What Is Effective Altruism?



[Author’s note: I am absolutely confident I got this definition from somewhere else, but I’ve looked for it extensively and haven’t been able to find it, and I’d like to be able to reference it, so I’m writing it up. Sorry, original inventor of this definition, whom I have failed to credit.]

Definitions of effective altruism are often very vague. The Centre for Effective Altruism defines effective altruism as “using evidence and reason to figure out how to benefit others as much as possible, and taking action on that basis.” The Effective Altruism Foundation defines effective altruism as “a philosophy and a social movement which holds that actively helping others is of central moral importance, and approaches the choice of possible strategies in a rational and scientific way.” Various book titles define it as Doing Good Better or The Most Good You Can Do.

I’ve talked to people who are confused by these definitions. It seems like in principle feeding hungry people in America or sheltering stray cats could be done in a rational and scientific way, and they certainly involves actively helping others; some people are confused that effective altruists don’t tell them how to most effectively help stray cats or poor Americans. Other people believe that effective altruism is solely about donating to global health charities that have been shown to work in randomized controlled trials and are confused by the fact that many effective altruists are involved in causes with scanty or no peer-reviewed scientific backing.

I’d like to suggest a better definition. In many ways, effective altruism is a big tent: it is clearly not limited to a single cause or way of arguing. However, I think there is a distinctive effective altruism approach to doing good, which is worth defining.

Effective altruism is secular. It does not recommend charities that most effectively get people into Heaven, cause people to have a personal relationship with Jesus, or cause people to reach enlightenment, despite the many religious people that believe that these are more important ways to benefit others than preventing nuclear war or eradicating malaria.

Effective altruism is outcome-oriented. When you justify a course of action from an effective altruist point of view, you must explain why you believe this course of action will cause some specific good thing to go up or some specific bad thing to go down– how it will reduce deaths, make people healthier, improve education, prevent human extinction, or cause fewer animals to suffer torturous lives. You cannot justify the course of action by saying that it is what a virtuous person would do, or that there is some rule that says that everyone should do it, or that it respects human dignity, or that it seems like the sort of thing someone ought to be doing even if it has no effects whatsoever.

Effective altruism is maximizing. It is, as the book title says, about doing the most good you can do. An effective altruist approach does not involve listing off twenty things that we think pass a certain threshold for goodness. It involves saying what you think the single best thing is. Of course, there is uncertainty, so you might say “I don’t know which of these five things are best.” And some things might be better for one person than for another. If trying to be vegan will put you in the hospital, then obviously being vegan is not The Most Good You Can Do. If you’re an amazing political activist and a mediocre AI alignment researcher, then it might be best for you to be a political activist, even if it’s best for an amazing AI alignment researcher to be an AI alignment researcher.

Effective altruism is cause-impartial. Many people choose which cause they work on for reasons other than trying to have the most positive effect on the world. They choose a cause that they’re passionate about, or that they have a personal connection to, or that makes them feel warm and fuzzy feelings. They donate to a particular charity out of habit or because someone asked them to. Effective altruism, however, is impartial between causes: effective altruism recommends that people do whatever seems to be best, not whatever gives them the warmest and fuzziest feelings.

Effective altruism is egalitarian. Effective altruism values all people equally: that is, from the effective altruism perspective, saving the life of a baby in Africa is exactly as good as saving the life of a baby in America, which is exactly as good as saving the life of Ozy’s baby specifically. Effective altruism does not value some beings more and other beings less because they live in different places, or because one is cuter or more sympathetic than the other, or because one has a different skin tone than another. Despite some difficulties about how to justify it philosophically, effective altruism generally believes that future people are as important as present people. While there is controversy about to what extent nonhuman animals should be valued, effective altruism is not speciesist: if effective altruism should not value nonhuman animals, it is because they can’t feel pain, can’t suffer, are not conscious, or are incapable of having long-term preferences, not because of their species membership.

I have been careful throughout this post to say “effective altruism” rather than “effective altruists.” Certainly, it’s not an accident that effective altruists are typically atheists with consequentialist ethical systems. There’s a natural harmony between secular, outcome-oriented effective altruism and atheist consequentialism. If a person believes that converting people is so important that it’s a waste of time to feed bellies instead of souls, or that outcomes don’t matter at all, or that people in America are millions of times more important than people in Africa, they are unlikely to benefit much from effective altruism and can safely ignore our recommendations. But many people who do not fully agree with all the values of effective altruism can derive value from an effective altruism approach.

For example, you might rule out certain courses of action like killing people, even if they lead to the best outcomes. However, since Assassins Without Borders is not very likely to be recommended as a top charity any time soon, an outcome-oriented approach can still help you figure out your career and donation decisions. You might be religious but believe in an obligation to help people in this world rather than just the next; perhaps you split your effort and donations between religious and secular causes, and use effective altruism to guide your secular effort.

In fact, very very few effective altruists apply the effective altruism approach to every aspect of their lives. Professional effective altruists write a lot of fanfiction, which would be weird if they were trying to maximize the amount of good they’re doing with every moment. And I for one am willing to spend much more money to save the life of my baby than I am to save the life of some unrelated baby. Nevertheless, I find effective altruism very valuable in figuring out how to do the most good with the time, effort, and energy I’m willing to spend on that.


GiveWell Top Charities Explained: GiveDirectly



[This is the third post in a brief series explaining the current GiveWell top charities. You can get all the information in this post on GiveWell’s website, but my blog post is both shorter and less boring. In order to reward you for reading a whole blog post about a charity you already know about, I have included at the end the Most Interesting GiveDirectly Fact.]

Whoever said that you should buy warm fuzzies and utilons separately had never heard of GiveDirectly.

GiveDirectly gives money to people in the developing world, usually about $1000. This typically about doubles its recipients’ yearly income. You may see a more-or-less random sample of recipients’ responses to this program on GD Live. Recipients’ responses are unedited and only posted if they opt in to sharing. They may seem slightly overenthusiastic but imagine how you would feel if someone doubled your income for no reason. (I recommend only reading GD Live if you’re pretty sure you plan to donate to GiveDirectly; it has a known effect of causing people to be unable to resist the temptation to donate.)

Research on the effects of GiveDirectly’s cash transfers shows the following:

  • Households spent $51 more per month; about half of the money was spent on food.
  • Household assets increase by $463; most commonly, the money was spent on livestock, durable goods (particularly furniture), and savings.
  • 23% of recipients had an iron roof, compared to 16% of controls.
  • Households spend $13 more per month on business expenses, typically non-durable expenses on non-agricultural businesses.
  • Recipients spend $3 more per month on health expenses.
  • Spending on alcohol and tobacco did not increase.
  • Food security and sense of psychological well-being increased.
  • Business revenues increased by $15; profits did not increase, but that might be a short-term effect due to e.g. investments that have not yet paid off.

