Mark Rosewater, a designer for Magic: The Gathering, writes a lot about how "restrictions breed creativity." The explanation he gives is simple: when someone is building a house, the more tools they have, the better off they are. But when someone is looking for something, the more space they have to explore, the worse off they are. This applies to answer space: the more narrowly defined your problem is, the easier it is to search an answers; you'll find both more answers and better answers by looking in a well-chosen smaller space. Oftentimes the hardest problems to find good answers for are the ones with the widest scope.1

Most problems require some sort of creative thinking to overcome, and perhaps the greatest gains from this method come from applying it to your life goals. Imagine someone with a simple goal:2 they want to improve themselves. That's admirable, but sort of bland and massively broad. It would be helpful to have a way to work from a bland, broad goal to a better goal- but what's better, in this context? We know that restrictions help, but what sort of restrictions help the most?

Choosing Restrictions

In Getting Things Done, David Allen argues that to-do lists should only include 'tasks.' That is, only write down clearly identified next actions towards achieve specific goals. "Call Adam" isn't a task, but "Call Adam about hotel reservations for the conference" is. This serves to reduce mental load (once you've written down the second, you can remove the task entirely from your mind, while you still need to keep a lot in memory for the first), to reduce the need to plan while doing, and to reduce the ugh field associated with getting started. A good place for a goal to be, then, is a place where looking at the goal causes you to imagine the next task, even if you lost the to-do list where you had written down the next task and then purposefully forgotten it. So, actionable is a restriction that helps (even if the action is "wait for X," it's a good idea to know what X is, so you can look out for it!).

But at the same time, it helps when our goals are a sentence or a paragraph long, rather than a list of every subgoal and task. They should be kept simple, for the sake of both communication and flexibility. Finally, to encapsulate what's useful about restricting creativity in general, it should be specific. There are many actionable goals which present too many possible actions, and so we choose at random or do nothing at all.

When talking about plans and goals, David Allen uses a plane's eye view analogy: goals are 0, 10k, 20k, 30k, 40k, or 50k feet above the ground. I prefer a math analogy- goals are worked out to 0th, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th order (and even further if necessary).3 Allen's analogy and mine work in opposite directions, and it's worthwhile to point out why. Allen's primary focus is (unsurprisingly) getting things done, and that happens at the task level. Traveling upwards is done to zoom out and obtain information, not to do work while in the clouds. A good visual analogy for my approach is a tree's root burrowing into the ground. At each spot, the root has a choice of where to go, and the point is to be there and soak up nutrients. The root also isn't traveling but extending- it still exists everywhere it was before. Allen is happy with a satellite photo, but I need a pipeline.

Refining a Goal

When we take a 0th order goal, like "I want to improve," there are a pretty large number of ways we could make it more specific, and a staggering (literally) number of potential actions we could take to work towards that goal. We think about our options, and settle on "I want to be cleverer." We still want to improve- we've just outlined a way to do so. But we've also discarded most of the ways we could improve! This is a valuable thing because it narrows our answer space. We could also say it constrains our expectations and our efforts; so we upgrade that goal to 1st order.

Allen's analogy is robust because it has a strong anchor: the next task to do is at ground level. There is no strong anchor for a 0th order goal, just a heuristic about how to rank goals. We could have started off with "I want to be cleverer" as a 0th order goal, and the rest of this example would work out exactly the same- except with slightly different numbers. So don't focus on the numbers as much as the relationships between them and the changes in answer space.

A 1st order goal, while specific, is generally still not actionable. Here is where it's important to keep refining the goal instead of being seduced into working. The first thing you can think of to make yourself cleverer is probably not the best thing you can do to make yourself cleverer. Again, our root pushes into the ground, seeking out nutrients, and we select an aspect of cleverness to focus on: "I want to make better decisions." The thoughts produced by this 2nd order formulation are starting to become fertile, but we can do better.

Stop when Satisfied

A clarifying question - "what do we mean by better?" - gives us a 3rd order goal: "I want to have a solid idea of how good a decision is." We could keep refining the goal endlessly, but at some point we have to stop planning and start producing. When is a good time to do this, given that you can only compare the present and past, not present and future? We don't have the assurance that this is a well-behaved problem where each additional step will change our answer space less than the previous step did, so we need to be cleverer about this choice than normal. One approach is the scale of resources involved- if you haven't gotten to the point where you could reasonably expect success with the resources you have to throw at the problem, keep drilling down until you've reached that point. If you're trying to decide on what your life's work should be, drill down until you've got a problem you can do significant work on in 20 years; don't stop when you hit a goal that would take fifty people fifty years.

Another way is to look at how the goals intersect with each other- it seems like our root has curled in a different way moving from "better decisions" to "understand decision quality" than in its previous extensions- it seems like if we don't understand the problem of measuring a decision's quality, any other improvements we make can't succeed at "make better decisions" because we can't tell if the new decisions are higher quality than the old decisions! Beforehand, we were selecting from independent specializations. Now we're looking at a necessary subgoal instead of a related goal. Looking at this another way, we've been choosing more and more specific terminal values and have come across our first instrumental value.4

That suggests we've got enough to stop deciding what goal to pursue and start actually pursuing it. When you stop your goal-selection because of a fork like this, it's a good idea to look at what other goals are on the same order: while you should work on 3rd order problems before 4th order problems, problems of the same order are roughly equally important, and you may find you want to work on a different one or you can work on multiple of them in parallel.

Note that even though we've make the decision to stop planning and start producing, we're probably going to run into some 4th order problems. Goals often have subgoals and instrumental values often have instrumental values based off them; the same methodology will work at every level and often represents a much faster way to search through answer space than brute force (especially since it's typically very hard to force your brain to brute force massive problems). Oftentimes there will be a domain-specific response which is more appropriate than this method, though (or, at least, resembles this method only in the abstract).

Carve at the Joints

One thing I have barely mentioned but is of crucial importance is that you need significant knowledge to effectively narrow down the answer space you're considering. Consider an international corporation trying to create a human resources department. Their 0th order goal might be something like "make higher profits," their 1st order goal is "streamline corporate functions to reduce cost without significantly reducing revenue," and their 2nd order goal might be "task an entity with managing hiring, pay, benefits, and employee relations." Now they have a lot of 3rd order goals to choose from, and they decide "create an HR office in each department." After all, they've already got their corporation partitioned that way, and having one HR department for R&D and another for Sales will mean that the hiring expertise of each HR department is much better because of specialization.

But this misses the reality of HR departments, which is that their functions are strongly tied to the nation that employees live and work in. The R&D HR office might find itself having to deal with ten different sets of tax laws, requiring ten different tax specialists. Hiring laws in one country might require one procedure, while in another country they're totally different. The benefit of increased hiring specialization might not be unique to this plan- due to interviewing, travel costs, and legal changes, this setup probably requires one hiring officer for each department for each country, as well as a tax specialist for each country for each department. But if you split up the HR departments by country instead of by department, you would only need one tax specialist for each country, and the same number of hiring officers.

There are three things to be learned from that example: first, hold off on proposing solutions (sound familiar?). Second, don't be afraid to go back upwards and reevaluate your choice of goals. By choosing, you discarded a lot of answer space; if you don't find promising things in the region you looked, you should look somewhere else.

