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Reality has a surprising amount of detail (2017) (johnsalvatier.org)
699 points by rgun 64 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 294 comments

Something I've noticed now that we're all communicating online in written form: a lack of people saying "I don't know"

It seems that everybody knows everything. Whatever the issue, a little bit of Googling and suddenly you know all there is to know. Even more wondrous, no matter what position you take on anything, some more search engine Kung Fu and you can find a hundred people willing to support you with arguments, surveys, facts -- whatever you need.

Everybody knows everything. It's quite amazing. And then when you take a tech team into an unknown domain, suddenly they find it very difficult to open up, admit ignorance, and reason about things.

I am reminded of some startup book or blog I read years ago. It was talking about the relationship between intelligence and startup success. The author said that there was a correlation. It was an inverse correlation. The more you have been rewarded in life for being smart and knowing everything, the more you felt intelligent, the less chance you had of making a startup work. You just weren't able to admit all the things you didn't know.

Why would I jump into a thread, on any site, just to say I don't know? There are thousands of threads just on HN that I just let scroll by without participating because I don't know enough to add to the discussion. Explicitly calling out my lack of knowledge on every thread would serve no purpose to anybody.

Online written communications will never follow the same patterns as direct communication, and that is a good thing.

The problem isn't people not admitting ignorance online. The problem is that the internet might be the cause of people not admitting ignorance in real life.

As a person who basically made it through college without internet, I can tell you that I had just as much trouble admitting I was wrong when I didn't have access to the internet, perhaps more because I was younger and more hotheaded.

I've sometimes had the problem as well. Usually because my self esteem had been based heavily on believing that I'm really smart.

It sounds like you had equated being smart with knowing things.

My self esteem has also been heavily based on believing that I'm really smart, but I never had a problem admitting I didn't know something. "Smart" to me means my ability to learn, problem solve, and make connections.

One of the most significant factors in my success to date has been my almost eager willingness to admit my lack of knowledge, and to ask others to share their knowledge.

How else are you going to learn new things?

Not everyone gets there in one step. A lot of people have the problem described by the parent because they don't have these insights yet.

Don't blame yourself. Go read argument culture. Everything is positioned as a debate rather then a discussion ; take an opposing side and it's about winning not understanding. As an example If you've caught yourself ever leveraging syntax in a discussion to derail someone's ideas

I've always hated debate because of that and could never understand why it was valued. It is always about winning and never about getting to the bottom of what could be the truth.

That's a great point.

Even the very word discussion comes from late Middle English (in the sense ‘dispel, disperse’, also ‘examine by argument’): from Latin discuss- ‘dashed to pieces’, later ‘investigated’, from the verb discutere, from dis- ‘apart’ + quatere ‘shake’.

We generally don't do a very good job of talking about things in way that brings those things, or us each other, closer together.

Unfortunately, I find this to be a similar case with office/workplace politics pretty often as well.

Can you elaborate on “leveraging syntax”? Like commenting on the structure of their argument?

I think the author is talking about making bad-faith but very defensible interpretations. You can accomplish that by purposely taking hyperbole too literally, or by intentionally overlooking that a statement was meant as a metaphor. (Just a couple of examples.)

Very often, English-language experts can appear to defeat subject-matter experts in debates. When this happens it's usually because of footwork on the "language layer."

Thank you. That makes a lot of sense.

You reminded me of this comment (www.reddit.com/r/getdisciplined/comments/19qonw/any_advice_on_how_to_get_remotivated_for_studying/c8qia6b) on reddit. I wish I'd have read that sooner.

After relating an anecdote, that comment mentions Carol Dweck's work on growth mindset: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carol_Dweck "In a fixed mindset students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that's that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb. In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don't necessarily think everyone's the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.[3] This is important because (1) individuals with a "growth" theory are more likely to continue working hard despite setbacks and (2) individuals' theories of intelligence can be affected by subtle environmental cues. For example, children given praise such as "good job, you're very smart" are much more likely to develop a fixed mindset, whereas if given compliments like "good job, you worked very hard" they are likely to develop a growth mindset. In other words, it is possible to encourage students, for example, to persist despite failure by encouraging them to think about learning in a certain way."

> the internet might be the cause of people not admitting ignorance in real life.

I remember the good old days, before the internet, when people would always admit their ignorance in real life and the Dunning–Kruger effect didn't exist.

It is absurd how people actually do this all the time in Amazon product questions. Will it work with my Samsung phone? "I don't know." Does it come with batteries? "I think it did."

I'm guessing that's because Amazon sends out emails explicitly asking people to answer questions on their past purchases. And for some reason, this makes some subset of people feel obligated to reply even though it makes no sense.

I think you're right. That sounds exactly like something amazon would do and how people would respond. I must have turned those emails off, which makes seeing the answers utterly stupefying.

To give customers the benefit of the doubt: Some may know exactly what's going on, and enjoy making Amazon look stupid by posting those replies.

That reply doesn’t suit your handle at all ;)

Amazon sent me questions about a product I gave a one star review to. I really should have sent it back.

Their system isn’t too bright.

It's because Amazon emails everyone (who bought that product) every time someone asks a question. The subject is "John Doe: Can you answer this question about ...". I've had this email a few times. Some people (I'm guessing old/non-tech savvy) assume someone has asked them directly, and so feel the need to reply.

That makes sense. The answers I refer to read just like a slightly annoyed text message reply to a family member who should know better than to ask.

My personal favourite is "I bought this three years ago and don't have it anymore. I don't remember."

I always find it sort of charming and refreshing when people respond as if it was a face-to-face conversation

Of course one shouldn't jump into a thread to say "I don't know", but if someone receives a response to a statement they made in a thread that points out a fact or point of view they hadn't considered, they should be willing to admit that they didn't know that, they were wrong, or that they realize they need to think more deeply about the topic.

Well, I too jump into threads where I think I know some part of what's being discussed.

But I'll often bookend a comment like that with points about what I don't know. And here, there are points I think someone might know - frame those as questions. But also there are point I doubt either myself or the person I'm replying to knows, frame those as problems of knowledge, statistics and so-forth.

Obviously, I think I know a general framework, that our beliefs are areas of semi-certainty bordered by heuristics, myth, ignorance and lack of awareness. But this is a belief that will often about what I or we, don't know.

I agree that there is no value of saying "I don't know" in general. But sometime people would say "I don't know" as an emphasis on his "understanding" that there are something deeper than the current common understanding, and that is reasonable.

I doubt gp is encouraging people to jump into threads to say they don't know something. I imagine the insight is that online communication lends itself too well to an unfavorable s/n, one that militates against reasoned discussion.

There should be more eagerness to identify when problems and issues are more difficult and less well understood, as well as the nature of this difficulty/complexity -- even in online discussions. That is a valuable contribution.

Excluding reddit

> The more you have been rewarded in life for being smart and knowing everything, the more you felt intelligent, the less chance you had of making a startup work. You just weren't able to admit all the things you didn't know.

I think there's something to this, but I want to present an alternative, which is that the more I know, the more I know what I don't know. And with regards to startups and business, the effect of this that I can observe is one of paralysis. I am scared to death of committing to any idea because I can see right away many of the unknowns, and I fear the unknown unknowns. After some education, I have enough history of thinking I know something and then discovering that I basically know nothing, that I am scared to ever say, well THIS is the idea that is going to work out, I'll put all my money and effort for the next 10 years into THIS because I am sure. Sadly, the more I know, the less sure I am about anything, and it makes me unwilling to take risks. Not just business -- even deciding what to study next, what jobs to apply to, or what side project to begin -- every time I start something that seems simple enough, it takes about 5 minutes to realize I have no idea what I'm doing and have to evaluate whether it's worth pouring more time into. Result: things don't get done. Because there is no done. I do learn a lot however. But for what? Personal growth I guess. But I have no idea what to do with it. I really envy those people who are able to decide they are going to solve a specific problem, that it's worth it to do so, and are able to see it through to the end, instead of learning everything they can about it, getting bored, and moving on, which seems to be my pattern. In the end, for me, it is the learning that is motivating, not the goal, and that has terrible consequences for what you describe. Perhaps "successful at startups" is not the only metric, but at least for that metric, it is maybe not good to take the "I'm going to learn everything about this before actually doing anything" approach.

There are risky risks, and there are affordable risks. One of the risky risks -- at main job, I am also very reluctant to commit to any new projects without emphasizing that I can not guarantee result but only effort up front first. Luckily, I often get managers to acknowledge my emphases on the effort part, which somehow reduces the risk of unknown unknowns. But I also had many occasions that I succeeded to convince managers or coworkers to alter their ambition with my emphases. In other word, my job has some room for risks and my finance has some room for risk of jobs, I guess I am lucky.

Now once the risk reduced to affordable level, my curiosity often takes over and I often gets excited to explore my unknowns.

It is sad that for some people that all they see is unaffordable risks and they have suppressed and forgotten their curiosity -- the source of life's excitement.

It definitely seems to me like older entrepreneurs concentrate on either providing a service to established industry or on craftsmanship, selling a luxury good to a slightly older crowd.

They are over “you can be anything you want to, Billy” and they have justifiable fears.

But if you ran your own deli for years and ended up building your own bagel slicing machine because nobody else had one or they mangled too many bagels, why not sleep in a little in the morning and sell bagel machines instead? You know your customer because you were your first customer. You can just ask the deli owner in your head what they would like.

Well. People still don't know, but now they have enough information to seem as-if they do.

Understanding is not a matter of a google. It's a decade of relevant experience.

You might beat the PhD to the factoid phrase, but when you come to employ the fact in the relevant problem you won't even know where to begin or even what it really meant.

People aren't exercising their ability to distinguish parroting from understanding, as-if intellectual work is just different forms of trivial pursuit.

In the same spirit there is the cheapening of the concept of "research". Often the statement "I did some research" means that some googling has occurred.

I feel it is less directly cheapening all research and more bifurcating the term between engaged and unengaged audiences. The audience must decide when searching becomes researching, which I doubt is the second time you are feeling lucky.

If I google, find a primary source with reasonable data, and form an argument based on that, then I’ve done research. It was simply easier based on the Internet, but the research is not proof-of-work - a well-supported conclusion is just that no matter the effort.

On the other hand, I google, copy and paste the first link and parrot what it said - then I have indeed cheapened it. I’ve skipped the evaluation step of researching, wherein I convince myself of the “facts” of the past and I’ve also failed to extend any new thoughts as we’ve just parroted the argument.

My main point being, to a critical reader only “bad” research is cheap. It is also the duty of the audience, just as much the researcher, to evaluate what they read critically and respond with skepticism.

