[ Question ]

What are your personal (public) Hamming questions?

by AllAmericanBreakfast1 min read29th May 202124 comments


Hamming QuestionsPractical
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What are the most important problems you personally could be working on, right now? If you were to start, what would be your first step? And why aren't you working on them?

Let's focus this on issues we're willing to discuss in public, so that we can actually have a conversation.

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Maybe not the most important thing, but I noticed that during COVID-19 some teachers created and published many educational videos in Slovak language, some of them quite impressive. I believe it would be useful to make a catalogue of these videos, organized by subject and grade. Preferably soon, to see which topics are covered and which are not, so while the teachers are still in the mood, they could fill the gaps. Afterwards, to share the catalogue as "here is the entire curriculum, online"; for kids who didn't understand the lesson at school, for kids who stayed at home sick, for homeschoolers, for curious people who want to refresh their elementary or high school lessons.

Step one, create a wiki, done. Step two, start collecting the videos, work in progress (preview). Step three, create a structure that the videos will be sorted into... here I got stuck on some details, need to discuss with some actual teachers.

Progress is very slow, because my job and kids consume most of my time and willpower.

Your project sounds compelling! I think you may consider doing this as open project, so that people who find your project on online can contribute to the wiki site. 

5Viliam18dThank you! Yes, the plan is that I will do the first version myself, then invite those teachers who made the videos ("if you make a new video, would you be so kind to also add it here? also, feel free to add other content"), and finally open it for everyone. The reason I want to make the first version myself is that I have some strong opinions on what it should be like, and if I make it that way, other people will follow the existing standards. Inviting other people too soon would feel like inviting them to make the design decisions. (I am not really afraid of having my opinions overriden by group consensus: if many people feel differently, who knows, they may be actually right. Rather I am afraid of getting in conflict with the second or third editor, if they turn out to be a quarrelsome person.) Here are those strong opinions: * the wiki should be a list of resources, not a list of lists of resources. If you have a YouTube channel, I will include your individual videos, not your channel directly. The reason is that this is more convenient for my users: if they want to learn about e.g. quadratic equations, they can click Ctrl+F, type "quadratic equation", and click on the results (or immediately find out that there are none). Rather than opening dozen lists and searching in each of them separately (and maybe finding out that there is nothing relevant, two hours later). Also, when you have lists of lists, there is typically a large overlap between them, so you have 20 lists of 20 videos each, but that is only 50 videos in total, instead of the naively expected 400. So I'd rather make a list of those 50 videos. * videos with advertising? Yes, but clearly labeled as such. A video with ads is better than no video, but a video without ads is better than a video with ads. So one video would be called e.g. "Roman numerals", and the other would be called "Roman numerals (contains advertising)". This will be technically enforce

That sounds like an amazing project! Do you think there's a chance that your stuck-ness is caused by you thinking your job and kids are more important than this video project? Maybe your Hamming project is being a parent and doing your day job, in which case you actually are working on your most important things?

I'll try my best to express it, even if I feel it makes me look stupid:

Short version:

Trying to improve how activism is done, figuring out ways to maximise the positive impact activists and activism organisations can have to advance their cause and that can be reasonably taught.



Activism organisations that are composed by volunteers and that don't hire professionals are limited in what they can learn about their craft. Typically, activists can figure out by trial and errors and by looking at others what seem to work or not, but only if there is a feedback one can correctly eyeball.

So there is no reason to believe that the efficiency of these activists and organisations can't be improved.

An individual studying communication and organisation wouldn't likely be able to improve the frontier of efficiency in marketing or professional organisations that deal in communication, but even bringing the efficiency of volunteers closer to the current efficiency of professionals would be a huge improvement, able to produce a lot of positive value for the world, if one choose the right organisations to boost.  

