2016 Fundraiser for Air - Climate Change Charity Investigation

As I mentioned previously I have been trying to decide on a charity for this year's fundraiser and having some trouble deciding. Ultimately I realized that what I am most interested in funding is not climate change mitigation, but reversal. Estimates tell us that 350 parts per million CO2 is about what is "normal" or would maintain current temperatures on Earth. Well unfortunately we are at 400 ppm and still climbing. So even if we suddenly halt all emissions, there will still be fallout from the amount of CO2 currently in our atmosphere.

Want to skip the research and just donate to the cause? Fair enough. Click on the picture below to redirect to the donation page.

There are several ideas for CO2 emission reversals out there. Quite a number of them revolve around geoengineering, which just sort of sounds cyber-punky and sci-fi ish for a thing so serious. But nomenclature and branding problems aside, we will need to come up with a way to mitigate anticipated temperatures (aside from generally advising people to not by land near a flood zone). A number of these seem a bit outlandish or even dangerous - imagine if some sort of solar reflector suddenly failed!

One option that stuck out to me for it's relative simplicity, viability and minimal potential fallout was using soil as a carbon sink, otherwise known as soil carbon sequestration. Despite this not being something I had heard of previously there is fairly extensive research on the topic.

So what is soil carbon sequestration?

Or how do you pump carbon into the ground

Long answer:

Explained by the Knowledge Project here, however

Abbreviated answer:

It is the circle of life.

Don't start singing yet. It turns out that this circle is exceedingly complicated, but there is a lot that we know that can help us understand the potential impact of carbon sequestration into soil.

If you recall your last botany class (otherwise known as the "plant" chapter in your high school biology textbook) plants live by using energy from the sun and carbon in the air through photosynthesis, and by drawing nutrients and water up from the ground through their roots. It is through this intake of carbon during photosynthesis that stores the carbon in plants. The plants then shed biomatter, their roots decay, or they die which all decomposes into humus, the organic (carbon rich) part of dirt.

Carbon balance within the soil (brown box) is controlled by carbon inputs from photosynthesis and carbon losses by respiration. Decomposition of roots and root products by soil fauna and microbes produces humus, a long-lived store of SOC. © 2012  Nature Education

Carbon balance within the soil (brown box) is controlled by carbon inputs from photosynthesis and carbon losses by respiration. Decomposition of roots and root products by soil fauna and microbes produces humus, a long-lived store of SOC.
© 2012 Nature Education

However the process of this decomposition involves fungi and microbes that eat the biomatter and then expel (you guessed it) carbon. So one of the key parts of creating good carbon sequestration is making sure you are doing it in a climate that has lots of plant growth, but slow decomposition and fungal growth. This all sounds simple(ish), but it turns out that natural systems are incredibly complex and have lots of moving parts, which means there are lots of factors that need to be taken into consideration when attempting to create a biological carbon sync. I mean, like a whole hell of a lot of factors. 

Because the botanical circle of life is so complex it is still unclear if carbon soil sequestration is a sufficient or viable solution to climate change mitigation.

However it does seem promising enough to warrant further research and investment.

So there seems to be a lot of potential in carbon sequestration through improved agricultural practices (C sequestration rates of 0.6 to 1.2 Gt C/yr in cropland coils), which would also lead to increased crop yields to support a growing population. That being said one of biggest carbon sinks we currently have are our rain forests (with a potential of 0.8-1.0 Gt C/yr through afforestation in tropical forest ecosystems). This brings me back to an original recommendation I read when starting my research: CoolEarth.

The number listed above in the Virginia Tech study is about afforestation, whereas CoolEarth works on preventing deforestation. While I couldn't find any hard data on the amount a current living rain forest could additionally sequester, prevention is also good because deforestation isn't just pulling down ecosystems and habitats it is actually knocking down current carbon sinks! Aaak!

Did I mention that these are very complicated systems and a very crowded space?


While I feel like I have become far more knowledgeable about ecology, and how agriculture, forests, and human interventions can impact climate change, I still don't feel completely confident in saying that any one avenue is the most impactful option to slow, prevent, or mitigate climate change. I do think that further research and knowledge aggregation of current data has the potential to be very effective. But again, I lack the confidence to back any particular horse to get this job done.

Stepping back

So what did I glean from all of this? My main takeaway is that there won't be a single silver bullet to climate change in our (foreseeable) future. It will have to be an aggregate effort to:

  • curb and end emissions
  • to create renewable and reliable energy sources
  • to enact policies and incentives that encourage innovation and adoption, both individually and in industry
  • increasing international cooperation and trust
  • improve agricultural standards and practices
  • protect, and rebuild forests
  • and probably a load of other stuff I've forgotten or don't know about

In lieu of checking off all of those boxes I think that ultimately donating money to an organization that has proven to do good transparent work is a good place to start. So I've decided to collect donations for CoolEarth. They have been fairly consistently rated as a top charity working on climate change. They are not only transparent with their operations, costs, and outcomes, but are relatively cost effective. They also have a more tangible, measurable outcome than investing in research or policy work.

Through all of my research into carbon sequestration I have an added admiration for the complexity and importance that our botanical world plays in mitigating and reversing climate change. So I've decided that given only foggy paths forward in removing carbon already in our atmosphere, it is best to invest in retaining the current natural carbon sinks we already have.

Oh, and did I mention that since CoolEarth works with indigenous populations as the primary way of preventing deforestation there is a load of social, educational, health, and economic benefits they create also? The GWWC estimate of £0.84 per tonne of greenhouse emission, but I would be interested to see what the adjustment of that number, plus the social belefit would be in cost per QALY.

Last but not least, who is their primary patron? Dame Vivian friggin' Westwood. This is just icing on the cake.

Very punk rock.


In the meantime if you know of or hear about any promising research or charities working on other forms of carbon sequestration or climate change knowledge aggregation I would love to hear about them.

Picking a Charity for 2016

This year I want to select a charity that works around climate change and I need your suggestions! The elemental tattoo is 'air' and I can't think of a better way to represent this than preserving and cleaning our atmosphere.

I've done a bit of preliminary research so anything out of the box is appreciated. I've looked into things like Cool Earth, the Sierra Club, and reducing factory farming, but if you have a strong preference for one of these or another well known strategy I'd be interested in knowing more.

I'm a bit torn between mitigation efforts vs reversal. Mitigation is focusing on things that would decrease carbon output into the environment, whereas reversal technologies would be something like geoengineering to stop the effects of current carbon levels. If you have a charity or research group that you think is doing really exciting things around either of these leave a comment! Or if you have reason to prefer one strategy over another I would be interested in knowing why.

In terms of effectiveness I am leaning towards possible reversal ideas. Mitigation efforts is a really 'crowded' space with lots of people working on the problem with lots of great awesome ideas and a lot of funding. Not to say this is an easy thing, just that it gets quite a bit of funding and attention already.

However most data suggests even if we completely halt our carbon output now we will still see a serious impact on the world that would have not only environmental, but social and economic impacts as well. So it seems prudent to also be looking at ways to either reverse or adapt to this. I haven't found a lot on a really promising way to do this, or who is doing research on this. So if you have an idea here please let me know!