Most importantly, we learn that the solution to a problem is often another problem. The answer we picked to "I want to improve" is "I want to get cleverer," and we can think better and faster5 if we treat that as a full answer. After all, if you reduce the answer space of "a sentence 100 letters long" to "a sentence 10 letters long," you have reduced it by a larger factor than reducing from "a sentence 10 letters long" to a specific sentence that is 10 letters long.6

 


1. My artist friends tell me that their least favorite commissions are the ones where the commissioner tells them "do whatever you want!"; I don't think I've seen someone in any field ever speak positively of getting that regularly (instead of as an occasional reprieve).

2. Style note: I use 'goal', 'problem', and 'value' interchangeably throughout this post, based on whatever seems appropriate for that sentence. I hope this isn't too confusing- I think there's only type errors for values, and so when you see value recast it as "a goal to obtain this value."

3. In physics (and many other disciplines), unsoluble problems are often approximated by an infinite number of soluble problems. For example, one can calculate sin(x) with only multiplication, division, addition, and subtraction by using the Taylor Series approximation. However, by itself this is just moving around the difficulty- your new problems are individually soluble but you don't have the time to solve an infinite number of them. This method is effective only when you can ignore later terms- that is, take the infinite amount of trash you've generated and manage to throw it away in a finite volume. For example, to calculate sin(1) to three parts in a thousand requires only the first three terms: 1-13/3!+15/5!=.841667 while sin(1) is .841471 (both rounded to 6 digits). For well-behaved approximations, the error is smaller than the next additional term- for sin(1) with 3 terms, the error is 1.96e-4 while the next term is 17/7!=1.98e-4. My usage of "order" is inspired by this background; a first guess at a problem (like answering 1 to sin(1)) is a first order solution that's in the right ballpark but is probably missing crucial details. A second order solution has the most obvious modification to the first order solution and is generally rather good (5/6 only differs from sin(1) by 1%). One note here is this implies that for well-behaved problems, one needs to do all of the nth order modifications before moving to the n+1th order- if I just give you 1-17/7!, my answer is not really any better than my 1st order answer (and if I gave you 1+15/5!, it would be worse).

4. The usefulness of wording things this way is limited because the boundary between the two is hard to determine. "I want to make better decisions" could easily be an instrumental value to a rather different problem ("I want to be more powerful," say) or you could interpret it as an instrumental value for the previous value ("I want to be cleverer"). So it might actually be that you're looking to find a narrow goal 'as terminal as the original vague goal' that provokes instrumental subgoals.

5. Typically, when you make a computation faster you sacrifice some accuracy. This may be one of the cases where that often isn't true, because the computation time is infinite and thus accuracy is 0 for problems you cannot fit into memory if you try to solve them in one go. But the heuristics you use to narrow answer space can easily be bad heuristics; it helps to make this process formal so you're more likely to notice when you jumped an order without actually checking for other ways to approach the problem. Perhaps the best advice in this article is "don't be afraid to go back and recalculate at lower orders and make sure you're in the right part of the tree."

6. While it's tempting to suggest a measure like "log(possible answers)", that breaks down in many cases (when approaching "find the real number that is pi5", you don't see a change if you go from "all reals" to "all reals between 35 and 45" as possible answers) and isn't valuable in others (if I reduce the answer space from 1,000 potential answers to 100 potential answers, but the real answer is in that 100, I've done better than if I reduce the answer space to 10 potential answer but the real answer isn't in that 10). The density of good solutions matters- you can only profit by throwing away parts of the answer space because their average is lower than the part you kept.

Thanks to Aharon for the prodding to turn this from a brief mention in a comment to a post of its own, and to PhilGoetz, DSimon, and XFrequentist for organizational advice.

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(Revised in an attempt to be more positive)

More people will finish the post if you provide an overview in the first paragraph that summarizes what the post's specific purpose is, where it's going, and how we can hope to benefit from reading it.

Phil -

I just swapped emails with a really talented and smart woman who is knowledgeable about philosophy, values, and all kinds of brain science. I asked if she's ever thought of contributing here? She said no, something "seems off" about this place. I acknowledge that yes, people can be blunt and mean here, but encourage her to contribute anyways. She writes back to me -

"Yeah I registered an account some time ago, but I don’'t think I ended up using it yet. I reckon I will at some point, but it’s as you’ve said, and right now I don’t feel like dealing with jerks. It’s in the back of my mind though, so I should end up commenting at some point."

That sucks. I don't know what the answer is, but this is a woman you'd want contributing on this site, and she isn't. This is worth considering more, and perhaps it's worth doing something about?

