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Useful Questions Repository

23 Post author: Qiaochu_Yuan 25 July 2013 02:58AM

See also: Boring Advice Repository, Solved Problems Repository, Grad Student Advice Repository, Useful Concepts Repository, Bad Concepts Repository

I just got back from the July CFAR workshop, where I was a guest instructor. One useful piece of rationality I started paying more attention to as a result of the workshop is the idea of useful questions to ask in various situations, particularly because I had been introduced to a new one:

"What skill am I actually training?"

This is a question that can be asked whenever you're practicing something, but more generally it can also be asked whenever you're doing something you do frequently, and it can help you notice when you're practicing a skill you weren't intending to train. Some examples of when to use this question:

  • You practice a piece of music so quickly that you consistently make mistakes. What skill are you actually training? How to play with mistakes.
  • You teach students math by putting them in a classroom and having them take notes while a lecturer talks about math. What skill are you actually training? How to take notes. 
  • A personal example: at the workshop, I noticed that I was more apprehensive about the idea of singing in public than I had previously thought I was. After walking outside and actually singing in public for a little, I had a hypothesis about why: for the past several years, I've been singing in public when I don't think anyone is around but stopping when I saw people because I didn't want to bother them. What skill was I actually training by doing that? How to not sing around people. 

Many of the lessons of the sequences can also be packaged as useful questions, like "what do I believe and why do I believe it?" and "what would I expect to see if this were true?" 

I'd like to invite people to post other examples of useful questions in the comments, hopefully together with an explanation of why they're useful and some examples of when to use them. As usual, one useful question per comment for voting purposes.

Comments (68)

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 26 July 2013 12:05:51AM *  27 points [-]

Another question (pre-mortem):

"It's now the future, and your current plan has failed. Why?"

Comment author: Emile 27 July 2013 02:47:33PM 5 points [-]

I believe that's called a pre-mortem.

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 28 July 2013 02:27:51AM *  2 points [-]

CFAR thinks pre-mortem is bad terminology because it encourages excessive pessimism. But yes. I'll edit the reference so it doesn't sound like CFAR invented this concept.

Comment author: [deleted] 25 July 2013 05:38:02AM 19 points [-]

"What is the next thing that physically needs to happen for this to move forward?"

Next actions are hard to get right. If something was stuck on my to-do list for a while, usually the next action wasn't quite immediate enough. Sometimes the answer is just 'schedule 20 minutes at a specific point in the future to think about how to move forward.'

(Of course, sometimes the problem is that I don't really want to do the list item. Then there's a different set of questions to ask.)

Comment author: malcolmocean 25 July 2013 09:03:10PM *  1 point [-]

It occurred to me that it could be neat to randomly choose an item from my GTD system and either do it that day or delete it (unless I could cite the specific external thing I was waiting for) the idea being that if I can't get it done that day, it's not sufficiently small and next-actiony. Has anyone done anything like this? Results?

Comment author: benkuhn 25 July 2013 09:27:16PM 0 points [-]

I've heard other people mention this approvingly, but I don't know if the actually did it. It's on my list of things to try at some point, though.

This is probably what you meant, but it might be more productive (and slightly less Hard Mode) to be able to choose "do immediately, do never, or break up into subtasks" while you're actually going through the list.

Also, there are some tasks that I actually do want to postpone because they're not my comparative advantage (for example, it's raining right now, so I want to postpone errands until later tonight when it stops). That's prone to rationalization, so I'm not sure how a system could handle that, but it's something to think about.

Comment author: DavidS 25 July 2013 04:27:18PM 18 points [-]

"What hidden obstacle could be causing my failures?"

My mental shorthand for this is the following experience: I try to pull open the silverware drawer. It jams at an inch open. I push it shut and try again, same result. I pull harder, it opens a tiny bit more before stopping.

Reflection: Some physical object is getting in the way of the motion. Something could be on the drawer track, but more likely it is inside the drawer. It is a rigid object, because I always stop at the same place, although slightly squashable because I was able to yank and pull a little harder. It is probably striking the inner wall of the cabinet in which the drawer is mounted. It is on an angle because I can't see it when I look through the inch gap. There is a fork or knife angled up and poking against the inner wall. Digging around with my finger quickly finds a fork.

