Monthly Archives: December 2014

Why I donated to the ACLU and Planned Parenthood

Neither is a neglected cause.  I mean, I wish they had more money, but in the scope of finite resources to billions of worthy causes, they’re relatively unneglected.  Certainly they have non-EA movements supporting them.  Which is why I didn’t give them much money.  But they both also politically tenuous, and benefit from donations not just with what they buy, but with evidence of a supporter they can brandish threateningly to politicians.  That’s a pretty cheap way for me to influence policy.

Donations in 2014

I have been trying to figure out how much money I want to donate, and where I want to donate to.  As I described before, my past habit has been maximizing employer matching plus a bit.  That no longer felt sufficient to me, but as I upped the number I started feeling a lot of anxiety.  It’s not about giving up luxury consumption, or having a smaller home, or anything material.  It’s the worry that $15k worth of dental surgery and 4.5 months without any income will not be the worst thing that happens to me, and I’ll need the money for that.  Or that I will have enough money to be okay, but will cut it close enough that I become miserable and miserly.  I like who I am a lot more when I have enough cushion to feel safe.  That’s why I get to the airport much earlier than necessary: so can walk at a leisurely pace and let stressed people ahead of me instead of racing old ladies in walkers to the security line.

Trying to pick a particular number just wasn’t working- it was either too low to satisfy my moral needs or too high to satisfy my safety needs.  So I decided to come up with a formula first, and then abide by what it said.  In that same post I described a severe preference for consumption taxes over income taxes, so I picked a number (20%), and calculated my spending.  This took a little bit of doing- I have several credit cards, plus a few expenses paid out of checking directly, plus I did not feel like medical expenses should be taxed, and of course previous donations shouldn’t be counted as consumption.  But I made a pretty good estimate rounded up to the nearest 10k, and got: exactly my employer matching cap.

I could have upped the percent more, but that’s basically me choosing a number, which is what I was trying to avoid.  So I began really digging in to why income based obligations bothered me so much.  Some of it was that I felt like I had more control over consumption than income.  I have low fixed expenses so that’s in some ways true, but if I am low on money, the correct thing to do is spend less and earn more regardless of whether I’m taxed on consumption or earnings.  But it went deeper than that.   I make enough money that any extra goes into savings, not spending (I am aware both that this is incredibly fortunate and that I lack the life experience to appreciate just how fortunate).  Savings are good and they brought me a lot of security this year, but since they happen automatically my internal sense of wealth doesn’t particularly go up when I have more.  Whereas writing large checks definitely makes me feel poorer.  So I was correctly predicting my irrational feeling that giving away 10% of my income would mean increases in real income would make me feel poorer, and balking.  While I have to commend myself for accurately anticipating something that weird, it was also a fixable problem.  I spent some time sitting down and figuring out exactly how my savings had grown this year, and suddenly any argument I couldn’t afford 10% seemed awful.  So while I’m not ready to sign the pledge just yet, I decided to give the GWWC recommended percentage.  Scott Alexander’s argument that if everyone gave 10% we would literally have more money than we knew what to do with was prominent in my mind here.

Then I needed to define “10% of what, exactly?”  John suggests the income line on my W2, but that includes stock grants (which for tax reasons I really shouldn’t sell right now) and excludes health insurance.  My health insurance has been way too useful this year for it to not count as income.  Plus I won’t know the W2 number until I get all my W2 forms, and that will be tricky this year because I did eventually get disability payments, some of which are taxed and some aren’t.  And hey, given that they’re not taxed (because the premiums were paid with post-tax money), does that mean they shouldn’t count towards my income?

Finally, I hit on a solution: use last year’s income.*  I spent 10 minutes on the IRS’s ridiculous new efile system, got roughly my income for last year, and used this year’s COBRA costs to estimate the value of my insurance last year.  I didn’t get any equity or disability last year, so I can figure it out later.  The W2 income isn’t exactly right (For the benefit of the IRS: this is a 401k issue, not tax fraud), but I was done investigating this, so I rounded up, divided by 10, and got A Number.  It may not be the exactly correct number, but it is most certainly close enough that the correct thing to do is stop fiddling.


All this donation is done partially because helping people live better lives is awesome, and partially because my ability to make so much money is dependent on a number of things I didn’t earn.  My genetics, the time and place of my birth, a feminist movement that opened up lucrative work to me,  a substantial investment in my education made by my parents.    This doesn’t mean I didn’t work very hard or make excellent choices, it just means that I would not have had the same results if I worked this hard and made this quality of choices after being born in Ethiopia, or in 1900.  10% of my income to discharge that debt is actually a pretty good deal.  But there are certain choices I make that incur additional debt.  One is eating animals.  And then there’s high-fixed-cost low-marginal-cost goods I could free ride on, like wikipedia.

