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Use the Try Harder, Luke

59 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 02 October 2008 10:52AM

Followup toTrying to Try

"When there's a will to fail, obstacles can be found."   —John McCarthy

I first watched Star Wars IV-VI when I was very young.  Seven, maybe, or nine?  So my memory was dim, but I recalled Luke Skywalker as being, you know, this cool Jedi guy.

Imagine my horror and disappointment, when I watched the saga again, years later, and discovered that Luke was a whiny teenager.

I mention this because yesterday, I looked up, on Youtube, the source of the Yoda quote:  "Do, or do not.  There is no try."

Oh.  My.  Cthulhu.

Along with the Youtube clip in question, I present to you a little-known outtake from the scene, in which the director and writer, George Lucas, argues with Mark Hamill, who played Luke Skywalker:

Luke:  All right, I'll give it a try.
Yoda:  No!  Try not.  Do.  Or do not.  There is no try.

Luke raises his hand, and slowly, the X-wing begins to rise out of the water—Yoda's eyes widen—but then the ship sinks again.

Mark Hamill:  "Um, George..."

George Lucas:  "What is it now?"

Mark:  "So... according to the script, next I say, 'I can't.  It's too big'."

George:  "That's right."

Mark:  "Shouldn't Luke maybe give it another shot?"

George:  "No.  Luke gives up, and sits down next to Yoda—"

Mark:  "This is the hero who's going to take down the Empire?  Look, it was one thing when he was a whiny teenager at the beginning, but he's in Jedi training now.  Last movie he blew up the Death Star.  Luke should be showing a little backbone."

George:  "No.  You give up.  And then Yoda lectures you for a while, and you say, 'You want the impossible'.  Can you remember that?"

Mark:  "Impossible?  What did he do, run a formal calculation to arrive at a mathematical proof?   The X-wing was already starting to rise out of the swamp!  That's the feasibility demonstration right there!  Luke loses it for a second and the ship sinks back—and now he says it's impossible?  Not to mention that Yoda, who's got literally eight hundred years of seniority in the field, just told him it should be doable—"

George:  "And then you walk away."

Mark:  "It's his friggin' spaceship!  If he leaves it in the swamp, he's stuck on Dagobah for the rest of his miserable life!  He's not just going to walk away!  Look, let's just cut to the next scene with the words 'one month later' and Luke is still raggedly standing in front of the swamp, trying to raise his ship for the thousandth time—"

George:  "No."

Mark:  "Fine!  We'll show a sunset and a sunrise, as he stands there with his arm out, straining, and then Luke says 'It's impossible'.  Though really, he ought to try again when he's fully rested—"

George:  "No."

Mark:  "Five goddamned minutes!  Five goddamned minutes before he gives up!"

George:  "I am not halting the story for five minutes while the X-wing bobs in the swamp like a bathtub toy."

Mark:  "For the love of sweet candied yams!  If a pathetic loser like this could master the Force, everyone in the galaxy would be using it!  People would become Jedi because it was easier than going to high school."

George:  "Look, you're the actor.  Let me be the storyteller.  Just say your lines and try to mean them."

Mark:  "The audience isn't going to buy it."

George:  "Trust me, they will."

Mark:  "They're going to get up and walk out of the theater."

George:  "They're going to sit there and nod along and not notice anything out of the ordinary.  Look, you don't understand human nature.  People wouldn't try for five minutes before giving up if the fate of humanity were at stake."

 

Part of the sequence Challenging the Difficult

Next post: "On Doing the Impossible"

Previous post: "Trying to Try"

Comments (44)

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Comment author: Will_Pearson 02 October 2008 11:48:34AM 7 points [-]

Once there were two aliens Phlix and Claz, deep in the galactic cluster.

