Deriving techniques on the fly

Last year Lachlan Cannon came back from a CFAR reunion and commented that instead of just having the CFAR skills we need the derivative skills.  The skills that say, “I need a technique for this problem” and let you derive a technique, system, strategy, plan, idea for solving the problem on the spot.

By analogy to an old classic,

Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day.  Teach a man to fish and he never go hungry again.

This concept always felt off to me until I met Anna.  An american who used to live in Alaska where they have enough fish in a river that any time you go fishing you catch a fish, and a big enough one to eat.  In contrast, I had been fishing several times when I was little (in Australia) and never caught things, or only caught fish that were too small to feed one person, let alone many people.

Silly fishing misunderstandings aside I think the old classic speaks to something interesting but misses a point.  to that effect I want to add something.

Teach a man to derive the skill of fishing when he needs it. and he will never stop growing.

We need to go more meta than that?  I am afraid it’s turtles all the way down.


Noticing

To help you derive you need to start by noticing when there is a need.  There are two parts to noticing:

  1. triggers
  2. introspection
  3. What next

But before I fail to do it justice, agentyduck has written about this. Art of noticing, What it’s like to notice things, How to train noticing.

The Art Of Noticing goes like this:

  1. Answer the question, “What’s my first possible clue that I’m about to encounter the problem?” If your problem is “I don’t respond productively to being confused,” then the first sign a crucial moment is coming might be “a fleeting twinge of surprise”. Whatever that feels like in real time from the inside of your mind, that’s your trigger.
  2. Whenever you notice your trigger, make a precise physical gesture. Snap your fingers, tap your foot, touch your pinky finger with your thumb – whatever feels comfortable. Do it every time you notice that fleeting twinge of surprise.

How To Train Noticing

  1. I guess. I remember or imagine a few specific instances of encountering weak contrary evidence (such as when I thought my friend wasn’t attracted to me, but when I made eye contact with him across the room at a party he smiled widely). On the basis of those simulations, I make a prediction about what it will feel like, in terms of immediate subjective experience, to encounter weak contrary evidence in the future. The prediction is a tentative trigger. For me, this would be “I feel a sort of matching up with one of my beliefs, there’s a bit of dissonance, a tiny bit of fear, and maybe a small impulse to direct my attention away from these sensations and away from thoughts about the observation causing all of this”.

  2. I test my guess. I keep a search going on in the background for anything in the neighborhood of the experience I predicted. Odds are good I’ll miss several instances of weak contrary evidence, but as soon as I realize I’ve encountered one, I go into reflective attention so I’m aware of as many details of my immediate subjective experience as possible. I pay attention to what’s going on in my mind right now, and also what’s still looping in my very short-term memory of a few moments before I noticed. Then I compare those results to my prediction, noting anything I got wrong, and I feed that information into a new prediction for next time. (I might have gotten something wrong that caused the trigger to go off at the wrong time, which probably means I need to narrow my prediction.) The new prediction is the new trigger.

  3. I repeat the test until my trigger seems to be accurate and precise. Now I’ve got a good trigger to match a good action.


Derivations (as above) are a “what next” action.

My derivations come from asking myself that question or other similar questions, then attempting to answer them:

  • What should I do next?
  • How do I solve this problem?
  • Why don’t other people have this problem?
  • Can I make this problem go away?
  • How do I design a system to make this not matter any more?

(you may notice this is stimulating introspection – this is what it is)


Meta:

The post that led me to post on derivations is this post on How to present a problem hopefully to be published tomorrow.

This post took ~1 hour to write.

Cross posted to lesswrong: http://lesswrong.com/lw/ou0

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