Personal Goodreads Ranking Method

This is how I rank books I’ve read.

[link to my goodreads account]

Goodreads uses a scoring system where you can give a book a number of stars out of 5. The usefulness of a scale like that is in using its full range, for instance if I were to rank all books 3, 4, or 5, the scale has really become a 3 point scale and has lost some resolution.

So I’ve been scoring books based off these semantics:

1 star: “Did not like it”. Really not a fan. Wouldn’t recommend, and would probably actively recommend against reading it. Some books have this score, which is surprising because it likely means that I finished reading it (and probably shouldn’t have). Either not worth the time I spent reading it, or made me upset for having wasted my own time.

2 stars: “It was okay”. Reasonable. Not life changing. Not going to recommend it. Pretty much totally neutral. Most recently I read a book about ‘tips for sleeping better’ which I gave a 2. It’s pulp, probably pretty good pulp, but pulp nonetheless.

3 stars: “Liked it”. Worth the read, probably wouldn’t recommend it readily. Most books get this score. High quality average book.

(4 and 5 I’d both call “favorite” or “top books”)

4 stars: “Really liked it”. Really good, I would recommend this to a friend looking for a read. This book will stick with me and become good intellectual fodder to chew over, or a story which I still think about. Probably if you know me you’ve heard me spout some knowledge or something from this book.

5 stars: “It was amazing”. 10/10, everyone should read this book. I’ve never read a book twice but I should really probably read this book twice. Or thrice. This score means the book has drastically changed my worldview, broadened my imagination irreversibly, and/or given me whole new language for thinking and talking about certain ideas.

The Gulag Archipelago

I started reading The Gulag Archipelago on recommendation from U of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson. In his lectures he repeatedly references Gulag as a reminder of the cruelty capable by humans, a cruelty which lurks around the corner of our contemporary society and supposed civilized manner.

Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years.

Gulag is about the soviet prison camps from the 1920s to the late 1950s. While the institution of the Gulag was technically shut down in 1960, Gulags in softer forms persisted all the way until the camp Perm-36 was closed in 1987.

This is recent history.

Arrests

Alexandr Solzhenitsyn discusses at length the random arrests which occurred before our author himself was arrested.

Arrests occurred systematically, in the middle of the night, and to no public outrcy. Arrests occurred for no specific reason— most were legally admitted under Article 58 of the Russian Penal Cod, which blanket-banned all “counter-revolutionary activities”. Arrests were most commonly handled by the arrestee with a meager “Who, me? What for?”. And then off to the holding camps.

Solzhenitzyn makes it clear that there’s no clear point at which the injustice occurring around ones-self becomes unbearable. There’s no signaling whistle to rally the people to take up arms, or to fight ‘for real’.

After reading, it is altogether too easy to imagine the same happening in the US (entirely irregardless of whether we’re under the rule of the rabid Right or the rabid Left).

Wrecking

The stalinist-communist regime specifically targeted the intelligentia, especially the engineering class in the society— being in control of the train systems, water and sewage systems, and so on. The engineers were constantly under suspicion of “wrecking”, that is, engineers destroying state property (and of course, state property is your property, you would do well to inform on any wreckers!). Engineers were put under surveillance to make sure they were not wasting resources in their construction and maintenance (the grand irony of course is in those 5 idle individuals monitoring the one productive person).

Prisoners

Solzhenitzyn discusses in great detail the life of the prisoner, the process of being moved between camps. The conditions of disease, starvation, rape, and so on to which the prisoners were subjected (as their sentences grew for reasons or non-reasons beyond rational comprehension).

Since then I have come to understand the truth of all the religions of the world: They struggle with the evil inside a human being (inside every human being). It is impossible to expel evil from the world in its entirety, but it is possible to constrict it within each person.

Thieves

He discusses the thieves in these camps— arguably the only members of the prison system who had done much to deserve their fate. The thieves were the upper class of the prisonfolk (below the guards of course, but close). According to Soviet Socialist logic, thieves were created as products of the corrupt society in which they were born, they are the true victims of our cursed non-communist society! If we had communism, the thieves would not have had to steal to provide for their poor selves. And they got away with whatever within the camps, to very little discrimination. Counter-communist thought was the true enemy.

