Saturday, 27 July 2019

Where and why I donated money in 2019

Bristol

This year I’ve set myself the target of donating 5% of my income to some of the most impressive and effective charities in the world.

The desire to improve the world

In 2018 I started to think about how our lives impact the world around us. I initially thought about plastics, then when I became vegetarian (and then vegan) I thought about farmed animal welfare, and then climate change.

It’s a bewildering list, and each problem is psychologically difficult to deal with. But the more that I’ve researched each area, I’ve found many exceptional people working to make a difference.
I’ve been frustrated by how lots of environmentalists are ineffective, and so this led me into seeking a rational and evidence-based approach to charitable giving. And my thinking has been heavily influenced by the concepts of effective altruism.

The importance of effectiveness in our actions

Some ways in which we try to change the world make much more difference than others. The world is big and complex and it’s hard to think about how the small things we do in our own lives contribute to bigger impacts.

Individual actions like reducing the amount of plastic waste we produce, reducing our consumption of animal products (especially those from chickens and fish), and reducing actions that contribute to climate change (like big cars, red meat, and air travel) are ways we try to influence the world.

Overcoming burnout

Thinking about all of these topics is really tough. And after a while, I would say that I felt burnt out. I felt like a social activist, but one trying lots of different things, without a sense of whether I was making progress, and without looking after myself.

So I decided to make my life better (see my first article in the series) and focus on what I could do that would measurably make a difference. I realised I can make far more of a difference to the world by donating to effective charities when I read Doing Good Better by Will Macaskill. I still didn’t quite believe it, so I did my own analysis to compare how different actions can reduce the tonnes of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere.

Below is a chart comparing some individual actions we can do, with how much benefit small donations to highly effective organisations can achieve. CATF is a US-based think tank who scale up energy systems, and CfRN work with rainforest nations to establish trading agreements that protect crucial areas acting as a carbon sink. A $1.50 donation to CATF likely reduces carbon-equivalent emissions by more than switching your home to green energy.



A comparison of different actions actions that can help mitigate climate change

The analysis recommending the charities is here, and calculations for the chart are here
The key point of this is that if we think analytically about solving problems, and find the points with the highest leverage, many non-profits offer truly outstanding benefits on the marginal dollar (or pound) donated, far in excess of what we achieve through changing our own consumption. (More on this below.)

Making difficult choices

There are many worthy causes: homelessness in London, LGBTQ+ equality, global poverty, inequality, plastic pollution, soil degradation, climate change, improving the welfare of farmed animals, improving the resilience of civilisations and many more. It is quite a tall order. I felt disoriented and stressed. I didn’t sleep much, and I felt emotively drained by what I’d seen about factory farming, and how concerned I was about climate change.

I decided I needed to prioritise and use some critical thinking to grapple with the problems of the world. I found it useful to prioritise them using the scale, neglectedness, tractability framework explained here.

My conclusions were:
  • We need to measure and use evidence in order to make sure we’re making a difference
  • Some philanthropic causes are much more important than others
  • Neglected areas offered the chance to promote pioneering improvements
Over the past year I’ve learned some important points about the world and some of its most worthy causes:



Nick Bostrom’s TEDx: The End of Humanity (link here)

From a philanthropic perspective,
  • Governments, large donors (e.g. Gates), NGOs, universities, and other researchers spend billions of dollars tackling a range of issues
  • Poverty continues to reduce globally, though inequality appears to be increasing within countries
  • Around 99% of animals used by humans are farmed, but only 0.8% of donations to animal charities go to farmed animals
  • Globally around $500bn (and increasing) is spent on addressing climate change, but only $6bn is spent on risks such as biosecurity, and a tiny $10m on AI safety
So while there is lots of money sloshing around in philanthropy, from a global perspective, it’s poorly allocated across different causes. When you take an outcomes-based approach, this offers opportunities to make a difference in neglected but important areas.

Dealing with uncertainty

Despite all the research I’ve done, I can’t work out a single cause which is unambiguously more compelling than all the others, let alone a single organisation to support.



A range of perspectives on global problems, at EA Global Melbourne in 2015 (link here)

This uncertainty is because of several black boxes of knowledge: the difficulty of research on sentience in non-human animals, moral uncertainty, unpredictability over future technological developments, and also the problem of crucial considerations. I doubt we’re going to get answers to these problems any time soon, so I think a hedged position makes sense.

