Donation Post: 2018

Tags

,

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.
Advertisements

Link Post for December

Tags

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.

Food

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

Tags

, , ,

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

Tags

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

Tags

,

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

Tags

,

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.

PSA: Intrusive Thoughts

Tags

,

[content warning: descriptions of common intrusive thoughts, including sexual violence, suicide, abuse, harm to children, child sexual abuse, etc]

Nearly everyone experiences intrusive thoughts.

An intrusive thought is a random unwanted and unpleasant thought, usually with violent, sexual, or blasphemous themes. A mother might be walking along the stairs carrying her infant and think “I could just throw my infant off the stairs.” A person waiting for the train might have an image of throwing himself in front of the train. A person praying might find “God is evil, God is evil” going through the back of their head. Someone might sometimes experience flashes of what it would be like to have sex with people– even people they don’t otherwise find attractive or even beings they would be horrified to have sex with, such as animals, family members, or children.

These thoughts are totally normal. Nearly everyone experiences them sometimes. In case you’re wondering “hey, what’s up with the thing where I sometimes think about throwing myself in front of the train even though I don’t actually have any desire to throw myself in front of a train and actually it’s kind of weird and upsetting?”, that’s what’s up with it.

I don’t think anyone knows for certain why people have intrusive thoughts. I’ve heard some people claim it’s the “think of a white bear” effect. Normally, you hardly ever think about white bears, unless you are a zoologist, but if you try to avoid thinking about a white bear, then suddenly everything reminds you of white bears. Normal people try to avoid thinking about attempting suicide or throwing their infants off stairs, and sometimes their brains get confused and are like “maybe that means we SHOULD think about throwing infants off stairs?” I don’t know if this is actually true but it seems like a reasonably plausible explanation.

Most people shrug off their intrusive thoughts. However, some people pay a lot of attention to their intrusive thoughts. They worry that having intrusive thoughts may make them bad people. They try to suppress them or perform rituals to get them to go away, which actually only makes them more common. In some cases, this can result in OCD.

The most widely known form of OCD is contamination OCD, OCD about getting contaminated with germs or getting sick. But in fact any of the common subjects of intrusive thoughts can result in OCD, including:

  • Suicidal OCD (killing yourself)
  • Responsibility OCD (failing to prevent harm to others, accidentally putting someone in danger)
  • Sexual orientation OCD (being a different sexual orientation than the one you identify as)
  • Harm OCD (doing violence, hurting other people)
  • Pedophile OCD (sex with children)
  • Religious OCD (blasphemy, failure to follow religious rules)

If you have a bunch of thoughts about hurting yourself or other people or disobeying God, and they’re really scary and distressing, and you’re worried that it makes you a bad person, and sometimes you do things to check whether you’re a bad person or to stop yourself from doing bad things, you might have OCD.

Here are some important things to know if you have OCD:

  • Intrusive thoughts are normal and almost everyone has them.
  • Having intrusive thoughts does not mean anything about you as a person. Intrusive thoughts about wanting to kill yourself don’t make you suicidal. Intrusive thoughts about hurting other people don’t make you violent. Intrusive thoughts about sex with children don’t make you a pedophile.
  • Under some theories, intrusive thoughts actually mean you’re particularly concerned about not doing those things– that’s why your brain is trying to suppress them!
  • Pedophiles and violent people do not find their thoughts and urges about the subject distressing.
  • Suicidal people generally find something appealing about the concept of suicide, even if they’re also distressed by being suicidal.
  • Trying to suppress the thoughts will not help.
  • Trying to test whether you are violent, suicidal, pedophilic, etc will not help.
  • Avoiding situations where you might be violent, suicidal, pedophilic, etc. also will not help.
  • Accepting the thoughts as a normal part of life and allowing them to pass through your brain without judgment will help.

Getting treatment for OCD can improve your quality of life. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to obtain treatment for OCD if you suffer from certain kinds of intrusive thoughts, particularly suicide-related, violent, or pedophilic. Try to seek out care from a therapist who specializes in OCD. If you suffer from suicide-related or violent thoughts, you will generally be safe from hospitalization if you don’t go to a mental hospital and if you are clear that you would never act on your thoughts and that you have many good reasons not to act on them.

