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There's no speed limit (2009) (sivers.org)
118 points by chintanp on July 15, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 25 comments

"The pace was intense, and I loved it. Finally, someone was challenging me - keeping me in over my head - encouraging and expecting me to pull myself up, quickly. I was learning so fast, it had the adrenaline of sports or a video game. A two-way game of catch, he tossed every fact back at me and made me prove I got it."

That's precisely the fundamentals of France classes préparatoires (or casually prépa): iterate swiftly and efficiently on knowledge by challenging yourself to the upper limit... and above: there are quite a bunch of things I never ever thought I would be able to grasp, let alone master, yet I did, and more.

In our three-hour lesson that morning, he taught me a full semester of Berklee's harmony courses.

The first year's Mathematics course started with a single day during which we re-learned everything we though we knew about Mathematics that we learnt during the last three years. Yes, we covered three years worth in one day. It was an eye opener about the field of Mathematics as a whole. Physics course took another yet similar in goal approach.

The second year began with a full week Math course during which we re-learned everything we learned during that first year. This gave us a perspective of how far we've come but also at how challenging the coming year would be. I actually failed that second year the first time, although barely so I retried, with success.

It's extremely sad that this system is unpopular because it's perceived as elitist and inegalitarian, as well as an archaic Napoleonian process. People want education to cater for the poor folk that has a hard time keeping up with the basics (which is a worthwhile goal) but are dismissive to those that can easily keep up and more. In hindsight I could have actually failed before reaching la prépa out of boredom.

It may not be obvious to every reader, but Berkelee school would actually be classes prepa here, as it is one of the most prestigious music school in the world. What Sivers talks about here is to go much beyond that.

I would not put "classes prepa" in the challenging category. It is actually rather dull 2/3 years where you learn not so much about the material, but learn how to solve many exercices (I like the example given by Pierre Gilles de Gennes, which reminds me of my own attitude during some kholles: http://cscs.umich.edu/~crshalizi/reviews/fragile-objects/). Most people entering classes preparatoires will get out with something, so per definition it is not challenging: challenging means doing something that you did not think were possible from yourself. While classes preparatoires were not always easy for me, I was never really challenged by it, and I think most people were not either.

It is actually rather dull 2/3 years where you learn not so much about the material, but learn how to solve many exercices

That was absolutely not my case (but I know it has been the case for some in other cities). In my case the exercises, while numerous, were not that many, but were selected and crafted to push and bend the mind. The goal each time was to produce not someone who knows but someone who builds. The most striking example was one of my professors who had a habit of yelling "Et là, c'est fini!" ("And then, its over!"), halfway through a proof and sometimes as early as the second line, or even once having completed writing the first line, when the crux of the problem was to ask yourself the right question and express it the right way. This was a kind of recurring joke while at the same time the signal of the crux, the apex of the proof, where once you get past that point the rest is downhill freewheeling (although as with downhill driving, you should not get too carried away). It was the mark at which you could find the pattern, the point which defines the line (as in racing) that you will be able to build upon to come up with your own solutions.

In front of the blackboard, solving the exercise was never a goal in itself, but the path mattered just as much, if not more. It was common to actually not achieve an academic solution but demonstrating an ability to build an overarching path, though incomplete in its proof, that would lead to the solution would be rewarded. It was not uncommon either to solve the problem much quicker than expected, and the remainder of the kholle would be spend either enhancing the solution, finding an alternative solution, or extending the problem with a follow up or a generalization.

We were not meant to be dumb technical toolboxes (which the PGdG example is a perfect example) but brand new problem solvers. I would draw much parallels between those problem solving abilities and hacking solutions, refactoring arcs, encapsulating problems and caring about the bigger scope, to produce elegant and rewarding solutions.

Granted, this kind of teaching is not ubiquitous to every single prépa out there, but my point is that it cannot occur at all in a "common denominator" environment, where by design people that can keep up will have to look elsewhere by themselves to be challenged, whereas prépa or schools like Berkelee can act as a catalyst.

"Kimo's high expectations set a new pace for me. He taught me the standard pace is for chumps - that the system is designed so anyone can keep up. If you're more driven than just anyone - you can do so much more than anyone expects. And this applies to ALL of life - not just school".

I wish someone had told me this while I was in school.

The thing I liked about standard pace was that I had plenty of time to fail in boards of student societies, events organizing and an own company and whatnot.

I always wonder a bit whether the people who skip years and study super-fast really know anything about the world.

