Abstraction Layers

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Instructional Material

Replacing the Symbol with Substance [35 minutes]

In software, an abstraction layer refers to the way that you can "abstract away" complexity in a system. For example, you, the user, don't need to know how silicon chips work in order to read this text. The vast complexity of your computer is almost entirely hidden away, out of sight, and all you have to do is "open" a "web" "page". Most of the time, it's okay to just open the web page and not worry about the underlying complexity — until someone unplugs your ethernet cable.

Abstraction layers aren't just a software thing, though. Our minds are designed to manage the dizzyingly complex system of reality and we use abstraction layers as a matter of habit. Neurological circuits automatically stitch together messy sensory inputs, allowing us to see objects as continuously solid, identify their edges, and spot their motion

— or to perceive them as "objects" at all. On one abstraction level, a chair is a piece of furniture for sitting in. Drop down a level and it's a series of wooden sticks held together with nails. Drop down another, and it's a series of wooden sticks coated in a highly flammable substance. If you're a guest at a friend's house, you want layer one. If you're trying to repair a broken chair, you want layer two. And if you're freezing to death in a blizzard, you want layer three.

A good heuristic for identifying when you need to change your abstraction level is when you find yourself unable to devise a solution to a question or when you witness something that you know is impossible. Harry's list of unusual ways to kill someone is a prime example of shifting to a lower abstraction level when a higher one proves unsuitable.

Identifying Abstractions [10 minutes]

The world around us is full of abstractions. Work with your cohort to come up with a list of the ways in which you simplify complexity into easy-to-think-about abstractions. Try to avoid abstractions related to computers, and try to list at least fifty ways.


Three computer abstractions (which don't count, because computers are so crammed with these that it's too easy):

  • "Opening" a webpage is an abstraction layer around internet packets. Packets are in turn built on top of http requests, which are built on ip, etc.
  • A phone is an easy-to-use interface wrapped around a staggeringly complex artifact, which no single person knows how to build.
  • Your browser's omnibar is an abstraction around the enormous complexity of indexing and analyzing the entire internet.

Three abstractions about the material world, which would count:

  • A mechanical lock is a complex machine that can be reduced to two operations: "lock" and "unlock". But if you can drop down a few levels, you can do something impossible from the lock/unlock layer (picking the lock).
  • A water faucet distills the complexity of plumbing, sanitizing, and water sourcing into an abstraction with two operations: "turn on" and "turn off".
  • A person is an abstraction on top of a hideously complicated intelligence. Using the abstraction lets us make a number of assumptions about their behavior without needing to know the details of that specific entity's mind.

Going Down [20 minutes]

Each of the boxes below contains a scenario written at a high abstraction level. Read the scenario, and then try to drop to a lower level and describe what's going on. Come up with the best description you can as a cohort, and then hover over the answer box to see how you did. Your exact answer will differ — the important thing is to check if you had gone down the ladder far enough, rather than the specifics. (This is an inherently subjective exercise, but do your best.)

Spend five minutes per scenario. If you find yourself stuck, choose a word in your description and expand it.

Example. Suppose that the scenario is a game of baseball.

Then, you might come up with the description of an artificial group conflict in which you use a long wooden cylinder to whack a thrown spheroid, and then run between four safe positions.

Scenario 1. Two people playing the endgame of a nail-biting chess match.

Scenario 2. A person sitting on a bench and drawing on their tablet.

Scenario 3. A person talking to their friends on Discord.

Scenario 4. A delicious pot of stew cooking on the stove.

Break [10 minutes]

Take a ten-minute break.

Rationalist Taboo [45 minutes]

Now that you have a bit of practice at going down in the abstraction ladder, it's time to try a slightly harder version of the previous exercise.

The technique of rationalist taboo is describing a concept without using the concept's word, phrase, or any of its synonyms. In other words, rationalist taboo is an applied version of the previous exercise — except, rather than an artificial scenario, you have to drop down the abstraction ladder during a live conversation, about a concept that's deeply embedded in your map of reality.

Albert: "A tree falling in a deserted forest makes a sound."

Barry: "A tree falling in a deserted forest does not make a sound."

Clearly, since one says "sound" and one says "not sound", we must have a contradiction, right? But suppose that they both dereference their pointers before speaking:

Albert: "A tree falling in a deserted forest matches [membership test: this event generates acoustic vibrations]."