Children

Children growing up in the Gulags of course grew into adaptation to their world, growing into horrible unsalvageable wretches who would steal in gangs from the frail and elderly, beat people for fun and so on. Solzhenitzyn relays one account of an older man who, when seeing an unsuspecting child, would sneak up and push the kid face down into the mud, pressing with his knee on their back until hearing their ribcage crack. Doctors would never be able to figure out what was wrong, and the child would die within a few months.

The Nuremberg Trials have to be regarded as one of the special achievements of the twentieth century: they killed the very idea of evil, though they killed very few of the people who had been infected with it… And if by the twenty-first century humanity has not yet blown itself up and has not suffocated itself—perhaps it is this direction that will triumph? Yes, and if it does not triumph—then all humanity’s history will have turned out to be an empty exercise in marking time, without the tiniest mite of meaning! Whither and to what end will we otherwise be moving? To beat the enemy over the head with a club—even cavemen knew that.

I am not the storyteller to do justice to much of what Solzhenitzyn has written.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in exactly what a totalitarian regime can transform into, especially regimes with fantasies of creating a better life for those who feel they do not have one.

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.

To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good, or else that it’s a well-considered act in conformity with natural law. Fortunately, it is in the nature of the human being to seek a justification for his actions… Ideology—that is what gives evildoing its long-sought justification and gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination… Thanks to ideology, the twentieth century was fated to experience evildoing on a scale calculated in the millions.”

Foucault’s Pendulum, an excerpt

(by Umberto Eco)

“This is Diotallevi,” Belbo said, introducing us.

“Oh, you’re here to look at that Templar thing. Poor man. Listen, Jacopo, I thought of a good one: Urban Planning for Gypsies.”

“Great,” Belbo said admiringly. “I have one, too: Aztec Equitation.”

“Excellent. But would that go with Potio-section or the Adyn-ata?”

“We’ll have to see,” Belbo said. He rummaged in his drawer and took out some sheets of paper. “Potio-section…” He looked at me, saw my bewilderment. “Potio-section, as everybody knows, of course, is the art of slicing soup. No, no,” he said to Diotallevi. “It’s not a department, it’s a subject, like Mechanical Avunculogratulation or Pylocatabasis. They all fall under the heading of Tetrapyloctomy.”

“What’s tetra…?” I asked.

“The art of splitting a hair four ways. This is the department of useless techniques. Mechanical Avunculogratulation, for example, is how to build machines for greeting uncles. We’re not sure, though, if Pylocatabasis belongs, since it’s the art of being saved by a hair. Somehow that doesn’t seem completely useless.”

“All right, gentlemen,” I said, “I give up. What are you two talking about?”

“Well, Diotallevi and I are planning a reform in higher education. A School of Comparative Irrelevance, where useless or impossible courses are given. The school’s aim is to turn out scholars capable of endlessly increasing the number of unnecessary subjects.

“And how many departments are there?”

“Four so far, but that may be enough for the whole syllabus. The Tetrapyloctomy department has a preparatory function; its purpose is to inculcate a sense of irrelevance. Another important department is Adynata, or Impossibilia. Like Urban Planning for Gypsies. The essence of the discipline is the comprehension of the underlying reasons for a thing’s absurdity. We have courses in Morse syntax, the history of antarctic agriculture, the history of Easter Island painting, contemporary Sumerian literature, Montessori grading, Assyrio-Babylonian philately, the technology of the wheel in pre-Columbian empires, and the phonetics of the silent film.”

“How about crowd psychology in the Sahara?”

“Wonderful,” Belbo said.

Diotallevi nodded. “You should join us. The kid’s got talent, eh, Jacopo?”

“Yes, I saw that right away. Last night he constructed some moronic arguments with great skill. But let’s continue. What did we put in the Oxymoronics department? I can’t find my notes.”

Diotallevi took a slip of paper from his pocket and regarded me with friendly condescension. “In Oxymoronics, as the name implies, what matters is selfcontradiction. That’s why I think it’s the place for Urban Planning for Gypsies.”

“No,” Belbo said. “Only if it were Nomadic Urban Planning. The Adynata concern empirical impossibilities; Oxymoronics deal with contradictions in terms.”

“Maybe. But what courses did we put under Oxymoronics? Oh, yes, here we are: Tradition in Revolution, Democratic Oligarchy, Parmenidean Dynamics, Heraclitean Statics, Spartan Sybaritics, Tautological Dialectics, Boolean Eristic.”

I couldn’t resist throwing in “How about a Grammar of Solecisms?”

