Posts 1-10 Summaries and Updates

Since restarting my blog 76 days ago, I’ve written 10 new blog posts, one per week except for Spring Break. At this point, I’d like to take a short moment to provide some updates on those posts.

I also realize that my writing style is definitely rather long-winded, and you might not feel you have time to read everything in full detail. So I’m also taking this opportunity to write down paragraph-long summaries of each of my posts. If the paragraph intrigues you, read the full thing!
1. Soylent, 60 meals in (2/16/15, 1847 words, 2 sections)

I’ve started trying Soylent, a meal replacement smoothie with all of the calories and nutrients you need. It mostly replaces cereal for my breakfasts and some lunches. The flavor is very mild, but it’s surprisingly filling. The texture was a problem for a time, but was fine with enough mixing. I’ve tried mixing in various flavors, with limited success. The end of the article has a long Q&A where I cite Stephen Colbert interviewing Soylent CEO Rob Rhinehart.

Update: The latest version of Soylent, 1.4, is a rather large change. They found a way to suspend the oils in the powder, thus doing away with the oil vials. The flavor is quite different (it tastes a little more like milk and peanut butter). Fortunately, I like it enough that I no longer bother to mix in syrups to improve the flavor.

2. Selma, Protest Tactics, and the False Hope of Moderation (2/23/15, 1105 words, 2 sections)

Unlike modern protests in Ferguson and Hong Kong, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s protests had a larger strategy in mind, a point well exhibited by the Oscar-nominated Selma. Also depicted in Selma is the tendency for leaders like King and Johnson to always see themselves as the center point on a scale, but this method of simply comparing oneself to others can lead us ultimately to the wrong point.

3. Mindless Replicators (3/2/15, 2250 words, 4 sections)

As a follow-up to the previous post, I tried to offer an explanation for why activism is dead. Much of it was taken from Scott Alexander’s The Toxoplasma of Rage, where Scott notices a pattern of the more controversial stories, like Michael Brown, making more splashes than the stories, like Eric Garner, most likely to motivate action.

I noticed a pattern with viral messages, like chain letters and pointed out a variant “Bible verse exchange” e-mail I received in 2012. Unfortunately, there are also problems with the solution Scott proposes, where we all donate 10% of our income to charity, because charities face the same pressures to propagate rather than deliver. The main solution I propose is a greater degree of centralization, funneling giving through organizations like churches and GiveWell.

4. Feeling intimidated by math (3/9/15, 526 words, 1 section)

Sitting in a seminar one day, I felt completely lost and helpless, unable to imagine how I could think on the same level as the professors in the seminar. But then I noticed that I was comparing myself to others again, and it wasn’t even a fair comparison. I kept going, and one of the problems they mentioned was closely related to a presentation I gave last semester. I perked up and joined in a group taking a closer look at those results.

Update: Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like this project is going anywhere, or at least anywhere that I’ll be able to contribute to. My interests have shifted to other areas, but the experience of working and talking with the professors was still helpful to learn to think like them.

5. Best of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality (3/16/15, 2223 words, 10 sections)

The popular fanfic finished up on Pi Day of this year, and like my blog posts, it’s really long. So I posted a synopsis of the story’s premise, and links to nine approximately spoiler-free excerpts spaced apart, with my own commentary about what I liked about each of them. Check them out, and if you have time, read the whole thing!

(A summary of a summary!)

6. The Thermodynamics of Religious Conversion (3/23/15, 2708 words, 7 sections)

What should it take for us to consider a different worldview? I draw an analogy between conversions and a chemical reaction. The concepts of an energy differential, activation barrier, temperature, kinetic versus thermodynamic control, and catalysis all apply to religious conversion as well. Is your worldview under kinetic control, where you don’t think about it much and/or stick with whatever you grew up with, or thermodynamic control, where you’ve considered everything?

I proceeded to argue that thermodynamic control is a better place to be from a couple perspectives. First, I argued that the benefits to the Christian faith are substantial. Then I quoted the 12 Virtues of Rationality to make the case from a rationalist perspective. As a call to action, I encouraged everyone to join the Addir Fellows program if you’re at MIT, consider what life would be like without your faith, and attend an Easter service at a nearby church. Finally, I addressed some potential concerns with the boldness of the post that you might have.

Update: Easter is over, but the invitation to check out my church is always open! Just send me an e-mail / Facebook message / text.

7. Insufficiently Updating Thomas and the True Nature of Faith (4/6/15, 2585 words, 6 sections)

One famous part of the Easter story recounts how Thomas, one of the disciples, refused to believe in the resurrection after the other disciples told him that they had all seen Jesus alive. He wasn’t rational in this doubt, however, privileging his own sensory experience to those of his friends.

