Immortality Is Exciting

TL;DR: Immortality may seem like it would be boring. But an awful lot of people have hobbies and projects that would probably work out better if those people had more time to get things done. What’s more, these activities might be more exciting the longer they went on, rather than less.

To illustrate this, I use the example of a Go master, who is in love with a fiendishly hard game and might continue improving for centuries, given the chance — and that’s just one popular board game in a universe of activities.


I’d like to clear up a common misconception about living forever.

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Utility Monsters, Part I

My latest post for the humanist blog Applied Sentience is up:

It’s a pretty strange post, but I think that the issues I raise around the utility monster problem are important. If you care more about a randomly selected human than a randomly selected chicken (and I think you should), you accept the existence of utility monsters — thinking beings which are worthy of greater moral consideration than other thinking beings.

Right now, humans are the world’s reigning utility monsters. That may not be true forever.

I think we are likely to eventually create machines which possess a kind of consciousness that is deeper and richer in certain ways than our own. Whatever metrics we can use to measure the “value” of a human life (and we all have them), we know of no reason that advanced computers will not eventually score higher on said metrics than we do, whether it’s in 50 years or 500.

And before we can make decisions about how to react to this situation — or whether we should work to prevent it in the first place — I think that we should do our best to understand what it might be like to be a superhuman utility monster. Empathy shouldn’t just extend to beings with lesser mental capabilities than our own.

Utilitarian Thought Experiments


I’m currently enrolled in a moral psychology class. We spend a lot of time talking about human moral instincts — the ways we think about moral situations when we haven’t had time to reflect on the consequences.

Sometimes, our instincts are excellent; they help us save people from oncoming trains when there’s no time to think about alternatives. But other times, they lead us down strange paths.

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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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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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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”?

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The Audience Member’s Dilemma

Last September, I had the chance to see a show by the Cambridge Footlights, one of the world’s best college sketch groups. The comedy was fresh, fast-paced, and full of surprising postmodern twists, one of which I found particularly affecting.

First, the Footlights took a volunteer from the audience and gave her a pad with a button to push.

“Every second you wait to push that button,” they announced, “you’ll earn a dime.”

One opened a briefcase, then showed us that it was full of money. At least a few hours’ worth. Another held up a large digital timer and turned it on.

00:01… 00:02… 00:03…

Finally, as we waited for the punchline, they held up a sign with the name of the sketch: “The Audience Member’s Dilemma”.

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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?