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From the Absolute Basics

September 24, 2011

There’s a real gap in the world of tutorials. Not just for code, but in general. We see hundreds, even thousands, of “Beginner’s” or “For Dummies” books on a variety of topics. We see plenty of advanced books, which cover incredibly advanced topics in an efficient manner, assuming you meet the prerequisite knowledge. But what’s severely missing, is the middle. Sometimes, you want to take on an advanced topic, and you know you have the intelligence to learn everything you need for it, but you lack the necessary prerequisites. This leads to those many posts on StackExchange, AskHN, or wherever else, asking “What’s the best book on learning X?” or “How best to get started learning Y?”, because, at this point, the path to the level of knowledge you seek often follows a wide and twisting path through long books encompassing a wide array of topics you don’t need to know about, just because they’re the only books that cover the basics you need to know. And yet, because the information is spread out throughout the book or tutorial or whatever medium you’re learning from, it’s impossible to skip to just one section to learn what you need! And if you go straight to the advanced tutorials, they assume you know plenty of things you just don’t!

For example, I know I’m good at math. I’ve taken or am taking college level Statistics and Calculus II courses and doing extremely well, near best in class. I’m sure, with enough effort (as true for any topic for any person really) I could learn Category Theory. However, when I open a very popular link on HackerNews today claiming to be “Category Theory for Dummies”, I’m lost. While yes, this is in part due to the fact that it is a presentation without the accompanying audio, it exemplifies an overall trend. It assumes that the notation will make sense to you. It assumes you know what an “ML Type” is. Googling “ML Type” does not yield that useful of results. What I want is a tutorial that assumes nothing. Every topic in the tutorial, starting just after basic middle school algebra, is either explained, or linked to a similarly written tutorial that the author knows will prepare you for his or her own. This applies for every topic–math, code, even art. I want tutorials that work vertically up a chain, so those of any knowledge level can jump in at the point they need to! Yes, this is asking a lot. Authors who want to write on advanced topics would need to start with a gigantic amount of introductory explanation just to get where the reader to where they want. But this is a niche that could be filled. I know I would wholeheartedly and without regret hand chunks of my money to a business who could supply tutorials like this. Think of it as a CodeSchool, for any topic, built on the idea of tutorials that teach every link in the chain to an advanced subject, all interlinked and ready for someone of any experience level. I’ve only recently seen initiatives to teach subjects from their raw basics (Codeacademy is a good example) but I want to see this style teaching that continues all the way through machine learning, or advanced linear algebra, or particle physics! A business (preferably a website) that provides this service would be guaranteed my money, and in my opinion, plenty of others would be interested too.

If there exists a resource for tutorials of this style that I’m unaware of, feel free to include it in a comment. If you think there’s a better avenue for learning advanced topics that would make a business such as this unnecessary, I’d like to hear that too. But until then, I’m waiting. Waiting for a place where I can learn incredibly advanced topics from the absolute basics.

P.S. Like this post? Want to see it happen? Upvote or discuss it on HackerNews and maybe the startup world will take note!

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