Phlix: I've figured out how to travel between stars, all we have to do is create a machine that can improve its speed by 10% in a second. Claz: So if it is going 10km/h it can go 11 km/h... that is not going to help us reach the nearest stars. Phlix: You are neglecting the power of the exponent, if it continuously increases its speed by 10% every second, after an hour we would be travelling at 8 * 10^15 km/h or 2.2 * 10^16 m/s. Claz: But we don't understand energy and motion yet. Perhaps you should formulate a theory of these, to decide the feasibility of what you want to do first, before you set your heart on building this machine.. Phlix: But that would be admitting the possibility of defeat and not being able to create the future I want, I need to maintain my faith, else I might give up prematurely, without having done all that I could do. The future of our race depends on it, no longer would we be tied to the fate of a single planet. It is only a matter of time before a star goes nova in our vicinity, the geological records have shown the number of time that life on this planet has been reduced to less complex life, due to the radiation bursts. Perhaps next time we won't be so lucky and the entire atmosphere will be ionised. Claz: If this speed of travel is so easy, why haven't we seen other intelligent life forms visit us, from all across the skies yet. Phlix: Well that must be because intelligent life forms are very rare.

Comment author: Paul_Crowley 02 October 2008 12:12:22PM 19 points [-]

I'd have more sympathy with Luke (and thus more forgiveness for Lucas) if instead of the whole X-Wing moving when he tries it, we see a much less dramatic effect; perhaps aerials that were drooping stand up, or the flaps lift gently, or some such.

However, in such films the plausibility of the character's behaviour is always sacrificed in the interests of better visuals, or better drama; cf the zillion ludicrous excuses scriptwriters present for characters not telling each other what's going on.

Comment author: Simon_Tatham 02 October 2008 01:33:42PM 23 points [-]

Funny though this is, it's all conditional on Luke implicitly believing Yoda when he says it ought to be possible.

Consider the analogous situation if he'd tried to lift the X-wing out by simply wading out there, getting his hands under one end, and heaving with his arm and back muscles. He might manage to get the air-filled cockpit end to lift a little bit, briefly, with its buoyancy to help him, but he'd pretty quickly be convinced that it wasn't feasible to get the whole ship all the way out of the water like that and furthermore that he risked putting his back out irreparably if he tried any harder. Even if the galaxy's best weightlifter and weightlifting coach was sitting beside him opining that it was a feasible lift, I think it would be entirely reasonable for Luke not to repose complete trust in that judgment, to think "that's very easy for you to say", and to still be unwilling to try it again, at least until he'd had a lot more coaching to build his muscle, train his technique and increase his confidence.

Yoda, of course, is more interested in training Luke to resolutely and competently oppose evil than to lift spaceships, since in most cases other than this one the latter can be done at least as conveniently with a crane; so rather than spend another few years of patient coaching on lifting heavy objects, he just lifts the thing out himself and gets back to more important matters.

Comment author: retired_urologist 02 October 2008 03:05:04PM 4 points [-]

Not having grown up on science fiction, but being an avid reader of this blog: what is it with the reverence shown to science fiction stories and movies among OB's readers? From whence does the authority to give insight on important ideas emanate? I understand that many readers were motivated toward their current important interests by early exposure to SF. I also realize that some of the authors were/are scientists in their own right, but are they on the level of those scientific greats who are quoted (and frequently dispatched) here regularly? If so, why do not we see more quotes from the authors themselves, instead of from their characters and their story-lines? If these authors have such important insights, why is there not more discussion about the origins of those insights, how and why these authors have such utility in the field of important truths, such as occurs when the blog reviews EY's stories and their relationships to his actual work? I know I'm far older than most readers (or at least the commenters); is this a generational thing? It seems so out of line with the intense rationality of the group otherwise. Is it just enetertainment (I'm all for that), or what am I missing?

Comment author: taryneast 08 December 2010 03:02:30PM 1 point [-]

In many cases... for the same reason that several posts here quote George Orwell's essay "Politics and The English Language"... but Orwell himself has not seen fit to comment on the blog yet.

