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EA Global London 2019: Day 2

Grumble grumble and clouds of AXE body spray — I woke up to a flurry of activity from the bunkmates. Turned out we were all headed to the same event! Much worse for wear than before, I roused myself and headed out early — it hadn’t occurred to me that everyone else was just over-eager to get there. Upon arriving at the overly ritzy venue (I’m not bitter, see — I’m over it), I found one of the bunkmates and headed back out for (VEGAN) porridge. I instantly converted to porridge lover. Why did I ever doubt porridge?

My bunkmate was a jolly good fellow. Guy does things with hedge funds in Ireland. Though he has yet to join our numbers, he also got a (VEGAN) bacon sub, which featured bacon that looked suspiciously like dried banana. Turned out the visual captured the misrepresentation of the original inspiration, but I was still proud of my non-VEGAN hedge fund Ireland bunkmate new friend for taking one for the team.

Uplifting subject to brighten the morning on the way in

We hung out for a bit and got back to the venue for some opening words from Julia (very) Wise.

Opening Talk — Julia Wise (Centre for Effective Altruism)

All hail the love bulb!

Short and sweet, she tooted the horns of the J-PAL Economics Nobel Prize winners from this past year who inspired a lot of the early work in Effective Altruism. Their work was and is focused on trying to meaningfully quantify interventions in developing countries. And it turns out that, prior to them setting the standard, impact was rarely measured in any systematic way.

Beyond that, Julia talked about stewardship. (There’s something devilishly sweet about appropriating that ol’ religious word.)

The fortunate should have an obligation to the lives they could benefit. Some squirm at this obligation part, but — hey, stop squirming! One of the neatest things about people is that they do care. It’s when we stop acting on this when we start feeling alienated and disempowered and embittered.

Networking break

We had many of these throughout. Rather than go through all of them, here are some general notes: 🎶

And here are some more specific ones: EA Global events are slowly turning into meta events as EA orgs grow and age. What this means in practice is that networking starts out with people who know each other embracing and firmly handshaking and pairing off, leaving strangers with random backgrounds to blind date each other. As the event goes on, however, you grow a little coterie of people who like the things you do and who have at least a bit of conversational chemistry. There is another curious little clumping, where people also pair off with from their countries over anything else, even org affiliation. By the end, there are roving packs of Germans, Swedes, French — and then everyone else. (Strangely enough, I don’t really see Americans pairing off with each other. For me, I guess it’s because I’m still mesmerised by even little bits of cultural diversity.)

Anyway, I’ll mention some of the networking but let’s be clear here: networking is a business thing and that’s kind of something I don’t like in my EA Global soup. Yeah, yeah — that’s the actual point of all this when you lay it all bare. But I’m just here for the ride.

A Utilitarian Case for Animal Rights — Jeff Sebo (NYU philosophy professor and leader of some animal rights groups)

Good Jeff Sabo

In my first act of open rebellion for the weekend, I skipped EA celebrity Toby Ord’s talk on the future of humanity (I’m sure it’s wrong anyway!) and went with good Jeff. He made three big points:

  1. Good utilitarianism should be transparent. People don’t act like utilitarians nor should our societies be built on regular citizens being pressed into this role.
  2. We need to be careful to never frame animals as objects — this is how we’ve dehumanised… well, humans. It’s not a novel point but it’s certainly something we’ll have to come to believe as part of our vaunted common sense. No more livestock, no more animal farms. They’re somewhat autonomous, just like us.
  3. In order to make 2 real, we should take concrete measures. One approach Jeff and co are currently taking is suing on behalf of animals. Yes, in court. By doing this, they hope to force courts to shift their boundaries (which has been shown to meaningfully impact public opinion, such as what happened with the legalisation of same-sex marriage in the US), moving the Overton window a bit.

Right after Jeff, we went on to some interesting work from IDInsight, which gathers qualitative and quantitative data in the developing world. Take it away, Alice Redfern!

Transforming Global Development Spending by Measuring Moral Preferences — Alice Redfern (IDInsight) (<- RIP Lil Anne)

Alice Redfern (probably) — I’m firing my camera crew

It’s no historical surprise that wealthy western nations are naive and outright patronising when it comes to aiding countries in a worse situation than themselves (though let it be known that I’m not a cynic about this like Noam Chomsky and co — I actually do think we have good interests at heart and it’s only sometimes about oil). So it won’t be surprising to find that IDInsight tested some moral preferences which turned out quite different from those of folks in the developed world.

More specifically, IDInsight ran a pair of studies which measured both quantitative and qualitative judgements about the monetary value of life — you know, consequentialist pillow talk.

What they found was that the developing nation (Ghana) had non-utilitarian values. A single child’s life was given near-infinite value over the utilitarian good of distributing wealth among the population at large.

This jibes with intuition, but it’s good to have real data behind it. People are not utilitarians (as we just got through saying) — but societies can become more utilitarian. And some of the general opinion comes along for the ride.

No riots ensued, but you know a lot of brows were furrowed at this talk. Harsh but fair.

VEGAN Lunch!

Ate too much, as always.