Also, one guy bought a guitar and used it to write this catchy song:

My life is GiveDirectly
My house is GiveDirectly
My phone is GiveDirectly
My job is GiveDirectly
My love is GiveDirectly

My life, Give Direct
My house, Give Direct
My farm, Give Direct
I love Give Direct

My life, Give Direct
My house, Give Direct
My job, Give Direct
I love Give Direct

While there is high uncertainty, GiveWell’s best guess is that GiveDirectly does not have significant negative effects on households that don’t receive money.

GiveDirectly is a very well-run charity. 99.7% of recipients receive all funds promised. While staff fraud has occurred in the past, GiveDirectly has responded promptly and taken more steps to prevent future fraud.

GiveDirectly is also known for its commitment to randomized controlled trials. A very high proportion of its recipients (although not 100%) are enrolled in a randomized controlled trial, such as the RCT on the macroeconomic effects of cash transfers or GiveDirectly’s basic income trial. (Oh yeah! GiveDirectly is totally doing a trial on whether basic income cost-effectively improves people’s lives!)

GiveDirectly’s room for more funding is huge, because of how easy the program is to scale. GiveDirectly alone could productively use hundreds of millions of dollars in funding– more than every other GiveWell top charity combined.

Many people support GiveDirectly not just because of its program but because of its challenge to the international aid sector. GiveDirectly asks, “if the thing you’re doing doesn’t work better than giving people cash, why the fuck aren’t you just giving them cash?” Of course, this is a very hard impact to measure, and it’s unclear if giving GiveDirectly more money would cause them to have more effect on the rest of the aid sector, compared to GiveDirectly existing at all. But anecdotally more funders are asking themselves “does this outperform cash?” and give-cash control groups have expanded in popularity.

Many other people support GiveDirectly because they care about autonomy. A lot of donors to the developing world are incredibly condescending: they buy a cow from Heifer International or a merry-go-round pump from PlayPumps or help build a school on their mission trip. Surely, however, if people in the developing world need cows or schools or merry-go-round water pumps, they can buy that themselves? Is there some reason to believe that we know better than people in the developing world just because we’re rich? By far the most popular purchase with a GiveDirectly cash transfer is an iron roof; have you ever seen a charity fundraising to buy iron roofs for people in Kenya? We don’t know what it’s like to be members of the global poor, because we’ve never been poor. The poor know better than we do what their needs are. It is respectful of their dignity as people to let them make this sort of choice.

So, GiveDirectly is great. Why don’t we all just donate there?

Well, GiveWell has this handy little chart where they calculate what you get for your dollar. It’s super-fake and you shouldn’t take it literally, but the effect is large enough that that doesn’t necessarily matter. And what it found was that the cost to achieve an outcome that is just as good as saving a five-year-old’s life, according to the median values of GiveWell staffers, is twenty-three thousand dollars.

Now, of course, that depends on your values, and I encourage you to put your own moral weights into the sheet instead of relying on the median of GiveWell staffers’ values, which is a terrible way to do ethics. But if you care about saving the lives of small children and/or don’t mind high levels of uncertainty, you will get more value for your money by donating to a different GiveWell top charity.

The problem with “do we know better than people in the developing world just because we’re rich?” is that the answer is “yeah, sometimes.” Very, very few Kenyans have access to Sci-Hub so that they can develop an informed opinion on whether deworming medicines will increase their children’s income twenty years from now. Few Ugandans can explain the connection between those vitamin A pills the health worker is handing out and their children dying of diarrhea. Of course, the same things are true for most people in the developed world, but there exist any people in the developed world who understand those things, and the rest of us can follow their donation recommendations.

People in general tend to undervalue preventative health care. People in Africa don’t buy malaria nets for the same reason you never use your gym membership. If it works, nothing happens: you don’t see the malaria or heart attack you didn’t get. Nothing disastrous will happen if you put off going to the gym or buying the malaria net till next week, and exercising is boring and if you buy the malaria net you won’t get to eat for two days, so you never get around to buying it. As an outsider, you can say “this is a known cognitive bias, I’m going to give you a free malaria net and then your children won’t die of malaria.” So charities other than GiveDirectly can be more cost-effective.

In conclusion, as promised, here is the Best GiveDirectly Fact:

GiveDirectly started enrolling recipients from Homa Bay county, Kenya in mid-2015. There, it encountered unexpectedly high rates of refusals from potential recipients; while refusal rates in Uganda and Siaya, Kenya have historically been low (around 5%), refusal rates in Homa Bay have been about 45%. GiveDirectly believes the refusals are due to widespread skepticism towards GiveDirectly’s program and rumors that GiveDirectly is associated with the devil…

November 2017 update: We requested data from GiveDirectly on refusal rates (and other metrics) for January to March 2017 for Kenya and Uganda and March to June 2017 for Rwanda. Refusal rates remained fairly high in Kenya, with 22% refusing to participate in the census and 68% of complaints submitted to GiveDirectly categorized as “program is evil/from the devil.”

Why might you donate to GiveDirectly?

  • You need a lot of warmfuzzies in order to motivate yourself to donate.
  • You think encouraging cash benchmarking is really important, and giving GiveDirectly more money will help that.
  • You want to encourage charities to do more RCTs on their programs by rewarding the charity that does that most enthusiastically.
  • You care about increasing people’s happiness and don’t care about saving the lives of small children, and prefer a certainty of a somewhat good outcome to a small chance of a very good outcome.
  • You believe, in principle, that we should let people make their own decisions about their lives.
  • You want an intervention that definitely has at least a small positive effect.
  • You have just looked at GDLive and are no longer responsible for your actions.

GiveWell Top Charities Explained: Helen Keller International



[This is the second post in a brief series explaining the current GiveWell top charities. You can get all the information in this post on GiveWell’s website, but my blog post is both shorter and less boring.]

Helen Keller International performs Vitamin A supplementation.

Vitamin A deficiency can cause stunting, anemia, blindness, more severe infections, and death. It is particularly harmful to pregnant or lactating people, infants, and children. People in developing countries who don’t eat much meat and don’t eat Vitamin-A-fortified food may suffer from deficiencies. (Vitamin A is also a nutrient of concern for vegans and vegetarians in the developed world, but if you have an ample and diverse diet of fruits and vegetables you probably don’t have to worry about it.) Luckily, your liver can store Vitamin A for several months; if you take a very high dose of Vitamin A once every six months, you won’t suffer from Vitamin A deficiency. It is recommended that children between 6 months and 5 years old get a supplement once every six months.

Helen Keller International provides technical assistance, advocacy, and funding. Technical assistance includes helping countries monitor how many children are getting Vitamin A supplements, running campaigns that educate parents about the importance of Vitamin A supplements, training health workers to give out supplements, and helping governments figure out why their vitamin A supplementation rates are so low and how they can fix them. Advocacy involves convincing governments that they should prioritize mass vitamin A supplementation. Helen Keller International also sometimes provides grants to governments to help them pay for vitamin A supplementation programs.

It is somewhat unclear whether vitamin A supplementation actually works to reduce mortality rates. Normally, this sort of thing is unclear because we don’t have any evidence about it. In the case of vitamin A supplementation, we have two pieces of really good evidence; they just point in opposite directions.

