Monthly Archives: December 2015

2015 donations

GiveWell: $6,000
I needed to use up company matching quickly before quitting and GiveWell is never a bad choice.
Raising for Effective Giving: $5,000
I am generally fairly skeptical of fundraising charities, especially fundraising charities targeting EAs.  Their mechanisms for evaluating effectiveness seem pretty weak (e.g. Giving What We Can counting donations pledged to be made in 40 years by people who have never donated once).*  That doesn’t mean they’re ineffective or can’t become effective, but I didn’t sign up for this movement to throw money and hope it was at the right place.

REG is different. First, they started with an extremely specific mission: convincing poker players to pledge small portions of their winnings to effective charities. This is a group that was donating minimally before, and is much more susceptible to quantitative arguments than the general population.  They count only money already donated, not pledges. And their plans for expansion seem similarly crafted for very specific niches.  (More or less the same model for fantasy football, microtransactions in video games).  The money raised goes to charities I like

Tostan: $5000
Continuing education courses in small African villages teaching things like literacy, numeracy, cell phone usage, basic medical info, human rights… a lot of different stuff, basically. That makes them hard to measure, and they turned down GiveWell when they tried. But! They did share their data with someone at the Gates Foundation, who found them extremely effective, and I trust his judgement. My focus isn’t “who is producing the highest numbers right now”, it’s “who has the best system for improving themselves and is aimed at the right thing.” Tostan’s classes grew out of requests from the community, so it some ways this is the continuing ed version of GiveDirectly.

That said, I’m working on getting numbers from them. There’s a few different charities I’ve given money to that called me to thank me and ask for my input on their long term plans. My response is usually “but I gave you the money on the assumption you were better at curing poverty than me”, but this year I’m hoping to leverage it into getting them to talk to one of the evaluator charities.** It is not my only plan for accomplishing this, but it seemed worth a shot. And I’d like to offer that as an argument for donating to charities that do things uniquely right while falling down in other ways: once they’re paying attention to you you can nudge them to do better.

 

*This was uncomfortable to write given that I have friends that work at fundraising charities, but I think they will understand that that is why I had to publish it.

**Specifically Giving What We Can, whose wildly optimistic numbers could theoretically be part of the puzzle that gets Tostan to publish more public data.  I’m also trying to get Treehouse to talk to Impact Matters, on the strength of last year’s donation.

Solstice Speech Playlist

I mentioned I had a few things playing in my head when I wrote the speech and more than one person has asked what they were, so here is the list in no particular order.

This is who you are- Trans Siberian Orchestra


“You can run from all the memory but never get that far/For in the end they’ll find you/For this is who you are”

I Get Knocked Down- Tubthumping


“I get knocked down, but I get up again/You’re never gonna keep me down”

“Don’t Let us Get Sick”- written by Warren Zevon, performed by Madeline Martin


“Just make us be brave/and make us play nice”

A good part of the first act of Hamilton, but especially
Guns And Ships

Yorktown


“I’m Hercules Mulligan/I need no introduction/when you knock me down I get the fuck back up again”

Vindicated- Dashboard Confessional


“And I am flawed/but I am cleaning up so well”

More than Useless- Reliant K


“I’m a little more than useless/ And I never knew I knew this/ Was gonna the day, gonna be the day/ That I would do something right/ Do something right for once”

Amigone- Goo Goo Dolls


“Is it too late to call and tell you to be strong?”

No one who knows me expected me to go this whole thing without mentioning Guardians of the Galaxy


“Usually life takes more than it gives, but not today”

There isn’t a good clip for this, but the following memory was very present in my mind: I was 13, and either about to watch or had just watched Schindler’s List. My mom explained that the beauty of it was that this guy had up until that point been a mild negative on the world, found something morally righteous he needed to do, and the skills he’d acquired being a mild negative were instrumental to doing it. People who’d been morally righteous their whole life couldn’t have done what he did. That stuck with me in a way basically no other moral instruction from my parents did.