Then there’s the question of where to send the money the bulk of the money.  The goal is to have the highest marginal impact, which means picking not strictly the most useful thing, or the most neglected thing, but some combination thereof.  Against Malaria Foundation’s math is very compelling, but so is their story, so they should have an easier time getting funding from non-EAs than GiveDirectly.  I think the research determining what the next Next Big Thing is important, less likely to be funded, and just more interesting to me personally.  So I funded some of that by giving GiveWell an unrestricted donation.

[To be fair, GiveDirectly invests an enormous amount in trying new things and checking their own work.  That is why I gave them some money.  But they are are never going to work in American criminal justice or chronic pain, so they don’t get all the money.]

I also donated to Social Justice Northwest Fund (full disclosure: a fellow EA member is on the board), which is in many ways a (much, much) fuzzier GiveWell.  Their goal is to fund small grassroots organizations working for social/economic/criminal justice and racial/gender/queer equality.  These are important communities to help, they’re often not tapped in to the regular funding machine, and the history of people (usually whiter and richer) who are tapped in to them coming in to help is not good.  SJN gives them money so they can get started.  Many of these organizations are not as efficient or effective as the top GiveWell organizations, but they will not get better unless they are given money and room to fail.  Absent a convenient measure of “utility founder/community knowledge gained”, I have to make my best guess and accept that there will be some inefficiencies.

With all that said, here are my total donations for the year.  I’ll be writing more posts with explanations for specific charities, check the comments for links.

St Stephen’s Protestant Episcopal Church (runs a food bank in Ferguson): $500
Modest Needs: $1544 (this was before I was so strongly into EA)
GiveDirectly: $4547
Planned Parenthood: $10
ACLU: $10
Mercy for Animals: $500
Ocean Conservancy: $250
GiveWell (unrestricted): $3000
Social Justice Fund Northwest: $2500
Electronic Frontier Foundation: $2500 (half my patent bonus)

From this you can approximately derive my income last year.  I’m not thrilled about this, but I think the social norms that make me uncomfortable hurt employees to the benefit of employers, so I am trying to fight them.  Apart from the tens of thousands of dollars we donated, one of the best parts of Seattle Effective Altruists Donation Decision day was when a subgroup of us (with comparable jobs) shared our salaries with each other.  It was really informative.

*When I brought this up at my EA group, people were evenly split as to whether this was brilliant or cheating, by which I mean Brian thought it was brilliant and Stephanie thought it was cheating and no one else cared.

Review: Surprisingly Vegan Waffle Mix

Before I was tested for food sensitivity my diet was incredibly reliant on eggs, dairy, and wheat, so you can imagine my dismay when I tested sensitive to all three things and was told to give them up.*  When I did so, I decided to shift to eating foods that naturally didn’t contain any of those things, rather than search out substitutes for my old staples.  My theory was that vegetables can be really awesome at tasting like vegetables, and meat can be… well at the time eating any meat was a huge struggle, but it was one I eventually expected to pay commensurate dividends.  But the vegan milks just remind me of how much better actual milk is, and the thing that makes gluten-containing food delicious is gluten.  Plus the imitation food tends to be incredibly processed in order to more closely approximate their originals.  If I was going to put a ton of work into learning to cook and enjoy different foods, I might as well pick the healthier of the two.

But everyone needs easy carbs some times, and more than one thai restaurant in my neighborhood now recognizes me on sight, so I needed some new options.  John served this vegan, gluten free waffle mix (referral link: Charity Science) at an EA event and I have to say: it’s pretty good.  Not good enough you’d choose it over regular waffles for taste alone, but pretty good.  The ingredient list is short and full of actual foods.

I seriously doubt this will apply to anyone else, but it’s interesting in light of my recent deep dive into appetite hormones.  When I eat waffles + syrup and nothing else, there is an obvious disconnect between different parts of my brain as to how full I am.  Each bite of waffle is ridiculously rewarding (indicating high ghrelin?), and yet I never seem to feel satiated, even as my stomach reports it is uncomfortably full.  I solved this problem by putting chia seeds in my syrup and interspersing waffles with swigs of protein powder (also mixed with chia seeds).  This seemed to get me the good parts of waffles while ensuring I also eventually stopped eating them.

