My intuitions around therapy, emotional support, and chatbots.
Alexey Guzey describes himself as an independent researcher with a background in economics, mathematics, and cognitive science. He’s currently most occupied with biology, but has thought a lot about improving science, science philanthropy, and more at his website.
In March 2020 I interviewed Alexey. He’s not only the basis and subject of our discussion, but the very reason I have a blog. His post “Why You Should Start a Blog Right Now” landed with me in a way that other exhortations to write hadn’t. We discuss writing, as well as current projects, video game addictions, productivity, relationships, and more.
What follows is a transcript of our conversation, edited for clarity and length.
Memory, faulty and not
Max: I was inspired to first interview Scott Sumner because of reading all of these things about how powerful Twitter is. You can simply reach out to someone and it is often the case that if you’re polite and demonstrate that you researched them and are genuinely interested in them, most people will happily oblige you with some time. I’s maybe the best-kept secret about Twitter that if you do it right, it’s wide open for anyone to use in this way. And I think that I got that idea most pointedly from you.
I actually don’t even remember how it is I first encountered you. This is a pattern I’ve noticed with lots of things: I’ll start a habit or I’ll take up a book or find a website at the recommendation of someone or some interaction that I had on Twitter, I’ll then forget the source of that change, and then months later I’m going through notes or my history and I’m like, “Oh that’s right. This person is the reason that I started this book.”
And I realized, just because of how bad my memory is, I wind up doing a lot of… It’s not quite plagiarism, but I owe a huge debt of gratitude to everyone, and I forget who I owe this debt to, constantly. Do you have this experience? Or is your memory much better than mine?
Alexey: Yes. I think that happens to everyone all the time. Actually, Scott Alexander even has a post about this where he actually caught himself in the process of regurgitating something he wrote somewhere a couple of weeks ago, and while he was writing he realized, “Wait this is not something I came up with it. This is something I encountered a couple of weeks ago.” So his post is titled “My Plagiarism”, exactly about this. So yeah, I think this is pretty common.
Max: I probably read that post and have forgotten. And in a way, we’re blind to all sorts of things that we’re the beneficiaries of. I guess we have a bias towards the people immediately in our lives and their material contributions. But think about all the inventions and innovations—the economy is just one large superstructure of benefits and coordination that’s totally invisible to us. The electricity’s running and I probably owe countless people thanks for that.
Meta-science and scientific philanthropy
Max: On your website and your Twitter bio, you state your primary concern is science philanthropy consulting. I want to know how that’s been, can update me on that?
Alexey: Yeah. So I wrote this life sciences post in August, and I don’t really have a very concise summary of what happened, but a lot of people read my piece and a lot of people reached out. One scientist, who I was trying to get funding for, ended up getting funded as a result because someone reached out to me and offered to fund them. Then, several people reached out to me and offered to join up on their projects, and now I’m involved in one of them significantly, but it’s not public yet.
And actually I’m probably going to sideline this meta science and science philanthropic activity because I hope to work directly on biology for a while and to get a better feel for how science itself is done, and maybe do something exciting there.
On the process of writing
Max: Okay. So another thing that I really want to talk to you about is the process you’ve gone through in opening up and sharing yourself and your interest and ideas on the internet. I’m only now coming into that process myself. Since I can remember, I’ve thought that I would be a writer. I love reading, not just classic literature but pop fiction and blogs and internet forums and things like that. And I always thought I would be partaking in this great big conversation.
But for some reason, consistently writing came about much slower to me. I would get caught up in the details of creating a blog, like my early WordPress, “What does it look like?” and then not get around to saying a whole lot. Partially it was because I had hangups like, “Do I have anything original to say? Anything interesting? How good of a writer am I?”
Now, I never had an experience of those doubts being so strongly dispelled than when I read your piece about writing, about why in fact the goal isn’t to write something completely original, but to synthesize thoughts, especially if you find yourself talking about them a lot to lots of different friends. You should just put that in a blog post. And also, obviously when we go to school and we learn something, hardly anything that the professors say is original. There’s this primacy on originality, but that’s not actually how most communication is done.
So how did you come to that? How did you come to the realization that maybe you should be more forthcoming about what your thoughts are?