I do not know how to avoid triggering mandatory-reporter status if you have pedophile OCD and spend time around children, but I will update this post if any mental health professionals have any advice.

Some Things Are Not Coordination Problems

Tags

,

A coordination problem is a situation where, in order to get the best outcome, everyone needs to be doing the same thing. For example, which side of the road you drive on is a coordination problem: if everyone drives on the same side of the road, it’s okay, but if some people drive on the left and some people drive on the right, there will be car crashes everywhere. Global climate change is another example of a coordination problem. You can’t fix global climate change by deciding that you yourself will stop polluting; everyone has to cut back on their carbon emissions to prevent climate change. Lots of the problems in the world are coordination problems.

Unfortunately, some people I know claim that things are coordination problems when really they aren’t. Often, they don’t bother to try to establish that the thing is a coordination problem first; they just skip ahead to the part where they morally exhort people about the importance of not participating in coordination problems and/or complain about how the rationalist community is supposed to be full of people who are rational and yet here we are all irrationally having coordination problems.

I’m going to take social network use as my example, but I think the error occurs more generally.

In many ways, Facebook is bad. It invades your privacy. Hundreds of very smart people make very high salaries to try to figure out how to get you to keep clicking on Facebook, even when it doesn’t make you happy and you’d rather be doing literally anything else. Its algorithms often favor clickbait-y news over thoughtful longreads that give you a deep understanding of a particular issue.

If Facebook is bad, some people might wonder, why do people still use it? The “coordination problem” answer is that everyone else is on Facebook. A social network isn’t very much fun if no one is on it, so everyone has to use Facebook because everyone else is on Facebook, even though it is a bad website.

I don’t think this is true. I have personally observed a very successful shift away from a social networking website in 2007. In the Strikethrough and Boldthrough events, LiveJournal deleted a number of journals for expressing interest in sex-related topics such as BDSM, sex work, pedophilia, and rape. Infamously, this included communities that supported rape survivors; infamously, it also included a bunch of fanfiction porn communities.

In the wake of Strikethrough and Boldthrough, Archive of Our Own was founded as a free-speech alternative to LiveJournal and other ways that people commonly hosted fanfic. Today, it is one of the world’s most popular fanfiction archives, and the only known case of a free-speech alternative to something that didn’t become immediately overrun with Nazis.

By the “coordination problem” argument, there should have been a lot of trouble in getting everyone to use Archive of Our Own instead of LiveJournal. But there really wasn’t. Fanfiction writers genuinely care about Harry Potter porn free speech, and so when a site proved itself unreliable at hosting Harry Potter porn free speech, they quickly switched to a different website.

(Tumblr is unfortunately doing a similar attack on Harry Potter porn free speech, but moving seems to be going poorly due to the lack of an adequate substitute for Tumblr. I think you can get people to switch to a good substitute, but of course if the grossly inadequate website is the best you can get then people aren’t going to move.)

That places a lower bound on how hard it is to get people to move. In order to get people en masse to change from one social networking site to another, they have to care about the problems with the first site at least as much as fanfiction writers care about Harry Potter porn free speech. That’s it.

For any social network, there are three kinds of users. There are people who prefer the social network in question to any other social networks available. There are people who are kind of meh about it– this social network is fine, but there are others that are just as good. And there are people who hate the social network but can’t move because all their friends are there.

The “coordination problem” argument requires that most people are in the second or third groups, with only a small number of people in the first group. And I don’t think that’s actually true. If, say, forty percent of your users are “this social network sucks” and sixty percent are “meh, whatever, I’ll go where everyone else is going,” the forty percent can post about it, create common knowledge of the fact that they think it sucks, move to a different social networking site, and drag the apathetic sixty percent along with them.

The situation with Facebook is that there are lots of people in the first group– people who actively like Facebook. They like getting in political arguments and getting tagged in selfies and looking at pictures of other people’s babies. They don’t really care about privacy, don’t necessarily mind spending an evening on Facebook when they meant to be doing something else, and enjoy reading clickbait about which Game of Thrones character looks most like your cat. These people would continue to use Facebook even if it halved in size, as long as the Game of Thrones quizzes kept coming. In fact, I’m pretty sure the “uses Facebook, actively likes Facebook” group outnumbers the “uses Facebook, hates Facebook, wants to switch to something else” group.