“Excellent!” they both said, making a note.

“One problem,” I said.

“What?”

“If the public gets wind of this, people will show up with manuscripts.”


This passage stuck with me for both its fantastic vocabulary and its critique of the absurdity of higher education (especially the more ‘niche’ sub-subjects). 

Decided to repost it for posterity, with links out to many of the words new to me.

Full text here, this book was an incredible read and I highly recommend it to anyone.

The Socialist Utopia At The Tip of the Iceberg

I recently started working at a Large Software Company in Seattle. It’s my first job out of university, and I’ve been working on being mindful of the experience.

Increasingly it seems to me that Large Software Company is, internally, a socialist utopia. People work as much as they’re going to work, and are compensated quite handsomely… enough, I’d say, for most resources to not be scarce. Within reason.

“From each according to their ability, to each according to their needs.”

To me, this nominally constrained post-scarcity is what socialist and marxist thought envisioned about 100 years ago. By nominally constrained, I mean it’s not a perfect utopia. There’s no fountain of chocolate, and everyone can’t be an artist/singer/poet. It’s a socialist utopia not in the sense of some idealistic asymptotically impossible heaven on earth, but in a real-life, this-is-actually-happening sort of way. No to downplay the situation, a real utopia is more utopic than one imagined.

Here are some key points to consider, in no order:

  • Individual contributors at Software Company have job security. That is, they rarely get fired unless they’re seriously underperforming—i.e. not working according to their ability.
  • We each make enough to not need to worry* about short term finances. From the point above, we have job security, and our minds and wallets are free to wander from
  • There’s horizontal mobility within the company: individuals are free to devote their working hours to whichever pursuits fit their fancy. Again, this is in a nominally constrained sort of way… Most pursuits available to fit ones fancy involve building software, albeit across a wide range of markets and audiences. You can’t really be anything you want to within the company, but you could for instance be any type of software engineer.

* I want to emphasize financial worrying in particular. There’s some amount of research which indicates stress associated with finances can seriously reduce life expectancy, resilience to disease, and all those other Bad Things which come with constant fretting about how you’re going to put food on the table.

…But what about everyone else?

We, the employees of Large Software Company, as well as the employees of most all other large software companies, get to participate in our socialist utopia-of sorts… but what about everyone else? Most of the residents of a place don’t work for Large Company… or may even work for Other Company. With exceptions, everyone not working for a company (any sort, including non-software), is either seeking employment at a company or attempting to start their own. And even most startups seek to be “aqhired” by other, larger companies.


The web of each company’s workers permeates through a fractured society of other such webs. Tribes, each pulling together the resources for themselves to survive. Some, seeking to be gobbled up by other, larger webs. Company A employees ride the same bus and use the same grocery store as those working with Company B, but will likely never share words or thoughts with each other, even sitting 8 inches apart every morning. We each do not mix with others, we merely share the same space. And they do not mix with us.

America is a cultural wasteland. Very little unites us besides coincidence, the same borders and physical space are not the stuff of true unity. We think different thoughts, we interact with our own, and on occasion build bridges to incorporate new people and their groups in turn.

Our 21st century social climate is populated by roving strandbeests we call corporations, built out of congealed sweat, blood, and hardened legalese. Mounted by the people who’ve climbed on or in, those who now fuel its Product Development furnaces and Business Marketing Decisions. Protected by our modern knights clad in the armor of Law. The machines slowly crawl over the vast swaths of employment-seeking human ants, reaching down towards the chaotic ground to selecting new members of itself, those once separate are sublimated eagerly into the whole.

In exchange for pieces of our individual self, we are given a taste of utopia.

Two Months, One Backpack: A Lightweight Packing Guide

This week I leave for a 2 month backpacking trip around Europe, with a group of friends from college and childhood. I wanted to be as lightweight as possible with what I brought on this journey — traveling is always more fun when you’re not tied down by tons of stuff. Over the last several months I’ve scoured the internet for the blogs regarding the best gear and packing choices for traveling with just one backpack for indefinite amounts of time. This post is a compilation of what I’ve learned and applied for this upcoming trip.

I partly intend this post to be a guidepost for others looking to bring less with them on their journeys. Keep in mind that traveling light is a process, I’ve been traveling my whole life, and have worked down to a bag this size. I’m also sure I could get by on less than this. Borrow from me whatever seems relevant, and ignore whatever seems excessive!