The Cochrane Collaboration, whom you may remember from the previous post as the people who aren’t sure whether flossing your teeth makes your teeth better, performed a meta-analysis that suggests that vitamin A supplementation reduces all-cause mortality by 24%, with a 95% confidence interval ranging from 17% to 31%. The Cochrane Collaboration primarily used studies that were conducted in the 1980s and 1990s.

Not long after the Cochrane Collaboration’s meta-analysis came out, we learned the results of the DEVTA trial. The DEVTA trial is the single largest randomized controlled trial ever conducted, with one million children participating. It estimated that Vitamin A supplementation reduces child mortality rates by 4% and could not rule out the possibility that it did not affect child mortality rates at all. You may notice that 4% is in fact much much smaller than 24%.

What the fuck is going on?

  • It might just be random chance. That’s pretty unlikely: the Cochrane Collaborations 95% confidence interval doesn’t overlap at all with DEVTA’s.
  • DEVTA might not have treated as high a percentage of the children in the study as claimed. DEVTA claims to have treated 86% of children, but some researchers are skeptical because DEVTA was done very cheaply. DEVTA seems to be using broadly reasonable strategies to get all children to take vitamin A supplements and to figure out how many children actually took it, but their strategies aren’t very well-documented and sometimes they didn’t implement them until halfway through the study. Nevertheless, the percentage of children treated in order to make ‘they didn’t treat enough kids’ plausible as an explanation is so much lower than the percentage of children claimed to have been treated that this is not a very plausible explanation.
  • DEVTA might have treated a population with less severe or prevalent vitamin A deficiency. However, the rate of vitamin A deficiency, severe vitamin A deficiency, and complications related to vitamin A deficiency is similar in DEVTA as it is in other studies. It’s more likely they underestimated vitamin A deficiency than that they overestimated it.
  • DEVTA’s population might be healthier than other populations. Vitamin A deficiency doesn’t generally kill children directly; it kills them indirectly, by making them more susceptible to infections. If those deaths are being prevented some other way (e.g. measles vaccianations, oral rehydration treatment), treating Vitamin A deficiency saves fewer children’s lives. DEVTA had a lower child mortality rate than most of the studies in the Cochrane review, and generally studies with a lower child mortality rate show a smaller effect from vitamin A supplementation. However, it’s unclear whether measles and diarrhea– the two biggest killers related to Vitamin A– were less common in DEVTA than in other studies.

GiveWell thinks the most likely explanation is the last one. That means that whether Vitamin A supplementation is cost-effective depends on not just how high the Vitamin A deficiency rates are but also how high the child mortality rate is.

The countries Helen Keller International works in typically have lower rates of vitamin A deficiency than in any study of the effects of vitamin A supplementation: they work in countries where 20% of preschool-aged children have vitamin A deficiency, compared to 59% in the Cochrane meta-analysis. Hellen Keller International works in countries where 12 children out of every 1000 die every year; previous studies have found an effect of vitamin A supplementation if more than 10 children out of every 1000 die every year.

However, there are a lot of limitations of this estimate. Helen Keller International typically works in regions, rather than in whole countries, which might have higher or lower child mortality rates than the country as a whole. It seems really unlikely that vitamin A supplementation doesn’t do anything below 10 children out of 1000 dying each year and then suddenly has a big effect as soon as you get to 10; it’s probably a smoother effect that’s harder to analyze. “Child mortality” is a statistic that includes a lot of different things. It’s unclear whether vitamin A supplementation helps with all infectious diseases or a subset, such as measles and diarrhea; it’s pretty clear that vitamin A supplementation has no effect on some other causes of child mortality, like car accidents. If a region has a high child mortality rate because there are a lot of car accidents, vitamin A supplementation might not do anything. More realistically, if vitamin A supplementation reduces deaths by causing children to be less likely to die if they get measles, then if a region has a low rate of measles, it won’t have a big effect from vitamin A supplementation, even if it has a high child mortality rate.

There are not likely to be any negative long-term side effects from vitamin A supplementation. In the short term, less than ten percent of children experience some sort of adverse side effect, such as headaches, nausea, vomiting, irritability, fever, or loose stools. Vitamin A supplementation does not cause vitamin A overdose or increase mortality when given alongside an inactivated vaccine.

Helen Keller International gives a relatively high percentage of target children vitamin A supplements (between 46% and 81%, depending on region).

GiveWell believes Helen Keller International’s grants cause vitamin A supplementation distributions that otherwise would not occur, but does not know whether its technical assistance helps countries to give vitamin A to children who otherwise wouldn’t receive vitamin A. For this reason, GiveWell’s analyses include only the effect of grantmaking, not the effect from technical assistance.

Helen Keller International needs $20.6 million over the next three years.

Vitamin A supplementation is only one program which Helen Keller International implements. GiveWell recommends donating to Vitamin A supplementation and does not recommend donating to their other programs.

One big area of uncertainty comes from the fact that Helen Keller International has been investigated in less detail than other top charities. In general, over time, GiveWell tends to become more uncertain about charities, learn more about their limitations, and have a higher cost-per-life-saved-equivalent number attached to the charity.

Why might you donate to Helen Keller International?

  • You want to save the lives of children under 6.
  • You want to donate to something that definitely won’t cause significant harm, even if it might not have an effect.
  • You’re optimistic about GiveWell’s further investigations finding that Helen Keller International is as effective as we thought, not less effective.
  • You think Helen Keller International’s technical assistance is more likely to be effective than GiveWell thinks it is.
  • You’re not too concerned about low rates of vitamin A deficiency or about the uncertainties associated with child mortality rates.

Givewell Top Charities Explained: Malaria Consortium



[This is the first post in a brief series explaining the current GiveWell top charities. You can get all the information in this post on GiveWell’s website, but my blog post is both shorter and less boring.]

The GiveWell-recommended program run by the Malaria Consortium does seasonal malaria chemoprevention– that is, they give children under five preventative anti-malarial drugs, so that the children don’t get malaria and don’t die. And their cost-per-death-averted is..

…drumroll please…


Okay, you shouldn’t take cost-effectiveness analysis literally. The GiveWell cost-effectiveness analyses are comprehensive, but there are a lot of factors that aren’t included, and there’s always a bunch of uncertainty that disappears with an overly precise number like “$2,292”. At the very least, you should go to that spreadsheet, click on the tab that says “moral weights,” and put in your own numbers, because otherwise you’re saying “my ethical beliefs are exactly equivalent to the median of what all GiveWell employees believe about ethics,” which is a stupid way to do ethics.

But nevertheless it is true that the cost-per-life-saved numbers for the Malaria Consortium are stupidly cheap.

If you’re a charity nerd like me, you’ve gotten a bit used to the situation with global poverty charities. The top charity is always bednets, and the cost-per-life-saved-equivalent is always about the same– sometimes it’s $3,500, sometimes it’s $4,000. But SMC is super cheap.

Like, what the fuck?

