How to get big (and strong) fast with StrongLifts (SL5x5)

August 14, 2012 Leave a comment

Be warned: this is a research post. That is, I haven’t done it yet. In fact, I’m just about to start this program. Then again, the experiences of hundreds of thousands of people ought to mean much more than my personal experience anyway. My friend recommended StrongLifts (and he himself became substantially stronger within a few months).

After reading and skimming (and skipping some of) the StrongLifts ebook, I was disappointed. Why? Because the essential what-to-do’s and principles can be stated simply. That’s my goal in this post. On the other hand, I am now very excited about weight-lifting. One important note: I also use some knowledge from Tim Ferriss/4HB and from r/fitness (a sub-Reddit). What I describe is the beginner’s program, or SL 5×5.

What to know first

  • It’s meant to be done for about 12 weeks (before tackling a more advanced program).
  • Something I tell myself: like most self-improvement plans, it does take time to see gains, even for the best of programs. You have to really want it to persist.
  • It is very simple. There are just five exercises total, three per workout, and two alternating workouts.
  • Those five exercises are squat (most important), deadlift (second most), barbell row, bench press, and overhead press.
  • You start out with extremely light lifts: The #1 mistake is starting too heavy.
  • …   but — and this is key — you will be able to add more weight, almost every single workout, for a very long time, quickly growing stronger than other gym-goers.
  • You will be tempted to add more, whether weight or number of exercises or frequency of workout, but you shouldn’t do that. Just trust the system for 12 weeks.
  • 5/5 means 5 sets of 5 reps each, which applies to all but the deadlift.
  • If lifting a weight feels wrong, don’t lift it.

To-do before starting

Check that your gym has both (a) Olympic barbells and (b) a power rack. Most gyms do.

Have a plan to keep up your physical energy, by (a) sleeping 7-8 hours a night, (b) drinking 48 oz + a day (you’ll be much friendlier to the idea once you start working out, trust me), and (c) eating a lot more (~3000 calories/day recommended, for men).

If you’re completely new, as I was until a couple of weeks ago, take a day to learn the exercises before starting the program. Read articles, watch videos, practice them. Speaking of which…

How to do all the exercises correctly

squat  —  bench press  —  overhead press  —  barbell row  —  deadlift

Okay, now you’re ready for….

The actual program

Workout A:

  1. Squat (5×5)
  2. Bench Press (5×5)
  3. Barbell Row (5×5)

Workout B:

  1. Squat (5×5)
  2. Overhead Press (5×5)
  3. Deadlift (1×5)

Do not work out on two successive days. Thus, three times a week is ideal–e.g., Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

Resting. Rest for 3 minutes between exercises, as per Ferriss’ (researched) suggestion. Since that seems too long to go between each set, I’m probably going to aim for half that, or about 90 seconds between sets on a given exercise.

Lifting. Ferriss recommends (as always, per experimentation) a consistent 5 seconds up, 5 seconds down cadence. Mehdi claims that you can lift up as fast as you like, just lift down in a more controlled manner. Everyone seems to agree it’s important to lift in a controlled manner, however.

Total time per workout. Thus, rest times for a whole Workout A would be about 24 minutes, so the full workout, including warm-up and cool-down (about 3 mins each) can be done in about 40 minutes. (Plus transportation, which is a 10 minute walk for me, making it an hour a day.)

Starting weights for each exercises (workout #1 weights)

  • squat, bench press, overhead press – 45
  • barbell rows – 65
  • deadlift – 95

Note that an Olympic barbell without weights is 45 lb. Ten pounds per side is needed on the barbell row to have it in an acceptable position (it starts on the floor), 25 lbs per side is needed on the deadlift for the same reason.

Adding weights

Add 5 lbs (2.5 per side) on each exercise every workout, except 10 per workout for deadlift. 

Since you won’t be able to do this every time, there are 3 rules to follow for when you aren’t doing perfectly well …

  1. Never decrease weight on an exercise within the same workout. If you’re struggling to get 5 reps on later sets (like set 4 or 5), just do as many full reps as you can. Record what you did do (e.g. 5/5/5/4/2).
  2. If you fail to get 5sets/5 reps or 5/5/5/5/5 once, do not add weight next workout.
  3. If you fail to get 5/5 three times in a row, decrease your lift weight for that exercise by 10% on the next workout and then proceed as usual. (Supposedly, this is the most powerful strategy for breaking through plateaus.)

Warming up (not much here)

He (Mehdi, the author) mentions warmups only for the squat and deadlift for some reason (or I just missed the others).

