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Ten Lessons I Wish I Had Been Taught (1997) [pdf] (ams.org)
226 points by srimukh 41 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 52 comments

"Richard Feynman was fond of giving the following advice on how to be a genius. You have to keep a dozen of your favorite problems constantly present in your mind, although by and large they will lay in a dormant state. Every time you hear or read a new trick or a new result, test it against each of your twelve problems to see whether it helps.”

Basically just did this again this week. I was re-reading a three year old board game design diary I had written, and came upon an old idea that I had put on the backburner after the prototype played just "ok". I tried to come up with ways to fix it for awhile, and the ideas I had then were so different they morphed into completely different designs (more specifically, it morphed into 1 different design, which bombed in playtesting, and then that morphed into a totally different design, which did really well in playtesting and I showed to publishers, and then reflecting on their feedback resulted in a completely new design sparking in my head).

I thought about the problem for a few more seconds, and one new thing to try popped into my head, not a totally different game this time still keeping with the core mechanism, but a different method how players were given and used the cards, and I dug into it a bit more, and I decided on a different method of point distribution for the cards, and then thought a bit more, and the thought of adding abilities that encourage comboing based one previous or next cards played popped into my head, and then I decided to run with it, came up with a new prototype, tried it out, and it felt at least three times better, and felt more like a game that could be published.

I have a game that is currently a finalist in a game design contest whose design had remained dormant for over a year because I was unsatisfied with it, but something made me think about it again and a new mechanism popped in my head and I tried that and felt a lot better about it.

The Feynman method works for me, at least when it comes to designing board games. I don't mind shelving game designs for a long period of time anymore, since I have had so much luck with just thinking about them again every once in awhile and fresh new ideas popping into my head to improve the game, that likely wouldn't have happened if I kept forcing myself to think about that game.


I just watched a bunch of Marvin Minsky lectures about his theory of the Society of Mind. One of his early questions was (paraphrased) "With all these words for emotions where are the words for thinking?" He eventually popped the ones he'd found up on the board. And, of course, I sketched up some of my own. But nowhere in either of those lists was the quite apropos reference to how a whole swath of unrelated mammals have come to solve the process of digestion of rough food material. And, if we consider thoughts, ideas, and problems to be rough material then I think the word works perfectly.

I'd heard of Feynman's process, but for some reason never thought to assign it this very appropriate word. Thanks for the inspiration and reminder. Best of luck on the game! Please Show HN when you can share it. :)

In Hebrew, it's the word לְהַרהֵר pronounced hir'her, which is often translated as "meditate". From https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hbd/m/meditation.htm...

> Most references to meditation occur in the Old Testament, especially in the Psalms. The Hebrew words for meditation primarily were derived from two separate roots. The first (hagah ) literally means “to utter in a low sound.” The word is used to denote the growling of a lion (Isaiah 31:4 ) or the cooing of a dove (Isaiah 38:14 ). Therefore it has been suggested that, in ancient Hebrew meditation, Scripture frequently was recited in a low murmur. The second root word (siach ) has the basic meaning of “to be occupied with,” or “concerned about.” Thus meditation is the repetitious going over of a matter in one's mind because it is the chief concern of life.

Just in case you're interested in other options :)

Mmm, that's a tasty word and definition. Thank you for sharing the meaning of "meditation" in the Old Testament sense of the word.

A similar word comes to mind, to contemplate.

> contemplation (n.) c. 1200, "religious musing," from Old French contemplation and directly from Latin contemplationem "act of looking at," contemplari "to gaze attentively, observe; consider, contemplate," originally "to mark out a space for observation,"

> from assimilated form of com-, here probably an intensive prefix, + templum "area for the taking of auguries" (see temple (n.1)).


Tangentially related, in Japanese there are (at least) two senses of "to think".

- 思う - to think, feel, remember, believe

- 考える - to think, cerebrate, cogitate, presume, take for granted, assume, conceive, consider

As someone who grew up there, it's hard to describe the difference in English. The first one is associated with feelings and images, and the second one is more about logical thinking.

For me, I have some thoughts or ideas (some of them from books I read) that I've been pondering for many years. That feels like 思う - it's a long-term, more abstract kind of thinking, often in the back of my mind. I find myself coming back to them, almost by chance, and discovering new perspectives and depths.

I'll check out Marvin Minsky, thanks for the mention.

I am planning to take advantage of this weekend and try to get a little caught up on how to play videos for my games. I've got 6 designs already filmed (Cake Walk is the one that's a finalist in a game competition): https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLDjU-rdSngu-eeqJnc2On...

If I get the newest one up this weekend, it will probably be called 'Shared Fate'.

I didn't think Show HN is really the place to show off analog board games, so I wasn't really considering it. I don't have anything published yet anyway (just one game signed with a publisher), so they're all prototypes.

