These are some concepts from my conceptual toolbox. I have limited myself to ideas I find interesting or helpful that I think are underused in rationalist(-adjacent) (LessWrong) circles. I may add and remove concepts as I reevaluate them.


“Accidental trial by fire”

Origin: Matt Simpson, “Accidental Trial by Fire” (2014).

An Aeon piece by Dimitris Xygalatas has been making the rounds describing how hazing and other rituals involving sacrifice or pain, physical or psychological, often serves as a sort of prosocial glue that keeps groups together and functioning well. [...] What struck me while reading the piece is how many of these prosocial rituals are almost accidental in our modern lives.

See also: “misattribution of arousal”.


Origin: Eliezer Yudkowsky, “Markets are Anti-Inductive”.

Per Scott Alexander in “The Phatic And The Anti-Inductive” (2015), things that if you understand them get more complicated until you don’t are called “anti-inductive”.

See also: “reflection-complete”.


Origin: Gwern Branwen, “Technology Holy Wars are Coordination Problems” (2020).

The flip side of bitrot is what we might call bitcreep: because there is only so much time and energy to go around, a system which avoids bitrot will also experience ‘bitcreep’, where other programs begin to ‘bitrot’ in that they increasingly assume, depend, and are tested only with that system, and that gradually creeps through the ecosystem.


Origin: Scott Aaronson, “On blankfaces” (2021).

What exactly is a blankface? He or she is often a mid-level bureaucrat, but not every bureaucrat is a blankface, and not every blankface is a bureaucrat. A blankface is anyone who enjoys wielding the power entrusted in them to make others miserable by acting like a cog in a broken machine, rather than like a human being with courage, judgment, and responsibility for their actions.

Compare: “droid”.

“California/BoBo style”

Origin: Sarah Constantin, “Naming the Nameless” (2018).

But for your typical consumer, the generic California/BoBo style works fine. It signals elegance, which means, more or less, that it’s designed for educated, high-Openness, upper-middle-class, urban people. When I enter a space or a website with this aesthetic, or buy a product with this branding, it’s shorthand for “Ahhhh, this place is run by competent professionals who know how to give me a pleasant experience. I will not feel harried or inconvenienced or confused here; I will be well taken care of. I will easily be able to slot my existing behavior patterns into the implicit “rules” of how to use and navigate this place or device or website.”

“Change is bad”

Origin: Zvi Mowshowitz, “Change Is Bad” (2017).

Change space, like mind space, is deep and wide. Friendly change space isn’t quite to change space what friendly mind space is to mind space, but before you apply any filters of common sense, it’s remarkably close.

The more optimized things currently are, the less likely any given change is to be good.


Origin: Portuguese colonies in East Asia.

A local agent representing foreign organizations.

“Cooperative ignorance”

Origin: Sarah Perry, “Cooperative Ignorance” (2015).

Coordinated strategic ignorance.

“Essentially contested concept”

Origin: Walter Bryce Gallie (1956).

A widely used concept with fundamental disagreement on what it means.

“Internal September”

Origin: FeepingCreature (2021).

Internal September, n.: Eternal September inside an organization. Something that happens to companies over time.

“Internet of beefs, the”

Origin: Venkatesh Rao, “The Internet of Beefs” (2020).

Also: “beef-only thinking”.

A beef-only thinker is someone you cannot simply talk to. Anything that is not an expression of pure, unqualified support for whatever they are doing or saying is received as a mark of disrespect, and a provocation to conflict. From there, you can only crash into honor-based conflict mode, or back away and disengage.

“Masochistic epistemology”

Origin: Ziz, glossary.

Believing what hurts to believe in an attempt to counter bias.

“Memetic collapse”

Origin: Eliezer Yudkowsky, Facebook post (2017). Named by Yudkowsky later, maybe in “Local Validity as a Key to Sanity and Civilization”.

A change in the conditions of transmission starting to select memes harder for virality at a cost to truth or usefulness.

“Premature documentation”

Origin: urbit, Hacker News comment (2017).