— For squat. 2×5 at 1/3 of your full lift weight –> then 1×3 at 2/3

— For deadlift. 1×5 at 1/2 of your full lift weight –> then 1×5 at 3/4

More important things to know

There are two very good reasons for starting out light:

  1. To keep up motivation (after all, you’ll be adding weight each time!) It is crucial to consistently ‘show up’ when forming a habit. Another way of putting that (in behavior-modification terms) is it’s crucial to have consistent positive reinforcement.
  2. To have plenty of practice getting the form of each exercise right, which is crucial for both building strength and avoiding injury in the long run.

Do not use a “Smith machine” for lifting. It is very important that you lift “naturally”, the reason being that you need to develop balance muscles at the same time you develop strength muscles. It can (apparently) be dangerous to lift a ton in the gym yet be unable to lift very much overhead and walk around with it (which requires balance) outside the gym.

Eat post-workout. Definitely within 1-2 hours. Preferably high-protein.

Focusing on lifting strong is the best path to getting big. It is a waste of time to try ‘targeting’ muscles, and you’ll get strong fast with just these few exercises. You will also soon be able to run three miles without effort, even without training for running.

Squats and deadlift are best because (a) they work several muscles, (b) allow the heaviest lifting, and (c) require the use of your balance muscles. Squats are the #1 most important exercise in SL 5×5 which is why they’re the only one done every single workout.

From r/fitness: if you’re struggling to gain weight, try GOMAD: drink a gallon of milk a day (milk – at least, if you drink a gallon! – has tons of protein and fat, which is also needed). GOMAD is used (done?) by many top coaches, and is recommended by Ferriss too. Start at 1/4 (a quart a day) and move slowly up. This is only if you’re serious about lifting and have been trying for awhile with little improvement.

Cheat sheet: the 4 lines I put on a 3″x5″ card

  1. M: SL 5×5  T: Run/yoga  W: SL 5×5  R: Run/yoga  F: SL 5×5  Sa: Run->HIIT  Su: read NYT
  2. MWF. A: Squat – Bench Press – Barbell Row    B: Squat – Overhead Press – Deadlift
  3. + 5 lbs vs. last time (10 for deadlift).   3 minute breaks.   Cut 10% if fail to reach 5/5 3x in a row.
  4. TRS. Warm up. Run very, very fast 60 mins – moderate 2-3 mins – do this 8 times. Cool down.

–>Notes: MWF = Monday, Wednesday, Friday. TRS = Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday. Su = Sunday, NYT = NY Times.

HIIT = high-intensity interval training. My understanding of it is that (for HIIT running), you run very, very fast for about 60 seconds, then at a more moderate pace for 2-3 minutes, and do this several times. I thought it would be easy. I WAS WRONG. IT IS NOT EASY! Running in this manner is supposed to bring several times the cardiovascular benefit of just running (at more or less the same pace) for the same amount of time.
I’m frankly not sure what to do Tuesday and Thursday. I think I’ll practice yoga, once I take my first 2-3 lessons (in the next 2 weeks or so). Maybe I’ll practice dance moves I learn in an academic fulfills-arts-requirement class I’m enrolled in. Maybe I’ll just run. We’ll see. The important thing is that I show up every day.

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Do You Have Real Beliefs?

August 13, 2012 Leave a comment

Beliefs are something we choose, though we don’t want to admit it. It’s inherent in the word itself: we say “beliefs”, not “facts”. We can pretend that we only say beliefs rather than facts to be polite, to show that we are aware that other people’s facts are not the same as ours; but what that really means is that we truly do not accept our beliefs as facts. This is a good thing in the sense that we must realize that beliefs are something we choose. This is a bad thing in the sense that beliefs are useless unless we truly, fully accept them consciously as facts, in the face of this uncertainty. That is, beliefs must be facts which can be revised.

That seems like a contradiction, doesn’t it? But it’s not, when we realize that we have underlying assumptions that we can know the world: the thing is, we can’t. We confuse perception and inference and ‘laws’ of nature for reality, and are so caught up in our (mostly right) mirages that we can’t even tell the difference between mirage and reality. Me, writing about it here, relatively self-aware, can’t do it either.

Most smart people conclude therefore that we can’t accept our beliefs as facts, but that is also wrong. Because there’s another underlying assumption here, more like arrogance really. It’s the arrogance that thinking just because we’re smart enough to realize the fallibility of our belief-facts, that somehow recognizing the distinction is all we need to do, somehow makes things all better. But really, seeing the difference is like becoming a teenager — you question some of your childhood beliefs, but it’s not adulthood. Adulthood is realizing that despite this uncertainty, to live out loud the life that as mortal creatures we must demand of ourselves, to be firmly ensconced in the vibe and flow of life rather than attempting, feebly, to watch from the sidelines, we must have real beliefs. And hardly anyone has real beliefs.

