Farewell! Be thy Destinies Onward and Bright!

Fair Harvard! we join in thy Jubilee throng,
And with blessings surrender thee o’er
By these Festival-rites, from the Age that is past,
To the Age that is waiting before.
O Relic and Type of our ancestors’ worth,
That hast long kept their memory warm,
First flow’r of their wilderness! Star of their night!
Calm rising thro’ change and thro’ storm.

A.

To my parents. You have been behind me from the beginning.

To my brother Ross. You have been my inspiration these past 23 years.

To my late grandmother and late grandfather. Because of you, all this was possible. I only wish you were here today to see it.

To my grandmother. You showered me with love.

To Scott. I hope one day to be as good a teacher as you. By then, I hope you’ll have moved the goalposts.

To David. You tirelessly shared your wisdom and passion, first as my teacher, then my research advisor, then my boss.

To Hongyao. You helped me take my first steps as an academic researcher.

To MJ. You are the single best thing to happen to me during my time here.

To Charlie. I want to grow up to be like you.

To Lucy. You were there when I needed you the most.

To Maya. You set the standards for academic excellence, athletic achievement, and loyal friendship.

To Jesse. You were a great listener, always helping me discover what I actually thought and wanted.

To Will. You respectfully and convincingly challenged my ideological assumptions time after time.

To Mike. You showed me how to “own it” and be comfortable with myself.

To Sofia. Your sense of humor, never tough on others, has kept me laughing even in the toughest of times.

To Caroline. You may be the smartypants of the blocking group, but never forget you’re only #2 in the roastability rankings.

To Trey. You were just what I wanted from a first year roommate—fun-loving, spontaneous, intellectually inclined, and my friend for all four years.  

To Nicole. You never let our ideological differences get in the way of our strong friendship.

To Katherine. You were always a breath of fresh air.

To Tesla. You pushed me out of my comfort zone to where I needed to go.

To Emma, Ethan, Ernie, Henry, Jude, and Daniel. Living with you made coming home at the end of the day something to look forward to.

To Allison, Callie, Kathryn, Maria, McKinley, and Vinny. From the first day in Mower A to our final days in the Quad, you made college fun.

To my fellow HFT Seniors: Erwin, George, Marta, Nat, and Philippe. You pushed me to be a better fencer, teammate, leader, and friend.

To Eric Peterson, Howard Georgi, Jim Waldo, Joe Blitzstein, Joshua Greene, Hiro Tanaka, Yiling Chen, Allison Simmons, Jelani Nelson, Harry Lewis, Kathleen Coleman, and Shengwu Li. Your classes were amazing.

To all those who have touched my college life in other ways: Allie, Alon, Anna, Bea, Daria Schneider, Eli, Geoffrey, Gina, Jed Dupree, Kevin, Liana, Matt, Matteo Zennaro, Meena, Nari, Natalia, Ravi, Stephen, Suproteem, Veronica, and Yasemin.

To Kaitlin Howrigan and all the other admissions officers who gave me the opportunity to be here.

To those who helped me before I ever set foot on Harvard’s campus: Adrian Trenea, Andrew Vincent, Don Shea, Mark Ralkowski, Michael Marx, and Misha Chkenkeli.

To Vincent James. You believed in me like no teacher had before, encouraging me to strive for excellence in everything I do.

Thank you.

B.

These past four years have been quite a ride. Here’s a quick rundown of what I’ve been up to:

·  I graduated from Harvard with an A.B. magna cum laude with Highest Honors in Computer Science. In addition to my CS concentration (major, in Harvard speak), I have discovered a love of mathematics and economics, and I have also studied topics including metaphysics, loss, and the evolution of morality.

·  I’ve met some amazing people who have been the best of friends. Some I met in my first year dorm, some on the fencing team, some in my classes, and some in more serendipitous circumstances. They inspire me, laugh with me, and are always there for me. I wish we could keep the band together, but alas, my friends are scattering across the globe in pursuit of their dreams. I can’t wait to see what all of you do next.

