"Everything can be made radically elementary." ~Steven Rudich

Reductionism Revisited

This is part 28 of 30 in the Hammertime Sequence. Click here for the intro.

The last three days of Hammertime, I’ll wrap up with some scattered thoughts to reinforce important principles.

Today, I’ll return to applications of reductionism to instrumental rationality.

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Internal Double Crux

This is part 27 of 30 in the Hammertime Sequence. Click here for the intro.

Focusing is a tool for accessing the messages the many sub-personalities in your subconscious are trying to send you. What happens when two or more of these messages are in conflict with each other?

Internal Double Crux (IDC) is CFAR’s answer to this problem. Roughly speaking, it’s a script for taking turns Focusing on two conflicting inner voices and holding space for them to debate and compromise. A sort of internal couples therapy, if you will.

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This is part 26 of 30 in the Hammertime Sequence. Click here for the intro.

The full can is silent, but the half-empty can makes a loud noise.
~ Chinese proverb.

Take a bottle or soda can and fill it halfway with water. Shake the can – the water will slosh around loudly.

Now, fill the can to the brim and shake it again. It’s almost completely silent.

This is an essay about inner silence – calming one’s loudest inner voices to allow quieter voices to speak. Usually, the quieter ones have urgent messages, especially given how long they’ve been neglected.

This post is, in some sense, a followup to Babble.

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CoZE 3: Empiricism

This is part 25 of 30 in the Hammertime Sequence. Click here for the intro.

The boy on the right has gone places. The boy on the left has a map. Whom do you marry?

Sometimes, I think that most of the value of the CoZE experiment lies not in the expansion of comfort zones but in the experimental attitude it conveys. A good map-maker must constantly check the territory; the trick is to figure out how.

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Design 3: Intentionality

This is part 24 of 30 in the Hammertime Sequence. Click here for the intro.

Intentions are momentary, but problems last forever.

A human being’s attention flits around like the Roman God Mercury, root of the word “mercurial” – subject to sudden or unpredictable changes of mood or mind. The biggest problems in life require concentrated effort over years or decades, but you can only muster the willpower to even intend to solve a problem for minutes or hours. Worse, you can pretty much only maintain one intention at a time.

How do we make intentions count?

The philosophy of Design is: build intentions into external reality. Like your problems, external reality also lasts forever.

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TAPs 3: Reductionism

This is part 23 of 30 in the Hammertime Sequence. Click here for the intro.

In school, we spend thousands of hours learning about the building blocks of the universe. We learn that reality reduces into little pieces: organisms into cells, books into pages, skyscrapers into atoms.

Your life belongs inside this infinitely divisible reality. Your psyche divides into subpersonalities, emotions into qualia, actions into goals and aversions, habits into TAPs. In fact, what we think of as objects are usually patterns of interaction between many tiny pieces.

Day 23: Reductionism

Trigger-action plans are the building blocks of habits – all habits can be built out of single steps.

I want to share a model for why it’s so important to break actions down with reductionism.

Zeno’s Paradox Retold

Here’s the old paradox of Zeno:

To win a race, you have to run the first half. Before you finish the first half, you must complete the first quarter. Before you finish the first quarter, there’s the first eighth, and so on ad infinitum. Thus, by halving the first segment, every race is divisible into infinitely parts, and to complete the race you must make infinitely many actions.

What can we learn from Zeno’s paradox?

Of the infinitely many steps in the race, the first step accomplishes almost all of them. It follows that the first step in a race is infinitely more difficult than every later one.

The Method of Exhaustion

From Zeno’s Paradox, we readily derive the following algorithm for deconstructing problems:

  1. Pick an action.
  2. Divide it into halves. Focus on the first half.
  3. Repeat to exhaustion.

For example, I can decompose the action of “write a blog post” in exponentially ascending order of difficulty:

  1. Take a deep breath.
  2. Visualize success.
  3. Turn on computer.
  4. Open Chrome.
  5. Log in.
  6. Type a letter.
  7. Type a word.
  8. Type a sentence.
  9. Type a paragraph.
  10. Type a section.
  11. Type a post.
  12. Click “publish.”

After having completed the method of exhaustion, executing the action is much easier. Notice that even though I’m ostensibly only 1/3 of the way through writing this post, I’ve already accomplished 10.5/12 steps in the workflow.

I’m almost done!

Steps of Equal Difficulty

You may think the last section was flippant or self-delusion.


I’m completely serious.

Walk through the whole activity of blogging (if blogging’s not aversive to you, pick whatever else you’re procrastinating on and apply the method of exhaustion to that one instead), and note how much total mental resistance you push through at each step in the 12-step process. Also note how likely you are to give up at each step.

The normal method of planning is to break into equally sized blocks, where size means “time and effort in objective reality.” Take stock of all the plans you’ve made in your life. How many failed at the very beginning? How many failed near the middle? How many failed towards the very end?

Most things fail before they begin. Of the ones that do begin, most fail immediately.

You don’t live in objective reality. You live in the mad world of Zeno, where the first step is infinitely difficult. The Method of Exhaustion is designed to parse a hard problem into steps of roughly equal psychological difficulty and failure rate.

Exercise: Apply the Method of Exhaustion to your next big project. How many pieces did you break it into?

Daily Challenge

Share anecdotes or data on how long it takes [intentions, projects, plans, relationships, careers, startups] to fail. What do the curves look like?

Yoda Timers 3: Speed

This is part 22 of 30 in the Hammertime Sequence. Click here for the intro.

At some point around the end of high school, being fast became unfashionable. When did this happen?

Why do we channel so much more energy into doing more difficult things, instead of doing simple things faster? How much faster could you do your job? Two times faster? Five times?

Instead of I want to be stronger, say I want to be faster.

If you pay attention to speed, you might just find a way to do a whole week’s worth of work in five minutes.

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Bug Hunt 3

This is part 21 of 30 in the Hammertime Sequence. Click here for the intro.

I took a long break from Hammertime to check the fundamental question: am I actually better at achieving my values now?

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Murphy’s Quest Postmorterm



Kudos to lifelonglearner for amazing cover art that is also an example of Murphy’s Law.

The full text of Murphy’s Quest (with many corrections) is now available in PDF.

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Murphy’s Quest Ch 13: Existential Risk

FTH: -23335

The first battle is a rout.

Surrounded by a dedicated defensive squad, I pummel the enemy with gigantic balls of death. Negative FTH Heal deals an entirely new category of damage, completely bypassing Damage Reduction. I call it my Bubble of Doom.

After the battle, we track the trails of my orbs for thousands of feet. Crimson Inquisitor swords, chimes and robes scatter across the ground in long rows. Entire platoon vaporized in place, their equipment laid out in neat, legible squares.

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