The Bag

The backpack to hold it all is a [Tom Bihn Smart Alec], with both modular packs (pictured above). The pack is 26 Liters, plus 2L and 3L from the smaller and larger add-on bags, respectively. I can’t test this claim on my own — it’d involve a lot of foam beads like what they put in bean bags — but I do trust Tom Bihn’s marketing claim. Here’s a great intro post to the general awesomeness of this bag.

Clothes

Quick Primer on Fabrics

As many (many) lightweight-oriented travel blogs will suggest, fabric choice matters a lot. The advantages of fancier fabric are myriad, they tend to be warmer in cool weather and cooler in warm, quicker drying,

Polyester is a form of extruded plastic, and therefore consists of smooth, thin, interwoven fibers. The thinness these fibers means that polyester dries very quickly and is a generally lightweight material. Gym clothes are almost exclusively polyester for this reason, as sweat is quickly wicked away and evaporated. However the smoothness of polyester fibers makes it a perfect breeding ground for bacteria–causing clothing made of polyester to quickly begin to smell (also as anyone who has gym clothes knows).

  • tl;dr: quick drying, lightweight, smells really bad really quickly.

Cotton fibers are significantly thicker than polyester, and have a rough organic outer layer (cotton is plant based). The thickness of these fibers means cotton holds more water for longer, and can take much longer to dry (think: wet jeans) than polyester. The thickness also means that cotton is quite warm and cozy. In theory this roughness of the fibers means that cotton can last longer without smelling terrible, but in my experience this is somewhat offset by the water-holding properties: bacteria like moist environments, and cotton has got that going.

  • tl;dr: Takes up more space, slower drying, potentially smells less terrible less quickly.

Wool, specifically Merino Wool. The best of both worlds, merino wool has thin fibers as well as a rough organic surface. This means merino wool is quick drying, and stays smell-free for much longer, giving us the advantages of both cotton and polyester. Merino wool also de-wrinkles itself, packs tightly, stays warm when it’s cold, and stays cool when it’s hot out. Merino wool is perfect for socks and underwear, t-shirts, as well as button-downs thanks to its anti-wrinkle properties. Downsides? Merino wool is generally very expensive.

  • tl;dr: Ideal. Expensive.

Packing lightweight means doing your own laundry, frequently. Quick drying clothing is crucial to lightweight packing, so that you’re not stuck waiting for things to dry rather than moving towards the next part of your adventure.

Without further ado, the list of clothes:

  • 2 collared button downs, both from Wool & Prince. I like their style and they make merino wool shirts. These are quite expensive, but worth it for all the wool goodness. In my experience, the most immediately useful aspect in the button-down case is that the shirts don’t wrinkle. Any minor crinkles they pick up in the pack quickly ease out of them within the first hour of wearing. This matters less with t-shirts, but is invaluable in the case of semi-formal button downs.
  • 4 t-shirts. Two of these are $6 Uniqlo cotton/polyester blend, and 2 are merino wool (one Outlier and one Wool & Prince).
  • 1 pair of khaki shorts, which I’m sad to say are totally un-optimized. What I’d like to get is a pair of the Outlier New Way Longs, or perhaps a pair of theOlivers.
  • 1 pair of black Outlier Slim Dungarees. These are easily the best pants I’ve ever owned. These are a synthetic blend rather than being wool.
  • One rain-jacket, a Marmot Mica. I was inspired to buy thanks to this Snarky Nomad post. The jacket crumples down into its own pocket, and is ridiculously light weight. I’m actually hoping it rains just so I can wear this jacket more.
  • 3 pairs of socks, all merino wool from various places including these, these, and these.
  • 3 pairs of Icebreaker Anatomica boxer briefs (purchased on amazon). These are merino wool and do much better with being washed in the sink (read: don’t start to smell) compared to the polyester ones recommended here. However, the $13 ones are equally comfortable and much cheaper.
  • Shoes: 1 pair generic sneakers (not pictured anywhere, by my own oversight), and 1 pair of Berkenstock sandals. I’d like to pick up a pair of hippie magnet vegan lightweight sandals from Earth Runners, as they look super comfy and packable, but I haven’t got them yet. Soon. Shoes go into a regular plastic grocery bag for packing.

All the shirt-type stuff fits in to an REI expandable medium-sized packing cube.

Socks and underwear all fit into an Eagle Creek quarter size packing cube, which I also picked up from REI.

