Category Archives: Uncategorized

Is Veganism Correct?

I’m hearing lots about how it’s an obvious result that Effective Altruists should be vegans. This seems like a possible result to me, but not an obvious one. Here’s why.

Continue reading Is Veganism Correct?


An Appointment With Death

A few months ago, I had an appointment on my calendar marked “Death”. A friend had asked me earlier for help figuring out why she was afraid of death. At first I thought that surely philosophers must have addressed this question, so with my education I ought to be able to provide something relevant and illuminating. But all I could think of was attempts to cure the fear of death, not attempts to explain it.

When I asked my former classmates, they had the same problem. Unless our memories are defective, or unless we simply aren’t as widely read as we think, this is an embarrassment for philosophy, a failure to be curious about a fundamental question. I asked a librarian friend for help, and she turned up some resources, but these were mostly empirical in nature – descriptions of how fear of death is expressed in our and others’ cultures, not a causal explanation of why we fear it.

So I used the last tool in my box. I offered to ask her some clarifying questions and engage in dialogue for an hour. By the end, my thinking on death was clearer too, and I realized that a true understanding of how to think about one’s own death ought to involve answers to these questions:

  • Should I expect to die?
  • How should I compare being dead with being alive?

Continue reading An Appointment With Death

The Meaning of Kol Nidre

Today is Yom Kippur, the last of the ten Days of Awe. The Days of Awe begin with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, the day on which judgments are inscribed in to the Book of Life. Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement and the Day of Judgment, the last chance to repent for the sins of the prior year before the Book of Life is sealed and your judgment is finalized.

In Jewish law there’s something called a Neder, which is a vow any Jew can swear, promising to do anything, that thereby becomes a divine law. This is important because it allows you to take a voluntary act of dedication and consecrate it into a commanded act. (In Judaism, fulfilling obligations gives you more points than doing superfluous stuff.)

In practice this can be disastrous. There’s a carefully worked out legal framework to make sure the received commandments are not onerous, but you can say anything and make it a Neder. This is dramatized in the Book of Judges, with the story of Jephthah:

Continue reading The Meaning of Kol Nidre


Scott writes:

Okay, the Spiders Georg meme is now even more annoying than doge.

And since I KNOW THE WAY YOU PEOPLE THINK, I want to emphasize that I specifically mean that the median use of Spiders Georg is worse than the median use of doge, and so there is no way outliers could have affected this result.

“median use of Spiders Georg is worse than the median use of doge” factoid actualy just statistical error. median use of Spiders Georg is excellent. Georg Georg, a chatbot that adds the word “Georg” to posts and reposts them randomly 10,000 times each day, is an edge case adn should not have been counted


doesn’t match the territory doesn’t match the territory doesn’t match the territory

David: Luke has approved our MIRIx app
Me: Yay!
David: and we are getting posted on the MIRIx page
Me: Nice!
Me: This is possibly more important than being posted on the Map.
Me: Though now at least one DC-based Rationalist Blog is on the Map, sort of.
David: it is?
Me: Compass Rose
Me: I changed my blog’s title
David: ah, right
Me: You know what one does when the map doesn’t match the territory, right?
Me: (One changes the territory.)
David: is that a running thing?
Me: Apparently it’s not even an Eliezer Yudkowsky Fact.
Me: Huh.
David: well, you know what one does when the map about what one does when the map doesn’t match the territory doesn’t match the territory
Me: I’m afraid your map about what I know about what one does when the map about what one does when the map doesn’t match the territory doesn’t match the territory doesn’t match the territory.

Is It Unfair that Social Workers are Underpaid?

Social Work Is Not So Hard

This (via Miri) is a piece by Margo, a social worker, talking about how people talk about social work as being unusually hard, and call social workers “saints.” Margo doesn’t much care for the assumption that social work is unusually hard, and I’m glad I read this, because it will temper the advice I read in this post, suggesting that the universally appreciated response to finding out someone’s profession is to say that their job must be hard:
Continue reading Is It Unfair that Social Workers are Underpaid?

Birthday Wish

Dear Friends,

For those of you who were able to come celebrate my birthday with me, thank you. And for those of you who couldn’t make it, you were missed, but not loved the less for it.

On the topic of presents – while none will be turned away, I’m fortunate to mostly have enough things in my life. If you’d like to do something for me to celebrate my birthday, I’m going to ask you to take an action instead. I’m going to ask you to take an action to help others.
Continue reading Birthday Wish

Whatever Is Not Best Is Forbidden

At this year’s CFAR Alumni Reunion, Leah Libresco hosted a series of short talks on Effective Altruism. She now has a post up on an issue Anna Salamon brought up, the disorienting nature of some EA ideas:

For some people, getting involved in effective altruism is morally disorienting — once you start translating the objects and purchases around you into bednets, should you really have any of them? Should you skip a gruel diet so you can keep your strength up, work as an I-banker, and “earn to give” — funneling your salary into good causes? Ruminating on these questions can lead to analysis paralysis — plus a hefty serving of guilt.