·  I was a four-year member and two-time co-captain of the Harvard Fencing Team. I am proud of what we accomplished while I was here—two Ivy League titles, the first outright title in seven years, ranked #1 in the country—but it’s only meaningful because of who I did it with. HFT has been so much to me—no matter what was going on in my life, I always felt at home at practice. On the team I found role models, teammates, and friends who became like family. Going through things with you made defeat more bearable and victory all the sweeter.

·  In my first theatrical role since elementary school, I played the inspiring role of Factory Worker #2 in the First Year Musical. I’m never going to be a theater star, but I had a ton of fun. Thank you Trey for convincing me to audition.

·  I served as a Teaching Fellow for Computer Science 136: Economics and Computation, a course I previously took. It was through this process that I *actually* learned the material, and the teaching experience was extremely rewarding. During Summer 2017, I also taught a short course about the Internet at a middle school summer camp.

·  I have had the privilege of working with three wonderful research advisors/mentors: Scott Kominers, Hongyao Ma, and David Parkes. With their help, I wrote a paper on pricing in ridesharing networks that was accepted to the 2019 International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence. And with David’s direction, I wrote a senior thesis on machine learning for mechanism design that was awarded Highest Honors by the Computer Science Department. If my immediate future were not already spoken for (see below), I would most likely be following my amazing mentors into the academy.

·  On Monday, I’ll be starting work as a trader at a New York-based quantitative finance firm. This isn’t the place for details, but I am excited about the work I will be doing, and I have pledged to donate at least 10% (hopefully more) of my earnings to help make the world a better place.

The other day I realized that if I hadn’t taken a gap year, I could have had Senior Spring in person. But I also realized that then I probably never would have met my friends. And while I’m sure I would have had a wonderful experience, I wouldn’t have this experience. I wouldn’t have these friends. As the fox once told the Little Prince, “It is the time you have devoted to your rose that makes your rose so important.” I have cherished my time here with the people I love, and that means all the world to me.

As the old song goes:

Farewell! be thy destinies onward and bright!
To thy children the lesson still give,
With freedom to think, and with patience to bear,
And for Right ever bravely to live.
Let not moss-covered Error moor thee at its side,
As the world on Truth’s current glides by,
Be the herald of Light, and the bearer of Love,
Till the stars in the firmament die.

To all of my classmates: congratulations, and thank you. It’s time for us to leave now and do our part to help this beautiful, broken world. I can’t wait to see you again.

Goodbye Fencing

I.

At the end of the day, it’s not the activity of fencing itself that has meaning. It is us, the athletes, who give meaning to our sport. So recently I’ve been reflecting on what this sport has meant to me over the past 11 years.

A.

“If I feel hollow, that’s just my proof that there’s more for me to follow.”  —David Wilcox

Fencing has embodied my spirit of self-improvement and competition. Working day in and day out to grow stronger and seeing myself improve bit by bit is the most satisfying thing I can do. Going out on the strip and putting forth a desperate effort to win is the purest form of living I know. And winning itself is the best natural high I’ve ever experienced.

Self-improvement and competition extend beyond the fencing strip, but fencing has been the purest manifestation of my desire to grow stronger and the purest output of my desperate effort. A man I respect once said that many aspects of society are competitive, and athletics is just the most honest about it. That is something I will always appreciate about fencing.

The thing about desperate efforts is that you can fail, and it will hurt. I still remember the point in my gap year when I realized I would not make the Junior World Team and in fact had fallen enough in the standings to not even qualify for the next World Cup. I didn’t feel angry or upset, though there had been plenty of that in the preceding weeks. I just felt empty. I had worked so hard for so long to reach this goal, and it had not come together, and I didn’t know what was next.

Dealing with that disappointment, then getting back in the gym and back to work, was one of the more difficult things I’ve had to do. But my life isn’t over when I fail, no matter how long I’ve dreamed of success. Fencing has hammered this into me over and over, and I am beyond grateful for it.

B.

