The content of this post is at my new blog on the Svbtle platform. I'm probably going to start posting most stuff there directly, unless this displeases many people (if you're one, please let me know).
I'm in Nairobi, Kenya, sitting in our lawyer's office. He has a very strange glass table with a hole cut out of it. The hole is filled with another piece of glass which can rotate and acts as a raised lazy-susan. Weirdly, it's jointed so it can tip as well as rotate.
Paul is clearly quite a high powered lawyer. His office is on the 20th floor of a 20-story high rise in downtown Nairobi. The windows look out over the city and there aren't many buildings taller than this one.
He jokes with the other lawyers in the elevator: This is Bill, he runs my errands. (Laughs all around). No, actually, he's a partner. (Despite the joking, I pay Paul a tenth of what expensive corporate lawyers cost in the US, and he actually DOES run errands for me.)
The rest of the furniture in this office is very nice by Kenyan standards. It's about the level of a medium to low-end office in the States -- matched leather chairs but not particularly fancy, some of the leather is peeling, but nothing is ripped or torn. The low-shag carpet is kept very clean with no visible stains. There are laser printers and photocopiers and water coolers. In contrast, other places I've been to in Nairobi -- banks, etc -- are furnished more like a frat house with peeling upholstery, worn mismatched wooden chairs, and so on. No company in the States except maybe a very early stage startup would have furniture that ratty.
Oh yeah, and the power has gone out twice in two hours! Even Paul in this luxurious high-rise cannot afford to keep the lights on continuously. It's no big deal since the power always comes back within a few seconds.
Transit: Yesterday I took a matatu, today a city bus. They're both the same price (40 Ksh / 50 cents). In all cases, you get on the bus and then someone comes to collect the payment during the ride. There's always a conductor riding in the back whose job it is to collect money, open and close the door, and tell the driver when to stop. The matatu is essentially a 14-person van whereas the bus is an actual full-sized bus, with all seats facing forwards (as opposed to modern American metro buses which typically have many seats facing sideways, and more room to stand). The matatus leaving from the city center wait until they are full to leave, so they always squish everyone together. I haven't seen many instances of people hanging off the sides (though I was told to expect this). The matatus play deafening popular music from two giant speakers mounted on the wall behind the driver.
It's very hard to figure out where to get on the bus on the way out of the city. I've only tried once and I got on the wrong direction and had to take a taxi home. I even asked "46 Argwings Kodhek Road?" when getting onto the bus and the guy nodded and waved me on. But he apparently didn't understand what I was asking. Luckily, the ride took me somewhere special: Huruma, which is a slum east of Nairobi. I was hoping to see the slums but I didn't have plans to visit. The bus ride dropped me off on a dirt road where there were a lot of people living in makeshift dwellings. I was horrified by the stream running through the city - there were people sitting along it but it was just filled with trash. Essentially the stream was a landfill. It smelled awful. There was a backhoe moving trash around - I have no idea why. The landfill went on for like a mile before we turned off onto a bigger road.
Someone asked me if seeing the slums made me want to donate more to charity. The answer was no, not particularly. I already have a strong altruism drive, but it's not very sympathetically/empathetically motivated. It's more along the lines of "yes, I know people are suffering and we can probably do something about it. Let's make it happen." I did find myself slightly more motivated to succeed with my startup after coming back, but that could be caused by other things (like not having much time to get good work done for the whole trip, or reading motivational books on the plane).
Restaurants: The restaurant experience is pretty... odd. In all the restaurants I visited, the waiter brought me the menu and then just STOOD there waiting for me to order. My eyes flick to the drinks section and I order a drink quickly. "Anything to eat?" Oh, you want me to order my whole meal while you stand here? Okay then. I find the entrees section, scan it, give up and finally order whatever the waiter recommends.
I went to a Chinese restaurant. I put in my order for takeout and then sat at a table. They brought me a hot towel and some appetizers and I became confused because I wasn't sure if they understood what takeout was. The appetizers were actually really tasty: egg noodle chips doused in sugar, and a carrot & cucumber finger salad with a sweet sesame dressing. I scarfed it all down and then they brought me a carryout bag with my food. So I guess they understood.
I got fast food a few times. Pizza in one place, fried chicken in another. But fast food in Kenya is not particularly fast! It takes about 10 minutes.