Currently I'm focusing on the communication of main-stream causes that deal with x-risks related issues, the second step would be to use the strategies learned to boost non-mainstream causes that try to address stuff that's even more relevant to x-risks (if anyone is involved in a similar attempt or cause already they are welcomed to contact me, I'd love a chance to talk about this and see if cooperation is possible).


First steps I should currently be doing

Essentially I think I should be developing a system in excel that would allow one to classify posts on social media according to their characteristics and that would allow to investigate at a statistical level what works and what not.

I've started but continuing slowly, because it's hard, it's something I'm really not familiar with and I have an unhealthy attitude of flinching away from anything that's hard to do in a way that makes me feel stupid and out of my league.

The second thing I should be doing is an "inadequacy analysis" of the current processes in the organisation I'm in to see all the low hanging fruits one could pick to improve performance.

I so far failed to identify any fruit but two (the statistical analysis is one, the second one is how work is distributed to volunteers and seem an easier fix), because I'm likely overly worried of "shooting my foot off and falling flat on my face in a way that makes me look stupid" so I'm flinching off again.


I did managed to correct some other major procrastination problem and I'm not able to reliably get hours of work done for this project, but I have so far oriented this work  in too many directions (like trying to study negotiation tactics for the future, rationality, persuasion strategy, and communication strategies on social medias, all at once) and so I couldn't really focus enough of a significant effort in actually making progress with something. 

Trying to fix the problem by creating habits and incentives that would orient me toward the most important things I should be doing, rather than the most "interesting" things I could be doing that is somehow related to the project.

I might also need to learn more efficient ways to study and practice stuff, so far I'm still studying as if to pass a written exam on it.

Efficiency is everybody's concern, IMAO. I hope you can share progress on this issue later on:)

I'll go first. I've been working for a year on a "studying how to study" project. There are a couple potentially high-impact experiments I could do.

  1. Buying or synthesizing modafinil (the synthesis is very easy). First step would probably be to buy some via an online pharmacy, since the synthesis would be time-consuming and expensive unless I do it in large quantities.
  2. Going on a 10-day study retreat as suggested by Razied. First step would be announcing to friends and family that I intend to take 10 days in August to try this.

I also need to figure out what it actually means to "get something done" via studying. What exactly am I improving at? I already get top grades. Since that's not the motivating factor, what is? What specifically am I aiming for?

A first step here would be to iterate between brainstorming possible concrete goals, then criteria for selecting them, until I find an operationalization I find satisfying.

Why haven't I done them? On modafinil, it's just personal psychology. I think that realistically, it's probably better for my health and mind than my caffeine intake. For the study retreat, it's that summer's already busy, and I don't want my friends to feel rejected in the limited time I have before moving. Plus my family's already pestering me about how much time I spend studying.

For the operationalization of my study goals, I think I'm partly worried that it'll make my studying less fun (and I already struggle to have fun with it). But maybe that's a good indicator that one of my criterion should be that it needs to be fun!

In case having concrete steps on buying modafinil would help: I've had two good purchasing experiences with fuzzyduck.co in the last few months. They take PayPal, no messiness with eg bitcoin needed.

Re: studying, it sounds like you're still in school? I studied a lot in school and got top grades; same for many of my friends. None of us wish we "studied harder", looking back.

Instead of focusing on studying for the sake of it, just go out and create something valuable! The periods I learned the most did not look like "studying more", they looked like "teaching for an undergrad CS class", "building mobile apps with a team of friends, and publishing them on the Google Play Store".