A few intuitions about different causes
  • Global poverty will continue to attract more funding because we relate to other people and we can understand them
  • Plastic pollution is a nuisance and a harm to ecosystems and people, but does not pose as much of a threat as climate change
  • Animal agriculture will reduce as our technological capabilities increase (and as the effects of climate change increase), because animals are an efficiency bottleneck
  • Climate change is reasonably easy to conceptualise, because we can perceive increasing weather variability (e.g. heatwaves), and get good data on emissions, so funding will increase
  • By comparison, ‘sudden’ risks like nuclear war and biosecurity will by systemically neglected, because we can’t directly experience the rise in risk until it’s a big problem, and it’s much harder to model, so donors can have more of an impact
My portfolio

I set up a recurrent monthly donation summing to a total of 5% of my pre-tax monthly income, which was the minimum meaningful amount that I thought I could commit to donate. This felt like the right number for me — it wouldn't be for everyone, and I do come at this from a position of privilege. Even 1% I think would still be meaningful.

Based on the thinking above, I then allocated the donation to different causes in the proportions below.




These donations go to managed funds where analysts work out highly effective charities, look for when they have funding gaps, and then allocate the amounts raised by people in each fund. It’s a bit like an ETF for charity. You can find out more about the funds: animal welfare here, long-term future here, EA meta here, ALLFED here, and CfRN here and here.

I don’t think this is perfect, but I think the hedged bets approach probably does quite a lot of good overall. Most of the donations are also tax-deductible, so the actual cost to me is more like 4% of my post-tax income. I’ll review the portfolio in six months and will probably change it.
(I also impulsively donated £100 one-off to Climate Outreach when they had a month offering matched donations)

Sidepoint: lifestyle changes and moral consistency

An easy charge against this approach is that I’m paying my way out of my own comfortable western life. If I constantly flew around the world and tried to pay my way out through carbon offsets it does smack of moral inconsistency, as George Monbiot likes to argue. 

But we should be caring about effectiveness rather than sticking to our principles. Let’s say I flew to New York (1.5 tonnes CO2) to collect a $1,000 cheque which I immediately donated to an effective charity that sped up the shutdown of a coal plant (negating 1,000 tonnes), then on balance it’s clearly a net gain. Arguably, to not take that choice would mean that I hold back the opportunity to reduce emissions by a net 998.5 tonnes. Should we vilify the delegates who flew to COP24?

But overall as a society I think we should have a norm to be sparing with air travel and general resource usage. We should be conscious of the devastating impact of aviation.

My donations to CfRN more than offsets any travel I do by a factor of thousands. In my own lifestyle, I am vegan and I try to live simply. I travel by public transport, and on future holidays I plan to take the train rather than fly as much as possible.

Closing thoughts

Philanthropy is hard and there are lots of problems. But I think that by supporting high-impact organisations to work on the most pressing areas, I am able to make a measurable difference.

Now I have thought carefully about how to tackle the biggest problems in the world, and found effective ways to make progress, I feel much more peaceful and happy than when I was a stressed freewheeling activist not making much difference. Now I have clarity and calm.
This is my best attempt at positively influencing the lives on this pale blue dot, drifting through space, that we call home.

If you enjoyed this article, feel free to share it with your friends. You can find out more about effective altruism here.

Eight life hacks that actually worked



Coffee in Bloomsbury

I’ve been reading about artificial intelligence and reflecting on how irrational us humans are. A visit to any betting shop is a depressing display of how our irrationality makes our lives worse. If we could curb our dumbest behaviours, we could improve our individual lives: eat less junk food, stop smoking, avoid flashy status symbols, and live healthier and happier. Why don’t we use our smarts to make our lives awesome? And collectively maybe we could get along better together too.

I wondered: why do I do things that sabotage my well-being? If I were to optimise my life to be as sweet as possible, then what would that look like? So I tried out a bunch of life hacks, and here are some that have stuck.

Keeping a to-do list on Google Docs

This one is really obvious. It seems pretty dumb, but I’d previously relied on notes on my phone, or a cluster of notes on the desktop of my computer at home. It was just easier to have it accessible anywhere. I broke it up under headings : high (this week), medium (next week), and low (whenever) priorities. To-do things were short bullet points. I could also embed links where it was relevant.
It helps me focus on things that I should be doing now, rather than some pointless but fun action not due for several months.

