I dislike the vast majority of people, but I have a strange obsession with a certain subset of people. When someone seems interesting, I tend to stalk them online, read as much of what they’ve written as possible, write private biographies about them so I don’t forget details, make websites cataloging them, write timelines about them, rank them according to how smart/interesting/intense I think they are (that’s this page), classify them according to certain attributes, and so on. I (very occasionally) get paid for this obsession.
This page lists the people I have found over the years to be especially smart/interesting/intense. When listing people on this page, what I care about most are:
- ability to understand the world (a.k.a. worldview-building ability)
- ability to generate interesting ideas
- ability to reach the right conclusions (sanity, not intelligence, though intelligence definitely helps) in complicated and confusing debates
- intensity of personality: whether they seem to actually project a distinct personality, whether I can in good conscience call them a playable character
- ability to identify and not-generate bullshit
- general alignment/orientation toward the important things in life
If you happen to find me interesting or in any way trust my judgment, feel free to use this page to identify people you should look into.
Bolding indicates people I particularly recommend.
I don’t endorse everything these people say (in fact, I couldn’t, since these people often disagree with each other).
The people in this list are my guesses for the sanest/smartest people ever to exist.
- Eliezer Yudkowsky (focus on 2006–2013, plus Inadequate Equilibria): Eliezer is good at opining on many topics, so after you’ve made up your mind on something, look for what Eliezer has said about it. However be aware that like many people who become semi-famous, his followers/most vocal fans are substantially worse than he is, and many of the people who recommend the Sequences don’t “get it” (I also want to mention that the earlier sequences are pretty basic and not that interesting, and it’s the later sequences that are really interesting).
- Wei Dai
- Carl Shulman: Carl often writes in a cryptic manner, so you might need to stare really hard at his writings to understand what he is saying.
Gary Drescher (Good and Real)
Good and Real
A surprisingly thoughtful book on decision theory and other paradoxes in physics and math that can be dissolved. Reading this book is 100% better than continuing to go through your life with a hazy understanding of how important things like free will, choice, and meaning actually work.
See also SIAI Core Reading.
Unfortunately Drescher seems to be one of those people who get mindhacked by contemporary politics and haven’t been able to escape (just check out his Facebook wall to see what I mean). He also doesn’t seem to have any output since 2006, aside from one paper about the meta-problem of consciousness.
Grognor (George Koleszarik). This guy saw the truth. Unfortunately he died before he could produce much (relevant tweet).
Jessica Taylor (focus on 2015–2017 stuff)
Vipul Naik (disclosure: I do a lot of contract work for Vipul)
Bryan Caplan: see my page on EconLog
- Note that I consider Caplan’s views on many philosophy topics to be wrong (not wrong in an interesting way, but just plain wrong in a really dumb way). Examples: dualism of the mind, intuitionist ethics, free will. I think his posts about applied ethics are good. TODO: link to eliezer saying people are better one meta level down in ethics. TODO: link to hanson and cowen on this.
Brian Tomasik (a lot of his philosophy writings are similar in content to those of Yudkowsky, Drescher, and Daniel Dennett, but Tomasik’s writings might be the clearest)
- Scott Alexander (focus on pre-SSC stuff) https://www.quora.com/What-are-the-best-essays-on-the-Internet-e-g-Paul-Grahams-blog-Slate-Star-Codex/answer/Issa-Rice
- Nick Bostrom
- Robin Hanson (I think The Elephant in the Brain is probably the best introduction to his type of thinking. I also like his old papers.)
- Katja Grace
- Anna Salamon
- Oliver Habryka
- Buck Shlegeris
- Andrew Critch
- Anatoly Karlin
- Devin Helton/Devin Finbarr
- Aaron Swartz. Integrate his aesthetics but discard his beliefs.