I accept that to research doesn't have a binary quality and the amount of effort can vary. Nevertheless I encounter research close to the second meaning you mentioned frequently.

> Nevertheless I encounter research close to the second meaning you mentioned frequently.

Would you mind sharing the context?

I work in a field where the PR machine of my target "research" jumps ahead of the methodological reports. Then those reports are often vague (length limits?) about the details of their methodology. That makes me not trust much that I find - but I've got to have something - so I end up doing some sort of meta-analysis. It's time-consuming, exausting and frustrating - and has confidence-bars that might as well be non-existent - but without doing the on-the-ground fundamental-study - it's what I've got. For example - I just spent 60 hours over the last 4 days trying to triangulate a "probably correct-ish" value and range for a variable from a heck-of-a-lot of studies that didn't use the same methodology. Would that count as research in your book, or not?

One thing a PhD taught me was how thoroughly limited my expertise is.

I would be interested to see the evidence for that inverse correlation. I remember seeing a study not so long ago which implied that higher intelligence individuals made poor managers. As did lower intelligence people. There's a sweet spot somewhere a little above average where you're smart enough to do the job but not so smart that you can't relate to employees and customers. I would not be surprised to see the same phenomenon in start ups, though admittedly I don't know if that study was especially reliable given the modern state of the social sciences.

My instinct is to question the causality anyway, because I think you highlight a strong candidate for the actual, underlying limitation on intelligent leaders: humility. My hypothesis would be that the negative leadership performance is actually a proxy measure of humility, which on average is lower with higher intelligence, likely because of the praise effect you describe.

Because I don't think it makes sense that intelligent leaders are less able to question their frame of thought or significant details supporting it. Or rather less capable in carrying out the actual cognitive task of self-questioning. Quite the opposite, because general intelligence is a measure of the correlation between performance on all cognitive tasks, so it's practically tautological that higher IQ individuals would be stronger within that cognitive domain. Which makes me think it must be their willingness or propensity to engage in the process of self-questioning.

To bring it back around to the OP, details matter, but the process for selecting relevant and filtering out irrelevant details matters most. Humility may be one way to enhance that process. Though maybe there is also a limit. Too much questioning prevents the establishment of a stable, actionable consensus. An inability to shut out irrelevant stimuli is disabling to individuals and organizations. Like Funes the Memorious, you get lost in minutiae.

I don't know where the ideal balance lies, but I wish I was better at finding it in practice.

It's kind of the Peter Principle: You rise to your own level of incompetence. Hopefully, you don't get boosted past that level. Then you can instruct and manage the next down level.

You make an excellent point about filtering out the irrelevant. The wood is brown, for example, is irrelevant to building a proper staircase. The angle of decline is highly relevant.

But, with regard to leadership, the Peter Principle (identified by Laurence J. Peter and published in 1969) is in inverse correlation to performance, I believe. Particularly if performance is tied to being able to communicate with the success of the high performer at that level, because they might not have met their own level of the Peter Principle.

And, after communicating, one must be able to act. If a person has reached their Peter Principle level, they will be incompetent at the task -- which is why so many managers are hated.

There's a language that has citations built into statements of fact or belief; you modify statements based on how you came to know them. If someone asks, "Where is Alice?", your answer of "Alice is fishing" would be phrased differently depending on whether he told you he was going fishing, or whether Bob told you he saw her fishing, or whether you saw her fishing.

There's nothing like that online, so any given advice or answer in a comment could be coming from someone with 20 years of experience, or from someone who googled the exact thing you already did, and copied the first answer they saw on StackOverflow.

I think I think I was likely thinking of https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eastern_Pomo_language was what I had in mind.

I think you think you think you might have been thinking of eastern pomo language was what you might have been thinking of

Are you thinking of Ithkuil?


I think I was likely thinking of https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eastern_Pomo_language

I think we have two problems at the moment.

1. Being right doesn't mean being smart. I met many people in my life that were smart or dumb, but their success had nothing to do with this. You can do the right things by accident.

2. Being rich often removes the need of being smart to varying degrees. People want to help you getting richer if they get a piece of the pie.

Competent Elites - The World is Stratified by Genuine Competence


lol, this guy is simply too much.

Eliezer Yudkowsky is quite smart with some deep understandings of the world (along with some less good ideas), as best I can tell. I've definitely learned interesting things or been sent down interesting paths from articles of his that I've read.

However, he would be served very well to work on eliminating the moderate pomposity that permeates much of his writing. He is also overly verbose sometimes. Fixing those two issues would reduce a lot of the beef he gets, I think.

It was my impression that he intentionally cultivates those aspects of his public persona. That is, if I can't deal with those particular points of personal obnoxiousness, I probably also won't hang credulously on his every word. In that case why would he want to interact with me at all? He's not the only person to employ this strategy. Personally I'm more willing to endure the idiosyncrasies of e.g. RMS.

Didn't he promise some AI stuff and never delivered?

You might try looking here: https://intelligence.org/all-publications/

Science is frequently about explaining phenomenon that people stumbled on by trail and error.

(I think I see scientists forget this too often. There are things that are true that we don’t know. Being true and being sure are different things and you should respect people who are going to show you true things otherwise you will never learn.)

While you can certainly become rich by accident, usually what we call "accident" are quite rare. Are you saying dumb people getting rich are rare by calling it an accident ? I think we would need more study to establish if there is a correlation or not, looking just at the people you met is not enough.

Is it?

Who could qualify this?

I mean, you found a company, talk to the right people and get rich.

If you just happen to find the wrong people, you won't get rich.

Sure, you could say the sales people were skilled and found these people, but how often is this really true and how often do you just luck out by finding the right number on some obscure website?

Very good point and observation.

I have observed the same but I have observed the exact opposite in academia and academically oriented corporate R&D in complex technical fields.

People with academic background can surprisingly humble intellectually. They may be arrogant when defending their point of view, but if they come up with a new thing they don't know about, they admit it even if it's common thing. By constantly asking simple questions every time they can't follow up something they are able to learn constantly.

> It seems that everybody knows everything.

I think about this from time to time -- how people build up this sense of personality related to a forum or site. I think what tends to happen for an individual is that when you're talking to millions of people you don't have the perspective on who says what anymore, it becomes "twitter thinks" or "reddit says" instead of "these 10 people."

I think the reason everybody knows everything is that because we don't look at the individuals when we talk in a forum like this. There are always going to be some 'famous' people whose names pop up over and over, but as general responses you don't really know what a person thinks about something. We internalize a consensus of opinions and then it becomes just "well, HN said this."

This is most apparent when the forum contradicts itself. If there isn't another way to denote the opinions (like a sub-forum) then you start seeing comments like "everyone was against it yesterday and now everyone is in favor?" when in reality it's unlikely to be the same people responding anyway.

To me being able to admit you don‘t know something is part of being intelligent. You need to be intelligent enough to reach the conclusion that you do not know everything.

I think that you identify Mr. Salviatier's main thesis: That knowing or not knowing are equally invalid until observation has been done. Of course, it's said the the very act of observation exerts change on the observed, but that's neither here nor there.

So, when I take tech teams into uncharted waters, the first thing we do is observe. Otherwise we create "ivory tower solutions" better suited to ourselves than actual users.

And, yes. Your're right. If you're supposed to be the "expert founder" then "I don't know" is not, generally in your vocabulary. However, I do suspect this is a male problem, more so, than female. Having said that, in this great time of social upheaval, vis a vis gender, perhaps it's a great time to learn from our sisters!

Sometimes in the hnews comments I'll ask a question and normally the answers I get back are pretty good even though my comment is rarely popular. Most recently I asked about some subtlety in the Meltdown vulnerability.

It would be cool in addition to "comments", there was a Q&A section. I find I mostly click on the comments to get a more nuanced understanding of an article only to find a 20-commeny deep flame war about something unrelated.

Crowd sentiment is very important (to many circumstances and understanding), so reading the 20-comment deep flame war is useful too. You just need make sure to read it from outside but not into it.

That is absolutely true and you said it very well. And, after a lifetime of being praised for one's intelligence and creativity, when people first begin to realize that things are going badly, they can fall apart in some shocking and ugly ways.

Hopefully a relevant quote:

"Emotions can hinder or uplift. We might hope that those in leadership positions possess strength and resilience, but vanity and fragile egos have sabotaged many of the businesses that I’ve worked with. Defeat is always a possibility, and not everyone finds healthy ways to deal with the stress. Each person matters. Established firms will have a bureaucracy that can ensure some stability, even when an eccentric individual is in a leadership position, but when a company consists of just two or three people, and one of them reacts neurotically to challenges, the company is doomed."


I don't know if the inverse correlation exists, but I doubt the explanation provided (that smart people often do not know or won't admit what they don't know).

Coming from academic circles, we consider such people as the "mildly" smart. As in, being uninformed is OK (you know you are uninformed). Being only a little informed is dangerous (you don't know what you don't know). And the most informed are OK too (they know quite well the limits of their knowledge). The smart people you are talking about do not usually survive academia.

In my own personal experience, I find the false confidence to be quite orthogonal to intelligence. I see plenty of low intelligence folks have the same problem, and plenty of high intelligence folks have it, and do not see a clear relation where one is more prone to it than the other. More like: You are humble and always doubt yourself (which is the academic's concept of "smart" - continually trying to tear down your own theories), or you are arrogant and do not. Intelligence is unrelated.

Maybe it's just an impression based on the fact that people who do not know do not care to write it. I don't know :)

Yes, and also consider the relationship between knowing an answer, being confident in your knowledge, and having the time to explain details or find sources.

People (who are intellectually honest) say "I don't know" when a question is specifically addressed to them, and so they feel a responsibility to give an answer. They don't respond at all when they don't know the answer and they haven't been addressed... except if they are motivated by curiosity and wish to indicate that they, too, are interested in the answer.

Incidentally, the mistake of assuming that everything on the Net is addressed to you is a common failing among people who have little experience. It happens on Facebook all the time...

Reminds me of the recent results in education where those told how bright they are then go on to do worse in tests.

Looks like you’re describing the Fixed (as opposed to Growth) Mindset: https://youtu.be/Yl9TVbAal5s

She also has a book, which I would recommend skipping. It adds nothing that isn’t covered in the video.

In one on one or small group conversations, I say I don't know all the time.

In one to many conversations like a thread on Hacker News, why would I say "I don't know" unless I'm specifically addressed or have a side point to make? It's noise, and doesn't help anyone.

“Certainty is a closing of the mind. To create something new you must have doubt.” —Milton Glaser

Even better, everyone thinks they know the right solution to a problem by reading a headline about it.

the confidence with which you are speculating right now is, at the very least, ironic.

