Semester review

January 2014

Well, it’s been a heck of a semester! Following Peter Hurford’s excellent example, I’ve decided to start writing up reviews of how my life has been going every so often, for a couple reasons:

So without further ado, here’s what I’ve been doing for the past semester:

Contents

Jumping through academic hoops

To channel the spirit of Robin Hanson, “college is not about learning things; college is about costly signalling.”

Of course, if you can minimize the amount of time you spend on costly signalling, you can get a good amount of learning done, too. And in this department I’m doing quite well: my semester grades are all on target, but more importantly, I was able to overcome my perfectionism. For instance:

(Note: I’m not actually that cynical about college! In addition to being a massive signal-fest, it does provide a lot of actual value.)

Learning things

The reason that I split this off from succeeding academically (rather than filing them both under “taking classes”) is that I feel I’m doing significantly worse at learning things. For the first two years of Harvard, I could feel myself becoming more technically proficient at math and computer science: I got noticeably better at solving problems, figuring out algorithms, getting mathematical intuition, etc. This process seems to have slowed–perhaps I’m hitting diminishing returns?

On the other hand, I haven’t been able to make progress in finding good humanities or social sciences classes, either. I came to Harvard having already taken a fairly strong humanities curriculum, while my first experience with college humanities courses was through the General Education program–hence the classes I took were for the most part superficial and full of students who didn’t really want to be there, and generally disappointing.

On reflection, I think it was wrong to extrapolate from Gen Eds that I wouldn’t be able to get very much out of any humanities class. But I now only have three semesters left, which means I don’t really have time to flail around looking for good courses.1 I’m not sure of a good solution to this: in particular, it seems like what courses are “good” varies widely from person to person, based on previous experience, how their brain works, etc. So it takes a fair amount of work to verify people’s recommendations. I plan to try harder at this in future semesters, but I’m not confident of success.

On the social science side, I think I have a better handle on things; I know of at least two courses that I’ll very likely get things out of (advanced microeconomics and econometrics). However, I’m still on the lookout for other courses that might teach me noticeable amounts.

I’m in the process of talking to Jonah and Vipul of Cognito Mentoring about course choice. Another idea that came to me while talking to them is that, if it’s really the case that humanities and social science just aren’t universities’ comparative advantage currently–lectures just don’t give very much value added compared to reading blogs, books, etc.–then maybe I should be focusing on things where college classes definitely are a value-add, namely, procedural knowledge. (For example, procedural subjects I think are plausibly high-value for me include public speaking, improv theater, drawing, hardware, and creative writing.) I don’t have strong thoughts yet what would be more valuable–I have some more thinking to do here.

Writing

I decided to step up my writing activity this semester, even going so far as to set up a Beeminder goal for blogging twice a week (as is probably obvious by now, I stopped during finals–I had 30 pages of other material to write!). My goals were to spread effective altruist ideas, get better at coming up with new non-trivial interesting ideas, and improve my writing.

At meme-spreading I was quite successful. I wrote an op-ed on effective altruism in the Harvard Crimson that got mentioned by the philosophy professor of one of my friends at a different university. Additionally, I suspect (though I don’t have hard evidence) that posting my EA-related entries on Facebook was a significant factor in getting some of my friends interested in effective altruism.

At coming up with new, non-trivial, interesting ideas, I did less well. I managed two out of three fairly often, but I wouldn’t count any of my posts this semester as all three. I came closest with A Critique of Effective Altruism, but I’d still categorize most of that post as derivative–only the synthesis was novel, and perhaps the coining of the phrase “pretending to actually try”, which has seen some discussion. (Of course, it was useful on other metrics, as I’ll go into below.)

At improving my writing, I mostly failed. Granted, this was the least important of my three goals, but I still thought that writing more would at least somewhat help. However, it seems I’d have to write a lot more for that to work. If I wanted to double down on this goal next semester, I would focus on more editing, reading, and being adventurous with format and subject matter. However, I don’t think that’s worth the time investment; my writing does the job already.

I also got a few unforseen benefits by writing a lot. It’s a great source of status and social reinforcement. A Critique of Effective Altruism started some good conversation about effective altruism (on Less Wrong and elsewhere). And it allows me to non-hypocritically encourage my friends to write more, and I enjoy reading my friends’ writing.