Comment author: AnthonyC 15 January 2013 10:46:01AM 5 points [-]

Some hypotheses: 1) These are stories that the posters and commenters can be reasonably sure a larger fraction of readers will be familiar with. Eliezer can reference Yoda or Frodo and we will know what he means, in the same way that I can say "Moses" or "Noah" and any member of any Abrahamic religion will know what I mean. 2) Science fiction and sometimes fantasy are genres that lend themselves to introspection and philosophical heroes. By eliminating many trappings of the real world, they can get at the heart of otherwise abstract concepts. Drizzt Do'Urden can wax eloquent on racism without sounding like a "liberal" or whatever, because he is a drow elf who escaped his heritage and has realized that not all orcs and goblins are evil and so on, and not a human in the world as it actually exists. 3) Sci Fi stories allow writers- and readers- to play directly with deep assumptions, and violate normal rules. They expand the set of possible worlds (not maximally, but by quite a bit) that we have available for contemplation and comparison. Historical fiction can't ask what it would be like to put the entire future of humanity in the hands of a lone villain locked in a cave - even the POTUS couldn't destroy humanity all by himself. But if, for example, you're worried about friendly AI, then sci fi or fantasy might be a useful mirror in that regard.

Comment author: Paul_Gowder2 02 October 2008 03:22:18PM 7 points [-]

For the love of sweet candied yams! If a pathetic loser like this could master the Force, everyone in the galaxy would be using it! People would become Jedi because it was easier than going to high school.

Eliezer, for all the many, many things with which we disagree about, and all the ways in which I think your various projects are wrongheaded, I still think you're an awesome guy. And this is exhibit #1.

Comment author: michael_vassar3 02 October 2008 03:48:32PM 9 points [-]

Retired: I think it's a cultural cannon. Milton was a lot smarter and more skilled as an author than the authors of the Bible but he still used it as a starting ground for his stories.

Comment author: scott_clark 02 October 2008 03:51:44PM 5 points [-]

retired urologist,

the material doesn't have the authority to impart insights. Eliezer had to go off on a riff about Luke's behavior in that situation. But it is a situation that we are all pretty familar with, and one that lots of us connected with. The technique is no different that Greek philosophers and lecturers using Greek mythology references to make their point. Remember when the gods did this, remember how Hercules was doing that, what can we learn from that? Or referencing bible stories to make a point in a church sermon. George Lucas wasn't trying to teach anything more important than that Luke was a whiny brat, who was reckless, implusive, and lazy.

It was important to establish that because originally Luke was going to be seduced by the dark side, kill his father, and join the Emperor. At which point Leia would undertake Jedi training and turn Luke back to the good side, and together defeat the Emperor once and for all. That's why, when Luke flies off to Cloud City, Yoda and Obi-Wan are talking, and Yoda points out that Luke isn't the only hope, that "there is another." (Which obi-wan should have known seeing as how the prequels put obi-wan at the birth of Luke and Leia.)

Episodes IV, V, and VI, were the just the middle, Lucas had in mind I, II, and III and VII, VIII, and IX. I'd like to believe that what he had in mind in the 70's was not at all what we saw on hte screen in the late 90's, early 00's. Those were just commercials for the special effects of Industrial Light and Magic.

Anyway, the point is not about Sci-Fi, its about a common cultural reference upon which to draw your general argument.

Comment author: AnthonyC 25 April 2011 03:39:34PM 2 points [-]

VII-IX actually did get into the expanded universe, but, AFAIK, only as comics, not novels.

And, in fact, the emperor returns from the grave by possessing clones he had made in advance. He turns Luke to the dark side, and Leia turns him back, and together they destroy the emperor.

Not that that affects this post one iota, just a tangent.

Comment author: retired_urologist 02 October 2008 04:11:16PM 0 points [-]

@MV: Thanks, Michael.

@scott clark: George Lucas wasn't trying to teach anything more important than that Luke was a whiny brat, who was reckless, implusive, and lazy. That's the point of my question, scott. Why is George Lucas (or the other authors whose novels he adapted in the series) to be considered an appropriate (valuable?) teacher/observer?