A few years ago I co-founded a standing desk company without any experience in real world products in general. The plan was to source desks and sell them to companies. How complicated could it be? Well, the freight company requires a lot of information about the destination building. The destination building require a lot of paperwork in a very specific format just to deliver something. The paperwork is always a little different. Then actual delivery need to be scheduled on the phone. Every time. The pallets don't fit in the elevator after all, so need men to move boxes. Someone need to dispose of the pallets. The building doesn't have large item disposal. To assemble 60 desks we need men, tools, floor-plan, access to the building, etc. Someone has to clean up the packaging material. Then of course one of the 60 boxes were dropped, now damaged and needs replacing. Sending one box is a different game than sending 60. Even if you know what you are doing it takes a lot of emails and phone calls to outfit an office with furniture, and somehow everyone wants to communicate over phone or email, so automation is impossible. And that's how my e-commerce company turned into a service business wiped out all my profits :) (edited for typos)

Your short tale reminds me of this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eyTf7y3ityk

In sincerity, I found that interesting. Lessons noted!

ricky explains legacy software https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r6rGMNtXHgs

They have a lesson for everything.

I must admit, HN is the last place I expected to find a link to a Trailer Park Boys clip.

My interests are a tapestry... and don't get me started on Letterkenny (and how good it is).

Anyway, I figured it fit the subject. ;) Ricky's a natural born hacker.

If you're like my old boss, just tell the employees to assemble their own desks, and then wonder why all these developers who requested a standing desk, are still using their old sit down desks.

I'd be happy to assemble all of my office furniture if my company paid for it -- though paying $100+/hour engineers to do the work of a $15+ handyman seems like a bad deal for the company - especially when the guy that assembles desks all day will do it faster (and correctly).

Consider it a team-building exercise? Companies waste employee time in all sorts of other ways, so why not building desks?

We did exactly this where I'm an expensive consultant. The one who assembled his table the fastest won a prize. My workplace might be a little different but we also are responsible for moving the dishes in and out of the dishwasher. I'm happy to do it.

Tongue-in-cheek/devil's advocate reply: I wouldn't necessarily consider building furniture a very safe team building excercise, it may just have the opposite result ;-)


I'd be happy to manage my own desk procurement, including organizing the delivery and assembly, if my employer wanted to pay me for it - that's still paying an engineer for administrative work, but maybe less of it at least.

Just sayin, but in most areas that I've been where Engineers make $100+/hr, handymen make rather more than $15/hr.

As long as they would allow me to do it on company time it would be a nice distraction from work.

I gotta say, I sorta miss assembling my own computer on the first day of work. I don’t miss the bloody knuckles though.

Of course you can do it on company time. What other time is there?

A former boss of mine told the employees to assemble the furniture at the new location. It was fast and it looked good.

After a week the monitors started to fail, because the cable to the monitor was too tight, so when they moved the monitor, the contact on the back of the monitor broke.

That was tradition at the first company I joined: every new hire assembles his own Ikea desk, with help from his new colleagues - it was fun !

Ha, at my partner's work(large IT company in UK) they are not even allowed to move or adjust the height of their own desks, because it's a health and safety violation and if anything happened to them doing it the insurance wouldn't cover them. I think HR would get a heart attack at the thought of employees assembling their own desks.

Yea i always found this funny. I was not allowed to move a monitor in the office, but was racking 4u servers by myself in the datacenter. When i asked they claimed it was because the insurance for the monitor, not me, would not be covered if it was not the local IT guy who moved it.

I would love to do that.

> The destination building require a lot of paperwork in a very specific format just to deliver something. The paperwork is always a little different.

Automating this sounds like a business worth several million in annual revenue, easily.

Speakeasy, a former big ISP, presented at a Java users group one time about a logistics app they had written specifically to remind them when it was time to harass Covad about missing deadlines for wiring and circuit connections.

I’d had to deal with Covad before and so had my friend who used to own a mom and pop ISP. I thought the fact that someone wrote a management app just for them was funny and sad, brilliant and justified.

A few years later they sold... to Covad. D’OH!

The plan was to automate generating all the paperwork in a very specific format, with it always being a little different. How complicated could it be?


Sounds like a mechanical turk:)

Sounds like the minimum level of automation that would work is full blown AGI + autonomous robots that could at least match humans in terms of skill and strength.

Nah, be creative. Think how Uber et al replaced the skilled taxi driver via a random human plus Google maps. (And that's a good thing!)

This is such a good explanation of why I have a hard time working with folks who always approach technical problems with the attitude of "why don't we just do this?"

It's the just that gets me. They are too action-oriented to think about the details or ask someone who's done it before, so they start down the path of (to use the author's metaphor) buying cheap lumber and calculating the angles for cutting the stair boards. They follow through with that and finish the rest of the stairs with the same attitude.

Now the stairs are finished and installed (shipped) - they look terrible, they're wobbly and too steep and everyone who walks on them in either direction trips. Then begins the never-ending process of in-place improvements: using a sander to even out the angles, grinding down the too-long screws that stick up, pounding on warped boards to straighten them out. We can't fix the angle or the poor spacing of the steps though, because everyone's gotten perversely used to it.

When the whole house gets built this way, you live in a perpetual fixer-upper, where each component is either under revision or you've settled for it being "good enough" until enough work has been done to make everything else a little less broken.

> This is such a good explanation of why I have a hard time working with folks who always approach technical problems with the attitude of "why don't we just do this?"

The flip side of this are the people who can’t accomplish anything novel because they’re unable to simply try. At some point you have to “just” do it.

You can do research and seek out advice, and indeed you should. But for most things, you will not develop a perfect understanding or solution without jumping in and finding the practical gaps in your knowledge. You generally will have gaps and you can spend infinite time trying to fill them. Or you can learn enough to start and understand that you will likely make mistakes and learn along the way.

I’ve never done anything substantial that didn’t involve mistakes. Every major new system I’ve built had mistakes. Every home project I’ve done has imperfections that annoy me. Not once have I completed something substantial and novel and then said I’d do it exactly the same if I were doing it again. That only happens for things I’ve done repeatedly so I learn the optimal way to get it done. Build one deck and you’ll screw up at least three things. Build a dozen and you’ll get it down to a consistent product.

This is of course why trades have apprenticeship programs. You can screw up stairs a dozen times and eventually figure out all the details you missed, or you can work with someone to learn to do it correctly more efficiently. The person you’re learning from can probably fix your errors, too, so the end product is better than you’d have produced.

Yea but the guy that just gets things done is always completing his projects and exceeding his quarterly goals. So he keeps getting assigned all the new exciting high visibility projects. Managers and execs like him more because he's not always saying no at meetings. He gets promoted or switches jobs before his hacks break down too much. And you're the one left carefully maintaining all the projects he blazed through.

"Why don't we just do this?" is incredibly valuable as long as it's not simply saying "We should do this!"

If your building a house the best volume to surface area is going to be a sphere. Why don't we use that? Well it's a pain to work with curves. Well why not a Cube? It _

That _ is going to be a listing of the problems constraints, which most people can't simply list by thinking abstractly.

Frank Lloyd Wright: “You can bring an eraser to the drawing table, or a sledgehammer to the construction site”

Another really good explanation: https://steve-yegge.blogspot.com/2009/04/have-you-ever-legal...

(Despite the name, it's great post about complexity)

I tried to implement a fine at my old job for every time anyone--technical or not--started a sentence with "Can't you just..."

No one complied, of course, but I never let the sentiment die.

"they look terrible"

Well then don't do a shitty job? I mean if the budget is there, then yeah, just build me some stairs.

This misses OP's point completely--they're talking about the people who will use pieces of cardboard to fill pits in the earth and make the railing way too high because that's how long they happened to cut the boards. In my experience, these have indeed always been the people who hastily say, "Let's just do this!" instead of asking, "What do you have to do here?"

Are you a product manager?

You might be saying this in jest but his statement is totally valid if he is a manager.

The level of abstraction you are working on matters. A manager can't just build a great business either. But for example if he encounters legal trouble, he can just hire lawyers to fix it.

His interface to the world is via delegation to people who can solve his subproblems competently and consistently. There's still a "surprising amount of detail" but at a higher abstraction level and solved with different tools(a really strong "biological" AI that can resolve and prevent the details from bubbling up :P).

>Do you remember the insights that were crucial in learning to ride a bike or drive?

The author mentioned bicycles and inadvertently missed an opportunity to show another "unknown reality" that beautifully illustrates his point.

Consider typical adults (not physicists) with 20+ years of bicycle riding. If you ask them, "how does a bicycle turn?", they'd respond that "you just lean into the direction of the turn and it turns."

But that's not the complete picture of what actually happens.[1] If you were to capture the bicyclists with a high-speed camera, you'd notice that there's always a micro movement of countersteering to make the bike momentarily lose its balance and "fall into" the turn. Then there's an immediate correction of the steering to match the turn. This all happens in the span of milliseconds.

Even though the human body "discovered" the countersteering by way of kinesthetic feedback, the bicyclists' brains don't explicitly communicate this intermediate step to others. (Tacit knowledge.[2])

It's not always the case that we "simplify" reality for innocent purposes of pedagogy. (E.g. we tell "lies" to children about "numbers", "functions", etc and as they get older, we successively remove the layers of lies as they get into high school and college math.) Instead, we often don't even know the reality (e.g. bicycle countersteering) to consciously omit it.

That extra reality may not even be important. If one human is teaching another human, you can leave the "countersteering" detail out and it won't matter. The 200 years of people learning how to ride bicycles is evidence of that. However, if you're a robotics scientist and want to build a self-driven motorcycle, the reality of countersteering becomes a crucial detail.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=llRkf1fnNDM

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tacit_knowledge

For guitar nerds, there's a whole online business by a guy named Troy Grady about fast picking techniques (he has a ton of extremely polished videos on YouTube - start with whatever "Cracking the Code" videos are up). He decoded the seemingly-magical techniques that allow players like Yngwie Malmsteen and Eric Johnson to play at what feel like impossible speeds, and illustrates them. (tl;dr the core trick is "pick slanting", striking the strings at an angle so the pick goes in and out of the plane of strings, rather than across it, and then switching strings only when the pick is "out". That, and "chunking", breaking into units of fixed length on a single string and using the fixed length to do a clock reset on the beats).

For a guitarist, it's almost impossible to explain the myriad tiny details that go into something as seemingly simple as picking a note. Troy's analysis of instructional videos by great players, where they obviously don't understand what they're doing, is kind of amazing. And a real eye-opener, for those of us who have played a long time.

