Ring fitting factors and dehydration detection experiment

I have noticed recently that the ring I am wearing no longer fits as well as it used to.  Over the same period I have had several events mess with my regular routine, including my regular behaviours around drinking water and automatically staying hydrated, locally the seasons have changed and at the same time I have lost around 10% of my body weight, and heavily modified my diet and exercise routine.

Through some quick searching I have a short list of common causes of rings not fitting.

  • Pollen and other allergens
  • weather features (humid, cold – shrink, hot – expand)
  • dehydration
  • circulation problems, and other major health changes (pregnancy, quit smoking, stroke or heart problems, major weight change)

I am motivated to believe that the cause of my ring not fitting is related to dehydration and none of the other causes that it could possibly be.  If that is the case, and if this information can be used by other people, I have found a quick, easy, analog detection method for dehydration (where existing methods are not great).

I assume that if my ring is loose, I am in need of hydration.  I plan to test this premise over the next several months and will publish what I find.

This does seem too easy, so I suspect I am missing details in my simple theory.  For example – the effect size of other causes of variability in finger size, (e.g. weight loss, the weather)

Meta: this took 30mins to write.

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No negative press agreement

What is a no negative press agreement?

A no negative press agreement binds a media outlet’s consent to publish information provided by a person with the condition that they be not portrayed negatively by the press.

Why would a person want that?

In recognising that the press has powers above and beyond every-day people to publish information and spread knowledge and perspective about an issue that can be damaging to an individual.  An individual while motivated by the appeal of publicity, is also concerned about the potential damage caused by negative press.

Every person is the hero of their own story, from one’s own perspective they performed actions that were justified and motivated by their own intention and worldview, no reasonable person would be able to tell their story (other than purposefully) in which they are spun as the negative conspirator of a plot, actively causing negative events on the world for no reason.

Historically, humans have been motivated to care more about bad news than good news, for reasons that expand on the idea that bad news might ring your death (and be a cause of natural selection) and good news would be irrelevant for survival purposes.  Today we are no longer in that historic period, yet we still pay strong attention to bad news.  It’s clear that bad news can personally effect individuals – not only those in the stories, but others experiencing the bad news can be left with a negative worldview or motivated to be upset or distraught.  In light of the fact that bad news is known to spread more than good news, and also risks negatively affecting us mentally, we are motivated to choose to avoid bad news, both in not creating it, not endorsing it and not aiding in it’s creation.

The binding agreement is designed to do several things:

  • protect the individual from harm
  • reduce the total volume of negative press in the world
  • decrease the damage caused by negative press in the world
  • bring about the future we would rather live in
  • protect the media outlet from harming individuals

Does this limit news-maker’s freedom to publish?

That is not the intent.  On the outset, it’s easy to think that it could have that effect, and perhaps in a very shortsighted way it might have that effect.  Shortly after the very early effects, it will have a net positive effect of creating news of positive value, protecting the media from escalating negativity, and bringing about the future we want to see in the world.  If it limits media outlets in any way it should be to stop them from causing harm.  At which point any non-compliance by a media entity will signal the desire to act as agents of harm in the world.

Why would a media outlet be an agent of harm?  Doesn’t that go against the principles of no negative press?

While media outlets (or humans), set out with the good intentions of not having a net negative effect on the world, they can be motivated by other concerns.  For example, the value of being more popular, or the direction from which they are paid for their efforts (for example advertising revenue).  The concept of competing commitment, and being motivated by conflicting goals is best covered by Scott under the name moloch.

The no negative press agreement is an attempt to create a commons which binds all relevant parties to action better than the potential for a tragedy.  This commons has a desire to grow and maintain itself, and is motivated to maintain itself.  If any media outlets are motivated to defect, they are to be penalised by both the other press and the public.

How do I encourage a media outlet to comply with no negative press?

Ask them to publish a policy with regard to no negative press.  If you are an individual interested in interacting with the media, and are concerned with the risks associated with negative press, you can suggest an individual binding agreement in the interim of the media body designing and publishing a relevant policy.

I think someone violated the no negative press policy, what should I do?

At the time of writing, no one is bound by the concept of no negative press.  Should there be desire and pressure in the world to motivate entities to comply, they are more likely to comply.  To create the pressure a few actions can be taken:

  • Write to media entities on public record and request they consider a no negative press policy, outline clearly and briefly your reasons why it matters to you.
  • Name and shame media entities that fail to comply with no negative press, or fail to consider a policy.
  • Vote with your feet – if you find a media entity that fails to comply, do not subscribe to their information and vocally encourage others to do the same.