Comment author: Caledonian2 02 October 2008 04:24:27PM 7 points [-]

I'd have more sympathy with Luke (and thus more forgiveness for Lucas) if instead of the whole X-Wing moving when he tries it, we see a much less dramatic effect; perhaps aerials that were drooping stand up, or the flaps lift gently, or some such.

Ever see someone walk on a tightrope, or cross a narrow bridge far above the ground? Ever see those people do fine, until they look down and realize what they're doing, and then be unable to go forward, because they cannot let go of their awareness of where they are? I have. I've even been one of those people.

That is why Luke manages to shift the ship, then gives up. His partial success causes him to examine again his belief that the ship cannot be moved, and his awareness of that belief makes it impossible to move the ship.

Comment author: scott_clark 02 October 2008 04:35:03PM 4 points [-]

retired,

I meant that as George Lucas isn't the teacher/observer. George Lucas told a story that lots of people of my generation connected with in a big way(which is no small feat, of course). Its Eliezer that is acting as the teacher/observer, saying remember the situation this character was in, what if he did this instead?

If Eliezer told a similar story about a friend of his, his point would have been the same, but he would have had to work a lot harder to set the stage.

Comment author: Thom_Blake 02 October 2008 06:15:11PM 1 point [-]

scott clark,

I think your history is a bit off. The plan wasn't 'originally' for Luke to kill Vader, his father; it wasn't until midway through filming Empire (or at least, after the release of A New Hope) that Lucas decided that Vader was Luke's father.

Comment author: Ben_Jones 02 October 2008 06:49:29PM 3 points [-]

[nerd] Eliezer, one's mastery of the Force isn't based solely on practice, but on the prevalence of Midichlorians in your blood. Due to his family ties, Luke has plenty - it's just the application and faith that he lacks.

This scene rang very true with me and I don't agree with your gripes. Luke has been training like mad for weeks. He's still at the stage of balancing rocks, while his friends are in great danger and he has no way of reaching them. His frustration reaches breaking point in this scene, hence the sulk. In an ideal world Yoda would use this as a lesson for him. Time constraints and the impending doom of the universe etc mean that he can't, hence the display of mad Force skillz.

Can't believe I wrote all that. I'm reminded of this.

Thom, spot on. Just to elaborate somewhat, in the exposition scene where Luke is hanging from the platform on Bespin, David Prowse actually said 'I killed your father', so even the cast and crew on set didn't know until the film came out. From IMDB:

Security surrounding this movie was so intense that George Lucas had regular reports about "leaks" from actors. George Lucas was so determined that the ending be kept secret that he had David Prowse (Darth Vader) say "Obi-Wan killed your father", and dubbed it later to be "I am your father". In fact, only six people knew about the ending: George Lucas, director Irvin Kershner, writers Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan, Mark Hamill, and James Earl Jones.

[/nerd]

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 02 October 2008 06:52:56PM 12 points [-]

[nerd]

I don't believe in midichlorians.

[/nerd]

Comment author: Ben_Jones 02 October 2008 06:53:26PM 0 points [-]

Stupid HTML. The link to IMDB above is still good.

Comment author: scott_clark 02 October 2008 10:52:35PM 3 points [-]

midichlorians is the worst part of the prequels. Destroys all that was cool about the jedi and the force.

Comment author: mobile 02 October 2008 11:24:12PM 9 points [-]

I don't believe in midichlorians.

I find your lack of faith ... disturbing.

Comment author: Tom_Breton_(Tehom) 02 October 2008 11:26:14PM 1 point [-]

@Retired Urologist: ISTM it's a combination of two things:

  1. It's a bit of nerd cultural heritage most of us have in common.
  2. Science fiction, more than other fiction, tends to deal with ideas, especially science ideas, and future predictions. That's not to say that it usually deals well with them - science flubs are more common, and the aforementioned Star Wars is a big offender. But it's usually wrestling with them at least a little bit, and therein lies another reason it comes up frequently in idea discussions.
Comment author: gwern 02 October 2008 11:50:31PM 1 point [-]

I agree with Ben Jones here; scott clark's repetition of the old official history is wrong. As someone who spent far too much time on Star Wars when I was younger, I can heartily recommend _The Secret History of Star Wars_ for a good look into how it all actually developed. (The full PDF used to be available at http://www.secrethistoryofstarwars.com/ but what's left is still worth the reading.)