See also: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MFzDaBzBlL0 YouTube channel Smarter Every Day tries to ride a bike that has been hacked to reverse which way the wheel goes when the handlebars are turned, which also reveals how much bike riding skill is implicit.

(I also experience the "clicking" he refers to around 6:10 when I switch between QWERTY and Dvorak layouts. It takes about 15-30 seconds to switch, even after all the years I've been doing this, and I can "feel" it slide into place. This despite the fact that I use Swype (or whatever it is spelled as) on my phone all the time, which means I stay very familiar with the QWERTY layout every day... but somehow that qualifies as a different "thing", because I always get that instantly.)

I had this the first time I rode a motorcycle. The first day, everything was really jerky and uncoordinated because I had to do everything consciously. Woke up the next morning and my brain had remapped clutch from left foot to left hand, throttle/brake from right foot to right hand, gears from left hand to left foot, and the bike "just worked" the way I expect cars to.

About your keyboard, my experience after having used both a (Canadian multilingual) QWERTY MacBook and other computers with regular AZERTY keyboards for years, is that everytime I use some keyboard that vaguely feels Apple-y (with flat keys, white or grey) I somehow try to use it as a QWERTY. Then after a few seconds of mistyping things, I can eventually use it correctly, but it really seems like it's the look of the keyboard that makes me choose which layout I use.

It's probably different for everyone, in my case my brain has found the look of the keyboard to be the best predictor, for others it could be something else. But it's really interesting, sometimes it takes me a while before I notice that, indeed, this keyboard looks a bit like a Mac keyboard.

A long part of my scientific career has been unpacking simple statements about things like bike riding, and finding the underlying process is subtle, and reveals many interesting things.

When I was a kid, I had a teacher who said that cutting paper wasn't a chemical change- no bonds were broken. That seemed odd to me, but after I had a PhD, I understood a few things better. That when you cut paper, mostly hydrogen bonds- bonds, but a particularly weak form of bonds- are broken, but threre is enough kinetic energy to break some covalent bonds too. This turns out to have huge implications (besides the fact that the teacher was wrong).

If you smash a salt crystal with a hammer, all the resulting pieces end up with equal charges of anions and cations, so were any ionic bonds really broken?

That covalent bonds are broken seems obvious if you ditch the paper and cut through a sheet of long-chain polyethylene. The scissors don't just stop if they're about to break a polymer chain.

I think even the salt crystal will have some ionic bonds broken- smashing it with a hammer should generate a bunch of kinetic energy which converts to heat, some of the heat will exceed the ionic bond strength, and break bonds.... right?

How tiny of a charge is so small as to be unnoticable?

Certainly, if an object millimeters across has a charge of 1 electron that isn't noticeable.

I'll bite.. what are the huge implications?

Could striking a match be viewed as cutting paper?

no, that's combustion, clearly a chemical reaction. Sure, you can use a laser to cut paper, but the teacher was talking about scissors.

And... what are the huge implications??

Come on dekhn, we want to know

OK, sure. One of the most interesting long-running issues in proteins is how they adopt their 3D structure and remain stable for such long periods.

Most people would say that covalent bonds hold the protein together and they dominate the overall structure- for example, you wouldn't ever see a strained covalent bond, so you can easily eliminate all structures with strained bonds. This was long an assumption. However, work I did at Google using Exacycle demonstrated that, in fact, large collections of hydrogen bonds can in fact work in concert to stabilize proteins with strained covalent bonds (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/pro.2389/full), which overturned the assumption, and made a modest contribution to the prediction of protein folds, and protein design.

Interesting, thanks!


> If one human is teaching another human, you can leave the "countersteering" detail out and it won't matter. The 200 years of people learning how to ride bicycles is evidence of that.

This is actually a well-known fact about motorcycle, and it's taught in driving schools. It's just that their is no bicycle driving school and people just figure it by themselves. I'm pretty sure it takes more time though.

I don't think regular driving schools teach you to countersteer when you turn.

Perhaps they mean riding schools as any MSF endorsed riders course will teach you to counter-steer to initiate a turn [0] at higher speeds. It is especially important on a motorcycle due to the forces/speeds involved.

[0]http://www.msf-usa.org/downloads/BRCHandbook.pdf (sec.4, pg.8)

My dad owns a motorcycle training school and teaches this.

The motorcycle class I took in the US did in fact teach this.

Oh interesting, in what country do you live ?

India. We're not known for the thoroughness of our driving schools :)

Have you actually tried turning a bicycle without countersteering? I have, the last time the topic was discussed on HN. I found I was able to turn without any perceptible countersteer. It's technically possible that I do have to countersteer for a small number of miliseconds over a small number of milimeters, but my experience leads me to doubt it.

Bikes have "rake"[1]- the tilt in the axis of steering. In a bike with 90 degree rake you would always need to countersteer.

When the wheel is forward of the axis of steering, you don't need to countersteer for small turns. When you turn the bars, the contact point on the wheel moves forward and to the side, dropping the front of the bike down and tilting it into the direction of the turn for you. That mimics the effect of countersteer. It's also one of the factors that makes some bikes, like mopeds, easier or harder to control.

During harder turns, the amount of lean created by the rake angle is less than required and you do need to countersteer. It's very hard to notice even when you're actively looking for it though.

[1]: https://ep1.pinkbike.org/p4pb9516905/p4pb9516905.jpg

A moped (and I assume a motorcycle) is a lot harder to turn without countersteering. I’m not sure if that’s because it’s more massive or what.

Anyway, learning to ride a moped was when I first consciously discovered countersteering. It made things a lot easier after that point.

It could be based on speed rather than mass. Above 5-10 mph or so, you turn a motorcycle with pretty much total countersteering, forcefully pushing forward on the inside hand grip to get the motorcycle to lean over. The faster you're going, the further you need to lean the motorcycle.

That makes sense too.

The geometry is set up to be stable at a higher speed. Even then some sports bikes require a steering dampener to prevent "speed wobbles" (which, yes, are an actual thing and are much worse at 260kph than at 30kph on your BMX when you're a kid.)

Is "speed wobble" anything like the Jeep "death wobble" (actually can happen on any 4wd vehicle, but Jeeps seem to have the problem more as steering and suspension components wear)?

I hadn't heard of the "death wobble" but it sounds like the same thing. Basically your suspension geometry is set up to be dynamically stable over a wide range of speeds, but if you go outside that range it's possible for oscillations to build up. Example on a bike: https://youtu.be/SAnjjHKclZs

If you have a normal bicycle without modifying the steering column then you were using countersteer whether you realized it or not. Even if you weren't toughing the handlebars, the lean initiates a countersteer. And you need countersteer again in the opposite direction to re-center yourself. If there's video or experimental setup info I'd like to see it.

Based on live TV illustrations I've seen, using paint on a wheel, the counter steer can amount to as little as 1cm. I'm not sure if that is perceptible without the paint trick.

There's another neat example of this: asking someone with years of car-driving experience to hold their hands out as if gripping a steering wheel and mime the motions necessary to change lanes. [1] The steps are:

1. Turn the steering wheel towards the lane you wish to enter,

2. Re-center the steering wheel,

3. Counter-steer the same amount as in step 1.

Step 3 is what people tend to forget about.

[1] https://99percentinvisible.org/episode/episode-37-the-steeri...

For step 3, I almost always loosen my grip on the wheel and let it mostly straighten myself. So miming wouldn't include nearly as much counter-steering, even if I did remember to mime the whole process.

You skipped the turn signal, which seems accurate to most of the drivers I see on the road.

If anyone ever refuses to believe this, have them steer using just their palms. Especially, try to turn left or right using just one palm.

There is an excellent example of this type of fiddly detail in Liz England's 2014 blog post about the problems of doors in video games [0]. She identifies about 20 questions you can ask about as a door (as a game designer) and then about 30 different roles (from sound designers [1] to monetization director[2]) who might be involved. Her post works really well because the example is so mundane but the questions are very valid.

[0] http://www.lizengland.com/blog/2014/04/the-door-problem/

[1] "I made the sounds the door creates when it opens and closes."

[2] "We could charge the player $.99 to open the door now, or wait 24 hours for it to open automatically"

> Network Programmer: “Do all the players need to see the door open at the same time?”

Brings me the question on wheter the "reality" is the same for everybody.

Definitely not. The "Dress" phenomenon proved that there are certainly things people perceive drastically differently from others, that unless explicitly pointed out would rarely be noticed.

Perception of reality is not the same for everybody, but there is a single objective reality that we all perceive in our imperfect ways.

That is just speculation. Maybe the only things that exist are subjective perceptions and they don't all overlap. Then the objective reality only exists from god's viewpoint, so if there's no god...

If there is no objective reality, then what is the explanation for the overlap of our subjective experiences? By the way, you do bring up a good reason for the existence of God as the only one who knows all of reality. However, God does not know reality by perception. Rather, God is the source of reality, so he knows it because it begins in his mind.

Is this "subjective perception" part of the "objective reality" or somehow outside of it?

Subjective perception is part of objective reality. Or rather, it arises inside objective reality.

Not that I could conclusively proof that statement.

The answer is NO.

We all have our personal realities that operate on their own timeline. Only when you are playing an MMO next to someone do you get a chance to notice it. But it exists both in game and in real life.

In as much as information to our knowledge propagates no faster than speed of light in a vacuum, in one sense reality can not be the same for anyone.

I've actually built a few staircases, and it's a ton harder than it even sounds here. In fact, there's apparently carpentry competitions and building a stairway to code is the grand finale.

The way he does it, with the angle brackets? That's the easiest way, and by far the weakest. The strongest way is to notch out 2x12's (ideally at least 3, with one in the middle). Oh, and no step can be more than 1/8" difference in rise vs any other stair. This much harder, though.

Combine this with the math to know how many steps you need, and what angle the stairs need to lean overall (this one he touches on), and it's a real pain. Fail, and people get hurt. Your body is pretty sensitive to stairs being perfect.

A dirty secret (?) is that a lot of the stairways you encounter are not built to code, either because they were built before current codes were put into place or because they were modified after inspection. A common practice is for certain required elements to be included in a way that makes them easy to remove. My girlfriend pointed out an instance of that to me recently — if you looked closely you could see that a handrail (the round bar you can hold onto while you walk on the stairs) had been mounted to the guardrail (the panel that makes it impossible to fall off the stairs sideways) and then removed. She said it was probably added to pass inspection because the guardrail, which was a very beautiful metal design, did not technically qualify as a handrail. Either the stairs failed inspection and the contractor temporarily fixed it up by adding the handrail, or more likely, the designer anticipated the inspection issue and included a cheap handrail for the owner (or more likely the contractor) to remove after inspection. Some people welcome the challenge of designing to code, but some people just resent it and circumvent it whenever they can.