8wedrifid11yGiven the opening of "something seems off" I get the impression that the aversion is not exactly about 'blunt and mean'. She went along with you but "seems off" tends to refer to different social idiosyncrasies to bluntness.
7John_Maxwell11yCan you recommend any writings on how not to be blunt and mean? (I've been told I have a violent communication style.) Alternatively, I'd love to read a LW post on this topic if anyone wants to write one. My current answer to the question of how I can be less blunt and mean is "spend an uncomfortably long time thinking about all the potential ways what I'm going to say could be interpreted and rethink what I'm going to say until I can't think of any particularly unpleasant interpretations". I think having this strategy means that it's a lot easier for me to avoid being blunt and mean in writing than in real-life communication.
9Vaniver11yHow To Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie is a classic work about social skills in general, and includes advice on this subject. One tip from it: no criticism. Ever. Always word things in terms of positive alternatives: for example, instead of "I didn't read this post because it wasn't clear why I should" an option is "If you make it clearer what this post offers, more people will read it." Instead of negative reinforcement- "you're bad, but here's how to fix it"- it's promising positive reinforcement- "this is how you get better." The implication of low quality is still there and some people will still get offended by it, but it's a step up from declaring low quality outright.
4Risto_Saarelma11yI wonder if the option to downvote comments is a mechanism that works against this ideal and makes the site feel more antagonistic.
6taryneast11yFrom my (limited) experience here, it's not the downvotes that make me feel the site is antagonistic... but the tendency for certain people to beat one over the head with the truth, rather than gently steering me towards it. Having now experienced both of the above, I can say that the head-beating is both less effective, and more likely to make me hesitant to comment again... ...thankfully I can ignore that feeling if I choose... but if I weren't so enamoured of reading the posts here, I might easily be put off.
-1shokwave11yStyle loses out to the truth; if you get beaten over the head with the truth, the truth is right there - if you are gently steered towards it, you will go off-course a significant fraction of the time. I understand your position, but what I am trying to say is that "less head-beating, more gentle steering" is not the solution, but "I choose to ignore that feeling" is.
8taryneast11yAh... so people arriving at this site should already have perfected the art of behaving rationally? ;) and if they have not - it's ok to beat them until their morale improves?
0shokwave11yWell, no, ignoring (perceived or intended) rudeness on the internet is not really the perfection of rational behavior, it's more of a survival skill that everyone, rational or not, learns very quickly. With that in hand, I can then learn to behave rationally from a community that doesn't prefer politeness over truth. Yes, the two can be combined, but there are cases where they can't be (and of course those cases vary wildly on the people involved).
8taryneast11yWhen I was young, I found that I could pick up mathematics very easily, and I simply couldn't understand why other people bitched and moaned about it so much. After all, it was a really easy skill that anybody could learn if they just tried. It wasn't until many years later that I fully grokked that other people pick up certain skills at different rates to me. That what s so obvious and easy for me, might not be obvious and easy for another person. and vice versa. I now try very hard not to assume that something is easy to learn... and therefore also try not to assume that somebody has also actually learned something that I have learned. I mess up on that too - all the time. But I feel that it's good to keep in mind when you can.
3taryneast11yIn my own case - the gentle steering was far more effective than the head-beating. IMO there is no way that I would have gone off course with "here is a link showing you a proof of why X is not true" (where X is what I originally claimed) yet is was gentle enough for me to be quite happy to go off and read said link and find out for myself.
3TheOtherDave11yI'd expect it to depend on what downvoting replaces. For example, if it replaces lots of negative comments, I'd expect the downvote mechanism to make the site feel less antagonistic.
1Risto_Saarelma11yTrue, but I'm not sure if the scales are in favor of downvotes here. In general, it's a lot less trouble to downvote than to write a negative comment, so you'd expect to see more downvotes than comments. Anonymous downvotes may also feel nastier than negative comments, since there's nothing to respond to and no feedback on what the downvoter found offensive and why.
1TheOtherDave11y(nods) Yup, that's possible. For me, negative comments feel more antagonistic than numeric ratings, but people differ. And I agree that more people will downvote than write comments. Incidentally, the word "offensive" may be misleading. The LW policy as stated is that downvoting means the voter wants less of this sort of thing, not that the voter is offended. In the absence of downvoting, would you suggest an alternative mechanism for tagging/suppressing/hiding posts (or users) people want to see less of? If so, what mechanism? Or would you recommend having no such mechanism at all?
0Risto_Saarelma11yI'd suggest just relying on replies and upvotes (or the lack of them) to do the soft calibration on what kind of stuff is preferred. I'd prefer the site to generally give people the benefit of the doubt and assume their opinions are worth countering with actual replies instead of an anonymous, unaddressable thumbs-down. For outright trolling, spamming and other obvious noise that shouldn't even be on the site, the report feature is good. Still another thing with the votes is that existing downvotes and upvotes are like a pheromone trail. It's a lot easier to downvote an already downvoted comment or upvote an already upvoted comment without much thought than it is to make the deliberation whether a new comment should have -1, 0 or +1 with no idea about what other people have already thought about it. This might lead to the voting system amplifying groupthink patterns.
2PhilGoetz11yOkay. That's a good example, and I'll make that change.
7PhilGoetz11yHave you ever been in a writing group where people try to criticize each others' stories while being nice about it? It's awful, and a waste of time. The best way I know is not to try to be less blunt, but to give criticism in an environment where I also offer my own material up for criticism, so that I'm also vulnerable. In writing groups, this sometimes works very well. I've largely given up on not being blunt. It takes too much time, and isn't as effective. I feel about it the same way I feel about holding back a class to teach the material slowly enough that the slowest students in the class can understand everything. There are always going to be some students who can't keep up with the class; and there are always going to be some people who can't handle criticism. It isn't fair to the rest of us to water everything down for them. If this is a gender-specific thing that drives women away, then the obvious solution would be to have users identify themselves as women at signup, and have their usernames show up in pink, so we know to be nice to them. Yet I don't think this would be less offensive to women! If I treat everybody the same, I'm discriminating against women; if I treat them differently, I'm also discriminating against women. It would be nice if we had something like the player-killer bit (on multiplayer games, something you can set that means your character can kill other players and can be killed by other players), that meant "I can handle criticism", and that would show up next to your name on every comment you posted. When someone makes a top-level post, I assume they have set that bit. BUT, I could've said what I said in a nicer way. Vaniver showed me how (below). It seems obvious in retrospect. I guess I wasn't trying very hard to be nice. Sorry - I will make an effort.
8Alicorn11yYou're saying this like "the same" refers to a fixed value, as opposed to a value that you can manipulate and could nudge towards something that is more balanced in how it affects men and women.
1shokwave11yThis would be ideal, but men don't know how to make it balanced. We just don't have the information or the understanding; it seems chaotic/confusing. We're basically just groping in the dark [http://lesswrong.com/lw/ap/of_gender_and_rationality/] and that alone has sometimes offended women when it wouldn't offend men. If you have any ideas, even half-formed ones, it would really help.
7TheOtherDave11yI have to take exception to this. Different men know this to varying degrees, just as different women do. It depends a lot on how much I pay attention to other people's stated preferences, how skilled I am at inferring their unstated preferences, and how direct the people I interact with are in stating their preferences (which in turn depends on a lot of things, not least of which whether my prior behavior indicates that I will adjust my behavior in response). Mostly, the piece of this that's within my control is how much attention I pay to people's preferences, and how much I adjust my behavior in response.
0wedrifid11ySo must I and at several levels! I would perhaps not reject a claim "males are on average less proficient at this kind of skill than females are" but nothing more general than that.
1PhilGoetz11yPlease explain what you mean. How would you measure how balanced a particular value was in how it affects men and women? Would you weigh it by the number of men and women present on LessWrong? A key problem is that there are two different, conflicting definitions of "discrimination", and we're asked to satisfy both. One says that "discrimination" means "following a policy that favors the natural inclinations of men more than the natural inclinations of women". The other says "discrimination" means "supposing that men and women have different natural inclinations". If I can manipulate a value to be more balanced in how it affects men and women, that presumes that men and women do in fact have different natural inclinations. That would mean that instead of choosing a "balanced" value, with which to treat everyone, I could optimize better by treating women one way, and men a different way.
6Perplexed11yYou could optimize better yet if you treated everyone as an individual.
7PhilGoetz11yOnly if you have sufficient data on the preferences of everyone individually.
1Perplexed11yFor the people you interact with regularly, you will quickly accumulate the data. For the people you don't often interact with, console yourself with the fact that they don't matter all that much.
1wedrifid11yOr you could operate using priors for individuals that match whatever little you happen to know about them. For instance their gender. For some purposes that is a lot of information.