Links from Last Week

Nobody Cares How Hard You Work

Thank god someone said it! Because seriously. The American obsession with effort is crazy to me. I think this is exactly the mentality that leads to the Peter principle - we value effort and exahustion rather than outcomes. "Obvious he is better at his job than she is - look how hard he worked!" I was super happy the author made the connection to Weber's theory on Calvinism because this theory explains a lot of funny quirks in our culture, and doesn't get enough credit.

To reach creativity heaven, though, you’ll need a different approach—one that prioritizes doing the right things, not just lots of things.
— Oliver Burkeman

I forget where I found this. Somewhere in the depths of the interwebs. But it is great.

The single Best Interview Question You Can Ask

I like this question a lot. I've been doing a lot of interviewing (on both sides of the table) lately and more and more I've affirmed my belief that interviews are about finding out if you can work with a person more than about assessing their competence. I mean ability is important but really you are screening for things like internal motivation, attention to detail, work style etc. Particularly if you have a specific company culture you are very interested in maintaining or creating.

Aside from interviews I like it for talking to people! I am (was) terrible and anxious about small talk (click on the next link to find out more). So I collect interesting questions like this one. The usual "how old are you?" "where are you from?" "what do you do?" are 1. boooooring! and 2. frequently problematic. Beside questions like this quickly start conversations and get people engaged and interested. Perhaps later I will share a list of some of these gems.

19 Small Awards Anyone with Anxiety Deserves

In effective altruism meetings a lot of us talk about "doing the thing" as in needing to actively work on a problem or follow through with ideas and turn them into actions. There is also usually a lot of discussion about self-care as well as staying aware of mental states. As someone with anxiety I loved these graphics, because sometimes not over-thinking that vague moment takes a LOT of effort dang nab it! But this one in particular struck home for particularly good for the EA crowd.

2015 Birthday Fundraising Debrief

It has been one week since the "end" of my fundraising campaign around my birthday. I do have the added benefit of having a birthday around the holidays so I may have a few more donations trickle in, in lieu of holiday gifts, but not many. So I'm gonna call it here.

That is before any matching donations! So we definitely hit our goal of $2000. (If someone wants to work out the number of QUALYs here I would love to know the firm number) I am pumped about how much money we were able to raise. I'm also sort of amused with my friends that figured out how to game the matching pledge by donating $27 several times. It seems like a dirty trick perhaps, but I think it is in keeping with the spirit of trying to maximize the amount of good you are doing. After all I'm always a fan of a good ploy. And I don't think our generous donor will mind overmuch, nice young gentleman that he is.

Though I did notice a distinct difference in how fundraising felt this year compared to last year. It felt easy. Which is good I suppose, but it also got me wondering if I really reached my real goal. Sure for this year the monetary goal was raising over $2K, but my overall goal for the project is to spread the idea of being selective and thoughtful about charity donations and inspiring people to give more often. I feel much less successful in this goal, primarily because it did feel so easy. I didn't have to convince anyone, or explain why I was raising money.

Probably because most of my friends, and those who donated, are effective altruists.

They didn't need to be convinced that AMF is a great organization; it has consistently been among GiveWell's top charities (with the exception of 2009 & 2013). So it didn't take much convincing to get friends and acquaintances from the EA community to pony up $27 to the fundraiser. Actually it took no convincing. I just posted it on Facebook 4-5 times and let money come in.

There were of course larger donations from close relatives etc. but in general it was friends affiliated with EA. Great friends! Close, wonderful, lovely friends, that I am very thankful for. But if one of my goals is to disseminate effective altruism ideas to people that otherwise wouldn't be exposed to them, well then these friends aren't my target audience.


I think there is a combination of things happening:

- My main avenue of advertisement was through Facebook & email.
- It is harder to see what emails were successful in garnering donations
- EAs are exceptionally active on Facebook compared with other groups
- The percentage of EA contacts I have on Facebook has grown hugely since EAGlobal & helping to organizing SeattleEA
- Other peers don't use or check Facebook, most of whom are people I don't have email addresses for
- My posts likely don't get a high ranking on the newsfeeds of those that do use Facebook frequently, such as extended family
- I didn't feel the pressure to advocate/advertise as strongly this year since I knew I would get support from other effective altruists
- I knew who was likely to donate based on last year's donations so I primarily targeted those individuals


So while the monetary goal was reached I still feel like I could have done better this year because I did not reach very many people. Last year I spent a fair amount of time putting myself out there and candidly asking for donations from family and coworkers. I also asked many people to share the fundraiser with their friends. Next year I should do more of this direct solicitation, and I am hoping to advocate more for the dissemination of the story by people that support it. Hopefully this will mean that I reach a broader audience.

This hesitance to solicit people also leads me to the uncomfortable conclusion that over the last year I have done a less than fantastic job of maintaining friendships with those outside of the effective altruism community. Because of this I felt uncomfortable asking for donations directly without warming them up first. While this conclusion is uncomfortable I think it is highly likely and is something I should think more about.

I would love to hear other ideas of how to effectively market the fundraiser for next year or ways to prevent this year's failure modes. I find that I can create lots of marketing ideas for others, but when trying to apply it to myself I fall short. My restrictions are needing things to be time and cost effective.

The obvious solution is to simply aim to raise a larger amount of money in order to pressure myself into action. One thought that came to mind was filming part of getting the tattoo this year and using the video somehow. Though honestly getting a tattoo is mostly boring, so I don't know how well this would play out.

What would convince you to share a fundraiser with friends & family? Is there an obvious or easy way to get more people interested that I am missing?


Otherwise I'll fall back to my default:

Bad jokes, scantly related to the topic at hand. And no one wants that.

This year's holiday season may change they way you think about giving

Even though I have finally just recovered from Halloween candy binge, cleaned up the makeup extravaganza, and removed the spider webs from my bushes,  the stores and shops have wasted no time stetting up their holiday displays around town. Though many (OK most) of us are bemoaning the fact that these displays have gone up before Thanksgiving, there is another undercurrent of furious activity this time of year. While we remain blissfully unaware of the stream of requests and appeals we are about receive, fundraisers and philanthropists alike are gearing up for the 2015 giving season.

meme credit to Evan Gaensbauer

meme credit to Evan Gaensbauer

Almost anyone tangentially related to the nonprofit sector is familiar with end of the year giving. Donation based organizations are putting together wish lists and development departments are reviewing their donor lists and optimizing the timing of their Facebook posts. There is a tremendous hustle that goes into this time of the year for nonprofits. With nonprofits raising 33% of their income in the month of December alone, and programs like #GivingTuesday, the nonprofit answer to black Friday and cyber Monday, their is big money to be had in reminding consumers that the holidays are traditionally a time of giving.

And most of this hustle pays off. Donors make big decisions this time of year around how they want to make their last, and usually largest, donations before the end of the tax year. But for as much hustle goes into soliciting donations, those of us writing the checks do woefully little research.

According to the Money for Good survey results only 6% of donors spend any time comparing the impact of nonprofits they donate to. Comparing that to the $358.38 billion Americans gave in 2014: last year over 377 billion dollars were handed out with less thought than most of us is give to our coffee order.

