Austin Chen


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What are your personal (public) Hamming questions?

I 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. 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.

What are your personal (public) Hamming questions?

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")!

What are your personal (public) Hamming questions?

In case having concrete steps on buying modafinil would help: I've had two good purchasing experiences with 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".

The Schelling Game (a.k.a. the Coordination Game)

The Schelling Game seems spiritually very similar to a game I helped implement, Listorama:

In Listorama's Threefold mode, everyone lists out 3 entries for a particular category (e.g. "Movies"), and earn points based on how many others put down the same word. If you enjoy the Schelling game, give this one a try too!

(There are two other modes, too: Forgotten Four, where you earn points for putting entries that nobody else put; and One on One, where the goal is to match exactly one other person)

Problem Solving with Mazes and Crayon

Also: Searching from the back in addition to searching from the front can be really helpful in reconstructing the overall path!

In computer science, we might call this "breadth-first search from both sides" or "bidirectional search" (image); the insight being that you keep searching until your two search trees have some point in common. This is nice because you explore fewer total paths -- in a large maze, the number of paths you explore grows exponentially as you get farther away from the starting location.

The analog in general problem solving might be to look both backwards and forwards. If I want to e.g. be happily married with kids in 5 years, I should not only think about my possible actions today ("go on more  dates", "reconnect with old crushes"), but also backwards from my destination ("which marriages are happy", "how to raise children"), and look for how the two can connect ("ah, Eve is an old friend from high school who shares this interest in child rearing").

This is also a technique in math proofs. From XKCD:

"Handy exam trick: when you know the answer but not the correct derivation, derive blindly forward from the givens and backward from the answer, and join the chains once the equations start looking similar. Sometimes the graders don't notice the seam."

Except: sometimes, instead of tricking the grader, you actually just find the correct derivation!

How You Can Gain Self Control Without "Self-Control"

I really loved this article! The content is great; breaking down self control into subparts makes it much easier for me to understand where my self control goes awry, and highlights new strategies for dealing with laziness/akrasia.

The way the article is laid out is excellent, with flash cards and plenty of concrete examples; as a result I'd expect to remember much more from this article in eg a month from now, compared to other articles read around the same time.

MetaPrompt: a tool for telling yourself what to do.

Not super familiar, actually -- we came to this from another direction of gaming (party games, word games like Codenames and Decrypto). Thanks for the recs, though, I'd love to check these out. And definitely LMK if you have any feedback!

MetaPrompt: a tool for telling yourself what to do.

I took a couple hours and hacked together a very simple prototype, just to see how MetaPrompt would play out! Try it out here.

Doesn't support multiple users yet, but it wouldn't be that much harder to build out. Here's the rough source code.

(And since your post led to an implementation of MetaPrompt, that would make your post a... MetaMetaPrompt)

MetaPrompt: a tool for telling yourself what to do.

This is really cool! It reminds me a lot of a game we're actually building right now, Storytime. Storytime is a creative-writing game where a group of players are writing a story together, each competing to write the most interesting story continuation in 2 minutes & 280 characters; and you get bonus points for using certain random words, madlib-style.

In Storytime, we have a few default starting prompts (an isekai themed one; a rhyming one; etc) written by hand, One idea we had to increase our pool of prompts was to draw them from responses that our players have created. But maybe an actual meta-prompt, aka having our players explicitly compete to write prompts, would be another way of generating great prompts... Thanks for the idea!

Contrarian Writing Advice

Of course, comment quality is an input into your overall feedback. But not the only input, and importantly not the main one, I think. (By "comment" here I'm thinking of "random internet strangers saying things about your article, eg here on Lesswrong.")

There are so many other sources of feedback, including:

  • how you yourself judge the article
  • feedback from people you trust
  • reshares, link backs, quotes of the article
  • up votes, views

Which I think should combine for a holistic evaluation of how well your particular article was received. Comments may be one of the easier metrics, but leaning on it too heavily runs afoul of "drunk looking under streetlight for keys"

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