-1Perplexed11yIf you find it best to treat males one way (until they individually complain) and to treat females a different way (until they individually complain), then go ahead. But (speaking to Phil, now) don't cry about the unfairness of the existence of people who don't fit your stereotypes. Don't bitch [http://lesswrong.com/lw/3ir/narrow_your_answer_space/39yh] that you are receiving mixed messages, when you receive them from mixed people. And definitely do not appoint one woman as spokesperson for womankind by asking what she wants "as a woman" [http://lesswrong.com/lw/3ir/narrow_your_answer_space/3a76]. There is no way to get through life without sometimes offending people. Live with it. But still, do the best you can. Rules change. Keep paying attention, and you will keep learning.
1wedrifid11yI made my reply because your quip made sense only as a response to a straw man. All the worse because it so smoothly presupposes [http://lesswrong.com/lw/3hs/dark_arts_101_using_presuppositions/] a position that is trivially and obviously silly. Your presentation here is a more significant misrepresentation of Phil and this time it is one that is overtly poor form. In particular it is condescending and riddled with negative labeling while at the same time demonstrating that you completely failed to comprehend his words. For that matter the re-framing of my statement as treating (males or) females a different way until they individually complain wasn't much better. "Act like a Bayesian" isn't exactly an outlandish personal habit for someone to have and complaints (hopefully) don't come into it. If taking into account everything you do know while you are still making first impressions doesn't reduce complaints then you are quite possibly doing it wrong.
0orthonormal11yI don't want to model why the reactions are this way, but I feel capable of saying this much: On average, a dismissive/confrontational/snarky tone will be less palatable to potential female readers than potential male readers (even within our usual demographics). And on average, a policy of explicitly adopting a different tone with replies to females than replies to males will offend many people of both genders. So unless there is a big gain to being dimissive/confrontational/snarky, the optimally social thing to do in the current situation is to drop that tone as far as possible (without sacrificing clarity of communication). Not that I do this well or always, but I'm aware of the problem. Is there, in your opinion, a big gain to be had from (say) the original version of your critique over the amended version? Or is it an onerous requirement to come up with the amended version in the first place?
0wedrifid11yConfrontational yes, dismissive - quite possibly, snarky probably not. Whatever difference there is in communication preferences across the sexes is stylistic more than a fundamental difference in 'niceness'.
0orthonormal11yOh, I agree. I'm talking about the particular style of "heh, what an idiot" comments. Is there a more accurate adjective than 'snarky' for that style?
1wedrifid11yI know what you mean. That is another more stereotypically male kind of nasty. But a word doesn't spring to mind. Ok, I lie. But I'm far too polite to use any of the obvious candidates! ;)
0PhilGoetz11yNo, the amended version is better. But now I've moved on to a more general issue; and being able to solve the particular instance that began this, does not solve the more general problem.
2orthonormal11yWell, what I'm saying is that implementing the algorithm that produced that emendation would help more generally.
-1Alicorn11yI agree with Perplexed. I find myself vaguely skeptical that you are truly this puzzled about the topic at hand. If you really are, forgive me for my minsinterpretation, but I'm not sure that I can help. If you are not, I may be able to be helpful, but you'll need to act in better faith.
2PhilGoetz11yNo, I am truly puzzled, and acting in good faith. What do you, as a woman, want? If you say, "I want you to act the same way towards everyone, but in a way that is more balanced between the way you should act towards men, and the way you should act towards women", then that is illogical, as I explained above. It assumes both that men and women are the same (hence we should treat them the same), and that they are not (hence we should adjust our behavior to be somewhere between two gender-specific optimums).
6Vaniver11yThis is my interpretation: quantify the masculinity/femininity of a response between 0 and 1 (where 0 is masculine and 1 feminine). You are making the correct statement that you cannot both have a function that returns 1 for females and 0 for males and also returns the same value for both sexes. Alicorn is asking where you would set the return value of your function that doesn't take sex as an input. Because if you say "I treat everyone equally by always responding with a 0," then while you satisfy the sex-blindness requirement you have a disproportionate impact, just as if you always responded with a 1. Alicorn's suggestion is that you could move the 0 to something else. One gets into trouble when trying to figure out whether the target should be .5 or .1, though (assuming we're 90% male here).
2orthonormal11yI almost agree, except that this sets up a false dichotomy between a style palatable to men and one palatable to women. I think it's quite possible, without too much effort, to craft a style that improves in both those respects over one's 'default' style.
4Vaniver11yThat was my interpretation of the Alicorn/Perplexed conversation; my feeling is that politeness is positively received by most people of both genders but women tend to care more about it. It's a nontrivial problem to be polite quickly, and many people dislike having their time wasted, but man is that a useful skill to have/learn.
0wedrifid11yYour logical questioning is reasonable. Your mistake is in thinking reasonableness or logical coherency is important in matters of politics.
-1Alicorn11yThen as I predicted, I'm probably not going to be able to help you. I don't know what parts of my desires are because of or even meaningfully correlated with my femininity. I could tell you what I want, but I don't think you would understand it, if this is comment is a good-faith expression of your genuine puzzlement. I don't know how to bridge this inferential distance. I suppose I might be able to come up with some object-level heuristics, but if you couldn't understand why I'd come up with them, would you use them?
3PhilGoetz11yThis isn't an open-ended question. I am aware of only 3 possible answers, any of which are easy to understand. 1. I want you to treat men and women the same way; and not to take gender into consideration. 2. I want you to treat men and women differently. 3. Here is the flaw in your reasoning that these are the only two choices. And I, in turn, am skeptical that you are acting in good faith, when I put forward a simple question, and instead of answering it, you write a reply that is longer and more complicated than an answer would be, on the grounds that I wouldn't understand your answer, couldn't make use of it, and/or don't really want it anyway. My more-charitable interpretation is that you have a different idea of what "the topic at hand" is.
9paulfchristiano11yThe answer to your question is probably (3). The flaw in the dichotomy between (1) and (2) is the conjunction "and not to take gender into consideration." There are ways to take the existence of gender difference into consideration without treating men and women differently. I think this is what Alicorn was referring to, and the worst that can be charged is that this was unclear (and not that anyone was acting in bad faith). To make this obvious, consider a world where men speak English and French, and women speak English and German. Then, in recognition of the difference between genders, everyone would be wise to just speak English. This does not require speaking differently to men and women, nor ignoring gender differences (perhaps German and French are slightly more efficient languages than English, other than this drawback). You can act "the same" towards men and women, but change your actions so they are appropriate in a world containing both men and women. You address this issue earlier, pointing out that this approach indeed suppose that men and women are different (an assertion with which no intelligent person I know would argue). I think no rational person is going to hold "discrimination" in general against you. We say different things to people with different personalities, and when you learn someone's gender you should update your beliefs about their personalities. The problem is that many people update their beliefs about people of the other gender incorrectly or do not fully understand the consequences of their discrimination. This leads many rational people to make decisions which are worse than those produced by the "ignore gender" heuristic. The social response to this problem is sometimes to conclude "all discrimination is bad," but among more reasonable people it is to respond harshly to damaging forms of discrimination but to accept forms of discrimination which are particularly well justified.
6FAWS11yYou're missing Phil's point. In the example he would speak French with men (outside mixed company) and German with women, and there would be nothing objectionable to this if that language distribution was indeed universal. The problems are that some women don't speak German, some prefer French and sometimes people forget they are in mixed company and should speak English. It would be best to speak English in public and with strangers of either gender and French or German only with people whose language preferences you know. (There may be also some men who prefer German, but they hardly ever complain, perhaps because hardly anyone addresses them in German so they feel no entitlement, or because they see their preference as embarrassing and prefer not to make it public)
2Tesseract11yNo, no, you've both got it wrong. You speak Italian to women, French to men, and German to your horse. [http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/c/charlesv142488.html]
2orthonormal11yExcept that the statements here are public, and if you speak French in reply to one person, then people who don't speak French are going to be left out of the conversation. English-only is the proper Schelling point for this public forum.
1wnoise11yIt was a metaphor. The actual property being referenced has fine enough gradations that there is no Schelling point, nor a particular point that can be agreed by everyone to be "English". (Nor is aiming at a point in this space any guarantee of hitting it., nor will people describe the same points with the same words).