Does anyone know if posting my game design videos on Show HN would be appreciated? I come up with a lot of designs, though (my 'need to make a how to play video' backlog is like 30 games at this point). Assuming I got more consistent at filming videos, I could probably post one every week or two. Several of them you could probably play at home with components from other games.

> I didn't think Show HN is really the place to show off analog board games

Let's game it out:

Worst case scenario it gets flagged for removal and your account gets deleted. How likely is that? ;)

Most likely scenario, I think, it goes the way of most posts, ignored.

Best case scenario, people like it and you get some good conversations about it, some interest, and a few new players.

I think I still have a bit of residual hesitation from my Reddit days when I posted about a video game I worked on to a couple of subreddits (r/gaming and r/indiegames, I believe) and an admin shadowbanned me from the entire Reddit site for self-promotion (and didn't realize it until a moderator informed me months later that he'd been manually approving my comments periodically. I just thought people didn't care about half of my comments anymore).

Makes me a little more cautious of posting in places where it may not be welcome.

Fair enough. HN isn't Reddit, if it needs to be said.

Also I've found there's a knack to promoting your game on Reddit and you may have been a bit too forward. From what I recall it works if you take time to figure out what tone and explanation works. I feel there's a tutorial out there somewhere about how to market well on social media. Myself I'm not an expert.

Also Reddit mods can be petty little tyrants. I'm sorry one traumatized you so.

I’d definitely take a look at a board game post. Games are fun but I don’t play much and know nothing about designing them. Would be interesting to see more of that process. I like seeing creative hobby projects on this forum because if we have a shared interest of whatever HN is then we probably also have a common interest in other areas. That cross-pollinates to other areas. Maybe I’ll learn something in your board game post that helps me solve a problem at work.

I love the metaphor of digestion to describe the brain's process. I once tried explaining to a friend how my brain works on problems in the background and they looked at me like I was spouting some new-age nonsense.

You might like Lewis Carrol's "Feeding the Mind", it takes that metaphor and applies it to a method of how to read books.

On Gutenberg.org too: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/35535/35535-h/35535-h.htm

This feels very related to the "sleep on it" technique.

Works well for me. I recognize pretty well when my brain is in a "needs to garbage collect and analyze" state. Then I stop pushing and wait for tomorrow when the results are in.

I'm a fan of this method. Sometimes I just read over a problem, decide if it can wait until tomorrow, then move on. It can make the whole process a lot quicker.

I think a long walk can work similarly. The commonality being to quieten the active mind, though sleep has the benefit of more time.

It's weird that when thinking of Minsky, I will always also think of Epstein now.

> You have to keep a dozen of your favorite problems constantly present in your mind, although by and large they will lay in a dormant state. Every time you hear or read a new trick or a new result, test it against each of your twelve problems to see whether it helps.

I have lived by those words for many years, but somehow I was never able to find where I had initially read them (yes I tried googling, somehow that quote doesn't show up!)

This works very well, especially if you are involved in research and hobbies in very varied area. For example in running you will learn about interval training - alternating short burst of training interspersed with rest periods. What about using that when training neural networks? How does this map to game design, when you put high intensity on the player for short burst of time? How is it similar with the pomodoro technique? Obviously you end up with many spurious connections but it can light up certain topics in a different light.

> Every time you hear or read a new trick or a new result, test it against each of your twelve problems to see whether it helps.

Drag-net thinking? ;)

(I really enjoyed this article) It does take some effort to translate from academia to a corporate environment I'll try do so in a reply.

High level points:


Blackboard Technique

Publish the Same Result Several Times

You Are More Likely to Be Remembered by Your Expository Work

Every Mathematician Has Only a Few Tricks

Do Not Worry about Your Mistakes

Use the Feynman Method

Give Lavish Acknowledgments

Write Informative Introductions

Be Prepared for Old Age

Present Directly

Present Clearly

Iterate On Your Work

Specialize: Add as much new detail to a single piece of work.

Everyone has specialized skills, there's fame in using them to their fullest potential to explore many areas.

>There are two kinds of mistakes. There are fatal mistakes that destroy a theory, but there are also contingent ones, which are useful in testing the stability of a theory.

Use the Feynman Method >keep a dozen of your favorite problems con- stantly present in your mind, [...] Every time you hear or read a new trick or a new result, test it against each of your twelve problems to see whether it helps.

Give Credit To Others no matter how small

Summarize Everything Clearly and as long as is necessary: show your work second.

Your position as an authority will change abruptly. (I'm have a harder time rephrasing this. Your work will go from "meh he's washed out" to "he's perfected his craft" for identical reasons depending on how well it's received)

>After writing a rather long paper, I began to draft a thorough bibliography. On the spur of the moment I decided to cite a few pa- pers which had nothing whatsoever to do with the content of my paper to see what might hap- pen.

