Research speedruns

[This post is also crossposted on Less Wrong.]

The ‘research speedrun’ is a format that I’ve been playing with on here for the last year or so. It’s been more popular than I expected and it looks like there’s a lot more that could be done with the idea. So I thought I’d write it up here and see if anyone else wants to experiment with it themselves, or suggest different things to try.

The format

It’s a very simple format, so this section will be short:

  • Pick a topic
  • Set a one hour timer
  • Find out as much as possible about the topic before the buzzer goes off while writing up a live commentary
  • Do a very quick editing pass to fix the worst typos and then hit Publish

So far I’ve done speedruns on Marx on alienation, the Vygotsky Circle, sensemaking, the Prussian education system, abacus schools, Germaine de Staël, and mess.

What I’ve used it for so far

Obviously, there’s only so much you can learn in an hour – calling this ‘research’ is a little bit of a stretch. Sometimes I don’t even manage to leave Wikipedia! Even so, this technique works well for topics where the counterfactual is ‘I don’t read anything at all’ or ‘I google around aimlessly for half an hour and then forget it all’. Writing notes as I go means that I’m making enough active effort that I end up remembering some of it, but I know the process is timeboxed so it’s not going to end up being one of those annoying ever-expanding writing projects.

Here are a few rough categories of topics I’ve tried so far:

  • ‘Sidequests’. Speedruns are great for topics that you find interesting but are never going to devote serious time to. I have a very minor side interest in the history of schools and universities, so if I come across something intriguing, like Renaissance abacus schools, it’s a good way to learn a few basic things quickly. I have one or two more ideas for speedruns in this area.
  • Historical background. An hour is quite a good length of time to pick up a few fragments of background historical context for something you’re interested in. One hour won’t get you far on its own, but the good thing about historical context is that it builds nicely over time as you get a better picture of the timeline of different events and how they affect each other.
  • Finding out what something is at a basic level. I did the ‘sensemaking’ speedrun because I’d heard that term a lot and had very little idea what it referred to.
  • Dubious or simplistic claims. The Prussian education system post was in this category. If you read pop pieces about education by people who don’t like school very much, there’s often a reference to ‘the Prussian education system’ as the source of all evils, maybe alongside a claim that it was set up to indoctrinate citizens into being good factory workers. If you’re starting with an understanding this simplistic you can improve it significantly within an hour. (The Prussian education system really did introduce many of the elements of modern compulsory schooling, but the factory workers bit doesn’t really hold up.)
  • Random curiosity. The Germaine de Staël one happened because I was reading Isaiah Berlin’s The Roots of Romanticism and she sounded like she might have had an interesting life (she did have an interesting life).

What I’ve got out of it

Sometimes the answer ends up being ‘not much’, but in that case I’ve only wasted an hour. I expect these to be pretty high variance. Some outcomes so far:

  • I discover that a topic is more interesting or important than I realised, and decide to spend more time on it. This happened with the Vygotsky Circle post – the actual speedrun was frustrating because I didn’t find any good quality sources about the intellectual scene, but I did realise Vygotsky himself was more interesting than I’d realised and ended up reading and making notes on his book Thought and Language.
  • I get good comments from more informed people and end up learning more after the speedrun as well. The sensemaking post was like this: in the speedrun itself I learned about the term’s origins in organisational studies, but not so much about the more recent online subculture that uses the term. After I posted it it ended up attracting a fair number of comments and twitter responses that explained the connection. (The root tweet is here, for people who have the patience to trawl through a branching twitter thread.)
  • I get exactly what I bargained for: an hour’s worth of basic knowledge about a topic I’m mildly interested in.

Another minor benefit is that I keep my writing habit going by producing something. This was actually pretty useful in the depths of winter lockdown apathy.

Other possibilities

My sense is that there’s a lot more that could be done with the format. Some potential ideas:

Speedrun events. Tyler Alterman first suggested this on twitter:

I like this idea of a research speedruns

Party format:
5min everyone brainstorms topics of interest into a chat
1hr each person speedruns on one
1hr mini presentation from each person

I tried a tiny one with three people and it worked pretty well. I don’t love organising events and I doubt I’ll do this often myself, but if someone else wants to try it I’d probably be up for joining.

Chaining speedruns together. Multiple speedruns on the same topic would allow going into more depth while still having the ability to iterate every hour on exactly what you want to focus on.

Technical topics? I’m also interested in quantum foundations but I haven’t tried any maths- or physics-heavy speedrun topic yet. It sounds a lot harder, because that type of work tends to involve a lot more stopping and thinking, and maybe nothing would appear on the screen for long periods. Could still be worth trying.

Livestreamed speedruns. It could be funny to do an actual Twitch-style livestreamed speedrun. Or it could be atrociously dull. I’m not sure.

I’d like to hear suggestions for other ideas. I’d also be keen to hear from anyone who tries this as an experiment – please let me know how it goes!

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