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The Shadow Question

28 Alicorn 14 October 2009 01:40AM

This is part 2 of a sequence on problem solving.  Here's part 1, which introduces the vocabulary of "problems" versus "tasks".  This post's title is a reference1 worth 15 geek points if you get it without Googling, and 20 if you can also get it without reading the rest of the post.

You have to be careful what you wish for.  You can't just look at a problem, say "That's not okay," and set about changing the world to contain something, anything, other than that.  The easiest way to change things is usually to make them worse.  If I owe the library fifty cents that I don't have lying around, I can't go, "That's not okay!  I don't want to owe the library fifty cents!" and consider my problem solved when I set the tardy book on fire and now owe them, not money, but a new copy of the book.  Or you could make things, not worse in the specific domain of your original problem, but bad in some tangentially related department: I could solve my library fine problem by stealing fifty cents from my roommate and giving it to the library.  I'd no longer be indebted to the library.  But then I'd be a thief, and my roommate might find out and be mad at me.  Calling that a solution to the library fine problem would be, if not an outright abuse of the word "solution", at least a bit misleading.

So what kind of solutions are we looking for?  How do we answer the Shadow Question?  It's hard to turn a complex problem into doable tasks without some idea of what you want the world to look like when you've completed those tasks.  You could just say that you want to optimize according to your utility function, but that's a little like saying that your goal is to achieve your goals: no duh, but now what?  You probably don't even know what your utility function is; it's not a luminous feature of your mind.

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The First Step is to Admit That You Have a Problem

53 Alicorn 06 October 2009 08:59PM

This is part 1 of a sequence on problem solving.  Here is part 2.

It is a critical faculty to distinguish tasks from problems.  A task is something you do because you predict it will get you from one state of affairs to another state of affairs that you prefer.  A problem is an unacceptable/displeasing state of affairs, now or in the likely future.  So a task is something you do, or can do, while a problem is something that is, or may be.  For example:

  • If you want a peanut butter sandwich, and you have the tools, ingredients, and knowhow that are required to make a peanut butter sandwich, you have a task on your hands.  If you want a peanut butter sandwich, but you lack one or more of those items, you have a problem.
  • If you are sad, and you know that this is because you have not seen your favorite cousin in a while, and you have the wherewithal to arrange to have your cousin over, then arranging to have your cousin over is a task.  If you are sad, and you don't know why, then the sadness is a problem.
  • If eight of your friends are involved in massive unpleasant social drama, but you have a forty-three-step surefire plan to calm down the angry and smooth over the ruffled and chew out the misbehaved and bring back the normalcy, you have forty-three subtasks of one big task.  If you have no clue what the heck is up with the drama but it's on your last nerve, problem ahoy!
  • If you are a mortal creature, you may already be a problem-haver.

Problems are solved by turning them into tasks and carrying out those tasks.  Turning problems into tasks can sometimes be problematic in itself, although small taskifications can be tasky.  For instance, in the peanut butter sandwich case, if your only missing component for sandwich-making is bread, it doesn't take much mental acrobatics to determine that you now have two tasks to be conducted in order: 1. obtain bread, 2. make sandwich.  Figuring out why you're sad, in case two, could be a task (if you're really good at introspecting accurately, or are very familiar with the cousin-missing type of sadness in particular) or could be a problem (if you're not good at that, or if you've never missed your favorite cousin before and have no prior experience with the precise feeling).  And so on.

Why draw this distinction with such care?  Because treating problems like tasks will slow you down in solving them.  You can't just become immortal any more than you can just make a peanut butter sandwich without any bread.  And agonizing about "why I can't just do this" will produce the solution to very few problems.  First, you have to figure out how to taskify the problem.  And the first step is to understand that you have a problem.

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