Comment author: Aleksei_Riikonen 03 October 2008 01:25:23AM 8 points [-]

retired urologist,

Did your question stem from the misunderstanding that the dialogue between Mark Hamill and George Lucas was a real-life dialogue, instead of a fictional dialogue written by Eliezer?

Since the dialogue was fictional, this is not an instance of Eliezer choosing George Lucas as someone having wisdom worth repeating.

Comment author: retired_urologist 03 October 2008 02:49:34AM 4 points [-]

Aleksei:

Indeed, I did misunderstand that! No wonder I was so impressed that the actor's refined position in the debate. My gullibility is showing. However, the underlying reason for the question was the many, many references to SF over the past posts and comments, and I think I have a better understanding now. Vassar, I think, put it best for me.

Comment author: michael_vassar3 03 October 2008 05:22:18AM 6 points [-]

Eliezer: You should believe in Midichlorians. As far as I can tell, they manifest Lucas' disturbing lack of faith. My guess is that when he made the original series he was a fairly serious Buddhist, and the Jedi are sort-of an advertisement for Buddhism. By the time the prequels were made he had abandoned Buddhism, so he decided to make the force materialistic and Jedi wisdom almost reliably wrong.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 03 October 2008 09:22:00AM 15 points [-]

The Force, obviously, is fundamentally mental. In the conceptually impossible possible world where the Force exists in the first place, midichlorians are a foreign invader in the simplest explanation of the Force's structure. You want to move something, therefore it moves.

If it weren't that simple, it wouldn't happen at all! In the world where midichlorians are needed to explain the Force, the Force simply doesn't exist in the first place. As we all know, whomsoever takes something that is the unique prediction of worldview/explanation A, and tries to twist around worldview/explanation B to support it, is in a state of sin.

I would sooner become a Force Skeptic than believe in midichlorians.

Comment author: fractalman 23 June 2013 10:40:57PM *  2 points [-]

Feel free to penalize the following for complexity, but if you bother to spend your time reading this rather than working on MoR, don't dismiss it out of hand.

If I remember correctly, I always thought midichlorians were an interface for the Force-kinda like how MoR magic only pays attention to people with a certain gene marker, but the gene marker is not the cause of magic.

As a plot device, midichlorians do a fairly good job explaining why not just anyone can learn to be a Jedi, PROVIDED the munchkinny idea "inject midichlorians into wannabe Jedi" never occurs to anyone.

There is a fair amount of evidence that munchkin-type ideas simply do not occur to wars-universe folks on anything resembling a regular basis.

"That's impossible, even for a computer". "If something isn't in our archives then it doesn't exist" "I once made the (???) run in 15 parsecs". (cough/snicker/cry/wince/hairpull/letsmockhansolosactor).

Now. As for the counter to that-aka bigger ships and the death star... Palpatine spurred the development of the deathstar, and the process by which the plans were developed are never shown. If you already know how to build a deathstar, building some puny star destroyers is relatively easy.

Palpatine is easily classed as a "mutant". As for the insects who helped develop the death star, they are never seen again, and otherwise spend their time acting like Romans.

Furthermore: a rough (very, very rough) calculation I did a while back indicated that star destroyers have the same turnspeed you get if you take a large Republic ship and naively scale it up, if you are limited by hull integrity.

There's also the whole attitude about droids, which I always thought was suspicious ("droids can't think", well c3p0 and R2D2 display some intelligence between the two of them...) but makes even less sense in light of the stuff i've read about AI.

tl:dr: hypothesis: mecichlorians(explains why not just anyone can be a jedi):requires anti-munchin mechanism, for additional complexity penalty(but there is evidence of existence of anti-munchink mechanism, though not enough to pin down the details of said mechanism).