Since then, I've brought up this question by asking myself "what is the fork in the drawer"?

For example, my linear algebra students generally seem smart and attentive, but they become confused whenever I do a detailed computation with inner products. After some thought about which computations confuse them, hypothesize that whoever taught them basic matrix manipulations didn't teach the "transpose" operator, and particularly didn't teach the rule (AB)^T = B^T A^T. Fixed very quickly. (Of course, I also try to encourage them to ask questions about what confuses them, but I think that it is impossible to ever get a class comfortable enough questioning you to not need to think on your own about what is the underlying difficulty causing confusion.)

Comment author: [deleted] 25 July 2013 02:08:37PM 17 points [-]

"Are we in a waiting loop?"

I've gotten into these with my wife, where I will be doing something thinking I am waiting for her, and she will be doing something thinking she is waiting for me. Asking this question periodically can help end deadlocks.

Comment author: pinyaka 27 July 2013 07:45:13PM 1 point [-]

How do you respond when the answer is"yes?"

Comment author: [deleted] 29 July 2013 01:52:45PM 2 points [-]

Normally, we just stop whatever it is that we're doing while waiting, and proceed to whatever it was we are going to be doing once we were both ready, because most of the time, we were both ready, we just thought the other person was not ready, and so we were waiting for them to be ready.

That being said, there are exceptions (where one person really isn't ready and is distracted as opposed to waiting), but even in the case of those exceptions, asking the question will generally also kick people out of a distracted mode as well.

Comment author: pinyaka 29 July 2013 06:04:38PM 0 points [-]

Interesting. My fiancee and I get stuck in similar loops, but to use your distinction, she seems to get distracted rather than finding something that can be easily stopped once I'm ready.

Comment author: Benito 25 July 2013 07:04:15AM 14 points [-]

Given Superationality, TDT, and the weight-loss post;

"Do I want to be the kind of person who makes this particular choice in this kind of situation?"

This pertains to decision theory as well as something you do often (adapted from weight-loss post: "Do I want to be the sort of person who eats a pack of doughnuts every time I pass a doughnut shop, or do I want to be thin?).

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 25 July 2013 08:00:49AM 8 points [-]

In some sense this is a subquestion of "what skill am I actually training?" It's also an interesting way to get to virtue ethics: "what virtue am I cultivating?"

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 25 July 2013 08:29:09AM *  12 points [-]

Awakening the Giant Within had a nice set of questions you could use if you were in what felt like a terrible situation, in order to reorient yourself to make the best of it:

  • What is great about this problem?
  • What is not perfect yet?
  • What am I willing to do to make it the way I want it?
  • What am I willing to no longer do in order to make it the way I want it?
  • How can I enjoy the process while I do what is necessary to make it the way I want it?

The author gives an example of a situation where he was exhausted after traveling for four months, and had countless of urgent memos and phone calls that he had to answer as soon as possible. Noticing that he was asking questions like "How come I have no time? Why don't they leave me alone?" that were just demotivating and depressing him further, he instead asked himself the above questions.

What is great about this problem?

My first response, like so many other times, was "Absolutely nothing!" But I thought about it for a moment and realized that just eight years ago I would have given anything to have twenty business associates and friends who wanted to visit with me, much less 100 people of such national impact and caliber that this list of friends and business associates represented. As I realized this, it broke my pattern, and I began to feel grateful that there were so many people whom I respect and love who wanted to spend time with me.

What is not perfect yet?

My schedule obviously needed more than a little fine-tuning. I felt like I had no time to myself, and that my life was out of balance. Note the presupposition of this question: asking "What is not perfect yet?" clearly implies that things will be perfect. This question not only gives you new answers, but reassures you simultaneously.

What am I willing to do to make it the way I want it?

I decided then that I was willing to organize my life and my schedule so that they were more balanced, and I was willing to take control and learn to say no to certain things. I also realized that I needed to hire a new CEO for one of my companies, someone who could handle some of my workload. This would give me more special time at home and with my family.

What am I willing to no longer do in order to make it the way I want it?

I knew that I could no longer whine and complain about how unfair it was or feel abused when people were really trying to support me.

How can I enjoy the process while I do what is necessary to make it the way I want it?