Alexey: I’m not sure I have a very interesting answer because I never really came to this realization. I was always the kind of a person who really likes to give advice and who really likes to share interesting thoughts with people, and I always enjoyed writing. And I started writing on the internet when I was like 12, maybe earlier. And I had very small blogs about various topics over the years. Like at some point I had a site where I reviewed games for iPads. Then I had a site where I reviewed browser games, MMRPGs that are played in browser. I just kind of always enjoyed sharing things with people, and at some point my thoughts started becoming more interesting and I started thinking about things other than video games, and naturally I just started sharing more of those thoughts, about the books I read, about productivity, about science, about why other people should share more things because sharing things is actually good and useful.
Max: Okay. I guess my real question in this space is, looking inward, I find that the act of writing and sharing what I write to be an almost emotional experience in that it’s wrapped up in what the other people will think of me. Like, I’m sharing personal, private parts of myself. And I feel this combination of giddiness and nervousness and fear, and I am curious about that experience. Because I mean if you’ve been writing and sharing since you were little, do you even remember having these feelings? I’m really new to this and there’s an emotional valence to writing and sharing that I’m really curious about. Have you encountered that?
Alexey: I feel this. So I’m Russian, and the sites that I mentioned to you that I used to write when I was little, were all in Russian. And I had this huge barrier with writing in English for many years, and actually I overcame it only several years ago, maybe four or five years ago. And before that, I maybe forced myself to write some comments somewhere, but it was always very difficult. But this is not answering your question exactly, because at some point I did overcome and I was like, “Okay I can write English reasonably well. People are not going to laugh at me.” Then the question of emotional balance and the fear of putting yourself out there in public, I always had it. I still have it a lot, and whenever I write a post, actually with almost every post I’m nervous before clicking the publish button, and I always have to force myself to do it and it’s always very scary, especially for my personal posts or posts I am more uncertain about whether people are going to like it or not.
For example, I recently published a list of scientific ideas I would like to see funded. And this was a pretty simple post to publish because it’s just a list, but then there are portions of my journal from a few years back that are very personal to me and I probably spent several days agonizing about whether I should publish it or not and whether I’m emotionally ready to do it and whether it’s a good idea or not. And then I decided to do it, but the act of publishing is a very intense experience.
Max: And then do you ever find that you’re surprised or disappointed by the reaction? Are you able to gauge, “So I just wrote a post that’s maybe middling to medium”—if we can quantify it—”personal. So I expect some people will like it, but it won’t get that much traction.” Are you able to predict the reaction, or are you surprised?
Alexey: I guess I can predict it somewhat well. So for example, this recent post I did not expect to be widely read and it wasn’t. So people are just not very interested in reading this kind of content. For some of my pieces, like the Why We Sleep one and the Life Sciences, I of course was hoping a lot of people will read them, but I never have a good prediction of how many people exactly are going to read them. For example, for the Why We Sleep post, I ended up getting 800 retweets, and my hope was that I would get 20 or 30 retweets and I would be happy. And I literally did not realize how many people encountered the book and how strongly they felt about it and how many people I knew read it and liked it. And so I was happy about the reception of that post.
Max: Yeah. Because for instance, the things that I have thought are the most personal… or maybe another way to put it is things that I think are going to be the most useful—and I may be confounding the two—wind up not getting at all the reaction that I thought they would. That’s been my experience. What about the post where you published your journal entries —that was a very personal and private part of your life. What did you wish to have happened after publishing it? What was your goal?
Alexey: My goal with it was for people who might be in a similar state to read it and realize that it’s not as hopeless as it seemed to me then. I think, as one of my friends put it, it’s always helpful to have a local influencer. If the person sharing thoughts or advice is close to you and who you know personally, you’re able to empathize more with them and you’re able to better apply their ideas to your life. But this is just a long way to say that I hope that people who are addicted to games right now or who were addicted games would just read the post and realize that, “Well here’s a person who seems to be doing well right now and they were able to get a handle on games and it’s not all hopeless.”
Alexey: And also to finish this answer, so in the journal I focused on games but it’s not only about games but also my feeling suicidal for years when I was in high school and my first year in college, and I know that a lot of people around me struggle with depression, they struggle with accepting themselves, and I wanted to share this to show people how exactly this transformation of escaping this happened to me.
