On Problem Solving

I caught myself today acting a bit strange. [Ed: you finally noticed?]

Ok ok I mean stranger than usual. [Ed: how could you tell?]

Conversations with imaginary editors [Ed: oi] aside, I found myself sitting in my car, having returned from a busy day at work, playing a game I found yesterday called Really Bad Chess. It’s an interesting little game where, in order to level the playing field for people who kinda know enough to play chess but are – frankly – really bad at it, the playing pieces are mixed up. You still play by the same rules, but instead of having an AI that plays dumb – because a grandmaster-beating AI is easily available in your pocket these days – you get different proportions of pieces to make the game interesting.

It’s a fascinating game, and especially so for me, because I’m… pretty bad at chess. I tend to think far too reactively or tactically, or I recklessly lose patience and try to slam home an advantage that usually quickly evaporates.

So here I was, on my way home, a hundred little things to do, and instead I’m sitting in my car, trying to solve this particular iteration of the game. I’m solving this game dammit before I go home.

And that’s when it hit me: I spent the whole day solving problems at work, and then during my zone-out time on the train home, I chose to spend my time solving a problem – a virtual one, entirely of my own making and inconsequential as I chose to make it – because I’m addicted to the hit of solving an intellectual problem.

It’s not just this particular game – I’ve done it with games like Threes or Alto’s Oddessey recently. These are defined problem spaces where I can largely figure out the rules and get to the solution in a reasonable amount of time, and it fascinates me and holds my attention way longer than you’d expect.

I wonder if there’s more productive ways to spend my time than getting dopamine hits from solving games. Anyone else experience the same?

Sonder through public meditation

If you’ve not experienced sonder 1 before, or not done so in a while, here’s a neat public meditation exercise that you can do that’ll open up new worlds:

Pick any person sitting, or standing, across from you. Someone you can stare at without seeming creepy. Focus on that person and get a good feel for their energy and who they are.

Shift to a soft focus on that person and picture them in their happiest moments — Hugging a friend, picking up their kids from school, reuniting with someone they love, celebrating after some good news.

Now, picture them in their saddest moments and imagine what they would look like when feeling low. Feel their sadness and despair with them.

Channel your most loving energy, and thoughts, and put it on that person. Make them feel the love and happiness you’re projecting onto them. Imagine their remaining life feeling fulfilled, whole, and finding peace within themselves.

Ok maybe the “make them feel the love and happiness you’re projecting” bit might go over the creepy-random-stranger line. But y’know, boundaries. (via)


  1. “The profound feeling of realizing that everyone, including strangers passed in the street, has a life as complex as one’s own, which they are constantly living despite one’s personal lack of awareness of it.” (wiktionary)

Ceteris Paribus

Change one thing at a time, and hold all others equal – ceteris paribus.

It’s a core of science – to do an experiment, you look at cause and effect by making a cause happen and observing for effect.

Except, just about anything that happens in the real world is not easily explained by a single cause, and so we work backwards from effect to try to puzzle out the causes, because that’s the way that gives you the most truth – the effect is observable and known, but the cause isn’t always clear, not until you repeat and retry and figure out how many strings you need to be tugging on at any one time to get the puppet to dance.

So why do we still believe in the idea of Ceteris Paribus? Why is it useful? Is it because our monkey brains are yet to evolve to the point where we can keep track of explanations that need more parameters, and we figure from there that it’s the best way to do it?

I think I’m asking why humans can’t do multiple regression in our head, except there’s times when we do, we just can’t explicitly explain the steps along the way. Maybe that’s why the people who do best at this stuff get paid the proverbial big bucks to be data scientists, when 10 years ago those people were doing the finance thing, and 10 years before that the internet thing, and 10 years before that the greed-is-good finance thing, and 10 years before that the moonshot thing.

Getting to the moon certainly wasn’t ceteris paribus, in the end. Maybe that’s the lesson to take from all of this – that as much as the idea is useful, reality is more complicated.

p.s. how is it that we’re some 1700 or so years down the line from the peak of the Roman Empire and their language is still the best most succinct way to explain something? Will we see 1700 years hence some quote of the milkshake duck meme will still be the best way to point to a person and go “this dude is problematic”? That’d be mind-blowing.