When I asked this last, most important question, I looked around for a way to make it fun. I thought, "How can I enjoy making 100 calls?" Sitting there at my desk did not turn up the mental and emotional juice. Then I got an idea: I'd not been in my Jacuzzi in six months. I quickly slipped on my swim trunks, grabbed my portable computer and speaker phone, and headed for the Jacuzzi. I set up shop out in my back yard, and started making the calls. I called a few of my business associates in New York and teased them, saying, "Really, it's that cold? Hmmm. Well, it's really tough out here in California, you know. I'm sitting here in my Jacuzzi!" We all had fun with it and I managed to turn the whole "chore" into a game. (But I was so wrinkled that I looked around 400 years old by the time I got to the bottom of my list!)

That Jacuzzi was always there in my back yard, but you'll notice that it took the right question to uncover it as a resource. By having the list of these five questions in front of you on a regular basis, you have a pattern of how to deal with problems that will instantly change your focus and give you access to the resources you need.

Related post on Less Wrong: Your Inner Google:

I just heard a comment by Braddock of Lovesystems that was brilliant: All that your brain does when you ask it a question is hit "search" and return the first hit it finds. So be careful how you phrase your question.

Say you just arrived at work, and realized you once again left your security pass at home. You ask yourself, "Why do I keep forgetting my security pass?" [...]

But you are not rational, and your brain is lazy; and as soon as you phrase your question and pass it on to your subconscious, your brain just Googles itself with a query like

why people forget things

looks at the first few hits it comes across, maybe finds their most-general unifier, checks that it's a syntactically valid answer to the question, and responds with,

"Because you are a moron."

Your inner Google has provided a plausible answer to the question, and it sits back, satisfied that it's done its job.

If you instead ask your brain something more specific, such as, "What can I do to help me remember my security pass tomorrow?", thus requiring its answer to refer to you and actions to remember things and tomorrow, your brain may come up with something useful, such as, "Set up a reminder now that will notify you tomorrow morning by cell phone to bring your security pass."

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 26 July 2013 06:17:08AM 11 points [-]

When prolonging a decision until you know more:

Would having this information actually influence my choice, or is it just an excuse to put off a painful decision?

Comment author: evand 28 July 2013 02:58:14PM 5 points [-]

I think something like this is more useful:

For each [reasonably likely] value that this information could take on, what would my choice be?

Ideally the two formulations result in the same answer, but I'd rather make it more explicit. It's easier to raionalize "yes, this would be influential" if you haven't actually produced the decision tree.

Comment author: Tem42 12 August 2015 02:18:13PM 0 points [-]

evand's formulation is also useful because in many situations when you identify the alternative outcomes, you may also see:

  • Later steps that will apply to either outcome that can be done or prepared for now.

  • Low cost things that you can do that will prepare you for alternative outcomes -- including in many cases a Google search, when you realize that you are lacking information about the less desired outcome.

  • Third options that you had not considered.

Comment author: Alejandro1 25 July 2013 03:42:34AM 10 points [-]

Do I really want to do this thing/buy this thing/eat this thing? Or is my impulse to do/buy/eat it just a cached thought, a habit from other times I have enjoyed it, even though now I do not really feel like it?

Comment author: [deleted] 26 July 2013 11:45:22AM *  3 points [-]

I kind-of have the opposite issue, so sometimes I might ask myself: Would giving up $X actually be such a big deal that I'd rather forgo the enjoyment of doing this thing/buying this thing/eating this thing? (OTOH I have to also ask myself: How often will I have to make this same choice again?)

Comment author: RichardKennaway 25 July 2013 08:29:19AM 8 points [-]

"What skill am I actually training?"

Teachers can also ask themselves, "what skill am I actually teaching?"

Comment author: ChristianKl 25 July 2013 10:26:48AM 4 points [-]

Teacher is also a very general word. We often teach others something in normal conversation.

Comment author: CoffeeStain 25 July 2013 08:11:09AM *  8 points [-]

"What is the part of me that is preventing me from moving forward worried about?"

Be careful not to be antagonistic about the answer. The goal is to make that part of you less worried, thus making you more productive overall, not just on your blocked task. The roadblock is telling you something that you haven't yet explicitly acknowledged, so acknowledge it, thank it, incorporate it into your thinking, and resolve it.