The Cochrane Collaboration summarizes the effects of seasonal malaria chemoprevention as follows:

[Seasonal malaria chemoprevention] prevents approximately three quarters of all clinical malaria episodes (rate ratio 0.26; 95% CI 0.17 to 0.38; 9321 participants, six trials, high quality evidence), and a similar proportion of severe malaria episodes (rate ratio 0.27, 95% CI 0.10 to 0.76; 5964 participants, two trials, high quality evidence). These effects remain present even where insecticide treated net (ITN) usage is high (two trials, 5964 participants, high quality evidence).

This is the Cochrane Collaboration we’re talking about here. These are the people who think there’s not adequate evidence that flossing makes your gums better. When Cochrane says “not only does this work, it prevents three quarters of all malaria episodes,” you sit up and take notice.

Unfortunately, it’s not clear that seasonal malaria chemoprevention reduces overall mortality. Not that many people die of malaria every year, so you need to have a huge study to be able to detect changes in overall mortality. One study, Cisse (2016), was supposed to be big enough to detect changes in mortality, but fewer children died than was expected, which probably makes the scientists involved feel like horrible people every time they complain about it.

GiveWell thinks the Malaria Consortium could productively use way more money than they’ll actually get: their room for more funding is $43.9 million.

So this is great, right? Time to give away all our money to the Malaria Consortium!

Well, there’s one little problem and one big problem.

The little problem is that the surveys to find out how many children get seasonal malaria chemoprevention suffer from some severe methodological limitations: for example, the villages often aren’t randomly chosen, and caregivers often say they’ve given a dose when they didn’t mark the card they were supposed to mark when they gave a dose. It’s true that the surveys sometimes show really low rates of children getting treated, which would be weird if the Malaria Consortium were deliberately giving GiveWell misleading results. But even if the Malaria Consortium isn’t being misleading it might be hard to know how well they’re implementing the program.

The big problem is drug resistance.

Seasonal malaria chemoprevention uses two drugs: sulfadoxine–pyrimethamine (SP) and amodiaquine (AQ). The good news is that both drugs are basically only used for malaria, so we don’t have to worry about any other nasty bugs developing resistance to them. The bad news is that they’re both very commonly used, effective, and cheap treatments for malaria, and if you give them to everyone under the age of five, it makes it much more likely that malaria will evolve resistance to them.

The experts GiveWell has talked to expect that seasonal malaria chemoprevention will not result in malaria evolving drug resistance to SP and AQ within the next five to ten years. But five to ten years is not a very long time. We’re probably still going to have malaria in the next five to ten years. It would suck if malaria were harder to treat.

The Malaria Consortium is doing a study right now of how fast resistance seems to be evolving, so we might have more information and better estimates in the future. But right now drug resistance is something I at least am really worried about.

The Malaria Consortium needs $43.9 million dollars over the next three years. Donations should be restricted to its seasonal malaria chemoprevention program and not other programs it runs, which GiveWell does not recommend.

Why might you donate to the Malaria Consortium?

  • You care a lot about saving the lives of children under five.
  • You want to donate to a program that definitely works and is cost-effective, even if it might have other negative impacts.
  • You’re optimistic about making significant progress in eradicating malaria in the next few decades, or about malaria not developing drug resistance.

Donation Post: 2018



This year I am splitting my donations between the Animal Welfare Fund (animals), Evidence Action (global poverty), and the Longevity Research Institute (anti-aging).

I’m taking basically the same approach with all three places I’m donating this year. I am not donating to particular programs that I think are high impact, such as malaria nets or cellular agriculture. Instead, I’m delegating my donation decisions to particular people or organizations. In two cases, I’m betting on a specific person that I have reason to believe is more informed, has better judgment, and is generally capable of making better decisions than me. In a third case, Evidence Action, I’m betting on an organization’s process and epistemics: while I know little about their current charities, I’m impressed by their transparency and commitment to admitting when things they’re trying may not work.

The Longevity Research Institute is a new charity. In general, organizations that do basic research focus on understanding the biology of aging, while biotech companies study drugs as treatments for specific diseases. The LRI focuses on grants to develop drugs that will extend life and prevent disease in healthy people. It was founded by my friend Sarah Constantin, who is one of the smartest people I know; I have consistently been impressed by her carefulness and the breadth of her knowledge. I don’t have the understanding of medicine to know whether what they’re doing is sensible. Donating to the LRI is, fundamentally, a bet on Sarah.

The LRI is a new project which is just getting off the ground. Early donations can be far more valuable than donations later in a project’s life, because they make the difference between the organization existing and not existing. Once an organization has a track record, it is easier to convince donors to support it, so the room for more funding is often smaller.

People whom I think should consider donating to the LRI:

  • Young people who want to selfishly invest in life extension research. (The research is unlikely to bear fruit in enough time to benefit older people.)
  • People who know Sarah Constantin and agree with my assessment of her character.
  • Risk-neutral effective altruists who want to support new projects.

Evidence Action starts global poverty charities that rigorous research suggests have the potential to benefit many people at a low cost. They currently run one GiveWell top charity, Deworm the World, which facilitates school-based treatment of parasitic worms. Their other charity, Dispensers for Safe Water, places free chlorine dispensers near wells so that people can easily disinfect their water. The charities going through the incubation process are No Lean Season (which subsidizes workers moving to the city to get jobs during the agricultural off-season) and Winning Start (which improves literacy and numeracy among primary-school children by having volunteers tutor them).

I’m excited about Evidence Action for several reasons. There are many programs we know work to help the global poor that no one is really implementing. GiveWell has written about their difficulties finding charities that implement priority programs with rigorous monitoring and evaluation. Evidence Action has already created one GiveWell top charity and I expect that it will create more in the future.

Further, Evidence Action has a notable commitment to monitoring and evaluation of their programs. Programs that look good in pilot studies often fall apart when they’re scaled to thousands or millions of recipients, which is why Evidence Action doesn’t just rely on promising early studies but does RCTs that test whether the program still works when it’s expanded. They also collect ongoing monitoring data for the programs that have graduated from Evidence Action Beta, such as Deworm the World, to make sure the programs are implemented well.

By far, the single thing that excites me most about Evidence Action is their reaction to No Lean Season failing to have the desired impact. They could have claimed that 2017 was a weird year or that the study was poorly conducted. Instead, they identified issues that might have caused No Lean Season not to have an effect, such as mistargeting. They are going to run a second RCT in 2018 of a program that they believe has fixed these issues; if that doesn’t work, they are open to shutting down the charity. They did not contest No Lean Season being delisted as a GiveWell top charity. They have been consistently open and transparent about the situation. This is exactly how I want charities to respond to evidence that their program does not work.

People whom I think should consider donating to Evidence Action:

  • People who want to reward Evidence Action for admitting that No Lean Season may not work.
  • People who want to invest in improving charity epistemics.
  • People who want more global poverty charities implementing priority programs to exist.

The Animal Welfare Fund is chaired by Lewis Bollard, the program officer responsible for farmed animal welfare at the Open Philanthropy Project. He makes grants from the Animal Welfare Fund to a variety of animal welfare projects that for various reasons are not appropriate for an Open Philanthropy Project grant. The Animal Welfare Fund has funded a variety of animal-related causes, including wild animal welfare, animal welfare in the developing world, cellular agriculture, animal welfare research, and effective animal activist movement building.