Going forward, I’d like to write about non-effective-altruism subjects more frequently; I would prefer to have a more diverse readership, and would rather not become a “single-issue person” (to the extent that I’m not already). Also, my experiment with “mini-posts” (writing more and shorter posts for the week) seemed tentatively like a good idea, but I never followed up; I’d like to experiment more with that and other formats.

Overall, I worry that I’m biased in my assessment of the usefulness of writing–it’s public and has fast feedback, so it provides disproportionately much social reinforcement. For instance, in hindsight, the critique of effective altruism was clearly influenced by which criticisms I anticipated would resonate with others (i.e. would get the most social reinforcement), in addition to (instead of?) which criticisms were the most damning. I’m still looking for a good solution to this; candidates include stopping posting to Facebook, or posting at a reduced frequency, or keeping my writing to myself altogether; I’m not sure which I favor yet.

Co-running Harvard Effective Altruism

A major plan for me and my co-president John was to take Harvard Effective Altruism (formerly Harvard High-Impact Philanthropy) from a few people hanging out to a Real Student Organization. We ran the first iteration of our new Philanthropy Fellowship program, in which we got a bunch of people to apply to attend a series of awesome speakers and do a fundraiser at the end of the semester. The fundraiser is now in progress, and succeeded admirably in getting new members interested (enrollment is up something like 500%) and raising our profile on campus.

I was less successful in preparing for next semester’s iteration of the fellowship. I’m going to have to scramble a bit to get our speakers lined up over winter break, though I don’t think that’ll be a large issue.

My main mission for the future is to prepare the group for our first real leadership turnover. To that end, I’m going to try to step down as co-president ASAP so we can start the succession. Secondarily, I want us to do more than just the Philanthropy Fellowship next semester: we now have enough engaged members that we can start doing side projects as well.

Making friends (and influencing people?)

I’m pretty content with my social group, so previously I didn’t put much thought into expanding it. However, I recently decided to make this a prioriy because I realized that getting to know lots of awesome people is actually one of the things that’s hardest in the outside world relative to college. I made a lot of progress on that this semester, but mostly through my roommate’s doing, not my own.

My attempts to maintain/build existing relationships were also more successful than in previous semesters, largely because I got over my ridiculous aversion to asking people if they wanted to hang out without having an excuse. However, as the semester progressed, because I was getting busier (and because it is absolutely impossible to get ahold of Harvard students), I got worse at proactively spending time with people I wouldn’t otherwise see.

These both strike me as high-return areas to work on. I suspect I won’t be able to find very many other communities as varied and interesting as Andrew’s weekly dinners, but doing so would be quite valuable if I could. On the other hand, I see pretty clear low-hanging fruit for improving the ways that I maintain my existing friendships, which I hope to pick over the coming semester.

Self-improving

This semester was also my first chance to put some CFAR material into practice. As I predicted, the benefits were pretty large. Of particular interest:

I’ll probably write more about these at some point. Of course, some of my attempts didn’t go so well: in CFAR jargon, I’d particularly like to work more on the offline habit training and againstness units this coming semester. (For those who haven’t been to a CFAR workshop, I’m leaving this jargon here as a handle to myself–I’ll explain what these are once I can explain how they’re useful to me, to avoid making things too silly.)

Being in a long-distance relationship

Over the summer I started dating Ruthie, who promptly moved to the Bay Area. I had a lot of trepidation about whether I’d be able to carry on a long-distance relationship while still spending enough time on schoolwork, HEA, writing, etc. But, it turns out, by providing a massive incentive for me to be intentional about how I structure my time, it’s actually made me more on top of things. Some of my most productive work this semester has happend en route to SFO (after all, there’s no email or Internet to distract me…)

Maintaining Harvard Class

Unlike most of my semester plans, maintaining Harvard Class was pretty much a pure failure. At the beginning of the semester, Billy and I had almost finished an awesome rewrite; three months later, we’re essentially no further. The only work I did on it was the bare minimum required to keep the data up-to-date (and barely even that). In the mean time, the other course catalog seems to have leapfrogged us and is gaining back users (despite their blindingly obvious inferiority). At this point, I’m not feeling very motivated to continue to work. I think I now have higher-return projects, and if I’m going to be coding, I’d rather it not be yet more web-dev. That said, I might pick it up over winter or summer break, to get some closure and because it would make a good portfolio piece.