Example: "I'm not smart enough to solve this math problem." Worry: "I would need to learn a textbook's worth of math right now in order to solve it. I must go learn it now." Resolution: "It's fine that I don't have the ability to solve the problem, and learning the math in 5 minutes is impossible and not necessary to satisfy my goals here. Trying to solve it the best I can will help me learn the math for future problems."

Comment author: DanArmak 26 July 2013 05:11:51PM 7 points [-]

You're probably learning (reinforcing) more than one skill at a time, in different proportions. Sometimes you unavoidably reinforce a bad thing but it's still worthwhile in order to learn a good thing at the same time. It's very good to be aware of all that you are learning - so I suggest formulating your question in the plural: "what skills am I training, at what tradeoffs?"

For example:

  • You're going to make some mistakes as you learn a new piece of music; as you practice more, you stop making mistakes. There are better and worse tradeoffs in terms of initial playing speed and mistakes made.
  • While students learn to take notes (irrelevant) and parrot the teacher's answers (mostly harmful), they also learn actual math, and this can be a great tradeoff.
Comment author: Lumifer 25 July 2013 05:09:27AM 7 points [-]

"Which assumptions am I relying on without being conscious of it?"

To answer this question it's often useful to invert it: what would have to be true (or not true) to invalidate my conclusion?

Comment author: benkuhn 25 July 2013 09:43:15PM 6 points [-]
  • What model of the world/way of thinking/worldview generated the things this person is saying?

  • What game am I playing? What are the rules (or, more relevantly, what aren't) and how do I win?

  • What is the goal of this conversation? (Note: you must be careful to answer with the actual goal, not the goal you think you should have or the goal you would answer with in public. For instance, if your answer is just "truth seeking" you are wrong with very high probability.)

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 26 July 2013 12:03:42AM 3 points [-]

One useful question per comment, please!

Comment author: BlueSun 25 July 2013 03:42:11PM 6 points [-]

Some variation of “What is the other person’s actual objective?” Or “Why did they do that?” or “What are they actually asking me?”

I started this habit in chess where it’s always useful to ask ‘why did my opponent make their last move?’ (and then see if there are answers past the obvious one). But I’ve also found it useful in other areas. Several times at work I've gone through iterations of something with someone because I answered exactly what they said instead of what they actually wanted. I now try to stop and ask them what their actual purpose is and it often saves me a bit of work.

Comment author: Randy_M 26 July 2013 11:27:37PM 2 points [-]

I wish more people would try to solve the problem rather than answer the question, especially when it takes little additional effort. example: q: "Will material x work in this scenario?" A1: "No, that's not a good choice." vs A2: "No, instead try or Y" or even A3: "No, in fact none of our products will."

Comment author: hamnox 30 July 2013 01:26:25PM 3 points [-]

Interesting. I get rather annoyed by people who run around trying to solve a problem they think I implied by my question, rather than giving me the information I requested specifically to solve my actual problem.

The other day, for example, I asked about my health insurance coverage. Just to be prepared, as I'm still covered by my parents' insurance and thought it would be prudent to have better emergency plans in place than "Call parents for help" or "Follow the doctor's lead and hope things work out". I got treated to a helping dose of panicked attempts to discern how I'd critically injured myself and fervent offers to drive me to an ER. It came with odd feeling of reverse deja vu, as if the scene were short one Professor McGonagall spitting "Gryffindors," like some bitter curse.

Comment author: Randy_M 30 July 2013 02:53:31PM 2 points [-]

Good point. Maybe the better advice than "try to solve the underlying problem" would be "check for obvious follow-up questions, and answer them."

In your situation, that's the difference between "Yes." and "Yes, it's by company x, and it will expire in 6 months unless we pay Y extra."

Comment author: Dues 05 March 2015 05:28:33AM 1 point [-]

This reminds me of of the times when I have to compile reports for users from our database. I started requiring that everyone gives me a reason why they want the reports. Most of the users aren't technical people so half the time I need to give them exactly what they asked for and half the time I need to give them something completely different. I've started preemptively adding the reason why I want something into my questions, and I have stopped bothering to guess why people want something. Now I go straight to asking questions.