No, you don’t understand. I ate like four portions every meal. This is a serious problem.

Food was damn damn solid this year — last year’s lower quality was probably responsible for the misery of hundreds of cows, pigs, and chickens as a result of the negative exposure to the PURE VEGAN life. This year I think we saved twice as many as we had lost. It’s just like Job in the Bible. (God killed his animals and kids and replaced them with twice as many of these as he had had to be begin with. The moral being that life is but grim actuary work.)

Global Evidence in Local Contexts — Sam Carter & Serene Ho (Don’t laugh at her name) (J-PAL)

Our newest J palz

J-PAL was up next after lunch. As I mentioned, they’ve gotten well-deserved credit for injecting objective measures of well-being into good-doing. The first version of Effective Altruism — Giving what we Can — sprang forth from their work. We should call them daddy.

This was a different sort of meeting in that they wanted some audience participation. The audience timidly obliged.

So what did they cover?

Generalisability

How do we know if we can re-use our data in different contexts?

The response was varied, but if I recall, the advice was to follow the standard statistical assumptions you’d think would apply. More correlation between populations means more generalisability.

What could you do to out-compete the Against Malaria Foundation?

My response was to look at charities which already do this, such as some of the media outreach programs that broadcast practical health advice to developing nations. Seems to produce more QALYs per dollar. Some other advice I won’t source but will mention is an authority on this later told me you could focus on helping happier populations. In theory, we could weigh saving happier lives over unhappy ones. All else being equal, saving n of the former should be better than saving n of the latter. Brutal, beautiful consequentialism.

(Sunday we’ll talk about the cost of making people happy versus saving them — don’t worry!)

How would you know which markets to target in the field?

Local contacts, if possible. Government ties. Short-term trials for viability.

At this point, I sneaked off to another traditional event, one of several by Charity Entrepreneurship. Remember the name.

How to do Research that Matters — Karolina Sarek (Charity Entrepreneurship)

I met Karolina at the opening social. Very nice, very business. She was consistent with this here.

How do we do good research? By doing good research. Distinguish between objective and subjective measures, compare alternatives, design the study to affect decision-making, and build a theory of change.

This didn’t quite fit my hopes for the talk — I was looking for something more magical, but maybe the magic was inside me all along.

At this point, I skipped on back to the hostel for a shower and some silence. Missed a block of activities but did not get close to regretting this. On to something a bit more commercial — investing!

Is Impact Investing Impactful? — John Halstead (Founder’s Pledge)

$$$

John was one of what turned out to be a solid little group of money people roving around the conference (another one being the bunkmate I told you about already — they live among us, wearing our skin). Said John co-founded the Founder’s Pledge, which helps rich people direct their money to effective causes.

Small aside — I later discussed this with a knowledgeable someone else, but it’s a strange world we live in where the impact I could have on the future of humanity would probably be most maximised by making friends with rich people. No matter how hard I try to crack consciousness and happiness, I’d have been better served learning to wine and dine. Strange world. (It sounds like proletariat whinging, but I actually do wonder if I need to try to do that. I do know some rich people. It just galls me to think about convincing myself to live in such a way as to best extract their wealth. Still, I wonder.)

So is impact investing impactful? The short answer is no. The longer answer is no, unless your investing is VC funding of effective startups, and even then there’s a good chance you should just make as much money as you can without much consideration beyond that.

There are a few reasons for this. For one, it’s difficult to know which public companies are actually good. For another, big and robust markets don’t really care about your moral decisions, even if you’re a big player. They’re elastic enough to absorb your ire.

VC startups are another story, because there’s no particular reason you can’t select the ones that seem aligned with EA over others. VC startups fail all the time anyway, so you can just do the same as you’d usually do with an additional filter.

Enough about money. We hate money. What happened next? Well, I kind of cheated and just met up with a person I’d been chatting with on Facebook from the community. Just talked about random things and enjoyed ourselves for a couple hours, probably ineffectively. Or maybe it did. Maybe something about the butterfly effect.

VEGAN ENHANCE

I caught dinner after this by crashing one of the places the EA people had booked (there was a reservation cap, but in the spirit of making bad planning decisions, I didn’t think about this until it was far too late). Didn’t end up mattering, as the place wasn’t too full. Stem + Leaf, expensive + good. This year like last year, I found myself between a bunch of Germans. Unlike last year, there was also a Jewish person next to me. Oh the black humour that ensued. This is a family site, so we’ll call the report for the day.

Let’s forget the part where I got lost

Back at the hostel, I spent a couple hours typing up the first couple parts of this shoddy insult to journalism to whittle way the small hours. Then back to the sleeping, hacking, sniffing hellscape from the night before. Still, let’s end this on an uplifting note: ♪

And we may as well say this was a great day — new friends, dark humour, great VEGAN food. What’s more, Sunday was even better.

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Wherein we discuss the most dangerous animal and the universe in her head.

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Joshua Clingo

Hello, this is me. So who is me? Me is a Cognitive Scientist who happens to like writing. I study meaning in life, happiness, and so on and so forth, forever.