One warning: they are not kidding about the cooking time for this mix.  It takes much, much longer than you are used to.  It is theoretically possible to turn this into pancake mix by watering it down, but I could never manage to give them enough time to fully cook.  Putting them in the waffle iron and walking away was easier.  The good news is they’re not as temperamental as regular waffles either, a few extra minutes doesn’t ruin them.  But do give them that extra time, or you will be eating batter.

*Many professionals believe that the test is purely a measure of what you’ve eaten, and that the immune reaction does not present a problem.  My personal experience is that I do much better when I avoid these foods.

My Comparative Advantage in Effective Altruism

Comparative advantage is the idea that the person you want doing task X is not necessarily the one who is the best at X relative to your other choices, or relative to other tasks.  What you want is the person for whom their ability to do X * the importance of X is more valuable than anything else they could be doing.

Up until age 12, I was the Word Kid and my brother was the Computer Kid.  I read 10 books a week, he turned our IBM/Amiga into an Amiga at age 5 and we’re still not sure how.  I could play games and use the internet, but I knew nothing about the inner workings.  We got a new computer when I was 12, back when tech support was both competent and extremely necessary because that thing constantly broke.*  You would think this would be my brother’s job, but he was Not Good at talking to people.  My dad was good technically but was at work while tech support open.  My mom was home at the right time but still viewed the computer as a fragile word processor that generated many fights between the kids.  So despite not being the best at computers or talking to people, I had the comparative advantage in talking to tech support.  I want to say “I was good at it”, but honestly, I knew enough to follow directions and report results in a useful manner.  Nonetheless, it gave me some knowledge of something, and by the next year I was a STEM person.**  My first love was biology, but I needed a second major to justify four years at college, and I picked computer science.

But strictly practical computer science.  My first choice for second major was math, which I had been extremely good at when taking classes at community college in high school, when they were applied classes taught by people hired for their ability to teach.  My first class at actual university was theoretical hired by someone hired for his ability to bring in grant money, and I hated it.  I got through my first CS theory class because the professor was entertaining, but I resented it the whole time.  The next semester I had what should have been an applied class, but it had a habit of tacking on theoretical problems to the projects.  However much I hated theory, my partner hated it worse.  So despite being extremely bad at theory, I had the comparative advantage.  At the end of the semester, despite everything going against me- it was a miserable, poorly taught class and both my partner and I had the worst semesters of our college careers- I found myself really liking theory.  I not only enjoyed the subsequent mandatory theory classes, I did all my CS electives in theory.

This is what I thought of reading Ben Kuhn’s post on comparative advantage in EA.  You have a group of people who have spent their whole lives with their comparative advantage in math, science, and logical thinking.***  This means that all the squishy stuff inherent in running an organization- leading discussions, advertising, mediating disputes- is going to be done by someone who hasn’t done it much before.  This makes EA a tremendous driver of growth for the participants, independent of the good EA does for the world.  All three of us organizers have leveled up in leadership in the very short time we’ve been doing it, in ways I think will carry over to other spheres.

I still kind of choke on the idea that I’ve got a comparative advantage in organizing, but I am the one who said yes and my work appears to be net-positive, so on a practical level I guess I do.  I’m also the person best read in social justice,  so I was the one that wrote our don’t-be-a-dick policy and who a member approached when she was feeling marginalized.   Which is also not something you would have guessed looking at me at 18. These are all almost totally unrelated to my normal comparative advantages of “math”, “systems level thinking” and “simplifying complex things.”

It is really good for people to experience doing things they’ve never done before.  It also good for the person with the comparative advantage to do them because they are done faster and better.  It is good to have diversity of thought in an organization, and while my EA group is not as terrible as it once was****, we could do a lot better.  This is partially a reminder to myself next time I’m mad at systems or people for being inefficient that sometimes the extra energy is going somewhere good.

*As witnessed by the whole “owning an IBM/Amiga thing”, my dad was not good at choosing computers and had yet to turn the responsibility over to his offspring.

**This, of course, a drastic oversimplification.  There were a lot of other things involved

***I put myself in that category despite my early childhood experience because it was so early.

****So everyone here is a programmer?” “No, James works with robots.”

Cis and Trans

I assume almost everyone is familiar with transgender or transsexual, meaning someone whose gender identity doesn’t match up with what they were assigned with at birth based on their genitals.  For a long time there was no good way to describe some who was not transsexual.  “Biological” and “natural” implied trans people were artificial or unnatural.  “Women born women” was at odds with trans people’s image of themselves as having always been the gender they identify as*.

