This is part 30 of 30 in the Hammertime Sequence. Click here for the intro.

One of the overarching themes from CFAR, related to The Strategic Level, is that what you learn at CFAR is not a specific technique or set of techniques, but the cognitive strategy that produced those techniques. It follows that if I learned the right lessons from CFAR, then I would be able to produce qualitatively similar – if not as well empirically tested – new principles and approaches to instrumental rationality.

After CFAR, I wanted to design a test to see if I had learned the right lessons. Hammertime was that sort of test for me. Now here’s that same test for you.

The Final Exam

I will give three essay prompts and three difficulty levels. Original ideas would be great, but shining a new light on old hammers is also welcome!


  1. Design a instrumental rationality technique.
  2. Introduce a rationality principle or framework.
  3. Describe a cognitive defect, bias, or blindspot.

Difficulty Levels

Bronze Mace mode. Write one essay on one of the topics above.

Steel Cudgel of the Lion mode. Write two of three.

Vorpal Dragonscale Sledgehammer of the Whale mode. Write all three. For each essay, give yourself five minutes to brainstorm and five minutes to write.

Here are my answers.

1. Cooperate First

There’s an old story about a famous painter of the Realist school who spent a whole year of his training painting still lives of eggs. Each day, he would draw a single egg over and over. He must have produced thousands of sketches and paintings of eggs. His teacher knew exactly how important fundamentals are.

This same motif is deeply embedded in stories all over the world:

Return to fundamentals. Practice your fundamentals.

The iterated prisoner’s dilemma is one of the fundamental lessons of rationality. The world is more like a number of iterated prisoner’s dilemmas than you’d think. Human beings are more like tit-for-tat players than you’d think. It follows:

Cooperate First!

The first move you make in any interaction with a new acquaintance should be a cooperate, even if you expect them to defect. Perhaps even if you observe them defecting already.

Here’s a lesson I learned from meditating on the maxim Cooperate First:

Cooperating First feels like accepting an unfair game from the inside. There will be many situations in life where things are framed in a slightly but noticeably unfair way towards you initially. Err on the side of accepting these games anyway!

2. Below the Object Level

One of my main complaints about rationalists (myself included) is our tendency to escalate to the meta-level too often. For example, in any given discussion, arguments over general discussion norms get much more heated and lively than any discussion of the underlying subject matter. We need to spend more time at the object level, touching reality, making experiments, testing our hypotheses.

The move I use to combat the tendency to escalate meta, I call looking below the object level.

Looking below the object level is like the move HPMOR_Harry does to achieve partial transfiguration: continually upping the magnification on your mental microscope to actually stare at the detail in reality. Reality is so exorbitantly detailed it’s overwhelming to take it all in. Try.

Look at the folds in your clothes, the way light and shadow play off each other. The way threads interweave. Pinch the cloth and watch the creases reorganize under your fingers.

Now reflect on this fact: falling water is attracted to both positive and negative charges.


There’s so much going on under what we think of as the object level.

3. Pre-Excuses

Pre-hindsight is a version of Murphyjitsu where you query your mind for what you will learn from an action in hindsight. Pre-excuses are an unproductive cousin that often derail my work.

As a serial procrastinator, I notice a fairly regular pattern of thinking that appears the couple days before I have to meet a professor, and especially before meeting my thesis adviser. My mind is already spinning excuses on overdrive. Here’s what my mind sounds like a full day before I have to meet my adviser, when I think about the meeting:

Sorry, this paper took longer than I expected to read.

Sorry, I was busy from other classes, so I didn’t do as much paper-writing as I’d planned to.

Sorry, I got sidetracked by this research problem, so I didn’t finish the homework.

That’s right, I’m having these thoughts about how to apologize for not doing work even though I still have plenty of time to do the work. Even worse, I have these pre-excuse thoughts regularly even if I’ve done the work expected of me – it feels something like cushioning the fall in case it turns out I did it poorly.

And they’re usually not even good excuses.

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My mind is already spinning excuses on overdrive.

As a teenager I spent 7 years in military school. They adopted the army ethos that if something under your responsibility goes wrong, you get punished. Regardless of whether you could have done anything about it. Trying to produce excuses usually led to being cut off with "I don't care" followed by increasing the punishment.

This had an interesting effect - if you know you are going to be punished regardless of excuses, you stop thinking about excuses and start trying to head off problems. It's like the Karate Kid approach to teaching murphyjitsu. From "you can't possibly blame me for the rain" to "hey, what's our backup plan if it rains during training".