- Michael Huemer (mostly The Problem of Political Authority; I am significantly less enthusiastic about Huemer’s other output)
- Nick Beckstead; in particular, read his PhD thesis, “On the Overwhelming Importance of Shaping the Far Future”, which you can find here
- Terence Tao. I can’t appreciate his mathematical research, but I am a fan of his undergraduate-level course material (e.g., his real analysis books, linear algebra notes, and multiple-choice quizzes)
- Tim Gowers. Similar to Tao. I can’t appreciate his mathematical research, but I am a fan of his math education web pages (on his academic website) and his mathematical pedagogy blog posts (see e.g. the Cambridge teaching category on his blog).
- John Stillwell. I haven’t spent too much time looking into Stillwell, but he seems pretty unusual for writing so many books that combine multiple fields and the history of math.
- Michael Nielsen. My basic take: his worldviews are kinda “bluepill” (in a way that I won’t clearly define, but to contrast with someone like Eliezer/Hanson, who I claim are more “redpill”, and with Wei/Grognor, who I claim are “blackpill”). Nielsen nevertheless seems incredibly competent (regularly publishes non-bullshit work), and has a track record of being “ahead of the trend” in the sense of catching onto interesting things before many others do (open science; skillful use of spaced repetition; if I understand correctly, he introduced neural networks to Chris Olah; maybe Pearl’s causality). I’m not sure to what extent his “being ahead” is a result of his own initiative vs simply being plugged into the right networks of people.
The following is a list of people I pay attention to, for one of the following reasons:
- I think they say many interesting things, but I have some strong misgivings about parts of their worldviews or sanity.
- I don’t place much weight on their worldviews/they don’t have very definite worldviews that are publicly accessible, but I’m generally a fan of their work.
- I haven’t evaluated/vetted them in as much detail as I would like, possibly because they just don’t have enough online content for me to consume (“trial mode”).
I’ll be deliberately vague about the reasons for listing a person below. I have also left out many cookie cutter rationalists and effective altruists (they might be smarter than some of the people in this list, but they are too boring to list and I’m sure you can find them without my help).
Paul Graham (mostly his earlier essays): his essays were important to me as a teenager, but lately I feel like I’ve moved on to better things. (It’s possible that his new essays just aren’t that good; I’m not the only one who has noticed this.)
Zack M. Davis: via rationality community.
Piotr Wozniak: via spaced repetition/Anki stuff (which in turn is from LW/gwern).
David D. Friedman: I haven’t read too much by him, so I’m not sure how I would rank his general worldviews or reasoning ability, but I have seen enough interesting things by him that I think looking into him is a good idea (and hope to undertake this task myself soon!).
Alex K. Chen: via Vipul Naik.
Mark Lippmann. I do not meditate. This is the only meditation blog I enjoy reading.
Terry A. Davis: via 4chan’s board /g/. His image kept being spammed back in 2016–2017, and finally I decided to click on one of the TempleOS threads.
Caspar Oesterheld: via rationality community.
Matthew Gentzel: via rationality community.
Michael Vassar: via rationality community.
Nick Hay – I enjoyed his “Universal Semimeasures: An Introduction” (I didn’t read all of it, but I liked the parts that I did read).
Satvik Beri: via rationality community.
Vladimir Nesov (I really need to read more things he has written)
Geoffrey Miller: via rationality community. I started reading his book The Mating Mind after Peter McCluskey listed it as one of his favorite books.
Kevin Simler: via rationality community.