Don't forget stairs that land on surface that is sloped from one side of the stairs to the other. What height should that bottom step be? Will the inspector measure both sides? Do you shoot for the middle being right on and each side being a bit too high and a bit too low?

Watch the height on the first and last steps. The middle ones are the "easy" ones.

In bigger cities there are companies that only frame stairs. It is amazing to watch them - they can do it in their sleep. I watched one crew finish up some complex stairs in less time than our framing crew would have spent making a game plan.

There is detail in everything and until you've done that job you really don't notice it.

I've heard the "real fun" in stairmaking is spiral staircases where the radius changes throughout the staircase...

They should do a tiebreaker/encore where the stair is also to be used by an achondroplastic dwarf with a stride length of 28".

That requires some futzing with the comfort formulas, and still trying to make that work with code and average-height people.

It sounds like it would be far easier to pour concrete steps instead? Gravity will take care of making each step perfectly horizontal, at least.

Making either perfectly horizontal isn't even the hard part, but concrete steps take a LOT longer, if you can believe it. You have to build a wooden box to pour into, and you can only pour once (new concrete does NOT stick to dry concrete).

I did a concrete landing for these steps, which wasn't too bad, but my next door had his front steps re-poured by actual professionals, and it took them like 2 weeks.

Compare that to mine, which while a pain in the ass really only took about 20 hours total, and I made 7 "stringers" instead of the usual 2 or 3 (I used composite decking on the stairs, which requires support every 9-11 inches) which made it a lot harder (and heavier).

And of course, concrete steps really only look right when they go right up to the house, they don't look right attached to a deck, and they certainly aren't something you want IN your house.

There's something of a connection here to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Two examples come to mind:

1. The narrator thinks it's important to have in your toolset hammers of multiple hardness, because your hammer should be softer than whatever material you're hammering on at the time.

At least, that's how I remember it; I might well be wrong about -- well, about the DETAILS of that example. Please correct me if I am.

2. A student gets and assignment to write an essay about a particular brick wall. He can't see how to fill the assigned length with anything interesting.

The instructor then says OK, write instead only about the left-topmost brick. The student has so much to say about it he has trouble making his essay SHORT enough to meet the assignment's requirements.

He’d been innovating extensively. He’d been having trouble with students who had nothing to say. At first he thought it was laziness but later it became apparent that it wasn’t. They just couldn’t think of anything to say.

One of them, a girl with strong-lensed glasses, wanted to write a five-hundred-word essay about the United States. He was used to the sinking feeling that comes from statements like this, and suggested without disparagement that she narrow it down to just Bozeman.


It just stumped him. Now he couldn’t think of anything to say. A silence occurred, and then a peculiar answer: “Narrow it down to the main street of Bozeman.” It was a stroke of insight.


He was furious. “You’re not looking!” he said. A memory came back of his own dismissal from the University for having too much to say. For every fact there is an infinity of hypotheses. The more you look the more you see. She really wasn’t looking and yet somehow didn’t understand this.

He told her angrily, “Narrow it down to the front of one building on the main street of Bozeman. The Opera House. Start with the upper left-hand brick.”

Her eyes, behind the thick-lensed glasses, opened wide. She came in the next class with a puzzled look and handed him a five-thousand-word essay on the front of the Opera House on the main street of Bozeman, Montana. “I sat in the hamburger stand across the street,” she said, “and started writing about the first brick, and the second brick, and then by the third brick it all started to come and I couldn’t stop. They thought I was crazy, and they kept kidding me, but here it all is. I don’t understand it.”

Neither did he, but on long walks through the streets of town he thought about it and concluded she was evidently stopped with the same kind of blockage that had paralyzed him on his first day of teaching. She was blocked because she was trying to repeat, in her writing, things she had already heard, just as on the first day he had tried to repeat things he had already decided to say. She couldn’t think of anything to write about Bozeman because she couldn’t recall anything she had heard worth repeating. She was strangely unaware that she could look and see freshly for herself, as she wrote, without primary regard for what had been said before. The narrowing down to one brick destroyed the blockage because it was so obvious she had to do some original and direct seeing.

He experimented further. In one class he had everyone write all hour about the back of his thumb. Everyone gave him funny looks at the beginning of the hour, but everyone did it, and there wasn’t a single complaint about “nothing to say.”

In another class he changed the subject from the thumb to a coin, and got a full hour’s writing from every student. In other classes it was the same. Some asked, “Do you have to write about both sides?” Once they got into the idea of seeing directly for themselves they also saw there was no limit to the amount they could say. It was a confidence-building assignment too, because what they wrote, even though seemingly trivial, was nevertheless their own thing, not a mimicking of someone else’s. Classes where he used that coin exercise were always less balky and more interested.

As a result of his experiments he concluded that imitation was a real evil that had to be broken before real rhetoric teaching could begin. This imitation seemed to be an external compulsion. Little children didn’t have it. It seemed to come later on, possibly as a result of school itself.

-- Robert Pirsig

Very interesting! This reminds me of the central thesis of “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” by Betty Edwards, which is that in order to truly learn how to draw, you need to render what you see, not what you know. Everyone can do it, but it’s hard for some people to see something as a collection of lines and shapes instead of a face or a building. Sometimes this involves tricking your brain, e.g. drawing from an upside-down picture.

Thanks for finding that!

Err, Bozeman doesn't have an opera house. Certainly not one with a burger stand across Main Street.

Just sayin'


Demolished in 1965, which is consistent for the reminiscence from the 1950s.


I learn the damndest things every day. Thank you for a slice of history of my own home town.

It is a nice little park (and still there).

Great. Next you're probably going to tell me that Santa Claus isn't real either. :-(

Well, we do still have a couple of good burger joints from which you can admire some classical turn-of-the-century masonry from...

Whew! ;-)

Should likely read the comments by the author about just what is and what isn't made up.

Who has that kind of attention to detail? :)

To be fair, it's not trivial to access. These comments only made it into later printings.

I've long noticed this, it's easy to build complex thing with simple blocks.

Lego and Minecraft fit into this. I once got my old Legos out and suddenly had dozens of ideas of what to build. Although I could've done the same in woodwork at any other time. The boundary is the most important thing to fuel creativity imho.

From memory, the student in (2) was female. That has been one of the parts that really struck home with me as well - Change Your Perspective and then Look Again.

Can you expand on that - I'm failing to see how the sex of the student is relevant?

2 separate points. The student was female (OP said "he"), and also that passage was notable (but not because she was female).

Yes, although I should probably haven't brought the correction up in the first place as it wasn't relevant to the main point.

Details, as they say...

It's not.

Thanks! It's been a while since I read the book -- I'm guessing a little less than 40 years -- so my memory is beyond foggy on the details.

But even though I recall little about its specifics, that book was very influential on my approach to epistemology.

For fans of extreme detail, I'd recommend The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker[0]. Iirc, he devoted several pages to the feeling of the curls of a brown paper bag carried in his hand.

0: https://www.amazon.com/Mezzanine-Nicholson-Baker/dp/08021449...

For fans of maybe slightly less extreme detail, Tim Carmody and Jason Kottke have recently launched a new newsletter, "Noticing".


Thanks for reminding me, I really need to re-read that book.

I've thought about this too, and generalizing to one more degree, I believe it comes down to perspective. The details are what keep you locked in that perspective.

It's difficult, but invaluable, to truly see things from other perspectives. Once we begin learning the small details of one perspective, our minds seem to develop heuristics for quickly judging all things from that perspective. Attempting to see things from a different perspective slows us down and makes us uncomfortable.

Citation needed, but I sincerely believe our intellectual difference are just a consequence of viewing things through many layers of varied perspectives. So for people who have considered global warming and believe it to be false, it really is false. That is reality. It's all subjective.

Hawking uses the phrase "model dependent realism" for the small subatomic world.

But of course it's perfectly valid for our highly complex human scale world too. And then why do we think the Sun is what we see in pictures? Of course it's that, but it's much more too, and since we don't capture a lot of that in our models (be them photos in various EM gamuts or neutrino counts or whatever numbers), but we only see the surface, we will never experience it up close.

And the same goes for our experience of others' experiences, be it scholarly undertaking in unraveling the mysteries of Earth or simple carpentry/masonry/woodworking/sports.

Even though hundreds of millions of people watch and tens of millions play soccer, no one really has the correct model about playing it on the professional (world cup, UK Premier League) level. Yet every one has a model of soccer, and of course that's their day to day reality. (And they of course do some imperfect subconscious belief update on their models as they go through life, but that's not much compared to an actual rational inquiry using the scientific method - but who has time for that for everything in the world?)


>The idea does not necessarily imply that there is no objective truth; rather that our access to it is mediated through our senses, experience, conditioning, prior beliefs, and other non-objective factors. The implied individual world each person occupies is said to be their reality tunnel.

This is an incredible read, very thought invoking.

I've never replaced stairs but I have learned enough of the "details" by repairing them (or being aware of them) to know it's a really hard to get right.

A single 1/4 inch difference between two steps can feel wrong; a 1/2 inch difference and people will likely stumble or tumble down them on their first approach. Our intuition and pattern recognition impacts how we solve problems. Some call it "muscle memory" but it's not just in our muscles, it's in our unconscious thought.

Like the author explains so well, once we move a detail into our unconscious it becomes part of us, transparent to us, "common sense"; and an unnoticed detail is completely hidden from us.

The details of reality can only be taught through experience, because once understood, they move almost instantly from hidden -> transparent.

A gif of what happens when one step is just slightly too high:


A favorite "today I learned" of mine is that staircases in medieval castles were constructed with steps of slightly different heights in order to trip invaders. In particular, the last step at the top of a staircase was tall, with the intent of causing a stumble and generating a loud footfall (for those sneaking around) or sending the intruder into the room headfirst (into a ready weapon, in the case of a siege).

This was the perfect strange comedy for my Friday morning, thank you for sharing!

Also interesting how people speed up after tripping.

I had an over weight friend in highschool who could run really fast. He did this by basically by making his top half fall forward which caused his legs to move quickly to keep him from landing on his face.

I think this is a similar phenomenon where the people tripping up the stairs have an imbalance causing their top half to fall forward. As a result the unconsciously speed their bottom half up to catch the top half from falling.

Here's what I think the most chilling takeaway is. People who have no appreciation for details do not know anything. They are dangerous people who will conclude incorrect things with certainty on a regular basis.

I would love to agree, because I always cared for details deeply. How can it be a bad personality trait? But later I started to reconsider that. The most effective high-level managers I know outrageously little care for details, as it seemed to me. When I was their subordinate it caused me a great deal of a problem.