Communication is hard.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 25 July 2013 05:21:38AM *  6 points [-]

"What am I believing that I have not noticed I am believing?"

To be asked whenever one notices oneself doing or feeling something unwelcome, and followed up with the usual "what is true about this and how do I know it?"

Comment author: Mestroyer 26 July 2013 03:25:49AM 5 points [-]

Am I doing something right now which I know to be stupid?

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 26 July 2013 09:06:43AM 5 points [-]

I imagine a tool that would ask me this question automatically in random intervals. The "yes" answer would make those intervals shorter, the "no" answer longer. And then there would be some reports and graphs about long-term improvement (or lack of).

Could be done as a smartphone application.

Comment author: [deleted] 26 July 2013 12:15:01AM *  5 points [-]

You teach students math by putting them in a classroom and having them take notes while a lecturer talks about math. What skill are you actually training? How to take notes.

Also 'how to follow mathematical reasoning,' which can be even more insidious: they feel like they understood all the lectures but then see the exam and have no idea where to start.

In a different scenario they learn to solve problems by doing textbook exercises, spend four years acing courses, then get to grad school and realize they have no idea how to go about research.

Comment author: BlueSun 25 July 2013 04:24:36PM 5 points [-]

How would I update my probabilities if I saw the opposite piece of evidence? What I’m trying to get at here is that “A” and “not A” can’t really be evidences for the same thing. And often it’s more obvious which way “not A” is pointing. A couple of examples:

I saw someone suggesting that maybe a certain Mr. Far Wright was secretly gay because, when the subject was broached, he had publicly expressed his dislike of homosexuality. There was even a wiki page (that I now can’t find) laying out the “law” that the more a person sounds like they hate gays the more likely they are to be gay. At first this sounded appealing*, but then I applied the “not A” test: “if Mr. Far Wright’s sexual orientation is unknown and I heard him publicly declare that he loved homosexual behavior, how would I update the probability that he is gay?” In that case, it seems clear that I’d update it towards him being gay. Therefore, it doesn’t really make sense that when Mr. Wright does that opposite—publicly declaring that he hates homosexual behavior—I also update my probability that he is gay.

Or another recent example I had from talking with someone about Mormonism. Someone said that not having the golden plates available for inspection wasn’t really evidence against Joseph Smith’s story because there were several good reasons why they weren’t available. I was about to concede when I realized that a world where the golden plates were observable would be strong evidence for Joseph Smith’s story so a world where they aren’t has to be at least weak evidence against his story. If A moves the probability quite a bit one way, not A has to at least minimally move the probability the other way.

*Sometimes, if all I can observe, is a denial, it is evidence that the person is guilty. For example, if I walked through the door and the first thing I heard was my toddler denying to my wife that he took the candy, it increases my probability that he did take candy. But too my wife—who already has the evidence that led her to make the accusation—a denial is evidence against him taking the candy (it increases the relative odds that his brother did it instead).

Did I keep all of my reasoning here correct? If not, there might be a better way to express the idea with a Bayesian network.

Comment author: Alicorn 25 July 2013 05:21:19PM 23 points [-]

Not-A for publicly declaring that one hates homosexual behavior isn't "publicly declaring that one loves homosexual behavior". It's just "not publicly declaring that one hates homosexual behavior". Your A-or-not-A has to cover all the possibilities, including remaining silently at home, awkwardly evading questions about homosexuality, making positive statements about heterosexuality but none directly about homosexuality, etc.

Comment author: PECOS-9 25 July 2013 10:08:32PM *  7 points [-]

Just to finish your thought: Because of this, it's possible that "A" and "the opposite of A" actually can both raise your estimate of p(B), even though "A" and "not A" can't, as BlueSun stated.

Comment author: DanArmak 26 July 2013 05:06:14PM 5 points [-]

That's the rebuttal I thought about too. In particular, the heuristic "if someone is vocal against gays, they are likely to be gay" (whether or not it's true) may arise in practice from the heuristic "if someone is vocal about gays, whether for or against, they are likely to be gay".

Comment author: wedrifid 27 July 2013 07:55:58PM *  1 point [-]

That's the rebuttal I thought about too. In particular, the heuristic "if someone is vocal against gays, they are likely to be gay" (whether or not it's true) may arise in practice from the heuristic "if someone is vocal about gays, whether for or against, they are likely to be gay".