A real belief is a belief corresponding to action. If you believe a truck is about to hit you, you move out of the way; and in doing this, you are fully, truly, and really believing in the reality of the truck. You aren’t just saying you believe in the truck for some social benefit. Similarly, if you believe in God, if you fully, truly believe, you’ll devote your life to it. You will do what you can to find the one true religion, and you will devote all your life to converting others to your religion, or giving all that you can to the poor, or something else, something real.

Action comes with true beliefs; power comes with true beliefs. And almost nobody has real beliefs, and everybody ought to.

I end with thanks to Scott Adams (look up “God’s Debris”, a free ebook) for inspiration. Indeed, he mentions something similar in one of his chapters. It was also influenced by Ryan Holiday, whose blog I used to follow. (P.S. This post was written some time ago, but I don’t see why that matters.)

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Think Indiana Jones cool? He ain’t got nothin’ on this real-life badass.

August 12, 2012 2 comments

Today’s post has little to do with the themes of the blog (haha, as if I have themes yet). But this is about an awesome person (defn: inspiring awe)–a man a bit like Indiana Jones, except totally, 100% real. An explorer…

Roy McDiarmid, a senior herpetologist with the U.S.G.S. in Washington, said that when he first met Mr. Brewer-Carías 30 years ago,

“I wondered if such a person could actually exist.”

Let’s back up a sec, OK? I love Indiana Jones. I don’t care if he’s fictional. Raiders is the greatest adventure film ever made. I dare you to disagree. Interestingly, over the years, many people have been said to be the real-life inspiration for Indiana Jones. Funnily, none of them may actually have been. But there’s a twist. You won’t get this from reading the Wikipedia article, kids. I may be stretching the truth a little (or a lot) to connect this man with Indiana Jones–most importantly, he isn’t a professor, and doesn’t appear to have fought Nazis–but this dude is actually alive, and he is awesome. TL;DR Indiana Jones exists….   kind of.

His name is Charles, Charles Brewer-Carias. He’s seventy-three, Venezuelan, and looks like a holdout from the British Victorian era—partly his ancestry (he was born into an aristocratic family with his father a British diplomat), partly his old-fashioned views, and partly his wicked ‘stache. See for yourself:

He has ….

  • discovered hundreds of new species, with 16 plants, three reptiles, two insects and one scorpion named in his honor (as of 2006): “while several hundred new species of plants, insects, snails and frogs have been discovered and collected on my expeditions, only 28 new species or genera have actually been named after me”
  • discovered the world’s oldest organism (300,000+ years old)
  • discovered the world’s largest quartzite cave….  and the world’s oldest cave….    and the greatest sinkholes on Earth
  • led a scuba expedition in the waters of the Caribbean and found the place where 18 ships of Louis XVIs “Westerly fleet” disappeared  in 1678
  • has written dozens of books
  • has survived being shot from 2 feet away (which happened as he successfully fought off several armed criminals in his house)
  • practiced dentistry among the Yekuana tribe, whose language he speaks fluently (was a dentist before becoming a full-time explorer)
  • has undertaken over 250 expeditions (on some of which not everybody returned from alive)
  • on these expeditions, he has survived/endured a raft of tropical diseases, including deadly leishmaniasis…  and once survived by eating roasted termite larvae
  • has a home decorated with butterflies, tarantulas and huge bugs in glass cases
  • has a world record–informally, anyway–for starting a fire with sticks (2.7 seconds)
  • has done almost all of this in his geographical ‘backyard’ in Venezuela
  • claims to have discovered the city referred to i myth as El Dorado:

“The name refers to a man who lived by a lake near Manoa. I know the site very well.” he said. “I’ve been there, picked up ceramics. I will go back there with my son and two companions. We have made our plans. Together we will discover El Dorado.”

I obtained all of the (epic, mind-blowing) facts listed above from the following three articles:

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Psychology of the Holocaust

August 11, 2012 1 comment

Today I’m not writing an original post. Instead, I’d like to share an essay I wrote for a history course about a year and a half ago. World War II has long fascinated me (and my grandfather–who wrote a book on it), as has psychology (this was before I changed my major to psychology). It has been previously edited to be more blog-friendly (mainly, I added an introductory two paragraphs), and I am not inclined to edit it further, but you will enjoy it–P.S. see the first comment to this post.

We all know that the Holocaust was one of the most terrible things in the history of ever, right? Haven’t you ever wondered about it? I have, and my questions as I investigated it included wondering how human beings could participate in at all, or why we didn’t do more to stop it, either the Allied forces or local bystanders, if we knew (and I tried to verify if indeed we knew). I’ve wondered what it says about human nature, and if something like it could happen again.