I used to work for an organization, Wild-Animal Suffering Research, that received a significant percentage of its funding from the Animal Welfare Fund. I was extremely impressed by Lewis Bollard when we went through the grantmaking process. His questions were insightful and cut to the heart of the matter; he was clearly thoughtful and capable of changing his mind in response to new evidence.

When I look at the grants the Animal Welfare Fund makes, I am generally very excited. The Animal Welfare Fund typically seems to look for opportunities where a lot of good can be done for very little money and that the typical small donor won’t know about. Past grant recipients that I’m excited about include:

  • The Intercept, for investigative reporting about factory farming.
  • Utility Farm, for work on tractable interventions into wild-animal welfare, such as humane insecticides and keeping cats indoors.
  • A factory-farm photographer in Poland, to buy him a car so he can keep traveling to factory farms.
  • Animal Welfare Action Lab, to replicate surveys about people’s opinions on clean meat.
  • A project to translate Animal Liberation into Swahili, Hindi, Ukranian, Romanian, and Georgian.
  • The world’s first Bangladeshi documentary about factory farming.

Importantly, the Animal Welfare Fund does not primarily make grants to organizations that use leafleting or online ads to try to convince people to become vegetarian or vegan. I think the advertise-to-people-in-developed-countries-until-they-become-vegetarian-or-vegan strategy is likely to be cost-ineffective.

In the past, the Animal Welfare Fund has only had one manager, Lewis Bollard. However, it has recently shifted to have three additional managers: Toni Adleberg and Jamie Spurgeon of Animal Charity Evaluators and Natalie Cargill of Effective Giving. I don’t believe I’ve personally interacted with any of these managers (although I’m both faceblind and terrible with names, so I don’t want to rule it out!). The new system has less of a track record; however, the latest round of grants seems to be similar to previous grants.

People whom I think should consider donating to the Animal Welfare Fund:

  • People who prioritize animal welfare and do not think we should concentrate on persuading people to be vegan/vegetarian.
  • People who support “weird EA” animal causes.

Link Post for December


Effective Altruism

A critique of Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence on the EA forum. (I don’t 100% agree with it but I think it’s worth reading.)

What do Africans think about advertisements raising money for global poverty charities?

Radical transparency makes it harder to be honest with yourself.

QALYs might underweight the importance of eradicating diseases.

Social Justice

““I don’t want to” wasn’t a reason not to have sex, because everyone wants to have sex under the proper conditions. I could say no if I wasn’t ready, but there would come a day when the stars would align and all my necessary conditions would be met and I would be ready. I was terrified of that inevitable star alignment, because I knew that when it happened I would have to have sex.”

Really moving essay about suicidality and the experience of being on the psych ward.

Yet even as Sullivan decries political tribalism, here is his theory of it: A decline in people practicing his form of Christian faith has led to a rise in “political cultists” who find their ultimate meaning in politics, who will stop at nothing to achieve their political goals, and who cannot be reasoned or compromised with.”

Maryland’s state song is a pro-Confederate anthem.

Civilizational Inadequacy

Being frequently woken up in the hospital provides little benefit and makes people sicker.

The children reared on some version of Dickens will go on to be Scrooges, not because they are stupid but because they can’t help it—that’s what the world is set up to make of them.

Sarah Constantin has some thoughts on playing politics.


The cookbook The Joy of Cooking was one of the first organizations to uncover that disgraced scientist Brian Wansink was cooking his data.

Best bad restaurant reviews of 2018.

Hot take: pizza is not a meal.

Just Plain Neat

World’s oldest woman turns out to be a woman who pretended to be her deceased mother to avoid inheritance taxes.

There’s apparently some person named Ninja who has tens of millions of fans and is a multimillionaire and spends ten hours a day streaming something called Fortnite? I’m not entirely sure what Fortnite is honestly and yet people are making millions of dollars playing it. Is this what being old feels like? (His longest vacation from Fortnite-playing was apparently six days for his honeymoon.)

Economist David Friedman’s favorite jokes that teach economics.

Yuletide, the huge small-fandoms fic exchange, has dropped! I haven’t read everything so I can’t do a full set of recommendations, but I particularly enjoyed this Gore Vidal/William F Buckley fic (warning: nsfw) which is exactly as wonderful as it sounds.

Book Post for December


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Mate: Become The Man Women Want: When I started the dating advice book by Tucker “I Hope They Serve Beer In Hell” Max and Geoffrey “Dear obese Ph.D. applicants: if you didn’t have the willpower to stop eating carbs, you won’t have the willpower to do a dissertation” Miller, I was not expecting that my primary complaint would be that the book was irritatingly politically correct. And yet here we are.

The primary thesis of the book is that if you acquire a bunch of generic, common-sense good qualities– volunteering, having a clean house, exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, treating your depression, learning to appreciate the small things in life– then women will be more attracted to you and you will be able to parlay your attractiveness into lots of casual sex or a relationship with a woman who similarly has a bunch of generic common-sense good qualities. I’m not necessarily opposed to this dating advice. It seems pretty harmless. Even if it fails you’ll end up with an exercise routine and a clean kitchen. But it is also obviously not how human sexuality works.

Like… there are lots of beautiful, intelligent, kind, and in every way desirable women (and men, and nonbinary people) who will ignore a dozen potential partners with many generic common-sense good qualities and zero in on the sad three-legged puppy that they need to rescue with the power of their love. Of course, if you want to date an emotionally healthy person with good boundaries– and you do– you probably want to have a handle on your mental health shit. But it is just not true that everyone is more attracted to people who have a handle on their mental health shit than people who don’t. Lots of those emotionally healthy people with good boundaries have gone through a long process of personal growth in which they realize that, regardless of what their heart and/or boner say about the matter, they should stop trying to save wildly dysfunctional people with the power of their love.

Romance novel heroes are standardly issued with a dark and tragic past! Mr. Darcy is one of the most iconic romance novel heroes of all time! Loki fangirls exist! This is because being a complete garbage disaster is in fact a thing many people find attractive!

This book is also peppered with a variety of baffling statements. Depressed people aren’t funny! (Have you ever met a stand-up comedian?) Jason Statham would have an easier time getting laid than Johnny Depp! (I admit that I am too gay to appreciate Jason Statham, a person with a continual air of being thirty seconds away from talking to me about grills, but I think even straight women have to agree that, setting aside the ‘is an abuser’ issue, Johnny Depp is more attractive.) Women paradoxically want both assertive and competent men and kind and sweet men, and it is baffling because those things are basically opposites, but she really wants you to be sweet to her and assertive to other people! (What.)

In conclusion, you should instead read Models. Models is good.

Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty: Should be renamed Dictators Behaving Badly, because much of the charm of this book comes from learning about all the different ways in which dictators behave badly. (I now have strong feelings about the former president of Uzbekistan. Fuck the former president of Uzbekistan in the ear.)