I had the impression it arose from the heuristic "If someone makes a verbal status attack a low effort way to handle it is to attempt to reverse it". See also the ingenious reply to "X" that is "Your mom X".

Comment author: BlueSun 29 July 2013 03:47:29PM 0 points [-]

This is what I was trying to avoid with my asterisk, i.e., just talking about stealing candy does raise the probability they stole the candy. But once they're talking, confessing raises the probability they did it so not confessing should lower it.

On reflection, when my original question was designed to help make situations clearer, using an example that I felt I had to asterisk probably wasn't wise.

Comment author: DanArmak 29 July 2013 04:46:42PM 0 points [-]

just talking about stealing candy does raise the probability they stole the candy. But once they're talking, confessing raises the probability they did it so not confessing should lower it.

Even if this is so, the total evidence that they're talking + they're denying may still raise the probability they stole the candy.

We rarely know that people express strong opinions about homosexuals, without also knowing what their opinions are. The difference with your example of the candy is that your wife initiated the talk with your son; your son didn't come forward himself and declare out of the blue, "I am against stealing candy!"

Comment author: Manfred 25 July 2013 03:33:17AM 5 points [-]

I'll share the important questions from a game I play:

"If I act now, will I make gains? If not, can I just slowly grow and wait for an opening, or do I have to do something dramatic to even have a chance?"

"I've just finished something - what does that give me an advantage on doing right now?"

"What are the people around me better than me at, so that I can just follow their lead?"

"Are my feelings getting in the way right now?"

Comment author: beoShaffer 25 July 2013 03:23:20AM 5 points [-]

What is my goal here?/What counts as winning in this situation?

Comment author: [deleted] 25 July 2013 10:17:53PM *  4 points [-]

When thinking about explanations for my feelings or beliefs:

"Is that a cause, or a justification?"

It's usually important to consider both kinds of explanations. Mistaking one for the other is an especially nasty trap -- rationalization on one hand, miscalibration on the other.

Examples:

Say I'm explaining to someone why I always take a particular bike route to work -- "it's less stressful to cross the major streets this way." OK, that's a justification. What might be a cause? Well, it could be that my brain evaluated alternative routes, considered all arguments, and came to the conclusion that this was the best route. On the other hand, maybe when I ask myself this question, I remember that when I started biking, this was the only feasible route due to construction. So maybe there's a causal factor here unrelated to the optimality of the route -- I haven't changed routes out of habit. That's a red flag that I might be rationalizing, so I start more seriously considering alternate routes...

Or say I'm anxious about a talk I'm preparing. I ask myself why I'm anxious, and my brain comes back with "every time you think about it, you vividly recall how someone asked a question you couldn't answer at your last talk." That sounds more like a cause -- and on reflection, it doesn't justify being so anxious. (That realization doesn't immediately cure the anxiety, of course, but it gives me a lever to recalibrate it. I'll also put more thought into what questions might come up this time.)

Comment author: Risto_Saarelma 25 July 2013 01:18:32PM *  4 points [-]

List of questions for approaching and contextualizing problems I bookmarked a while ago:

21 Solution-Focused Techniques

Some of them seem to be for a setting where you're troubleshooting someone else's problems, but many seem like they'd also be useful as self-calibration questions.

Comment author: XFrequentist 05 August 2013 08:13:20PM *  2 points [-]

"Is this a science problem, or an engineering problem?"

Reading the lengthy discussion of this distinction in Eric Drexler's Radical Abundance made problems in several projects I've worked on recently seem much more solvable.

From Drexler's blog:

Science and engineering are inseparable domains of thought and action, linked by a shared language of mass and energy, molecules and thermodynamics, physical systems and physical law. This shared language makes communication deceptively easy — easy, because scientists and engineers can see every detail in the same way; deceptive, because they see these details in different contexts, forming different patterns and presenting different problems. In a fundamental sense, science and engineering are antiparallel, facing in opposite directions. The resulting gaps in understanding can open a chasm wide enough to trip a manager, or to swallow a project. [Emphasis added]

[...]

