Review: CFAR Workshop

Note: This brief report reflects the way I felt shortly after the CFAR workshop. My feelings haven’t changed much since then, but if you’d like an update — or have questions this post doesn’t answer — please let me know! I’m always happy to talk about applied rationality.


In April 2014, I spent four days working to improve my life with the help of the Center for Applied Rationality (CFAR). It was a good experience, and I’d recommend it highly for most of the people reading this post.

If you’d rather skip the summary, or have questions afterwards, send me an email and tell me what you want to know.

Quick Summary

CFAR teaches participants to better understand their minds, plan their actions, and achieve their goals. It does so through a series of small, hands-on seminars, run by some of the best teachers I’ve ever seen at work. It also introduces you to a community of other self-improvement-minded people, many of whom will become your friends.

The workshop is a lot like your best semester of college, but it happens in four days, costs a lot less, and is more likely to give you knowledge that will help you ten years down the road.

Some representative moments of my CFAR experience:

Continue reading

An Ode to Phones

After my old phone failed for no apparent reason, I feared that I’d lost quite a lot of data, and that it would take weeks to get my life back in working order.

Half an hour after I entered the store where I buy phones, I walked out with a new device containing all the same data as my old device.

It hit me then that, since the advent of the Internet, and later cloud computing, the miracle of distributed data has saved humans tens of billions of hours in time that otherwise would have been spent recreating data or otherwise making up for its disappearance.

Continue reading

20 Things I Wish I Knew At 20

I may be only 20 years old, but there are many things I wish I knew.

So, in honor of these endless lists:

1. Who wins Super Bowl XLIX?

Vegas is already accepting bets. I could use the money.

2. Which of the 715 books on my Amazon wish list are worth reading? 

I just know I’m going to waste weeks threshing my way through all the chaff.

3. When will the next big earthquake hit Los Angeles? 

Frankly, I’m shocked that this wasn’t on the other lists. If I knew this, I could save thousands of lives. Think big, people!

Continue reading

The Name of This Blog is Alpha Gamma

When I started “Learning All The Things”, the original name of this blog, I thought it would be a place where I took notes in public about things I was reading.

That happened sometimes, but in the end, I decided that almost anything I was going to summarize would have a better summary somewhere else. Take the cognitive science of happiness: I read a few books on this and was excited to make my notes public, but then found that other people had read even more books and taken better notes.

The Internet has enough redundant content, so I decided to write more things that, as far as I knew, no one else had ever written. This meant that “Learning All The Things” was no longer the right name.

So why “Alpha Gamma”?

Continue reading

The Words of Our Lives

Summary: We write a lot of words, and our words may serve as the truest expression of our personalities after we’re dead, if we keep them in a safe place. It might also be nice to have our present-day words around when we’re older.


After we are dead, information about ourselves will continue to exist.

Some of this information won’t last very long; our bodies disappear quickly, rotting or burning to ash. But we’ve gotten rather good at keeping the rest of it stored in various places and formats.

How we look and sound, for example. YouTube features footage of tens of millions of people moving/speaking/singing, and many families keep home videos of some kind. Then there’s an entire universe of still photographs—both photos taken of us and photos we’ve taken of other things. And we’ll have electronic medical records, possibly even entire sequenced genomes, to testify to the physical facts of our existence.

Continue reading

I Declare Crocker’s Rules

Meant to do this awhile back, but since my two readers haven’t been especially active in the comments, the delay wound up not mattering.


These are the rules. An excerpt:

Declaring yourself to be operating by “Crocker’s Rules” means that other people are allowed to optimize their messages for information, not for being nice to you. 

Crocker’s Rules means that you have accepted full responsibility for the operation of your own mind – if you’re offended, it’s your fault.  Anyone is allowed to call you a moron and claim to be doing you a favor.  (Which, in point of fact, they would be.  One of the big problems with this culture is that everyone’s afraid to tell you you’re wrong, or they think they have to dance around it.)  


When I gave the first draft of this post to a friend—at which point it was a long essay—he respected the Rules and gave me a frank review.

“Why is this so long?” he said. “Who is supposed to care about this?”

It hurt to hear those words. But it hurt him even more to say them. Giving feedback is hard. Giving unsolicited feedback is really, really hard. So from now on, all feedback anyone chooses to give me is officially solicited feedback.


Thanks to my friend’s honesty, that’s the end of this post. Much appreciated, Leandro!

The Human Struggle in One Sentence

“However, as we finished the pepperoni pizza, we agreed it would be best to be vegetarian in order to preserve the value of all life.”