Acemoglu’s thesis is that institutions can be divided into “extractive institutions” and “inclusive institutions”. (Of course, there are also nations with totally nonfunctioning institutions, such as Somalia during the Civil War.) Inclusive institutions enforce property rights, treat people equally, incentivize economic activity, create law and order, and give everyone a say in government. Extractive institutions are structured to extract resources from the many to the few. In general, extractive institutions result in less growth. Extractive institutions oppose the destabilizing force of innovation, which might make it more difficult for elites to get all the money, and which is necessary for economic growth. And extractive institutions tend to be politically unstable, because the primary way to earn money is to control the institutions.

In general, both extractive institutions and inclusive institutions tend to persist in a particular location. Revolutions that overthrow extractive institutions tend to just install a new set of people in charge of the same old extractive institutions. However, major events that disrupt the existing political and economic balance in a society can cause institutions to shift from extractive to inclusive, or vice versa. Historical examples include the Black Death, the Industrial Revolution, and the opening of Atlantic trade routes.

Highly recommended. I think this sort of economic history approach is one of the best ways for me to learn history– it helps me understand not only what happened but also why.

The Little Book of Restorative Justice: I always kind of thought the thing I believed about criminal justice was called “restorative justice”, and I have read this book and now I know it’s definitely called that, so that’s good.

The conventional criminal justice system focuses on offenders getting what they deserve. Restorative justice is focused on victims getting what they need and on offenders taking responsibilty to repair the harm they caused. For example, victims often need to understand exactly what happened, to tell their story, to have a sense of empowerment, and to receive restitution. In a restorative-justice framework, offenders if necessary are at least temporarily restrained, take accountability for their actions, change their behavior so they don’t commit crimes again, and reintegrate into the community.

It’s simultaneously very surprising and not surprising at all that restorative justice was invented by a Christian. On one hand, it’s a very Christian set of beliefs. On the other hand, I rarely expect Christians to behave in a particularly Christian way. The author is Mennonite, and I have a vague sense that Mennonites are better on the radical forgiveness thing than most Christians.

New Moderation Policy: Nerds, Feminism and Dating


For most of this blog’s history, the same four people have been getting in fights in the comments of often tangentially related posts about the broad topic of nerds, feminism, and dating. These fights sometimes become pretty heated. As this has been going on for several years, no progress has been made nor is there any sign that anyone involved has changed their minds, this is more of an effective altruism blog than a social justice blog these days anyway, and I personally am bored to tears by the subject, I am now banning conversations of this form from the comments of posts that are not directly related to nerds, feminism, and dating.

In the interests of avoiding a chilling effect and since the ban is relatively vague, I will not ban people for starting conversations about the topic. When such a conversation is happening, I will provide a warning and explain that the subject is not allowed. If the conversation continues after the warning, participants will be banned. I do not expect this to affect the commenting experience of anyone except those four people.

Getting off topic on any other subject is still encouraged.

The Irrationalfic Manifesto



Many of my friends write rationalfic, in the vein of such works as Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality or Luminosity. As described on the r/rational sidebar, rationalfic features “thoughtful behaviour of people in honest pursuit of their goals,” “realistic intellectual agency,” and a “focus on intelligent characters solving problems through creative applications of their knowledge and resources.”

Rationalfic is really cool and I’ve enjoyed a lot of it (recommending people read Silmaril feels somewhat anti-social, because it will eat two months of your life, but Silmaril is so good). However, I personally am not interested in writing rationalfic. I write irrationalfic: fiction where careful attention is paid to the intricacies and subtleties of human irrationality.

Perhaps irrationalfic can be best summed up through a quote from Eliezer Yudkowsky’s essay on writing Level 1 intelligent characters:

The movie version goes like this: The thirteen dwarves and Bilbo Baggins have just spent one and a half movies fighting their way to the place where Thorin, leader of the dwarves, expects to find a secret entrance into the lost dwarven kingdom of Erebor. This entrance can only be opened on a particular day of the year (Durin’s Day), and they have a decoded map saying, Stand by the grey stone when the thrush knocks, and the last light of Durin’s day will shine upon the keyhole.

And then the sun sets behind a mountain, and they still haven’t found the keyhole. So Thorin… I find this painful to write… Thorin throws down the key in disgust and all the dwarves start to head back down the mountain, leaving only Bilbo behind to stare at the stone wall. And so Bilbo is the only one who sees when the light of the setting moon suddenly reveals the keyhole.

(Youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O34oOCB_7Kk.)

That thing where movie!Thorin throws down the key in disgust and walks away?

I wouldn’t have done that.

You wouldn’t have done that.

We’d wait at least an hour in case there was some beam of sunlight about to shoot through the side of the mountain, and then we’d come back tomorrow, just in case. And if that still failed we’d try again a year later. We wouldn’t drop the key. We wouldn’t wander off the instant something went wrong…

We could say that these strange creatures lack a certain sort of awareness. The scriptwriter wants us to be yelling at movie!Thorin, “No! You fool! Don’t do that!” but it does not occur to the scriptwriter that Thorin might yell this at himself, that Thorin might detect his own idiocy the way we see it plain upon the screen. Movie!Thorin has no little voice in his own head to yell these things at him, the way that you or I are the little voices in our own heads. We could call movie!Thorin a Hollywood Zombie, or H-Zombie for short.

The rationalfic solution to the problem of Thorin is to write a Level 1 intelligent character who doesn’t do extremely obviously stupid things. The irrationalfic solution to the problem of Thorin is to justify why he is so extremely obviously stupid.

Perhaps Thorin is an impatient person, someone who gives up easily, who doesn’t put in the extra effort. Perhaps this is established throughout the movie series: he gets bored before they’ve checked that all the ponies’ bags are secure; he gives up when Bilbo tries to show him how to make some hobbit food and he doesn’t get it immediately; he decides on the kill-Smaug plan because he gets frustrated listening to all the potential plans there could possibly be. Sometimes it works for his benefit: he demands that the other dwarves hurry up and stop being so careful and they manage to leave just before a monster is about to attack them. Sometimes it bites him in the ass: maybe they leave the map at the campsite because Thorin didn’t double-check that they had it; maybe Thorin was in charge of preparing something for a fight and he only half-did it and some orcs they could have defeated easily almost kill them.

Once you have established all of that, Thorin is not an H-Zombie. Thorin is a person, an impatient and easily frustrated person, similar to many people you have met over the course of your life. And you might yell “aaa! You fool! Don’t do that!” at the screen, but your suspension of disbelief is not going to snap.

Following Eliezer’s convention, we can declare that an irrational character whose irrationality is always justified in some satisfying way and is of a piece with her entire character development in a Level 1 irrational character. A Level 2 irrational character is one where the character’s irrationality actually makes sense to the reader as a thing the reader would have done in the character’s shoes, perhaps to the point that the reader does not see the character as irrational until the full consequences of their actions are revealed. A Level 3 irrational character is one where the reader realizes some aspect of their own irrationality due to seeing it play out in the character’s life.

What makes an irrationalfic?