It’s chilling to realize that it is explicable according to principles of social psychology permeating all of our lives. Let me point out that doesn’t mean everything: often an event has multiple causes, any one of which is necessary but not sufficient. Yet it was perpetrated by humans: let that sink in. The essay that follows, modified from a course paper, explores some of the psychology (and history) behind it all.

~ ~ ~

How did the Holocaust come about? The Nazis rose to power in 1933 as politics became polarized after the Crash of 1929. Many Germans were grated by the perceived unfairness of the Versailles Treaty, and blamed Jews for Germany’s troubles, epitomized with the infamous ‘stab-in-the-back’ conspiracy spread among disenchanted German soldiers. (This can partly be seen as the culmination of centuries of anti-Semitism.)

Yet the events leading up to the concentration camps and slave labor that took twelve million lives was gradual. That figure includes six million Jews (forty percent of all the Jews in the world). The first sign was the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 depriving Jews of full citizenship; over the next three years, rights were deprived further and many Jews fled.

Here are two surprising facts: in 1935 the Nazis established an agency to facilitate Jewish emigration, and there was a bizarre plan to deal with the ‘Jewish question’ was to seize French Madagascar and make it a permanent Jewish homeland. But surprisingly, only 150,000 of over half a million Jews in Germany emigrated. It seems that more Jews didn’t emigrate because of reasons such as lacking the means, a natural inertia or resistance to leaving the country one grows up in, and the belief that the extreme persecution would be temporary. This last belief was shown to be terribly wrong as millions were later gassed or burned as part of the ‘Final Solution’, another and earlier part of which was the einsatzgruppen. The what-now?

The einsatzgruppen, the term for the few thousand German men who went around killing hundreds of thousands in cold blood. And what in the hell is one supposed to make of them? Michael Bess in his book Choices Under Fire examined this and essentially concluded that they ‘got used to it, after a while’.

This is one of the keys to the psychology behind the Holocaust, and can be applied to those who acted courageously, in complete opposition to such men, in saving fleeing Jews; it can be applied to the civilians who let such atrocities happen, and to the Jewish population who must have known the danger they faced living in the German empire. I’m reminded of the story of the frog who perishes because he doesn’t perceive an emergency while sitting in his pot of heating water. In my opinion, the idea that people ‘get used to their’ predicament or behavior — their lives — is so obvious that it’s enormous power to facilitate change is neglected.

Bess reveals more of these ‘keys’ by sharing two famous (or infamous) experiments in psychology, the first conducted by Milgram (the shock experiment) and the second by Zimbardo (the prison experiment), two classical psychology experiments that everyone should know about.

The goal of Milgram’s experiment was to see how far people would be willing to go in blind obedience to authority. The subject would be instructed by ‘The Scientist’ to administer shocks (which became stronger over time) to ‘The Learner’ whenever said fellow subject (actually an actor, and confederate) made a mistake in some simple task.

Two thirds of all subjects went to the maximum amount of voltage, to the astonishment of Milgram. This figure became over 90 percent when fellow subjects (actually confederates) applied the maximum voltage, which shows in addition the power of peer pressure. Interestingly, subjects almost never went beyond a voltage much lower than the maximum when they were allowed to choose it, implying that we humans in general are more willing to transgress our own scruples if we’re merely instructed to do something, as our instructions, however abhorrent, become the new ‘norm’ for acceptability. I believe this is another key to the psychology behind the Holocaust, another one being the implication that peer pressure exacerbates this effect. (Since writing this, I’ve realized more of the pertinent facts and implications of Milgram’s experiment, as well as Zimbardo’s, through reading books such as Influence, but frankly I don’t want to add any more.)

The goal of Zimbardo’s experiment was to study “the extent to which ordinary individuals would prove capable of inhumane behavior if they were placed in an institutional setting that gave them complete power over other people”. Students (subjects) were arbitrarily divided into either prisoners or guards and placed in a mock prison.

While at first the students treated it as a game, they came to be caught up in their roles, and after less than six days, Zimbardo was forced to cut it far short as ‘prisoners’ had emotional breakdowns and ‘guards’ exacted all manner of sadistic abuses of power. A surprising preliminary to the experiment was that Zimbardo actually weeded out subjects who weren’t ‘normal’ or ‘well-adjusted’. This experiment suggests that when one group of people has power over another group that they see as inferior, subhuman, that our inhibitions regarding what is permissible to do to them melt away, and again, that seeing our peers engage in something abominable makes it seem less so, in some perverse way perhaps even good in demonstrating loyalty to our own group.

Now that I’ve examined several of the ‘keys’ to understanding the Holocaust, I’ll re-examine one of the reasons Jews didn’t emigrate in larger numbers: belief that persecution was temporary. But is this true? Certainly it seems most Jews docilely accepted their fate. But I don’t think that tells the whole story: Keegan, an important historian, asserts that the “whole continent knew” of the systematic massacre underlying Nazi authority, and also offers that “in a profound sense, the machinery of the Final Solution and the Nazi empire were one and the same” regarding the centrality (and thus undeniability) of what we would call the Holocaust to the new German Reich.