Talking about controversial things (discussion version)

There is a particular failure pattern I’ve seen in many different areas.  Society as a whole holds view A on subject X.  A small sub-group holds opposing view B.   Members of the sub group have generally put more thought into subject X and they have definitely spent more time arguing about it than the average person on the street.  Many A-believes have never heard of View B or the arguments for it before.

A relative stranger shows up at a gathering of the subgroup and begins advocating view A, or just questioning view B.  The sub-group assumes this is a standard person who has never heard their arguments and launches into the standard spiel.  B doesn’t listen, A gets frustrated and leaves the subgroup, since no one is going to listen to their ideas.

One possibility is that the stranger is an average member of society who genuinely believes you’ve gone your entire life without hearing the common belief and if they just say it slowly and loud enough you’ll come around.*  Another possibility is they understand view B very well and have some well considered objections to it that happen to sound like view A (or don’t sound that similar but the B-believer isn’t bothering to listen closely enough to find out).  They feel blown off and disrespected and leave.

In the former scenario, the worst case is that you lose someone you could have recruited.  Oh well.  If the latter, you lose valuable information about where you might be wrong.  If you always react to challenges this way you become everything hate.

For example: pop evolutionary psychology is awful and people are right to ignore it.  I spent years studying animal behavior and it gave me insights that fall under the broad category of evopsych, except for they are correct.  It is extremely annoying to have those dismissed with “no, but see, society influences human behavior.”

Note that B doesn’t have to be right for this scenario to play out.  Your average creationist or anti-vaxxer has thought more about the topic and spent more time arguing it than almost anyone.  If an ignorant observer watched a debate and chose a winner based on fluidity and citations they would probably choose the anti-vaxxer.  They are still wrong.

Or take effective altruism.  I don’t mind losing people who think measuring human suffering with numbers is inherently wrong.  But if we ignore that entire sphere we won’t hear the people who find the specific way we are talking dehumanizing, and have suggestions on how to fix that while still using numbers.  A recent facebook post made me realize that the clinical tone of most EA discussions plus a willingness to entertain all questions (even if the conclusion is abhorrent) is going to make it really, really hard for anyone with first hand experience of problems to participate.  First hand experience means Feelings means the clinical tone requires a ton of emotional energy even if they’re 100% on board intellectually.  This is going to cut us off from a lot of information.

There’s some low hanging fruit to improve this (let people talk before telling them they are wrong), but the next level requires listening to a lot of people be un-insightfully wrong, which no one is good at and EAs in particular have a low tolerance for.

Sydney and I are spitballing ideas to work on this locally.  I think it’s an important problem at the movement-level, but do not have time to take it on as a project.**  If you have thoughts please share.

*Some examples: “If you ate less and exercised more you’d lose weight.”  “If open offices bother you why don’t you use headphones?”, “but vaccines save lives.”, “God will save you…”/”God isn’t real”, depending on exactly where you are.

**Unexpected benefit of doing direct work: 0 pangs about turning down other projects.  I can’t do everything and this is not my comparative advantage.

Talking about controversial things (speech version)

Some of the things I said in my speech were so obviously personal that controversy wasn’t a relevant concept (I personally am terrified of dementia).  Some were uncontroversial (babies dying of malaria = bad).  Some were so controversial and such a minority view that they were obviously meant to be provocative (female circumcision is, on the individual level, a loving choice).  But what I want to talk about are the statements that are controversial on a national scale but tend to have strong agreement w/i a subgroup.

I always get really nervous when people say things in that category as if they’re certain, much more so then when people state their batshit views as a certainty.  I think it’s because in the latter, you can be reasonably sure the person knows the views are fringe and can take their certainty as a sign of belief, rather than security other people agree with them.  Moreover, the social consequences for disagreeing with them are likely to be localized.  They can get as mad as they want but the worst I will face from other people is annoyance I took the troll bait.