4ArisKatsaris11yWhat does "not taking gender into consideration" actually mean? I hope it doesn't mean "treating everyone as if they were male" -- and yet in the ancestor post you seem to imply that it you took gender into consideration, it would only be your behaviour towards women that would have to be altered (being nicer to them), not your behavior towards men. Do you see your logical inconsistency here? If by taking gender into account your attitude towards men doesn't change but your attitude towards women changes, that means you're ALREADY taking gender into account: you're just taking it into account by making "male-gender interaction" the "default" interaction, instead of figuring out what "ungendered interaction" would be actually like.
4paulfchristiano11yIf I actually believed men and women were the same, as a man who has interacted mostly with men, it would almost exclusively change my beliefs about women (I would think women were secretly just like I believe men to be, since that is the simplest way to explain my observations). Its not clear why I would believe such a thing, but if I thought pretending there was no difference was a good idea and if I really wanted to pretend vigorously, I would basically be "treating everyone as if they were male." If I were then to stop pretending, I would only change my behavior towards women. I don't think this is a good position, but it is not inconsistent (its also what some people imprecisely purport to do and ask others to do).
3wedrifid11yThat would not be a remotely reasonable interpretation. It would be a trivially silly position. You just found something bad that you 'hoped he didn't do', assumed the most conveniently negative world, decided Phil was in it and declared him logically inconsistent. This is not remotely reasonable. Phil has made his actual logic overwhelmingly clear. He even supplied a numbered list for your convenience. It is all well and good to make the point that a balanced one size fits all communication strategy will take into account all potential conversation partners. That is obviously the practical approach. One of the basic rules of polite discourse - and this applies to either gender - is that you should always assume a positive understanding when there is doubt or a potential detail is not specified. This was a situation where "Yes, and" or "We must remember that" would flow nicely. The point is then much more likely to be accepted with full agreement by all sides. This applies for either gender and for that matter even when using Crocker's rules. (I should note, by the way, that saying someone is being logically inconsistent comes across as a significant charge in this particular environment. ie. I prefer to be told I'm being a @#%@. At least that is a subjective accusation not an objectively false one.)
2Vaniver11yIt's not clear to me where this is coming from, since "treat everyone as though they were male" is probably the most common first approach to sex-blindness.
2wedrifid11yPeople, particularly intelligent people, are notorious for underestimating inferential distance [http://wiki.lesswrong.com/wiki/Inferential_distance] so I can not pretend to speak to just how blatantly obvious a particular concept is to a general population. I can say that in the context it is overwhelmingly clear that Phil is not making this mistake. He more or less assumed 'not treating everyone as though they were male' as the starting point in the discussion and worked from there. The first time someone's position is misrepresented it is a simple mistake. Once it becomes a pattern it points to something deeper. In this case a conflict between logical reasoning and (in this case extremely minor) social politics. These are two incompatible kinds of thought and it is always a mistake to discuss a question of what people 'should do' from a perspective of logical coherency. Well, unless you are masochistic. (Note that this interpretation is giving the maximal benefit of the doubt. That is, not assuming that the people Phil is talking to actually lack comprehension skills.)
2Vaniver11yOverwhelmingly clear to you [http://lesswrong.com/lw/ro/2place_and_1place_words/], perhaps. The context I had for his original claim was: This to me strongly suggests that men are the default, and women are an aberrant case, with the implication that treating everyone the same means treating everyone like a man (since no one currently has a pink username). Now, Alicorn could have worded her response better- it wasn't clear she was saying "why not be nicer to everyone?"- and that could have cleared up some of the confusion much earlier. Then... why did you use words like "misinterpretation" instead of "miscommunication"? Saying "oh, both people were unclear, it looks like we were talking past one another " is far better than the approach you took. To me, your comment reads like defensiveness in response to an accusation of sexism, as well as dismissal by bringing up "social politics" in contrast to "logical reasoning." (If you were to gender those two phrases, which would be which?)
0wedrifid11yThey have different meanings, one applied and the difference mattered. Not for the purpose of my statement. There could even be place for an additional message that the kind of behavior I described is antisocial, rude and highly undesirable. Sufficiently objectionable as to make all considerations of 'bluntness' trivial by comparison. You ask that question as though it should provide some rhetorical support for a point you were making. It appears instead to be loosely related tangent. I meant precisely what I said about social politics and logic. It is a message that is helpful for people who encounter questions like the one Phil asked and seek genuine understanding of how such situations work. Questions of "should" just aren't about creating a coherent protocol of behavior. Sometimes a coherent protocol emerges and that is great but ultimately having situations in which you are 'doomed if you do; doomed if you don't' a standard part of how social rules work. The trick to navigating them is to stop expecting reason to apply and start gaming them like everyone else.
-2Vaniver11yAny comments on the context of his comment? I feel this should be elaborated on, as I don't want to misunderstand what you're getting at here.
2ArisKatsaris11yIt is not overwhelmingly clear to me. It wasn't overwhemlingly clear to Vaniver. I don't think paulfchristiano found it overwhelmingly clear either (as he argued against my own post from the opposite direction, and he certainly comprehended my meaning much better than you seemed to do).
-1ArisKatsaris11yThen why would differentiating according to gender only modify Phil's attitude towards women, rather towards both genders? Why are you attacking my position but ignore the reasons I mentioned for having it? No, I did not, I said clearly why it seemed to me he was doing it. As long as we're talking about our personal preferences, let me note that I don't appreciate being told I "assumed" stuff, when I instead provided in detail the reasoning that led me to the conclusion.
1wedrifid11yYou said that, not Phil. Because you didn't present any good reasons for having your position. Quite frankly and since you asked, I didn't believe you intended your mention of 'implication' to be an argument that your caricature of Phil's position was actually justified by the literal meaning because if so it was a terrible argument. I assumed some semblance of good faith from the opening "I hope you didn't". As though you were at least acknowledging that you were reading something into his words that is at very best extremely ambiguous. I did not think it was rhetoric spin - because given the context it would have just made your comment worse.
2ArisKatsaris11yWe're not communicating here. I said to Phil "in the ancestor post you seem to imply that if you took gender into consideration, it would only be your behaviour towards women that would have to be altered (being nicer to them), not your behavior towards men." My comment meant precisely what it said. Phil spoke about a possible solution of female members' names being colored pink so that he knows to be nicer at them. He didn't speak about male member's names being colored blue so that he knows to be rougher at them. That's an obvious asymmetry which requires an explanation. If you have an explanation, provide it. I provided one, and paulfchristiano provided one, but you just ignored the whole point and told me I'm assuming the most convenient negative explanation.
3PhilGoetz11yI treat people a certain way. Someone suggested that the way I treat people is not well-tolerated by women. I said, among other things, that treating women differently to accomodate them might not be appreciated by women. Alicorn suggested that (to paraphrase), men like to be treated with c=3 and women like to be treated with c=7, so I should treat everyone with c = something in-between 3 and 7. I asked whether that should be weighted (by the number of men and women present, or the number of men and women desired, or not at all); but more importantly, replied that that is inconsistent: Either 1. There is no significant mean difference between the way men and women like to be treated, or 2. There is a difference, and therefore I should treat men with c=3 and women with c=7. Saying there is a difference, and I can use my knowledge of that difference to compute c = (9x3 + 1x7)/10 = 3.4 (assuming LW is 90% male); but I can't use my knowledge of that difference to treat men with c=3 and women with c=7, seems illogical. If the preferences of men are distributed normally around c=3, and the preferences of women are distributed normally around c=7, using gender as a factor in my model will result in lower error, no matter how great the variance in these distributions is. I can imagine possible justifications for the c=3.4 approach; but I can't imagine any justifications strong enough not just to rule out even considering the c(gender) approach for all applications, but also to impugn the morality of those who consider it. I am harping on this because it is an error in reasoning that, in American intellectual society, is not only committed routinely, but is generally assumed to be morally superior to any rational approach.
2wnoise11yOf course, the ideal is for each individual to find out c(individual) and use that.
1Will_Sawin11yPeople derive lots of negative utility from noticing that they are being treated differently according to gender. If you do so, you are unlikely to be able to keep that a secret. Therefore, you should treat both genders the same. (Isn't the mean a least-squares estimator?)
1PhilGoetz11yThat might be a good reason, but IMHO not good enough to take the option off the table. Also, it seems to me the opposite may be more true: People like being treated in ways that indicate they are successfully conforming to gender stereotypes. Boys and men like being given the signal that they are masculine; girls and women, that they are feminine. D'oh! Yes. Removed my comment.
2Will_Sawin11yThis is true for some stereotypes but not for others. In addition, people don't want to feel that you are treating them differently because of their gender, even if they'd feel good if you treated them differently because you noticed their conformance to stereotypes. People will probably be able to tell what you are doing.
0wedrifid11yThat was my first impression too and nearly commented as much. However the grandparent does serve as an indicator that the charitable interpretation of "[Alicorn has] a different idea of what "the topic at hand is" is the correct one.