Barry: "A tree falling in a deserted forest does not match [membership test: this event generates auditory experiences]."

Now there is no longer an apparent collision—all they had to do was prohibit themselves from using the word sound. If "acoustic vibrations" came into dispute, we would just play Taboo again and say "pressure waves in a material medium"; if necessary we would play Taboo again on the word "wave" and replace it with the wave equation. (Play Taboo on "auditory experience" and you get "That form of sensory processing, within the human brain, which takes as input a linear time series of frequency mixes...")

Taboo Your Words, by Eliezer Yudkowsky

Instructions [30 minutes]

Take turns going around the cohort.

Choose one of the concepts from the list below. Your job is to describe the concept without using the concept's name or banned words. You are also not allowed to use synonyms, acronyms, conjugates, etc of the name and the banned words. Err on the side of avoiding too many words, to make the game more engaging.

You win if you can get your cohort to name the concept (synonyms etc don't count). This is a back-and-forth conversation, so don't worry about getting the initial description perfect.

Once your concept has been named, move to the next member of your cohort. Start over with the first member once everyone has gone (each concept will probably only take a minute or two to name, so everyone is likely to go multiple times.)

Example. If you chose the concept Bayes Theorem, then you would avoid saying statistic, reverend, update, prior, posterior, or probability. (As well as their synonyms, acronyms, conjugates, etc.)

You might describe the concept as "A mathematical equation used to make predictions about the world's state. Each time an event occurs, you can use this equation to calculate how likely it is that the world is shaped a certain way."

