[link] If something seems unusually hard for you, see if you're missing a minor insight

by Kaj_Sotala1 min read5th May 202119 comments

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Skill BuildingLife ImprovementsPractical
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Related to: procedural knowledge gaps, trivial inconveniences, errors vs. bugs.

Summary of the linked post: the world is full of all kinds of minor insights about how to do something (either easily or at all): how to open stitched bags, how to mop floors, how to use search engines, the right way to look at a ball in order to catch it, what it means to 'ping' somebody, how the skill of playing sudoku shares useful elements with other things like proving math theorems, how to pass as 'normal', etc. 

For anything that seems unusually hard for you, there's a chance that there's some simple insight that you happen to be missing that would make it easier. You could put a lot of effort into trying to laboriously level up the skill, or you could see if you could acquire that insight by relatively little work.

I particularly like the post for having an extended list of examples of the thing, hopefully making it easier to notice potential applications of this principle when they come up in your own life. (The example that came to my own mind was finding it unexpectedly aversive to vacuum in my current home, when it had felt fine in the previous one, and then only eventually realizing that my former housemate's vacuum cleaner that I'd been using in my previous home was much more pleasant to use than my own.)

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Learning social skills is much harder if you're avoiding the primary feedback loop: people's microexpressions. Trying to build ever more complex models to compensate for the lack of this instantaneous feedback doesn't work all that well.

If keeping your place non-messy seems hard it's probably because there are items that don't have explicit home locations. This means both that they accrue in any spare spaces, and also that you avoid cleaning up because it induces decision fatigue since you have to think about where things go. One can also make the mistake of setting home locations that make 'logical sense' in terms of one sort of grouping, but don't reflect patterns of actual usage of objects. Common example: clothes that have been worn once but you'll wear again before laundering.

This reminds me of pg:

If you think something's supposed to hurt, you're less likely to notice if you're doing it wrong. That about sums up my experience of graduate school.

"How To Do What You Love"

(Of course, there's a certain aspect of learned-helplessness here: because so many things are terrible, people often assume that something is just another broken malicious tool or workflow, when it's quite the opposite.)

But really the single most important way to learn to use a search engine is this: Know people who are better at using search engines than you, and when you get stuck ask them for help and ask them to explain what they did and why they did it, and remember that for next time.

And if you're the good one, make a list of case-studies.

Meta: The way this post works in the LW interface feels weird to me. The email notification doesn't mention that it's a linkpost at all, and doesn't include the link. And linkposts on LW usually seem to mirror the content of the link, but this one is a summary instead -- which is fine, except that it doesn't feel very obvious. The link is small, in italics, and easy to read right past, especially when it's usually just a link to another copy of the same content.

Thanks for pointing that out, edited to make it a little clearer.

Cooking: 

  • Smelling ingredients & food is a good way to develop intuition about how things will taste when combined
  • Salt early is generally much better than salt late

Data Science:

  • Interactive environments like Jupyter notebooks are a huge productivity win, even with their disadvantages
  • Automatic code reloading makes Jupyter much more productive (e.g. autoreload for Python, or Revise for Julia)
  • Bootstrapping gives you fast, accurate statistics in a lot of areas without needing to be too precise about theory

Programming:

  • Do everything in a virtual environment or the equivalent for your language. Even if you use literally one environment on your machine, the tooling around these tends to be much better
  • Have some form of reasonably accurate, reasonably fast feedback loop(s). Types, tests, whatever – the best choice depends a lot on the problem domain. But the worst default is no feedback loop

Ping-pong:

  • People adapt to your style very rapidly, even within a single game. Learn 2-3 complementary styles and switch them up when somebody gets used to one

Friendship:

  • Set up easy, default ways to interact with your friends, such as getting weekly coffees, making it easy for them to visit, hosting board game nights etc.
  • Take notes on what your friends like
  • When your friends have persistent problems, take notes on what they've tried. When you hear something they haven't tried, recommend it. This is both practical and the fact that you've customized it is generally appreciated

Conversations:

  • Realize that small amounts of awkwardness, silence etc. are generally not a problem. I was implicitly following a strategy that tried to absolutely minimize awkwardness for a long time, which was a bad idea

These are nice, for the friends recommendation one just be cautious of offering unsolicited advice and other-optimizing

This reminds me of the surprise which I felt upon discovering that a highly-intelligent acquaintance, who considers eggs to be among their favorite foods, was unaware that you can test whether an egg is still good by floating it in a vessel of water. Eggs which float have started decomposing and built up some gas inside; eggs which touch the bottom of the vessel are fresh.