Video games and productivity
Max: Yeah. Well, thank you for sharing it. I had a ridiculous video game addiction, but I also didn’t have as dark and disturbing a time of it as you, so my experience was quite different. Although I think about it a lot: not just the mental health crisis but the fact that it’s what most people, men particularly, are doing these days.
I think about how much that mental output could be directed into… anything. I read a paper calculating the time spent editing or contributing to Wikipedia. From its inception to 2013, the time of the paper, there was like 100 million hours spent editing all of Wikipedia. But we’ve been playing billions of hours of video games per week since at least 2010. Apples to oranges, I know, but that issue stays with me. It’s a crisis of mental health and meaning, and it seems also a crisis of productivity. Do you have any more thoughts on that as a social problem? Or is problem not the right word for it?
Alexey: Yeah I don’t think I have any additional thoughts on this, aside from that a lot of people around me seem to have been addicted to video games at some point, and not many people are addicted to them right now, probably because those who stayed addicted I no longer talk to them. I would actually be interested in seeing… So it seems to be that basically every boy, at least around me, was addicted to video games in middle school and high school, and this is true for a ton of my friends. But then it seems that a ton of people just managed to drop video games cold turkey either when they start college or when they finish college, and I’m curious, actually how many people stay addicted to video games past the age of 20 to 22.
On a blog’s readers
Max: Just another question around building up a readership. On the one hand it seems obviously good to have more followers and more readers, but then on the other hand it also seems facile to just try and gain readership and followers for the sake of readers and followers.
Alexey: Right. I feel everyone naturally wants to be more popular. The only people I truly believe do not want to be more popular are those with locked accounts on Twitter, but for everyone else it’s a popularity game. And some people play it well, some people don’t. I think my strategy has always been to simply post good stuff, and the heuristic that I try to follow with my blog and my Twitter is that I want to write things that I would like to see in my field and that I want my Twitter account to be a Twitter account that I would like to follow. And I think this pretty naturally restrains how I tweet and what I tweet about.
I don’t follow this heuristic always, and sometimes I regret not doing it, and I delete tweets that maybe were poorly thought out, but I think the core of my strategy is to write interesting things that people find helpful. And again, I think for writing in particular, I got better at it over the years and simply because, after writing a lot, you learn how to write concisely and in a way so that other people actually like your writing. I definitely notice the improvement in my writing ability over the last several years, but I feel like the core stayed the same.
Max: I’ve noticed something: When I write, I naturally want to do a preamble. I want to do this introduction and contextualization and qualification, and only then do I get into what it is that I’m writing. So often when I look at something I wrote, if I just cut out the first paragraph or section, it winds up being way better. I just get to the point more quickly, whereas the preamble was mainly for my benefit. And another related thing: omitting needless words. I don’t know if you have this problem, but especially in American universities, your average state school student is conditioned to write in this overly fluffy, doubly redundant way. In fact I just did it. Doubly redundant. I could’ve just said redundant.
There’s this way of reinforcing the words with extra adverbs that mean the same thing as the verb you’re going to eventually use, and yet it makes writing so much more powerful to not have so many adverbs. I’ve noticed it before, but saw it first expounded upon in Dryer’s English. If you strike the unnecessary adverbs, it makes the idea much clearer, and also much more of a powerful statement. So powerful in fact, that when we remove these little qualifiers, these little I thinks and Sort ofs our writing actually becomes forceful to the point that I’m kind of afraid. Like, “Do I really mean that? That seems like I’m being too strong here.” Those are the two things that I noticed that have improved my writing a lot. I have this tendency to want to contextualize because I assume way too much interest from other people. I assume that other people are going to want to know all this context. But yet when I read things, I skim ruthlessly, if I get bored even a little bit I’m closing the tabs left and right. I just don’t want to waste time.
Anything else in that vein?
Alexey: Yeah. I definitely notice this too, where a large fraction of things I read, the first couple of paragraphs are just totally useless and people should just remove them. And in my writing, I try to get to the point as quickly as possible and actually start with sort of a summary and then just basically expand the summary and provide only as much context as absolutely needed.
