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I am very interested in certain subjects which are quite complex (and not very mainstream), but I find it hard to learn about them since there seems not be a lot of introductory content about such subjects.

For example, I wanted to learn about computational intelligence and I picked up a book from the library, but quickly gave up reading it since it was way more complicated than I could handle (it was meant for graduate students). When reading the book, I couldn't tell exactly what I needed to learn for the book to make sense.

Also, I don't want books which are too mainstream (i.e. reading books like: "How AI will destroy the world")

So my question is: How can I learn about things which may appear to be unapproachable due to their difficulty/lack of documentation for beginners?

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This is too short to be it's own answer, but there are plenty of books describing complex topics in layman's terms. For example, all of the "For Dummies" books. Or my personal favorite, 'The Quantum World: Quantum Physics for Everyone' by Kenneth Ford. They're out there, so don't burden yourself with material you don't feel you can handle. Find the right book and you'll understand it just fine. –  EricPsy Jun 18 '12 at 16:53
    
Look at book reviews on Amazon to find books that are popular, read the reviews to see if they are appropriate for beginners. Specifically for learning about AI, I highly recommend "AI: A Modern Approach" by Russell Stuart and Peter Norvig. –  Nick Jun 19 '12 at 21:24
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11 Answers

I've gone through this, so I can give you advice from my own experience.

I wanted to learn how to make automatic photo stitching software. I've picked up technical paper on the subject and haven't understood a word.

I extracted the keywords and searched for books that included "matrix inverse", "projective geometry", "numerical optimization" etc.

I ended with a set of "good" books that explained these topics, but still were too elaborate.

I finally bought two Shaum's Outlines books - I learned basics about statistics and linear algebra.

Then I moved to books that explained the higer level topics. Sometimes I had to use Wikipedia and sometimes I downloaded technical papers and e-books on the same topic just to read about the same thing in another words (this helps greatly!).

Of course, you don't need to learn everything about elementary topics. If you need to iunderstand "blood pressure", for example, you don't need to learn everything about anatomy. Just pick what is useful to you at the moment.

Nevertheless, learning more in the elementary topics will give you stronger foundation and more confidence, but the book can be left in your shelf for further study.

Depending on what area you study, there are set of "must-reads", excellent books on the topic containing gems you need for connecting the dots. Ask a teacher about these. People who extensively studied the topic will give you the references.

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So as a slightly out-there response. Consider the idea of starting/editing the wikipedia page about the subject - it turns out that this makes you not only engage and think critically about the material (when you're reviewing and modifying other people's content), but also to synthesis the facts you have managed to eake out of the more complex texts (when you are adding new content to an article). There's an interesting bonus that quite a lot of wikipedia editing consists of finding sources for statements that are already there - which gives you lots of exercises of the form (article says X, find a source that supports or contradicts X)

...never thought I'd recommend wikipedia editing on a personal productivity site...

EDIT - to add to this a little bit - it's surprising what you can learn from a fields humour - if you do a search for something along the likes of 'Machine learning humour' you end up finding out a lot of about the culture and context of an area even if you don't necessarily 'get' the jokes..

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I can say from personal experience that this is a wonderful way to learn complex topics. I created my own wiki when I started grad school and added pages to it for any concepts I encountered in my readings, schooling, discussions, etc. The ability to link between pages and connect concepts was both fun and helped me understand and recall that information later. –  EricPsy Jun 18 '12 at 16:48
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One excellent method for learning new subjects , especially those more complex, is to research tutorials or books, read through them, and write a paper or wikipedia-level document describing the subject in your own words. This also helps commit the topics to long-term memory.

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Ask a librarian. If you are in a large city, the public library should have a decent reference librarian that should have a Master's in Library Science and capable of doing good research for you. If you are in a smaller city or town, many times they won't have librarians who have been trained in research. I would then go to a local college and talk to a librarian there. I know many college and university libraries in my area are open to the public getting library cards and using the services there. Sometimes they may charge you a small fee as you are not paying tuition to have access to the electronic databases but if you are an avid autodidact you may find this extremely beneficial.

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As Eugene suggests, try to figure out what you want to achieve. If you want to know something about computational intelligence, ask yourself this first:

  • What is the purpose of reading, watching lectures (youtube) or tryout demos?
  • How popular is the subject? Could anyone I know help me describe the basics? Otherwise post a question on a relevant forum.