But this year there has been a growing amount of press around the effective altruism movement. Based around the idea that we should carefully weigh each decision to give, and that each human life is equally valuable, regardless of distance or status. The movement has gained growing support from people like international poker players, and even celebrities.

While most of us can't live off of just 6% of our income, some additional probing, and critical thinking into where we send our money may be in order. Unfortunately most giving decisions revolve around who has a better marketing campaign, who has a more recognizable name, and who has a lower overhead. Unfortunately none of these things actually measures the effectiveness of carrying out an organization's mission. So where do we begin?

While it can be relatively simple to give to a cause that you just read about, and to get excited about the newest coolest charity innovation, the desire to make our donation decisions easy is a problematic one. What really excites me about fundraising around my birthday each year isn't just watching the money roll in, or translating how many lives are saved based on that number. The really exciting part is getting to talk to everyone about giving.

While I don't do a lot of year end giving, my birthday rather conveniently falls right before the holiday season really begins. So each year I ask friends and relatives to donate money to a highly effective cause, rather than buy me a pint at the bar, or send me a gift card come December. This gives family members an easy out when it comes to figuring out what to send, and it gives me an opportunity to share a really effective cause.

Often we are discouraged from talking about our giving habits, donation dollars aren't brought up, and asking someone where they choose to donate is taboo. However this air of secrecy means that we lack a strong discourse in our communities around what charity really means, we don't celebrate each other work we do, and we don't talk about how giving influences our lives and makes us richer. It also means that we don't always talk about how we choose the charities and causes we donate to. Because we regard our philanthropy as so private we loose out on the opportunity to share notes and compare stories around giving. We loose out on the opportunity to learn about new programs, and think critically about our giving decisions.

The last few decades of human existence has seen the elimination of smallpox, the near extinction of polio, an increase in global wealth, and a decrease in extreme poverty. However there is still so much left to do.

So this year when you start getting pamphlets and greeting cards in your mailbox from different organizations, take a moment to consider how you can have the most impact on the world. Or when Aunt Delores calls you asking what you want for the holidays this year, tell her to skip the gift card, and send that $10 to save a life.

An Email Appeal

So I've left the blog relatively silent for a little while. I've been focusing on raising money for my annual fundraiser (you know, the reason I started the blog in the first place). I've actually been doing quite a bit of writing about it, I just haven't shared it here yet. Most of my writing has been emails and Facebook posts pleading with friends and family to pony up a little cash for AMF. So I thought I would share just such a piece with you.

This is the email that was just sent out to, well... let's just say a lot of people. I am also planning on making more personal messages to people. Though I have run into one fatal problem: the only contact I have with a lot of people is through Facebook. Which normally isn't a problem, if anything it is super helpful. But just posting to FB doesn't actually get onto many people's news feed - the algorithm kicked me out as irreverent content a long time ago.

Normally we solve this news feed problem with a simple solution: we tag people. I have a couple problems with that tactic in this case. One, tagging someone usually sends them more than a notification, it sends them an email, and then also a notification anytime someone interacts with the post. Super annoying if you aren't crazy excited about my fundraiser the way I am. Secondly it seems like calling someone out.

Hey you! Yea you!
*lots of eye contact*
Did you give me money yet?

I could always direct message someone about it, but that also feels icky

Hey random friend I haven't talked to in a long time! How are you?
I'm only messaging you because I want something.
Genuine interest and questions about your life seem trite now because my motivation seems to clearly be for money.

It feels worse to do that kind of thing over direct message on FB than via email because Facebook is somehow more personal. We get junk email that we-sort-of-signed-up-for-but-can't-be-bothered-to-unsubscribe-from all the time. Deleting and/or ignoring something I got an email about doesn't seem like a big deal. But a direct message is closer to a text than an email. And everyone knows it sucks to have your texts ignored, so there is added pressure to respond or comply.

All of these seem like disincentives to donating. Worse than not getting a donation I don't want to annoy my friends - I like these people! Facebook faux pas be tricky to navigate guys. Any advice on possible alternatives would be greatly appreciated.

Without further digression here is my most recent email to a large number of friends and family.


Hi there,

Yes this is a mass email. Yes I am being that annoying. So I'll make it brief; actually my goal is to make your life a little easier. I'm going to give you one less person to think about on your holiday list.

Instead of wondering what to get me, or how much it should be worth, is a card enough, is a gift even appropriate (I mean how well do we really know each other anyway?!) I figured I'd be greedy and just ask for what I want.

I'm asking friends and family (and distant relatives, and acquaintances, and maybe a few random people on the street) to donate $27 to help me celebrate my 27th birthday.

I'm aiming to raise $2,000 by Nov 17th. The best part? An awesome friend has pledged to match every $27 donation! That means that when you donate $27 it is the equivalent of saving 6 lives, most of them children under the age of 5.

The Against Malaria Foundation is one of the most effective charities in the world. While bed nets aren't the newest, coolest, sexiest form of charity, they are effective at saving lives. Amazingly effective.

I can go on and on about the importance of effective charities, why I chose this one, how deadly malaria is, how close we are to wiping it out, how I want you to forward this email, how donating makes your life better. But I promised you a short email, so I'll just stop while I'm ahead.

This may be a mass email, but I am more than happy to answer any questions you have, or even just catch up and chit chat. It has been too long friend! Click the reply button. I won't bite :)


Oh! OH! Before I forget: If you have already donated THANK YOU! You are awesome. Please disregard this email. Don't feel pressured to take any other action than to keep on being your bad self.

Donate: http://bit.ly/1API7K5
Learn more: http://bit.ly/1LdgaPq
Read about the 5 year project: http://bit.ly/1dMIJVy
Find resources to share:

*Update* the best reply I've gotten to this email so far:

Damn, Sydney! Get down wit yo good self!

Links from Last Week

“I work at the UNHCR, but I have a quite junior position. I have a desk job where I reach out to job candidates and try...

Posted by Humans of New York on Sunday, October 4, 2015

The UNHCR has been stretched unbelievably thin. They would be my #1 recommendation for donations if you want to help in the refugee crisis. They do so much more than emergency management - they set out to tackle ever aspect of what it means to be a refugee.

How my finances feel sometimes:

“Louie, you apply for a loan while Rocco heads
in through this door and files for bankruptcy."

Are You an Outsider Trying to Fix a Broken System

A tragic reality revealed about insider politics. I theorize this applies to many more things than US Politics. I've seen it play out in large and small offices, social circles and playgrounds. It seems a sad factor in human relations that we dismiss outsiders and critiques turn insiders out. I used to think that I was good at playing along with the inside game in order to make a change. I have since realized that this is simply not in my temperament; I need to be able to say what I want. I am not sure either of these options are effective in any real actionable way.

I think this is one of the main challenges that the effective altruism movement buts up against. The nonprofit world is incredibly insular in a strange way. Those that work in it carry their employment years like badges of honor (because they sort of are). They rely heavily on the support of each other and the insular knowledge and judgment of the community group. Those that propose ineffectiveness or even a general change are dismissed as outsiders, sometimes rightfully, but almost always out of hand.

This made me laugh so hard, I thought I would share.