Concept Banned Words
Absurd Ridiculous, silly, strange, weird, not
Ad Hominem Insult, attack, character, assassination, Latin
Adverse Selection Bad, Choice, Against, Survive, Filter
Akrasia Nothing, motivation, act, can, fail
Algorithm Step, decide, process, computer, instruct
Alief God, Dragon, Truth, Belief, Santa
Alien Stranger, world, space, green, bug
Alignment Artificial, goal, paperclip, research, direction
Altruism Benefit, help, effective, Macaskill, Give
Amino Acid Protein, Buildin, Peptide, Carbohydrate, Nucleotide
Anarchy Free, Law, Individual, Open, Choice
Anki Card, Space, Repeat, Memory, Flash
Anki Recall, Quiz, Again, Forget, Know
Anthropics Die, live, reason, apocalypse, end
Anti-inductive Stock, Date, Change, Compete, Phatic
Applause Clap, Good, Reward. light, theatre
Arbitrage Trade, Gain, Different, Market, Make
Argument Convince, debate, sway, reasoned, fight
Asche's Conformity Experiment Group, Think, Agree, Story, Psychology
Atom Basic, small, nucleus, force, molecule
Aumann Agreement difference, agent, know, conform, align
Autism Obsess, Awkward, Nerd, Sense, Weight
Baby Infant, Gentle, Rock, Eat, Born
Base Rate Population, Statistic, Frequency, Normal, Expect
Baseball Sport, Bat, Hit, Pitch, Umpire
Bayes Theorem Statistic, Reverend, Update, Prior, Posterior
Bayes Theorem Small, Robot, Swarm, Dressler, Machine
Belief God, Dragon, Truth, Alief, Santa
Bias Lean, brain, flaw, system, unconscious
Bitcoin Digital, currency, hash, solve, miner
Bleen Grue, Blue, Green, Time, Change
Blog Essay, Internet, Write, Codex, Word
Book Read, Page, Print, Study, Shelf
Brain Cranial, Head, Nerve, Think, Skull
Bystander Effect Nothing, Someone, Ask, Act, Hesitate
Calibration Measure, Error, Bayes, Predict, Aim
Cards Against Rationality Humanity, Terrible, Black, White, Babcock
Catastrophizing Assume, Bad, Terrible, Predict, Flaw
Cell Single, Organism, Multi, Wall, Small
Change Improve, different, constant, different, spare
Chesterton's Fence Same, Leave, Change, Warning, Boundary
Command Economy Communism, Russia, China, Plan, Order
Commensurable Trade, Exchange, Value, Same, Equal
Common Knowledge Every, Sense, Simple, Predict, Information
Communism Russia, China, Marx, Ability, Economy
Comparative Advantage Good, Economic, Better, Each, Trade
Compersion Polyamory, Metamour, Feelings, Happiness, Love
Computer Think, Electron, Top, Math, Monitor
Confucianism Order, Harmony, Tradition, Family, Pious
Confusion Certain, Baffle, Sure, Confident, Mystery
Conjunction And, Or, Together, Both, Star
Consequentialism Ends, Utility, Results, World, Moral
Conspiracy Bayesian, Secret, Group, People, Purpose
Context Object, Subject, Surrounding, Subtext, Attention
Correlation Statistic, Cause, Similar, Same, Related
Cosplay Con, Costume, Body, Paint, Pax
Crocker's Rules Information, Rude, Protocol, Communicate, Tell
Cryogenics Cold, Freeze, Physics, Low, Science
Cryonics Cold, Freeze, Sleep, Preserve, Head
Cult Hood, cloak, koolaid, church, accuse
Curiosity Wonder, Mystery, Find, Answer, Cat
Dakka More, Orc, Light, Hard, Push
dath ilan Eliezer, World, Rational, market, default
Death Bad, End, Stop, Mortal, Live
Decision Theory, Choice, Make, Agent, Hard
Dendrite Neuron, Axon, Input, Synapse, Brain
Deontology Rule, Religion, Kill, Instruct, Philosophy
Depression Hedon, Sad, Bored, Suicide, Nothing
Dice Die, Roll, Game, Random, Six
Dojo Martial, Studio, Art, Practice, Train
Double Crux Debate, Argument, Collaborate, Truth, Pair
Dragon Lizard, Fire, Wing, Dungeon, Smaug
Drowning Child Coat, Pay, Altruism, Distance, Singer
Dunbar's Number Community, 150, group, memory, human
Dunning-Kruger Effect Know, Confident, Correct, Relative, Skill
Dust Dirt, speck, torture, eye, feather
Dyson Sphere Sun, Power, Technology, Dam, Circle
Economy Command, Market, Trade, Social, Money
Efficient Market Hypothesis Price, Predict, Correct, Dollar, Bill
Egoism Me, I, Believe, Value, Philosophy
Eliezer Yudkowsky Rationality, Artificial, Intelligent, Wrong, dath ilan
Empiricism Science, Bacon, Discover, Test, Prove
Epistemology Theory, Know, Belief, Status, Fact
Epmpiricism Know, Science, Sense, Epistemology, Experiment
Equilibrium Balance, Adequate, Economic, Nash, Stable
Ethics Moral, Rule, Philosophy, Religion, Deontology