Irrationalfic protagonists are flawed. And they don’t just have grand, noble, heroic flaws either. Irrationalfic protagonists have the normal range of human flaws. They’re petty and careless and thoughtlessly cruel. They make big plans and don’t follow through with them. They suck at communicating with people they’re dating. They have anxiety and guilt issues. They don’t like doing things that are boring or involve a lot of hard work. They deceive themselves; they maintain intricate webs of denial of all their personality flaws and all the problems in their lives. They sell out their principles for financial gain; they stick to their principles even when it will cost other people’s lives. They make bad decisions when they’re hungry or tired or horny. They’re biased and prejudiced and xenophobic. They’re basically good people who fail to outperform the society they were raised in; they’re basically good people who try to outperform the society they were raised in and end up going off in a terrible direction and making everything worse. Obviously, I don’t mean that any character should have every one of those traits (…although if you manage to do it I want a link), just that these are the sorts of flaws irrationalfic protagonists should have.

Irrationalfic protagonists’ flaws make sense. Horror-movie characters splitting up and being picked off by the monster one by one is not an irrationalfic, it is just people behaving irrationally. At all times, the audience should be thinking “I understand why this character is behaving this way, even though I want to shake them.” One of the best ways to do this is by making the character get some sort of benefit from their flaws. This is realistic; people don’t usually do things that only hurt them and don’t have any good aspects at all. Try thinking about in what circumstances the character’s flaws are adaptive. What situation makes the irrational choice a good decision? For example:

  • A character who ignores her problems and binge-watches Netflix doesn’t have to think about things that are scary or upsetting.
  • A character who doesn’t do important but dull tasks isn’t bored as often.
  • A character who doesn’t talk about their needs or set boundaries may have an easier time surviving certain abusive relationships.
  • A character who agrees with her society’s prejudices is less likely to anger other people or make them feel guilty about their own prejudiced behavior.
  • A character who never follows through on her plans doesn’t have to worry about failing.
  • A character who practices self-deception doesn’t have to face uncomfortable truths about herself.
  • A character who sells out their principles for financial gain gets money which she can use to buy things that make her life better.

Another way to add plausibility is by laying out the character’s reasoning process. Don’t just have Thorin stomp off; make us feel his despair about ever finding the keyhole, his anger that he’s come all this way for nothing, his shame that he got fourteen people to spend a year of their lives on this quest and failed because he believed some stupid map. Don’t just have a character decide not to ask about some important and incorrect assumption she’s making about her love interest; make us understand that her love interest clearly doesn’t want to talk about it, and she wants to respect his preferences, and she’s sure he’ll open up in his own time, and anyway from all the information she has it’s really obvious what the explanation is.

Irrationalfic protagonists have virtues. A person who is nothing but flaw is not a very interesting character, and it limits the field on which their flaws can play out. As C S Lewis wrote, “To be greatly and effectively wicked a man needs some virtue. What would Attila have been without his courage, or Shylock without self-denial as regards the flesh?” So give your character some redeeming qualities. Give her intelligence or compassion or a sincere and earnest desire to do good; make her witty or hard-working or good at people; make her brave or thoughtful.

Some virtues I think are particularly worth considering due to the interesting plot points they open up:

  • Self-awareness. Most people who make bad decisions don’t know their decisions are bad. But scenes where the character goes “I recognize that this is a stupid decision and it is going to bite me in the ass” and then makes the decision anyway can be really interesting. Self-awareness can also allow the protagonist to explain why their decision is bad, which may be helpful for novice writers and increase the didactic potential of the story.
  • A commitment to self-improvement. In irrationalfic, you basically don’t get a happy ending without this trait; I’ll talk about that more later in the post.
  • Goals and agency. ‘Drifting through life without any particular intentions or plans’ is a perfectly cromulent flaw, but characters with goals make writing a lot easier. They spontaneously generate their own plots, whereas the other sort of character has to be forcibly dragged into a plot kicking and screaming. And there’s something particularly fun about watching a character destroy all the things they love and cherish because of their own poor coping mechanisms.
  • Being a better person than she thinks she is. It’s true this is only on the list because it is one of my favorite tropes. But it is a really good trope! The character might identify as being selfish or cruel or mean, or she might share her society’s prejudices and flaws. But then she encounters a suffering person, or befriends someone from the oppressed group, or faces a problem that professionalism demands she solve… and suddenly, without really knowing what she’s doing, she finds herself rescuing slaves or hiding Jews from the Nazis or fighting the Big Bad. Maybe she thinks the good thing she’s doing is actually evil, maybe she’s baffled at her self-sacrifice for a cause, maybe she keeps thinking she’s going to quit but she never does. Anyway. It’s a good trope. There should be more of it.

Irrationalfic protagonists cause many of their own problems. How much this is the case depends on the irrationalfic in question. For some stories, the primary conflict is external, but the protagonist makes their situation worse. For other stories, literally the entire story would be over in two pages if not for the protagonist constantly fucking things up all the time.

Regardless, the character’s flaws must fuck them over. None of this shit where a character is an alcoholic but as soon as the plot starts they mysteriously never take a drink. If a character is an alcoholic, they should be drunk during an important fight scene, and it means their aim is wildly off and they end up hitting a little girl instead of the person who took her hostage.

Think about the most obvious and boring ways that a character’s flaws would create problems for her. If she makes cutting, snarky remarks that make the reader laugh, her victims probably shouldn’t also laugh– a lot of the time, they should hate her. If she is chronically sleep-deprived because she superheroes at night and goes to school during the day, she should make bad impulsive decisions and fail to think through the implications of her actions. If she skips important meetings, decisions she doesn’t like should happen at those meetings.

If irrationalfic protagonists grow, it takes work. If you have an epiphany that causes your character to realize that they’ve made some horrible mistake, it should take place in chapter three, and the rest of the book should be devoted to the slow and switchbacky process of putting that epiphany into action. Ignored epiphanies [cw: tvtropes] are also allowed. But the point is that in irrationalfic it never ever ever happens that a character has a sudden epiphany and it completely changes everything about their lives forever. I don’t want to say that sudden epiphanies never happen in real life but they’re definitely overrepresented in fiction and irrationalfic should push back against that.

A character in irrationalfic may decide that they’re going to stop being irrational. If they do, they might start off with a burst of good intentions and then a month later fall back into old patterns. They might give into temptation at exactly the wrong moment. They might half-change. They might start doing the new thing and halfway through just… stop. They might trick themselves into believing they’ve changed when they haven’t. They might have to come up with strategies to get around their own irrationality: a Facebook blocker, the Pomodoro method, bribing themselves with chocolate, locking away a tempting object and giving someone else the key, avoiding people who make them angry, taking deep breaths and counting to ten. They might try strategies and they don’t work. They might take medication or go to therapy. Regardless, it will take a lot of work and they will spend a lot of time aware of their flaws, trying to improve on their flaws, and being flawed anyway.

Irrationalfic pays close attention to character. You may notice the first five points in my irrationalfic manifesto happen to do with what the protagonists are like. My irrationalfic definition is different from rationalfic definitions, which typically include non-character things such as thoughtful worldbuilding and the fact that the plots can be resolved through intelligent decision-making. This is not an accident.

