Rationality Exercises Prize of September 2019 ($1,000)

Added: Prizewin­ners an­nounced in this com­ment be­low.

This post is an an­nounce­ment of a prize for the best ex­er­cises sub­mit­ted in the next two weeks on a topic of your choice, that are of in­ter­est to the LW com­mu­nity. We’re plan­ning to dis­tribute $1,000, where $500 of that will go to the first place.

To sub­mit some ex­er­cises, leave a com­ment here link­ing to your ex­er­cises by mid­night at the end of Fri­day 20th Septem­ber PDT (San Fran­cisco time). You can PM one of us with it if you want to, but we’ll be pub­lish­ing all the en­tries that win a prize.

Why ex­er­cises?

I want to talk about why ex­er­cises are valuable, but my think­ing is so down­stream of read­ing the book Think­ing Physics, that I’d rather just let its au­thor (Lewis Car­roll Ep­stein) speak in­stead. (All for­mat­ting is origi­nal.)

The best way to use this book is NOT to sim­ply read it or study it, but to read a ques­tion and STOP. Even close the book. Even put it away and THINK about the ques­tion. Only af­ter you have formed a rea­soned opinion should you read the solu­tion. Why tor­ture your­self think­ing? Why jog? Why do push-ups?
If you are given a ham­mer with which to drive nails at the age of three you may think to your­self, “OK, nice.” But if you are given a hard rock with which to drive nails at the age of three, and at the age of four you are given a ham­mer, you think to your­self, “What a mar­vel­lous in­ven­tion!” You see, you can’t re­ally ap­pre­ci­ate the solu­tion un­til you first ap­pre­ci­ate the prob­lem.
What are the prob­lem of physics? How to calcu­late things? Yes—but much more. The most im­por­tant prob­lem in physics is per­cep­tion, how to con­jure men­tal images, how to sep­a­rate the non-es­sen­tials from the es­sen­tials and get to the hear of a prob­lem, HOW TO ASK YOURSELF QUESTION. Very of­ten these ques­tions have lit­tle to do with calcu­la­tions and have sim­ple yes or no an­swers: Does a heavy ob­ject dropped at the same time and from the same height as a light ob­ject strike the earth first? Does the ob­served speed of a mov­ing ob­ject de­pend on the ob­server’s speed? Does a par­ti­cle ex­ist or not? Does a fringe pat­tern ex­ist or not? Th­ese qual­i­ta­tive ques­tions are the most vi­tal ques­tions in physics.
You must guard against let­ting the quan­ti­ta­tive su­per­struc­ture of physics ob­scure its qual­i­ta­tive foun­da­tion. It has been said by more than one wise old physi­cist that you re­ally un­der­stand a prob­lem when you can in­tu­itively guess the an­swer be­fore you do the calcu­la­tion. How can you do that? By de­vel­op­ing your phys­i­cal in­tu­ition. How can you do THAT? The same way you de­velop your phys­i­cal body—by ex­er­cis­ing it.
Let this book, then, be your guide to men­tal pushups. Think care­fully about the ques­tions and their an­swers be­fore you read the an­swers offered by the au­thor. You will find many an­swers don’t turn out as you first ex­pect. Does this mean you have no sense for physics? Not at all. Most ques­tions were de­liber­ately cho­sen to illus­trate those as­pects of physics which seem con­trary to ca­sual sur­mise. Re­vis­ing ideas, even in the pri­vacy of your own mind, is not painless work. But in do­ing so you will re­visit some of the prob­lems that haunted the minds of Archimedes, Gal­ileo, New­ton, Maxwell, and Ein­stein. The physic you cover here in hours took them cen­turies to mas­ter. Your hours of think­ing will be a re­ward­ing ex­pe­rience. En­joy!

What does this look like?

Here are ex­er­cises we’ve had on LessWrong in the past.

In my primer on Com­mon Knowl­edge, I opened with three ex­am­ples and asked what they had in com­mon. Then, to­wards the end of the post, I ex­plained my an­swer in de­tail. I could’ve triv­ially taken those ex­am­ples out from the start, in­cluded all the the­ory, and then asked the reader to ap­ply the the­ory to those three as ex­er­cises, be­fore ex­plain­ing my an­swers. There’s a du­al­ity be­tween ex­am­ples and ex­er­cises, where they can of­ten be turned into each other.

But this isn’t the only or pri­mary type of ex­er­cise, and you can see many other types of ex­er­cise in the pre­vi­ous sec­tion that don’t fit this pat­tern.

What am I look­ing for in par­tic­u­lar?

I’m in­ter­ested in ex­er­cises that help teach any key idea that I can’t already buy a great text­book for, al­though if your ex­er­cises are bet­ter than those in most text­books, then I’m open to it too.

Let me add one op­er­a­tional con­straint: it should be an ex­er­cise that more than 10% of LessWrong com­menters can un­der­stand af­ter read­ing up to one-to-three posts you’ve speci­fied, or af­ter hav­ing done your prior ex­er­cises. As a rule I’m gen­er­ally not look­ing for a highly niche tech­ni­cal prob­lems. (It’s fine to re­quire peo­ple to read a cu­rated LW se­quence.)

I asked Oli for his thought on what makes a good ex­er­cise, and he said this:

I think a good tar­get is uni­ver­sity prob­lem sets, in par­tic­u­lar for tech­ni­cal de­grees. I’ve found that al­most all of my learn­ing in uni­ver­sity came from grap­pling with the prob­lem sets, and think that I would want many more prob­lem sets I can work through in my study of both ra­tio­nal­ity and AI Align­ment. I also had non-tech­ni­cal classes with ex­cel­lent es­say prompts that didn’t have as clear “cor­rect” an­swers, but that nev­er­the­less helped me deeply un­der­stand one topic or an­other. Both tech­ni­cal prob­lem sets and good es­say prompts are valid sub­mis­sions for this prize, though pro­vid­ing at least sug­gested solu­tions is gen­er­ally en­couraged (prob­a­bly best posted be­hind spoiler tags).

(What are spoiler tags? Hover over this:)

This is a spoiler tag! To add this to your post, see the in­struc­tions in the FAQ that’s ac­cessible from the front­page on the left-menu.

(Also see this com­ment sec­tion for ex­am­ples of lots of peo­ple us­ing it to cover their solu­tions to ex­er­cises.)

Give me ex­am­ples of things you think could have ex­er­cises?

I think ex­er­cises for any cu­rated post or cu­rated se­quence on LessWrong is a fine thing. I’ve taken a look through our cu­rated posts, here are a few I think could re­ally benefit from great ex­er­cises (though tractabil­ity varies a lot).

I think tech­ni­cal al­ign­ment ex­er­cises will be es­pe­cially hard to do well, be­cause many peo­ple don’t un­der­stand much of the work be­ing done in al­ign­ment, and the parts that are easy to make ex­er­cises for of­ten aren’t very valuable or cen­tral.

Some of Nick Bostrom’s ideas would be cool, like the unilat­er­al­ist’s curse, or the vuln­er­a­ble world hy­poth­e­sis, or the Hail Mary ap­proach to the Value Speci­fi­ca­tion Prob­lem.

Feel free to leave a pub­lic com­ment with what sort of thing you might want to try mak­ing ex­er­cises for, and I will re­ply with my best guess on whether it can be a good fit for this prize.