But if someone is stating a locally-uncontroversial/globally controversial view as a certainty, and especially if they’re implying negative things about people who hold the opposite view, I don’t have that security.  It suggests they don’t recognize that “good” (for however you define it) people could hold different views, and that there might be severe social consequences for publicly disagreeing.

An example:  in a 5 person seminar I took in college in 2004 (biology, no human component), a professor said the following: “something something I’m from Texas…. but don’t blame me I hate George Bush.”  I felt really unsafe that a professor would so obviously put down the views of a nontrivial minority of his students.  This despite the fact that during those ellipses, I was thinking “ew, did he vote for George Bush?”

It was important to me during my speech to not just list bad things in the third world, as if the first world were some egalitarian dream.  It was also important to me I didn’t shy away from talking about scary things because I was worried about the personal consequences (e.g. people get mad at me).  At the same time, I wasn’t invited to give a speech on Things Elizabeth Thinks.  I was fulfilling a specific purpose and it wasn’t okay to use it as a platform for my pet projects.  But it’s a purpose that can really only be fulfilled with a substantial amount of raw emotional energy, which is inherently personal.

My original thought was to mention the number of black teenage boys and young adults shot down by cops.  Nothing ends potential like dying.  If that had been controversial to the point that people in the room (most of whom were strangers to each other) felt comfortable disagreeing, I would have said it.  But there was a serious risk that someone would either disagree and feel uncomfortable saying anything, or would agree but still feel like this was a group that didn’t tolerate dissent because they didn’t acknowledge disagreement.  Under other circumstances I would simply have acknowledged the controversy, but the speech really wasn’t set up for that.  But saying nothing felt like throwing black people under the bus because their pain was inconvenient to me.

 

 

My ultimate solution was to

  1. remove direct references to race.  Under other circumstances this would be a bullshit move (white men and black men do not face equal chances of imprisonment), but the entire list was full of things that obviously applied to a specific group and I never named the group, so I felt good about it in this context.
  2. Moved from talking about shootings to the criminal justice system as a whole.  This tends to be less of a lightning rod and there’s more room for numbers to settle arguments.  And while I wasn’t thinking this at the time, someone pointed out this actually affects a lot more people.
  3. An intermediate version talked about politicians punishing people disproportionately because it got them votes.  I dropped this because motives are hard to argue and ultimately irrelevant to the damage done.
  4. Dropped argument that the people were entirely innocent.  Some of them are, of course, but you can argue that to death without making any progress.
  5. Focused on the sticky nature of the criminal justice system rather than any one decision.  Then if I had to argue it, it was about results, which are provable with numbers.

 

There’s a lot of bad stuff about race in America I left out.  But there’s a lot of non-race bad stuff in America and the rest of the world I also left out.  The speech could only be so long.  This to me felt like a respectful acknowledgement of the issue while integrating it into the larger purpose of the speech.

 

My Solstice Speech

Seattle held it’s second secular solstice celebration tonight.  I was lucky enough to give the speech of darkness.  This is what I said.
The tradition for these speeches is to talk about death, which makes sense.  It’s the darkest day of the year, and when humans see darkness they see death.  I have a confession: death doesn’t bother me that much.  I assume because I’ve never had a person I was close to die. It’s not that I don’t fear death, but it’s entirely an intellectual fear.  I can do math around it.

So when I think about aging, it’s not death that haunts me me.  It’s dementia. The slow eroding of everything I was into a broken shell that can only feel hurt and hurt others.    Forgetting everything I was, everything I worked so hard to make myself into.  That thought is what will make me break down.

You don’t have to wait until you’re 80 to lose yourself like that. I had several dental surgeries last year, resulting in serious nerve damage.  It hurt, a lot, but that wasn’t the worst part.  The worst part was what pain did to my ability to do anything else.  I had always defined myself by my intellectual abilities and suddenly I could.  not.  think.  I couldn’t work, I couldn’t make complex plans and trust myself to follow through.  The day the neurologist told me I was healing and there were things to do in the meantime was such a relief I almost couldn’t process it.