-1Alicorn11yThe answer is like 3, but I don't think you would understand if I explained (based on priors derived from how little understanding-of-me-when-I-say-stuff you have exhibited in this thread so far). I suppose I could explain for onlookers' benefit, but I don't want to; this conversation has left a bad taste in my mouth. I will exit it now.
4[anonymous]11yI have my doubts that blunt criticism on LW is the main reason for the unbalanced gender ratio here. I also haven't noticed too many examples of LessWrongers being offended by criticism directed at them. (Occasionally someone will say something like "Hey, why's everyone downvoting me?" but in my impression those tend to be newbies or people in long-term feuds of little general interest.) What I see most often is posts like John Maxwell's, observing that LessWrongers tend to be perceived as too harsh by the general population. Which may be true; this community attracts people who are quite a bit different from the general population. So I think the issue is less "how/whether to be nice on LessWrong" and more "how/whether to modulate criticism for other populations." I don't think it makes sense to have just one setting for all people and all contexts.
3rabidchicken11yVery interesting idea... But people will abuse the system, and I expect it to reduce the quality of posts on LW. Right now, anyone is fair game for criticism. If I say something stupid, I expect other people to give me a hard time about it. My brain forms a connection between the stupid comment and the negative utility, and I develop techniques to avoid making a fool of myself the same way in the future. Once you give people the right to live in a bubble where the impact of being wrong is reduced, then we will lose one of the most effective ways that people learn to present their points effectively / test their hypothesis carefully to make sure it has merit.
4TheOtherDave11yPunishment is unreliable, especially in a noisy environment, precisely because it's a powerful motivator. You're right: if I use a powerful aversive, then each individual correction has a large impact on future behavior. This is sometimes known as "positive punishment" in behavior modification. That's great, if I never make mistakes, and I only want to eliminate behaviors: the subject quickly stops doing the things I don't want it to do. Wonderful. There are three major difficulties with this approach. * "I never make mistakes" doesn't describe the real world, and mistakenly punishing subjects can cause them to stop doing things I want them to do. If I think your comment was stupid and I give you a hard time and make you feel like a fool, your brain will form a connection between your comment and the negative utility, as you say. This happens even if I was wrong and your comment was actually not stupid at all. So if I make mistakes, I can inhibit useful contributions as readily as useless ones. * Even if I'm right, I can't control how your brain generalizes that connection. That is, I can't control what class your brain sorts the punished comment into, so I can't control (or even predict!) what classes of behavior I am inhibiting. For example, suppose someone challenges a widely held belief with a poor argument, and I give them a hard time about it and make them feel like a fool. They might generalize to the class of poor arguments, in which case great! Alternatively they might generalize to the class of belief-challenges, or the class of commenting-on-LW, or all three. * Even if I'm lucky, and only inhibit the behaviors I want to inhibit, all I've done is get rid of things I don't want. I haven't done anything to encourage getting more of what I do want. That's fine if the baseline is something I want to preserve, but it's counterproductive if it's something I want to improve on. F
2rabidchicken11yI do not mind occasional false negatives in criticism because I do not instantly accept every counter argument I hear. Mindless trolling or insults have almost no effect on my certainty that an argument is valid, and I do not radically alter my original belief until new information allows me to reproduce an error, or someone points out a logical inconsistency. The odds that I will say something correct, and that someone will be able to persuade me that I am probably wrong using a faulty argument are insignificant, since I would be unable to find the same error upon reflection no matter which way I thought about it, and would be naturally skeptical of new information unless the source was at least as reliable as the source of my original information. However, If I was missing or ignored information that affects my point, arrived at my conclusion through a logical fallacy, or used information to arrive at my conclusion that I did not tell my critic, then I attempt to fix these problems in future posts or edits. As for worrying about someone being wrong, and actually reaching a less rational state of mind in response to your criticism, this is why being careful about how you criticize someone is important. If you specifically tell someone what parts of their argument are flawed, then you can minimize collateral damage to correct ideas and beliefs. The connotation of "politeness" is extremely negative to me, but if you are going to deliberately modify someones thoughts than you should do so as non-invasively as possible. In short, if someone has not learned how to react to and judge the validity of criticism, then they will have to learn at some point. My ignoring it in the short term is only going to leave them vulnerable to the next person who persuades them to change their beliefs based on a flawed argument.
0TheOtherDave11yI don't object to pointing out flaws in arguments, and I endorse being careful about how you do it in order to "collateral damage". That isn't what you seemed to be championing originally (e.g., "If I say something stupid, I expect other people to give me a hard time about it. My brain forms a connection between the stupid comment and the negative utility, and I develop techniques to avoid making a fool of myself the same way in the future. "). But perhaps I misunderstood you. Insults don't have much effect on my confidence in arguments, but they have a lot of effect on my willingness to have the conversation in the first place. I'm willing to avoid the word "polite" if it has negative connotations for you. Do you prefer "non-invasive," then?
2rabidchicken11yIn retrospect my first comment was misleading, I edited too much. I have heard politeness used as a blanket statement which covers telling lies to make people feel good, never objecting to something someone considers part of their identity, along with being careful about how you communicate criticism and avoiding swearing. There are a lot of additions and variations between cultures, but these are the mental tags I have built up. So yes, I think politeness has too broad of a meaning to describe how people should interact if they actually want to accomplish something. I have rarely used non-invasive or collatoral damage in this context before, so I am open to more widely used alternatives.
1TheOtherDave11yRe: criticism... If I've understood you, you endorse [http://lesswrong.com/lw/3ir/narrow_your_answer_space/3ar1] "being careful about how you criticize someone" as important, but reject [http://lesswrong.com/lw/3ir/narrow_your_answer_space/3bb3] "being careful about how you communicate criticism". Can you say more about what distinction you're trying to convey there? Re: politeness... For my own part, I think of politeness as a natural consequence of signal processing considerations. Speech and body language are noisy, and when a communication channel is noisy it's helpful to establish standard protocols for redundancy and error-correction, and standard signals for initial handshaking and for key operations. For most mammals, this includes being careful about when and how to challenge others, which is what most of your examples are about, because status challenges are expensive enough that unintentional ones waste crucial resources. And, yes, I agree that "politeness" is a blanket term for that and similar things. If we had better channels, we could engage in continual precise negotiations about status, and we wouldn't need mechanisms as clumsy as explicit status challenges... and we wouldn't need social rules for keeping those challenges under control. But most of us don't have good enough channels for that, and all of us have emotional responses that evolved in bodies and environments that didn't. And, yes, if I lack sufficient finesse to avoid issuing unintentional status challenges, I will get slapped down for it until I either learn or leave the tribe (possibly horizontally).
2rabidchicken11yI do not think everything which is considered polite is bad (such as careful criticism and minimal insults), I was just trying to show that it covers a wide range of behaviors, some of which suppress rational debate. I agree with the rest of your points, but even if society currently works that way, I still wish people’s happiness was not affected by winning (or avoiding losing) arguments. Perhaps my resistance to social norms is hopeless, but intelligent criticism improves my perception of reality, and I appreciate others doing it in the fastest way possible.
3ata11yI'd support that. I think I once suggested something similar, adding a Crocker's Rules [http://www.sl4.org/crocker.html] bit. What I'm wondering, though, is what levels of politeness would then become expected toward people who choose not to set the "I can handle criticism"/Crocker's Rules bit. Right now, any such norms are informal and implicit, to the extent that they exist at all, but if we added an option allowing people to explicitly accept bluntness, it seems like we'd need to clarify what the norm should be for people who don't enable that option: whether not setting that bit should be taken as "please do not be blunt to this person", or "please be polite to this person unless it's seriously impeding communication", or "just use normal social discretion, if you have any", etc.
6shokwave11yIf the option was left in the preferences menu (roughly where the anti-kibitzer is kept) I expect a small minority (about one in ten posters) to actually flip the Crocker bit. I actually think the level of politeness expected towards people who do turn on Crocker's Rules will be more interesting: there is a mentality that translates "politeness required: 0" into "politeness required: arbitrarily large negative number" ("no need to be polite" -> "be extremely rude"), and I think there's a nonzero chance of that mentality being present on LW.
0ata11yYeah, I've thought of that. If such a feature were to be added, it would probably be good to try to preempt that effect (and other possible problems) with a "The proper use of Crocker's Rules" post, so people will at least be mindful of those pitfalls in advance.