In Nairobi there is a chain of "Java House" cafes. They are all over the place in the city and they cater heavily to foreigners/expats. To give you a sense: outside of Java Houses I saw maybe five white people the whole trip. Inside Java House, between the two times I went, I saw about twenty. They have recognizably American food like burgers and tuna sandwiches, as well as coffee, espresso machines, and DELICIOUS masala chai tea with milk.
M-pesa is a popular mobile money system in Kenya. It's what we're basing our business on - that nearly everyone has a way to receive money transfers onto their phone. It is very popular and definitely a household name, but it is not widely used as a payment method, unlike what I had expected. Most merchants do not accept it yet. (A local company, Kopo Kopo, is working on making "pay with M-pesa" a big thing.) But I did figure out how to use M-pesa to buy pizza from a pizza chain, and most taxi drivers also accept M-pesa.
Once I realized I could pay taxis with it, I started asking every time. It usually takes longer than just handing them cash, even if you have to wait for them to make change. But you don't get screwed when the driver doesn't have any change. One driver asked for a bit extra (+25 shillings on a 450 bill) to cover the M-pesa withdrawal, which costs a small percentage.
Getting a cell phone: I showed up at the Safaricom store at the mall the very first day I was in Nairobi. The store was packed and there were about 30 people in line waiting for help. Fortunately, there were only five people in line waiting for sales, but they all took nearly 10 minutes each, so it was about 40 minutes before I even got to talk to anyone about what I was trying to buy. What I wanted was slightly complicated -- a new phone, a GSM modem, two SIM cards and an M-pesa account for each SIM card. I got as far as talking to the person and telling him all this when he handed me a big form and said "fill this out". Of course, since the store is packed, there's nowhere to fill it out, so I ended up using one hand to support my pen writing through the paper.
They are out of the cheapest phone so they sell me the next one up. It costs 6000 shillings, about $70. I bought with my US VISA card. I only bought 100 shillings ($1) worth of airtime for it, which lasts about 10 minutes of talk time. I ended up buying another $5 worth of airtime during the whole trip - so at least that's relatively cheap. The GSM modem was about $20 and the SIM cards were free. To get the SIM cards I had to show them my passport. Then I had to go to the M-pesa desk and register my SIM cards with M-pesa, which required showing my passport again. Fortunately, nobody gave me any trouble about being a foreigner.
Being white: There seem to be a few people in the city who prowl around, looking for touristy-looking white folks. Two days in a row, the same guy found me on the street and would chat me up, teach me Swahili words and act really friendly. It was obvious, though, that he was trying to bring me into stores (perhaps on commission) or taxis. I actually used him to find me a place to buy a plug adapter I needed, and having friendly human contact (however insincere) was still kind of pleasant.
But the real interesting one was that while I was waiting for the fried chicken, I was accosted (or maybe awkwardly hit on?) by a local, a girl named Carol. She was very polite. She sat next to me and started asking me questions. She was a student studying biotechnology at the University of Nairobi. She wanted to move to the US since some of her family lived there, but they would not give her a visa since they thought she would stay as an illegal immigrant. She added, "and they're probably right!" She wanted me to look at her visa application and try to see if I could make any suggestions, but I declined to help in this case. (And in case you're wondering, no, she was not particularly attractive.)
The few instances when I would pass white people on the street, or ride elevators with them -- quite rare, and I always felt a bit of companionship. I guess this is how people who look different feel most of the time in the US? Definitely good to have experiences like that.
Everyone was dressed like a businessperson in the city. There were very few t-shirts -- basically everyone wore at least a button-up shirt, and lots of jackets and slacks. Long sleeves were quite common but lots of short sleeves as well. The weather was warm enough (high 70s F) that in the US I would never wear long sleeves. When I would talk with taxi drivers they would always comment on it being "cold" which I found funny.
Sunscreen costs $15 a bottle (I guess not many people need it?). But deodorant is very cheap! And every taxi driver made some comment about Obama when I said I was from the US.
The security! Oh! Let me make a quick list: Checking the trunks of cars as they enter any private parking lot (malls, office buildings, etc.) Showing the contents of my bag at the entrance to malls, office buildings, and restaurants. I probably got wanded about 8 times a day, and had to open my bag maybe 4 times per day. There's a guarded gate to the entrance of every apartment complex. My taxi got stopped at night in a police check on the street - they were stopping everyone and shining a flashlight into the car. My hosts told me I should not walk around after dark or ride matatus - since I'm white I am an attractive target to be mugged. Of course, I did ride matatus and wander around after dark, and never saw anything resembling danger, but maybe I just didn't get unlucky enough (or maybe the danger is overblown). Walking around after dark was quite scary, but mainly because there are no streetlights, few sidewalks, and the cars go fast on narrow streets.