I remember reading this a couple years ago. After I read it today I told my kid to stop the video game and "read this." Then we talked about it, how if you want you can go beyond what the teacher is teaching, or even in a parallel direction if the teacher isn't covering what you want.

Agreed. I only realised it shortly after graduating, slightly too late :(

That's definitely true. I started studying CS two years ago on one of the best Maths/CS departments in eastern Europe, last year I started Maths and I expect to get both Bachelor's next year. It was pretty hard, especially the exam sessions, but it was also a lot of fun -- definitely worth it. Now I'm an intern in Santa Clara and it feels like holiday.

My advice is, if you're not sure whether you'll be able to do something, don't hesitate -- most of the time nothing bad happens if you fail, and if your case is different, the greater your motivation will be.

Best detail about the site: You can change the language. But at least for German, it is no automatic translation. He translated his whole site to multiple languages. wow!

Glad you like that! Yeah I hired 9 translators to translate into 9 languages. If you switch it to Arabic it goes right-to-left. Fun design challenge.

I saw some mistakes in the french version, I switched back to english once I realized it wasn't the original language. It tooked me two paragraphs to notice it. (I'm a native french speaker.) I thought you would like to know that :) !! Great article. Thanks!

Good article, but the title is a bit too sensational for me.

I agree that a good teacher and motivation can help you reach your potential very fast.

I would say there are two range of domains:

- 1. almost only synthetic, axiom system has small 'Kolmogorov complexity': mathematics, algorithmization (on non-research level)

- 2. more pattern matching, processing of huge amount of information: history, politics, industrial software development, business and everything on research-level.

In the first range, if you find a good teacher and you are motivated then you can go to your potential extremely fast. Miracles happen within weeks. After a point you reach the 2. range, where you are already playing in a league with similarly skilled people, and you progress only extremely slowly.

That's why some geeks are much better in math at the age 12 than the average adult, but they have to learn and practice for long years to become a professional mathematician or to create a successful software business.

Seems to manage Accept-language (I see French). Neat.

Thanks! Sorry the French translation isn't great. Turns out the guy that I hired wasn't a native speaker, just pretending, and I've heard from a lot of people that it's a pretty bad translation. Gotta re-do it.

Actually the french is correct, it's more that it's doesn't sound like a good writer.

Some good takeaways here, and an inspirational message, but the human brain still has a reasonably fixed (over the long term) bits per second acquisition/retention rate for pure information and a fixed degree of neural plasticity.

In reality, there is a speed limit. At least until Kurzweil gets his way.

By that qualification, the Autobahn has a speed limit too: the limit of how fast land vehicles can move.

The analogy of the blog holds. Infinity only happens in calculus, so why bother poo-pooing a helpful metaphor?

Like a good vision statement in a business plan that calls for a direction without bothering with a specific magnitude, "There is no speed limit" calls the reader to question limitations as a matter of directing their imagination to the problem of expectation as opposed the conventional expectation.

Dream onward...

Technically speaking, every stretch of road ever built has an inherent speed limit. Design speed dictates design parameters such as length of sight lines and radius of curves; exceed it too much and you will meet the real limit even if your vehicle has plenty of power left.

A car is much more that the power output of its engine. It therefore has a role to play in this limit.

"Power is nothing without control" - Pirelli

"Fun is not a straight line" - BF Goodrich

"The analogy of the blog holds" - GP poster

For any given vehicle, the design of the highway given the design of the vehicle will impose a speed limit, which may be lower than the limit of how fast land vehicles can move, and may be lower than how fast the particular vehicle can move.

The analogy does hold for the purposes of a fluffy motivational blog post, of course.

The only limit is yourself....


They might of downvoted you, but this is hilarious. Thanks for sharing my man. I feel invincible now.

I agree with your conclusion. Just a nitpick:

I wouldn't trust the strong version of the accelerating change hypothesis. Actually augment our intelligence, or at least our speed of thought probably require major breakthroughs in neuroscience and relevant fields in engineering, which may occur as not-so-predictable quantum leaps.

Plus, there the safety problem: if we ever enhance someone's intelligence, we may want to make sure that (i) it doesn't make him mad, and (ii) the guy doesn't plan to take over the world. The proper sanity checks may require yet other breakthroughs.

In the end, Friendly AI may be easier.

Also, change in technology may find itself outstripping society's ability (or willingness) to integrate it. In fact, I'd say it already is, and has been for quite some time.

We have the technology already to facilitate incredible intelligence - it's just extremely unevenly distributed, and stifled by lack of political will and social inertia.

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