Dogs and Existentialism

I have a Tumblr now! I’m still experimenting with using the platform for short essays and thought nuggets. Here’s an essay cross-posted from that Tumblr:


The Melancholy of Retrievers

(Wandering philosophy. Not attached to most of these opinions.)

I’m staying for a few weeks in the home of relatives who own a Labrador Retriever. I’ve spent a lot of time around this dog in the last few weeks, after many years of not living with a pet. As a result, everything about the notion of “owning a dog” – or the very existence of domesticated dogs – has become strange to me.

The dog, Jasper, lives to play fetch. When he isn’t sleeping or eating or drinking, he picks up anything he can find and brings it to you so that you can throw it. If you don’t throw it, he’ll try another person. If no one else is around, he’ll pant and whine at you and shove his head between your legs to stare sadly into your eyes until you give up and play fetch.

I’m sure this is normal dog behavior, and it’s the sort of silly thing that people love about dogs. But it makes me wonder how it feels to be Jasper.

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Privileging the Story (Or: Do I Trust Journalism?)

My friend Jack Newshama reporter for The Boston Globe, asked a good question on Facebook the other day:

Question for my non-journalist friends: why don’t you trust us? (“Us” being journalists in general. Because poll after poll shows that the overwhelming majority of you don’t.)

My answer turned out long enough for a blog post.

I trust journalists. That is, I trust most people, and I don’t see journalists as being very different from most people on average. I would trust a journalist to watch my laptop in a cafe while I used the bathroom or water my plants when I went on vacation.

Journalism isn’t a person. It is a product, produced by journalists. And as it is practiced, I only half-trust journalism.

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My Senior Thesis: How Can Great Charities Raise More Money?

Update: Charity Science, an organization whose work I admire, has added my thesis to their page on charitable giving research. I highly recommend their site for more information on the topics discussed here.

* * * * *

After months of work, I’ve finally finished my thesis:

Charitable Fundraising and Smart Giving: How can charities use behavioral science to drive donations?

It’s a very long paper, and you probably shouldn’t read the whole thing. I conducted my final round of editing over the course of 38 hours in late April, during which I did not sleep. It’s kind of a slog.

Here’s a PDF of the five pages where I summarize everything I learned and make recommendations to charities:

The Part of the Thesis You Should Actually Read


In the rest of this post, I’ve explained my motivation for actually writing this thing, and squeezed my key findings into a pair of summaries: One that’s a hundred words long, one that’s quite a bit longer.

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Area Writer Applies To The Onion, Fails

I recently applied for a writing position at The OnionI went in expecting to be rejected, knowing that the website has some of the funniest living writers on staff. And I was, in fact, rejected!

I noticed while I was applying that I couldn’t easily find any other applications online. So I’m posting mine here, with minor edits for typos. If you’d like to work at The Onion, you’ll have to do better than this. (Also, you’ll have to spend more than four hours on your submission. When it comes to finding your dream job, don’t procrastinate.)

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The Hexagon Game // Surrounder

Three weeks ago, I was sitting in a bathroom with hexagonal floor tiles. As I stared at the floor, I began thinking about geometric patterns involving hexagons. (I’m going to assume everyone does this until I hear otherwise, and if you tell me otherwise, I might refuse to listen.)

The thoughts went something like this:

What if these hexagons were one color? And those were another color? What patterns could you build?

And then:

Wait. What if, when one hexagon was surrounded by hexagons of a different color, it got “killed” and taken away? Like the hexagons were soldiers in some kind of horrible hexagon civil war? And the battle continued until every scrap of territrory was owned by one of the two sides?

After washing my hands, I power-walked back to my desk in the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute and began to prototype a board game. (This was long after the end of the workday, because the Institute is air-conditioned and contains fewer spiders than my house.)

After three games, I thought I really had something. After six games, I was convinced that the game was terrible. Then I expanded the board, and the cycle began anew. When things began to look really promising, I did some research on game design (which, in the tradition of Aaron research, included useful activities like reading the entirety of the manga Hikaru No Go and the biography of Christian Freeling).

Finally, I posted a picture of a finished game, and people were curious enough that I felt the game itself was worth blogging.

So, here it is. I call it “The Hexagon Game” inside my head, but a better, more Google-friendly name is “Surrounder”. I hope to hack together a playable app for it once my Javascript skills are up to snuff, but for now, I play in… Microsoft Paint. Such are the trials of game design.

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Belated Philanthropy: Update

Last December, I wrote a post about a concept I call “belated philanthropy”.

In summary: When someone solicits me on the street, asking for money, I don’t give it. Instead, I make a note of the incident in my mind. Later, I donate to a charity based on how many people have asked me for money since my last “belated” donation.

Here’s why:

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Introducing: Yale Effective Altruists

Update: This post is out-of-date. YEA now has its own website, where updates will be posted on various things we do. The website is also out-of-date, but to a lesser extent.


I’m starting a club!

The name of the club is “Yale Effective Altruists”, or “YEA”. It exists for three big reasons:

  1. To help college students use their time to make other people’s lives better in a manner as effective as possible.
  2. To introduce more college students to the ideas and methods of the “effective altruism” (EA) movement.
  3. To help the wider EA movement complete more projects and put more ideas into practice, for the good of humanity.


Members of YEA will:

  • Meet to discuss the current state of the world, and realistic ways we might improve it
  • Plan and develop projects that might improve the world (more on that later)
  • Talk to cool people who like improving the world, some of whom might be famous
  • Learn how to persuade people (useful in general) and get expert advice on choosing classes, careers, and more

There will be one recommended meeting each week (30 minutes or less), plus a variety of projects to work on and talks to attend if you’d like to be more involved. We’ll also hang out together (for more, see “good parties” below).

If you’re already curious, you can sign up to learn more!

(I’ll also give you the link at the end of this post.)

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Spoken Word

Based on a recent conversation with two real people (“R” and “J”).


R, science writer and non-poet, standing on balcony:

“What if I’d done spoken word poetry at Yale? How would I be different?”

AG, writer and non-poet, also on balcony:

“Well, you’d have done spoken word, for one. That’s different.”

J, scientist and non-poet, also on balcony:

“There would be more poetry in your life.”


“And in this other world, if you’d still made the choices that led you to this balcony, you’d be standing on this balcony and wondering what would have happened if you hadn’t done spoken word.

“And then I’d say: ‘Well, you wouldn’t have done spoken word, for one. That’s different.’

“And J would say: ‘There would be less poetry in your life’.

“I mean, in this alternate reality of yours, we’re still the same people we are in this reality, right? We’d still be giving the same unhelpful advice.”



It’s good to know that some things in our quantum multiverse never change.


Other Conclusion:

There is a more frightening possibility: Had R done spoken word, she might have become the kind of person who wouldn’t even wonder about the path of her life without spoken word.

Then again, we lose something every time we make a big decision — not just the possibilities we are aware of, but the possibilities we will never be aware of if we follow another path.

Dubstep in Vienna: Or, Craving Things That Don’t Exist

Reading time: 8-10 minutes, plus one short song.

A collection of musings around the topics of art, yearning, and synthesizers. 


How I learned to love music

Most people worry about the future. Some people worry about the past. I worry about alternate histories: things that never happened, but what if they had?

One of those what-ifs has been on my mind lately:

What if I’d been born early enough in history that I never got to hear electronic music?

* * * * *

I still remember the first time I knowingly heard a synthesizer. (Whatever electronic sound effects Britney Spears and Nelly were using had escaped my notice.)

I was 12, and riding in the car of my good friend Peter Andrews. His mother was driving, and we were listening to songs from the 1970s. Most of them were background noise, and held no interest for me.


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