Matching Gifts for This Year

I am super stoked to announce that a friend has promised to match every $27 donation going forward this year! That means that every time someone pledges $27 (about the cost of a lunch date) 7 kids are protected from Malaria while they sleep. This is so exciting, I can't thank Jessan Hutchison-Quillian enough for supporting the project in such a generous way. Though generosity is something of a way of life for Jessan.

I am particularly excited about this because it gives an opportunity to people that normally don't have the means to give generously, the opportunity to make a huge impact. This is part of the reason I chose such a cost effective charity to begin with. It is easy to fall into the trap of wondering what good such a small singular donation could actually make. The Against Malaria Foundation gives you an easy answer to that question - and Jessan's matching pledge doubles your impact to something really substantial.

So go ahead, save 7 lives:



Reasons Why I Give to Ineffective Causes

Over the last year I have spent a non-insignificant amount on charities and causes that I would normally not consider giving to, and quite a few of them are things that I wouldn't consider the most effective or most beneficial charities. For someone that spends a good portion of my life and energy promoting the most effective causes, and encourages everyone to think hard about what they spend their philanthropic money on, it seems counter-intuitive that I would throw money at a lot of non-optimized charities & causes. For most people who identify with effective altruism it is irregular to donate outside of the top GiveWell charities.

That being said, I would wager there are lots of people out there who think deeply about philanthropy and giving that do wind up donating to causes they wouldn't necessarily recommend to others. There are a number of reasons I've chosen to do this and I thought I would share a few of mine with you.


1. It is my friend's pet cause

Now most people who buy into some idea of effective giving are going to say that is a terrible justification for donating to a cause, but let me explain. Primarily I will say that I don't donate to causes I think are not doing good or potentially doing harm. Usually I trust my friend's judgment on this, but a quick reputation check helps.

Whenever a friend puts up a "Donate to this" request on Facebook I usually try to throw at least $10 at it. I used to do more but that isn't always a viable option every time. Now $10 seems like a paltry amount - and it is - but anyone that has run a fundraising campaign knows most of the time you are stalking the page watching little donations tick in, spending time trying to figure out who that anonymous donation was from, and wondering why Aunt Agnes hasn't ponied up yet. There is a Pavlovian response we have to watching donations roll in. It is warm and fuzzy! $10 seems like a good deal to give my friend have such a great warm fuzzy feeling.

It is also substantially easier to ask friends and family to donate to your fundraiser when they know you donated to theirs. So while my money may not be doing the most good, it is an investment in generating a lot of good in the future.


2. It makes me more likely to continue to donate

I definitely fall into the moral consistency camp when it comes to moral-licensing. I do something I think of as good and my brain gets a kick of dopamine (or maybe the dopamine comes into play as I enter my credit card information). Point is I get a big kick from my reward system. I am doing good things! I am being morally consistent with my stated values! I am helping! Good girl *pat*

This means donating becomes increasingly Pavlovian as well! Beyond a kick in the short-term happy pants, there is lots of research that shows that donating more actually leads to an improvement in overall life satisfaction. So I'm happier and more fulfilled in general. This all leads to a great internal reward system.

Plus, it turns out I never lament spending that money. I will frequently look at my bank account and think about that latte this morning that I didn't really need. I've never had the experience of looking at my statement and thinking "If only I hadn't given that $20 to the 'Save the Cute Animals and Cure the Terrible Sickness Foundation' "



3. Add my name to the list please!

There are loads of groups out there that, on top of doing their mission work, also work on public policy, advocacy and lobbying. Planned Parenthood is a great example of this. While 65% of their budget went to medical services, 16% went to non-medical services, many of which centered around petitioning and advocacy.

Part of what makes any advocacy work successful is the ability to cite their number of supporters. In a democracy, numbers are king. If you can say you have 8 million supporters, chances are better you can get a representative to listen. Large numbers add clout and legitimacy to your campaigns.

So even if I just give $10 or $2 my name, little as it is, gets thrown in that pile of names. A lot of advocacy can boil down to comparing who has a bigger pile. Policy reform is a big sticky mess that is hard to measure and harder to influence, but a small amount of money to add my name to a list of people who say "yes I agree with this thing, please count me in" seems like a good, low cost start.


4. It is a service I use/appreciate or think I should be paying for anyway

I am lucky enough to live in the amazing city of Seattle; if you've never been to the Pacific Northwest - it is terrible, please don't move here. Just kidding, it is great you should totally come visit. We'll get coffee. At midnight.

Aside from an abundance of caffeinated millennials Seattle also has some of the best radio around. You remember radio right? That thing you used to listen to in the car? Well Seattle has such good radio even the White House press office takes note. So when John in the Morning comes on and asks me to pony up some spare change, I do.

This public radio station is a service I use almost daily. It adds dramatically to my life satisfaction and my feeling of being connected to the world, and particularly to my city. I don't consider this philanthropy, these donations come out of my entertainment budget. I am giving for me, for selfish reasons, driven by my passions and needs. So I don't consider this part of my philanthropic giving, but the US tax code does, so I'm listing it here.


5. Signal boost a campaign or cause

I'm not the only one that runs event fundraisers. Loads of people do! Most of the time my friends choose highly effective charities, so usually it is something I'm totally on board with. Sometimes it is just a great concept for a fundraiser, and I want to encourage people to think creatively about fundraising and philanthropy. Sometimes it is for a unique organization that I support in theory, but don't have any evidence for yet.

Really this bullet can be summed up like this: Hey person, I dig your thinking and I support you. +1


6. A handful of other EA/rationalist related items

These are sort of tertiary justifications that lend legitimacy to my above reasons.

  • I'm in favor of being cause neutral. I don't want to get stuck in a giving pattern that may make me ineffective, so flexing my donation muscles in other places seems like a good plan.
  • I don't know everything and you are probably loads smarter than me. No seriously. If someone says "hey this thing over here is really important" I should lean towards giving it a shot, or investigating further.This cause you have identified could be super duper important and I just don't know it yet.
  • Sometimes ineffective or high-cost things have enormous nu-knowable great outcomes.
  • I wouldn't have spent the money on any other charity. Some utilitarians would argue that by giving money to less than the absolute best cause I am actually doing harm and costing lives. However the money I donate to one-off fundraisers and annual memberships is money that I otherwise would have spent on toys for my cats, or a meal out with friends.

Links from Last Week

Your Calendar is a Mess

Having worked in various support roles including being an assistant I can't recommend this short read enough. It is amazing how few people think about optimizing their schedules. Taking 30 minutes to think about when you want your meetings scheduled can make all the difference in your productivity. This also reminded me of the joy that is Calendly for busy people who don't have assistants.

Not from last week. Still brilliant.  Also, grassroots fundraising that seems to be working? Buckle up guys, this is gonna get weird.

Compromising your Principles; or Five ways to console yourself when you are selling-out

This one isn't from last week. I read it when it came out in early July, but I find myself going back to it again and again. Life is a perpetual grey area. Usually. I mean mostly.
See what I mean?! It is often challenging to balance all the things that you find true. I've seen many people try to force this seeming cognitive dissonance into a two dimensional, measurable reality claiming that this compromising of values is a tactical error or bias we must work around. While we humans are plagued by biases and irrational thought, not all of our compromises (moral, philosophical, or just about what to have for dinner) are irrational. Knowing when to use your cognitive dissonance to your advantage is a great skill.

