[Question] Babble challenge: 50 ways of hiding Einstein’s pen for fifty years

Here we go again. Time to become stronger.

This week’s challenge:

The year is 1855. You’ve been given a pen that Albert Einstein will use in 1905 to pen his series of “miracle papers” — after you’ve sold it to him. You know this.

Yet evil forces are conspiring to obtain the pen.

You must hide it, for fifty years.

You have 1 hour to come up with 50 ways.

Looking back

Here are the champions who made it to 50 last week, with stars indicating their streak:

★★ gjm, Vanilla_cabs, Slider, Tetraspace grouping, Harmless, jacobjacob

★ ursusminimus, haydenblord@gmail.com, Bucky, johnswentworth, Yonge, Mark Xu, Jay Anthony, Richard_Kennaway, CptDrMoreno, arxhy, magfrump, athom, ike, Dan Weinand, Jsevillamol, Ericf, ryan_b

Big kudos to everyone.

We did it again.

In fact, we did even more last week — 26 answers — compared to 25 in the week before.That’s a lot. In fact, I went through the archives, and I think the babble challenges are among the top 3 most popular LessWrong questions ever. Together they even have more answers than the massive covid thread.

This fills me with excitement and ambition.

We’ve made a discovery.

Who knew that there was all this latent excitement for doing weekly rationality challenges? That so many people were willing to actually roll their sleeves up, and show up every week to test the limits of our art?

There’s a spark here waiting to be fanned into a flame. Imagine where we could go if we keep this up.

Moving forwards

I’m now entering week 3 out of the 7-week babble streak I committed to. If you want more regularity in practicing your creativity, feel free to post a comment committing to also going all the way to 7.

I have some interesting plans for future weeks. But for now, my model is that for this technique to really affect my cognition, I just have to do it a lot. So, the goal of this week is simply to build up routine and consistency.

A bit more on that model:

First, I think I must build a stable “mental button”. I want to get to the point where, if it’s needed, I can choose to babble. I can press the button to generate ideas even if I feel stuck. And I can trust that they will come.

Then, I must practice pressing the button until it becomes automatic. Such that whenever I find myself in a situation where it’s needed, my mind reflexively starts babbling. I never need to turn it on. It’s just always there.

It’s like reading. Children start by an exhausting, deliberate process of verbalising weird squiggles. They have to slow down. Focus. Put in excruciating effort to slowly extract meaning from letters. But then it all becomes automatic. When they’re adults, they are unable to not read a sentence. They can swim freely in this new medium. They have acquired this power and made it a true part of them.

If you tell this to some children they don’t believe you. They just can’t imagine that it’s possible to get to that automatic and effortless level. Yet, lo and behold.

In the past I have successfully done this with rationality techniques. I did it with a CFAR technique called “Murphyjitsu”, that’s about drawing upon your intuitions and experiences of the world to figure out how things will fail before you try them. Sort of like supercharging the “Ugh, I should have known!” feeling and deploying it in advance.

Now this is one of the crucial ways in which I manage my life and work. I always have a metaphorical advisor perched on my shoulder, sending helpful alerts whenever it makes a concrete prediction for how a project will fail. And I can fix it before it fails.

So, a basic model of rationalist self-improvement is that you simply go through this process with a list of important skills. We’ll see how well that pans out.


  • 50 answers or nothing. Shoot for 1 hour.

Any answer must contain 50 ideas to count. That’s the babble challenge. We’re here to challenge ourselves.

However, the 1 hour limit is a stretch goal. It’s fine if it takes longer to get to 50.

  • Post your answers inside of spoiler tags. (How do I do that?)

  • Celebrate other’s answers.

This is really important. Sharing babble in public is a scary experience. I don’t want people to leave this having back-chained the experience “If I am creative, people will look down on me”. So be generous with those upvotes.

If you comment on someone else’s post, focus on making exciting, novel ideas work — instead of tearing apart worse ideas.

Reward people for babbling — don’t punish them for not pruning.

I might remove comments that break this rule.

  • Not all your ideas have to work.

The prompt is very underspecified. You don’t know what kind of pen it is. You don’t know how you obtained your knowledge. You don’t know what the evil forces are. Use your creativity — feel free to come up with solutions that only work in some of those scenarios.

If it helps, imagine that you’re a fiction writer. You’re searching for interesting ways to continue the above story.

  • My main tip: when you’re stuck, say something stupid.

If you spend 5 min agonising over not having anything to say, you’re doing it wrong. You’re being too critical. Just lower your standards and say something, anything. Soon enough you’ll be back on track.

This is really, really important. It’s the only way I’m able to complete these exercises.

Now, go forth and babble! 50 ways of hiding Einstein’s pen for 50 years!