Audiobooks

I read I think five books in three months this way. Now that I do a fairly grim commute, it’s a blessing to have audiobooks. I do often lose concentration and drift off, but it’s easy to skip back in 30 second increments. Machines Like Me I also listened to at 1.5x. Another plus of audiobooks is that they don’t hold all of your attention in the way that TV does, so I can tidy my room, cook food, or go for a run all while listening to something, so my room is tidy and my life is nice and healthy. Major lifehack. But I still listen to lots of podcasts, in particular This American Life and The 80,000 Hours Podcast.

Queal (like Huel)

I’m sure I’ll get lots of flak for this. But haters gonna hate — and it works for me. I chose this brand over Huel because the guy who runs it is a GWWC member. They are tasty and convenient, and replace about 1 in 5 meals that I eat. I still cook lots of fancy things, but this replaces the peanut butter on toast that I would otherwise eat.

If you’re thinking about the environmental impact of the food you eat, I reckon this is among the lowest impact sources out there. The economies of scale of food production, and having virtually no energy requirement of cooking (just add water), mean that it’s much greener than the manual task of travelling to a shop, buying things, taking them home, refrigerating them, having 30% of them spoil, then cooking them with gas or often coal-generated electricity. Plus the source stuff is all vegan, which tends to be low-impact overall.

Sleeping with an eye mask

While popular health kicks often include eating salad and exercising more, I think lots of people probably neglect things like excessive alcohol consumption (as I’ve written about before), poor sleep quality, and stress. Sleep is a huge part of health, and for me it is a major determinant of my health and happiness. I’ve recently bought blackout roller blinds, but when travelling, or when sleeping in, eye masks make a huge difference. So good.

Changing my news reading

It’s stressful and totally pointless to check the news every half hour (but still something I’ve done many times). Nothing is going to have significantly changed. It’s the availability heuristic — judging based on the things that are the most visible—that means constant news reporting gives us such a warped understanding of the world. You can also scroll for hours without any natural sense of end, which makes it a real drain on time.

Instead I signed up to news briefings via email. At the end of the email, that’s the end of my news. I also feel like POTUS getting an email described as my ‘daily briefing’. I’ve subscribed to the following, which I love:
  • BBC Daily News briefing (daily, sent at 6:45am), subscribe here.
  • The Guardian’s The Upside (journalism that focuses on our capacity to act together to make positive change, weekly) subscribe here.
  • Effective Altruism Monthly, subscribe here.
(I also am on the list for EA London’s newsletter, to find out about events, available here).
I have also recently subscribed to the London Review of Books, to get a longer read on some contemporary debates. It is strongly left-leaning, but the writing is eloquent and covers contemporary topics in depth like climate change, UBI, and AI and chess, and I get to feel like a member of the liberal elite. Maybe I’ll switch to the Economist later.

I feel like this hack has been one of the best to reduce stress, and, together with my reading, I feel like it helps me understand the world better.

Password manager

I have tons of logins on different sites, and rather than duplicate passwords it’s just plain easier to have a password manager. Having done some work on cyber security, I can say it is one of the top 5 risks for every organisation I’ve worked at. A few friends have had passwords cracked, and I only expect this to increase in the future. Password managers seem like one useful tool.

I know Chrome has one but I feel a bit icky giving Google all of my passwords and bank information. There are bunch of password managers —this one is apparently good, and I use this one which also has an app so it’ll also work on your phone. I think the paid version is worth it.

Meditation

I meditate an average of 10 minutes each day. So one day I might skip it because I’m busy or travelling, but then I’ll make up for it with 20 minutes the next day. I’m increasingly annoyed by Sam Harris but I like his app (and I got a subscription before he increased the prices). An example session is here. I also like Christina Feldman.

Donating to effective charities

It’s natural for us to want to help others in need. And with so many problems to choose from: plastics pollution, climate change, animal welfare, global poverty, it can be disorienting. But by thinking about this stuff through an analytical framework, and researching the most cost-effective charities, I feel positive and am excited and proud to support the many wonderful folks making the world a better place (like these awesome people).

It brings me much more happiness than some designer clothing or more gadgets I don’t need. I currently donate 5% of my annual income to a group of exceptional charities, and in the future I’d like to donate more, possibly 10%.


