Profiles in Conversion

The miracle workers at the New Journal compressed my 5400-word rough draft into 2800 words of tight prose:

I really like the final edit, but since about 6000 words wound up in one draft or another and were cut before the end, I’d like to throw in some footnotes/addenda/scraps from my reporting notebook. Ordered according to the relevant spot in the piece:

1) When I was eight years old, an eight-year-old friend of mine had me declare my faith in Christ in his basement. I was told this would save me from Hell, so I was glad to comply. I later learned that Jews don’t believe in Hell. Damn!

2) In the course of having an evangelical best friend, I attended his church a few times. It was a lively church. Lots of singing and dancing, which was confusing, because the rabbi at Temple Beth Emeth never danced. At one point, after the service, I compared the pastor to a kangaroo. This led, five seconds later, to a knock-down, drag-out fight with the pastor’s kid. My friend never took me back to church with him.

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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?

SXSW Chronicles: Moon Hooch

Though I went as a music journalist, at the tender age of 19, I had no hope of entering most of the clubs of Austin, Texas, at South by Southwest. Acts I would not see over the course of the festival include: Paul Oakenfold, the Crystal Method, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Autre Ne Veut, Deadmau5, and (this one broke my heart) Snoop Lion.

But that’s alright. Instead, I saw these guys:

I’d been taking 30-second videos of street performers up to this point, but found myself rooted in place, unable to move save to capture the reactions of various dancers. I’m far from a skilled videographer, but I think the crowd’s joy comes through. Austin’s reputation as the Live Music Capital of the World aside, most of the buskers I saw were competent instrumentalists, but without much flair for showmanship or a catchy repertoire (though there were other notable exceptions). Who’d have thought two saxophones and a drummer were the magic recipe for success?

Once the band finished their set, I turned to leave. I dropped my pen, however (I’d been taking notes), and when I rose from picking it up, I saw that some new musicians had entered the scene.

I don’t know what those white tubes are called, but these guys were clearly veterans. (I saw them playing on the streets, often with other musicians, three of the next four nights.) You might not be able to tell from the video, but that drummer is grinning ear-to-ear behind his hair. How often does one get the chance to improvise a jam with two skilled strangers who play the same instruments as your friends, when your friends are both saxophonists? I wish my audio had been better: you could feel the brass in your bones if you stood close enough, and the rhythm was even catchier in person.

Once the jam ended, the young drummer stood to shake hands with the veterans, and his bandmates joined him. I stuck around to watch the conversation. Couldn’t make out what was being said, and eventually left. Then, heard a riff from behind me. The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army”. It stopped. Then, another riff, this one perhaps even more familiar to my generation. I turned around and began recording.

Ladies and gentlemen, for your viewing pleasure, “Thrift Shop”, as covered by four saxophones and one drum set.

I approached the drummer after the set to thank him for what was, after all’s said and done, one of the five best concerts I saw in my time at one of the world’s largest music festivals. He told me that his name was James Muschler, and that the band’s name was Moon Hooch. They met at the New School, a college in Manhattan, where James picked up a BA in jazz performance before bandmates Mike Wilbur and “Wenzl” McGowen left school with him to play full-time (Mike and Wenzl also graduated, though I’m not sure if they were performance majors). Though they started out as buskers in subway stations, they were discovered by solo artist Mike Doughty and found themselves “playing above ground” and even opening for bands like Lotus and They Might Be Giants.

Wait, They Might Be Giants? Then what are you doing out here?

James ignores the question’s rudeness and gives me a straight answer, plus a big winning smile: “We started out on the streets. And now we’re bringing our music back to the streets.” Handshakes all around.

In short: These guys are wonderful. I just bought their album on Bandcamp. If you like funky dance music with a good story behind it, you’d be well-advised to do the same.

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.