Meta: this took 45mins to write.

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

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The call of the void

L’appel du vide – The call of the void.

When you are standing on the balcony of a tall building, looking down at the ground and on some track your brain says “what would it feel like to jump”.  When you are holding a kitchen knife thinking, “I wonder if this is sharp enough to cut myself with”.  When you are waiting for a train and your brain asks, “what would it be like to step in front of that train?”.  Maybe it’s happened with rope around your neck, or power tools, or what if I take all the pills in the bottle.  Or touch these wires together, or crash the plane, crash the car, just veer off.  Lean over the cliff…  Try to anger the snake, stick my fingers in the moving fan…  Or the acid.  Or the fire.

There’s a strange phenomenon where our brains seem to do this, “I wonder what the consequences of this dangerous thing are”.  And we don’t know why it happens.  There has only been one paper (sorry it’s behind a paywall) on the concept.  Where all they really did is identify it.  I quite like the paper for quoting both (“You know that feeling you get when you’re standing in a high place… sudden urge to jump?… I don’t have it” (Captain Jack Sparrow, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, 2011). And (a drive to return to an inanimate state of existence; Freud, 1922).

Taking a look at their method; they surveyed 431 undergraduates for their experiences of what they coined HPP (High Place Phenomenon).  They found that 30% of their constituents have experienced HPP, and tried to measure if it was related to anxiety or suicide.  They also proposed a theory.

…we propose that at its core, the experience of the high place phenomenon stems from the misinterpretation of a safety or survival signal. (e.g., “back up, you might fall”)

I want to believe it, but today there are Literally no other papers on the topic.  And no evidence either way.  So all I can say is – We don’t really know.  s’weird.  Dunno.

This week I met someone who uncomfortably described their experience of toying with L’appel du vide.  I explained to them how this is a common and confusing phenomenon, and to their relief said, “it’s not like I want to jump!“.   Around 5 years ago (before I knew it’s name) an old friend recounting the experience of living and wondering what it was like to step in front of moving busses (with discomfort), any time she was near a bus.  I have coaxed a friend out of the middle of a road (they weren’t drunk and weren’t on drugs at the time).  And dragged friends out of the ocean.  I have it with knives, in a way that borderlines OCD behaviour.  The desire to look at and examine the sharp edges.

What I do know is this.  It’s normal.  Very normal.  Even if it’s not 30% of the population, it could easily be 10 or 20%.  Everyone has a right to know that it happens, and it’s normal and you’re not broken if you experience it.  Just as common a shared human experience as common dreams like your teeth falling out, or of flying, running away from groups of people, or being underwater.  Or the experience of rehearsing what you want to say before making a phone call.  Or walking into a room for a reason and forgetting what it was.

Next time you are struck with the L’appel du vide, don’t get uncomfortable.  Accept that it’s a neat thing that brains do, and it’s harmless.  Experience it.  And together with me – wonder why.  Wonder what evolutionary benefit has given so many of us the L’appel du vide.  

And be careful.

Meta: this took one hour to write.

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

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  • Men are evil
  • All men are evil
  • Some men are evil
  • most men are evil
  • many men are evil
  • I think men are evil
  • I think all men are evil
  • I think some men are evil
  • I think most men are evil

“I think” weakens your relationship or belief in the idea, hedges that I usually encourage are the some|most type. It weakens your strength of idea but does not reduce the confidence of it.

  • I 100% believe this happens 80% or more of the time (most men are evil)
  • I 75% believe that this happens 100% of the time (I think all men are evil)
  • I 75% believe this happens 20% of the time (I think that some men are evil)
  • I 100% believe that this happens 20% of the time (some men are evil)
  • I (Reader Interprets)% believe that this happens (Reader Interprets)% of the time (I think men are evil)

They are all hedges.  I only like some of them.  When you hedge – I recommend using the type that doesn’t detract from the projected belief but instead detracts from the expected effect on the world.  Which is to say – be confident of weak effects, rather than unconfident of strong effects.

This relates to filters in that some people will automatically add the “This person thinks…” filter to any incoming information.  It’s not good or bad if you do/don’t filter, just a fact about your lens of the world.  If you don’t have this filter in place, you might find yourself personally attached to your words while other’s remain detached from words that seem like they should be more personally attached to.  This filter might explain the difference.

This also relates to Personhood and the way we trust incoming information from some sources.   When we are very young we go through a period of trusting anything said to us, and at some point experience failures when we do trust.  We also discover lying, and any parent will be able to tell you of the genuine childish glee when their children realise they can lie.  These experiences shape us into adults.  We have to trust some sources, we don’t have enough time to be sceptical of all knowledge ever and sometimes we outsource to proven credentialed professionals i.e. doctors.  Sometimes those professionals get it wrong.