And always write down notes if you want to use it in the furture (in your own words).

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+1 for your last point about wiring notes about what you want to learn/understand. –  kami Mar 6 '12 at 7:21
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'Complex' and 'complicated' are two different attributes, although some subjects are both.

A work that is complex can often be broken down into simply understood parts. It helps to outline or mind-map the subject as you go to easily see how the pieces fit together and prevent information overload.

Complicated works on the other hand require educational material aimed at your own level. Hop on to Amazon, find a book on the topic and the reviews will let you soon know what level it's aimed at. Follow Amazon's summary of which other books people looking at this listing went on to buy instead. Keep a keen eye out for alternative book recommendations in reviews that look appropriate for your level--for example, "A much easier to understand book is xxx."

Another tip is don't worry too much if you're not understanding what you are reading. Often the next few pages will make it clear so don't get bogged down rereading the same paragraph over and over before moving on. Read a chapter quickly, then reread quickly if necessary.

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Check the references. At the end of chapter, article or book there should be plenty of references. There are suppose to point You to additional materials connected to particular topics. Then You should also check those. After some tries You will be familiar with authors and topics in general and You can decide if You prefer to focus on sources or on derived works.

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I would look for research materials first by looking for a syllabus for a university class on the subject. If it is a complex and esoteric subject, but not super complex or esoteric, then there is probably a University with a class on it. Specifically for things like Computational Intelligence or AI that you mentioned I know that there are classes on it in many schools.

There are a number of advantages of looking at the syllabus for a class on the subject:

  • The professor probably has looked at a majority of the books on the subject, and made a concerted effort to pick the one that will be the best resource for his students.
  • There might be additional reading material that you can find linked from the class webpage or even in the syllabus itself.
  • Many times there will be a list of subjects from start to finish in schedule-form. This can help if for example the book is not very well organized (many college-level books are not, and are therefore taught in a different order than what is in the book).
  • If there is a website for the class, there could be assignments that you can use to judge your progress based on how well you think you can answer the questions or perform the tasks.
  • There may be links to practical references or free or open-source software toolkits that you can download to help you in the class.
  • If the course material is too complicated, usually there will be pointers to prerequisite classes that you can look at to get some base knowledge where they may have all of these resources for the lower-level knowledge too.

There really are a lot of resources that professors usually provide to their students for these high level classes. The higher level (and therefore more complex), the more they are just giving information and resources to the student, that they will use for a project or something for the class but will also be invaluable to you if you are researching on your own.

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And you can check out the prerequisite courses too which will tell you what base knowledge they expect you to have coming into the course. –  HLGEM Jun 15 '12 at 19:09
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Before you want to start the study of a subject, figure out what you want to achieve. If it is a philosophical matter, figure out what questions you want answered, or what theories you would like to understand such that you can explain them to a 5-year old.

If it is a technical matter, pick a project you would like to complete and start studying the elements that you think are needed as steps towards achieving your goals. This is how I study programming, I have a project in mind and while reading a book I see what I will need. I read about some things that I will not need, but they help in drawing a bigger picture on the language.

In the end, besides knowledge, you will also get a sense of completion.

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The answer to this question will probably very subject specific.

How old are you? Are you in University? Often the best way to get started on something like this is to get in touch with others who have already struggled through the beginner stage and see what advice they have to offer. If you're in a university setting, try to find faculty or older graduate students working on these areas and ask them for advice.

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Ask an expert on the subject about where you can find information/documentation. If it looks like a book is meant for grad students, then ask a grad student for the prerequisite books/courses. Reach out to a professor if possible.

If you're in college, you can look at the Computer Science curriculum to see if they have an AI class (for example) and look at the prerequisites for it.

It could also be a matter of material that's freely available (such as in the library or the internet) versus material you have to pay for (books, college courses, etc.). For example, I know that my public library doesn't carry very good books for Java programming, but I do know about the "Head First" series (which aren't available at my library). If I only knew about the books at my library, I would consider learning Java difficult. However, since I know that "Head First" series explain concepts really well, I know it would be easy to learn Java. So maybe you've had similar results; you've found free stuff that's really basic, or way too advanced. Maybe it's just a matter of knowing the right book/material.

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