>Somewhat to my surprise, I received letters from two of the authors whose papers I believed were irrelevant to my article. Both letters were written in an emotionally charged tone. Each of the authors warmly congratulated me for being the first to acknowledge their contribution to the field.

That's a very interesting approach.

Related to the "Every Mathematician Has Only a Few Tricks" point, there is a Mathoverflow question https://mathoverflow.net/questions/363119/every-mathematicia... that tries to list all of those tricks, which is pretty interesting.

That quote about hating Erdos is interesting. I think my professor for UCLA undergraduate honors seminar from years ago, hated Erdos (he at least express dislike for a colleague of Erdos who operated similar). My impression is Erdos appeared to operated as something like a whirlwind of chaotic fact and theory finding whereas at least some other mathematicians aim to build larger unifying structures. It's a sort of Erdos versus Bourbaki divide (not to say who's right).

I wonder how the "Publish the Same Result Several Times" recommendation ties into the "publish or perish"-mantra. I suspect that 1997 was a different time. Many academics have a super-human publication cadence, not so much because of all the new knowledge they've extracted from the universe but because they aggressively re-publish their existing results. Very low read- and citation counts are common implications.

From the outside, it seems hard to sift through all the redundancy. At the edge of knowledge it gets harder to verify what is genuinely new and what is a rehash.

It feels like the infrastructure and format around scientific publishing could benefit from compression, consistency and version control.

> "Publish the Same Result Several Times"

Do not take this too literally. Usually it won't work or will get you branded as a self-plagiarist (not exactly a deadly sin, but not a good reputation either; people will discount your work for this). In Rota's example of Riesz, the first publication was "in some obscure Hungarian journal", the second one was in Comptes Rendus, and the third was in a "real" journal. The choice of venues is no accident; you couldn't do it the other way round. Comptes is specifically for short (ca. 4 page long) communications that mostly serve to announce results and ideas; it's not unlike the "extended abstracts" you submit to conferences. And there are no obscure Hungarian journals any more in the age of the Internet. You won't get the same result published in 3 "normal" journals unless at least two referees are asleep at the wheel.

The modern way to get high publication count "for free" is doing a lot of incremental work (as opposed to trying to write up something definitive and general) and splitting your papers up into "least publishable units". These aren't bad things to do, though: Often you have to do incremental work as a warm-up before you have a chance to see the full picture (unless you are Grothendieck, presumably), and the thinner your papers are, the easier (and faster) they will get through peer review. It's a matter of knowing where to stop.

There's a Wikipedia article on this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Least_publishable_unit

I think this was the version control when paper was big :)

Over of the other points on the article was "lengthen your summary" which was to address that very low read count!

I wonder if it's possible to make a "github of research" where articles are more publicly revised only showing the most recent (celebrating Theory 2.0! And 2.0.1 -fixed typos)

I took the publish process to be: iterate on your thesis.

I saw the pattern as: Ask for feedback from a small group. Improve ask a larger, more reputable group. Repeat.

I'm not current on what constitutes a prestigious Journal today (is Nature still a top Journal?).

arxiv.org lets you submit revisions to a paper you have previously submitted and putd the label v2, v3, etc. A lot of preprints will go up for physics and computer science papers, while medrxiv.org fills the same role for health sciences.

> they aggressively re-publish their existing results. Very low read- and citation counts are common implications.

I think it's generally the opposite to a great degree. Some people spend their PhD and postdoc doing one large piece of work, overly concerned about its rigour/correctness/validity, eventually publishing just one paper that they're happy with (perhaps a summary of their thesis). Others publish smaller pieces of work frequently, at conferences, workshops etc. In this time the latter will have built up a public academic profile, while the former may be essentially anonymous to the field. This will be reflected in greatly more citations and reads for the latter.

You could argue that there's value to the former approach, but if you can't disseminate your work effectively - i.e. nobody knows that you or your work exist - then it's useless (imo).

The way it’s done now is to publish tiny incremental results. For example, you can get funding to study a class of a dozen drugs in a dozen exotic species. The results can be written in any number of papers from 1 to 144. Add two different test methods, and you can multiply as you see fit. If the journals reject a paper for being too small, just lump a few together and resubmit.

Personally I interpreted the remark differently. But it also may depend on the field you are in.

First, publish the idea, the rough concept. You can get valueable feedback from this.

Second, publish an implementation of the idea and the evaluation thereof. This is the actual result.

Depending on limitations it can be worthwhile to publish an extended and revised version of the second one. You can go in excruciating detail on this and include unremarkable side results.

Depending on your field you might be limited to 8 pages for your second publication, which is often very limiting, or your third publication might be your thesis linking several results together.