Humans are capable of such astonishing things.  We went from grunts, to speech, to storytelling, to books in monasteries, to the printing press, to this device in my hand that will show me most of the world’s knowledge instantaneously.  There are few places in the world I couldn’t get to in 24 hours, and fewer I couldn’t talk to someone in the same time.   A disease that wiped out half of Europe can be treated with a handful of pills and for the first time we live long enough for dementia to even be a concern.

The funny thing about everything I just listed is that they’re both fantastic technical accomplishments, and enablers of other people’s potential. Sometimes that lets people invent more marvels.  Sometimes it just makes them a little happier and a little safer.  For the former to have meaning the latter must too.  

But a lot of people who did have the potential to change the world are never able to use it.  And they didn’t lose it at 30 either.

Right now there are infants dying of parasites we know how to kill because their parents had to choose between food and bednets.

There are toddlers whose brains will never develop properly because an infection drew too many scarce calories during a critical phase.  There are others who will have the same problem because their food has too many calories and not enough folic acid.

There are children whose families scrimp and save to send them to school, which is taught in a language they don’t understand.

There are teenage girls dying in childbirth because they were born into a society where the genuinely loving choice was to sew their labias shut.  There are teenage boys being sentenced to a criminal justice system they will never be able leave because they did one thing wrong in a system that demands perfection from them.

There are adults who survived all of that with their intellect and health intact but will never be anything more than a slightly more prosperous farmer because their village is too poor to generate the resources that would let them leave for somewhere richer.

There are entire families dying at sea because their home was destroyed by a war they didn’t start and no one will let them in anywhere else.

There are people whose brains tell them they are worthless no matter what they do.

There are people who had every advantage in life and instead of propelling them further, it made them think effort wasn’t necessary.

There are people whose parents viewed them as a burden or a threat and did everything they could to break them down, or who loved them more than anything but lacked the physical or emotional ability to follow through on that love.

All of these things are going on all the time.  

Please join me in a moment of silence and darkness

(blow out candle, room is dark)

In the face of all of that, we are doing okay.  People in hell find friends and fall in love and raise families.  Parents change their society so their children will not face the same problems they did.  Smallpox is never coming back.    People who never should have survived use the deprivation and torture they experienced as fuel to help others.  People who were born lazy and selfish and never thought of others encounter a situation bad enough and find something heroic in themselves after all.  Not all of them, not even a lot of them, but enough.  They rise up, and they take the rest of us with them.  

The tradition here is to talk about humanity as one long glorious march of progress.  That would be a lie.   Rome fell and Europe saw infrastructure it no longer understood crumble around it.  Baghdad didn’t reach its pre-Ghengis Khan population density until the 20th century.  Agriculture led to a lot of the diseases we are so proud of vanquishing.

But every time that happened, we came back.  Roman aqueducts are toys compared to our sanitation systems.  We beat not only the diseases we created, but the injuries and opportunistic infections hunter/gatherers had no defense against.  We burned the library of Alexandria but invented the internet.

However bad things got, however far we fell, we held on to whatever let us make the leap the first place and we did it again.  Better.  At our core, we are resilient.  Right now we are taking incredible strides against every threat I just listed, including death itself.

(relight candle)

So here, two days before the shortest day of the year, we recognize the darkness we are facing.  And as I share this light with you, we recognize how we are fighting back.

(lights sharing candle, shares)

 

The Giving What We Can Pledge

On one hand, I think the  Giving What We Can pledge (10% of your income to the most effective charities) is an excellent idea and I’d be thrilled if me plugging it led to an additional pledge.  On the other hand, I haven’t signed it and don’t plan on doing so.  This makes me feel kind of awkward suggesting other people do.

I have many aborted paragraphs written about why I think the pledge is a good idea but not for me, but in retrospect they’re mostly fluff.  It boils down to: I have a strong need to create my own number.