[Actually, it’s more complicated than that.  According to Julie Serano’s Whipping Girl, while some trans women did always feel like a woman trapped in a man’s body, the dominance of that paradigm was driven by medical gatekeeping.  Doctors would not let male-appearing people get treatment to make them appear more feminine (e.g. hormones, breast removal) unless they were convinced the person fell into a very specific narrative, including being very stereotypically feminine and having always considered themselves women.  This means that there are a bunch of people who would have identified as trans women under more open circumstances who aren’t being counted, and those that did get through the process have a deep memory that their continued access to treatment that makes them psychologically whole is dependent on other people believing they believe they have always been women.]

Finally, someone came up with cis, which I loved because it was the only time between graduating college and starting this blog that anything I learned in organic chemistry came up in the real world.   In chemistry, cis is the opposite of trans.  A molecule’s molecular formula doesn’t tell you everything about it.  If you want to read the exact definition it’s here, but the important point is that cis and trans are roughly opposites (just like L- and R-), and trans means roughly “on opposite sides” and cis means roughly “on the same side.” (in Latin, of course).  So when I heard cis-woman I knew exactly what it meant, with no explanation.  When you throw in that it is shorter and more accurate than the terms it was attempting to replace, I was sold.

It only recently occurred to me that most people have not taken organic chemistry or Latin, so to them cis was one more g-ddamned thing to memorize.  But now you know, and you can tell your friends, and everyone can adopt this much shorter, simpler, more precise term.

What doctors can learn from day care workers

So if being fat is bad for people, than doctors should tell them not to be fat, right?  Or at least tell them to eat vegetables and hit the elliptical, right?

Well, maybe.  But sometime around age two humans realize that they are independent beings who do not physically have to do everything an authority tells them to do.  Unfortunately, most doctors’ patients are over the age of two, and those that aren’t have their own issues.

vomiting baby
They’re gross

Telling people to do things they already know they need to do has mixed results.  Scott Alexander suggests alcoholism could be decreased by as much as 13% if doctors would spend five minutes telling alcoholics it was bad for them.  What this doesn’t capture is how lectures change the doctor-patient relationship.  It is very difficult to give a non-judgmental lecture when your billing model gives you 10 minutes per patient.  Patients might avoid or delay visits for problems- alcohol related or not- in order to avoid the lecture.  This is a pretty big issue with overweight patients, and apparently without upside: patients lectured by their doctors are more likely to attempt weight loss but no more likely to achieve it.

In this TED talk, Thomas Goetz talks about a study of dental patients (no cite, unfortunately) that found that scaring them had no effect, but patients’ belief in their own ability to floss had a large one.  It’s impossible for me to separate my personal experience from this data.  Multiple dentists and hygienists told me my pain was my fault for terrible oral hygiene, and if I brushed and flossed it would go away.  This turned out to be untrue on a couple of levels.  The pain was caused by structural damage and internal infection, which may have been made incrementally worse by oral plaques but wasn’t caused by it.  And I was actually brushing pretty regularly, it just wasn’t do anything.  Then I started treating a completely unrelated digestive problem, and suddenly my teeth were cleaner.  I didn’t even tell my dentist anything had changed, she asked spontaneously.  So I guess, yeah, patients belief in their own ability to effect change matters, and if they don’t believe it, maybe consider that they’re correct and investigate why.

But let’s go one step farther.  Crum and Langer did an interesting experiment on two groups of hotel maids.  Both were told exercise is good for you.  One was given additional information about the intensity level of the work they did all day, and told just by going to work they were exceeding the surgeon general’s RDA of exercise.  Four weeks later, the informed group was slightly thinner (they even checked body fat %.  I am so pleased) and had lower blood pressure .  Not astoundingly lower(10 points on diastolic BP), but it was only four weeks, and a pamphlet is even less work than a doctor lecture.

This suggests that one of the more helpful things public health officials can do is reinforce the good things people are already doing.  You did a stretch?  Hurray for you.  Check parking lot twice before accepting a far out spot?  Still counts.  It would not shock me if part of the health improvements attributed to standing desks turned out to be simply a halo effect of feeling like you made a healthy choice.  Which coincidentally is how you turn a two year old into a civilized human being.