While science aims (ideally) to produce exact descriptions of all parameters of all members of a general class of physical systems, engineering aims to manufacture instances of a single kind of system, making choices to ensure that its functional parameters will equal or exceed those specified by a design description.

Likewise, while science aims to formulate a single theory that exactly fits all parameters of every description, engineering aims to design at least one description of a system having functional parameters that equal or exceed those required by one of a potential multiplicity of system concepts.

In this connection, is a proliferation of possible ways of satisfying a constraint good, or bad? In science, finding more possibilities creates greater uncertainty; in engineering, finding more possibilities provides greater freedom of design. This is a basic question with opposite answers — and there are many more.

Science and engineering share a language of physical systems and physical law, but they ask different questions, seek different knowledge, and serve different ends. The ramifications range from different views of the non-linear system dynamics to differences in working relationships and institutions. The consequences are pervasive and deep, familiar and surprising, and extend far beyond what I have sketched here.

[...]

Comment author: malcolmocean 26 July 2013 01:43:05AM *  2 points [-]

"What is the experience of the other people I'm interacting with?"

I have sometimes found empathy to be a complicated concept, but this question really cuts to the heart of it and causes your brain to model the situation from the other person's perspective and use that in your decision-making.

Intriguingly, this seems to even apply to interactions with my future selves. If I don't ask this question or one like it, I'm likely to write a massive todo list for myself—probably a completely impossible list, and delegate it to my tomorrow!self with very little thought. Then when that self encounters the list, it's so overwhelming and inconsiderate that I find it hard to deal with at all. If instead, I stop to wonder what the experience will be of my future self encountering the tasks I've delegated for it, I realize that it makes sense to prioritize much of that up front, and to frame the delegation process with more context around why my past self wanted the thing done. This is basically the difference between saying "Future self, do this" and "Future self, at the moment it seems to make sense to me that you do this stuff, for reasons X, Y, Z." or some similarly empathetic request... which is much less likely to produce e.g. reactance.

Comment author: sebmathguy 28 July 2013 12:50:46AM 0 points [-]

Your link is messed up.

Comment author: Risto_Saarelma 25 July 2013 01:25:17PM *  2 points [-]

I'm trying to figure out how to actually get around to installing these into my brain in some sort of useful manner instead of just reading through them and then forgetting all about them.

So now I got a meta-question for each of the questions, "In which situations would I like this question to automatically pop into my head?"

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 25 July 2013 06:59:04PM 3 points [-]

Two approaches that come to mind are doing what CFAR calls offline habit training (finding a concrete trigger, tying it to an action using vivid associations, and repeating the trigger-association-action loop continuously for, say, 10 minutes) and installing them as social norms (ask all your friends to start asking each other these questions when relevant).

Comment author: Benito 25 July 2013 08:25:25PM 6 points [-]

This reminds me - often, people who are trying to lucid dream will ask themselves if they're awake every time they go through a doorway. Once it's habit, it starts happening in dreams.

Then suddenly the answer changes.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 25 July 2013 08:23:27AM 2 points [-]

"What am I not noticing?"

Comment author: benkuhn 25 July 2013 09:18:44PM 4 points [-]

This question seems to be distinct from some of the others in that it requires insight to answer, not just insight to ask.

When you ask something like "what skill am I actually training", the answer is usually fairly obvious; the insight (that we often teach people based on some heuristic like "what would a teacher do" rather than the obviously correct "how can I get this person to reliably perform this skill") is encapsulated in the question.

That said, I don't typically ask myself this question. Is this a question you routinely ask yourself? If so, do you find that it's actually helpful to ask it, as distinct from the benefits you would get from e.g. a general cue like "think harder about this problem"?

Comment author: RichardKennaway 26 July 2013 08:59:44AM 1 point [-]

This question seems to be distinct from some of the others in that it requires insight to answer, not just insight to ask.

"Noticing" is at the interface between conscious and non-conscious processes. You can't deliberately bring something to your attention, unless it was already in your attention. Most of the rationality advice here is about how to do the right thing with what has come to your attention. But how does one learn to notice the right things? One way is deliberately directing your attention where there is likely to be something to notice -- hence all these "useful questions". Another is practicing habits of thought, by routinely asking these questions.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 25 July 2013 10:50:55PM 1 point [-]

That said, I don't typically ask myself this question. Is this a question you routinely ask yourself? If so, do you find that it's actually helpful to ask it, as distinct from the benefits you would get from e.g. a general cue like "think harder about this problem"?