What does this mean? The answer reveals a shameful aspect of human nature. Essentially, it suggests that many Jews were paralyzed with fear, felt helpless, and figuratively buried their heads in the sand. This meshes well with the fact that under the right circumstances we are capable, as Milgram and Zimbardo demonstrated, of simply ignoring the reality that what we are doing is wrong.

This ability to compartmentalize, to try to live in two worlds at once, can be seen in the rationalization of a member of the einsatzgruppen who justified his killing of children as an act of ‘mercy’ (as they ‘couldn’t live’ with their mother dead). It is also shown in the short story of Tadeusz Borowski, from the perspective of an imprisoned laborer, based off of his own experiences. Borowski himself, born in 1922, was shipped between concentration camps as slave labor. In a story told from a similar perspective, a worker cleans the trains that Jews were packed into to be shipped to Auschwitz of dead infants, trampled in the tight quarters, which is juxtaposed to the character’s comments on the ‘normal’ aspects of his life. The literary effect is to arouse terror in the reader that such juxtaposition is possible, that it is possible to live in two worlds. But it’s just the point that it is possible to compartmentalize, to ignore, and this is another key that unlocks the mystery.

Now I’ll turn to the issue of whether we Americans knew of the Holocaust. The uneasy answer is that we definitely did. Although times are different, and ubiquitous instant communication (like social networking sites) did not exist then, the mainstream media started getting reports in 1941 which by 1942 painted an undeniable picture of annihilation. On the twenty-eight of October of 1941, the New York Times ran an article entitled ‘Nazis seek to rid Europe of all Jews’ in which the first paragraph read “Complete elimination of Jews from European life now appears to be fixed German policy”.

In other words, many people did know, and there were even protesters years before this article was published. Rabbi Wise, for one, president of the American Jewish Congress, started protesting against Nazism as early as 1933. Many years later in 1942, he sent a letter to a Justice of the Supreme Court, Frankfurter (a fellow Jew), asking for his help in getting the U.S. government to act in response to the cables Wise received indicating that one hundred thousand Warsaw Jews were killed and their bodies turned to soap. And what was the U.S. response? To hold a conference in Bermuda in April of 1943 with the British and other governments in order to “give enough of the appearance of action to quiet the pressures” in both nations. Disgusting. Furthermore, according to one critical historian, at this conference “both delegations strained to find reasons that the rescue proposals submitted to the conference were not workable. And they almost always managed to find such reasons.”

The consensus among the American and British governments seemed to be to repress information about the Holocaust in order to decrease fear, ultimately so that more would not be demanded. This is shown in a memorandum from a Mr. Reams, a member of the State Department, to a Mr. Hickerson and Mr. Atherton, sent on the tenth of December of 1942, concerning a planned statement by the British government on the Jewish extermination. It read “[T]he statement proposed by the British Government was extremely strong and definite”, lamenting that Jews around the world would see it as complete proof of what was going on and that “In addition the various Governments of the United Nations would expose themselves to increased pressure from all sides to do something more specific to aid these people.” In other words, politicians were also playing the game of burying their head in the sands.

Another letter illustrates this. This one is from an Adolf Berle, a US diplomat, to a Breckinridge Long, US assistant secretary of state. The last paragraph reads: “Care should be taken not to unduly excite hopes”, and these excerpts seem representative of the governments’ stance. Many historians of the Second World War have claimed that the Allies had to focus solely on the military defeat of the Axis to bring it all to an end, and so focused on military and industrial targets. This would seem to exonerate the behavior of bureaucrats such as Reams and Berle, but Lyons, another historian, doesn’t think so. The Allies could have done much more to disrupt the machinery of the Holocaust if they had really wanted to, for example by bombing railway lines leading to Auschwitz.

The initial hesitancy of the governments to even acknowledge the Holocaust, other than pretending that reality will not eventually catch up, may have been to preserve the image of the governments — meaning the functionaries of government — the bureaucracy. Ultimately, even if little could have been done to save the Jews directly, the fact remains that little was attempted.

As a reminder of the reality of the Holocaust, I will end with an excerpt by Elie Wiesel, from his book Night, pages 41-42 of the 1960 edition, on his experience (at just fourteen) in Auschwitz. The surreal horror is recounted thusly: “They were burning something. […] Babies! Yes, I saw it–saw it with my own eyes… those children in the flames… I pinched my face. Was I still alive? Was I awake? […] Soon I should wake with a start, my heart pounding, and find myself back in the bedroom of my childhood, among my books.”