This also relates to in-groups and out-groups because listeners who believe they are in your in-group are likely to interpret ambiguous hedges in a neutral to positive direction and listeners who believe they are in the out-group of the message are likely to interpret your ambiguous hedges in a neutral or negative direction.  Which is to say that people who already agree that All men are evil, are likely to “know what you mean” when you say, “all men are evil” and people who don’t agree that all men are evil will read a whole pile of “how wrong could you be” into the statement, “all men are evil”.

Communication is hard.  I know no one is going to argue with my example because I already covered that in an earlier post.

Meta: this took 1.5hrs to write.

Cross posted to lesswrong: http://lesswrong.com/lw/nv7

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Productivity – List Notch system

This is a write up of my current to do list system.  My system and the method of this write up is based on Mark Forster‘s to do lists.  If you are familiar with The Final Version Perfected you will be able to recognise elements from that system.

It’s not perfect, but it has been working for a few weeks now.  I have difficulty often with tasks of variable “size” and variable “time” (these are both a measure of “getting it done”).  I started with the FVP and modified as I felt like it.  This is my Notch system.

I am confident, and I have not yet written about in detail:  telling someone your final system is a bit like giving to someone in the pre-industrial revolution, “a working 2010 car” and expecting them to use that to build their own.  If they are a very very good engineer they will work out how to take it apart and how to put it back together so that they can build their own and get driving.  Systems are not necessarily as complicated as a car, and it’s maybe not so hard to give someone a to-do list system and expect them to make use of it, but I am cautiously providing my system with the caveat that it might not just “work”.  I also don’t credit myself for using a working car in contrast to being in the pre-industrial revolution.

I believe the skill that underpins systems, the one that doesn’t get mentioned often enough when we talk about systems that do or don’t work for us, is the underlying meta-system of trying things and iterating on the results.

Having states my caveats about cars and underlying iterative systems…  This is where I am today.

To start, make a list of all the tasks that you want to do today in any order that they come to mind.  If you are confident that things cannot be done today, they don’t belong on the list.  i.e. tasks requiring a specific geographic location that you are not intending on visiting today.  Consider things that might be due, things that are large are acceptable.

–I make assumptions that significantly small tasks of under 5 minutes don’t belong on the list, and regular activities don’t need reminding (i.e. dinner with friends).

Example list:
Battery blocks

Next to each task, write how long you predict it will take.  These will be wrong, that’s okay – one of the things we are training is predictive power over future tasks, another is acceptance of the total time you do or do not have in your day.

Example list:
Dogs – 1.5hr
Space – 20mins
write – 1hr
Sanding – 3hrs
Emails – 5hrs
Battery blocks – 3hrs

An important thing that time-estimates can reveal is whether you were planning to surprise yourself by completing more than 24 hours of “expected work” in an 8 hour work day.  With that in mind it might be worthwhile planning what you wont to do today.  Hold onto this thought for now.  (my example list has 13hrs and 50 mins on it)

Look down the list and decide either what you will do first, or what you will do last (or both) and number them accordingly.

Example list:
Dogs – 1.5hr
Space – 20mins
2. write – 1hr
6. Sanding – 3hrs
1. Emails – 5hrs
Battery blocks – 3hrs

Example list:
4. Dogs – 1.5hr
1. Space – 20mins
3. write – 1hr
5. Sanding – 3hrs
2. Emails – 5hrs
4. Battery blocks – 3hrs

If you find that two tasks are equal, number them the same number.  It doesn’t really matter.  Do either of them first!  You can decide later when you get to that number.  If they are equally important then doing either of them is winning at deciding what to do.

After the list is numbered, do the first thing.  If you don’t want to do that, you can reconsider the numbers, or just do the next thing instead.

After some period of time you might find yourself bored of whatever task you are on, or for whatever reason doing something else.  (I will sometimes do a bit of email while taking a moment from other tasks).  Don’t worry!  This system has you covered.  Any time you feel like it – look to your list and put a notch next to tasks that you have done.

Example list:
4. Dogs – 1.5hr
1. Space – 20mins – |
3. write – 1hr – ||
5. Sanding – 3hrs
2. Emails – 5hrs – ||
4. Battery blocks – 3hrs

I did the number 1 and I finished so I crossed it out, but I didn’t finish 2.  What I did was do one “notch” of work on 2, and then do a notch on 3, then go back to 2 for another “notch”, and go ahead and do another notch on 3.