Scott Alexander talks about how satisfying having A Number that he can reach and then feel done is to him.  This seems extremely valuable, and 10% seems like a reasonable number.  But it doesn’t do that for me.  If I had billion dollars I’d need to give more, and if I accepted a job that paid $20,000/year but saved the bottom billion, I would hang on to that $2,000, thank you very much.  Not just because I earned it, but because spending the money on myself would actually do more good for the world, by freeing up my time and energy.

In order to feel done, I need to exhaustively examine my income, spending, and choices. That means the pledge can’t possibly save me work or increase my emotional satisfaction.  But if I signed it and circumstances arose such that me giving less than 10% was the right thing to do, I would feel awful about breaking it.  To the point I might subconsciously prevent myself from even considering the option.*

The other common reasons I hear for signing are to push better behavior in future!you, to create a community of giving, and as a useful conversation starter.  These are all excellent goals.  In my particular case, future!Elizabeth has been so consistently smarter and kinder than past!Elizabeth that think she will make better decisions than me and I don’t want to constrain her.  Given that, I think I’ll do a better job contributing to a culture of giving by fostering a culture of deep thought around giving (which not everyone will or should participate in).***

So basically, signing the Giving What We Can pledge is incompatible with my version of scrupulosity.  But it might be extremely compatible with yours.  If the idea of having a target and then being done appeals to you, I highly suggest you consider signing.  But if having a hard target feels awful and spending  several hours thinking about exactly much to donate feels fun or satisfying, consider coming to Seattle EA’s donation decision day (in person, but we’ll create a virtual meeting room if there’s interest) or creating your own.

 

*I did in fact take a pay cut to work for Sendwave, which enables people to send money to their families in Africa cheaply and easily.  I am going back and forth on how that affects giving.  Last year I did 10% + offsets for things with negative externalities (eating meat and my bullshit patent).  This year I  took a way more than 10% paycut to do way, way more good than I could possibly have done with donations.  So in a certain sense I’ve already given 10% of my potential income and could consider that obligation met. On the other hand, I would have accepted the same pay from puppies-killing-kittens.org if it meant working from home**, so there’s a strong argument that doesn’t count against my born-lucky tax.  On the third hand, I’m starting with UI testing and I hate UI testing, so doesn’t that count for something?  On the fourth hand, in the grand scale of human suffering, no, it does not.

The plan I made last year means donations this year are against last year’s tax return, so for now I can just follow that.  Except some of it will be in January so I can use more employer matching.  But I don’t know what I’m going to do next year.

**Which is everything I ever dreamed it could be.

***Obviously they’re not mutually exclusive.  Unit of Caring has pledged 30% and contributes a fabulous amount to discourse.

Talk to me for an hour

Short version: do you have a thing you really like talking about?  Email me at elizabeth @ this domain name to talk about it.

Long version: some of my favorite conversations involve me or someone else sharing a thing they find really, really interesting.  Sometimes it we both have expertise in the area and it turns into a discussion, sometimes only one does and it’s more like a lesson.  I love both of those, and I want more in my life.  As a reader of my blog you have already proven yourself a connoisseur of interesting information and analysis (and modesty), so you seem like an excellent candidate to have these conversations with.  If you would like to

  1. Talk to me in depth about a thing I’ve written
  2. Talk to me in depth about a thing you’re passionate about.
  3. Play double crux argument over just about anything

email me at elizabeth @ this domain and we’ll set up a time.  If you are reading this, it applies to you.  Some of the best discussions are about things people were really shy to bring up because they didn’t think anyone else would care.  I can’t promise to care when we’re done, but you’ll notice I find a lot of things interesting, and it’s worth an hour of my time to find out if your thing is.

Additional incentive: I have many interesting opinions I am too scared to write down.

Unquantified Self

Recently I did a CFAR workshop.  No one has settled on a good description of CFAR, but I think a good one would be “getting the different parts of your brain to coordinate with each other.”  The further I get from CFAR the more positively I view the experience, which suggests that I did the same thing with EA Global, which suggests I overestimated CFAR’s primary flaw (not being EA Global), which makes me view it even more positively.

