In Why don't long running conversations happen on LessWrong? adamzerner writes:

 Here is how things currently work:

  • Someone writes a post.
  • It lingers around the front page for a few days. During this time, conversations emerge in the comments section.
  • After a few days, the post no longer persists on the front page and conversations largely fizzle out.


I'd like to try and have a longer polymath project style collaboration focused on answering a question together. Instead of each person working to give their individual answers to the question, we'd come up with an answer together through an extended discussion.

When/if we've reached some sort of milestone by either answering the question, or making some interesting progress towards answering the question, we show the results of our collaboration to lesswrong in the form of a new post.

As a starting point, here are my proposed rules (up for negotiation):

  1. Each top level answer to this post should be its own question. Please state the question at the top of your comment. Then you can give background information or try to convince us that your question would be a good one to pick for this exercise. The question can be one already asked on lesswrong.
  2. Each person can submit a maximum of 3 questions.
  3. We have 5 days to submit questions and receive feedback or requests for clarification.
  4. Please only submit questions that you yourself are willing to work on.
  5. Once the 4 days are up, all the top level (non-meta) questions will be compiled into a new post to be voted on. (Hopefully that will help with the problem of the earliest submitted questions getting more upvotes).
  6. We work on whichever question gets the most votes.
  7. We can sort out the logistics of the collaboration (where should discussion take place? should we use a wiki or google doc? how long should we commit to working?etc) once we've sorted out what question we're working on and who is willing to contribute.
  8. If you'd like to comment on this idea itself without submitting a question for the group's consideration, use a "comment" instead of an "answer."


I have no idea how many people would be interested in doing this. But I'd guess it only takes 2 people for this thing to work. And at least one person is interested (me). So worst case scenario the person with the top voted question will have at least one other person to work with.

I'm willing to commit to working for at least a week in my free time (which I have a lot of at this point). Hopefully at least myself and the person who posted the question will be willing to put in a decent amount of effort. But I'd like to leave the collaboration open to very casual contributions. 


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12 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 5:02 PM

For a long time I've been very inspired by the fact that Betty Edwards' book exists. It turns people who have "no drawing talent" into people who can easily draw anything they see, not by strenuous exercise, but by a conceptual shift that can be achieved in a few hours. I'd like to know if such conceptual shifts can be found for math ("math is too abstract"), programming ("I'm not good with computers"), music ("I can't sing") or other areas. It would be nice to study this collaboratively.

For a long time I've been very inspired by the fact that Betty Edwards' book exists.

Given that they wrote multiple books, which one do you mean?

"Drawing on the right side of the brain".

Thanks for being the first person to submit a question! 

It turns people who have "no drawing talent" into people who can easily draw anything they see, not by strenuous exercise, but by a conceptual shift that can be achieved in a few hours.

Did that work for you, or do you know of any evidence that that's the case? I'm skeptical that a few hours can allow anyone to "draw anything they see" but would be happy to change my mind on that. I guess you didn't say how well they'd be able to draw after just a few hours of "conceptual shift." But I read you as saying anyone can draw very well after just a little effort.

I guess I'm not really understanding the question. Is the question something like:

"What are some small shifts people can make in their mental model of some skill that would have a very large impact in the skill level of the person making that mental shift?"

It worked on me. The change was surprisingly fast, in a couple days I went from "no drawing talent, stick figures only" to one-minute sketches similar to this or this (not mine, but should give the idea). Getting to this level doesn't require any technique, it's purely a conceptual shift. You learn how to trick your mind into "drawing what you see" instead of "drawing what you think". Betty Edwards describes this shift very clearly and gives a couple counterintuitive exercises for achieving it. I wouldn't be surprised if some people got it in an hour.

The result isn't "drawing very well" (which takes more and different kinds of work), but I'm pretty confident that I can look at anything and make a pencil drawing that looks roughly similar. It doesn't even matter what! When you "draw what you see", you no longer care if it's a person or tree or car or whatever, it's all just a bunch of shapes in your visual field that you copy to paper.

In singing, there's a similar concept of "singing with breath support", which is also a kind of primitive indivisible feeling that good singers have. But as far as I know, nobody has found a description of it that would reliably work on beginners.

Thanks. The "drawing what you see" vs "drawing what you think" distinction combined with the images helped me understand the idea better.

This seems somewhat related to what Scott Alexander called "concept shaped holes." So you're saying that some people have a "concept of how to draw what you see" shaped hole, and that Edwards has some techniques of helping you fill that gap.

Are you specifically looking for conceptual shifts that would allow you to do something better? Or is just being able to understand something you previously didn't understand enough? Like if someone didn't "get" jazz and there were some way to help them appreciate it, would that count?

Specifically looking for conceptual shifts that allow you to do something better.

To contribute my data point, it's something that I could definitely see myself doing, but not at this stage of my life because I have other time commitments. Hm, maybe this is worth exploring more. I suspect a lot of people would give this response. But why not just devote eg. two hours/week to it? I guess because it feels like that'd be too "diluted", and because I worry about my ability to do time management well. I already struggle to get to all the things I want to get to, so I probably wouldn't be able to get to a new thing. Maybe I would if there was some sort of time management hack though, like precommitment or something.

The proposed rules seem reasonable. However, it seems like the sort of thing where it's hard to get them right upfront and thus would be good to have an attitude of "this is a starting point but we'll iterate".

Thanks for writing this up! It's a good idea and a thing worth experimenting with.

Ya I thought it was worth a try. Looks like exactly one person is putting forward a question so far. Do you have any questions you'd be interested in working on?

I'm a bit worried that my question will be picked and then I'll be the only one working on it. So to give this thing a better chance of at least two people collaborating, I'm not submitting a question.

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