Electronics

  • 13″ Retina Macbook Pro, with a protective shell. Covered in stickers.
  • Kindle Paperwhite.
  • iPhone 6, which double as the only camera I’m carrying. The second I’m convinced there’s an android phone with a superior camera, I’m switching back to android.
  • Klipsch Image S4i earbud headphones. I prefer earbuds to over-ear, mostly, and these have a built-in microphone which is most-convenient for hands-free phone calls, as well as video calls.
  • Power plug adapter. Kinda cool because of how small this thing is.

Toiletries

  • One 4oz GoToob squeezy bottle filled with the best soap. The eccentric Dr. Bronner really knows how to make soap, as well as how to make awesomely philosophical product labels. I use this soap for body, hair (although only on rare occasion), and shaving. I [prefer the almond-scented variety.
  • One 2oz tube filled with hippie toothpaste. Technically toothpaste can also come in travel sizes, but it’s more cost effective in bulk.
  • Convenient travel toothbrush.
  • Hippie deodorant, also rom Tom’s of Maine. I actually think the Mountain Spring flavor smells better than any of the non-hippie deodorants, but the ingredients list is an influencing factor too.
  • Generic disposable razor or two. (As mentioned above, I use the Dr. Bronner’s soap as shaving soap.)
  • Nail clippers, misc pills & some first aid stuff.

Miscellanea

  • REI Medium size microfiber towel. I was skeptical of these at first, but they actually do a surprisingly good job drying me off after a shower. The medium size is a measly 1′ x 2′, and packs up nice and tiny. Snarky Nomad ranks this 2nd most important for lightweight travel (after a decent backpack), and I agree. Don’t forget.
  • Sleeping bag liner, which my mom had lying around. This may come in handy for sketchy hostel beds, or even just as a blanket, and it’s small enough to fit in my pack easily. I’m interested to see if I actually use this.
  • Rubber circle sink stopper thing, which makes washing things in any sink a very convenient affair.
  • Notebook, with a couple of writing implements.
  • Steel water bottle
  • Passport
  • Sunglasses + case (not in this picture, but you can see the brown case in the overview pic)
  • And finally a couple grocery bags / ziplock bags (they come in handy)

Conclusions:

I’d be quite remiss if I didn’t credit the blogs I’ve drawn significant inspiration from in putting together this pack. Here’s where I link out to them:

Hopefully this was helpful to anyone trying to pack light. Safe travels 🙂

The Center For Applied Rationality

This weekend I attended a workshop in Boston organized by the nonprofit Center For Applied Rationality. The workshops are focused on developing better understanding and control of our own decisions and behavior. Heavily leaning on cognitive science research, the CFAR teachers and community have developed a curriculum which seeks to teach and train useful skills, such as “how to make more accurate predictions, avoid self-deception, and use arithmetic in ways that better motivate you to action”.

It’s kind of like if you took the line of thinking introduced in Thinking Fast And Slow, combined it with a couple dozen hand-tested techniques and applications, enough to fill a semester-long college course… and then distilled it all into a weekend retreat.

Confession: I was highly skeptical of the usefulness of this retreat, coming into it. I suspected I knew a fair amount of the techniques to be offered through my own explorations in cognitive science and human rationality 1 — especially since I had read the LessWrong Sequences over the past year, and had made progress integrating the understanding into my life. Even with financial aid, the price point was high enough to make me seriously consider and reconsider my decision to go. Even after I committed, I strongly considered making up an excuse and avoiding the event.

Having done the retreat, I am now highly confident that it was worth the time and money.

The retreat was a four-day experience, with food and housing fully provided (hosted by the most gracious individuals working at the Friendly Crossways Retreat Centerin Littleton, Massachusetts). Most days had packed schedules of various types of lessons and group/pair activities, interspersed with short minute breaks and longer mealtimes.