I use notches because sometimes I don’t finish a task but I put a volume of effort into it.  In either time or in depth of work required.  Sometimes a notch will be a really hard 10 minute stretch, or a really easy two hour streak.  The notch time is the time it takes you to come back to the list and consider doing the other tasks.

This seems to be effective for tasks that will need a break, you still get some credit for a notch but you don’t get to cross it out yet.  A notch is up to you.  but really it’s just a way to keep track of how much of the thing you hacked away.  Some tasks take 5 notches, some take 1.  If it’s the end of the day and a task is incomplete but has 4 notches done – you get to feel like you did complete 4 notches even though other tasks were completed in 1 notch.  This task is clearly bigger and harder to complete.

I like that this listing permits larger tasks to be on the same list as “one notch” sized tasks.  In the sense that you can still track the productivity and progress even without completing the tasks.

Where this system fails:

  • On days like today, where I don’t feel like writing out the list (most of my day is ugh, getting out of bed was hard).  Happens about once a month for me.  But also a workaround seems to be to write a list the night before, or look at yesterdays list for clues about where to begin.  Still – failure mode happens.
  • On days with other fixed appointments – sometimes it’s hard to decide what to do in the limited time frame, but that’s where estimates come in, as well as thinking backwards for time management, as described in that post.
  • For really really big tasks.  I have a task that is likely to take at least 20 hours over two days and it requires me to be in a set place and work on nothing else during that time.  That task has not made it onto this list system and probably never would.  In the mean time, lots of small tasks are getting done.

Meta: this took 2 hours to write.  Today has been a day full of suck and I don’t know why but at least I wrote this out.

Cross posted to lesswrong: http://lesswrong.com/lw/nv1

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The barriers to the task

For about two months now I have been putting in effort to run in the mornings.  To make this happen, I had to take away all the barriers to me wanting to do that.  There were plenty of them, and I failed to leave my house plenty of times.  Some examples are:

Making sure I don’t need correct clothes – I leave my house shirtless and barefoot, and grab my key on the way out.

Pre-commitment to run – I take my shirt off when getting into bed the night before, so I don’t even have to consider the action in the morning when I roll out of bed.

Being busy in the morning – I no longer plan any appointments before 11am.  Depending on the sunrise (I don’t use alarms), I wake up in the morning, spend some time reading things, then roll out of bed to go to the toilet and leave my house.  In Sydney we just passed the depths of winter and it’s beginning to get light earlier and earlier in the morning.  Which is easy now; but was harder when getting up at 7 meant getting up in the dark.

There were days when I would wake up at 8am, stay in bed until 9am, then realise if I left for a run (which takes around an hour – 10am), then came back to have a shower (which takes 20mins – 10:20), then left to travel to my first meeting (which can take 30mins 10:50).  That means if anything goes wrong I can be late to an 11am appointment.  But also – if I have a 10am meeting I have to skip my run to get there on time.

Going to bed at a reasonable hour – I am still getting used to deciding not to work myself ragged.  I decided to accept that sleep is important, and trust to let my body sleep as long as it needs.  This sometimes also means that I can successfully get bonus time by keeping healthy sleep habits.  But also – if I go to sleep after midnight I might not get up until later, which means I compromise my “time” to go running by shoving it into other habits.

Deciding where to run – google maps, look for local parks, plan a route with the least roads and least traffic.  I did this once and then it was done.  It was also exciting to measure the route and be able to run further and further each day/week/month.

What’s in your way?

If you are not doing something that you think is good and right (or healthy, or otherwise desireable) there are likely things in your way.  If you just found out about an action that is good, well and right and there is nothing stopping you from doing it; great.  You are lucky this time – Just.Do.It.

If you are one of the rest of us; who know that:

  • daily exercise is good for you
  • The right amount of sleep is good for you
  • Eating certain foods are better than others
  • certain social habits are better than others
  • certain hobbies are more fulfilling (to our needs or goals) than others

And you have known this a while but still find yourself not taking the actions you want.  It’s time to start asking what is in your way.  You might find it on someone else’s list, but you are looking for the needle in the haystack.

You are much better off doing this (System 2 exercise):

  1. take 15 minutes with pencil and paper.
  2. At the top write, “I want to ______________”.
  3. If you know that’s true you might not need this step – if you are not sure – write out why it might be true or not true.
  4. Write down the barriers that are in the way of you doing the thing.  think;
    • “can I do this right now?” (might not always be an action you can take while sitting around thinking about it – i.e. eating different foods)
    • “why can’t I just do this at every opportunity that arises?”
    • “how do I increase the frequency of opportunities?”
  5. Write out the things you are doing instead of that thing.
    These things are the barriers in your way as well.
  6. For each point – consider what you are going to do about them.