Now, you can argue that those people’s preferences are stupid preferences. Probably they should care more about their privacy and being hacked into compulsive behavior they don’t endorse and should prefer reading Dostoyevsky to taking quizzes about cats. But that’s not a coordination problem. That’s a “the things people care about are bad and they should care about different things” problem. You do not fix that problem through moral exhortation to avoid coordination problems or informing people that the entire point of the rationalist community is avoiding coordination problems. And once you have fixed people’s preferences, I think the coordination problem will actually take care of itself.

Why Reduce Chicken, Not Beef?

Tags

,

Many people are concerned about factory farming and animal cruelty. However, many people are not capable of becoming vegetarian or vegan right now: perhaps it would be unhealthy for them because their diet is otherwise limited; perhaps they don’t have access to vegan or vegetarian food; perhaps they’re in a stressful life situation where becoming vegetarian would add so much difficulty to eating that they can’t eat at all. Fortunately, many people who can’t eliminate meat entirely can reduce their meat consumption.

In my experience, many people who want to reduce their meat consumption start by cutting out beef and other red meat, while continuing to eat chicken, fish, and eggs. However, effective altruists generally recommend that you start by cutting out farmed fish, followed by battery-cage eggs, followed by chicken. Why are these perspectives so different?

[Please do the opposite of this.]

(In this post, I’m going to talk about diet from a perspective of animal welfare, not from a perspective of health or the environment. Reducing your meat consumption so that you consume less meat than the average American is one of the best things you can do for animal welfare and for the environment. According to most nutritionists, eating less meat than the average American does is good for your health. However, it would be really weird if the diet that’s best for animal welfare were also simultaneously the diet that’s best for your health and for the environment. I’m only going to talk about animal welfare right now, because otherwise this post would be very very long; if your primary reason for reducing your meat consumption is concern about the environment or your health, you may prioritize which meat you reduce differently.)

Most people cut out meat from mammals because they think mammals are smarter than birds, perhaps because mammals are more closely related to humans. (For those interested, here is a review of the cognitive capacities of chickens and here is a review of the cognitive capacities of cows.) However, when we think about which animals we eat, it’s important not just to think about the animal’s cognitive capacities but also to think about their size.

Chickens are very small: a single chicken can only produce meat for a few meals. However, cows are very large. A single cow can produce enough meat for hundreds of meals. This means that the average American eats less than a tenth of a cow per year. Conversely, Americans eat thirteen chickens every year! (While I only have statistics for the one country, chickens and cows are approximately the same sizes around the globe.) That means that if you avoid beef for a decade, you could save one cow from being factory farmed– but if you avoid chicken for a decade, you could save 130 chickens from being factory farmed.

Chickens are also generally raised in much worse conditions than cows. I try to avoid including descriptions of animal cruelty on this blog, but the interested reader may look at the Humane Society’s white papers on the subject. I’d estimate that a day in the life of a broiler chicken is about three times worse than a day in the life of a cow.

Of course, it is possible to have a set of values such that it is better to avoid beef than to avoid chicken. Brian Tomasik has a very interesting calculator which you can use. In general, if you prefer forty chickens to suffer a certain amount over a single cow suffering the same amount, you should cut out beef; otherwise, you should cut out chicken.

Similar arguments apply to farmed fish and to eggs, with some differences. A day in the life of a farmed fish is generally less bad than a day in the life of a chicken; however, farmed fish are also generally quite small. You can’t do a straightforward “how many animals?” calculation for egg-laying chickens, because egg-laying chickens live much much longer than chickens killed for meat; the more complicated calculations are laid out in this post by Peter Hurford.

I’d like to make it clear that when I say “farmed fish,” I am excluding wild-caught fish. The effects of fishing on animal welfare are extremely confusing, and wild-animal advocates have only begun to study them; I do not think avoiding wild-caught fish makes sense at this time. (Nearly seventy percent of fish labeled as ‘wild-caught’ in restaurants is actually farmed. I would recommend buying wild-caught fish from large chain grocery stores, as that is the most likely to be correctly labeled.)

Peter Hurford’s calculations suggest that one can get 85% of the animal-welfare benefit of going vegan simply by avoiding chicken, eggs, and farmed fish. You do not have to go vegan, or even vegetarian, to take big steps towards improving the welfare of animals.