Winter Break Books: The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, by Steven Pinker

The book: Harvard professor, Pulitzer finalist and Time 100 badass Steven Pinker says a controversial thing: The world is a less violent, and overall nicer, place than it has ever been, in almost every way, for a set of reasons neither wholly liberal nor wholly conservative (at least as Americans conceive of those terms). Then, he goes ahead and proves it for 700 straight pages, quoting from hundreds of books, summarizing world history, and dropping science (mostly neuroscience) all the while.

The good: This is one of the ten or so best nonfiction books I’ve ever read. Amazing. A primer of intellectual history, political history, modern psychology, and also a convincing blow struck against pessimists everywhere. You can flip to any random page and come away with a valuable insight into human nature. I’ll do that right now.

Page 182: humans used to play almost entirely zero-sum games with each other; we gained resources by taking them from other humans, and preferably killing them so they couldn’t get revenge. Now, thanks to agriculture, technology, and the concept of “trade”, we play mostly positive-sum games, where both sides of an interaction can benefit without anyone getting hurt. It’s easier today, in most places and for most people, to make new wealth than it is to steal old wealth.

See? In the hands of a lesser (or less ambitious) writer, that could have been a whole book. It probably is. Every point Pinker makes has that kind of conceptual weight, and also reinforces the points which came before. He is adept at tying science to history to philosophy to the human quirks we all see around us. He’s not a novelist, but that isn’t a problem; the writing in Better Angels is so much better than it had to be that I found myself grinning at a passage every few pages. When I grow up, I’d like to write like Steven Pinker.

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Advice for New Teenagers

Quora is a fantastic website and I highly recommend membership. Imagine Yahoo Answers, plus about 50 IQ points and a coalition of smart kids getting adult advice about the rest of their lives, and you have an intellectual Eden based on life experience and upvotes.

Anyway, this question recently appeared in my stream: “Life Advice: What habits would you tell me (a 13-year-old male) to start building because they proved the most useful to you?” I wound up typing a small essay for the questioner; it is replicated below. (Not that I’m an authority on life, but I try to keep to my own advice, and it has worked out decently so far).

So far, this guidance has a sample size of one; if it works for my 11-year-old brother someday, I will claim a bit more authority. Eli, you’ve been warned.

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The Beginning

2012-02-14 19.02.03

Someone once told me that the best way for college students without appreciable skills to woo employers and attractive strangers was the creation of a special website to display their “interests” and “projects”.

Employers? Attractive strangers? This one’s for you!



Aaron Gertler, age 19, Yale sophomore, Psychology major, journalist, “funny kid” (source: friends, enemies, both of my kindergarten teachers), erstwhile consultant, mentor to the youth.

Also a Renaissance man who doesn’t paint, sculpt or play the lute and who would be a terrible Renaissance man.



Bridgewater? McKinsey? Kiera Knightley? My girlfriend?



Cognitive and behavioral science and how human beings really operate.

History people tend to forget and statistics they tend to ignore.

Metafiction and long-form journalism.

Electronic music of almost any form.

Happiness, with or without dark chocolate but preferably with.

Weightlifting, general fitness, and shoes with toes on them.

Self-improvement, problem-solving, and large-scale optimism.



Journalism, creative nonfiction, creative fiction, and derivative fiction, but not derivative journalism.

Design, coding, research academic and otherwise.

Whatever else keeps me adding notes to my iPhone when I should be sleeping.


Why “Learning All the Things?” (Note: Title later changed to “Alpha Gamma”)

Because what you don’t know can’t hurt you, and I’m a masochist.

Because the first step to wisdom, per Socrates, is knowing that we know nothing, but the second step is doing something about it.

Because I don’t like being tricked by people who know things I don’t, and I’d like to stop those people from tricking others.

Because the world becomes more interesting the more you know about it.

Because learning all the things is impossible and will only lead to more questions besides, and as we’ve already established, I’m a masochist.


Sounds marvelous! How can I contact you about any of the topics above, or anything else that’s been running through my head?

I can be reached via email!

I also have a Twitter!

Or you can post a comment to this very website! I love messages from strangers, especially when they are human beings and/or computers who can pass a Turing Test and are not trying to sell me things.