But then it dawned on me. Things somehow play out well in the end. Why? Well, because there I was, to care for details, to find solutions for what it seemed like an impossible problem to solve. If they cared for details as much as I did — we wouldn't even begin anything, because the amount of detail was so overwhelming. The general plan wouldn't be born in the first place.

Now I sometimes wish I could care less for details and try to be... well, easier, I guess.

those managers had to care for at least the existence of details if they allowed you to do what was needed to honor those details. A truly "I dont care about details" manager would ask you to do something, you'd explain it cant be done that way for X, Y, Z, etc., and they'd say, "I don't care, do it anyway". A manager might not know the details of the thing you are doing for them, but they need to have an appreciation that details exist, which probably means they know about details from some other field they've been involved in, like sports, carpentry, art, or something else like that, such that they understand when someone says, "we need to do it this way because X, Y, Z", they know that those are details, you know them, and that's important to honor.

This seems particularly relevant to legislators and politicians, and much of the electorate.

This article points out exactly why even though I like to tinker with a lot of stuff my main hobby is always programming. Because programming is more akin to writing down maths than building a staircase. Algorithms don't warp because of humidity, algorithms don't have leakage current. Sure computers have their quirks (overflows, floating point issues, UB etc...) but it's still a finite amount of knowledge unlike the infinite amount of details of reality.

An other pleasant part of software development is that all you need is a computer and a compiler/interpreter to get started. No need to buy dedicated tools or supplies. And if you realize halfway into a project that you did something wrong (that your "staircase" is not cut right) then you can easily undo and redo anything without any mess or waste. No cleanup needed either. The only limits are your skills and imagination.

It depends. I've been stuck with a very large, very old, particularly awful legacy codebase before, and doing anything with it starts to resemble building the staircase.

Find the cause of a bug. Oh, but the fix isn't clear, because it turns out the "bug" isn't a programming error as it was - two people who had two slightly different but incompatible interpretation over the meaning and purpose of some subsystem (whose creator didn't document anything because hey, gotta meet deadlines). So now we have to decide what is the most correct way to resolve this while breaking the least amount of stuff... hmm, we could refactor this, separate that, give this a clearer purpose... oh, but surprise, it's tightly coupled to this, which is tightly coupled to that, which is tightly coupled to... FML.

In fun, a contrary perspective: at least with woodworking tools, they don't become obsolete in 2-5 years just from laying dormant on the shelf!

Seriously, though, couldn't agree more, I've said some variation on everything you mentioned for many years. Especially the mess part. I would add the risk of personal injury, too.

Improperly cared for, however, and they will rust or worse.

Over longer time spans, the tools sometimes become outdated in terms of one's productivity while using, assuming non-artistic motivation for use.

Old motorized tools are more prone to this than mechanical-type tools. Which maybe gives some insight as to the factors that contribute to obsolescence. There are exceptions, of course, but generally my grandfather's hand tools are still perfectly serviceable while his motorized tools often have more drawbacks than benefits to use. A 50-year circular saw is as heavy as a boat anchor and is a huge pain in the ass to adjust and use compared to newer options.

this is a great point. but i think all those negatives are actually positives for lots of people, creating fun challenged

I'd say "fiddliness" is a characteristic of happiness and focused work.

If you overlook most details you are basically just 'doing stuff to get objectives done', which is meager imho.

Getting acquainted with detail takes us away from the vast sameness that we experience when we are just running on automatic and helps us cherish and savor each moment as complexity unfurls.

I think you really hit on something here. Anytime I'm working on a hobby of mine, I like to actively get into the weeds (figuratively, occasionally literally). It's in exploring and learning about the depth of the unknown that I find the most enjoyment.

I learned to love talking to strangers when I realized the richness and variety of human experience is so vast that no one person can feel or experience everything another person can in their lifetime. In retrospect, it's amazing I had to realize this at all, but we all start out self-absorbed.

It's probably when you're into those small universes, chasing down detail, that you are most happy and comfortable, even tho you might not be at that specific time your most productive self. After all, when 'flow' happens, We are not really caring about the passage of time, right? ;)

Depends on the point of your focus. Fiddliness stops being funny when you have a deadline. Or when you're doing what you love, but have only so much time between work, errands and social obligations - and then a bullshit issue comes up and stops you in your tracks.

I've always thought the whole idea of virtual reality is strange. Why would I want to experience the world through VR when I can experience reality instead? I suppose there are exceptions where it makes sense. Maybe if someone is physically incapable of having an experience, or the risk is too high, but for the most part I derive more joy from actually going outside and doing stuff than playing a video game equivalent.

To each their own, as they say.

By the way: great post.

> physically incapable of having an experience, or the risk is too high, but for the most part I derive more joy from actually going outside and doing stuff than playing a video game equivalent.

Or financially incapable of having the experience, or time constrained - and everyone is mortal and therefore time constrained.

I don't anticipate using VR to experience a walk in the local park, or (personally) mountain biking on the local singletrack because those are things I can do in real life with much more fidelity and have a much better experience. However, I could understand taking a walk in a park on another continent (or six other continents in one afternoon), or advising a friend whom I've raved about mountain biking to try the trail in VR before buying expensive equipment.

I'd rather have a compromise of some vast array of experiences across the world in low-detail VR, and also enjoy the limited amount of experiences I can enjoy in real life in full resolution, than to constrain myself to the small slice of the world that I can afford to physically experience.

> Why would I want to experience the world through VR when I can experience reality instead?

VR can let you experience neat things that are impossible or difficult to experience in reality. Visiting Paris means an eight hour flight and thousands of dollars; visiting Mars is currently impossible; fighting aliens may never be possible.

"Why would you want to use VR for that" is a great criticism of "Using the Toilet Simulator 2019", sure, but it's a bit of a strawman.

The combination of your comment and the parent article reminded me of when I was first getting involved in VR/AR research in grad school, and realized that I had inadvertently started perceiving the quality of rendering in VR as a "good enough" approximation of the real world. Simple geometry, lighting, ambient occlusion, bump/displacement maps, etc. I realized I had to get myself out of the lab and into reality again to really observe all the minute details that we just can't capture at this point in VR (even ignoring all the senses besides sight). It's easy to fall into the tempting trap of letting your mental models and abstractions become how you perceive things.

On top of that, the video games I play and enjoy are decidedly unreal and often intentionally simple or stylized.

What if I want to experience racing in formula 1 and I'm not a billionaire?

Two things that came to mind while reading this essay:

- The effect of a surprise when facing unexpected complications/details is because our brains tend to simplify things, or rather simplify the model of the world that we maintain. When you first hear that water boils at 100º your brain really really wants to assume it's that simple, no more than that. Simplifications are crucial for optimising the brain's power consumption, which it tends to minimize all the time.

- The amount of detail in human built stuff, as well as in our understanding of the world is a result of many centuries of perfecting and improving those things. Go a few millenia back and look at the stairs we were building then, they were awful. Or the fact that the process of boiling is so complex is a result of relatively recent discoveries in physics, just a few centuries ago.

Funny thing is, the details of the reality around us will only get more complex over time. Suppose in a few centuries from now stairs will be so complex and so perfect that no individual will be able to build them on their own.

Pure water boils at 100 ºC, in an environment at standard temperature and pressure, with sufficient vapor bubble nucleation sites.

If you're a cook, you don't really need to know all that, because you either live up in the mountains (at lower pressure) or you don't. You either have hard water (with more dissolved ions) or you don't. And your pots are never scrubbed perfectly clean.

Suppose that in a few centuries, stairs will have to account for different numbers of legs, or wheels, or different foot types, or varying amounts of gravity, or track gauge, or crystal habit, or effect on convection and ventilation, or whether classical Earth-standard humans will ever be expected to use them.

This resonates so well with Engineering in an unexpected way for me: the "production" version is orders of magnitude harder than the prototype. I kist expected it to be plainly harder.

I'm not talking just about programming. At my University I used to make robot arms and RC stuff with my classmates. Polystyrene, Arduino and a lot of duck tape were our friends, winning even a NASA competition. It was actually quite fun and fairly easy.

After finishing and while I was freelancing, I tried to take it to the next level. Once you get to rigid pieces and tight couplings, there is a huge amount of details and gears that I don't even know how to start searching for. What I learned at my University (Industrial Engineering) won't work as well, since I am not ready to order 10000s of pieces.

This here is why estimation of tasks (in software) is IMHO futile hand waving. There is always unknown unknowns, snags and hangups which may surprise everyone.

Everybody who actually creates or makes something can agree that that stuff is hard, really hard but oh so rewarding!

the point of good estimation is not the estimation itself (which is not very reliable), but actually thinking about what the details of the task are. I think the estimation should be seen as an excuse to partake in this exercise

Awesome post! Personally, I've experienced this in academia, with me being the culprit but also in a team setting. Fresh graduates, seem to be convinced that their narrow-scope textbook knowledge can conquer the world! I've studied Electromagnetism, one would exclaim! How hard can the software implementation be? Why should I bother with technicalities such noise introduced by the cable setup?

The moment you take a step back, realize that a real-world project has so many details, that your team can get collectively stuck, and that you might be just flat out wrong is really humbling.

The suggestion to simply try and notice more detail seems tantamount to advising "just do it better".

Why not ask someone who has done it before, or who does it for a living. There are many domains of human endeavour, but few with no experts. Experience is not necessarily expertise, but the experienced know what details to look for even if they don't know how to fix them.

That to me is another problem of capitalism - people reserve knowledge in order to attract finance with its value; whilst the greatest good is to share that knowledge.

Agreed. But I interpreted part of his point to be: seek out the perspectives of others to help you notice new details.

> If your screws are longer than 2”, you’ll need different ones, otherwise they will poke out the top of the board and stab you in the foot.

Actually nominal 2 inch lumber has thickness of 1.5" [1]. So your screws should be shorter than 1.5".

[1] https://www.archtoolbox.com/materials-systems/wood-plastic-c...

> Actually nominal 2 inch lumber has thickness of 1.5"

And, as I've recently learned, two-by-four is in fact 1½ × 3½ inches.

How on Earth does that make sense? Why do people call things as if they were X, while knowing perfectly well they're not X? Is this an American thing?

2x4 lumber is cut into rough boards in the milling process which are actually 2 by 4. These are dried (at which point they shrink) and planed (the wood will warp a bit during the drying process, jointing and planing will help correct this) so the resulting boards are smaller than their original 2x4 size.

Some more surprising detail in reality :)

Heh. I feel that reality is just that beautiful, never-ending fractal of annoyance...

2x4 are 2x4 when they are rough cut. The ones you buy at a hardware store have been jointed/planed to the 1.5x3.5in size.