In areas where I've self-taught or the field has progressed since those who taught me studied it, I find that skimming "how to do the thing" articles online offers a treasure trove of handy tricks in this category.

Oddly, those "lifehack" videos that circulate wherever small clips of video are found tend to try to aggregate the home economics side of these insights as well. There's a broad overlap between "lifehacks", infomercial products, and assistive technologies designed for people with various minor disabilities. Tricks like using a rubber band to increase your grip on a jar lid, or rolling a citrus fruit on the counter before opening it to make it easier to peel or juice, or interlocking two wrenches together to increase leverage, cater to those who for whatever reason can't do a task the usual brute-force way and, in doing so, also help those who can normally do a task the usual way but encounter a harder version of the task that the ordinary technique doesn't work on.

Some examples:

  • some doors need to be pushed/pulled when turning the key
  • using vector syntax is much faster than loops in Python
  • cans can be opened relatively easily with just a spoon if the right angle is used

A related problem is being mistaken about how high the quality bar of a task actually is. Perhaps also known as 'obsessing.'

A related problem is being mistaken about how high the quality bar of a task actually is. Perhaps also known as 'obsessing.'

Dropping the quality bar for a task is one of the best techniques I've ever encountered for getting annoying tasks finished. Seeing the quality bar's position is the first step to questioning it, and I think a lot of the culture and education that my friends and I have encountered tries to taboo the concept of imagining that such a bar could ever be set in a position other than maximum.

Claiming that the bar has to be set to max works well for forcing people of average skill or motivation in a particular area to produce an adequate product, but that system falls apart as soon as one encounters a problem on which one's personal skill or knowledge or motivation raises the maximum conceivable quality of output to a level that's impractical or undesirable to strive for.

  • using vector syntax is much faster than loops in Python

To generalize this slightly, using Python to call C/C++ is generally much faster than pure Python. For example, built-in operations in Pandas tend to be pretty fast, while using .apply() is usually pretty slow.

Just use Julia ;)

Solid advice.


If everything seems unusually hard for you, look into whether you have depression, ADHD, or a nutrient deficiency (get a blood panel at a doctor's for the last one).

If you go out to eat a lot because your own cooking is bland you are failing to add some combination of fat, salt, or acid to your dishes in reasonable amounts.

Most shoe companies don't make shoes shaped like a human foot. This makes running more unpleasant than it needs to be. Try Altra or similarly wider shoes. One expert said average men should be wearing wides, and average women should be buying mens sizes to fix this. Also, running monotonously near traffic is much less pleasant than running in the woods where there is more to pay attention to than minor physical discomfort.

How do you swallow pills?

  1. Ensure your mouth is not dry, so the pills do not stick. If dry, drink water first.
  2. Get the pills as far back in the mouth as you can, so you don't have to manipulate them with your tongue as much. The optimal outcome is to put the pills between the swell of the tongue and where the gag reflex triggers, to enable swallowing with just the moisture present in your mouth.
  3. Have a glass of water handy. You can take a large sip, ensure it picks up the pills, and then swallow the water rather than the pills; the pills are just carried down with it.
  4. In case of a pronounced gag reflex that prevents putting the pills in the back of the mouth, they can be placed under the tongue to avoid tasting them, and then deploy the water trick. Take as much water as needed.

For smooth, cylindrical ones, I usually take a sip of water and hold in in my mouth. Then I put the pill to my lips, suck it in, and swallow it in one action.

For dry tablets, I do Ryan's method.

source: I've taken multiple pills a day for the last year.

I do a weird thing where I extend my arm before I go for the swallow, then pull my arm back fast as I start to swallow. This sympathetic motion helps somehow.