  • What actions have you tried to take on?
  • What barriers have you encountered in doing so?
  • How did you solve that barrier?
  • What are you struggling with taking on in the future?

Also related: http://bearlamp.com.au/setting-up-my-work-environment-doing-the-causation-backwards/

Meta: this borrows from the Immunity to Change process, that can be best read about in the book, “right weight, right mind”.  It also borrows from CFAR style techniques like resolve cycles (also known as focused grit), hamming questions, murphy-jitsu.

Meta: this took one hour to write.

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

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Time management and do your tasks in a different order

I have been trying out some (new for me) time management techniques.  Various people tell me that they do this naturally, but I had to learn it manually.

This one involves:

  1. Noticing that you don’t really know what you are doing right now.
  2. Looking up when and where is the next fixed appointment.
  3. Calculating how long between now and then.
  4. Working out what you want to do before the appointment.
  5. Counting down and counting backwards through the rest of the time and work out how much spare time you have.

In a worked example:

  1. It’s 8am and I don’t really know what I have to do next.
  2. I have a meeting at 12am.
  3. that’s 4 hours away
  4. Before that meeting I want to:
    • check facebook
    • check my emails
    • Have breakfast
    • write a post
    • travel to the appointment
    • Shower and dress for the appointment
  5. In time calculations that is:
    • check facebook – unknown
    • check my emails – I could spend 30mins on it.
    • Have breakfast – 15mins
    • write a post – 2 hours
    • Shower and dress for the appointment – 20mins
    • travel to the appointment – 20mins

Total: 3hrs 25mins + facebook time.

In this example, if my facebook time takes 35 minutes, I have literally no wiggle room on my estimates.  But more importantly – if I do my facebook time first – and then fail to stop at 35mins, it means that I will either be running late for the rest of the day OR I will have to cut something short.  The old me would probably cut the last task in the list short.  Which might mean running late to the appointment, and it might mean not finishing writing a post on that day, and leaving it as a draft.

Recently I have been trying out a new factor on this system.  To change the order of the tasks.  Some tasks have fixed lengths in time.  Some tasks are more flexible.  For example, the amount of time it takes to shower and get ready is relatively fixed in time.  However the amount of time it takes to write a post can vary extensively.

With this in mind, I will change the order of the tasks.  Where I used to have a shower last, just as I am rushing out – so that I am fresh clean and ready for a meeting (a great idea if I do say so myself). I will now do something like this:

  • Shower and dress for the appointment – 20mins
  • write a post – 2 hours
  • check my emails – I could spend 30mins on it.
  • Have breakfast – 15mins
  • Shower and dress for the appointment – 20mins
  • travel to the appointment – 20mins
  • check facebook – unknown

Or even:

  • Shower and dress for the appointment – 20mins
  • write a post – 2 hours
  • Have breakfast – 15mins
  • Shower and dress for the appointment – 20mins
  • travel to the appointment – 20mins
  • check my emails – I could spend 30mins on it.
  • check facebook – unknown

Do the fixed tasks all in a row and then do the flexible tasks last.  This means I might have got to my appointment 65 minutes early in the 2nd order, or 35 minutes early in order 1, and worked there on the FB or email.

This also means that if any task has to get cut, truncated or shortened due to a failure of myself to account for time, or some blip happening, like traffic, difficulty finding parking, a blog post taking longer to write or any number of other possibilities – The least important task (of checking facebook) gets cut.  Not one of the more important ones.

Today is not a day to work on cutting down or cutting out of facebook, or sending strategic emails that reduce my email workload.  Today is just a day to do things in a different order.  See how that goes, and make incremental progress on the problem of time management.

Meta: this took 20 minutes to write and I am nearly running late to my next appointment.

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

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Wicked Problems

Nothing is a wicked problem.

When I started researching problems and problem solving and solutions and meta-solving processes I stumbled across a wicked problem. This is from Wikipedia:

Rittel and Webber’s 1973 formulation of wicked problems in social policy planning specified ten characteristics:[3][4]

  1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem.
  2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule.
  3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good or bad.
  4. There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.
  5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a “one-shot operation”; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial and error, every attempt counts significantly.
  6. Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan.
  7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique.
  8. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.
  9. The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem’s resolution.
  10. The social planner has no right to be wrong (i.e., planners are liable for the consequences of the actions they generate).