The only thing better than winning is winning as part of a team. These past four years, the Harvard Fencing Team has been the best team I ever could have asked for. When I came to Harvard, I was an awkward nerd who didn’t have a lot of friends in the fencing community.  Well, I’m still an awkward nerd. But I’ve found my place here on HFT, and that’s what I really care about. I will never forget my time here, nor the people who made it so wonderful.

It has been the greatest honor of my life to serve as co-captain for two years. For my teammates to look at me, an unrecruited walk-on, and say “we want you to lead us” (twice) means more to me than any medals I’ve won over my career. My tenure as captain has not been without its challenges. But all those hurdles—managing tensions between hotheads, dealing with a transition to a new coach, and having to face and grow from my own blunders—have only served to make me stronger as I enter the next phase of my life. And that is something else I am grateful to this team for.

Farewell HFT. I’ll be watching next year, but only from the sidelines. It’s time for someone else to take my place.

II.

People have asked me if I’ll come back to fencing. For now, my answer is no. When I leave college, I won’t have a team anymore, and I won’t be able to maintain the level of training required to continue getting better. While I might be able to carry on without my team, fencing is intertwined with my desire to grow stronger. I don’t want to break that connection, to see myself get worse month after month.

Some people tell me that fencing could take on a new meaning in my life. There’s no reason written in the stars that I have to be competitive to fence; why not approach it more casually? Though they are well-intentioned, I think these people are missing the point of my current life transition. The point is not to find a new role for fencing in my life. The point is to find something else that can fill the role that fencing leaves behind.

On that front, I am quite happy with where I’m headed. This fall, I’m starting work at a New York-based quantitative trading firm. I believe there will be plenty of opportunity for me to grow stronger and hone my skills as a trader, and I am excited by how collaborative and team-based my workplace seems to be. And while securities markets aren’t competitive in exactly the same way as fencing, I think there will be plenty there to scratch my competitive itch.

Maybe I’ll feel differently later. Maybe a couple years away from the sport will make me miss it, and I’ll be able to approach it with a different perspective. But for now, I’m content to remember fencing the way it was and to find something new to take up its mantle.

Goodbye fencing. Thank you for everything.

III.

There are a number of people who deserve my sincerest thanks.

Ross Rheingans-Yoo, my inspiration.

Tommy Sirico, my first coach.

Bin Lu. Your decision to start a fencing club in Baltimore gave me a way into fencing.

Adrian Trenea. Your tireless attention to my training helped me take the leap from a good local fencer to nationally competitive.

Jed Dupree. You helped me improve well into college, a time when most fencers fade out.

Matteo Zennaro. You helped me go out on top.

My parents Penny Rheingans and Terry Yoo. You have supported me from the beginning and at every step of my journey.

My grandmother and late grandfather, Sung Ja Yoo and Man Hyong Yoo. You enabled me to reach for my dreams.

The people of the Baltimore Fencing Center and Marx Fencing Academy. No matter how big the stage was, you were always there in my corner, supporting me.

My Harvard fencing teammates. The past four years with you have been the best experience of my life.

All those who have helped me and supported me along the way. There are far too many to name here.

And Michael Marx. You were first person to really believe in the fencer I could become.

3 Thought Experiments: An Exercise in Ponens and Tollens

“One rationalist’s modus ponens is another’s modus tollens”

—Lots of People?

I was recently reminded that all those cognitive biases I read about apply to me too.

I.

Whenever I argue with my friends about moral philosophy, I usually get to the point where I just want to yell, “But don’t you realize that deep down you’re a utilitarian?” Utility need not be narrowly defined as consumption of goods and activities. You can fold in autonomy and virtue and basically anything else you think is good into people’s utility functions. Then utilitarianism is just the best way of achieving maximum utility (this follows definitionally because you are allowed to use any means necessary). And other popular moral philosophies end up running into some pretty ridiculous results:

II.

According to Rawls, the just society is that which does the best by its worst off members. He justifies this by saying that under a veil of ignorance, agents will play maximin strategies and choose the society that has the least bad “worst outcome”. To illustrate the maximin strategy, consider the following thought experiment:

You are trying to choose a car, and you have a choice between Dealer A and Dealer B. Once you choose a dealer, you will be randomly assigned one of their cars (for free).