Image credits to Anna Riedl and Jordan Tirrell

Each retreat is different as the curriculum changes. The overarching structure of this weeked was as follows:

  • Day 1: We learned what I’m calling “rationality primitives”: small pieces of tools and observations which are part of a general toolkit. We set up the System 1 vs System 2 model of cognition, where S1 is the lower, reptile mind-brain, and S2 is the higher level human brain. In a fully functional human being, we want both of these systems working in concert with each other to great success. This is nothing new to anyone who’s read Thinking Fast and Slow or the LW Sequences.One example of what I mean by “rationality primitives” is the idea of a Trigger Action Plan, or TAP. From the linked post, (which summarizes it well and bias-bustingly has no association with CFAR), “[Trigger action planning] sets triggers that later create spontaneous sub-conscious prompts to action.” In jargon, this is taking advantage of locational and situational sub-conscious ‘primes’, in order to prompt desired activity. In practice, this means selecting a desired action: “I’d like to remember to write in my journal nightly”, and linking it to a “trigger”, such as “when I put my plate in the dishwasher after dinner”. Mentally rehearsing “put plate in dishwasher, then go write in journal” sets up a sort of real-life if/then statement which programmers are familiar with. This S1 training tactic is simple enough, and interestingly something I had been doing in my own life without knowing the words/jargon for: I’d paired “do pushups” with “put towel on hook in bedroom after shower” as a way to remember to get those pushups in.

    In general, the primitives from the first day were not altogether too new or foreign, although it’s always fun to learn a couple new names for ideas I’d already been playing with. I soldiered on, knowing the cognitive danger ofthinking I knew everything already.

  • Day 2: We took what we learned the previous day, including the primitives, and combined them into higher order tactics. My cognitive-trap internal battle evaporated as we took the little independent pieces I had some familiarity with and built them into larger-scope cognitive tools and structures within which to build habits and get things done. We had lots of focused time on finding and working out fixes for “bugs” in our lives, and were strongly encouraged to take steps to execute those solutions immediately, rather than even waiting to get back to day-to-day life.The lessons of day 2 arced toward better understanding of urges and motivation, ways to break down large tasks and goals into smaller ones, mentally linking and remembering our goals in a visceral way in order to keep ourselves motivated, and more. One of the common trends I enjoyed was a more graph-y way of breaking down and analyzing ideas or goals (graph in the CS or Neuro sense, with nodes connected by directional arrows or inhibition lines).

    A particularly interesting tool we learned on day 2 was dubbed “Focused Grit”. The technique is when you have a problem to solve, to set a timer andactually spend 5 minutes on the clock solving the problem. It turns out we don’t sit down and genuinely think about solving problems, we tend to allow ourselves to bounce off them and procrastinate. It’s often easy to come up with 1 idea and then be done thinking about the problem. Actually spending 5 minutes is a different thing entirely — especially if you convince yourself (your System 1) that you have to solve the problem in those five minutes, there’s no going back to it afterward, and whatever solution you come up with is the final one.

  • Day 3: The structure for this day was largely taking turns teaching each other various aspects of the techniques learned over the previous days. This served (wonderfully) to cement the understanding and coalesce the initially-seemingly-separate techniques and ideas into a coherent model of understanding. The tone of the retreat was/is such that the techniques being taught are all attempts toward condensing personal experience and cognitive science into an art & science of rationality. The instructors were all very clear that this is an open problem: we do not have all the answers yet, and we should all be working on forming better models and teaching strategies. I must have received the question “What is wrong with this retreat, what would you change?” over 5 times during the weekend, all from the organizers and volunteers. By the 50-hour point in the weekend, it felt like everyone attending had been good friends for ages. Everyone I talked to was interesting and thoughtful, and we had plenty of group silliness during and after the scheduled course-time.

  • Day 4: More life debugging, with a focus on working on problems with partners (Pair Debugging) and groups. We focused on really using and applying the techniques learned over the past days. I had some incredibly personal conversations with a few of the people I paired with and had group time with, conversations I’ll remember for a long time (and longer, thanks to memory tactics and good note-taking habits espoused by this very workshop). We took time to ask ourselves (on the clock, 5 minutes!) a barrage of big, personal, questions: If your life’s narrative was a novel, are you doing what the protagonist would do? If not, why not? What are the things that are truly important, that you want (need) to be optimizing for? And so on. After dinner there were about an hour’s worth of “lightning talks”: quick, 5-minute talks given on various rationality-related subjects, by the participants of the retreat. I gave one titled “Language Hacking”, which focused on the importance of the words we use in daily life (The map is not the territory!), and drew heavily from the work of OG rational linguist Alfred Korzybski. The whole 90-hour weekend was endcapped by tons of socializing, an alumni party in the evening, and shenanigans late into the night.

The community alone is worth it: I had an insightful conversation with every single person I talked to, both during the planned interactions and while socializing.

