Ten Big Questions

At a recent symposium, social scientists gathered to create a list of “big questions” that might serve as a driving focus for academics in the years to come—inspired in part by David Hilbert’s (largely successful) use of this technique to guide mathematicians.

More on the symposium here. The final list of questions is highly informal, but gives us a good idea of what problems are on the minds of very smart people:

1. How can we induce people to look after their health?

2. How do societies create effective and resilient institutions, such as governments?

3. How can humanity increase its collective wisdom?

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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:

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Solving Problems Without Markets

David Hansson, on protecting the improbable social structure of open source:

Take Ruby on Rails. More than 3,000 people have committed man-decades, maybe even man-centuries, of work for free. Buying all that effort at market rates would have been hundreds of millions of dollars. Who would have been able to afford funding that?

That’s a monumental achievement of humanity! Thousands, collaborating for a decade, to produce an astoundingly accomplished framework and ecosystem available to anyone at the cost of zero. Take a second to ponder the magnitude of that success. Not just for Rails, of course, but for many other, and larger, open source projects out there with an even longer lineage and success.

Some problems are tough to solve with market values, especially when they offer no immediate returns.

MIRI is one example of this. They survive by donations, because “defense against intelligent supercomputers” is not a short-term investment. Google Calico is another example. That project exists because Google can afford to invest in things (like radical life extension) that won’t make money for the next 10 years.

Many wonderful things are built because of the market. The chair I’m sitting in is one of them. So is the phone on my desk, and the equipment in the hospital six blocks from my house. Markets help solve a lot of problems.

But they are not always good at solving certain “invisible” problems.

Some are invisible because most people don’t care about them—like one of the problems Rails tried to solve, “programming is hard to understand”. (This was before most people saw building apps as a thing they could do themselves.)

Others are invisible because most people don’t think they can be solved—like the problem Calico aims to solve in the long term, “humans are mortal”.

It may not be obvious that these things occupy the set of real, solvable problems alongside hunger and disease. But they do. And whether it’s philanthropy or open source (they share many qualities), it’s worth preserving social values that lead us to solve problems in non-market ways—not because the work isn’t valuable, but because it’s hard for a single person or company to capture that value.

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!

Belated Philanthropy

I’m trying to add more short posts to the blog, for fleeting thoughts that don’t warrant a manifesto. Short posts won’t be comprehensive, and they won’t bristle with defensive measures against potential criticism, but if you see something you don’t like, let me know. I like writing follow-up posts, and I’ll try to change my mind if you’re correct. (No promises.)


I live in a city where homelessness is common, though I wouldn’t say “pervasive”. In a given week, I’ll encounter two or three people who ask me for money.

If I gave a dollar each time someone asked, I’d be out $40 or $50 by semester’s end. I could afford this; I spend that much on myself in a week or two.

Still, I’m reluctant to give to street solicitors, for the usual reasons: I’m not sure where the money will go, I’m wary of being asked immediately for more money (as often happens), and I believe that there are better forms of charity, both to help the homeless of New Haven and to help humanity.

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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?