In Mere Christianity, CS Lewis describes how faith in Christianity is not blind to evidence. Instead, it’s belief without sight, only with reassurance from other means that something is true. I ran quickly through the Old and New Testaments, going over all the examples of faith and showing how it was never blind faith that did it. This is one reason why movies like Prince of Egypt that emphasize the “power of belief” frustrate me — it’s really what that faith is in (God) that makes a difference.

We Christians believe in Jesus because the evidence for his resurrection is overwhelming. As another source of evidence, 

Updates: The television series AD: The Bible Continues also depicted Thomas’s disbelief as irrational, which was encouraging to see. You can watch the relevant episode, or read its summary, here. (The relevant scene is about 20 minutes in, but the first 20 minutes are also worth watching.)

8. Veritas Forum Lessons, Part 1: Stop Optimizing Everything (4/15/15, 3642 words, 8 sections)

On Monday the 13th, I coordinated my second Veritas Forum at MIT, which for the most part was a success. In this first post about the forum, I shared one of the major lessons I learned: the value in letting go of my perfectionism. This was the major contrast with last year, when I took over six roles and devoted my life to Veritas for a month.

It bugs me any time something isn’t optimized, like when I can’t get up from my desk and both pee and refill my water bottles in the same efficient trip. And when I do optimize something, I pat myself on the back, even if the gains are small.

In preparing for Veritas, I ended up despairing that so much was not going as I’d hoped. Then I realized, like I had with GCF large groups earlier this year, that I’d been operating under the constraint of “Don’t let this take over your life,” which meant I couldn’t optimize.

I finished with three takeaways: Prioritize which things to optimize. Recognize when returns on effort are increasing or diminishing. Celebrate a job well done, but move on and recognize that not all jobs need to be done well.

Update: As I wrote about, I’m slowly improving at releasing homework feedback quicker on Art of Problem Solving. In doing so, I’ve cut the total time I spend on it approximately in half.

9. How to Predict Recent Disney Plot Twists (4/24/15, 2058 words, 5 sections)

This summary is encoded in rot13 because of the massive spoilers throughout the post, mainly about the movies Big Hero 6FrozenWreck It Ralph, and Toy Story 3. Watch those if you haven’t already!

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10. Veritas Forum Lessons, Part 2: Dialogue is Hard (4/30/15, 2560 words, 5 sections)

In this post, I shared some more behind-the-scenes thoughts related to the Veritas Forum, focusing on the inherent difficulties in putting together a good dialogue between individuals of opposing perspectives. In particular, we struggled to find the best secular perspective to share, and while we were happy to have Professor Formaggio speak, we invited him without much information about what he might share.

Our situation was somewhat similar to a recent debate on whether MIT should divest of fossil fuels, organized by the group promoting the course of action, Fossil Free MIT. It also brought to mind one inherent difficulty in organizing the Student Veritas Forums that I started in 2013. There’s a chance we might be starting those back up again in the fall, and I’m curious what you think about it.

Bonus: Reposted Good Friday and Christian Music (4/19/14, 1003 words, 1 section)

Good Friday 2014 brought to mind the melancholy worship songs that I first heard through my current church, City on a Hill in Brookline. Unlike the mainstream “positive and encouraging” vibe, songs like Satisfied in You (Psalm 42) by the Sing Team connect with the other emotions we all feel, teaching us that we can come to God no matter our emotional state.

Update: At Good Friday 2015, one of the songs we sung was From the Depths of Woe, another of the melancholy songs I listed. Also, a few years ago, Michael Gungor made basically the same point that I made in this post.



This 10-post mark is also an excellent time to collect some feedback from you, my readers! What do you like about my writing? What do you dislike? What topics do you want me to cover in future posts? What time of day/week would you prefer that I post? Now that the blog is consistent, should I switch to another blog hosting site, e.g. WordPress?

To give you a taste of what I already have in mind, here are some of the posts I’m considering for the future. Keep in mind that the ideas for the majority of my posts so far have been conceived the week I posted them, so it could be a while before I get to all of these.

  • Veritas Forum Lessons, Part Three: Thoughts based on the content of the forum itself. (I’m currently waiting for the video to be posted before writing this one.)
  • Creationism: My perspective as a former passionate young earth creationist, and how I think about the ideas and movement now.
  • Remember the Milk: The best method for organizing many small tasks.
  • What I’ve learned from auditing my own time.
  • How my girlfriend Grace and I met and began dating.
  • Board Games: Why I consider this the golden age of board gaming.

I’m looking forward to hearing from you, either on my blog or Facebook!

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