2AllAmericanBreakfast20dThanks for the recommendation! I love programming. Taught myself back in high school, and it's such a lovely self-reinforcing and immediately useful skill. Now I'm back in school after 10 years working in music. This fall I'm attending an MS program in bioengineering, which I'm QUITE excited for. One of the things about studying biology is that, well, biology is amazing, but it's a lot harder to do even basic things, much less create anything original, at home. One of the coolest resources is rosalind.info, which has lots of bioinformatics practice problems. I haven't seriously looked into the biohacking community, but it's time.
3Austin Chen20dI deeply agree with your perspective on biology - there's so many cool things imaginable (curing mortality, augmenting health and mental capabilities) but progress feels hard to come by because of high barriers to doing basic work. The timescales to get a full feedback loop (think of an idea, try it out, analyze the results) often look like weeks to run an experiment, whereas in the digital world your code will compile in seconds. Rosalind.info [http://Rosalind.info] is really neat, though fundamentally I wouldn't have imagined bioinformatics/data processing to be the rate limiting step in advancing biology research... And btw for other readers: I realized that my earlier examples may have been construed as "everyone should be programming" - which is a view I might also endorse, but not my main point. My intent was closer to "in any field you're trying to study, you'll retain more knowledge and be more motivated by the process of creating something others value". That could look like: LessWrong posts summarizing state of the art research for a grade school audience, or creating a Discord for fellow students to exchange ideas.
5AllAmericanBreakfast19dI think this is superficially compelling. After all, if you read a biology method, often a single step will take hours, days, even weeks. By contrast, of course, a single line of code executes in next to no time. However, it's not actually the right way to think about it. After all, there's no reason that we would compare a single physical action, or a single line from a method, to a single line of code. What is the "meaningful feedback loop comparison?" I get feedback when I pipette from one test tube into another - feedback on whether or not I spilled. Likewise, when I compile code, I get feedback on things like whether or not my syntax was correct. Comparing the speed of compiling code to the speed of executing an experiment is not a meaningful feedback loop comparison. Even in computing, there's a point past which we no longer have crisp definitions for what needs to be done. The vision no longer breaks down into an obvious set of concrete tasks. This becomes more obvious when you shift your starting point from "how do I execute task X in code" (i.e. build a tic-tac-toe game in Python) to "how do I create a program that audience X will buy?" The former sort of question is easy to decompose into code. There is an objective standard by which to determine whether or not you've achieved it. The latter question requires all sorts of non-programming tasks. Rapidly, those tight programmatic feedback loops disappear. Once the code base gets large enough, even the coding challenges no longer have the same tight feedback loops. All projects aiming to achieve a substantial and sustained real-world audience hit this bottleneck, usually sooner rather than later. Progress in biology is not slow. Biology is just vastly more complicated than computer science. I don't mean that as an insult to CS. It's just that CS is a discipline of building systems out of precisely specified mathematics. Biology is trying to understand a system that we didn't design, based on mechanisms

I think some question in this area would work well for this collaboration I'm proposing: https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/oqSMn6WEXPdDEvyyt/what-question-would-you-like-to-collaborate-on

If you add a question there and it gets picked I'd be happy to work on this with you.

2AllAmericanBreakfast14dHi weathersystems, I like this idea. I have a few reactions to it. First, it sounds like to be a success, you just need to find one other person to collaborate with. If you can find that person, go for it! Secondly, if your goal is to get more people interested and more questions submitted, I think it's worth taking more time to have individual conversations with specific people about topics you think they'd be interested in collaborating on based on their post history. Sussing out their level of interest, availability, and what sort of collaborative partner they'd like to find would be good. When I think about who I'd like to collaborate with via LW, I think about other writers who have independently written insightful posts on topics very close to my own interests. To me, that signals potentially fruitful ground for collaboration. I'm starting to lean away from the model that long comment chains are the best way to do LW discussion, and toward the model that the most meaningful conversation on LW happens with full, well-considered blog posts responding to other full blog posts.

Problem area: how do we apply highly engaging feedback mechanisms (e.g. games, internet points, social media) towards creating things of value?

Conversely, how do we prevent that same engaging feedback from destroying value (opportunity costs of time, attention, literal money)

Step one: create a highly engaging product (apps/games/websites) - done, kinda

Step two: go up one meta level to make a product which creates other products, in a highly engaging way-WIP. Eg: remove friction from the existing workflow of the game creation, or make it easier for an alpha tester to provide feedback to a new app creator.