  •      Dealer A has 999 cars that are rated 100/100, and one car rated 3/100.
  •      Dealer B has 1000 cars rated 4/100.

I think it is safe to say that most people will choose Dealer A. However, a maximin strategy means you choose Dealer B. You could argue that the difference between 3/100 and 4/100 is huge while the difference between 4/100 and 100/100 is tiny, but I could make it 3.9/100 or even arbitrarily close and you would still choose Dealer B. Now suppose the dealers are societies and the cars are your quality of life. Maximin strategies under a veil of ignorance seem counterintuitive and not what people will do, and basing the idea of justice on this erroneous assumption seems really sketchy.

III.

Kant’s “categorical imperative for the human will” goes as follows: “Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only”. This is a great idea, and I would love if more people did it. But to say it is the “supreme practical principle” can generate awful consequences:

Suppose aliens show up to Earth and demand that we give them John Doe so that they can kill him; they will leave if they get him and blow up the planet if they don’t. Suppose you believe with near certainty that they are truthful. Unfortunately, John Doe is unconscious and unresponsive, so it impossible to obtain his consent. Thus we have the choice between giving him up, in which case John Doe will be killed, or not giving him up, in which case the Earth will be destroyed, 7 billion lives will end, the human race will be extinct, and oh by the way John Doe will still be killed. And yet the categorical imperative requires we not give John Doe up. This runs deeply counter to all our intuitions, and I cannot imagine that anyone feels in their bones that this is the correct course of action.

IV.

This brings us to utilitarianism, which has its own counterintuitive results. Take the Repugnant Conclusion. Assuming some mechanism of utility aggregation, you can find some very large population that would be deemed “better” than our current society—even though its citizens have lives barely worth living—because there is more total utility. This is also pretty ridiculous: after all, a society where life is barely worth living sounds awful.

I can make justifications for my philosophy. The Repugnant Conclusion requires us to think about really large numbers (population) and really small numbers (individual utility), both of which humans are notoriously bad at dealing with intuitively. So here I’m more inclined to accept a counterintuitive result.

V.

But notice I’m ignoring this icky result not because I feel deep down that utilitarianism is right but because I’m willing to accept not feeling that way. This is perfectly natural: the amazing thing about humans is that we can be more than just our intuitions. But what if a Rawlsian is more willing to accept my cars thought experiment, or a Kantian my aliens thought experiment, rather than the Repugnant Conclusion? Maybe they’re not a utilitarian deep down. And can I say they’re “wrong” or “ridiculous”? Not unless I want to argue against their aesthetic preferences, which just leads to Nowheresville.

Lesson 1 from this is I should stop thinking that if I can just show my friends their inner utilitarian that they will embrace the philosophy. They may just have different aesthetic preferences regarding unintuitive results, and thus different moral leanings. Lesson 2 is that not everyone thinks like me. The typical mind fallacy is not hard to understand, but easy to forget.

So where do we go from here? I could descend into moral relativism or nihilism and claim that because all we’re doing is choosing systems based on aesthetic preferences, it is silly to think any are “better” or “correct”. While I’m sympathetic to these claims, I think they are super useless. They don’t tell us anything about what we should do. I prefer actionable steps, like finding and working together on the surprising amount of common ground we share. Rawlsians and Utilitarians can team up to fight global poverty, and Kantians will join for the fight against systemic oppression. And just about any reasoned moral philosophy I can think of believes that truth should not be a matter of opinion. There is so much low-hanging fruit that we should be able to agree on, that quibbling about what happens if aliens show up should be one of the last things we do.

Against Incomparability

There is a commonly held belief that there are some things that simply cannot be compared. For example, I have had many people tell me that you cannot put a dollar value on a human life, or that it’s impossible to compare two people’s lived experiences. This argument seems to come in one of two forms.