If you liked this article, feel free to share it with your friends. This is the second of a three part series. I’ve also previously written articles about climate change, vegan diets, society and alcohol, and meditation. 

Nine books I read in the first half of 2019




My view from Blackfriars Bridge

In the past few months I’ve been commuting three hours each day , and I’ve had a chance to read and think while on the train. Each day I go through Blackfriars station, and have this view across the Thames. I’ve also started to use audiobooks, and this has meant I’ve read more than before. Here’s what I’ve read so far this year.
  1. Life 3.0 by Max Tegmark (Audiobook)
Tegmark is a physicist who surveys some of the contemporary discussion around future capabilities of Artificial Intelligence (AI). I liked the opening tale of the Omega team in terms of how technology could interact with society, and looking at the potential upsides from technological improvements on solar and renewable energy systems. The book makes a case for the importance of the AI control problem. As I’ve thought about how AI systems optimise for goals, shirking the clunky human biases, I thought about how to optimise things in general. An accessible read.

Rating: 4/5

2. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (Paper copy)

I felt surrounded by technology and structures when I read Brave New World, and I went on my first meditation retreat. The book is very well-known and covers lots of interesting ideas, like order and disorder in society, how technology can erode norms, zip-off underwear ‘Zippicamiknicks’ being a highly provocative idea when Huxley was writing. There’s no question that Huxley is a genius in how he clashes all these ideas together through the story. But technically and philosophically, it doesn’t make sense to glorify ‘John the Savage’, who despite coming from a pre-industrial society, is somehow a refined character who reflects on Shakespeare and morality, rather than struggling in a Malthusian state. There’s no question that civilisations have improved our compassion and well-being, and I understand that Huxley wrote a more sensible book later in his life, making the directly opposite case to that of Brave New World.

Rating: 3/5

3. Machines like Me by Ian McEwan (Audiobook)

In an alternative 1980s, Machines Like Me is a tale of love between a man (Charlie), a woman (Miranda), and a robot (Adam). Set in a London flat, it reads like a play, with the dialogue of the main characters glancing across questions of intelligence, love, and morality. Charlie is smart but self-serving, and I enjoyed his primal reactions contrasted with Adam’s perfect utilitarianism. Despite causing upset, Adam gives a substantial sum of money to the poor ‘because their needs are greater than ours’ (though Givewell would be a better use of the money).

In this alternate past, Alan Turing continues his pioneering work on machine intelligence. He gives a speech on AI and morality — why shouldn’t electronic life have moral worth? The book is a carefully written and interesting story with enough drama to pull you through.

Rating: 5/5

4. The Road by Cormac McCarthy (Paper copy)

Bleaker than bleak, this blinding page-turner tells the harrowing tale of a father and son struggling through a post-apocalyptic USA. I read it in two sittings, but apparently lots of people burn through it one. It is beautiful, though shocking to your core. The father’s affection for his son, and their warmth in the horrible conditions are endearing.

Unfortunately the odds that civilisation takes a hit like this are far from zero. And if you’re interested in knowing what we can do, I loved this podcast with David Denkberger. ALLFED is one of the charities I support.

Rating: 3/5

5. Milkman by Anna Jones (Audiobook)

An engrossing tale of life in the Irish Troubles. The protagonist, a young woman, is coerced into a conspiracy with ‘The Milkman’, a paramilitary leader. Her town is paranoid about loyalty — spies with cameras lurk in bushes, and rural gossip spreads like wildfire. Daily life is lived on a knife edge. In one scene, her mechanic boyfriend proudly shows his Bentley engine he found to the local boys, only for one of them to challenge his patriotism over whether the ownership of such a nationalist symbol put him in league with the British. Reading Milkman is like drinking a bottle of heady red wine, and I felt slurred and emotional as I got through to the end, and savoured the last drop.

Against Brexit and the Irish Backstop, I thought about insider and outsider groups, and how it’s cultures that rule the world. Milkman is powerfully written and brilliant.

Rating: 5/5

6. Superforecasters by Philip Tetlock (Audiobook)

If you’re the kind of person who thinks it is important to improve their ability to forecast, then it’s a solid read, but if not then skip on. Tetlock looks at correcting systematic errors in clumsy human thinking through smart ideas from psychology like the availability heuristic and base rate neglect.
It is a bit smug though— the author talks through how his research outperformed groups of experts. 