Deciding what to do with my life

Like any self-respecting college student, I’m also in the process of searching my soul to figure out my life’s calling. After writing up my previous plans, I started doing a career advice case study with Paul Christiano of 80,000 Hours, but it’s now on hold until I see how my winternship at GiveWell goes. I also started devising plans for the summer and for next year, although they’re still in the very early stages. Overall I don’t think this plan needs any adjustments.

Relaxing

Although I did (surprisingly) get to relax this semester, I realized recently that I’ve gotten a lot worse at it. Most of the things I tried to do (playing various video games, browsing the Internet, watching a movie) ended up not being particularly enjoyable. I hypothesize that I’m confusing my “wanting” and “liking” neural circuitry, and if I’m more mindful during relaxation activities of whether I actually enjoy them, I’ll have a better sense of how to relax effectively. In the mean time, I now know that “wanting to do X to relax” isn’t particularly indicative of X being relaxing, so I should try more different things and pay attention to how they work.


  1. Where by “good” I mean “likely to give me lasting value beyond that of having extra domain knowledge in the subject, and which I couldn’t get by just reading blogs or books”. 

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Paulo

About your review, well, I’m curious exactly how you keep track of all these things?

Something I started last October and has been helping a lot is daily journal. Richard Branson does it and I could clearly notice how his autobiography is awesome because of it (part of why I’m doing it, yes)). I know, it sounds obvious, but I approach things like Seneca did: writing something, some thought, that has been on my head over the day.

It is usually related to some problem I’m going through, so it’s interesting to follow them closely. By the end of each week, I do a quick recap; this way, I can follow better stuff on my life and iterate faster.

Anyway, keep the writing up. I like your clear thinking.

Cheers

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Ted

In the mean time, I now know that “wanting to do X to relax” isn’t particularly indicative of X being relaxing, so I should try more different things and pay attention to how they work.

How did you figure this out? (do you measure how relaxing an activity is for you by introspection, or some other means?)

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Nat

Go Ben! In my experience (and I think most people’s), turning OK writing into good writing is much easier than turning a blank page (or empty file) into writing of any kind. So I think that the most helpful thing I ever did in terms of writing was doing a lot of write-ups of encounters with patients. It gave me the ability to sit down and just start writing. Once you can do that, it’s fairly quick to revise. In other words, the bottleneck in my writing was not that I needed more writing skills, it was perfectionism. Having to do a lot of writing that few people, if any, would ever read had unexpected benefits for me. So another exemplar of “Perfect is the enemy of good,” but also a suggestion that wide readership and improving your writing may be subtly at odds. Happy 2014 to you and your followers!

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Aleks

“Another idea that came to me while talking to them is that, if it’s really the case that humanities and social science just aren’t universities’ comparative advantage currently—lectures just don’t give very much value added compared to reading blogs, books, etc.—then maybe I should be focusing on things where college classes definitely are a value-add, namely, procedural knowledge. “

I disagree with this, although I’m very biased, since I study social science. (This also may vary a lot from individual to individual, and you may have different ways of learning that I do. Or it may vary depending on your professors, the quality of their lectures, the topics offered, and your interest in the topics.)

Intelligent and interesting professors in sociology, anthropology,politics, etc. have significantly shaped and refined my ability to understand social issues and to think about them critically and holistically. (I’ve particularly been interested in what they’ve taught me about the history of concepts like ‘race’, intersections of race & class, power and inequality, causes of poverty, mechanisms of social change, wicked problems and possible solutions, theory about institutions and ways of structuring a society, agriculture and food systems, cultural differences in how people think about bodies and health, how current social norms such as gender roles might influence supposedly ‘objective’ things like biology, and the influence of city planning and transportation on everything from crime rates to environmental sustainability…)

The assumption that books and blogs could replace that more readily for social science than, for example, hard sciences is not only inaccurate in many instances but also reflects a lot of the damaging biases against social sciences that I frequently encounter in and outside of academia. You may be able to learn a lot on your own (in any discipline in fact), but professors may have plenty of insights and familiarity with difficult concepts that could be very useful. Even if I could have learned a lot by reading blogs and books, I may not have known where to look for the information that they gave me. Many of them have devoted their lives to studying these concepts - and they’ll often know which concepts and materials to steer me towards.

Granted, for you specifically lectures in social sciences may or may not add significant value - but I wouldn’t want someone else to read this and assume that learning about social science from lectures wouldn’t add significant value to their ways of thinking about social processes. (I do also happen to think that it may add significant value to you, since learning about things like structural reasons for poverty may be of interested to effective altruists.)