Comment author: gwern 24 June 2013 01:14:20AM *  1 point [-]

"I once made the (???) run in 15 parsecs". (cough/snicker/cry/wince/hairpull/letsmockhansolosactor).

Han's "lying"/"obvious misinformation" (draft/final script's description of that line, respectively) is brilliantly retconned in the EU, though.

Comment author: Jiro 20 July 2014 03:14:06AM 2 points [-]

(Yes, I know this is an old post.)

As a plot device, midichlorians do a fairly good job explaining why not just anyone can learn to be a Jedi, PROVIDED the munchkinny idea "inject midichlorians into wannabe Jedi" never occurs to anyone.

It seems fairly obvious to me that midichlorians are what you get when someone heard of mitochondria, and someone else renamed it because they realized that it wouldn't work that way with actual mitochondria.

You cannot, of course, give people mitochondria by injecting them. So I really wouldn't expect it to be possible to give people midichlorians by injection either.

Comment author: Caledonian2 03 October 2008 01:28:42PM 5 points [-]

My guess is that when he made the original series he was a fairly serious Buddhist, and the Jedi are sort-of an advertisement for Buddhism.

Strange... excepting that the nature of the Light and Dark are reversed, and the movies make the Dark out to be inherently evil (when the reality was that both Vader and the Emperor represented perversions of Darkside use), the Star Wars movies are pretty good advertisements for Taoism.

Lucas seems to have gotten Zen Buddhism, Taoism, and some misconceptions about the nature of samurai, all entangled.

Oh, and Star Wars isn't actually science fiction. It's fantasy with a technological setting. I really wish people would get this sort of thing straight.

Comment author: fr 03 October 2008 02:06:55PM 0 points [-]

"My guess is that when he made the original series he was a fairly serious Buddhist"

For the record, as late as 2002 in a Time magazine interview Lucas describes himself as "spiritual" and a "Buddhist Methodist." He was raised a strict Methodist in the San Joaquin Valley - thus the emphasis on clear lines of good & evil - but his friend Gary Kurtz introduced him to Buddhism, as perhaps did the general northern California vibe. I think it's important to recall that Lucas knew Joseph Campbell personally. Finally, the Force didn't exist in the earliest drafts of the story.

Comment author: Ben_Jones 05 October 2008 09:41:21AM 2 points [-]

In the conceptually impossible possible world where the Force exists in the first place, midichlorians are a foreign invader in the simplest explanation of the Force's structure. You want to move something, therefore it moves.

Fascinating. I'd have thought that a chance to render the Force into a physical instantiation would have been music to your ears.

Magnets can pick up paperclips even when you don't know about electromagnetism. However, to fully understand the magnet, you need a theory of electrons. If you want to use the Force to move something, you don't need to know about midichlorians. However, a good physicalist / reductionist would surely know and feel that the Force should be the result of a physical thing in the universe. As far as I'm concerned 'his midichlorian count is off the charts' and 'the Force is strong with this one' are pretty much synonymous, and I don't have any beef with either statement. I didn't need a physicalist explanation of the Force, but I'm not going to be upset if one is presented. Midichlorians slotted in fine for me. And they're still a good explanation for:

- Strength with the Force being hereditary - Your potential level being, to an extent, predestined (very Star Warsy) - People being able to move shit with their minds

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 05 October 2008 09:47:54AM 9 points [-]

The strength of a rationalist is your ability to be more confused by fiction than by reality.

(Let's call a conceptually impossible possible world a "ficton", with the notion that Reality is one particular ficton, in the same way that mathematical truth is one logically impossible possible world.)

Fictons containing the Force are non-reductionist; reductionist fictons don't contain the Force. To the extent that I expect physical explanations for things, I don't expect there to be a Force. So trying to explain the Force with little mindochondria is futile - it's not something that you should be able to explain. It's like trying to use gravity to explain why Mercury suddenly decided to move out to Pluto's orbit; the whole point of gravity is that it tells you where Mercury is supposed to be, and that's not it. See also, "A Technical Explanation of Technical Explanation".