Modern conveniences: "The Junction Mall" is a very much a US styled shopping mall. It's in the western Nairobi suburbs, not too far from where I was staying, in an area where richer people live. The only difference from US malls is that there are no stores with entrances to both the mall and the outdoors, so you have to go in through the main mall entrance. But this was a full size mall - multi story, food court, fashion stores, cell phone stores, video game store, even a Subway. Perfectly clean and well maintained. Free wifi in the food court. Actually, there was a surprising availability of wifi in the central business district of Nairobi as well -- not too hard to find, and for relatively cheap (under $1 for 24 hours of wifi).
But the real treasure at Junction was a two-story store at one end of the mall. This was unlike any store I have seen in the US. The closest is probably Carrefour in France. This store sold (deep breath): all kinds of groceries including health food, basic clothing, fashion clothing (including sub-stores like a Skechers shoe store), books, kitchen supplies, home goods, refrigerators, indoor furniture like couches, outdoor furniture, camping supplies, gardening supplies, yardwork tools, lawn mowers, motorcycles and home gym equipment. Also, there was a woman at a kiosk who offered to make you instant ramen on your way out of the store.
I think that about sums up Nairobi.
I've spent a week with some friends that I haven't seen in a while. They have been eating a lot of Soylent, a meal-replacement shake for busy people designed using modern understanding of diet and nutrition. So I decided to try replacing one or two meals a day with their homemade Soylent. It's a well-balanced meal, consisting of 40% carbohydrates, 30% fats and 30% protein, lots of fiber and micronutrients.
Here's why I like it: Frequently I find myself hungry and just need to eat something. I either have to leave the building, order delivery, or spend a lot of energy deciding to make food (eggs, a sandwich, or something fancier). Being hungry and having to make this decision multiple times daily is a drain on my attention. If I leave the building I have to pick where to go and brave the weather and it's expensive. If I order delivery I don't get instant gratification and it's expensive. If I make food, I don't usually make very healthy food, and it's a lot of work, especially if you count going to the grocery store and planning meals ahead of time.
Anyway, I do all that work and I don't get anything of value -- I'm hungry a few hours later and experience the same problems. With Soylent all these problems go away. I immediately jump to something very close to optimal along the axes of prep time, price, nutrition AND immediate gratification. And yes, it's not very delicious, but that's a small price to pay, especially considering most of my fast food alternatives aren't particularly tasty either.
My week of eating Soylent once or twice a day has demonstrated Soylent's awesomeness quite thoroughly. The Soylent ran out today and I was disappointed. I ended up procrastinating getting food until I was so hungry that it was distracting from my work. Obviously this is only a week but I am quite optimistic.
I was reading "Young Money" by Kevin Roose. In it, he cites the following finance entry-level interview question (paraphrased):
Let's consider the following gamble: I pay you a fixed amount up-front. Then, I flip a fair coin repeatedly until it comes up heads. You pay me 2^N dollars where N is the number of tails -- so if heads came up right away, then you pay $1; if the sequence was Tails-Tails-Heads, $4; and so on.
At what price are you willing to play this game?
Take a few minutes to consider this question. You could even write a simple program to simulate it, if you're feeling so inclined.
I'm going to leave a little space here, but scroll down for my thoughts.
OK, so if you're like me, you immediately broke out pen and paper and computed the expected value of the gamble. And, perhaps, a surprising thing occurred: you realized that the gamble is valued at negative infinity. (The probability of paying $1 is 1/2; $2, 1/4; $4, 1/8; multiplying this sequence of tiny probabilities by large payments gets you the sum of infinitely many $1/2.)
OK, so now that you've gotten that far, at what price do you accept the gamble? Take some more time to consider it.
I wrote a program to simulate the gamble 10,000 times. The average per-play cost came out to $13. I ran it again, and it was $7. I kept running it -- it was usually between about $6 and $18, except for the time it was $50. Whoops.