Unfortunately, premature documentation is the second root of all evil, so some of the vagueness you sense is due to immature code. It’s always a mistake to document a system into existence—that is the path of vaporware. Better to run and have weak docs, than have good docs but not run.


Origin: the ancient past. This particular definition is mine.

Competing on a local scale in things that are not (or no longer) inherently local and getting the wrong idea of how good one’s performance is globally.

“Rational astrology”

Origin: Steve Randy Waldman, “Rational astrology” (2012).

A rational astrology is a set of beliefs which one rationally behaves as if were true, regardless of whether they are in fact. Rational astrologies need not be entirely fake or false. Like bullshit, the essential characteristic of a rational astrology is the indifference to truth or falsehood of the factors that compel ones behavior.

“Reality has a surprising amount of detail”

Source: John Salvatier, “Reality has a surprising amount of detail” (2017).

In difficult things humanity has not been doing for a long time there are important details that aren't immediately visible. Different people end up noticing different details. This is evidence that noticing the right details is hard. When you are stuck, seek to notice details you haven't.

“Rectification of names”

Origin: Confucius.

Names for things should have correct connotations.

“Reflection-complete idea”

Origin: SDr, “Reflection completeness”.

Things that keep working even if other people know about them.

See also: “anti-inductivity”.

“Sanity for sociality”

Origin: Warg Franklin, “Sanity for Sociality: A Theory of Religion” (2015).

Religion trades some sanity, freedom, non-weirdness, and wealth for community, stability, spiritual well-being, and access to mates.

“Show me the cake”

Origin: Said Achmiz, LessWrong comment (2018).

“I’ve invented a fascinating new baking technique! With it, I have baked an amazing new cake!”

“An amazing new cake?! Sounds delicious! Could we have a taste?”

“No, I don’t want to talk about the cake, I want to talk about the baking technique.”

“Specialist-to-theoretician pattern, the”

Origin: Chris Crawford, “Programmers and Aging” (2019).

Over and over we see the same pattern: the red-hot specialist becomes a grand theoretician.


Origin: Extreme Programming.

A solution to explore the problem. As WikiWikiWeb puts it,

So-called because a spike is "end to end, but very thin", like driving a spike all the way through a log.

“Traditions masquerade as technology”

Origin: Theodor Holm Nelson, “Xanalogical Structure, Needed Now More than Ever: Parallel Documents, Deep Links to Content, Deep Versioning, and Deep Re-Use” (1999).

We have always proposed a complete alternative computing and literary universe -- sweeping, simple and principled -- which has remained very different from the evolving computer world and its evolving traditions that masquerade as "technology".


Origin: Gwern Bran­wen, “On Seeing Through and Unseeing: The Hacker Mindset” (2012) (footnote removed).

Also known as the “the hacker mindset” or “the security mindset”.

[...] I think unexpected Turing-complete systems and weird machines have something in common with heist movies or cons or stage magic: they all share a specific paradigm we might call the security mindset or hacker mindset.

What they/OP/security/speedrunning/hacking/social-engineering all have in common is that they show that the much-ballyhooed ‘hacker mindset’ is, fundamentally, a sort of reductionism run amok, where one ‘sees through’ abstractions to a manipulable reality. Like Neo in the Matrix—a deeply cliche analogy for hacking, but cliche because it resonates—one achieves enlightenment by seeing through the surface illusions of objects and can now see the endless lines of green code which make up the Matrix (and vice-versa).

[... F]or the hacker, all complexity is essential, and they are instead trying to unsee the simple abstract system down to the more-complex less-abstract (but also more true) version.

“Weak man”

Origin: Robert Talisse (2006).

In what Talisse dubs a weak man argument, a person sets up the opposition’s weakest (or one of its weakest) arguments or proponents for attack, as opposed to misstating a rival’s position as the straw man argument does.

See also: Scott Alexander, “Weak Men Are Superweapons” (2014).

“Wisdom of repugnance”

Origin: Leon Kass (1997).

Appeal to disgust, especially when justified by disgust being evolutionarily adaptive or given by God. It is common to see it in debates about sex, reproduction, and biomedical experiments. It is related to the purity moral foundation.

See also

Tags: definitions, list, rationality.