This account reminds us why we sometimes compartmentalize, in order to cope psychologically with something we aren’t prepared to deal with. In the Holocaust, as in all human events, human psychology played a part, and the Holocaust illustrates everything that can go wrong with the human psyche. We’re more apt to listen to authority than we know and when told to do something are more likely to deem it acceptable, abdicating our moral conscience; when given power over people we lose our inhibitions regarding what is acceptable, surely exacerbated if we’re told they’re subhuman; are more likely to do something, anything, if those around us are doing it; seek to remain loyal to what we define as our own group; and over time, ‘get used to it’, whether it’s murdering innocents or saving those same innocents from getting murdered.

All of these psychological elements which enabled the Holocaust still exist today, and that is why the Holocaust is a lesson in history that cannot be forgotten–so that it cannot happen again, and we can build a world of people more likely to save innocents than to kill them.

What thoughts did this essay prompt in you? Share in the comments!

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Link: HPMOR (Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality)

August 10, 2012 Leave a comment

If you are a Harry Potter fan and a rationality fan, you’ll probably love Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, the most-read HP fanfic that exists. In this alternative universe, Harry Potter is kind of an ubermensch, super-intelligent and super-effective. For one thing, he deduces several very important plot points early in the book that he’s not supposed to find out until much later in the original HP series. But that’s okay, because he moves on to bigger and better things, like figuring out the origin of magic, or leading a battle army of fellow wizards in a mad-genius Prof Quirrell’s class a la Ender’s Game.

But he’s lovable, too. You probably won’t even notice the LessWrongian lessons in rationality interwoven throughout. Here is the link to the book — it has its own website: HPMOR

For your enjoyment, I present below several teasers from the first twelve chapters 😉


Harry didn’t really see why Hermione had been so tense about it. In what weird alternative universe would that girl not be Sorted into Ravenclaw?


“It’s not that I hate this Ron guy,” Harry said, “I just, just…” Harry searched for words.

“Don’t see any reason for him to exist?” offered Draco.

“Pretty much.”


Petunia: “And when I had just graduated, I was going out with this boy, Vernon Dursley, he was fat and he was the only boy who would talk to me in college. And he said he wanted children, and that his first son would be named Dudley. And I thought to myself, what kind of parent names their child Dudley Dursley? It was like I saw my whole future life stretching out in front of me, and I couldn’t stand it.”


Harry: “That’s what the experimental method is for, so that we don’t have to resolve things just by arguing.”


Harry: “People think that I saved them from You-Know-Who because I’m some kind of great warrior of the Light.”

… “like I destroyed the Dark Lord because I have some kind of permanent, enduring destroy-the-Dark-Lord trait. I was fifteen months old at the time!”

… “People don’t care about me, they aren’t even paying attention to me,they want to shake hands with a bad explanation.”


It was hopeless. He was corrupt to the core. Hail the Dark Lord Harry.


McGonagall: “Unless–this is just a guess, mind–you’re trying to take over the world?”

Harry: “No! I mean yes–well, no!

McGonagall: “I think I should perhaps be alarmed that you have trouble answering that question.”


Harry: “You know, if I were anyone else, anyone else at all, I’d probably be pretty worried about living up to that start. Gosh, Harry, what have you done since you defeated the Dark Lord? Your own bookstore? That’s great! Say, did you know I named my child after you?


Harry: “I’m joking, Professor McGonagall,” Harry said with some annoyance. Jeebers, why did she always take everything so seriously–

A slow sinking sensation began to dawn in the pit of Harry’s stomach.

McGonagall looked at Harry with a  calm expression. A very, very calm expression. Then a smile was put on. “Of course you are, Mr. Potter.”

Aw crap.

If Harry had needed to rationalize the wordless inference that had just flashed into his mind, it would have come out something like “If I estimate the probability of McGongall doing what I just saw as the result of carefully controlling herself, versus the probability distribution for all the things she would do naturally if I made a bad joke, then this behavior is significant evidence for her hiding something.”

But what Harry actually thought was, Aw crap.


Harry grinned sheepishly. “Professor McGonagall says that I’m the most Ravenclaw person she’s ever seen or heard tell of in legend, so much so that Rowena herself would tell me to get out more, whatever that means, and that I’ll undoubtedly end up in Ravenclaw House if the Sorting Hat isn’t screaming in horror too loudly for the rest of us to make out any words, end quote.”

“Wow,” Draco said, sounding slightly impressed.


Harry: “You turned into a cat! A SMALL cat! You violated Conservation of Energy! That’s not just an arbitrary rule, it’s implied by the form of the quantum Hamiltonian! Rejecting it destroys unitarity and then you get FTL signaling! And cats are COMPLICATED! A human mind can’t just visualize a whole cat’s anatomy  and, and all the cat biochemistry, and what about the neurology? How can you go on thinking using a cat-sized brain?”