Smart people at their desks at home can figure things out better than large groups of scientists, politicians, or diplomats, apparently. But we do need those qualified experts to debate topics. It’s the notion that ‘everyone is an expert’ that has led to things like the anti-vaccine movement, flat earth, and climate change denial. Also, the book has nothing to say about information and inequality — the rich hoard information and power, but poorer people with less education are often sucked in by manipulative advertising.

The book could have been slimmed down significantly. It's a shame because I think Tetlock's kind of work is fundamentally very valuable, but his ambling style got tedious and I was desperate to finish it. Admittedly, I did learn from it, though you can get the key points here.

Rating: 3/5

7. Nutshell by Ian McEwan (Paper copy)

A philosophising embryo reflects on his mother and uncle’s plot to kill his father. Hamlet in 21st century Hackney. The baby’s viewpoint is great as it can hear all the discussions (when the uncle and the mother have sex, the uncles’ penis is close to the baby’s head were quite gross and funny). For an unborn infant, the protagonist has a lot to say about morality, literature, climate change, and geopolitics — sometimes too much. It’s fun and a short read, but not a masterpiece.

Rating: 3/5

8. The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks (Audiobook)

The second book in the Culture Series, about the cosmic dramas of a future space-faring civilisation. The Sci-Fi story of a ‘game player’ who travels to a distant planet and clashes with their oppressive social regime. If we can get over our current resource shortages, could humanity spread into space? This future could be much bigger than the spread of early humans leaving the African savanna. But from a macro-level, familiar ethical struggles re-emerge. What are the obligations on liberals clashing with authoritarian cultures?

Like Huxley, Banks is surprisingly prescient. In this futuristic story, robotic assistants help (or annoy) the humans, and become characters of their own right. The protagonist speaks to his house to set the lights and monitor his calls — great foresight of things like Amazon’s Alexa, given that The Player of Games was written back in 1988. But as a piece of prose, the book is quite boyish and the characters are a little wooden.

Rating: 3/5

(An aside on the audiobook: The narrator employs Asian accents to voice the people in the foreign Empire of Azad. Is this racist? In any case, it was funny/weird.)

9. Superintelligence by Nick Bostrom (Audiobook and paper copy)

Our tiny advantage in intelligence has led to our species, homo sapiens, ruling the planet. The prospects of introducing a more intelligent species could be drastic. The opening chapters of Superintelligence sweep across cognition, optimisation, and survey the developments in the efficiency of AI over the past few decades. If homo sapiens are imperfect and sloggish optimisers, then a silicon brain could in theory radically outperform ours. What will it want? What does that mean for us fleshly folk?

There are many areas of debate in this space, as the brain and cognition are radically complex and we have made limited progress on breaking down neural processes. Perhaps these topics will remain an unknown for a very long time if not forever. Timing is a big uncertainty. Bostrom’s main fears are from recursive self-improvement leading to an ‘intelligence explosion’, but this reasoning could fall down if ML process get lost trawling through a broad search space. There are lots of positives of more advanced technology. Increasingly advanced techniques (e.g. clean meat, water desalination, healthcare innovation) could help us deal with resource shortages from climate change and population growth.

Bostrom comes in for lots of criticism. How sure can we be? Like the engineers at Fukushima, we can convince ourselves that we are safe. But experts say the slice of possibility of an intelligence explosion remains open. Artificial general intelligence (AGI) may well come later this century.
The development of human level machine intelligence could be humanity’s last invention, with colossal repercussions: positive or negative. If this is a non-zero possibility, it seems important to make sure we do it right.

Rating: 5/5

Books I started and gave up
  • Why Buddhism is True by Robert Wright (gave up at 10% — I thought the writing was sloppy, and I disagreed)
  • Better Angels of Our Nature by Stephen Pinker (gave up at 30% — it made for a bad audiobook, given all the graphs. I also suspect Pinker’s writing is full of selectivity errors. I might re-read in paper / Kindle).
Books I’m currently reading
  • Strangers Drowning by Larissa Macfarquhar (Kindle)
  • How Democracy Ends by David Runciman
  • Deep Work by Cal Newport
Other books I’m thinking about reading soon
  • This is Not a Drill by Extinction Rebellion
  • On the Future by Martin Rees
  • Why Nations Fail by Acemoglu and Robinson
  • Something on UBI (e.g. one of the ones reviewed here)
  • Some nice fiction!

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