Why haven't I done this? Well, my current main project is shaped like this, but I do feel like a lot of distractions or perceived obligations get in my way... Eg not having a cofounder, or raising money, or optimizing where to live. Would love to hear what's helped others focus on doing (rather than just "trying")!

Sounds like you want to create a software library for gameification (both implementing the features and increasing their addictiveness)?

It sort of sounds like you want to take the symmetric weapon of addictiveness, which the forces of doom have perfected and the forces of hope have neglected, and make it accessible to the good guys?

When I decided to pursue an EA career, I started taking classes and committed to grad school. This fall I'm moving to Michigan for an MS in bioengineering. Obviously that's not concretely relevant to your project.

However, in the... (read more)

In online space, I saw several productive people who get reward by just crossing off the to-do list. I also get content feeling when I cross off, but it is not sufficient enough to let me do all the to-do list before sleeping. Lesswrong's karma system I get every morning is sufficient enough to write a comment constantly. I hope you hack the mechanism and boost our productivity:)

Probably getting back to organizing my journals and sketchbooks attempting to reintegrate some of the better ideas into workable projects. I was originally attempting to either get my student debt under control to enable me to go to grad school, or write a grant to create a non-profit that would allow me to tackle some specific problems by getting funding to hire people who could do the technical work instead of having to learn to do it myself. 

Unfortunately I split with my ex and had no where else to go except into the homeless shelter system, where I've been for the last 4 years. Finally have my own place in a building with dozens of other formerly homeless people, but the drugs and violence in the neighborhood are a distraction and a drain. My goals in very general terms at this point are three-fold: 

1) synthesize usable ideas from what I've already done (have some but I'm still not clear on what I have, as I made some forays into mathematics in an 'artistic way', and want to know what I can make of what I discovered); 

2) make some connections with people who can help me sort through the actual work I've done and see if I can use what I've created to explore the questions I have which motivated me to come up with the work in the first place; 

3) then build on the work by conducting more focused research and data analysis and producing some form of physical object, like drawings or presentations or potentially learning some programming to begin trying to prototype somethings myself. I had been doing some work with 3d modeling as well. 

Thing is, this is a terrible environment to study in and to try to do online learning of some sort, but I have time on my hands I don't want it to go to waste. 

So is your personal Hamming problem getting into a better environment for study? If so, what would be your first step? Are you working on it? And if not, why not?

You're clearly in a difficult situation, so know that the reason I ask those questions is because that's the theme of this discussion. There is no implicit criticism here. This is just a space to explore these questions, whatever the problems each individual person is facing.