It could have equally gone the other way into learned helplessness though, so I don't know whether it's a good approach. But perhaps that refocusing could be achieved in other ways? Maybe simply making a rule of never offering excuses - just apologise, make reparations / accept punishment and move on.

Maybe simply making a rule of never offering excuses - just apologise, make reparations / accept punishment and move on.

The problem with this rule is that a decent apology is commonly seen as including an explanation:

... when someone has transgressed a norm we become rightfully wary that they may do it again. The power of apologies, according to Martin, lies in the fact that they help to mitigate this threat of future transgression. They indicate that the person recognises the transgression and is willing to take steps to make sure it does not happen again. [...]
You must make some effort to change yourself (or your organisation) in order to ensure that the same thing does not happen again. The artful way to do this is to demonstrate change, i.e. to show that you are actually doing something. The non-artful way is to be complacent, i.e. to not demonstrate any changes.

If your apology doesn't include an explanation of why you wronged and how you are not going to do it again, then it's likely to be ineffective, since the other person has no reason to assume that you even understood what went wrong, nor that you know what you need to do in order to avoid repeating the mistake in the future. (As that linked article notes, there is a difference between an apology and an excuse in general, but here you seem to be using "excuse" as a synonym for "explanation".)

Go read Aaron Lazare "on apology" for a more complete picture of apology.

"You could call it heroic responsibility, maybe," Harry Potter said. "Not like the usual sort. It means that whatever happens, no matter what, it's always your fault. Even if you tell Professor McGonagall, she's not responsible for what happens, you are. Following the school rules isn't an excuse, someone else being in charge isn't an excuse, even trying your best isn't an excuse. There just aren't any excuses, you've got to get the job done no matter what." -HPMOR Chapter 75

Reality doesn't grade on a curve.

That advice is ironic, considering that Eliezer started writing HPMOR while procrastinating on his save-the-world rationality book.

Reality doesn't grade you. Only you can grade yourself. Or you can do what you like and screw the grades :-)

That analysis of Eliezer is false. He found a low-spoons activity that had a good shot of being high impact. I believe he continued to (and continues to) spend all of his actual spoons on his mainline saving the world plan.

Done. Felt quite rushed, but I'm glad I did this.

This is an *excellent* use of 30 minutes.

Rationality Technique: Feel Pain

A mental move not trained won't be deployed at the correct moment

A mental move that does not resolve a pain point won't be trained

Pain that isn't noticed won't be resolved

Pain that seems a natural consequence of your current belief structure won't be noticed

Get intimate with what flinching away or ignoring a pain point feels like from the inside by creating artificial conditions to practice the technique. Observe your mind as you eat spicy food, turn the shower to cold, or run farther than your mind insists you can. Because you'll never notice the perfectly reasonable excuses if you don't start by noticing the ridiculous excuses.

Prioritizing dealing with the small pains is a commitment to cultivating the exact skills that will help you deal with the big pains.

Rationality Framework: From guessing the teacher's password to generating the teacher's password.

deliberately practice deliberate practice until you have the skill of noticing the length of feedback loops.

The purpose is to move from a model of rationality that matches desires with resources to one that understands the structure of resource generating processes.

Two questions highlight this:

When is the earliest I will know it failed?

When is the latest I will it worked?

Strategies without well defined endpoints can take up unlimited energy for unlimited time. The reason that old people annoy you is that you recognize when a person has turned into a bundle of sphexish strategies.

In order to avoid this, become a person who can notice when a strategy can not, even in principle, accomplish its stated aim. (And investigate motivated reasoning that might have lead you to instantiate such a strategy, like secretly not wanting the results of a working strategy.)

Blindspot: One Framework to Rule them All.

Deformation professionelle runs much deeper than generally supposed. Frameworks for interpreting the world generally aren't falsifiable because they mostly generate the same predictions. Instead they tend to diverge in exactly those areas where feedback loops for predicative validity are poor. This is likely a feature, not a bug. There is a selection effect on frameworks and the most successful produce correct answers in all the important ways while giving holders ways of asserting superiority in ways that are difficult to verify.

You can spend unlimited time arguing about the specifics of framework divergence rather than notice that the argument you are having is the selected for outcome.

Promoted to curated as a celebration of the whole Hammertime sequence. The sequence covered a lot of important rationality content, was written in quite engaging ways and generally made me very happy.