In the midst of our discussion, I came up with a speculative hypothesis about what might drive this kind of reaction to Effective Altruism. While people were sharing stories about their friends, some of their anxious behaviors and thoughts sounded akin to Catholic scrupulosity. One of the more exaggerated examples of scrupulosity is a Catholic who gets into the confessional, lists her sins, receives absolution, and then immediately gets back into line, worried that she did something wrong in her confession, and should now confess that error.

Both of these obviously bear some resemblance to anxiety/OCD, period, but I was interested in speculating a little about why. In Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, he lays out a kind of factor analysis of what drives people’s moral intuitions. In his research, some moral foundations (e.g. care/harm) are pretty common to everyone, but some (sanctity/degradation or “purity”) are more predictive in some groups than others.

My weak hypothesis is that effective altruism can feel more like a “purity” decision than other modes of thought people have used to date. You can be inoculated against moral culture shock by previous exposure to other purity-flavored kinds of reasoning (deontology, religion, etc), but, if not (and maybe if you’re also predisposed to anxiety), the sudden clarity about a bestmode of action, that is both very important, and very unlikely for you pull off everyday may trigger scrupulosity.

EAs sometimes seem to think of the merit of an action as a binary quality, where either it is obligatory because it has the “bestness” attribute and outweighs the opportunity cost, or it is forbidden because it doesn’t. You’re allowed to take care of yourself, and do the best known thing given imperfect information, but only if it’s “best.” This framing is exhausting and paralyzing because you’re never doing anything positively good, everything is either obligatory or forbidden.

It doesn’t have to be that way; we can distinguish between intrapersonal and interpersonal opportunity cost.

I’m not a public utility, I’m a person. If I help others in an inefficient way, or with less of my resources than I could have employed, then I’ve helped others. If last year I gave to a very efficient charity, but this year I switched to a less efficient charity, then I helped others last year, and helped others again this year. Those are things to celebrate.

But if I pressure or convince someone else to divert their giving from a more efficient to a less efficient charity, or support a cause that itself diverts resources from more efficient causes, then I have actually harmed others on net.

Cross-posted at the Effective Altruism Society of DC bloc.

Yay So-Called Redundancy

Miri has a post up responding to someone snarking about how the female condom is redundant and a solution to a solved problem. She points out a bunch of problems that aren’t solved by other forms of birth control. But this is a more general pattern: it can be socially beneficial to have multiple, competing, mostly-redundant ways of getting things done, even if one of them is the “best.”

Sometimes things can seem to swing too far in the direction of redundancy, especially for those of us who have pretty normal needs. A cool thing can lead to lots of strictly worse knockoffs hoping to profit from the confusion, or get buzz from the novelty of it, or because the prize of making it to the top in a market big enough for only one product is big enough to justify spending a lot on a small chance. Sites like The Wirecutter and The Sweethome are doing good work helping reduce the complexity of some consumer decisions.

But one thing a lot of critics of “consumerism” or the proliferation of products often seem to miss is that not everyone is the marginal consumer. Some people have strong inframarginal preferences that just aren’t being served by some products. Back when “everyone” knew that Japanese cars were “better” than American ones, I remember an old Orson Scott Card article pointing out that he just can’t fit comfortably into anything but a (relatively large) American-brand seat:

we try to buy American cars, not just out of loyalty to American workers, but because Americans tend to have some idea of how big Americans are, and I’m a big guy, and I don’t want a car that was originally designed for people who are six inches shorter and a hundred-thirty pounds lighter than me.

That doesn’t show up on generalized measures of quality but it’s an important attribute big people may care a lot about, and small people don’t. I face a similar problem with shoes. My feet are wide, and some brands of shoe are narrow. If there were only one or two types of shoe in each category, that might serve 90% of people fairly well – but the cost of serving another 9% of people is fairly low, because 9% is a huge number of people. There are diminishing marginal returns to diversity, but there are still sometimes positive returns.

This is true for drugs too. You may be allergic or not respond to one kind, so a “copycat” drug could make the difference between being sick and getting better, and then of course everyone made fun of the ads for that “restless leg syndrome” drug saying “haha drumming up demand by pathologizing normal behavior, stupid evil advertisers” without thinking, maybe someone who ACTUALLY HAS restless leg might be the best judge of that. And if they don’t realize it’s a treatable problem that they should mention to their physician, the ad could do them a lot of good.