However I would kind of disagree with you about the qualifiers thing. Qualifiers are important, and when you write you do want to communicate your uncertainty, and you do want to communicate cases where you’re speculating versus cases where you deeply thought through something. And while you don’t want every sentence to consist of this, I don’t actually think this actually even makes the reading experience significantly worse. And there is this fine line… Or I guess there’s two opposite spectrums that I notice.
The first one where people don’t use these qualifiers at all and the impression is that everything they write is 100% fact. And then there is another tendency where people are apologetic for their writing and they’re like, “Well this post is useless. Don’t even read it.” And they don’t really know what they’re writing about. “So even though I spent a week writing this, please just close this tab already and I’m very embarrassed about what I wrote.” What I try to achieve at a minimum is to simply not write things I want to be apologetic about, and be assertive about things I’m confident about and communicate honestly the things I’m not confident about.
Max: Yes I agree. I don’t think that qualifiers are a pointless or weak thing to do. I just think that, combined with the overuse of redundant words and sentences, there’s an issue of over-qualifying your ideas. And maybe I’m overcorrecting and I see that myself and I’m bothered by these over-qualifications. I find assertive writing more engaging and admirable, and so I might be a little biased towards it. But Paul Graham just wrote a piece, I don’t know how frequently you read his essays, I think it’s his most recent one, precisely about this. He presents a writing thesis, what all essays should do, and he distinguishes essays from journalistic writing or scientific papers, et cetera, but the kind of essays I think you and I are most interested in writing.
Separately, have you noticed yourself editing yourself on Twitter and your blog as you’ve gotten more popular? There’s this fear of being canceled. Do you find yourself self-editing and pulling back your more controversial thoughts?
Alexey: Right. Yeah, again I kind of feel like every person who has anything interesting to say, has interesting things to say that might be dangerous and that you would not necessarily want to put out there in writing. I’m not sure how much of this is actually related to politics. This has always been the case. At every point in history… Paul Graham actually has an essay about this. At every point in history there are things that you should not say, and everyone believes at least some of those things, and everyone censors themselves somewhat. And for me, this question is also more difficult to answer, again, because I’m Russian and I feel like the constraints on me might be different than the constraints on Americans. So, honestly what I do is I just try to avoid things that might be controversial in a way other than related to science or whatever.
Max: I’m surprised. I thought you were going to say after that because you’re not really subject to this political environment that you are less concerned about self-editing. But are you saying that if there’s really a doubt in your mind that this is going to be too controversial, you err on the side of just not sharing it?
Alexey: I’m more concerned about this because I feel like I have worse feel for what I can say and what I cannot say, so I try to only post hot takes only when they’re about sleep or diet.
Max: Haha, okay. That’s fair. I don’t think that there’s a lot of value in being controversial for the sake of being controversial, but because of how small Twitter messages can be, packing in your level of confidence is sometimes… It either doesn’t fit or isn’t quite appropriate for Twitter. Or sometimes people are crafting a persona with their edgy takes.
Alexey: A lot of this stuff boils down to signaling and counter-signaling. And when you’re just starting out, you really don’t want to be confused with people who are still down there maybe addicted to video games, and then when you’re already successful you’re able to counter-signal by saying things like “I used to do [a thing that’s percieved low status by some people] and now I’m successful.” For example, the only reason I now felt comfortable sharing my journal in this way is because I feel like people know me well enough that I can think well and I can write well and I can do interesting things that these journal entries would not hurt me. But I would absolutely not publish them two years ago, because I would be, exactly, just too concerned about people just deciding not to give me a chance because of this.
Max: Yeah I hadn’t thought about the signaling aspect of that but that’s a clear point.
The benefits of early matrimony
Max: So another topic I’m interested in is the relationship advice you’ve given. When is it that you met your wife? And then what is it like being married at I think such a relatively young these days. First off, how old are you and how old were you when you got married?
Alexey: I’m 22 now and I got married when I was 20.
