Training Regime Day 16: Hamming Questions

by Mark Xu2 min read1st Mar 2020No comments

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Hamming QuestionsTechniquesRationalityPractical
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Note: Over the past 3 days, COVID-19 preparations have taken precedence over writing. There is still more work to do, but I will likely resume on March 7th.

Edit: March 7th is a lie. Probably will be another week or two until time permits.

Later Edit: Turned out to be closer to 5 weeks than 2 weeks. There's something ironic about falling prey to the planning fallacy when trying to write about applied rationality, although applying my normal 2x buffer would have still be a little too short.

Introduction

Richard Hamming was a mathematician at Bell Labs that really liked to know lots of stuff. As legend has it, one of Hamming's favorite questions was "what are the most important problems in your field?" followed up with "why aren't you working on them?"

The general category of "Hamming Questions" are questioned designed to get you to think about the biggest problems in your life. The next move is, of course, to try and solve them.

Hamming Questions

The required material is a non-brain device capable of holding information.

The first hamming question is the obvious one: What's the biggest problem in your life? Take a minute or so to just think about what your biggest problem might be. There is a certain type of person that already sort of knows what the biggest problem in their life is, but can't quite look at it directly. This is a call for you to look.

Now imagine that you're life is perfect. What's different in your perfect life compared to right now? Sometimes the biggest problem in your life is not quite a bug, but the lack of an extremely critical feature.

Sometimes, when people imagine that their life is perfect, they are still chained to notions like "possible" and "realistic". Abandon the shackles of your finitude and boundedness and imagine yourself as infinite and perfect as your imagine allows - what you would become if you were given five million years to grow and grow. Is there something in this world that makes your heart sing? If you were omnipotent and omniscient, what would you do?

Now shift perspectives: imagine someone that's literally the same as you. What are the biggest problems in their life? Is there something obvious that your clone is missing? Sometimes looking at your life from the outside makes it easy to see your flaws.

What would your trusted advisors say? Ask your copies of your friends/family/people whose blogs you read what the biggest problems in your life are. You might think that what they say is wrong, but it is worth it to think deeply about it. (You can also ask these people directly).

In fantasy, wishing for more wishes is often a very powerful technique. Is there a way for you to wish for more wishes? Is there something that's stopping you from solving all of your problems in one fell swoop? Are you bottlenecked on a crucial resource? Would $10k make your life much better? How about 100 hours of time?

If your life was a book and you were reading it, what pointless sidequest have you bumbled your way down? What are you doing instead of main quest? What is your equivalent of collecting the one hundredth lucky egg?

Iron deficiency sometimes manifests as the consumption of large amounts of ice. What strange actions might you be taking that could signal a deeper problem? What about your behavior confuses you? Seek sense in yourself.

Is there an easy way for you to 10x your future impact? Beware scope insensitivity.

Say the phrase "everything in my life is going fine". Is there something that catches when you say that? What does that phrase make you think of?

Exercise

Hopefully, you now have an idea of what the biggest problems in your life are. Given that these are the biggest problems in your life, you should think very carefully and try very hard to try to solve them.

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