CFAR is teaching and refining a curriculum based on insights from cognitive psychology and behavioral economics, designed to equip attendees with the tools they need to maximize their productivity and refine their decisionmaking abilities. It’s a great use of a weekend, if you can stomach the cost. Only time (and my own agency) will tell if the retreat has implicated lasting effects in my behavior, though this following week has been wonderfully productive, so I’m hopeful.

1 For those interested in reading materials on the subject, here’s a curated shortlist:
Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, aka HPMOR. This is the place to start.
Rationality: AI to Zombies, formerly the LessWrong Sequences. Read these next.
Judgement Under Uncertainty: Heurstics and Biases A classic of cog-sci.
Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies. Reading this one currently.
Global Catastrophic Risks. Both educational and terrifying.
MIRI Research Guide. Book list recommended by MIRI

3… 2… 1… Victory!

It doesn’t matter what you majored in*

I’ve encountered a few people recently who have been trying to personally pivot. These people are largely in my age group, and mostly seem to have spent the last several years in an academic setting studying various non-computer-related subjects. And they all seem to be trying to get into computers.

My sampling bias is sky high on this one, especially given that I’m currently attending Hacker School, which more or less says “Come here if you’re interested in learning more about computers” on the tin. But Hacker School aside, I think the trend is something wider-reaching. People want to get into tech. Programming. CS. Hacking. Software Engineering/Architecting/Gardening. Really whichever aspect of computers you could feel like referring to, there seem to be a lot of people kicking themselves for not having been in tech already.

It’s through the maybe sound-bite tech-pop mantra that “software is eating the world”, or an interest in exactly what lies beneath this ocean of complexity in the technology we use today, or even a taking-notice of the sheer profitability of the tech space at-large.

I can relate to this predicament. I started my undergrad intending on studying mechanical engineering. I wrote my first lines of real code (save MSLogo and some basic HTML) during my second semester freshman year mandatory CS course, mandatory for engineering undergrads. I met a group of great people in college, all of whom seemed to be CS majors (or close enough to it) and I began to learn huge swaths of information just through my fantastically nerdy friend group. After some time I switched my major to neuroscience, all while continuing to learn about computers. And finally I switched again, to computer science, and stuck with it long enough to graduate. For me it was in large part through my interest in the brain, in building software that interacts with humans more optimally, and constructing software which ‘thinks’ the way we do. It was also a general disenchantment with academia, and the slowly dawning realization that having programming and computer skill can mean skipping grad school, wielding a powerful, arcane, and conveneintly marketable craft, and importantly (for someone who loves travel) being able to work from anywhere in the world.

Whatever’s gotten us here, I’d really like to say: It doesn’t matter what you majored in. As long as you, and your personal, mental operating-system is installed and ready to go, you’re in the perfect place to learn more about tech.

The whole history of subject-specialization has been one where people from seemingly unrelated backgrounds pivot into new fields, and quickly rack up major contributions because they see things in a different way from the homogeneity pervading the field before their arrival.

Tech is possibly the best example of this, for a couple reasons. The first is an idea I encountered while reading the always-wise ramblings of James Hague over atprog21.dadgum.com. In short, programming knowledge has more potential growing in the fertile substrate of a mind trained in a non-pure-CS field. Hague goes so far as to say that CS shouldn’t be offered as a major in undergrad, and people should only be allowed to minor in it, with a real subject as their major.

The other main key feature with pivoting into tech is the availablility of resources. Learning about computers is one of the best things that can be done with a computer. With other fields, biology for instance, the experts don’t spend all day sitting in front of the internet, so there’s inherently less of their accumulated knowledge available online in the form of blogs, tutorials, and git repositories.

All I really mean to say, at the risk of sounding patronizing, is: don’t beat yourself up for being in your 20s, or 30s, or 40s, or whatever, and feeling sad about not having started learning about computers or programming. There’s definitely a boatload of information to learn and grok. But there’s also plenty of time and resources available and waiting for you. You’ve figured out that you want to start learning about tech, so you’re already on that path. Assuming you’ve done something you’ve found interesting with your past several years on this planet, you will have insight both new and powerful to contribute.

On that note, I’ll wrap this up. I’ve been trying to pivot myself from computers into synthetic biology, and I have an experiment to attend to… maybe I should’ve majored in biochem.

(* It also doesn’t matter if you didn’t go to or didn’t finish university.)