Multifactor analysis

Elodie Under Glass (no relation) has a guest post up at Captain Awkward about dealing with family members with disabilities/when you have a disability. You should read the whole thing and the comments, because it lives up to CA’s high standards, but here’s the thread I want to talk about: one LW owns a house that is unable to accommodate her disabled father comfortably. It’s three stories, no elevator, no bathroom on the ground floor, and she doesn’t have a good bed to offer him. He has MS. Some people viewed her choice of house as a failure to accommodate her father properly. Others pointed out that it’s quite possible she couldn’t afford a disability-friendly house, or the renovations necessary to make it so. One commenter went so far as to say:

The people replying to you rightfully take issue with your snide implication that the LW should have just bought a smaller house- which has no correlation to price of house.

Which is clearly bullshit.  It is true that size is not the only determinant of the price of a house.  It may even be true that in a particular set of houses (one that sampled over a wide geography, time, condition, and set of amenities), price and size are not particularly predictive of each other.  But if you hold those others factors constant, size is strongly positively correlated with price. So while I do believe people should get off the LW’s case about buying a house that couldn’t accommodate her father, for lots of reasons, I think saying there’s nothing she could have done to accommodate him is wrong.

This is actually a pretty good metaphor for weight, if houses actively fucked with you to maintain their price within a set range. Build an addition to your house?  Black mold. Hog rendering plant built upwind?  Enjoy your newly refinished basement.  Eat less fewer calories?  Enjoy catching twice as many colds this year.  Eat more calories?  Never stop fidgeting.  Weight is not beyond our influence, but neither is it completely in our control.

Back exercises

My back pain book recommended a stretch in which you lie on the floor, with your hips and knees at a 90 degree angle,  resting your hands on your quads, then lightly press your legs into your hands.  I didn’t even try it, because I knew my back wasn’t strong enough to hold the position.  But when I do the same stretch with my feet resting on an exercise ball, it feels awesome.  I can’t be sure I’m getting the same stretch because the book didn’t include a musculature chart, but it is definitely doing something good.

Review and Science: Thomas Was Alone

Humans have an amazing ability to ascribe intention and emotion when logic tells us there could not possibly be any, a fact demonstrated most succinctly by this clip from Community

but proven somewhat more rigorously by An experimental study of apparent behaviour (PDF), in which experimental subjects were asked to watch and describ a short film showing some shapes moving around.  If you would like to play along at home, I’ve embedded the video below.

The first subject group (n=34 undergraduate women) was given no instruction beyond “describe what happened in the movie.”  Exactly one subject described it in purely geometric terms.  Two others described the shapes as birds, and the rest described them as humans.  19 gave a full story.  The stories people told  (in this treatment and another where subjects were primed to view the shapes as people) had a shocking amount in common, suggesting there was something innate in the interpretation.*

My point is, humans will bond with anything.  In many ways it’s easier to bond with/project onto simple objects than actual humans or almost humans.  This can be used to great effect in art, to evoke desired emotions without all the messiness of using real people.  A simple example is an extremely short, simple game whose name I’m not going to tell you, because it would bias your experience of it.

Did you play it?  The game’s name is Loneliness.  Can you guess why?

I like to think the shunned little square from Loneliness grew up in to be Chris in Thomas Was Alone, a game about rectangles making friends.  Thomas Was Alone‘s premise sounds kinds of dumb: it’s a puzzle platformer with some narration ascribing emotions to the rectangles you solve puzzles with.  But it pulls this off so masterfully I actually bought branded merchandise of it, which is something I can’t say about a single other game.  The story is genuinely sweet, but the real skill is in how the puzzles reinforce it.  Each rectangle has slightly different skills, some more useful than others.  Chris is a shitty jumper whose initial story revolved around resenting the better jumper, and who is nothing but dead weight in the first puzzles (the other rectangles could get through without him, but he could not with them) suddenly becomes indispensable, I felt pride and relief.

TWA starts out a little slow.  If you want to play, finish the first world before deciding whether to continue or quit.  But I highly recommend it both as an interesting example of human psychology, and as a piece of happy art, which I don’t think we see enough of.

Okay, fine, I don’t see enough of because I’m a severe subscriber to the dark and edgy trend.  But that just makes Thomas Was Alone more impressive.

*Attenuated by the fact that women attending college during WW2 is a narrow subset of the population.

Wish me luck

Fourth dental surgery (this year) is today (not counting when they snapped that extra bone off).  I’ve buffered with some content but it’s going to be kind of grab bag for a bit, possibly even the rest of the year.  I have two different multi-book reviews in the pipeline but apparently other people use the library too, so neither is done.  I loved doing that HAES deep dive but it was seriously tiring and there was no way I was finishing another before this surgery.  So enjoy my forthcoming waffle mix review and have a happy solstice celebration of your choice.