Comment author: DevilMaster 15 October 2013 06:12:43PM 1 point [-]

"So trying to explain the Force with little mindochondria is futile"

Like trying to explain magic with the presence of a particular gene? :-D (BTW, yes, I know that that gene is not the cause of magic in HPMOR, but similarly midichlorians are not the cause of the Force in Star Wars).

And as an extension:

"In the world where midichlorians are needed to explain the Force, the Force simply doesn't exist in the first place."

A parallel statement about HPMOR can be constructed from that: "In the world where a gene is needed to explain magic, magic simply doesn't exist in the first place." which can be subsequently paraphrased as: "in a world where magic exists, a particular gene is not needed to explain it.". Magic exists in the HPMOR universe. If the gene marker is not needed for it, am I correct in assuming that Harry James Potter-Evans-Verres will discover this at a certain point during the course of the story? Am I also correct in assuming that Harry James Potter-Evans-Verres will reach the further conclusion that, since his universe contains magic, he is living in a work of fiction?

Comment author: Ben_Jones 06 October 2008 08:22:44AM 1 point [-]

What you're saying is that once we've suspended our disbelief about the Force as a cool mysterious property of the universe (three films earlier) there's no call for it to be explained, particularly not in such a crappy way.

That's fair enough.

Comment author: Psy-Kosh 12 October 2008 03:36:04AM 6 points [-]

Here's a recent personal fairly trivial "use the try harder" anecdote, for any who are interested:

A few days ago was my birthday. Someone gave me one of those interlocking block puzzles as a gift. (A really nice wooden one, incidentally.)

Anyways, it's one of those "move this piece to unlock this piece to unlock this piece", etc. I began carefully trying to take the cube apart, so that I could keep track of what went where, but it kind of fell apart into its six pieces after several "unlock" moves.

Anyways, at first it kinda looked hopeless for me to be able to figure out how to put it together ("okay... I need to put it together, but when putting it together, I can't really make incremental progress because I have to figure out what pre shape to assemble it into before I can even begin sliding the blocks into their final positions in the locking pattern so to actually make the cube.")

Today I sat down again and started really fiddling with it, remembering that the first unlock piece on one side had a color the same as it next to it in the piece it was in, and that that piece was unlocked, and that piece looked like so, so this piece must have been like this... and... no idea what next... but wait, the only two possible pieces that can fit this piece here are this and that, but that isn't compatable with this original piece being there, so...

Anyways, eventually figured out what pieces should go where in the final configuration but "how the heck do I actually assemble it?" I sort of fiddled around a few times with running the unlock sequence (skipping whichever one piece I didn't have in place at the the time) and eventally was able to see how to then hold it in the unlocked in state, carefully take it apart and place the unplaced piece and actually then get it all together.

As I said, really really trivial (yay, I solved a block puzzle) but illustrates the whole "actually sit and work at it for a bit. Don't really bother thinking about "trying" (or even about "doing", instead just be thinking/working on the problem itself) and it may end up turning out to be a bit less "impossible" than it was.)

(to those in charge of doing so, feel free to delete this post if it seems more noise than signal or otherwise seems like pointless babbling)

Comment author: gwern 20 April 2011 08:14:35PM *  9 points [-]

An excerpt from a likely-never-to-be-finished essay:

"Claude Shannon once told me that as a kid, he remembered being stuck on a jigsaw puzzle.

His brother, who was passing by, said to him: "You know: I could tell you something."

That's all his brother said.

Yet that was enough hint to help Claude solve the puzzle. The great thing about this hint... is that you can always give it to yourself."

--Manuel Blum, "Advice to a Beginning Graduate Student"

Comment author: Psy-Kosh 20 April 2011 11:35:42PM 1 point [-]

Good quote. I guess the lesson there would be to tell yourself "It might just actually be possible for me to do this"?