1Perplexed11yI'm uncomfortable with trying to characterize myself with just a single bit. Instead, I see it as more of a spectrum. Two spectra, in fact. One for ability to 'dish it out', one for willingness to 'take it'. It would be nice to have an online test allowing everyone here to determine their score(s) - to find out once and for all if they suffer from an ASD (asshole spectrum disorder).
0TheOtherDave11yDo you mean to suggest that you'd like to see users' "dish it out" capabilities indicated in a user profile? If so, what do you anticipate people doing with that information? If not, that's fine, I was just confused by the context of the comment you were replying to.
0Perplexed11yWell, if someone criticizes me, I can check their "dish" rating so as to judge whether to take the criticism personally. Of course, even more useful than a Crocker rating or a "dish" rating would be an irony rating - so that readers could tell whether or not a comment was meant to be taken seriously.
0timtyler11yA Crocker's Rules [http://www.sl4.org/crocker.html] bit was my initial reaction to the idea here [http://lesswrong.com/lw/2l0/should_i_believe_what_the_siai_claims/394a]. It is hard to imagine it being implemented, though. A minimal level of politeness costs, but not terribly much, IMO.
0wedrifid11yI certainly hope nobody would expect such a bit to trump tit-for-tat.
1paulfchristiano11yWhy? Maybe I misunderstand, but it seems like someone willing to set the bit should also be willing to live with the fact that other people haven't. If I were blunt to someone who had set such a bit I would not expect any sort of reciprocal bluntness, although in reality I would probably set the bit and not expect to administer any reciprocal bluntness.
0wedrifid11yYou do. I speak of those in carebear mode who are rude to other carebear types. In such cases I don't consider the perpetrator to have any special rights regardless of any special bit set. Incidentally it is precisely this kind of individual who I would expect to make most aggressive use of appeals to their carebear rights.
0TheOtherDave11yI think it's more productive to think in terms of information than of rights. That is, if you know that I prefer to be treated a certain way, then you can make an informed decision about whether to treat me as I would prefer. If you don't know, then you can't. But just because you know what I'd prefer doesn't mean you have to pay any attention to my preferences. Similarly, if I know that you know my preferences, then I can infer from the fact that you violate them that you either don't care about my preferences, that you actively wish to violate them, or (in some cases) that you lack the social aptitude to comply with them. If you don't know, then I can't infer any of that. (The same goes for third parties.) And, yes, I agree that it's a mistake to infer from you being rude to someone who was rude first the same things that I would infer from you being rude to someone who wasn't, independent of what I know about their preferences.
1wedrifid11y(I for most part like what you are saying here.) We can also consider information about the social moves that will be employed in which circumstance. "Rights" are just a form of information about political alliances and agreements, in this case informal, about how and when the technique of taking offence [http://lesswrong.com/lw/13s/the_nature_of_offense/] may be successfully executed. When combined with information about how an individual chooses to use such mechanisms I can infer a lot. I would take some information from a bit stored in a profile but only a little. In terms of my interactions I would still take my bearings from observations of social dynamics. The dominant factors when it comes to determining to what extent I am willing to coddle people is their level of arrogance, awareness, goodwill and pro-social action. For curiosity's sake I note the I would personally decline to set the Crocker's Rules bit even though I don't object to having the option available. Not because I don't appreciate bluntness and candor. Rather because rules of any kind are made to be exploited (often literally). Context matters, as does subtle nuance and visible intent. To me anything spoken from a position of mutual respect is welcome. Smarmy reference to Crocker's Rules as a way to excuse disrespect would not be welcome but would be inevitable.
2TheOtherDave11yYeah, I agree with all of this, both in the sense that it's true of me as well and the sense that it seems reasonable. I decline to operate based on Crocker's Rules because I find that they make me more uncomfortable and less willing to attend to the message of a communication than the rules they replace.
2Vaniver11yThis would be a good idea, I think.
2noNOno11yOh yeah! I confused myself so badly in my childhood trying to sweeten up medicine. I always had to seem very unsure of myself. The weak still don't listen, so it really is a waste of time to revise thoughts by adding "I think," "maybe," "i don't know the difference between good and bad ignore everything i just said don't yell at me." I'm sure that there's a difference between "blunt" and "jerk," but thinking of the two being unrelated works best for me nowadays. Now I have to read the actual blog post. D:
1NancyLebovitz11yThere's a range between blunt (saying "this is a mistake" with no sugar-coating) and being nasty ("only a stupid person could have made that mistake"). I don't know why there are so few women here, and I'm not sure anyone else does, either. It's hard to poll people who aren't around. I used to see comments here which assumed a male point of view as universal and that got on my nerves, but I haven't seen anything like that for a while, except for what I'm replying to. ("So we know to be nice to them" implies that there are no women who are real members of LW.) I've got a male friend who doesn't like LW, but it's because he finds it too smug. Admittedly, this is only one data point, but at least it's an actual data point about someone who's probably not going to be a regular reader rather than a hypothetical.
0wedrifid11yFor my part I consider that bit set whenever the individual instigates any form of social aggression. (This includes attempts to shame others.)
5Perplexed11yA more efficient way to go about it is to * spend an uncomfortable amount of time conducting a 'post-mortem' whenever you receive feedback that you have been too blunt. Find your mistake, and analyze it. * accumulate a list of communication mistakes that you make frequently * spend a modest amount of time checking whether what you are going to say fits the pattern of any of your common mistakes. Your suggested algorithm tries to never make a mistake. My algorithm is more modest - it tries not to make the same mistake repeatedly. Once you have made enough mistakes, mine produces results almost as good as yours, with considerably less effort.
3TheOtherDave11yAs ciphergoth says, your current answer is a good one (for writing), and will get easier with practice, though it might never get easy. As you say, it's much better for writing than speech. I find the advantage of speech is that I can check how people are interpreting me as I go along. But that's a separate skill. A shortcut that sometimes works for me is actively pretend (in my head) that the person I'm communicating with is exceptionally smart and knowledgeable and wise and admirable, and then write assuming that were true. (For me, the results differ from trying to make the other person think I believe this, or trying to prevent the other person from being offended.) But I don't use the shortcut much in writing, because thinking about how my audience will interpret what I say is a good practice. If I compose a message using a tenth the resources but that message is misunderstood a third of the time, I may feel efficient, but it's not clear that I'm being efficient. Good communication takes effort; when I don't want to expend the effort I often do better to remain silent. (There are important exceptions, though.) A few other simple things I try to remember: * I avoid "you" as a generic pronoun when discussing anything negative... e.g., in examples illustrating an error. I generally either introduce example third-person characters, or use the first person, depending on context. E.g., I'll replace "If you act like a jerk, people won't share their pie with you" with "If I act like a jerk, people won't share their pie with me" or "If Sam acts like a jerk..." I find this not only is less likely to put people on the defensive, but it encourages me to imagine how I would feel if someone said that to me. * I avoid telling people what they think, or how they feel. I have yet to meet anyone who appreciates it. If I have to for some reason, I explicitly qualify that as merely my impression, but mostly I don't think that makes much
2Kevin11yhttp://www.amazon.com/Nonviolent-Communication-Language-Marshall-Rosenberg/dp/1892005034 [http://www.amazon.com/Nonviolent-Communication-Language-Marshall-Rosenberg/dp/1892005034]
1AdeleneDawner11yThis [http://www.ayahuasca-wasi.com/english/articles/NVC.pdf] PDF seems to have enough of the material from the book to be useful, too.
2TheOtherDave11yOh, something else that comes to mind: do you have any sense of what your non-verbal communication is like? (E.g., how you stand, what you do with your arms/shoulders/hands, tone of voice, the rhythm of your speech, inter-personal distance, etc.) Sometimes a "blunt and mean" impression in speech can come out of that, as well as choice of words. Of course, that's less relevant in writing. The best way I know of to deal with that is to recruit an accomplice to train with... have them tell you when you're making them uncomfortable, then experiment with alternatives, then practice in front of a mirror. It's hard, though; expect it to take some time before you see results.
2Paul Crowley11yThat sounds like a good strategy, and one that will get easier with practice.
3[anonymous]11yI think it's not so much LW in particular as internet norms -- she sounds like someone who doesn't "live on the internet" very much, doesn't comment on blogs or frequent forums and so on. (Do tell me if I'm guessing wrong.) A close girlfriend of mine is like that. She was required to blog for a job once and she was completely turned off by the informality, the off-the-cuff style, and the fact that she'd get instant snarky feedback. Her journalism training gave her an expectation of extensive research and measured tone that just isn't how "internet people" communicate. Blogs are messier and more casual, and people contradict each other more, and it was not her thing at all. I think that attitude is more common among women than men (though it's also common among older people of both sexes.)
2Paul Crowley11yI don't think it's a coincidence that it's a woman - the smart, thoughtful women I've pointed to this site have had a similar reaction.
0PhilGoetz11yI didn't make my comment in order to be mean. I did it to give feedback. What do people think? Would it have been better for me not to say anything? I would like to be able to give feedback in a more positive way, but I don't think that's a realistic option, at least not for me.
0Vaniver11yYou're right, the start is a lot jumpier than I realized. I've stuck a sentence in the second paragraph that should help the flow a bit.