Everett Branch Quantum, Possible, Alternate, Multi, Universe
Evidence Proof, Science, Empirical, Data, Test
Existential Risk, Exist, Extinct, Purpose, Survive
Fallacy Flaw, Reason, Logic, Debate, Cheat
Fanfiction Write, fake, amatuer, methods, archive
Filter Bubble Politics, Culture, Different, Probable, Sort
Fire Hot, wood, cook, camp, burn
Flynn Effect IQ, Grow, Time, History, Smart
Fnording Subconcious, Anger, Hypnosis,Fear, Discord
Free Will Choice, Determine, Quantum, Mechanic, Human
Funge Trade, Commensurable, Replace, Against, For
Futarchy Vote, Money, Predict, Robin Hanson, Women
Game Board, sport, cheat, ready, play
Gell-man Amnesia News, Know, Field, Michael Chrichton, Error
Gene DNA, Inherit, Parent, Mendelian, Punnet Square
Givewell Charity, Effective, Altruism, Donate, Cost
Glowfic Bell, Joker, Fanfiction, Silmarillion, Alicorn
Godwin's Law Nazi, Online, Argument, Long, Compare
Goodhart's Law Optimize, Measure, Target, Performance, Goal
Gravity Fall, Drop, Weigh, Newton, Apple
Guilt Shame, Fail, Wrong, Trip, Crime
Halo Effect Appearance, Judge, Bias, Horns, Attractive
Hamming Question, important, work, Richard, ask
Hanlon's Razor Stupidity, Malice, Human, Behave, Attribute
Hedon Good, Value, Goal, Util, Pleasure
Heresy Church, schism, inquisition, difference, burn
Horns Effect Appearance, Judge, Bias, Halo, Attractive
Humility Humble, Wise, Proud, Cautious, False
Hyperbolic Discounting Future, Present, Economic, Preference, Time
Hypothesis Guess, Theory, Prediction, Experiment, Assumption
Ice Water, Cold, Freeze, Winter, Snow
Illusion Believe, False, Deception, Image, Fake
Impermanence Buddhism, Suffering, Self, Characteristic, Thre
Incentive Bribe, Pay, Reason, Act, Gradient
Index Card Paper, Note, Pocket, Flash, Sky
Inferential Distance Gap, Difference, Teach, Share, Know
Infinity number, count, calculus, lightyear, area
Infohazard Spoiler, Hazard, Damage, Harm, Know
Insane Crazy, Defense, Nuts, Strange, Clinical
Instrumental Value Want, Accomplish, Intermediate, Money, Goal
Intelligent Smart, Artificial, Clever, Brain, Human
Internet Connect, computer, server, web, communicate
Is Be, Are, Was, Been, Were
Iteration Again, Loop, Repeat, Count, Recur
Kabbalah Jewish, Song, Torah, Word, Bible
Kelsey Piper Caring, Money, Journal, Glowfic, Elf
Kolmogorov Complexity Computer, Short, Minimum, Information, Science
Latex Type, Paper, Format, Rubber, Suit
LessWrong More, Right, Rational, Sequence, Bias
Ligament Tendon, Bone, Knee, Connect, Joint
Litany Gendlin, Chant, Jai, Tarski, Prayer
Literal Exact, Exaggurate, True, Figure, Quote
Lizardman Constant Statistic, Survey, Wrong, Minority, Troll
Loss Aversion Bias, Gain, Fail, Balance, Hurt
Lumen Light, Bright, Bulb, Depression, Season
Magesterium Separate, Evidence, Excuse, Divine, Different
Magic Wand, Explain, Fantasy, Science, Spell
Malaria Net, Against, Foundation, Disease, Mosquito
Malthus Population, Food, Agriculture, Revolution, Conclusion
Marginal Cost Pay, Decrease, More, Next, Worth
Market Economy Trade, Good, Value, Merchant, Capital
Mars Planet, Red, War, Four, Elon Musk
Math Equation, Add, Subtract, Multiply, Divide
Mealsquare Food, Taste, Optimal, Biscuit, Nutrition
Meditation Sit, Concentrate, Empty, Monk, Ritual
Melatonin Sleep, Hormone, Rest, Dose, Dream
Meme Idea, internet, spread, repeat, gif
Meta Up, physics, facebook, quest, ethics
Milgram Experiment Shock, Order, German, Dial, Science
Modafinal Stimulent, Drug, Concentrate, Focus, Cat
Modular Reversible, Cube, Furniture, Function, Change
Modus Ponens One, Conclude, Logic, Therefore, Another
Moloch Coordinate, incentive, carthage, sacrifice, Codex
Money Caring, Unit, Account, Exchange, Currency
Moon Rock, Tide, Luna, Month, Space
Moore's Law Science, Transistor, Computer, Exponent, Growth
Morality Ethics, Good, Religion, Agree, Bad
Motte and Bailey Castle, Field, Retreat, Frustrate, Fortification
Murphy-Jitsu Wrong, Plan, Expect, Time, Fail
Negentropy Reverse, Order, Structure, Universe, Fade
Newcomb's Paradox Box, One, Two, Omega, Dollar
Nihilism Nothing, matter, void, bleak, empty
Objectivism Ayn Rand, Atlas, Greed, Selfish, Absolute
Obsession Mind, Fill, Fixate, Think, Compulse
Optimize better, grow, improve, number, hill