And this is the reason I'm somewhat skeptical of predictions of future superhuman AI. The world is complicated and full of all kinds of details we overlook. Creating a general purpose AI that's able to bootstrap itself to being better than all humans at everything seems like ignoring all the difficulties it will run into. It's easy to imagine when not taking everything into account, but extremely hard to realize.

And it's also why I think he paperclip maximizer and gray goo scenarios are silly. Maybe it's theoretically possible to create something that would eat the world, but in order to do so, it would have to overcome every obstacle the world throws at it. Again, easy to imagine, extremely hard to realize. All those details get in the way.

If anything it should make you feel the opposite. The brain is an extremely effective optimizer that solves these problems in a way that is opaque to us. We find it very difficult to solve them.

An AI is an "unlocked" brain. It can see all the things that it does and then see how it does them. If it learns to ride a bike -and if it's a humanlike AI, it will be able to- it'll be able to see exactly what it does and build a model from that. We would be able to do the exact same except we can't see inside our own brains and we have to study slow motion video and notice every little thing. The AI just sees oh, I turn the other direction slightly before initiating a turn. Voila, countersteering is discovered.

Except looking inside a neural network is almost impossible. For example, google photos still turns mum if you search "gorilla". They could not figure out wtf was wrong with the recognition networks and had to just blacklist the keywords.


That's only an argument against using present-day neural networks as a basis for advanced AI. It's not a fundamental rule of reality that a mind can't understand its own internals.

It's not impossible, just time-consuming. It's the kind of task computers excel at but cannot currently do for general cases.

> An AI is an "unlocked" brain. It can see all the things that it does and then see how it does them.

Except this AI doesn't exist. You're imagining there is such a technology, and this technology will just be able to see all the detail in the world it needs to learn, and presto it does everything better than opaque humans.

If you think deep learning is such a technology, then ask yourself to what extent ANNs understand themselves and you'll see they don't at all. They're just good at optimizing for certain problems humans are able to set them up for.

So, how will us opaque humans create such a transparent technology?

> Except this AI doesn't exist. You're imagining there is such a technology, and this technology will just be able to see all the detail in the world it needs to learn

Obviously I'm imagining it. Strong AI does not yet exist. It's also obvious that it could exist, because humans do it. I'm only making two logical inferences here:

1: Future superhuman AI will have at least the capabilities of the human brain, because we know those abilities are possible, because we do them.

2. A future superhuman AI will have the ability to examine itself in memory and identify things about itself in a way that far exceeds human introspection: we can barely examine out own emotions, much less the actual neuronal contents of our heads.

> And it's also why I think he paperclip maximizer and gray goo scenarios are silly. Maybe it's theoretically possible to create something that would eat the world, but in order to do so, it would have to overcome every obstacle the world throws at it. [...] If you think deep learning is such a technology, then ask yourself to what extent ANNs understand themselves and you'll see they don't at all.

Well first off, they're quite good at it[1], but more importantly that's weak AI rather than strong AI. Arguing that weak AI is unlikely to be superhuman is plausible, but strong AI is definitely self-improving.

What I think you're saying is that you're skeptical of us being able to create strong AI out of current techniques, which is also reasonable. NN are not gonna evolve into skynet any time soon. But believing them to be categorically impossible requires the human brain to be special in some way- either beyond human comprehension or comprising a supernatural component.

[1]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Generative_adversarial_network

I'm skeptical that strong AI will be superhuman in a way that allows it to do much better than the entire human race at any task.

In context of the OP, the issue is all the detail in the world that takes many people over ages to work out. Will the superhuman AI be able to recognize all the detail it needs to know to accomplish tasks better than us (all humans)? Notice this isn't the same issue as being transparently intelligent.

> In context of the OP, the issue is all the detail in the world that takes many people over ages to work out. Will the superhuman AI be able to recognize all the detail it needs to know to accomplish tasks better than us (all humans)?

Yes, if for no other reason than this: http://slatestarcodex.com/2017/11/09/ars-longa-vita-brevis/

> If you think deep learning is such a technology (...)

I hope they don't think that. Deep learning is not suited for building a proper general AI, but that's a feature of deep learning - nothing we know about in physics / information theory says that the only possible intelligence is a neural-like black box.

> So, how will us opaque humans create such a transparent technology?

The same way we identify bugs in our own thinking - by careful application of mathematical methods. It will take time.

We know that human level opaque AI can exist. So the question becomes: how do you solve this problem if you can get access to the low level details of your brain processes and if you can run copies of parts of your brain with arbitrary inputs?

One answer would be: generate thousands of short descriptions of input signal for its different aspects, find the ones which correlate with the outputs more, refine hypotheses using scientific method.

Nice story (the first one) about the "top-down" approach, where you discover new complexity and choices at every level. Note how the discovery of new detail ends when you choose to use existing building blocks with known properties, based on experience (e.g. screws instead of examining which of the many possible ways of attaching parts would be most suitable). How simple this would be if you could buy pre-cut boards suitable for stairs at just the right angles and with holes drilled at optimal positions!

Standardising and having a limited set of (appropriate, well-understood) choices at every level is key to building complex projects. Which is probably one of the reasons why software quality isn't really improving...

When it comes to my day job building software I choose opinionated languages and libraries because they limit the choices I have to make which makes me more productive.

But when I'm playing around in my off time I employee alternative ways of doing things with unusual or niche languages so I can explore details in more depth.

Same here. But I find code reuse problematic: people tend to build large libraries with complex APIs and too many options (typically also lacking sane defaults) instead of small, focused code "blocks" that can be well understood and tested and do one single thing very well. It's like having to fasten a nut and being offered 3 types of swiss army knives as your available tools. Same with operating systems, web development frameworks etc. ... Too many options, too little thorough understanding, stable interfaces.

I am reminded of three texts: "Foundations of Mechanical Accuracy" by Wayne R. Moore[1], Tektronix's "Low Level Measurement Handbook"[2] and LTC Application Note 47 "High Speed Amplifier Techniques"[3]. All three deal with systems at the limits of precision, whether mechanical, electrical, or temporal.

Say you want to measure a length. Easy right? Just take a measuring tape or ruler and put it next to the thing to be measured. But what if you need really high accuracy over a reasonably long distance. Say, to within a tenth of a millimeter (100 μ) over a meter long distance or more. Now temperature matters: your scale will expand differently than the object being measured if they aren't the same material. Humidity has similar effects. Traditional length standards were metal bars, but metal bars sag under their own weight, changing the distance between the ends. Modern standards use interferometers to create a length standard, but those require very good mirrors and monochromatic light sources for proper operation. That's without getting into electronic measurement systems for the interferometers, and the required sensitivity there...

And you still need a way to transfer the accuracy from the interferometer to a practical measuring scale. That brings back concerns of temperature. Human handlers transfer heat, leading to local expansion. Light is absorbed differently by objects of different color, leading to different expansion. Etc.

The further you try to push the accuracy and precision the more details start to matter, and the more disciplines start to get involved.

[1] http://mooretool.com/publications.html (it can be found on Gen Lib, but is worth the price)

[2] https://www.tek.com/document/handbook/low-level-measurements...

[3] https://cds.linear.com/docs/en/application-note/an47fa.pdf

Reminds me of the difficulty of measuring the heights of mountains like Everest.


> Baader-Meinhof is the phenomenon where one stumbles upon some obscure piece of information—often an unfamiliar word or name—and soon afterwards encounters the same subject again, often repeatedly.

It was there all the time, you just didn't noticd it.

I really love the title of this essay. The essay itself and the comments are also delightful. I am going to start using this at my job (where I write embedded code for medical devices). This fact gets so much more apparent when code gets put in production devices, and you see the affect of tolerance stack-ups of hundreds of parts. I also think this is why i feel very optimistic about finding new and exciting things in the world. So many people accept the reality of things that someone has explained, while there are actually many variations yet to be revealed.

Having never done any carpentry nor googled the answer, the first thing that's coming to mind is to place the board at the angle you want, then use a straight edge (like a level) extended out from the floor of the upper story to trace a line on the board. Cut the board, then flip it over so that cut side is on the bottom, and then repeat the process to cut the top.

Edit: I guess my first line will read as a disclaimer if I'm wrong (aka missing an important detail!) or a brag if I'm right; it's intended as the former!

I think you've got a slight problem with this approach, that a diagram should illustrate if you draw the board as a rectangle and not a line. Thought experiment time:

Let us assume that you rest the board in such a manner that the angle between the edge of the board and the vertical wall is 45 degrees. The edge of the board is tangential to the corner of the wall and the upper floor, and you scribe the horizontal line, then cut it.

When you now flip the board around so that the cut you made will rest flush against the ground, the other end will still be a line that's tangential to the 90-degree join between wall and upper floor; it won't be flush against the wall.

For a 45 degree angle, you could go "oh, I'll just scribe a vertical line upwards where the board is tangential to the corner, and cut it." When you do this, you'll find the board may be flush to the ground, but it extends past the first floor, because you basically cut it too long. You could, by careful repeated cutting, shave off enough from the bottom to get it to fit flush to the floor, and flush to the wall... but that's a lot of cutting.

Now, you could apply some simple (?) maths here, and realise that for a 45 degree angle, the answer is that the board has to be some multiple of square_root(2) long, but that's maths, and that's not allowed. :)

Back to the physical approach. What if we did that horizontal cut, then rotated the board so that it became a vertical cut? Well, now it should be flush against the wall, but the end on the ground is resting on the corner of the board, not a face. You could cut it so that the "back" (furthest from the wall) corner was flush to the ground, but now the top of the board will be a few inches lower than the upper story.

This is non-trivial :) It gets worse if you're not using a 45 degree angle which makes things symmetrical.

Another problem with reality: most wall-floor angles are not exactly 90 degrees! Anyone who has tried to build custom cabinetry and shelving can attest to this.

Ah yes. I thought through it picturing the diagram in my head rather than looking at it. In my mental picture the board was sitting on top of the edge of the top floor, rather than coming up to flush with it. Which obviously doesn't make sense in retrospect!

What's coming to mind next is a horizontal cut as first described (placing at the angle you want). Flip, then vertical cut, and finally trim the end with the horizontal cut by making a parallel cut offset by the amount the board extends above the upper floor. I'm sure there's a better way though. Non-trivial indeed. :)

Further thinking.. instead of scribing a horizontal line, scribe a vertical one at the top, cut that. Then scribe a horizontal line from the back corner towards the wall, cut that. Should then fit flush to both ground and wall.

I should go find a bit of paper and scissors and try.

You don't want to extend it out from the floor, you need to extend it out from the surface you're mating to.