I’m not sure I could write a better example myself. There’s nothing wrong with the sentiment, but I feel a nagging sense of despair whenever I reread the words.

Because I’ve been eating the same pizza for the last five years. I’ve been having my pizza and eating it too. I’ve been feeling guilty, and feeling good about feeling guilty, and failing to cut my guilt off at the source.

I’m talking about myself and not the members of the Yale Student Roundtable, because they could all be vegetarian by now for all I know. But me? I haven’t done most of the things I promised myself I’d do.

And when I make promises to myself, they are almost always reactive promises: to be more productive when the clock strikes midnight and the essay is a blank page, to do more cardio when I find myself winded after a quick sprint to class, to stop eating the pizza when everything is gone but the crust. Sometimes, life seems like a long struggle to stop eating the pizza, in a world where better and better pizzas are baked each day, in the oven of… society. And Buzzfeed is the pepperoni? This is a good stopping point.

I originally titled this post “College Morality in One Sentence”. That was unfair, and condescending. After all, who’s to say things get better after you graduate?

Back to School, Part II

A few days ago, I wandered Old Campus, where a thousand freshmen were in the process of moving in. Together with the rest of the Yale Record, I passed several hundred copies of our “traditional Freshman Issue” into the hands and under the doors of the class of 2017.

(I feared their parents might open the magazine and faint from shock, but at Yale, you can get away with nearly anything if you call it “traditional”, from dirty jokes to the preferential admission of legacies.)

The joy in the air as we walked among the new students was one of the most intoxicating sensations I’ve ever felt, though I’m a teetotaler and don’t partake of marijuana, so my range of experience is limited.

It brought to mind the air around a rock concert. One thousand people, most of whom are about to have a supremely happy experience–but this experience will last four years, rather than four hours. The tension of that pent-up force is addictive. If I’m in New Haven after I graduate, I may stop by for future move-in days just to bask in it.

Tonight, having spoken separately with at least eight people I respect and admire over the past two days, I collapsed into our brand-new futon (courtesy of Rubber Match, the best store in this city). A smile hit my face and stuck.

I’m a junior now–an old man–but I’ve got two pent-up years left in me, and whenever I’m tired over the next nine months, whenever I have a problem set that won’t die or an article due yesterday, I will remember those pent-up years, and they will be my battery.

Like a nuclear reactor, the college years to come provide energy by slowly fissioning, until one is left standing in one’s cap and gown with nothing but one’s diploma and highly unstable waste material. Some people feel sickened by this byproduct of bygone days, by the knowledge that their undergraduate years have passed and will not return. I fear that I, too, will suffer greatly for a little while come 2015.

But later, I will find an excuse to be on Old Campus again as the freshmen arrive, and I will plant the remnants of my gone-away years. Anything I can’t carry, in my suitcase or my mind–down, into the soil.

Much of what we do here is radioactive. Running clubs, organizing events, celebrating old traditions, imagining new ceremonies that will in time become tradition–all of it leaves behind a trace of who we were, for these four years, and echoes within the walls and courtyards in ways we never imagined.

But rather than decay, these remnants give life to Yale. This university is nothing but a collection of pretty buildings without the sum of the histories of its students, and the pent-up joy of its freshmen is made possible by what we’ve left for them to find.

Today, we’ve come back to school. Soon, we’ll leave forever, but who we were will remain etched in the halls and stones and fields.

It’s a new year. What are you going to carve?

A Night to Remember, Starring Paul Bloom

East Rock sunset with Tammy Pham. But there is no sun. Also, we hike up what is basically a cliff face covered in snow only to arrive at the wrong East Rock. There are two. Ours has several boulders, but no benches. A jogger appears soon after, sees us talking, startles, and bolts. Finally, when the no-sun not-sets, we hike down again. My bike will not unlock and our fingers are too numb to open it. After ten minutes of this, a man walks down the sidewalk. He looks like Paul Bloom.

“Paul Bloom?” I say, hoping that it is indeed Paul Bloom because nothing else needs to go wrong on this day.


“Wow! I… was in your lecture last semester.”


“My bike is stuck.”

“Oh my. I don’t have anything sharp enough to cut that, I’m afraid.”

“…do you live around here?”

“You’re parked in front of my house.”

At this point, Tammy cries out in victory and the lock springs open. Forgetting Paul Bloom, I embrace her and tell her I love her and release her and Paul Bloom is watching impassively.

“Well,” I finally say. “That was a stroke of luck! Have a nice evening.”

“You, too,” he says, and strolls off into the twilight.

This was my evening. I’m still trying to believe any of it.