Conklin later generalized the concept of problem wickedness to areas other than planning and policy.  The defining characteristics are:

  1. The problem is not understood until after the formulation of a solution.
  2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule.
  3. Solutions to wicked problems are not right or wrong.
  4. Every wicked problem is essentially novel and unique.
  5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a ‘one shot operation.’
  6. Wicked problems have no given alternative solutions.

Defeating a wicked problem

It took me a while to realise what a wicked problem was.  It is evil.  It’s a challenge.  It’s a one-shot task that you don’t really understand until you are attempting to solve it, and then you influence it by trying to solve it.  It’s wicked.  And then I started paying attention to everything around me.  And suddenly being a social human was a wicked problem.  Every new interaction is not like the last ones, as soon as you enter the interaction it’s too late; and then you only have one shot.  Any action towards the problem adds more complexity to the problem.

Then I looked to time management.  Time management is a wicked problem.  You start out knowing nothing.  It takes time to work out what takes time.  And by the time you think you have a system in place you are already burning more time.  Just catching up on a bad system is failing at the wicked problem.

Then I looked to cooking.  No two ingredients are the same.  Even if you are cooking a thing for the 100th time, the factors of the day, the humidity, temperature, it’s going to be different.  You can’t know what’s going to happen.

Then I looked at politics.  And that’s what wicked problems were invented around, social problems where trying to solve the problem changes the problem.  And nothing makes it easier.

Then I took my man-with-a-hammer syndrome and I whacked myself on the head with it.

Okay so not everything is a hammer-nail wicked problem.  Even wicked problems are not a wicked problem.  There are problems out there that are really wicked problems, but it would be rare that you find one.

There is a trick to solving a wicked problem.  The trick is to work out how it’s not a wicked problem.  Sure if it’s wicked by design so be it.  But real problems in the real world are only pretending to be wicked problems.

  1. The problem is not understood until after the formulation of a solution.

Yeah, okay.  So you don’t really get the problem.  That’s cool.  You have done problems before.  And done problems like this before too.  The worst thing to do in the case of being presented with a problem which is not understood is to never attempt it.  If you don’t understand – it’s time to quantify what you do understand and quantify what you don’t understand. After that it’s time to look at how much uncertainty you can get away with and how to solve that.  If in doubt refer to the book How to measure anything.

2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule.

Real wicked problems don’t have a stopping rule but real world problems do.  Or you can give them one anyway.  How many years is enough years of life.  “I don’t know I will decide when I get there”.  How much money is enough money? “I will first earn my next 10 million dollarydoos and then decide what to do next”.  Yes.  A wicked problem has no stopping rule.  But that’s not the real world.  In the real world even a fake stopping rule is good enough for your purposes.

3. Solutions to wicked problems are not right or wrong.

Okay.  Maybe a tricky one.  Lots of things are not right or wrong.  “should I earn to give, or should I bring around FAI sooner?”.  Who knows?  Right now people are arguing about it but we don’t really know.  If you are making decisions based on right or wrong you probably want to do the right thing.  We know already that if you can’t decide that makes all options equally good and irrelevant what you choose.  If you can make one more right than the other – do that.  It’s probably not a real wicked problem.  “How should I format this word document” is not a right or wrong, but it’s also irrelevant.

4.  Every wicked problem is essentially novel and unique.

Yes.  If you are facing a truly novel and unique problem there is nothing I can say that can help you.  But if you are not, there are many options.  You can:

  • build a model scenario and test solutions
  • look for existing examples of similar problems and find similar solutions
  • try to break the problem into smaller known parts
  • consider doing nothing about the problem and see if it solves itself

IF a problem is truly unique, then you really have no reason to fear the unknown because it was not possible to be prepared.  If it’s not unique – be prepared (we are all always being prepared for problems all the time)

5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a ‘one shot operation.’

Yea, these are hard.  Maybe some of the solutions to 4 will help.  Build models, try search or create similar scenarios (why do trolley problems exist other than to test one-shot problems with pre-thought-out examples).  You only get one shot to launch a nuclear missile the first time (and we are very glad that we didn’t ignite the atmosphere that time).  Now days we have computer modelling.  We have prediction markets, we have Bayes.  We can know what we don’t know.  And we can make it significantly less dangerous to launch into space – risking the lives of astronauts when we do.

6.  Wicked problems have no given alternative solutions.

Yes.  Wicked problems don’t, but real world problems could, and often do.  Find those solutions, or the degrees of freedom in your problem.  Search and try to confirm possible options, find friend scenarios, and use everything you have.