An anarchist who counts votes is no anarchist at all!

A Sweet Celebration of Connection - Hug Me

may be one of the cutest and best children's books I've seen in a long time. It is painfully honest, and one of those rare children's books that takes a critical look at family. Sometimes we aren't born into the family we need. Even if we are, there is an amazing power and joy in finding your tribe. It is important to encourage the next generation to continue to do the hard work of being vulnerable and asking for what you need, despite repeated rejections. To tell children that the way they are is not broken or wrong, to keep trying, to be patient and find those that will embrace you. It seems important to remind our adult selves of this as well.

The 7 Best Ways to Help with the Syrian Refugee Crisis

The refugee crisis in the EU and the Middle East has pulled in an extensive amount of media coverage recently, and like natural disasters, the horrific situation has motivated many to try and help. There are loads and loads of international organizations, government petitions and small fundraisers floating around to help Syrian refugees in various countries.

In 2014 there were 59.5 million displaced people around the world, and 4 million of them are from Syria. That means that 1 in every 122 people in the world are either a refugee, displaced person, or seeking asylum.



Before we donate, like any good investor (when we donate we are investing in a better world) we have to do a little homework to understand how to approach this particular market. Thankfully there is loads of information out there about why there is currently a refugee crisis unlike anything seen since WWII.

Vox published a great piece called The refugee crisis: 9 questions you were too embarrassed to ask. As well as the shorter: The Syrian refugee crisis, in 4 maps and charts. Skim it, or even just read the big bold numbered bits. I trust you'll get the gist of it; you're a smart cookie.

no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
— Warsan Shire

OK so we've established that the situation is bad. How do we best help?

There has been a massive push to let in more refugees to many countries. Immigration is a hotly contested issue, with most governments leaning towards the conservative perspective of keeping people out. Though as Will MacAskill points out "The question of how many refugees to accept is purely a political one, not an economic one." There has been lots of research on how immigration, and even open borders are actually economically beneficial for the accepting country. Frequently the fear associated with allowing immigrants and refugees isn't actually about economics, but of shifting cultural demographics and a changing sense of national identity.

When comparing to the massive amount of human suffering vs the uncomfortable feeling of a changing community the option to allow in more refugees seems to be the obvious better choice. So perhaps the most impactful way to make make progress on the refugee crisis is actually little grassroots lobbying. There has been an impressive show of support in the EU to accept more refugees. In the US there are lots of petitions out there to sign asking the US to allow in more refugees, and end the Syrian conflict:


Those are the fastest, probably most effective ways to create a long term solution to the refugee crisis. However policy change is slow and hard won. Obama recently increased the number of refugees the US will accept overt the next year to 10,000. This number pales in comparison the the tens of thousands the US used to accept, and those allowed in still face an uphill battle of paperwork.

So how do we help those trying to seek refuge now and make sure we are doing the most good we can? Well the first answer is simple. Send cash. Cash donations are always more useful than sending goods directly.

  • UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR): 5min & $20
    My best recommendation for your donations. This organization is taxed with supporting all refugees world wide, is supported by the UN, but is still constrained in it's ability to function by lack of funds. Building the international community relies on supporting organizations like this one, and showing your support shows countries that humanitarian aid is valued. The other reason I strongly recommend this organization is because they work on all levels of refugee needs, from emergency shelter and water to legal needs and boat rescues.
  • Oxfam America: 2min & $35
    Oxfam is working in the refugee camps to establish and maintain sanitation, clean water and to provide essential supplies.
  • UNICEF: 2min & $50
    Providing food clothes and most importantly immunizations for refugees. Displaced people are hard to track, move constantly and are susceptible to many diseases. Immunizations are important!

There are loads of other organizations out there and lots of other lists that can point you in more donation directions, but after doing some digging these three were the ones that stood out to me as being knowledgeable, transparent, on the ground, and providing necessary services.

I would also be interested in learning about any effective organizations working to help refugees navigate the complex legal systems in place. The US in particular has a rigorous process that includes collecting biometric information and a plethora of bureaucratic hoops. I imagine that finding a way to allow many people to navigate this system quickly would be highly beneficial.

But then again, with more open borders that would be a moot point.

Zaatari Camp in northern Jordan Photo: Will Wintercross via the Telegraph

Zaatari Camp in northern Jordan Photo: Will Wintercross via the Telegraph


GiveWell has also endorsed giving to Doctors Without Borders. 2min and $50
As always please make your donations unrestricted!

YouGov released poll data for US support of taking in more refugees. Given these numbers I am inclined to think that it may also be a good use of time to start talking with friends about the overall benefits more open border laws. A shift in public opinion is challenging but potentially highly impactful.

Infographic: How Do Americans Feel About Taking In Refugees?  | Statista
You will find more statistics at Statista

Links from Last Week

Not Yet Gods - Nate writes very beautifully. Perhaps I am always surprised by this because I think of him as an intensely mathy person, and I often struggle to explain the beauty I find in words to mathy people. Conversely I struggle to see the beauty if formula and numbers and logic. I grasp it on a very existential, ephemeral, fractal pattern, golden ratio sort of *ooh ahh* sort of way. But the true beauty of the thing is probably lost on me. 

I digress.

I often fall prey to this feeling of broken coulds. I could've written that in a more timely manner. I could've been less anxious, less depressed. I could've not had that third beer, I could've gotten out of bed earlier, I could've gone to the gym instead of sleeping. I could also learn to hold by breath for 17 minutes and be the next David Blane. But that takes work. So, so, soo much work you guys! It takes training, and patience, and drive, and ambition, and kindness. To do this without breaking you have to be kind to your monkey. My monkey probably won't try holding her breath for that long (or really any amount of time) but she is trying to make herself, and the world a little better. And that takes training, and patience, and drive, and kindness too.

A Wonderfully Simple Heuristic to Recognize Charlatans - Really this is just good advice on thinking better by using subtractive epistemology. It makes a lot of sense when you think about it.

Avoiding stupidity is often easier than seeking brilliance

History of Philanthropy Case Study: The Impact of Philanthropy on the Passage of the Affordable Care Act - The Open Philanthropy Project summarizes a 91 page write up by Benjamin Soskis in the attempt to explore effective policy change using the passage of ACA (colloquially known as Obamacare) as a case study. Concision: *shrug*

OK they say a lot more than that but basically the main point is that it is very difficult to detangle how much one intervention or one donation has in terms of impact when there are millions of dollars, thousands of donors, and lots of charities all doing multiple interventions. Personally I see this as part of the problem with a lot of traditional charity work. You aren't asked to measure, or if you are it is frequently not in a meaningful way. Saying 'we distributed 10,000 leaflets doesn't really say anything if you don't have a reasonably good idea what would have happened without those leaflets. Worse still is often the measurement is just "we printed 10,000 leaflets" without a nod to distribution, let alone impact.