Irrationalfic, as a genre, is marked by its concern for character. In Orson Scott Card’s MICE system, they’re character stories: they’re concerned with who the character is, what she does, and why she does it. That is not to say that there can’t be world-spanning plot events or rich and detailed societies, but ultimately an irrationalfic is about people.

For this reason, I’ve found romance is a particularly good genre for irrationalfic, since romance focuses intensely on specific characters and the ways they interact with each other, and the conflict in romance often springs from the characters’ personalities rather than from some external force.

Unreliable narrators. In general, when you’re writing an irrationalfic, your viewpoint character should not be 100% reliable. She might misremember a scene that happened earlier in the story. She might incorrectly report what other characters’ feelings are. She might describe herself in a way that contradicts her own behavior. She might mention offhandedly as part of a list of six things something that the reader recognizes as extremely important. She might report the incorrect beliefs of her society as if they are actually true. Using an unreliable narrator requires a certain level of trust in the reader’s ability to realize that the narrator is not a completely accurate and objective reporter of events, but I think making the reader do that interpretive labor adds a lot to their experience.

Dramatic irony. Dramatic irony goes along with unreliable narrators, but can also come from other sources. If you have a character who is not particularly self-aware– as most irrationalfic characters are not– there’s a lot of opportunity for the audience to know something the characters don’t.

Every character’s actions make sense to that character. Expanding our focus beyond the protagonist, how do other characters in irrationalfic behave? Ideally, every character should be treated like the protagonist: they should have virtues, behave in a way that makes sense, and be someone the audience can understand and sympathize with, but they should have flaws that cause them to hurt themselves or others.

It is particularly important to pay attention to antagonists. Many stories will not have an antagonist: the protagonist is the cause of all their own problems, or the conflict is with some sympathetic person, such as a love interest. If you choose to have a villain, the villain should be characterized as carefully as the protagonist. In particular, since people don’t usually forget to give their villains huge flaws, it’s important to make sure that your villain is sympathetic and has redeeming qualities and that the audience can understand her point of view and why she’s making the mistakes she’s making. Give her the opportunity to speak for herself.

Irrationalfic characters have unhappy or ambiguous endings or earn their happy ending. This isn’t going to be true 100% of the time: sometimes, the most satisfying way for a story to work out is that the character gets the thing that they want, even though they do not deserve it at all. But if that happens in more than, say, one in twenty of your irrationalfic stories, I’d take it as a red flag that you should be meaner to your characters.

If the character is exactly as flawed at the end of the book as at the beginning of the book, then you have two options. You can write an all-out tragedy where their fatal flaws destroy them. (More books should be tragedies. I bet it would do great things for the prevalence of the just-world hypothesis.) But you can also write a story with an ambiguous ending: they get some of the things they want, but not all of them; they get the things they want, but at a high cost; they don’t get what they want, but they get something else that’s also okay; everything is terrible, but at least they’re alive, which was not a given at the climax.

If a character works hard on the process of personal growth and overcoming their flaws (even if they’re still imperfect), then they can earn a happy ending. However, you should strongly consider the possibility that the character should not earn their happy ending: even after a lot of hard work, the mistakes they made early in the story were large enough that they realistically should wind up with a tragic or ambiguous ending.

Careful attention to irrationality. Irrationalfic is, fundamentally, about human irrationality— about the ways that people come to have false beliefs or take actions that don’t advance their goals. Therefore, writing irrationalfic requires paying a lot of careful attention to the exact details of how irrationality works. The thought process must be plausible, the way that people making a particular mistake actually think. And a significant chunk of the story must be devoted to exploring the ways that characters are irrational, why they are irrational, and the consequences of their own irrationality. This point is the core of irrationalfic. If you have nothing else, but you have this, you have written an irrationalfic.

What are some good examples of irrationalfic? (My own writing is, sadly, too often unedited for me to in good conscience call it ‘good.’) Many tragedies are irrationalfic; so are many comedies. Many of the best characters in Amentumblr, such as healthesick and tidalwave-shiningsky, were excellent irrationalfic characters. A Song of Ice and Fire has some lovely irrationalfic moments, such as the death of Ned Stark and the fact that almost every character is ignoring the literal zombie apocalypse while they fight over who gets to sit on the Iron Throne. Amends by Eve Tushnet, a novel about an alcoholism treatment reality show, is a good earthfic example full of richly observed (and funny!) detail about alcoholics. I haven’t watched it personally, but from what I’ve read It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia is a good example. Do other people have good examples?

Charity Overhead Is Not Evil



A lot of charitable watchdogs, such as Charity Navigator, divide the ways charities spend money into “program expenses” and “overhead.” Program expenses are money that the charity spends on its actual program: it’s the money that goes to buy malaria nets, stock the shelves with canned food, or pay the veterinarians who help the cute puppies with rare diseases. Overhead includes administrative and fundraising expenses. Administrative expenses are those associated with management and general operations.

It makes sense that people would care about overhead. In general, scam charities tend to spend very little on program expenses and a lot on overhead. If a charity claims to help cure rare diseases in cute puppies, and they’ve spend ten dollars on antibiotics for puppies, ten million dollars on fundraising, and twenty million dollars on the CEO’s salary and team-building trips to Tahiti, this is probably not a real charity.

However, concentrating too much on overhead can actually lead to charities becoming less efficient. Certain kinds of charities spend more on administration and fundraising than other kinds of charities do. For example, Charity Navigator notes, a food bank that takes donated canned goods will not spend very much on administration at all. Conversely, a charity that gives people cash might spend more money on administration, because they have to do accounting to keep track of all the cash. But it’s totally possible that the latter charity does better at helping poor people eat.

If charities are focusing on getting their overhead expenses as low as possible, it can lead to the charity actually being less efficient. For example, the office staff at a domestic violence shelter might use computers from 2008 because replacing the computers would count as overhead. Or they might underpay their managers, which means the managers burn out, quit, and take a bunch of institutional knowledge with them. Or they might avoid hiring an administrative assistant, which means that social workers spend time filling out forms instead of helping people.

Imagine that you were trying to buy a pair of shoes. You might look at how expensive the shoes are, or how well-made they are, or how good the conditions in the factory were for the employees, or whether they are fashionable; these are all reasonable things to take into account when you’re buying shoes. What you would not do is say “wow, I’m going to buy these shoes, the CEO only makes $13,000 a year and all the HR was done by unpaid interns and the office staff are all using out-of-date computers.” That is just totally uncorrelated with whether the shoes are good. Maybe it means the shoes are worse, because HR is actually kind of important in making a good pair of shoes, and you are unlikely to get good HR from a bunch of unpaid interns.

The same thing is true when you think about how to donate to charity. You should donate to a charity that, as best as you can tell, improves the world as much as possible, whatever that phrase means to you– just like you should buy the pair of shoes that fits the best. “Overhead ratio” is a good way of filtering out outright scams, but it is not a good way of separating the okay charities from the great charities. For that, you need to look at outcomes.