Nothing is a wicked problem.

Meta: This took 1 hour to write and has been on my mind for months.  Coming soon: Defining what is a problem

Cross posed to lesswrong: http://lesswrong.com/lw/nui


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The ladder of abstraction and giving examples

When we talk about a concept or a point it’s important to understand the ladder of abstraction.  Covered before on lesswrong and in other places as advice for communicators on how to bridge a gap of knowledge.

Knowing, understanding and feeling the ladder of abstraction prevents things like this:

  1. Speakers who bury audiences in an avalanche of data without providing the significance.
  2. Speakers who discuss theories and ideals, completely detached from real-world practicalities.

When you talk to old and wise people, they will sometimes give you stories of their lives.  “back in my day…”.  Seeing that in perspective is a good way to realise that might be people’s way of shifting around the latter of abstraction.  As an agenty-agent of agenty goodness – your job is to make sense of this occurrence.  The ladder of abstraction is very powerful when used effectively and very frustrating when you find yourself on the wrong side of it.

The flipside to this example is when people talk at a highly theoretical level.  I suspect this happens to philosophers, as well as hippies.  They are very good at being able to tell you about the connections between things that are “energy” or “desire”, but lack the grounding to explain how that applies to real life.  I don’t blame them.  One day I will be able to think completely abstractly.  Today is not that day.  Since today is not that day, it is my duty and your’s to ask and specify.  To give the explanation of what the ladder of abstraction is, and then tell them you have no idea what they are talking about.  Or as for the example above – ask them to go up a level in the ladder of abstraction.  “If I were to learn something from your experiences – what would it be?”.

Lesswrong doing it wrong

I care about adding the conceptual ladder of abstraction to the repertoire for a reason.  LW’ers are very good at paying attention to details.  A really powerful and important ability.  After all – the fifth virtue is argument, the tenth is precision.  If you can’t be precise about what you are communication, you fail to value what we value.

Which is why it’s great to see critical objections to what OP’s provide as examples.


I object when defeating an example does not defeat the rule.  Our delightful OP may see their territory, stride forth and exclaim to have a map for this territory and a few similar mountains or valleys.  Correcting the mountains and valleys map mentioned doesn’t change the rest of the territory and does not change the rest of the map.

This does matter. Recently a copy of this dissertation came around the slack – https://cryptome.org/2013/09/nolan-nctc.pdf.  It is a report detailing the ridiculous culture inside the CIA and other US government security institutions.  One of the biggest problems within that culture can be shown through this example (page 34 of the report):

The following exchange is a good example, told to me by a CIA analyst who was explaining the rules of baseball to visitors who didn’t know the game:

Analyst A: So there are four bases–
Analyst B: — Well, no, it’s really three bases plus home plate.
Analyst A: … Okay, three bases plus home plate. The batter hits the ball and advances through the bases one by one—
Analyst C: — Well, no, it doesn’t have to be one base at a time.

And these ones on page 35:

The following excerpts from stories people have told me or that I witnessed further illustrate this concept:

John: I see you’ve drawn a star on that draft.
Bridget: Yeah, that’s just my doodle of choice. I just do it unconsciously sometimes.
John: Don’t you mean subconsciously?

Scott: Good morning!
Employee in the parking lot: Well, I don’t know if it’s good, but here we are.

Helene: I am so thirsty today! I seriously have a dehydration problem.
Lucy: Actually, you have a hydration problem.

Victoria: My hopes have been squashed like a pancake.
James: Don’t you mean flattened like a pancake?

For those of us that don’t have time to read 215 pages.  The point is that analyst culture does this.  A lot.  From the outside it might seem ridiculous.  We can intellectually confidently say that the analysts A, B and C in the first example were all right, and if they paid attention to the object of the situation they would skip the interruptions and get to the point of explaining how baseball works.  But that’s not what it feels like when you are on the inside.

The report outlines that these things make analyst culture a difficult one to be a part of or be engaged in because of examples like this.

We do the same thing.  We nitpick at examples, and fight over irrelevant things.  If I were to change everyone’s mind, I would rather see something like this:

No one denies that people have different metabolisms.

Statements including “no one denies that …” are usually false.  Regardless, my goal here was to…  

Taken literally, yes. However these statements are not intended to be taken literally…

Turn into:

No one denies that people have different metabolisms.

My goal here was to ask people…

(*yes this is not a very good example of an example, this is an example of a turn of speech that was challenged, but the same effect of nitpicking on irrelevant details is present).