6Josh Smith-Brennan18dMaybe it would help if I understood a little better what a 'Hamming Problem' was. It looks a bit to me like it has to do with issues of Communication Complexity (the Gap-Hamming Problem [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gap-Hamming_problem]?), so I'm assuming in the context of this post a Hamming Problem is one concerning inadequate understanding of (and so inadequate problem solving approaches to) a personal issue due to issues of complexity that can potentially be overcome by breaking the more complicated problem down into smaller, easier to tackle tasks? Although from the other posts there seems to be some consideration of adjacent or tertiary problems in relation to a Hamming Problem too. Overall, my life goal currently is to find some happiness and some long term financial and social stability. How that comes about is up in the air, but what I've been attempting to do is to take my experience and use it in conjunction with UX research/design skills to find some solutions to my problems. I was hoping to apply that work towards other issues besides personal ones, but circumstances caused me to start having to analyze the Public Health/Assistance system in the US from a client perspective. As a result, I started to develop a catalog of concerning issues - and began trying to design some countering solutions - with the Public System and how it interfaces with the Private System in order to create some sort of a social safety net. Turns out, at a certain point, the support these systems offer change dramatically, and the fall into homelessness is pretty quick, pretty complete, and pretty devastating, depending on where you started in life. So while trying to solve my own issues, I ended up attempting to understand the entire system, and some of the Systemic Biases and resulting problems. I would dearly love to separate out my issues from those of the 'system' so that I could work only on my personal problems to a satisfactory resolution, but because of the systemic
3AllAmericanBreakfast17dHere's a description of the Hamming question [https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/P5k3PGzebd5yYrYqd/the-hamming-question]. I'm not trying to troll anybody. The three questions at the top of the OP are what you'd answer to articulate your Hamming problem, as you've done here. What is the most important problem you face in your life (whether practical, intellectual, or social), and why aren't you working on it? Your HP might be finding a better living environment, or exploring your ideas, but either way, what stands in your way of working on them (more than you already are)? As a note, the issues you're having sound like they are probably best addressed with some combination of a social worker, counselor, and doctor. I don't have any advice to give you on finding solutions. However, if you have not make a serious effort to connect with such people, stay connected, and change up who you work with until you find a good fit, that seems like a good place to start. One of the issues the LW community has faced is how to field people who are experiencing profound struggles in their personal lives. As you know, those problems can be extremely severe, deep, and persistent, while strangers on the internet have zero ability to help in any deep way. So unfortunately, you are likely to find that LW is not a resource for the personal problems you face. However, we all hope that building our skills in rationality can help us overcome the thorny problems we individually face. I don't know if that is true for sure. But I spend a lot of time at it. I hope you are able to use some of the ideas here to leverage what resources are on offer from the professional providers in your area to make some progress!

I grew up in poverty, so I've been a client of the Public System from birth. What this means is that I've been coordinating with all kinds of professionals to attempt to meet my needs for a long time. Like most domains/games/systems, the longer you are involved in/with them, the more you understand the limitations and problems of them. This is the case for me in trying to get out of poverty and homelessness. 

So while I can appreciate the concern for my safety, I can assure you I've been connecting with health professionals and their support systems for decades.

This is also one of the main reasons why for the past 7 years I've been attempting to create and study a conceptual model of what I call "Cultural Lag" in a sort of "Social Physics" system, in order to better help myself help the people trying to help me. For example, the amount and variety of technical and scientific knowledge generated by academia and the like is amazing, and the amounts, varieties and quality of the knowledge is only increasing as time goes by. 

But why it is that it takes so long for those cutting edge insights to make their way downstream into places like the Social Sciences and Social Services?... (read more)

Hmm. I think I'm probably stuck in a fairly deepl local minima of good-wellbeing. It's not super obvious that any direction is easier to climb out of. I have a good, well paying software developer job that's not value-aligned; if things continue on projection for the next 2 - 10 years, at some point I'll cross a threshold where I have enough saved to make a serious attempt to pivot to value-aligned EA work for the remainder of my career. In the mean time, I feel quite scattered, trying to figure out what to do with my modest amounts of free time outside of work hours; for several months this year I was self-studying math to do capacity building; currently I'm trying to learn finance/investing.

When I try to choose between any of the plethora of options I could put time towards, they all just feel sort of "flat" and difficult to differentiate. I think this is also tied up with often finding it hard to be strategic when I settle down infront of my computer -- a sense of brain fog often settles in.

tl;dr: I think in some sense organization is my hamming problem

When I try to choose between any of the plethora of options I could put time towards, they all just feel sort of "flat" and difficult to differentiate. I think this is also tied up with often finding it hard to be strategic when I settle down infront of my computer -- a sense of brain fog often settles in.

tl;dr: I think in some sense organization is my hamming problem

Any chance you'd be interested in a small "feel it out" collaboration on my project for studying how to study? It sounds like you're studying, and also trying to decide what to study, both of ... (read more)

3Randomized, Controlled19dFor sure, that would be fun : )
2AllAmericanBreakfast17dGreat, do you have time this week for a ~30 minute chat? :)
1Randomized, Controlled17dProbably! Do you use calendarly or something similar? Which timezone are you in?