Outside View Base, Reference, Class, Group, Predict
Overton Window Normal, Expected, Range, Reasonable, Predict
Ozymandias Pillar, Stone, Poem, Brennan, Despair
p-zombie Free, Will, Philosophy, Same, Human
Paperclip Word, metal, artificial, goal, value
Pascal's Mugging God, bet, infinite, odds, convert
Petrov Nuclear, Alarm, Russian, Cold, Day
Phatic Inductive, Expected, Comfort, Normal, Obvious
Philosophy Think, abstract, study, wisdom, moral
Phlogiston Element, Fire, Combust, Greek, Science
Pica Ice, iron, goal, signal, disorder
Placebo Medicine, Sugar, Fake, Expect, Experiment
Pluto Planet, Nine, Dog, Hades, Space
Politics Mind, Kill, Republic, Democrat, Power
Polyamory Love, Free, Open, Mono, Relationship
Post-rationalist Emotion, Circle, Super, After, Splinter
Precision Accurate, Detail, Decimal, False, Narrow
Prediction Accurate, forecast, error, market, seer
Priming Before, Setup, Psychology, Replicate, Paint
Prisoner's Dilemma Defect, Cooperate, Interrogate, Pay, Matrix
Program Computer, Instruction, Music, Code, Write
Quantum Immortality Isekai, Live, Truck, Die, Branch
Random Die, Hash, Noise, Clock, Predict
Rational Logical, Aspiring, Sense, Wrong, Descartes
Recursion Iteration, again, repeat, program, function, recursion
Rene Descartes Philosophy, Science, Think, Am, Enlighten
Repetition Again, Loop, Learn, Habit, Cycle
Ritual Candle, Night, Tradition, Circle, Solstice
Robin Hanson Futarchy, Economic, Cynic, Bias, Eliezer Yudkowsky
Robot Android, Arm, Asimov, Artificial, Automaton
Russell Conjugation And, Emotive, I, You, They
Sane Normal, Neurotypical, Expect, Function, Clean
Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis Word, Language, Mind, Brain, Think
Schelling Point Library, Post office, coordinate, meet, obvious
Scholarship Study, Book, Learn, Virtue, Hermione
Science Experiment, Learn, World, Technology, Paper
Scott Alexander Astral, Slate, Star, Codex, Spiral
Secret Tell, Information, Reveal, Hide, Conspire
Sequence Rationality, Count, Series, Set, Zombie
Shibboleth Distinguish, Language, Accent, Custom, Password
Simulation Matrix, computer, reality, fake, pretend
Singularity Artificial, Point, Horizon, Beyond, After
Sleep Rest, Dream, Lie, Bed, REM
Socrates Philosophy, Cave, Shadow, Solid, Hemlock
Solstice Winter, summer, song, ray, ritual
Soylent Powder, Food, Green, People, Replacement
Space Outer, Star, Sun, Planet, Ship
Stanford Prison Experiment Prison, Guard, Psychology, Ethics, Moral
Statistics Lies, Frequent, Bayes, Probability, Summary
Status People, Popular, Respect, High, Low
Strategy Tactic, Plan, General, Cunning, War
Straw Man Fallacy, Fake, Dumb, Easy, Argue
Sturgeon's Law Crap, Scifi, 90, Media, Author
Sun Star, Sol, Hot, Bright, Gas
Superset Group, More, All, Math, Include
Superstimuli Porn, Junk, Food, Overwhelm, Music
System 1 Fast, Slow, Intuit, Brain, Reflex
Taboo Game, Rule, Avoid, Break, Superstition
Taboo Game, Rule, Violate, Play, Stricture
Theology Religion, Text, Sage, God, Rule
Theory Hypothesis, evolution, suspect, guess, science
Think Know, Compute, Test, School, Stop
Toxoplasma Cat, Two, Disease, Parasite, Spread
Trade-off Economic, Perfect, Optimal, Give, Up
Transcendentalism Nature, Good, Independent, Pond, Walden
Transhumanist Singularity, Cyborg, Limit, Mortal, Artificial
Transparent See, Through, Ghost, Illusion, Hologram
Trolley Problem Kill, Switch, Choose, Die, Five
Truth Beauty, real, own, science, speak
Turing Machine Computer, Complete, Program, Memory, Algorithm
Turing Test Computer, Chat, Human, Deceive, Talk
University College, School, Learning, Debt, Graduate
Unsong Book, Scott, Kaballah, Aaron, Comedy
Utilitarian Mill, Singer, Hedon, Great, Good
Value Drift Visser, Desire, Difference, Change, Organization
Veil of Ignorance Rawls, Before, World, Philosophy, Person
Virtue Good, vice, deontology, nice, grow
Void Space, Black, Eternity, Hole, Empty
Wertifloke Naruto, Fanfiction, Waves, Arise, Ninja
William Macaskill Effective, Altruism, Hours, Give, Singer
Wireheading Pleasure, hedon, max, drug, stimulate
Word Definition, Noun, Verb, Speach, Sentence
Zeno's Paradox Arrow, Calculus, Approach, Reach, Half

List taken from Screwtape's version of the game.

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