Noticing is one of the basic skills of rationality, though not much mentioned here, other than the mantra, "I notice that I am confused." Noticing things both outside you, and inside you. You cannot update on evidence you have not noticed, search for evidence you have not noticed you need, think about what you have not noticed you need to think about, examine beliefs you have not noticed you are holding, or resolve a confusion you have not noticed you are in.

It is a useful question to ask from time to time, and especially when experiencing any perplexity.

Comment author: DanielLC 25 July 2013 04:27:31AM 2 points [-]

You practice a piece of music so quickly that you consistently make mistakes. What skill are you actually training? How to play with mistakes.

When you first learn a piece of music, you constantly make mistakes. If making mistakes while practicing meant you were just learning to make mistakes, then it would be impossible to learn not to make mistakes.

Comment author: [deleted] 25 July 2013 05:17:13AM 8 points [-]

You want to play slowly enough that you are just barely not making mistakes, and notice any mistake and practice that specific passage or figure until you can play it correctly. Maybe not everything needs to be perfect before you move on -- sometimes you want to build up an overall structure before filling in all the details -- but you will have to spend time unlearning mistakes if you just play the piece start to finish over and over again without paying attention to what you're really practicing.

My teachers never put it in such LW-y terms, but this is standard folk wisdom. This, and that mistakes aren't random, with practice decreasing the standard deviation of where your finger hits or something, but are instead usually the output of buggy mechanics. My teacher's teacher liked to say he's thankful for every mistake he makes, because it means that's one more mistake he never has to make again. A former LWer also wrote about this.

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 25 July 2013 04:56:36AM 4 points [-]

Not if you play slowly enough.

Comment author: roystgnr 25 July 2013 06:15:20AM 10 points [-]

But then the answer to "What skill am I actually practicing?" is "How to play really slowly." I'd agree that "Playing slowly to learn to play faster" is probably a smoother upgrade than "playing with mistakes to learn to play more accurately", but that's not obviously true.

Comment author: PECOS-9 25 July 2013 10:15:26PM *  3 points [-]

I've seen it suggested to practice at normal or faster-than-normal speeds, but only very short segments that you can play for sure without mistakes (one or two measures, repeated 10 times). Anecdotally it's worked pretty well for me, but so have other techniques (playing the whole thing slowly, playing at normal speed with mistakes...)

Of course, then the answer to "What skill am I actually practicing" is "how to play this tiny part of the song (and then stop)"...

Comment author: [deleted] 25 July 2013 10:25:54PM 3 points [-]

Yes, so you then practice the transitions between tiny parts, as well as starting at random points. Students who make unrecoverable mistakes in performances from memory often have to backtrack to the beginning of the previous part, because that's all they ever practiced starting from. (Even when you're not trying to memorize a piece, you're still building up a mental model and you don't always want things coarsely chunked.)

Comment author: beoShaffer 31 January 2014 12:12:40AM 1 point [-]

What is the outside view here?

Comment author: [deleted] 04 October 2013 04:25:08AM 1 point [-]

How do we more reliably ask ourselves the questions in the Useful Questions Repository?

Comment author: kpreid 26 July 2013 03:51:28AM 1 point [-]

“Do I still think this is the best option?”

You have an ordinary problem. You think about it and choose the best solution you see. After having partially implemented said solution, you have more information about both the problem and the solution, and so it may be worthwhile to reevaluate your original choice.

Comment author: Slackson 26 July 2013 10:54:09AM 0 points [-]

This is a very double-edged sword, for me at least. I'm inclined to change options so many times I never actually complete a solution.

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 28 July 2013 02:40:24AM 2 points [-]

So you need a new question! "What will I learn by doing this? How valuable is that knowledge?"

Comment author: [deleted] 04 October 2013 04:24:22AM 0 points [-]

I would love to identify more questions with the theme of "getting your concepts and beliefs closer to tacit reality as possible". I can't think of a better way to say it.

"Who is already occupying the kind of world that I want to be in such that I should go out and interview them?"