Max: I think it was you who retweeted this. It was about a part of War and Peace where two of the main characters are just meeting. And it’s just one of these one-page vignettes that Tolstoy would include by the hundreds in his books. But they happened to have a conversation with an older colonel, and the two young boys are discussing their freedom as young, financially secure captains in the Russian army and how they’re free to just run around and basically try and meet women and go to bars, or whatever the 19th century equivalent of clubbing was. But they were free. They were free to do all these things.
And then this colonel pointed out, “You men aren’t free. Look at how you’re spending your freedom. You guys are just constantly seeking out women, spending every weekend at salons looking for women and being disappointed. That doesn’t sound like freedom. In fact, you’re really only free after you’re married because then that frees up all your time that you spent wasting doing other things. It frees you up to follow your ambition.”
As someone who’s thinks it’s important to find a really high-quality partner (does anyone not?), I think I have really high standards in this place. But that winds up meaning that I don’t meet people at that level, and so I wind up thinking about the space in my life where a partner should be. And so I just want to know, what this experience has been like for you, getting married at 20.
Alexey: Right. I mean it’s been a really great experience and I honestly think I got very lucky in that I met my wife accidentally when I was 20, and that I did get all of my freedom back after I got married. And now my wife and I, she helps me a ton in everything I do and she works on a ton of her own projects, and she works on neuroscience, and honestly I feel like she’s, to a significant degree, responsible to the things that I have now been able to achieve in just amplifying my executive function, and in amplifying my ability to pursue anything I want to. My wife and I have actually been discussing this a lot, and we feel like people to some extent are not deliberate enough about who they decide to marry, or the people they decide to have as their long-term partners.
For us, the first thing was that we’re just really, really attracted to each other and we like each other as people a lot, and we really enjoy spending time together. But the other really important part has always been that we know that we’re going to amplify each other and I’m going to help Nastya to figure out whatever she wants to do and to help her do it. And I know that for me, on the other hand, she complements me in some of the ways I perhaps like, and that she will be able to help me as well. And it’s not just going to be us hanging out and spending time together, but that the marriage is this vehicle for basically doing the things we want to do, at large.
Max: Yeah. I would just say that that does seem really lucky, because I think me and my friends… It seems like none of us found it in our twenties, our really, really good, worthy-of-a-lifelong-partnership partner. That’s something I have a temptation to blame society for not facilitating more. But then I also… I just wonder why it is that society also seems to be so bad at developing individuals, and then matching them. Maybe it’s always been difficult.
But I think it would be great if the option of meeting your partner early and marrying young was more widespread but the dynamics of the relationship marketplace sort of are what they are.
Alexey: Yeah. I don’t think I have anything helpful to say on the subject because I think I was really lucky and everyone around me… So I live in Moscow and a lot of people think that it’s a Russian thing that I got married so young, but none of my friends are married. And everyone in Moscow marries when they are like 30. But the other thing that I want to add to my answer, to the part of being deliberate about who you marry… I mentioned the fact that my wife and I complement each other, but I think this is a point that is actually under-appreciated. For example, I know that I sometimes am too unfocused, and one of the reasons I appreciate my wife so much is that she’s the opposite of this. And instead of us just being two very unfocused people who just stumble around a lot, I know that I can lean on her and to know that she will help me to direct myself and to help me to use my energy the right way and not just play video games all of the time.
And this idea contrasts with the idea of just marrying the person who is your identical twin, where I see a lot of my friends just pick the person who is identical to them as their partner. And then what ends up happening is that these two identical people don’t have this synergy in their relationship, which I think is frequently needed, especially for people who might be more on the ADHD spectrum.
Max: Is there anything you have in the way of advice? And perhaps in the realm of writing and online presence and footprint.
Optimizing the reader’s experience
Alexey: I don’t think I have any obvious advice. Your site is pleasant enough and this is the most important thing. Well I guess the most important thing is interviewing the right people, and you seem to be doing this well. So everything else is secondary.
Max: Haha, thank you.
Alexey: Although, well now I do feel like I have something to add, and that is I think people really… So there is a saying that you should spend, or something like a saying, that you should spend 70% of your time writing, 30% of your time marketing. Or 70% of the time producing and 30% of your time telling people about the things that you produce, and I think this is actually really under-appreciated and this is something I spend a lot of time thinking about. So like five years ago, probably even four years ago, my blog had a median of zero visitors a day. And when I think about this, this is not surprising because I was just some random guy who had a couple of posts on his site. And what I didn’t really spend a lot of time thinking about was exactly how are people going to find my writing and why exactly people would want to think about what I write and discuss it and share it. And I didn’t spend a lot of time just pointing people to things that I write when I think it would be useful.
