To be clear, I'm not suggesting a widespread movement within rationalism to begin skilling up and stealing things to fund X-risk research. I promise.

What I am suggesting is that I found the first ~3-5 hours of learning to pick locks (which I did from sheer boredom) to be valuable in ways I hadn't anticipated, mostly to do with forming models of things with very limited (and weird) information about them. It requires smushing your brain up against the territory in interesting ways; it's motorcycle maintenance writ small. 

Picking a lock is a pretty unique experience. A lock is made up of a cylinder inside another cylinder, with some 'pins' which are spring-loaded to enter the smaller cylinder and prevent it from rotating relative to the larger cylinder[1]

The pins are of different lengths, so the intended use is to open the lock with a key that pushes each of the pins to a height where they're not blocking rotation, then apply  tension to the lock so that it opens.

Because of a seemingly hard-to-fix fault in the process of making locks, the holes that the pins fall into are slightly different sizes. This means that if you apply rotational tension to an empty lock, only one of the pins is stopping the lock opening at any given time

This also means that if, while still applying tension, you put some funny-shaped tool into a lock to push down gently on the pins one by one, the one which is currently blocking the lock feels subtly different because of the friction with the side of the hole. There'll also be a subtle change[2] in the tensions (of the pins and of the cylinder) when that pin is in the right position; the cylinder will advance slightly. Rinse and repeat and voila, your lock is open. 

Obviously it's not quite this easy in (most) real locks. But it is surprisingly easy. Those already afraid of their house being broken into need not apply.


The real point, though, is that you're trying to manipulate a machine which you only get information about through your hands, which you also have to use to manipulate the machine into doing what you want. It reminds me of the game Understand[3]; success is completely dependent on modelling the problem, actually noticing when (and how) your model is wrong, and trying to figure out why. It's also very frustrating. 

If you do feel inspired, you might want to try starting with a transparent training lock just to get a feel for the mechanism. Oh, and please don't pick locks that are in use (I'm led to understand it might damage them in some way). 

Let me know if you try it, and good luck!

  1. ^

    If you're being picky, the pins have to be of two halves to make this system work (see diagram)

  2. ^

    And, if you're in a movie, or very lucky, an audible click

  3. ^

    If anybody can find the LW post explaining & recommending the game please let me know. Believe it or not, words like "understand" "game" and "recommend" don't make for a great search query


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10 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 11:18 PM

Similarly, I've enjoyed destructive modifications to things with a dremel and the physical metis is so refreshing compared to being Very Online all the time.

Do you have any recommendations on resources to consult or tools to buy? I was thinking of investing some time/money into learning before you posted this and this has pushed me over the top. :)

Basically any "Beginners set" online should set you right as a cheap way to try it out (though most pros say it's not worth your time. YMMV). 

You will probably find it's hard with cheap shitty picks, but you'll (for fairly cheap) get a feel for which different shapes do what, and which you find most intuitive/useful. If you find it useful/fun, you could then either scour Ebay for cheap locks (with no guarantee of ease, but locks-without-keys is niche enough you can sometimes get good deals) or buy an Abus 45 or Masterlock. If I remember correctly, both of those should be 4 or 5-pin with no security pins, so about as easy as real locks get. 

Once you feel you've graduated from your beginners set and want to splash some cash, you probably want to pick 1-2 pick shapes you got on well with and get really nice ones, or get a nice pick set. Here are some well-regarded vendors. You might also want to look into a practice lock, which seems like pretty good value for money. 

Regarding learning, Reddit is pretty good for this one (as seems to often be the case with metis-skills). In particular, the Belts stuff seems like a pretty good curriculum. I don't expect sitting reading about lockpicking will be very useful compared to, well, picking locks (this is the whole point of this post!). 

If you want to feel inspired (and never trust a lock again), LockPickingLawyer is a personal favourite with some educational stuff. He also has an excellent sense of comedic timing.

Let me know what you found useful & how you get on!!

I also like the way it changes how you look at the world a little bit, in a 'life has a surprising amount of detail', 'abstractions are leaky' kind of way. To go from a model of locks that's just "you cannot open this without the right key", to seeing how and why and when that model doesn't work, can be interesting. Other problems in life sometimes have this property, where you've made a simplifying assumption about what can't be done, and actually if you look more closely that thing in fact can sometimes be done, and doing it would solve the problem.

Oh, and please don’t pick locks that are in use (I’m led to understand it might damage them in some way).

If picking a lock that’s in use is importantly different (in the physical/mechanical sense) than picking a lock that’s not in use, then what am I even learning by picking a lock that’s not in use…?

They aren't. brook is saying that picking locks might damage them, and damaging locks not in use at worst means you have to throw away a padlock, whereas damaging locks in use might mean you can't open your front door.

This is exactly what I'm saying. Using machines in ways they're not made for is especially risky when the machine controls access to your house. 

Yes--if a bit of your wrench breaks off inside the lock, the key may not fit anymore.  Also (and more likely, as I understand it) picking the lock will wear down edges of the various parts, making it even easier for someone else to pick.

If you don't know what you're doing, you can damage locks.