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Ben

@Aleks:

  1. Sorry about the comment snafu!

  2. Thanks for the disagreement! Updating in the direction that there are useful social science courses. Since you’ve taken a lot and know me fairly well, do you know of any subjects/classes/professors that you think I’d especially get a lot from?

  3. Do you remember some examples of specific things you got from a professor that you wouldn’t have from self-study? That might help me figure out what kinds of things I should be looking for.

Thanks!

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Aleks

@Ben

1:

It’s tricky to recommend courses for you, since I don’t know any of the professors at Harvard. That said, I’ve looked through the courses and found some that looked interesting to me and might be of value to you. (I’d recommend asking around and finding out if the professors are good lecturers.)

Some courses:

Environmental Science and Public Policy 11. Sustainable Development - Catalog Number: 79625

Environmental Science and Public Policy 44. Environmental Health Perspectives -

Catalog Number: 51505

Environmental Science and Public Policy 90j. Environmental Crises, Climate Change, and Population Flight - Catalog Number: 9841

Sociology 24. Introduction to Social Inequality - Catalog Number: 9417

Economics 2085. Economics of Inequality and Poverty - Catalog Number: 16767

2: It’s also difficult to think of specific things, since much of what I’ve learned is how to think systemically about society - Here’s an attempt:

This past semester one of my professors introduced the idea that while malaria medicine may be helpful in many regions, it won’t go as far without greater stability in political institutions. In his lectures, he focused on how to increase stability and on the effectiveness of various methods. (He believed in entrepreneurship + the power of economics in increasing stability - I have mixed feelings about this.) So to sum up his hypothesis: Entrepreneurship may increase stability in poverty stricken areas and in this way do more good than many other attempts to help people through donations and other temporary solutions.

Another professor stressed the idea that many ‘natural disasters’ are preventable - He believes in looking at the likelihood of events, severity, and responsiveness to the event to evaluate a situation - and believes that people shouldn’t live in areas that are very prone to severe storms. (For example, if people live in 100 year flood plains, then every 100 years, there may be casualties.)

Another professor assigned some fascinating readings about the concept of ‘race’. This is a socially constructed category for classifying people that only goes back to the 18th century - specifically to rationalize oppression of others. In the last few years, I’ve become increasingly aware of ways in which I think about groups/categories of people and alternative ways of doing so. The way that people think about race varies greatly culture to culture (and gender as well.) (I also find it amusing that associating pink with girls and blue with boys only goes back to the 1940s - Tidbits like that make for fun discussions with people who are very into gender norms.)

I hope these tidbits were of interest to you. Best of luck in choosing your courses!

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Ben

@Aleks:

Thanks so much for the suggestions! Those courses look cool–I’ll check them out when the semester starts!

Those tidbits do indeed sound interesting! They also sound like the exact type of thing people write books on, at least to me, though I haven’t read very many social-science books. I’m interested that you explicitly cited the third professor assigning readings as something that you wouldn’t have gotten by reading things yourself. How much of the value you get from these classes comes from having a professor curate the readings for you? And do you think that kind of curation can’t be found except by taking those classes?

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Nat

Good professors are the key to courses that have more value than the reading. Reviews and talking to people (mostly to other students) are really the only way to track that down. When you talk to someone, as opposed to just reading a review, you can get some sense of whether the reasons they like the professor are reasons that will apply to you or not.

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Aleks

@Ben

Those are good questions.

  1. I do find that professors will often assign interesting readings that I wouldn’t have found otherwise - Certain professors pushed me to read about topics like green urbanism, environmental entrepreneurship, etc. You could probably find course descriptions and readings lists instead of taking a course, though.

  2. Even if I could have found those on my own, I may not have had the time and/or motivation to do it. I find that I have a limited amount of time for reading outside of courses. Doing those readings within a course may give you the block of time that you need to do the readings and think about them thoroughly.

  3. A good professor can add to your understanding of a text. They can introduce new ideas and insights that weren’t already in the text. Or they may push you to closely analyze or criticize what you read. Then again, you don’t necessarily have to take a class for that. You could just cold email some professors and chat with them about topics.

Summary: If you can learn plenty about social science without lectures, then you should do that! If you find that a class may help you set aside time for certain readings and give you access to professors who can add to readings, then you might want to take some lectures. Let me know how things go. I’m curious to see what you’ll learn/read this coming semester.

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