Version control would be nice though. Especially when you notice errors yourself you would like to fix.

> what is genuinely new and what is a rehash.

I struggled with this in grad school, as it often felt I was rereading the same material in multiple journals, and the examples of my successful peers appeared to me to be the same paper with 8 different introductions!

But the example Rota gives of Riesz is illuminating: by refining an idea over time, not simply rehashing, the product improves and eventually becomes "perfect". I think this is the original and benign intent of what has often devolved into the appearance of "publish or perish".

One professor of mine talked about the LPU, the least publishable unit that is sufficient for a paper.

Even has a wikipedia page, which also mentions "salami publishing"...:


Wait, we can limit Algolia results by comment counts?

Oh, also author, points, and timestamps:


These hints reminded me that we don't have "great scientists" anymore. Can you list recent Nobel Prize laureates?

Great scientists were basically people-institutions and all the mundane and scrupulous work was done by assistants, doctoral candidates, technicians, as we have an example of Hilbert and some much less known mathematician. There still exist relicts of this system in the academia.

With increasing emancipation and alternative opportunities this extend of exploitation of the nameless is not possible anymore, and this is good.

I suspect that age has something to do with it (and he even alluded to that in his last point)

Lots of great scientists are not recognized until the body of their work has had enough time to be recognized and stand out.

so known "great scientists" are old or gone, but maybe we are surrounded by future great scientists but only notice the youtubers.

> Can you list recent Nobel Prize laureates?

For me the Nobel Prize was greatly diminished in 2014 when the Nobel committee lost all credibility.

The inventor of the LED Nick Holonyak, Jr. didn't win a Nobel Prize but in 2014 the inventors of the blue LED did; Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamura.

All of that may be true, but there's also the uncomfortable fact that the pickings of major discoveries are much fewer than they were in previous generations. Not to say that the great scientists (or their assistants) weren't geniuses, but as our knowledge advances it gets exponentially more difficult to make meaningful contributions, much less significant discoveries.

We do have "pop scientists". While they're not all necessarily "groundbreaking" or "leading researchers", I wouldn't discount the impact of folks like Neil Degrasse Tyson, Michio Kaku, and Brian Greene.

In the UK, Brian Cox for physics/astronomy and David Attenborough in the natural sciences are likely responsible for enough recruitment that will probably lead to significant knowledge gains.

Carl Sagan, to a previous generation.

Arguably one might make the same case for Michael Faraday or Humphry Davy, who's fame in large part devolves from excellent and hugely popular public demonstrations of their work.

It's not that they didn't (necessarily) also do groundbreaking work. But they were phenomenally effective communicators.

Extended to writing, Darwin, Einstein, and Feynman could be similarly considered.

Arguably, this is because all the low-hanging fruit has been picked, and all the remaining problems are too complex for a single person to solve.

I'd say it isn't complexity, but resources. New data needs highly specialized equipment and materials. Even then the accuracy and precision may be lacking.

If we could manipulate the microscopic with the ease of the macroscopic we'd be making many more discoveries.

Could we put "Rota" in the title? It's currently not even clear from the title that this is about mathematics, let alone that it's written by an expert and highly opinionated mathematician.

Rota is sort of the RP Feynman of mathematics; his "Indiscrete Thoughts" was probably the best thing I read in 2019; I recommend it to anyone who enjoys two fisted tales of applied math.

The author writes that a scientist is probably best remembered by his or her expository work. How ironic that I have never heard of this author before, and this paper is probably the only one I will ever read of him. So his statement rings true. His name is Gian-Carlo Rota.

"My late friend Stan Ulam used to remark that his life was sharply divided into two halves. In the first half, he was always the youngest person in the group; in the second half, he was always the oldest."

Can confirm that this happens to software engineers.

This seems to be related to doing well in Academia

It is, but the advice isn't strictly academic. How to give good lectures -> how to present well in a meeting.

How to acknowledge mistakes, and differentiate between fatal mistakes ones of lesser detail

Damn, I really like the design/layout. Anyone know where to find it by any chance?

The AMS uses LaTeX for typesetting. They release packages for their other journals [1], but not Notices, which apparently [2] uses Lucia Bright, a font that is not free.

[1]: https://www.ams.org/arc/journals/journal-produce.html

[2]: https://tex.stackexchange.com/questions/76053/which-font-is-...

The PDF file contains the string "/Creator (QuarkXPress\252: LaserWriter 8 8.3.3)", so it doesn't appear to be made with LaTeX.

I'm not a designer but I know designer friends using QuarkXPress around that time, and it is my understanding that you'd create the layout largely via the QuarkXPress GUI and also much manual tweaking, so the layout was probably confined to the company producing this document.

They are for sale from the TeX Users Group, https://tug.org/store/lucida/index.html, which helps out the group and gives you nice fonts also.

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