Comment author: player_03 18 July 2014 06:24:57AM *  5 points [-]

His brother's hint contained information that he couldn't have gotten by giving the hint to himself. The fact that his brother said this while passing by means that he spotted a low-hanging fruit. If his brother had spent more time looking before giving the hint, this would have indicated a fruit that was a little higher up.

This advice is worth trying, but when you give it to yourself, you can't be sure that there's low hanging fruit left. If someone else gives it to you, you know it's worth looking for, because you know there's something there to find. (The difference is that they, not you, took the time to search for it.)

Again, it's a worthwhile suggestion. I just want to point out that it boils down to "If you're having trouble, check for easier solutions," and that while you can always give this advice to yourself, it will not always help.

Comment author: gwern 18 July 2014 10:54:31PM 0 points [-]

The fact that his brother said this while passing by means that he spotted a low-hanging fruit. If his brother had spent more time looking before giving the hint, this would have indicated a fruit that was a little higher up.

The brother could have spent arbitrarily much time on the jigsaw puzzle before Claude started playing with it.

Comment author: player_03 20 July 2014 12:18:51AM *  0 points [-]

I suppose, but even then he would have to take time to review the state of the puzzle. You would still expect him to take longer to spot complex details, and perhaps he'd examine a piece or two to refresh his memory.

But that isn't my true rejection here.

If you assume that Claude's brother "spent arbitrarily much time" beforehand, the moral of the story becomes significantly less helpful: "If you're having trouble, spend an arbitrarily large amount of time working on the problem."

Comment author: gwern 20 July 2014 01:49:51PM 2 points [-]

the moral of the story becomes significantly less helpful: "If you're having trouble, spend an arbitrarily large amount of time working on the problem."

I don't think that's what it becomes. It remains what it was: 'a solution exists, and oddly enough, reminding yourself of this is useful'.

Comment author: wedrifid 18 July 2014 12:39:18PM 4 points [-]

Yet that was enough hint to help Claude solve the puzzle. The great thing about this hint... is that you can always give it to yourself."

Not credibly and not with the actual information content that the brother's utterance provides. That leaves the question of whether and in what circumstances it is instrumentally rational to self deceive in the direction of optimism bias (or optimism regarding the relative merit of rechecking the low branches for more fruit instead of climbing higher). Some considerations:

  • Humans have all sorts of biases against doing the kind of tasks that a beginning graduate student has to do. Because evolutionary speaking (and possibly colloquially speaking too, for that matter) it's probably a crazy thing to be doing. Assuming the academic qualification has been adopted as a goal, however, overriding the long term focus problem with mental hacks is nearly a necessity.
  • It is more beneficial for others in my society to systematically take risks (in this case of time and potential) than for me to take risks. This would lead me to expect advice of this form to become common wisdom even were it slightly bad for the recipient.
  • The hint given is sufficiently ambiguous as to be a nudge in the direction of various discrete strategies. This includes "think from the perspective of your model of various other suitable people" which is popular advice itself (with some credible studies backing it).
  • Mild social competition can be a useful focus for some people's problem solving skills. Conceivably the imaginary social competition could help too.
Comment author: TheStevenator 03 August 2011 08:11:19PM 1 point [-]

Oh my various gods! That was possibly one of the best articles here. Granted, it was a bit far afield from usual, but it brought the concepts that this site discusses home in a relatable story. +5, if I could. Though I should be clear, every article I have read on here has taught me something. This one didn't really have a specific lesson to teach, but it was thought provoking and made me laugh a lot more than many of the other articles.

Though I doubt it, if there is anyone here who hasn't heard of the fanfic Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality (you will probably recognize the name of the author) I cannot reccommend it more highly. It is positively brimming with story-told knowledge and wisdom like this.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 03 August 2011 10:47:49PM 5 points [-]

Midichlorians are good for something.

Jo Walton, an sf writer, spent quite a while trying to explain that she couldn't write a story until she knew what the mode for it was, and she just couldn't get the idea across, though it seemed to be something like a concept of what would fit in the story and what wouldn't.

Then Lucas came up with midichlorians, and all she had to say was that midichlorians didn't fit the mode of Star Wars.