CFAR suggests you go into the workshop with a problem to solve.  Fortunately but perhaps inconveniently, I went through a personal growth spurt right before CFAR.  It’s not that I was out of problems to solve, but the repercussions of the previous solutions had not yet worked their way through the system so it was hard to see what the next round would be.   Then I solved food.  For those of you who are just tuning in, I have/had lifelong medical issues that made food physically difficult, which made it psychologically difficult, which made the physical issues worse.  Clearing out all the anxiety around food in a weekend is not a small thing.  But to really achieve it’s full power I have to follow it up with things like “how do you choose food based on things other than terror?” and “stoves: how do they work?” So that’s a bunch more work.*

I left CFAR with some new things and some refinement on some old things.  I didn’t want to lose what I’d gotten at the workshop so I tried to do follow ups but I felt… full.  Defensive.  Like it was attempting to take up space in my brain and if it succeeded I would lose a lot of work.

My way of solving problems, which is either what CFAR teaches too or what I extracted from whatever CFAR actually does, is to understand them super well.  Eventually a solution just falls out and application is trivial.**  Some of this comes from focused thought, but there’s a lot of opportunistic noticing.  I store bits of information until suddenly they coalesce into a pattern.  As anyone who’s read Getting Things Done will tell you, storing information in your brain is expensive.  So I decided I needed a way to store all this opportunistic data, plus things from the conscious experiments I was running, to keep it all straight.

This is hard to do.  Take the comparatively simple “go to gym every day”.  There are 400 billion apps that will track this for me and I have never stuck with one of them, because they are boring and seeing the numbers go up doesn’t motivate me for more than a week.  More generally, I’ve never been able to get into quantified self because if I know what data to measure the problem is already solved.  I don’t really care how many calories I burned.  I do care what mental blocks inhibited me from going (bed so comfy, outside is cold, feeling like I stayed in bed too long and now I have to do Real Work) and how I maneuvered things so it didn’t take willpower to fight those (“remember how you feel much more productive after the gym and have an awesome job that doesn’t care when you work?”).  There is no app for that.

Then there are more difficult problems like “New information indicates I handled something 9 months ago really poorly, but I’m not sure what I’d do differently then with only the information I had at the time, without causing other problems.”  Or “My friend triggered an intense premortem that made me realize I’m ignoring information on project X just like I did with project Y last year, but I don’t know what that information is.”  I still don’t know what I’m going to do about the former, for the latter I tracked “things that feel like they’re hitting the same part of my brain” until a pattern emerged.  Tracking patterns for “things you are actively trying not to think about” is not cheap.

So I needed a system that could hold this information for me, that would show me information I didn’t realize was connected as I recorded it.  Without being cluttered.  The closest analogy I could come up with was an old timey naturalist.  They had a bunch of set things they knew they were looking for (what eats this flower), but also wanted to record cool things and then be able to connect to other cool things later (why are all these finches different yet similar?).    I don’t know how old timey naturalists did that with pen and paper because that did not work for me at all.  I tried workflowy and a google docs but just sat there frozen, unable to figure out how to sort the information.

My CFAR partner  Tilia Bell had a really good idea, which was to use a private wordpress blog.  I could give an entry as many tags as I wanted, and read tags when they felt relevant.  Or just the success tag, because winning feels nice.  This was a huge improvement, but wordpress is kind of clunky and annoying.  In particular, the tagging system does not flow at all.

I talked about it with Brian, who suggested a one person slack.  I could use channels for defined projects and tags for observations I wanted to connect later.  To be fair, this idea is three hours old.  On the other hand, in 20 minutes applying it I figured out what piece of information I was ignoring in that problem my brain didn’t want to look at.  I’m not saying it’s the sole cause, I’ve gathered a lot of information this past week.  But since “connecting things I already noticed” is pretty much its point, it seems promising.

*My nutritionist is finding me much easier to work with now.

**I’m exaggerating some but it’s more true than it has any right to be.