Wednesday, September 25, 2013

What is "Effective Altruism"?

Effective altruism is altruism that attempts to be maximally effective. An effective altruist chooses her charitable actions not, for instance, by thinking of what she's most passionate about (helping the homeless, say) and then taking the most obvious, readily available actions, or those with the most emotional impact for her (like volunteering at a soup kitchen), but instead tries to take into account all the possible ways she might have of affecting the world, and then picking the one she expects, based on empirical evidence and careful thought, to cause the most good.

Some people's answer to, "What's the most good I can do?" is "Donate to the charity that's most cost-effective at saving lives." (It's orders of magnitude more effective to donate to the Against Malaria Foundation than to donate to your local children's hospital, for example.) Some take non-human animals into account and end up with very different kinds of answers, as you can imagine given how many more non-humans there are than humans. Some think the answer is to choose a career that will make them as much money as possible while doing relatively little harm so they'll eventually have lots more money with which to do good. Some think preventing the sudden extinction of all of humanity ("reducing existential risk") is more effectively altruistic than any specific short-term act of charity we could perform for an individual.

The effective altruists focused on the far distant future are those who value future people as much as current people, and who believe that the distant future is likely to to contain vastly more people than the present. This is the category I fall into. A focus on the far distant future can look even less like conventional charity, because some methods of affecting the future of humanity can be extremely unintuitive. Some people intend to eradicate death caused by aging. One organization called the Machine Intelligence Research Institute intends to build and artificial intelligence that understands and cares primarily about human values, can modify its own code in order to get better at effective altruism, and by this means ends up way better than any human could ever be at making the entire future awesome.

So effective altruism is extremely diverse. It can be giving a dollar directly to someone who needs it, or it can be researching how to teach a computer what humans care about. What matters is the motivation: effective altruists want to be effective, and they try to know something about how to do that.

A few organizations in what's recently become know as "the EA movement":

For a somewhat more in-depth look at the EA movement, check out lukeprog's summary on, written shortly after the very first Effective Altruism Summit in July, 2013. Or see Peter Singer's Ted Talk on the topic if you're tired of reading.

Monday, September 23, 2013

At the very least, use your enemies wisely.

Guns don't kill people. The boundary conditions of the universe kill people.
A friend of mine shared this image on Facebook, and it showed up in my feed. I have some things to say to all of you, pro-life and pro-choice alike, about it.

I feel like we're talking past each other. And by "we" I mean everyone. This image really bothers me, not because there are guns pointed at a fetus, or because I strongly support Planned Parenthood, but because it reinforces the misrepresentation of the pro-choice position as anti-life. This really is not so far from an image of pro-choicers eating babies.

If we want to make progress, we have to be willing to communicate and collaborate rather than antagonize, and that means making an honest effort to understand the beliefs and motives of those who disagree with us. The terms "pro-life" and "pro-choice" are already a huge barrier, because they frame the issue confusingly and counterproductively.

If I understand correctly, and I've made an honest effort to, people who support legislation that denies a women the right to kill a fetus, should one begin growing inside her body, do so because they believe fetuses are a type of child, and therefore a moral patient toward whom we are responsible as we would be any other person.There are variations, of course: Some believe fetuses have human souls, and that the same religious doctrines apply to them as to any other child of God. Some are concerned that since we can't currently be certain at what point a developing human becomes capable of suffering, we're obligated to behave as though even a zygote can suffer. But by and large, those who want to restrict reproductive rights in favor of the rights of fetuses believe that humans are people regardless of their age, be that three days, three months, or thirty years. The right of a person to live is more fundamental than the specific rights a person has over her body. Not only does this make good sense to me, but I agree on that final point, and I think you'd be hard pressed to find someone who doesn't.

But it is inane, petty, and intellectually dishonest to suggest that we can rightly conclude from knowledge of someone's anti-abortion beliefs that she therefore does not highly value women's reproductive rights. Let alone that she therefore hates women and wants the government to dictate everything that happens to her body.

The implicit claim of this image is similarly inane, petty, and dishonest. It suggests that if a person doesn't support legislation that limits women's access to medical procedures that kill fetuses, she therefore thinks such specific rights should be valued above the right of a person not to be killed. It shouldn't take more than five seconds to see the problem here. Perhaps one need be a monster to murder another person in cold blood, but that's not even in the ballpark of concluding that embryos don't have enough of the relevant properties to be thought of as people.

If we didn't childishly divide ourselves along these lines into the good people and the evil people, the humanists and the misogynists, the godly and the baby killers, both sides could make progress toward what they value at the same time. If we saw each other as people instead of as murderers who hold guns to the heads of unborn babies, we could join forces to decrease the number of unwanted pregnancies, to support mothers who do want children, to ease the burden of caring for an infant so the prospect of carrying to term isn't so devastating when things don't go as planned. And all the while, we could continue talking about the core issue, which is what a fetus really is and what rights it ought to have, and people will be a hell of a lot more willing to change their minds when recognizing the truth doesn't mean joining The Dark Side.

So regardless of your position on abortion, it is not in your interest, or the interest of those whose rights you want to protect, to promote hatred, misunderstanding, and the desire to Defeat the Enemy. Instead, promote kindness, promote understanding, and promote collaboration toward shared goals. Do not post this garbage. If you're on my feed or reading this blog, you're almost certainly above it.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Polyphasic Sleep: Reprise

(Original post on the polyphasic sleep experiment here.)

Welp, this got a little messy. The main culprit was Burning Man, though there were some other complications with data collection as well. Here are the basics of what went down.

Fourteen people participated in the main experiment. Most of them were from Leverage. There were a few stragglers from a distance, but communication with them was poor. 

We did some cognitive batteries beforehand, mostly through Quantified Mind. A few people had extensive baseline data, partially because many had been using Zeos for months, and partly because a few stuck to the two-week daily survey. Leverage members (not me) are processing the data, and they'll probably have more detailed info for us in three months(ish).

With respect to the adaptation itself, we basically followed the plan outlined in my last post. Day one no sleep, then Uberman-12, then cut back to Uberman-6, then Everyman-3.

Most people ended up switching very quickly to Uberman-6 (within the first two or three days), and most switched to Everyman-3 after about five to seven days on Uberman-6. Three people tried to hold the Uberman schedule indefinitely: One person continued Uberman-6 for two full weeks, and two held out for twenty-one days. Afterwards, all three transitioned to Everyman-3. 

During the originally planned one-month period, five people dropped out. Nine were on some form of polyphasic for the whole month. One returned to monophasic at the end of the official experiment with only partial adaptation achieved. 

Then Burning Man disrupted everybody's sleep schedule. Afterward, one person continued experimenting with less common variations of the Everyman schedule. Three went back to Everyman-3. One switched to Everyman-2. Two people have flexible schedules that include two hours less sleep per day. One person's schedule was disrupted by travel for a while after Burning Man, and they're now re-adapting.

Now that all is said and done, eight of the original fourteen are polyphasic.

I'll hold off on concluding very much from this until I see the results of the cognitive battery and such, plus the number who are still polyphasic after three months. In the mean time, I'll just stick with this: Some people are capable of going polyphasic and staying that way (probably?). Sleep is complicated and confusing. I don't know how it works. I don't think anyone else really does either. More research is desperately needed.

My next post, which will probably happen in the next two weeks, will discuss what I think we did poorly, what I think went really well, and how you and your friends can improve upon our work. In the mean time, here's a video of what zombie-Brienne is like during the really difficult stretches, and here is how she entertained herself when she could manage to do things besides pace. (I was one of the few who bailed out early :-p)