# Vaniver comments on SotW: Be Specific - Less Wrong

34 03 April 2012 06:11AM

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Comment author: 03 April 2012 05:02:41AM *  44 points [-]

An example of this that will be familiar to any programmer, and was taught to me in grade school, is "give orders to a malicious idiot." The teacher has the students write down the algorithm for a simple task, like "sharpen a pencil," with a wooden pencil and an old crank-operated sharpener as the props.

Typically, people begin with something like "stick the pencil into the sharpener, then turn the crank," which the teacher will do by ineffectually pushing the side of the pencil against the sharpener while turning the crank. The students revise to "stick the end of the pencil into the hole in the sharpener, then turn the crank," which the teacher will do by sticking the eraser into sharpener. (There are, if I remember correctly, four or five different features you can require the pencil-sharpening algorithm have, like which end of the pencil to stick into what part of the sharpener, which way to turn the crank, to hold the pencil still so it doesn't just spin with the crank or fall out if the sharpener is oriented poorly.)

(This will be familiar to programmers because going from the basic algorithm to code requires a level of detail that can't be faked.)

Comment author: 03 April 2012 04:12:08PM 18 points [-]

I was reminded of something similar by AspiringKnitter's post below. There is an event in Science Olympiad called Write It Do It. One person is given a constructed object made out of LEGO, K'Nex, or similar. They write a set of instructions for how to reproduce the object. These are then given to a teammate who hasn't seen the original object, who must use the instructions to reconstruct the original object. Seems fairly simple to adapt to a group setting - you could just split the group into two rooms and have them first write their own instructions and then try to follow the instructions of a partner in the other room.

This exercise and malicious idiot exercise differ in the "when" and "by whom". With a malicious idiot, your errors are pointed out immediately and by somebody else. When writing instructions, your errors don't come to light until your partner's object doesn't look like yours, and neither of you might notice until that point. It's important to notice a lack of specificity both in others (so they don't lead you astray) and in yourself (so you don't lead yourself astray), so it would probably be useful to do both kinds of exercises.

Comment author: 03 April 2012 04:21:38PM 8 points [-]

There's a lower-overhead version of the LEGO exercise involving pen and paper: person A draws a design on a piece of paper and hands it to person B, who writes instructions for how to reproduce that shape and hands them to person C, who follows them. Then compare A's output to C's.

Naturally, this can be done in parallel with N people, all of whom start out as As and end up as Cs.

Of course, this kind of depends on A not knowing what's coming, since otherwise A just draws a circle or something.

Comment author: 03 April 2012 05:30:50PM 1 point [-]

This game is particularly fun when chained; A draws, B describes, C draws, D describes, and so on. Then you see how the shape transformed over time.

Comment author: 03 April 2012 06:21:02PM 2 points [-]

There's actually an online game called "Doodle or Die" for playing this. It being an online game, however, there are a disgustingly large number of players who break the chain (willfully or non).

Comment author: 04 April 2012 05:47:20AM 5 points [-]

We've played this at meetups a few times.

It hammered in the illusion of transparency pretty well. (Puppy Trampoline -> Drawing -> If you jump on a dog you make it stronger).

Comment author: 04 April 2012 05:55:39PM 2 points [-]

I remember that! I think the biggest obstacle to clarity in the game is actually the rarity of artistic skill, not the vagueness of the written descriptions, though.

Comment author: 03 April 2012 06:23:41PM 1 point [-]

I've played a similar game in person - I think it was Telestrations. You get a word from a stack of cards, and try to draw that word. The next player guesses which word you were trying to draw, and the next player tries to draw that word (and so on). Fun party game.

Comment author: 04 April 2012 03:42:39PM *  0 points [-]

Except that the aim of telephone pictionary is to produce hilariously incongruous lists of phrases and pictures, and the aim of this game is, well, the opposite.

Erm... posted this in the wrong thread, then "retracted" it -didn't actually know what that button did. Oh well...

Comment author: 04 April 2012 03:46:10PM 0 points [-]

If you reload, you can delete a retracted comment.

Comment author: 04 April 2012 07:35:43AM *  0 points [-]

This is the party game called "Eat Poop You Cat" (pronounced "I'pupiukat") or "Telephone Pictionary".

Comment author: 04 April 2012 03:43:18PM 0 points [-]

Except that the aim of telephone pictionary is to produce hilariously incongruous lists of phrases and pictures, and the aim of this game is, well, the opposite.

Comment author: 03 April 2012 12:58:49PM 12 points [-]

Once a year, an acquaintance of mine gets his first-year programming class to tell him how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Even more knobs. :)

Comment author: 04 April 2012 08:10:26PM 2 points [-]

The best question I ever encountered during an interview for a Technical Support position was to describe either that or tying your shoes. It's a great test of whether a prospective employee will be able to actually communicate troubleshooting concepts to the caller on the other end of the line, since obviously they can't use anything but words to do so :)

Comment author: 03 April 2012 06:26:56AM 8 points [-]
Comment author: 03 April 2012 06:10:23AM 13 points [-]

I think this is a great idea! One addition I think would be useful is that (after a demo), have people get into small groups and take turns being the "malicious idiot" (instead of just the teacher playing this role). This will allow them to think of the issue from the OTHER side. (and be more kinetically interactive)

Comment author: 03 April 2012 07:52:50AM *  0 points [-]

An example of this that will be familiar to any programmer, and was taught to me in grade school, is "give orders to a malicious idiot." The teacher has the students write down the algorithm for a simple task, like "sharpen a pencil," with a wooden pencil and an old crank-operated sharpener as the props.

... Then the malicious idiot stabs you in the eye with the pencil. Oh, the malicious idiot was supposed to follow orders and only follow orders? Why didn't you say so?!

Comment author: 03 April 2012 02:10:09PM 3 points [-]

Why didn't you say so?!

Because I love setting other people up for jokes.

Comment author: 03 April 2012 08:58:15AM *  2 points [-]

I guess the malicious idiot is not suppossed to be creative, but lazy. They should use the simplest possible explanation -- only the simplicity is not measured by common sense, but by something like Solomonoff prior.

Comment author: 04 April 2012 03:09:21AM 2 points [-]

I don't think this a good restriction. Consider the fact that Hanlon's Razor is even a thing:

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

This suggests that people often mistake stupidity for malice. So given that in these examples, your opponent probably does secretly understand what you're communicating (most of us know deep down how to sharpen a pencil), it might be necessary to have malice/creativity play the part of inferential distance. Otherwise you may learn to anticipate an unrealistically rational audience, one which never comes in with incorrect preconceived ideas, or lacks the necessary technical vocabulary, or seems to practice selective hearing, etc.

In short, original seeing is the exception, not the rule, so the opponent should be at least slightly hostile in his/her interpretations to account for this.

Comment author: 05 April 2012 08:35:39AM 1 point [-]

No, it's maliciousness, but very specifically aimed maliciousness. They don't want to hurt you, they just want to demonstrate that you are bad at giving directions.

Comment author: 03 April 2012 08:15:44PM *  0 points [-]

Darn it, this was the first thing I thought of, and now I can't get any credit for it!