McGonagall’s lips were twitching harder now. “Magic.”


The boy looked at her [Hermione] in surprise, as though he’d been expecting some other answer. “Well, I was speaking a bit rhetorically,” he said. “In the sense of the Baconian project, you know, not political power.”

‘The effecting of all things possible’ and so on. I want to conduct experimental studies of spells, figure out the underlying laws, bring magic into the domain of science, merge the wizarding and Muggle worlds, raise the entire planet’s standard of living, move humanity centuries ahead, discover the secret of immortality, colonize the Solar System, explore the galaxy, and most importantly, figure out what the heck is really going on here because all of this is blatantly impossible.”


Dumbledore: “So, Minerva, how did you find Harry?”

McGonagall opened her mouth. Then she closed her mouth. Then she opened her mouth again. No words came out.

“I see,” Dumbledore said gravely. “Thank you for your report, Minerva. You may go.”

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August 9, 2012 Leave a comment

The other day I stumbled across and fell in love.

I am so excited to enroll in (and complete) their courses. From Model Thinking to Social Network Analysis (or Networked Life); from Human-Computer Interaction to learning to program in Python (1, 2). Refreshers in statistics and calculus. In October or later, courses on Design, Intro to Philosophy, Computational Neuroscience and Astrobiology. There’s even a course in E-Learning and Digital Cultures.

Online education has exploded in the last several years (Coursera is hardly alone). You may have heard of one of the first such projects, MIT’s OpenCourseWare, which has course materials from hundreds of MIT courses; or AcademicEarth, with lectures and short courses from diverse top universities; or Stanford’s AI class, for which over 150,000 people from all around the world signed up, with thousands completing it. Coursera seems to have, in my opinion, advantages over MIT’s OCW–unsurprising since it’s had time to learn from such pioneering projects–but even MIT’s OCW offers vast possibilities of self-education. Blogger Scott H Young is currently finishing his “MIT Challenge”. His goal? “Over the next 12 months, I’m going to learn the entire 4-year MIT curriculum for computer science, without taking any classes.” (Doubtless you have an objection or two to this claim, so click this link to get a clearer idea of what he’s trying to do.)

Let’s step back for a second. What Coursera does is gather good teachers at prestigious universities, professors excited about the idea of teaching thousands. Then enable them to connect with the unwashed multitudes such yourself and I, who are excited about that idea, too. There are video lectures, exams, certificates of completion and more for every course, which typically last between about 5 weeks and 10 weeks. The number of hours per week expected (in order to succeed) varies by course (just like it does in ‘real-life’ courses). It’s true that these courses are shorter, but (a) that’s good thing, and (b) that doesn’t necessarily mean they lack comparable comprehension to traditional courses. The reason why is because…

traditional education is highly inoptimal

I’m not well-versed enough to give an intelligent diatribe on why this is the case. But I know that models of learning implicitly or explicitly included in, say, the wildly popular Khan Academy, are superior to those traditionally used in education. And it should be no surprise, given how old the lecture tradition is.

The Khan Academy has several advantages, such as:

  1. What needs learning comes in bite-size chunks. The first reason this is helpful is attention span: attention drifts if you study in longer than 20-minute (or so) chunks. But also…
  2. You can learn as much or as little as you want at a time (mental energy varies, don’t you find?).
  3. You can target exactly what you need to understand (because only concept or a small cluster of concepts is covered at once). This is helpful because it’s conducive to mastery learning, as is #4…
  4. There is clear and immediate feedback. Khan Academy, and other savvy newer projects (like Coursera) incorporate frequent quizzes. This follows mastery learning principles.

These advantages apply, more or less, to Coursera as well, and often to other similar endeavors.

the credentialing problem

Fundamentally, education does two big things: (a) the actual education (knowledge and skills) and (b) the certification; the signaling. Completing a college degree does show that you’re more intelligent than the average person, and perhaps more determined to succeed or better at completing long-term goals than the average person (this need only apply on the average), so employers may assume a positive correlation between a college credential and greater ability. This does matter, but it goes beyond the scope of this post.

A few tenacious advocates have addressed this issue, though, and I recommend reading this article by best-selling author Josh Kaufman and this one by best-selling author Michael Ellsberg because your sophistication will grow in regard to understanding the issue.

parting thoughts …

The only reason classrooms do not usually follow mastery-learning programs is because it’s too difficult for one teacher to do so for a whole classroom. In general, the lecture model accommodates certain limitations, limitations that are no longer inevitable, and in doing so becomes highly inoptimal for learning.