Nitpicking is not necessary.  

Sometimes we forget that we are all in the same boat together, racing down the river at the rate that we can uncover truth.  Sometimes we feel like we are in different boats racing each other.  In this sense it would be a good idea to compete and accuse each other of our failures on the journey to get ahead.  However we do not want to do that.

It’s in our nature to compete, the human need to be right! But we don’t need to compete against each other, we need to support each other to compete against Moloch, Akrasia, Entropy, Fallacies and biases (among others).

I am guilty myself.  In my personal life as well as on LW.  If I am laying blame, I blame myself for failing to point this out sooner, more than I blame anyone else for nitpicking examples.

The plan

Next time you go to comment; Next time I go to comment, think very carefully about if you can improve, if I can improve – the post I am commenting on, before I level my objections at it.  We want to make the world a better place.  People wiser, older, sharper and witter than me have already said it; “if you are looking for where to start…  you need only look in the mirror”.

Meta: this took 3 hours to write.  This post could do with more examples.

Cross posted to Lesswrong: http://lesswrong.com/lw/nuh

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Addendum to applicable advice

If you see advice in the wild and think somethings along the lines of “that can’t work for me”, that’s a cached thought.  It could be a true cached thought or it could be a false one.  Some of these thoughts should be examined thoroughly and defeated.

If you can be any kind of person – being the kind of person that advice works for – is an amazing skill to have.  This is hard.  You need to examine the advice and decide how that advice happened to work, and then you need to modify yourself to make that advice applicable to you.

All too often in this life we think of ourselves as immutable.  And our problems fixed, with the only hope of solving them to find a solution that works for the problem.  I propose it’s the other way around.  All too often the solutions are immutable, we are malleable and the problems can be solved by applying known advice and known knowledge in ways that we need to think of and decide on.

Is it really the same problem if the problem isn’t actually the problem any more, but rather the problem is a new method of applying a known solution to a known problem?

(what does this mean) Example: Dieting – is an easy example.

This week we have been talking about Calories in/Calories out.  It’s pretty obvious that CI/CO is true on a black-box system level.  If food goes (calories in) in and work goes out (calories out – BMR, incidental exercise, purposeful exercise), that is what determines your weight.  Ignoring the fact that drinking a litre of water is a faster way to gain weight than any other way I know of.  And we know that weight is not literally health but a representation of what we consider healthy because it’s the easiest way to track how much fat we store on our body (for a normal human who doesn’t have massive bulk muscle mass).

CICO makes for terrible advice.  On one level, yes.  To modify the weight of our black box, we need to modify the weight going in and the weight going out so that it’s not in the same feedback loop as it was (the one that caused the box to be fat).  On one level CICO is exactly all the advice you need to change the weight of a black box (or a spherical cow in a vacuum).

On the level of human systems: People are not spherical cows in a vacuum.  Where did spherical cows in a vacuum come from?  It’s a parody of what we do in physics.  We simplify a system down to it’s basic of parts and generate rules that make sense.  Then we build up to a complicated model and try to find how to apply that rule.  It’s why we can work out where projectiles are going to land because we have projectile motion physics (even though often air resistance and wind direction end up changing where our projectile lands, we still have a good guess.  And we later build estimation systems based on using those details for prediction too).

So CICO is a black-box system, a spherical cow system.  It’s wrong.  It’s so wrong when you try to apply it to the real world.  But that doesn’t matter!  It’s significantly better than nothing.  Or the blueberry diet.

The applicable advice of CICO

The point of applicable advice is to look at spherical cows and not say, “I’m no spherical cow!”.  Instead think of ways in which you are a spherical cow.  Ways in which the advice is applicable.  Places where – actually if I do eat less, that will improve the progress of my weight loss in cases where my problem is that I eat too much (which I guarantee is relevant for lots of people).  CICO might not be your silver bullet for whatever reason.  It might be grandma, it might be Chocolate bars, It might be really really really delicious steak.  Or dinner with friends.  Or “looking like you are able to eat forever in front of other people”.  If you take your problem.  Add in a bit of CICO, and ask, “how can I make this advice applicable to me?”.  Today you might make progress on your problem.

And now for some fun from Grognor:  Have you tried solving the problem?

Meta: this took 30mins to write.  All my thoughts were still clear after recently writing part 1, and didn’t need any longer to process.

Part 1: http://bearlamp.com.au/applicable-advice/
Cross posted to lesswrong: http://lesswrong.com/lw/nuf

(part 1 on lesswrong: http://lesswrong.com/r/discussion/lw/nu3/applicable_advice/)

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