Why Tattoos

Ok, I admit it. The link between raising money for effective charities and getting tattoos is tenuous at best. I've tried explaining the link to people quickly, but they usually seem a bit lost towards the end. It usually works best to tell the whole story from beginning to end like I do on the home page. When I don't have time for this my shorthand explanation goes something like this:

Each year for my birthday I ask friends and family to donate money to a specific, effective charity. If we reach the goal I set each year I add another piece to my tattoo. Each one of the four elements in the tattoo corresponds to the cause which we raised money for.

It took a lot of work to explain it that way; I was really miserable at explaining the connection at first. That works for most people. A few people ask me how I pick charities, which is awesome! That is exactly what I want people to ask! I get to talk about comparing philanthropic endeavors and why I think it is important to prioritize causes as well as as charities.  The question I've found that really throw a s me off is "why tattoos?"

So admittedly I live in Body-Mod-Mecca so my perspective may be a bit skewed when it comes to needing a reason to get a tattoo. The answer is actually really simple and comes down to a very primal, and perhaps selfish answer: I find them beautiful. I like the idea of adding beauty and art to myself. Creating art that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. Being able to support and advertise for a local artist. Aesthetically, I find them pleasing and they make me happy.

Part of what I find delightful about my tattoos isn't just the pure design, but the meaning. Having a permanent beautiful reminder of the things I value in the world is something I find irresistibly compelling. Every time I look at the lines on my arm, really look at them, I am reminded of the commitment I have made to foster sustainable change in the world. I remember how lucky I am, and that whatever troubles I have in life are likely not as important as they seem in the larger scheme of things. This is a permanent feature that will serve as a reminder of my values, and a touchstone to my ideals around helping others and always asking how we can be, and do better.

I latched onto the idea of tattoos for this project is because everyone always wants to know about your tattoos. It seems counter-intuitive at first that people would ask you about something that seems so personal. But they do! All the time!!

Actually, I am banking on people doing this.

Actually, I am banking on people doing this.

I get to answer by talking about causes that I love and care about. It opens a door to engage with people about philanthropic giving and charity. I get to start the process of destigmatizing talking about our giving by telling people how important I think charity evaluation is and how much money we've raised. When people ask about my tattoos they are usually either people who are interested in tattoos and body art, or people I'm only acquainted with who are trying to make conversation. In both cases it is a great way for me to introduce EA ideas to people who likely haven't heard of effective altruism yet.

The placement of my tattoos is intentional; they wrap around my right forearm. This means they are usually the first thing you see when I stick out my arm to shake your hand. They are how I great the world and introduce myself. I feel like I am weary my ideals on my sleeve. Which is scary at first, but empowering, and yes, beautiful.

Body art is a way of claiming yourself. It connects your thoughts and your existence to your body. You look at a tattoo and remember talking about it, picking colors, drawing it, looking at pictures, staring in the mirror, trying to decide if this was ‘you’. You remember that moment wondering who ‘you’ is exactly.

Open Philanthropy Project

During my trip to the Bay for EA Global I had the chance to visit the GiveWell offices along with other attendees. We listened to Elie Hassenfeld talk about GiveWell operations more in depth and their attempts to find more charities to recommend. The most encouraging take away I had from the talk was that as GW is able to move more and more money (in 2014 they moved about $29.5 million). This means charities have a larger incentive to participate in their lengthy and intensive evaluation process. Because let's face it, the reason the GW process is so good and so trustworthy is because it is a gigantic pain in the ass. A pain in the ass with a 96% fail rate (according to some quick back of the envelope math). They are also looking more and more into assisting in the creation of new charities, as well as funding repeats of control trials on the effectiveness of interventions.

All that is very exciting, and was great to learn about. But what I really signed up for was to hear about the Open Philanthropy Project.

There currently isn't a lot out there about Open Phil. There is a basic website and a bunch of blog posts on the GW blog and the Good Ventures blog. Most of what you can figure out is that it is a partnership between GV & GW (those aren't confusing or amusing abbreviations at all). While Good Ventures is the org that functions like a foundation to dole out the billions Dustin Maskovitz and Cari Tuna plan on giving away, the Open Philanthropy project seems to be the research arm that asks how to do as much good as possible. Luckily one of the first things we learned is that there is currently a plan to make Open Phil a more straightforward and action oriented organization. They will be creating a website that explains their work and the direction they are heading.

But that isn't up now. So what exactly have they been doing the last two years?

As Holden put it Open Phil is "the start of a good debate." Their work has not been to evaluate and pick charities, but to assess causes. The ultimate goal being to shape the field of philanthropy moving forward, to be at the forefront of making the world a better place. And often being at the forefront of things means asking crazy questions and being open to loads of possibilities.

So what does it mean to look at the entirety of the philanthropic landscape? Well it turns out that it means there are a couple Google Docs out there that are handling this world-changing question.

I'll let that sink in: there are Google Docs that are the culmination of loads of deep thinking and years of research that is deciding the future of philanthropy... The same program I use to track my grocery list is being used to tabulate and track the potential of billions of dollars.

I kind of felt like I'd stumbled upon the inner cabal! There is a list floating around in the cloud ranking the importance of pandemics, global poverty, magnetic storms, malaria, organ donation, immigration, and scientific research standards.

Google please don't crash.

Cari Tuna (Lettering by Joel Holland for The Washington Post/Photo by Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

While ranking causes seems like an obvious step to most people who have bought into the idea of effective altruism, the idea of purposefully studying and selecting a cause is actually fairly new. More than just a step to take, Open Phil thinks it is one of the most important decisions you can make in your philanthropic donations. Thus this stage deserves extensive time, commitment, and thought. Because being vaguely familiar with a cause isn't sufficient to make an impact in that cause. To make an informed decision about a cause it is necessary to understand the cause in it's entirety as much as possible.

So after selecting causes based on things like tractability and importance the next step Open Phil has identified is hiring and cultivating Program Officers. These are individuals who have spent a significant portion of their life working in a particular cause area. People who are familiar with the landscape, know the players, and are well versed in the nuances of the cause. The particular people Open Phil is looking to hire have these qualities, but is also willing to make bold decisions towards progress. Needless to say this leads to a fairly extensive hiring process.

They have however made their first hire! Chloe Cockburn was hired as their US Criminal Justice Reform Program Officer. Chole's last role was with the ACLU. I actually ran into someone from the NY office of the ACLU and she said that they had a group cry about Chloe leaving. A note in her favor I would say.

Aside from cultivating and identifying these Program Officers Open Phil is also interested in targeting rich young philanthropists. Large donors who have not yet hardened their area of focus or become set in a pattern of philanthropic giving. This would mean redirecting much of the future money of philanthropy to important causes, and the most effective solutions in each area.

Oh did I not mention that? The other part of Open Phil isn't just looking at which causes are the most outstanding, but also which ways of approaching each problem is the best. As I understand it, a large chunk of this will fall onto the shoulders of their new Program Officers, as these individuals decide how best to delegate funding, a few million dollars at a time.

Ranking causes and organizations isn't something completely new for EAs. What is interesting is that it is the first time someone has looked at social or policy change through an EA lens. This is so exciting to me. The lack of focus in this area is one of the first, largest, loudest, and sometimes most relevant critiques of EA. Aren't we just putting a band aid over the overlying problems of the world? Shouldn't we be investing time and energy into uprooting social, economical, issues that cause these problems? The counter point from most Effective Altruists is, sure - but we don't know the effective way to go about that that.