Matt vs. Japan – I first found Matt vs. Japan when somebody (probably on r/Anki) linked to one of his spaced repetition videos. The video had a good explanation of Anki’s settings, and I felt for the first time that I had actually understood all of the options in Anki’s deck options menu. So naturally I was like “who is this guy?” and proceeded to watch many more of his videos. I don’t have much experience with optimizing language learning as a teen/adult (I only minimally engaged with Spanish during high school, enough to get good grades but not enough to actually learn it), so I can’t speak from personal experience regarding Matt’s language learning methods. What I can say, as a native Japanese speaker, is that Matt’s Japanese is very good; I can detect some odd pitch/pronunciation differences in some words, but if I didn’t know he was a foreign speaker, I might just round it off to a different regional dialect. (In other words, he does not sound like a Tokyo-native speaker, but he sounds Japanese enough that I might not guess that he’s a foreigner?) He seems to have some exposure to LW/SCC (he has linked to both on his Mass Immersion Approach website), but it seems like a pretty minimal exposure. So the fact that he has done all of the things he has online, without really being a rationalist, is a sign of his competence (as in, it’s not too surprising to see someone do these things once they are really exposed to EA/rationalist memes, but if they are doing it without much exposure, that means they are inventing things on their own to some extent, which makes it more impressive). Overall, would I say he is smart? Not really; he speaks about a fairly narrow set of things online (language learning, spaced repetition systems, Japanese culture) so there just isn’t enough to say one way or the other about his smartness in most other things, and my default expectation is that he isn’t so special in that regard (controlling for IQ, competence, etc.)
Andy Matuschak (he has other work, but I think his working notes are the most interesting) – I found Andy after Michael Nielsen kept mentioning him on Twitter and in his works. Later, Andy started collaborating with Michael, and also Andy started publishing more of his work online. I think his working notes website best showcases his original thinking, and is also unambiguously Andy’s work (with the joint work with Nielsen, it’s hard to tell who’s actually doing what parts).
Kevin Buzzard: in the past I had looked through the list of Senior Wranglers, so his name was somewhat familiar. I also saw him on MathOverflow. At some point I found the Xena Project, and became interested via his blog posts there.
Duncan Sabien: via rationality community in general. I like his emotional intensity and unique personality, but his worldviews are way too bluepill/Western/stuck-in-the-Matrix-tier for me. Occasionally insightful.
Ray Woodcock: Vipul Naik once linked to one of Woodcock’s blog posts (about cost of living in various countries, or something like that). From there, I started poking around on his various websites.
Jonathan Blow. See the Wikiquote page I wrote for him (this Wikiquote page captures some of my favorite quotes from him, but it’s not necessarily the best summary or introduction to Blow – I would really recommend watching some YouTube videos of him talking). I found Jonathan Blow one night when I was reading about video games. I was feeling bored, and looking for interesting games to play (for instance, I was searching for the best GBA games of all time and things like that). None of the games I found seemed interesting. I then searched Michael Nielsen’s Twitter (because I remembered him talking about video games) and found this tweet about beautiful video games. I looked through the spreadsheet, watching YouTube videos and reading the Wikipedia pages for the top games that were listed there (both Braid and The Witness are listed, but of course I didn’t realize the significance of this at the time). Eventually I made it to this let’s play of The Witness and started reading about The Witness and about Blow. I eventually realized that Alex K. Chen had talked about Blow in the past (his name did sound somewhat familiar). I read this article and from there started digging hard.
I don’t think Jonathan Blow is too smart or anything—he is definitely below elite EAs in terms of worldview accuracy, for instance. But I think Blow has certain admirable qualities that rationalists and EAs seem to almost uniformly lack. If I had to name what those things are, it would be something like: the ability to keep your eyes on what matters the most, finishing difficult projects no matter what, intelligent warmth and care toward beginners (e.g. the mere fact that he livestreams so often and engages with people in the Twitch chat!), some sort of reflective self-appreciating-ness or self-respect (not in the lame “you have to love yourself” sense, but actually becoming someone worth loving and just letting the self-appreciation happen), having balls/having “skin in the game” (e.g. dropping out of university despite not yet having incredible-and-legible success, using all of the money earned from Braid to make The Witness), not being a cuck, working in public, and the ability to be alone (not even a girlfriend) and deal with all of the difficulties of that (e.g. see this video).
Tim Pope: I found Pope via Vim, which I had been using as my main text editor.
Ran Prieur (only his dumpster diving and frugality stuff)
The following people I find interesting, although because they are so much older than the rest of the people on this page I find it difficult to compare them with the others (i.e. they grew up and lived in such a different world that they have glaring holes in them even though they did really well for their time).
- Richard Feynman
- Charles Darwin
- Bertrand Russell