First, that one type of good is categorically better than another. For example, one might say that human life is more valuable than any amount of money. So given the choice between saving a stranger’s life and receiving X amount of money, you should save the person, no matter how big X is. But what if X is large enough to save two strangers from dying of disease if donated to effective charities? The utilitarian argues you should take the money and save the two people rather than saving just the one person.

It’s not as simple as this. When you start thinking about human lives as just numbers, it’s very easy to lose track of your empathy, why you’re trying to help people in the first place. This does damage to yourself and to the society you’re a part of, and cannot be written off. But certainly some amount X should be large enough to make this worth it. What if X can save a million people? A billion? It seems downright irresponsible to refuse. To say that a single human life is infinitely more important than any amount of money could have us end up with significantly more humans dying than if we made such tradeoffs.

The second form is that two things literally can’t be compared, except maybe to say that they’re both good or both bad. There’s nothing wrong with this position. It’s just aggressively useless if I ever want to make decisions involving those two goods. Can you imagine if Congress decided, “It’s impossible to say whether investing in education or healthcare is better for people. Guess we can’t do anything.” That would be silly.

This brings me to the most frustrating thing about all this: we make these comparisons all the time. I once asked one of my friends to give me an example of two things that were fundamentally incomparable. The answer: “financial prosperity and health”. I stopped for a moment, then responded: “But you support the Affordable Care Act. That is very clearly trading off some people’s financial prosperity to ensure better health for others. Even if you opposed it, that would still be a comparison.” If we’re going to be trading off between things, we might as well be honest about it and do it in the most intelligent way possible.

I’m not saying that such comparisons are always easy or always useful. For example, take comparing the discrimination faced by a black person versus that faced by a gay person. While we could in theory figure out which of them is worse, this is usually unnecessary. They’re both bad, and we’re not trading them off against each other. We’re trading them both off with the preservation of the status quo, a comparison which is much easier to make.

Tradeoffs are hard. They’re messy. We make mistakes, and not all of them are easily fixed. And reducing people to numbers to compare can devalue them in societally damaging ways. But tradeoffs are necessary if we want to succeed. Accepting that is the first step.

Why We’re Here

Simmons: Do you ever wonder why we’re here?

Grif: One of life’s great mysteries isn’t it? Why are we here? I mean, are we the product of some cosmic coincidence? Or is there really a God, watching everything. You know, with a plan for us and stuff. I don’t know man, but it keeps me up at night.

Simmons: What? I mean why are we out here, in this canyon.

Grif: Uh… Oh… Yeah…

Simmons: What’s all this stuff about God?

Grif:  Uh… um… Nothing.

Simmons: You wanna talk about it?

Grif: No

Red vs Blue

So why are we here? Well because I’m writing a blog, and for one reason or another, you’ve decided to read it. My name is Duncan Rheingans-Yoo, and the blog is called (finish later). Many of my friends have asked what it’s going to be about, or what I hope to get out of it. I like to respond with the following:

I sometimes have ideas—about all sorts of things, but most commonly philosophy, politics, rationality, effective altruism, and things happening at Harvard. Typically, I find the nearest person who will listen and tell them. I’ve decided that this is a pretty inefficient way of doing…well…anything other than convincing my friends that at any time I might accost them with my latest obsession.

So, I’m here to organize the ideas I have so that they’re harder to lose track of. I don’t expect many people to read my blog (especially when starting out), but if you do, I’m also here to convey my ideas to you and get feedback. I’m here to become a better writer, but because my posts are likely to be very irregular, this is a tertiary goal.

And finally:

A very long time ago, ever so long ago, the universe as we know it took shape. Particles swirled and condensed, coalescing into stars and planets and galaxies. Later, billions of year later, on one tiny blue dot in the vastness of space, life began. It was primitive at first, but developed into complex structures that could think and love, could look up and try to touch the stars. One day, if humanity makes it through the growing pains where our strength outpaces our wisdom, maybe we’ll do that. Humanity will spread across the universe, flourishing across all those stars and planets and galaxies. And I’m here to play my part, however small, in making that happen.

But. You know. That’s more of a long-term goal. For now, I’ll settle for organizing my ideas and getting feedback.