Slightly off-topic, but Allen also makes the point that you need to trust your system to remind you in time to get your task done - just writing it down doesn't do any good to "get it off your mind". If don't trust your system to actually remind you to do it when the time comes, it will still be distracting your attention in the meantime. You have to check your task list as frequently as necessary to make sure you don't forget anything (it is a matter of your unconscious thoughts trusting the system, as soon as you slip, you'll have to start rebuilding your trust).

I thought that this was far better than its karma would indicate!

Breaking it down into labelled subsections and writing a short abstract might increase readership.

ETA: I liked this article and am making suggestions to increase its chance of being widely read.

Nice post!

To look at a small part, I share the interest in GTD and have been quite happily applying some of it for years. What I do miss is a bit of systematic evaluation of these things; Getting Things Done versus the 7 Habits versus the Pomodoro Technique and two-hundred other methods, which all seem to have their followers and seem to make sense, but lack hard supporting data (or?), in a field susceptible to placebo-effects, selection-bias, 'believers' and so on.

I really enjoy the content of this post, but I also think it could benefit a lot from reorganization (the text meanders a bit, and there are so many footnotes!) and also some section headers.

Anyways, thanks for writing this, it's an interesting topic. I hadn't ever considered the notion of translating the artistic concept of helpful restrictions into other areas of life.

Hi Vaniver,

I enjoyed reading your ideas in an even more organized form. I found the post very accessible and useful. Thanks for putting the work into it!

0Vaniver11yThanks, and you're welcome!

I like this post a lot. I guess this is the comment it originated from, which has an extended explanation of "nth order".

0Vaniver11yYep. I didn't link it in the post because that seemed needlessly confrontational, but I think I'll add a link from that comment to here.