Open Phil seems to be the best way to go about creating that systematic change. Why? Because they are asking the hard questions, and are going in with an open mind. One of the most encouraging parts of my visit was during the Q&A portion of Holden's presentation. Despite being asked to narrow in or come up with a solid answer on how to go about doing most of this work his answers were almost continuously "I'm not sure. We are researching that." I found this so encouraging! Because again, in order to make change in a particular cause area you have to really truly understand it. Still sometimes even that isn't enough.

Charting and evaluating philanthropy on this scale is a massive undertaking, and something that has rarely, if ever been done successfully. But they aren't starting from scratch. They have generations of nonprofit workers and NGOs to learn from. Open Phil is focused on the history of philanthropy and learning from the past. Too often people see a need and instead of working or improving systems in place they create a new system, reinventing the wheel . In philanthropy it seems we have lots of wheels, but none of them seem to be using the same size fitment.

The thing that I find so exciting about all of this is that there is a chance it might actually work! Growing up around people that cared deeply about social justice, human rights, and political reform, change felt like an uphill battle. Trying to organize the political will to take on something like reforming the US incarceration system was nearly impossible. Let alone trying to stand against those that have millions invested in keeping the prison industry alive and well. It always felt that these sorts of reforms was David vs. Goliath. But with a large sum of money, and a lot of thoughtful careful effort, change seems to have a tangible future.

What attempts at social reform used to feel like

What attempts at social reform used to feel like

What it felt like after leaving the GW offices

What it felt like after leaving the GW offices

Hear Holden talk about Open Phil at EA Global:

Links from Last Week

Why the Rich Love Burning Man

I have a love hate relationship with this article. Or rather I have a love hate relationship with Burning Man and with this traditional sort of socialist thought. Yes I agree, this nonsense is elitism. I also think that the idea of radical self expression is intensely appealing and a part of me desperately wants to cling to the dream.

When “freedom” and “inclusion” are disconnected from democracy, they often lead to elitism and reinforcement of the status quo.

Remittances are a driving force in the world economy.  Yea I know it is more a picture than a link. You'll get over it.

Remittances are a driving force in the world economy.

Yea I know it is more a picture than a link. You'll get over it.

Trust the World

After reading this, as well as her article on Effective Altruism I think Leila Janah is becoming one of my favorite people. I know, I know the title is "Why Effective Altruism Isn't Enough" but honestly, I think what she doesn't realize is that the points she is arguing lie very closely inline with EA. In fact I think they are EA ideas.

I Quit My Development Job and Ate Some Humble Pie

Combining this with Janah's article, as well as my growing hesitation with traditional socialists, I am beginning to think the way forward is somewhere, unsurprisingly, in the middle ground. Something like democratized socially conscious venture capitalism. Was that buzz-wordy enough for you?

No, I am No Crowdfunding This Baby

Her prayer to the holy trinity may be my evening prayer for the coming months. More than that this article reminded me how much I love Amanda Fucking Palmer and all the fiesty, artsy, kick-ass ladies who came before. Because who, in her adolescence, didn't feel like the Girl Anachronism?

Patti…Ani...Björki…hear my prayer. May I not get fucking boring.

Effective Altruism and the Arts

From time to time I find myself explaining Effective Altruism ideas to those who have a long history of donating to the arts. Understandably, most of the time the idea that their donations thus far have been "ineffective" rubs people the wrong way and leaves them a bit prickly to the idea of Effective Altruism.

I wanted to take a minute to share a response I wrote to a blog, mainly for the selfish reason of having an easy link to direct people towards about my opinions on EA and first world charities. This was written as a response to the blog entitled Effective Altruism Probably Isn't

I agree that the question "how many lives are saved" does lead you to the answer that you should be donating to a very singular type of cause. Though I don't think there is a problem with this. Asking how to save lives is a good and important litmus test to pass in your charitable giving. I think the key point that may be missing in wondering about supporting things that "make life worth living" is that charity isn’t about self-actualization; it is about making the world a better place.

The best way to help people give their money is to help them define their own passions and concerns and then help them find agencies which serve to promote those.

I think in this quote of yours the idea of 'altruism' is getting mixed up with self-actualization. Now don't get me wrong! I am all in favor of making life worth living and allowing everyone to peruse self-actualization. What I think is problematic is when this gets conflated with charity. Charity isn't selfish. Charity isn't about me.

because these suckers are expensive

because these suckers are expensive

I love the ballet. I was a dancer for 10 years. I donate to my local ballet because I love it and because it speaks to me on a deep and soulful level.

I don't think this is charity: it is self-interested.

These donations come out of my entertainment budget, not out of my philanthropic budget. Because these donations are about me. And that is OK! That is good! Self-care, fulfillment, and meaning in life are precious parts of being human. But that doesn't negate the fact that there are thousands, millions, of people around the world who don't get the chance to approach self-actualization. So I choose to do my charity where it will be most effective at saving lives, in the belief that those lives will have a chance to contribute to the beauty of the world. But these people will never be able to contribute if we only focus on causes that speak to our passions.

While most of these ideas aren't new to most Effective Altruists I think they bear repeating. Again and again.

I think I also fall into the relatively small camp of people that think EA values could, and probably should, be extended to the nonprofit world as a whole. I don't see anything wrong with asking yourself "is my local soup kitchen feeding the most people possible?" Notice I didn't ask if my local soup kitchen was serving the cheapest food possible, or what their overhead was. It isn't about doing things cheaply necessarily, it is about doing them effectively.

I think that getting people to ask these deeper questions of charities and their own philanthropic work is ultimately what changes the world. Arguments about diversity, AI risk, and utility aside, what is going to make impactful and lasting change is the ability to analyze and reason about our philanthropic choices.


Photo credit: Laura Gamse

Photo credit: Laura Gamse

While I was at EA Global, I was able to see more directly some of the outlooks of other EAs that I haven't been able to experience first-hand. While by and large this was a good experience, it also led to several moments of contention.

First and foremost, on lot's of minds was the debate around serving vegan food at the event. Jeff wrote a good summation of the whole problem; one of my favorites (unsurprisingly) comes from The Unit of Caring; and the lovely and talented Aceso Under Glass is clever and sciencey as always. I don't really have a strong opinion. I like food; it is yummy. Please serve more of it next time.

I also had mixed reactions to the emphasis placed on AI risk. As usual Dylan Matthews at Vox (who was on one of the best panels) wrote a completely on-point article. He has this ability to explain complex layered ideas so succinctly. I want to steal his ability. Or maybe his editor.

In any case his article "I spent a week at Google talking with nerds about charity. I came away... worried" is clickable gold. Go read it. I'll wait....

   *hums jeopardy theme song*

Good, right?! I'll leave the crazy math alone. For now. What struck me as undeniably true, and a great summation of the best criticisms of EA is this:

"And you have to do meta-charity well — and the more EA grows obsessed with AI, the harder it is to do that. The movement has a very real demographic problem, which contributes to very real intellectual blinders of the kind that give rise to the AI obsession. And it's hard to imagine that yoking EA to one of the whitest and most male fields (tech) and academic subjects (computer science) will do much to bring more people from diverse backgrounds into the fold...
Effective altruism is a useful framework for thinking through how to do good through one's career, or through political advocacy, or through charitable giving. It is not a replacement for movements through which marginalized peoples seek their own liberation. If EA is to have any hope of getting more buy-in from women and people of color, it has to at least acknowledge that."*

I laughed. I cried (almost). I jumped out of my seat (actually). Spot-fucking-on.