A more complicated example:


That only works for 45 degree angles. The reason is left as an exercise to the reader.

>If you’re a programmer, you might think that the fiddliness of programming is a special feature of programming, but really it’s that everything is fiddly, but you only notice the fiddliness when you’re new, and in programming you do new things more often.

Wait, do programmers actually think that programming is fiddly? The fiddly part is always the concerns of the real-world domain; what's special to programming is the ability to use abstractions.

Abstractions are, in their way, new things, and introduce further fiddliness.

Consider these pieces of eternal wisdom from our industry:

- https://www.stilldrinking.org/programming-sucks

- https://medium.com/message/everything-is-broken-81e5f33a24e1

The author suggests that similar problems are a feature of pretty much everything humans do.

Sure, but eventually you have to write a doubly-nested loop to walk over your abstractions. Which is rather a concrete thing to do.

"You can see this everywhere if you look. For example, you’ve probably had the experience of doing something for the first time, maybe growing vegetables or using a Haskell package for the first time, and being frustrated by how many annoying snags there were. Then you got more practice and then you told yourself ‘man, it was so simple all along, I don’t know why I had so much trouble’. We run into a fundamental property of the universe and mistake it for a personal failing."

This is a great point. It has another corollary that people who are good X approach aren't necessarily good judges of whether approach X is good. The standard answer to "that seems like an excessively complex way to do it" is generally "that because you don't have experience with doing it the right way" and that could be right or it could be wrong. Often, the experienced and the inexperienced have about equal chance to guess on the meta-level whether this is true.

When OOP was the next big thing, a whole array of people defended against objections with arguments around those not liking it "doing it wrong", which we now, mostly, know were ridiculous right? Of course we know...

>> If you’re trying to do impossible things, this effect should chill you to your bones. It means you could be intellectually stuck right at this very moment, with the evidence right in front of your face and you just can’t see it.

I know this article is not about AI, even remotely- but, oh my dog, it so is. It's like, you can do really well if you carefully select the borders of your problem domain- ImageNet, Go, Phenix, AZ; but when you try to use the same super powerful tools in an unconstrained situation (imagine a self-driving car in Mumbai; or playing Warcraft) then all those little noisy, unpredictable, unmodellable details in the real world kick your models' accuracy to the curb.

In fact, I think most AI folks have figured this out by now and that this realisation is a very big reason why AI has advanced with leaps and bounds in recent years. But we're still up against impossible odds here.

And this should be put to the attention of the Singularitarians- you don't know what you don't know yet. It might look like things are about to go exponential, but you never know what's behind the next bend. As Solon said to Croesus, "Count no man happy until the end is known".

Super interesting!

I feel like most programmers have it easy. For the most part the first step of a program is "take the universe and project it to some fixed structure". The entire universe of complexity gone.

The box has to be the right shape, but even if it's not things can mostly work.

You forget to account for wind and suddenly your New York skyscraper is falling over. Forget a field in your database and you just have a slightly busted thing.

In light of some memorable software design failures (which includes not just code but UX design, usage scenarios, compliance etc) I would kindly disagree. And the people of Hawaii would too I am sure.

It really depends what the software is used for. Software is just peoples thoughts and intentions codified for quick access/evaluation.

If they are used for a game it might not be important, if they are used for something important it also becomes important and exactly because the complexity of real life is difficult to account for ahead of time.

Sorry, I didn't mean to minimize the consequences.

There are massive failures, and now, more than ever, software interacts with other software in unpredictable ways.

I was just expressing the feeling that things are even worse in other domains. Though sometimes automating a huge unstructured mess is difficult, imagine having a huge unstructured mess and dealing with it by hand!

Programmers might have many problems, but at least a subset of the work happens in a purely mathematical space.

I've worked with academics over the years - people who are much smarter than me.

During that time, I've heard on more than one occasion a phrase that goes something like this "a month in the lab saves an hour in the library".

My response, was usually quote the Car Talk guys "Reality often astonishes theory"

The irony, and subject of endless entertaining remarks on the show was that Tom Magliozzi had a PhD.

I'm reminded of the coastline paradox.


"The coastline paradox is the counterintuitive observation that the coastline of a landmass does not have a well-defined length. This results from the fractal-like properties of coastlines."

People are surprisingly unimaginative about the richness of reality.

One thing I’velearned is that a bad design becomes more complex as you progress through it. Sometimes, the complexity grows to eventually make the whole design unfeasible, and you have to abandon it.

In rare moments, designs become simpler as you progress. Irrelevant or neurotic features seem to melt away. That is bliss!

Great essay. Basically, they say that surprise doesn't tell us so much about the world but more about our model of the world. The degree of surprise can essentially be seen as a measure of our ignorance about some aspect of the world. As such surprise can serve as a guide for improving our understanding. However, it would be a mistake to see ignorance necessarily as a shortcoming. A simplifying model of the world is preferable if it gets the job done. In contrast to that, a perfectly accurate model of the world would render decision-making computationally intractable and is therefore not desirable.

Excellent points and very true to my experience. I like this. I like it so much I'm wary of it being the last word. Accounting for details & getting perspective elsewhere is incredibly important for solving problems.

But with details alone in mind it's easy to fall into the trap of "there must be 1 more detail I'm missing" ad infinitum.

If you do anything where you have to solve problems in a fixed period of time, it's important to decide when to pivot to a new, more productive problem (depending on the scale of your problem and freedom to change).

Take this advice or learn it the hard way.

> you’re a programmer, you might think that the fiddliness of programming is a special feature of programming, but really it’s that everything is fiddly, but you only notice the fiddliness when you’re new, and in programming you do new things more often.

I disagree. With physical objects there is elbow grease; a reality mistake on the level of a typo is minor compared to a programming typo which is as good as having no program written at all.

This actually has parallels to how I recommend finding startup ideas: observing the reality and noticing anomalies and surprises. Here's my writeup: https://invertedpassion.com/to-get-good-startup-ideas-look-f...

Tieing knots. A lot more to it than diagrams suggest, if only because the hands have to learn the complicated movements while maintaining grip.

> The important details you haven’t noticed are invisible to you, and the details you have noticed seem completely obvious and you see right through them. This all makes makes it difficult to imagine how you could be missing something important

This. And how you could be pointing out something so self evident and it falls on deaf ears.

> I’ve mostly fixed it for myself. The direction for improvement is clear: seek detail you would not normally notice about the world.

> Reality has a surprising amount of detail

You can't have it both ways. The amount of details, relative to your ability to perceive them all, is no-where near "mostly".

I can't begin to count the number of times I've worked with an idea person who can't comprehend the details; or a product manager who can't work through high-level corner cases and expects that the computer can read his mind.

This is a good read for either of those kinds of people.

Re boiling water in a metal pan: it's boiling when it stops making steam-cavitation noise.

The term we use at work is "Reality has fractal complexity".

My answer to this problem is the same as it always was. Put it down, go take a walk. Come back with a fresh mind. The brain evolved to do this. Engineering is older than the human race.

So intuitively we have a tendency to make models of everything around us. And now we are encouraged to smash those abstractions to pieces, so we can find better ones. Does that sum it up?

From a software perspective at least, my rule has always been "know that what you're looking at is an abstraction, and know that there's details underneath". Most of the time you can get by using the abstraction (e.g. walking up and down the stairs), but once in a while you're going to have to peel the abstraction back and look a bit deeper to understand what's going on (e.g. replacing a cracked stringer).

I personally took this to an extreme... I learned to program at quite a young age, and dual-majored in EE and CS specifically so that I could understand the systems that ran my software. I'm happy writing Python, but if I need to dig into the CPython run-time to figure out a bug I'm ok with that. And if I need to run tcpdump to figure out why a TCP stream is stalling, I'm good with that. The abstractions are beautiful and work 99.9% of the time, but if you don't know how the abstractions are built, you're going to have a hard time figuring out what's wrong when they break down.

Everything is fractal. The more you zoom in on a detail, the more details appear. Therefore it is impossible to get anything done, there is always something to do beforehand

This was a great read, thank you!

Brilliant AF.

One of the hardest things to do is make difficult processes and systems accessible. This article achieves that with a simple discussion of building a staircase (no mean feat, first time) to step up to the springboard for a much larger idea. It's almost as if observing the staircase details renders a scaleable model fractal that gets to measurement of a learning curve.

I wonder if, by observing the details of one's own most difficult task, focusing on the time to learn each detail and assemble one's own model, an overall speed for learning ANY difficult task, done by a particular person could be calculated. That could be a valuable tool for measuring human potential, particularly in apprentice-type learning.

The value of the time and the effort put into the apprenticeship -- to both the apprentice and the master craftsman -- could be assessed before hand. Achievement baselines could be set closer to reality; or it could be decided that the apprenticeship would not be worth the time and effort. But that last decision could be made on firmer ground, data-wise.

Da Vinci, I would suggest, was a great observer of detail; he was also pretty good at math, science, engineering, and architecture. But it all started with drawing -- observing the most minute of detail, in all it's imperfection, then transferring that to paper. As an artist, he also learned to sort of standardize many of the imperfections -- or at least the use of the tool to represent those imperfections on paper or canvas. The painting method he galvanized, sfumato, eschewed hard lines in nature, and worked hard to achieve the soft edge. I wonder if da Vinci saw the irrationality of pi as evidence that a circle has no true "edge," but that a circle was instead equidistant points stretching out in a small infinity, particular to a specif object

The downside of observation might be wrapped up in this last, though. Because the casual observer of a circle, presuming that there is a definite, finite edge to a circle could lose their faith in the dimensional space we've grown up perceiving (four dimensions.) This might be okay for a mathematician, a scientist, or an artist. To a suburban husband with a mortgage and a minivan, it might be terrifying. The observation might completely unmoor him, and send him drifting off.

Nature is like that. The infinite diversity of nature, at say, the class, order, genus, species, or individual level can be maddening to try to take in. Looking above, at "animal, mineral, vegetable" compounds that exponentially. How those pieces work together to build a staircase, or a giraffe, or a seam of granite, or the savanna of Africa, is the heart of scientific -- and artistic -- inquiry.

Thanks, John Salvatier, for a provocative and insightful article.

TL:DR; Hofstadter's law.

Hofstadter's law [0]: It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter's Law.

Interesting, Hofstadter's original motivation for the law was the observation (published in 1979) about the then delays in computers beating grandmasters at chess (first in 1997 and now routinely_. This gives us a data point about 'just how long' things can take (in addition to the numerous examples from software projects). Nuclear fusion is still out there...

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hofstadter%27s_law

I think you might be leaving out some detail

TLDR: The curse of knowledge.

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