I find myself doing this a lot more these days. And in general the idea of thinking about your distribution strategy explicitly and spending more time and effort on it, instead of just thinking that if you write good enough content, people will just naturally find it. This idea is under-appreciated. So in particular, to be more concrete: My Why We Sleep post. I think it was a very good post. I spent a ton of time writing it, and you helped to read a draft of it, so you helped me and a lot of other people helped me, but the reason a lot of people ended up reading it and it ended up coming out so well was because when I was writing it I was explicitly thinking, “How do I write so that people will find the post to be most engaging and most interesting and most useful?”
And this was the thing that I was explicitly optimizing for, and this is why I tried to have my main text as short as possible and to get to the point as quickly as possible. And I put everything that I thought was kind of interesting but nonessential in the middle of the appendices so that if you’re interested you’re welcome to read. But I have this one message that I want to get to as quickly as possible and I just try to do that. And without me explicitly thinking about this and explicitly optimizing for it, without me having my Twitter following and spending a lot of time over the years sharing content and trying to grow the audience, the post would’ve maybe been read by 200 of my friends, and then just died down instead.
Max: Yeah. So I hear not only writing to optimize for the best reader experience, but then also over a while, building up a distribution channel, one that’s your own. So having a good Twitter followship. I don’t know if you know this, but LinkedIn… do you have one?
Alexey: Yeah I have an account.
Max: Yeah. It’s a fantastic source of engagement. I first heard Gary Vaynerchuk hype it as a distribution channel. I think he said it’s like the most slept on social media. But between writing your own articles there and then the cross-pollination that it gets with not just your network, but I wrote a thing that then apparently got 1800 views, and I don’t have anywhere near that number of LinkedIn connections. So it winds up being another impactful distribution channel. But, yeah, I hear you. I think I’m already starting to optimize for that. I don’t have the, “I’m just going to write a blog post and hit publish and then that’s it. That’s all the marketing I do. That’s all the distribution I do. And I just hope that people ambiently stumble upon it by Google or God knows where.” That doesn’t seem optimal.
There is a tension though. It feels a little artificial to write and optimize directly for magnitude of viewership, as opposed to being your authentic self and not optimizing for mass appeal. But I think that there’s a happy medium where you’re not transparently sharing every thought that you have. The goal isn’t to be maximally open. But then also not being a smarmy social media influencer, because that in itself is also not a very worthwhile thing.
Alexey: Right. Although, I would actually like to say that I’m actually fairly extreme on this stuff. And when I think about this, I think that there are things that I write for myself and I have a ton of my own private notes about whatever I’m thinking about, about whatever I’m feeling about and about productivity and emotions or whatever. But whenever I write something for my blog or for Twitter, I basically think that it doesn’t matter, and about what’s the most optimal way for me to reflect on the topic or whatever. When I put it out there, I want people to find it interesting and I want people to find it helpful. And the format in which I have my productivity notes or whatever will be extremely different from whatever other people will find most helpful.
So at least for me, I find that the things that I write publicly are very dissimilar from the things that I write privately, simply because the consumption, given all of my background thinking and background assumptions, are just radically different style of writing that is required. And I think this is another point people under-appreciate. I see a lot of novice writers simply write in the style of their journals, where they are reflecting on something and there are no takeaways. I sometimes read a post and I’m like, “Okay. You made clear what your opinions are, but then it seems that you were basically writing a journal and then you published it. You were not thinking about what I, the reader, will take away and what I will find helpful in whatever you wrote.”
Max: Yeah. That’s a really important distinction. Steven King talks about writing with the door open and writing with the door closed. I appreciate the distinction. And I think that kind of resolves the tension. Not all writing we do is writing that’s meant to be shared with others.
Well thanks so much. I’ll get a transcript up and I’ll send you an email about when it’s live.
Alexey: Yes, it was great talking to you.
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