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sketerpot comments on Open Thread June 2010, Part 3 - Less Wrong

6 Post author: Kevin 14 June 2010 06:14AM

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Comment author: sketerpot 14 July 2010 01:15:59AM *  13 points [-]

I think you've got something really important here. If you want to get someone to an intuitive understanding of something, then why not go with explanations that are closer to that intuitive understanding? I usually understand such explanations a lot better than more dignified explanations, and I've seen that a lot of other people are the same way.

I remember when a classmate of mine was having trouble understanding mutexes, semaphores, monitors, and a few other low-level concurrency primitives. He had been to the lectures, read the textbook, looked it up online, and was still baffled. I described to him a restroom where people use a pot full of magic rocks to decide who can use the toilets, so they don't accidentally pee on each other. The various concurrency primitives were all explained as funny rituals for getting the magic toilet permission rocks. E.g. in one scheme people waiting for a rock stand in line; in another scheme they stand in a throng with their eyes closed, periodically flinging themselves at the pot of rocks to see if any are free. Upon hearing this, my friend's confusion was dispelled. (For my part, I didn't understand this stuff until I had translated it into vague images not too far removed from the stupid bathroom story I told my friend. The textbook explanations are just bad sometimes.)

Or for another example, I had terrible trouble with basic probability theory until I learned to imagine sets of things that could happen, and visualize them as these hazy blob things. Once that happened, it was as if my eyes had finally opened, and everything became clear. I was kind of pissed off that all the classes I'd been in that tried to teach probability focused exclusively on the equations, so I'd had to figure out the intuitive stuff without any help.

As a side-note, this is one reason why I'm optimistic about online education like Salman Khan's videos. It's not that they're inherently better, obviously, but they have the potential for much more competition. I can imagine students in The Future comparing lecturers, with the underlying assumption that you can trivially switch at any time. "Oh, you're trying to learn about the ancient Roman sumptuary laws from Danrich Parrol's lectures? Those are pretty mind-numbing; try Nile Etland's explanations instead. She presents the different points of view by arguing vehemently with herself in several funny accents. It's surprisingly clear, even if she does sound like a total nutcase."

[Side-note to the side-note: I think more things should be explained as arguments. And the natural way to do this is for one person to hold a crazy multiple-personality argument-monologue. This also works for explaining digital hardware design as a bunch of components having a conversation. "You there! I have sent you a 32-bit integer! Tell me when you're done with it!" Works like a charm.]

Man, the future of education will be silly. And more educational!

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 14 July 2010 06:12:37AM 6 points [-]

Man, the future of education will be silly. And more educational!

It wouldn't surprise me if a big part of the problem now is the assumption that there's virtue to enduring boredom, and a proof of status if you impose it.

Comment author: Matt_Simpson 14 July 2010 06:33:39AM *  2 points [-]

It wouldn't surprise me if a big part of the problem now is the assumption that there's virtue to enduring boredom

If by boredom you mean dominance and inequality, then Robin Hanson has been riffing on this theme lately. The main idea is that employers need employees who will just accept what they're told do instead of rebelling and trying to form a new tribe in a nearby section of savannah. School trains some of the rebelliousness out of students. See e.g., this, this, and this.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 14 July 2010 11:50:07AM *  1 point [-]

No, by boredom I mean lack of appropriate levels of stimulus, and possibly lack of significant work.

Dominance and inequality can play out in a number of ways, including chaos (imagine a badly run business with employees who would like things to be more coherent), physical abuse, and deprivation. Imposed boredom is only one possibility.

Causing people to have, or feel they have, no alternatives is how abusive authorities get away with it.

Comment author: Alicorn 14 July 2010 01:19:26AM 2 points [-]

She presents the different points of view by arguing vehemently with herself in several funny accents.

That sounds like such fun!

Comment author: sketerpot 14 July 2010 01:31:03AM *  2 points [-]

It's every bit as fun as you imagine. And it works great.

Comment author: Emile 14 July 2010 07:29:26PM 0 points [-]

Heh, this reminds me of this discussion of Plain Talk on a wiki I participated in years ago. I must have drawn those little characters, what, ten years ago? Not quite (more like six or seven), but it feels like ages ago.

Comment author: Nisan 16 July 2010 04:29:55PM 1 point [-]

I agree with this. It is also true that people's intuitions differ, and people respond differently to different kinds of informal explanation. steven0461's explanation of Prisoner's Dilemma would be good for someone accustomed to thinking visually, for example. For this reason, your vision of individual explanations competing (or cooperating) is important.