I would love to see you experiment with higher effort posts, but mostly just want you to keep doing what you are doing. Thanks a lot for the long and interesting journey through Hammertime.

(Biggest reasons for not curating: I think the average quality of the hammertime posts is not necessarily high enough to make it worth reading for the most time-constrained of our readers, but I think it still makes sense for them to know about the sequence)

This is a great finale.

Rationality framework: The Greenland effect:

Remember the first time, you looked at a world map: one thing that maybe cached your eye was Greenland: That huge Island, almost as big as Africa, up there in the north.

Now remember the first time, you took a closer look at a globe (or a non-Mercator projection for that matter) Greenland is a bit disappointing, isn’t it? Doesn’t seem to be THAT big at all.

Now remember that time in geography class, when you held presentations on the countries in Europe: In comparison to these folks, the icy planes of Denmark´s pet island seem gigantic. Now, not as gigantic as Africa, but still…

Depending on how much time you spend with geography, I can well imagine that cycle going back and forth some more.

What is important here, is the following: even though your knowledge about the size of Greenland ever increased over your life, your emotional attitude “oh, quite big” or “nah, it´s an island, bruh” switched around quite a lot in both directions.

Now in the case of Greenland this is all well and fine, but other scenarios in can lead to pseudo disagreements or confused arguments: Beware the Greenland effect. Beware that your emotional dispossession towards an issue, often reflects your last update on that issue (which should vary unpredictably) and not your overall believes on an issue (which should converge).

Example of Greenland effects:

“The church is good, it teaches me about God”->”God is fake, the priest must be a moron, the world lied to me” -> “These religious people are actually using a lot of their recouces to help people in need” -> “all those religious charities are so ineffective.” …

“I can’t stop this project now, I have already invested so many recources”->”I know about sunk cost bias. I will abandon my projects, whenever they seem to be a bad Idea” -> “I should carry through projects despite having downs: sunk cost faith.”…

I did it: my final exam.

Thank you for the sequence, had a great time, will leave a few additional thoughts in the post mortem post.

Inspired by lifelonglearner's submission "No Do-Overs," I want to add:

The OFFICIAL DEADLINE for Hammertime Final Exam submissions is 11:59pm PDT, April 30, 2018. High-quality submissions will be immortalized in a separate Final Exam sequence, conditional on the author's approval. I will happily accept private submissions by email, assuming you can find my email address.

You are highly encouraged to reply to this comment to pre-commit to writing the exam.

Pre-committing to writing the final by April 30th. Thanks for the prompt to pre-commit.

Done! Here: Accommodate Yourself; Kindness Is An Epistemic Virtue; Privileging the Future

(I spent much more than 5 minutes on each essay, oops.)

As a bonus, I've now gotten past the trivial inconvenience and mild social fear of posting things on LW, so thanks :)

Turning in my exam! Well worth the time. Thank you for an excellent sequence!

Commenting here to complete my 30 day streak. I'll write up my final exam sometime this week and edit this with a link. I really appreciated the sequence! A lot has happened over the last month and it was nice to have a Hammertime post to return to every day.

edit: Looks like I didn't keep my promise!

My submission: Echoing the others, thanks for doing this, and I found this a worthwhile exercise.

I also did it: Hammertime Final Exam: Pledges, Activation Energy and Evaluating Productivity

Thanks for the sequence, it was really helpful! :)

I did not actually directly engage with this post, but I found it fascinating as a concept, and sort of inspiring to see other people working on it. 

I've thought about it a bit on the meta-level, in terms of what sort of exercises make sense for the LessWrong.

I do think, if there's a second nomination, it should probably come from someone who actually did the exercise and found it valuable on the object level.

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Hmm, upon reflection I'm more on the fence about nominating than I thought. Retracting for now, thinking more.

At least part of my motivation is that, overall, I think the Hammertime sequence was valuable overall – but not necessarily something where any single post was quite nomination-worthy. It seemed useful both for directly writing up a lot of CFAR techniques that weren't otherwise available online, and for moving LW towards a "community of practice", where "do exercises" was more woven into the fabric.

But I'm not sure whether this post in isolation makes sense to include – in particular, while the I like Alkjash's "submission" to his own exercise, it's not a post that I think holds up as a "best of 2018" on it's own. 

On the other hand, it might be worth include just the text of the test-description itself.