But we have already improved upon, and is in the process of doing so again, the fundamental paradigm used in education.

  • Earlier times: a one-to-one tutoring model of learning, in which a very few receive a very good education.
  • Modern times: to a one-to-many lecture model, in which a great many receive a good education.
  • Now: a one-to-many model using technology to mimic the one-to-one model at much smaller cost and with additional advantages as well.

Just as Dr. Asimov predicted would happen, in e.g. his essay in Bill Moyers’ A World of Ideas….  It’s fun to witness and live through significant markers in history, isn’t it?

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What about unborn children?

August 8, 2012 13 comments

Are we morally obligated to produce as many children as possible?

Overcrowding is often thought to be a big problem in modern society, making life more hectic, increasing misery, etc. What most people fail to acknowledge is that if a city/country/whatever is overcrowded, there are more people alive. Keep in mind that we are cognitively biased when we think about aggregates, finding it very hard to think about aggregates as compared to averages, so don’t trust your intuition here, and try to think about it quantitatively to counter the bias *1 {see footnote}.

If a life is always worthwhile (Good>Bad) …

Surely the preciousness of a life is more valuable than the drain of resources from one extra person. (If you feel inclined to say no, substitute yourself or someone you care about here.) Even without other reasons why this might be, this seems to me to follow from the fact that when we take a “resource” and convert it into something used by or done by humans, that’s a good thing. (E.g., eating food to compose music, plant more food, etc.)

You might be thinking “No, that’s not true–Eventually there’d be so many people it wouldn’t be worth it.” Where exactly is the cutoff, then?—Isn’t it always better to be alive than not, given a few assumptions? The assumptions would vary from person to person but probably include, at the minimum, not starving.

As long as you believe that a person can largely pull themself up and create the life they want, that people aren’t doomed to be inferior or unhappier if they don’t want to, doesn’t that especially increase our obligation and remove an excuse to only “breed” more for people likelier, by genes and/or environment, to be successful and happy? (i.e., weakening a eugenic argument).

Total good and the mere addition paradox

You might be thinking that total good, or happiness (or whatever) is what matters, and I’d agree with you. Now think about two scenarios: (a) 100 billion people alive, with average quality of life = 1 on a scale of 1-10 versus (b) 1 billion people alive, with average quality of life = 5, or 5x more than in the first scenario.

Pursuing this line of thought gets you into the “mere addition paradox“, the “repugnant conclusion” of (total) utilitarianism that vastly more lives, even miserable (but still worthwhile) ones, is better than vastly fewer at a much a higher quality of life. (Average-utilitarianism “solves” that problem, but in my opinion, that’s not how utilitarianism is supposed to work, i.e. you’re doing it wrong.) I, however, am inclined to think it’s not a paradox at all, agreeing with Tannsjo, as his argument is represented in the Wikipedia article anyway.

Perhaps to think well about it we would need some order-of-magnitude estimation for just how miserable the average life, with overcrowding would be. Remember, if humans have the capacity to support themselves, through ingenuity and breakthrough, without limit, there may not be an issue at all.

Beyond Racism: Existism

My grandma says if she hadn’t gone through to term with her daughter Hannah, now 33, who has Down’s syndrome, she would never have known Hannah, and never have grown. But what about the unborn children she never had?

Like “racist” or “sexist”, we can call it “exist-ist”, bias towards those alive, rather than those that could have been. If that seems odd, even wrong–as it does even to me–make a substitution. Say ‘bias towards those alive, rather than those that could be in the future‘.

Most of us do care a little about the future of humanity, after all. And once you start thinking about the persons that could be in the future, oh boy, that leads you on to thinking about existential risk, and astronomical waste, and…  and…   well, you’ll have to peruse the writings of philosopher Nick Bostrom ( to know what I’m talking about (and soon enough you’ll know more about these things than I do).

Another Application: Relationships

Does this [same kind of thinking] mean we’re morally obligated to pursue each suitor? Each potential life-mate (or, of course, best friend, in the same vein of thought). We always look back and say ‘it was for the best’; or, ‘he was the one’. Well, was he really? Or was it just a confluence of random factors, like that you’re both mature enough, or mature enough for the other person in particular, or successful enough, or just at that time you were particularly receptive to a partner, or ..  or ..

Such questions can lead into a void, an abyss, a darkness, from which you can’t pull yourself without effort. Is it useless to think of such things? It seems to me a matter of great importance. Perhaps our minds are just too feeble to deal with it, though.


*1 Kahneman demonstrates this in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, which distills decades of research. He is one of the most distinguished psychologists alive, a researcher who pretty much established “cognitive biases” as an object of study. By the way–this inability to reason properly with aggregates leads to scope insensitivity, which has real (and huge) negative consequences for philanthropy.

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