively communicate with ease and without ambiguity.

We have come to an agreement on what is syntactically correct, and by formulating and communicating within these constraints, we can attempt to avoid miscommunication, and minimize the time we waste on expanding or explaining.

When I have a conversation with you, the assumption is I can formulate a correct sentence, and because we’ve agreed on a syntax, you can understand exactly what it is I’m trying to say.

In programming, syntax provides similar constraints, in that it’s an agreed upon set of rules that must be used when writing code. It offers similar rewards, in that it allows other programmers to extract meaning in a unambiguous way. Perhaps more importantly, however, is the advantage it provides in the compilation process. Most programs that are written in a language like C++, or Rust, are translated into code that the underlying machine can understand. Syntax is enforced to ensure the compiler can correctly perform this translation.

Wrap up + an opportunity to learn from homonyms

My understanding of what syntax is, greatly deepened in this connection process – all in the instant I drew that mental line.

Being exposed to the word in various contexts was a cue for my brain to insert a connection between these two nodes. It served as an opportunity to unroll some of the abstractions I’ve inserted, and gain a truer understanding of what syntax is.

When you first stumble across a new word that exists in other domains, it’s such a powerful opportunity to strengthen your understanding of both fields. I find, in almost every field I’ve studied, there’s overloading of terms. Whenever I’m faced with a word that I’ve seen in a different context, I love unpacking the similarities, as it gives me a great understanding into the meaning of the word, and the application in both contexts.

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