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm actually inclined to believe there is risk in an indifferent, sufficiently intelligent artificial intelligence. This is a new development -- before EA Global I believed the chances of AI being an existential risk were very, very slim. However, I think climate change, nuclear fallout, and pandemics are all more likely to kill us off; I think I am just not willing to put my money or time into mitigating existential risk. Ultimately there are millions of people across the globe now that are suffering. To me, the potential future death of many doesn't take precedence over the certain hardship and misfortune of individuals alive today.

Beyond my personal assessment of prioritization, Dylan points out it is problematic that it is the nerds proclaiming their own brilliance will be the downfall of us all. Talk about a pale and male problem! Lacking diversity can easily lead to self-aggrandizing, ossification, and (dun dun dun) ineffectiveness. The self-absorption problem Dylan is talking about is real. Hint: self-interest is the antonym of altruism.

One of the other fractures I noticed is that of movement growth. There are those that are concerned that bringing more people in on the idea of Effective Altruism quickly could result in a large culture shift. While at the conference I was discussing the talk triplet on movement building - another one of my favorites - and someone mentioned the concern around growing to quickly, or even growing too large at all. The concern being that by growing we would wind up being not as effective or exceptional.

The argument goes something like this: the best way to make change and construct something better is by using the best minds and skills available. These individuals (in this case, those of us here at the conference) are better suited to decide the best way to proceed in creating the correct kind of change. If we focus on bringing in more people we would dilute this exceptional talent pool and undermine our ability to create a better world.

The red warning lights inside my brain were blaring loudly.


There's nothing wrong with putting the best and brightest on the problem. It is the idea that only the most capable should be deciding how to instigate change, and that everyone else less suited to the job should be excluded, that is problematic. More than that, it is elitism. Battered in good intentions, deep fried in utilitarianism, and dusted with sugar. But still elitism.

This strain of thinking isn't knew. Mill's work on liberty is focused on the elite, class based individualism, and those he considers to be of superior intellect. The idea of elitism isn't new to utilitarianism. This line of thinking matches well with the reasoning of exclusion: inaccessibility is good because it keeps the riff-raff out. As I've discussed previously those with different strengths, and different experiences are necessary for an effective organization. To dissuade participation, or ignore opinions is to exclude data.

Almost without exception as a larger society we have decided that elitism is morally wrong and leads to injustice. We come to this conclusion through a history of elitism leading mainly to injustice and brutality. In other words pattern-matching indicates these behaviors and beliefs make you an asshole.

All this narcissistic thinking makes me wonder what drew such individuals to Effective Altruism in the first place. Hint: self-interest is the antonym of altruism.

It is concerning when anyone can walk away from our gathering with a feeling that we are too self-congratulatory, or that we are prioritizing areas based on our demographic. It troubles me acutely when this person is myself.

Overall I loved the event. However the occasional undertone of pomposity gave me a feel for why others are so concerned about EA being undemocratic. It made me realize the real importance of having traditional nonprofit workers and social justice advocates, women and minorities in the movement.

Clearly we need someone who can step back from the philosophical argument and go "wait, you know that makes you an asshole, right? Right?"


* Someone recently pointed out to me that the term 'people of color' is very clearly a US word and is not only inapplicable other places, but even offensive. In other parts of the world (and in the US) discrimination is based on much more than melanin. I was cautioned that using this terminology poses a clear US-slant on something that is a global problem and to consider it's usage carefully.

Links from Last Week

Billionaires to the Barricades

The ultra-rich are shifting an eye toward altruism and economic fairness. Though it is unclear if this is lip-service or real reform, one of the interviewees makes an interesting point about systematic change at the end of the article. If there were ever a group of people that new how to create change and manipulate function it is undoubtedly it is the ultra-rich. While the changes suggested by Cohan are specific to America, the question remains: has anyone been able to consult with this group on policy change? Well Cohan goes on to explain, rather succinctly why that probably won't work anyway.

Most billionaires, he added, are apt to address inequality by donating portions of their fortunes, not by seeking systemic economic change. “Charity? Yes,” Mr. Cohan said. “But leveling the playing field? No.”

While donations always make me happy, and this is currently the best way for most of us to change the world, this sad truth is, well... sad.

80,000 Hours thinks that only a few people should earn to give

If you haven't read it you should. It generated quite a buzz. If you are in it for the EA gossip, skip to the italicized bit at the end. Frankly that isn't the gossip - it is the entire point of the damn article. I wish he'd just written that.

BTW 80K: Norman Borlaug is a good illustration of your point, but that picture is just weird guys. Seriously.


In Defense of Being Average

The article is long but he's got a good point and writes well. I'll let him sum it up for you:

To become truly great at something, you have to dedicate time and energy to it. And because we all have limited time and energy, few of us ever become truly exceptional at more than one thing, if anything at all... All of this “every person can be extraordinary and achieve greatness” stuff is basically just jerking off your ego. It’s shit sold to you to make you feel good for a few minutes and to get you through the week without hanging yourself in your cubicle. It’s a message that tastes good going down, but in reality, is nothing more than empty calories that make you emotionally fat and bloated, the proverbial Big Mac for your heart and your brain.
-Mark Manson

Ouch dude. I mean, it is true. But ouch.

BTW Mark: I like your style

What to Keep

Spoiler: only the things that make you happy.

Simple. Elegant. Mediocre. Mark would approve.

Reflections from the Halfway Point

Slate Star Codex is hardly ever disappointing. But Bob? Bob won my heart in this one. Not just because of the amusing antidote, but because I know Bob. Or I knew him. Or someone like him. Or I've dealt with him while volunteering. Bob isn't really one person you see. But he stole the show because he humanizes all those Bobs out there, because you should always remember "how deeply the civilizing instinct has penetrated." And because SSC is right, we adjust to things readily, so don't forget to take a step back and analyze what your situation looks like to an outsider.

Although this Bob is figurative, I did know Bob. And he was a lovely, lovely man.

An Illustration of My Fears

This. So much This.

Illustration by Tara Jacoby

Illustration by Tara Jacoby

Every now and then I get reminded of the importance of story telling; or we can call them illustrative examples. This story reminded me of that, mainly because it clearly represents two of the things I have been thinking about recently: the things I find so wrong and so disheartening about charity work (and poverty alleviation in particular) as well as the exactly thing I fear most about the Effective Altruism movement.

Things that are fucked up and wrong: victim blaming, nonsense goals and mission statements, strong leadership that is wrong leadership, silencing of relevant leaders, over emphasis on acquiring more funding (mainly because there never feels like enough to go around) and on and on the list goes

Things I fear for EA: becoming the crazy white dudes in a conference room proposing an exciting new study on people we don't know and don't understand. Because surely a study will solve this problem; never mind that the study itself is irrelevant and dehumanizing.