My analysis: it's probably correct for most people to accept such gambles at a high enough price such that the take-home money would be life-changing. I would obviously accept it for a billion dollars, for instance. I'd probably accept it at a million. It's really hard for our brains to understand the low chance of getting wiped out, though. As Dave Baxter points out, the subjective value to you of an extra million dollars depends strongly on how much money you already have.
In the real world, you won't go into debt bringing your net worth too far below zero, because at some point you would just declare bankruptcy. So that also sets a bound on how bad the outcome can be, and makes the gamble (at certain prices) economically rational.
Aha! Jess Riedel points out that Wikipedia answers the question here: St. Petersburg Paradox.
I guess an interesting takeaway for me was that expected value calculations don't (& shouldn't) always dominate decisionmaking.
I got a Velleman K8200 3D printer kit for Christmas, and I just got it working today.
It took me about 28 hours of assembly to get working. 20 of those were following the online manual and the last 8 hours were fixing problems that cropped up.
Here's a Youtube video I recorded of it printing, and me pointing out a few things. Sorry that the quality of this video isn't high.
A few photos of the first thing I printed. 1 2 This casing was a large print - it took 4 hours to print. It was this printer's recommended "first print"; it's a box to house the controller board on the printer itself.
Anyway, I thought you might be interested in the problems I encountered after completing the assembly.
First, the Y axis motor wasn't moving the bed correctly. This took me a long time to diagnose. At first I thought it was a problem with the belt or the bearings, since the bed was a little hard to slide back and forth. But I lubricated it and the bed got a bit easier to slide, but the motor still had trouble pushing the bed. Then the belt fell off! I had apparently not attached it properly in the first place. So I fixed that, but it still wasn't working.
So I decided to dig in. I cut off the heatshrink and found a disconnected wire. Apparently I had failed to solder it properly, whoops! I resoldered and re-heat-shrunk all the connections. And it still wasn't working properly. Argh!
I removed the belt and put my finger on the motor gear. The motor itself was turning, but my finger could easily stop the gear... Oh. Duh. I tightened the screw which affixed the gear to the motor shaft, and it started working! Hooray!
The second problem was that the extruder would get "stuck". The extruder is the part that pushes the filament through the hot end -- it deposits the plastic. The extruder would work for a while and be happily pushing out plastic, and then it would sometimes get stuck and not be able to push the filament. If I used my fingers and turned the gear manually, it would often "unstick" and start working again. The extruder has a fancy adjustment bolt which lets you tighten and loosen its grip on the filament, so at first I thought this was the ticket and I spent a long time tweaking that bolt. But no dice.
I took apart the extruder. When I disconnected the stepper motor I noticed that even when there was no filament, the extruder wouldn't turn smoothly -- it would have "easy parts" and "hard parts" of its rotation. So the fix here was to loosen the main rotating bolt (the "hobbed bolt") that the gear was attached to. When I did that, the extruder turned a lot more smoothly, and on reassembly it had no problem pushing the plastic through.
But now when I printed, the plastic wasn't sticking properly to the bed. I adjusted the height of the bed endlessly, thinking it was a height problem, but it wasn't -- the bed was just not the proper material. I taped over it with blue painter's tape, as many people recommend on forums, and finally -- FINALLY -- I could print. Hooray!
GiveWell, the independent effective-altruist charity evaluator, just announced a new set of charity ratings. Specifically, GiveDirectly is now the top-rated organization. (The previous top-rated organization, Against Malaria Foundation, failed to meet a milestone and so GiveWell is holding off on recommending funding until they show that they can meet the milestone.)
GiveWell evaluates charities on the basis of expected world-improving value for your money. Their philosophy focuses heavily on proven interventions - they are not likely to recommend far-future speculative causes because there's no way to prove them. They are very thorough and demand high standards of evidence and transparency. GiveWell's recommendations are very widely respected.
GiveDirectly just gives money to the most needy. They find the poorest households in Kenya (by looking for houses with do not have solid walls/roofs) and surprise them with $500. They have an impressively thorough body of evidence that says that this works -- that people spend the money in very good ways.
Anyway, GiveDirectly is now the number one most effective donation target, as evaluated by GiveWell. This is quite surprising to me. Why? Because GiveDirectly seems to be a low bar!
Okay, wait, let me explain. Clearly, it's not really a low bar: the money is going to verifiably poor people, and the research tells us that they spend the money in high-value ways. In fact, it's easy to see that most charities will fall below this bar: I can easily imagine education charities, for example, where most of the money spent goes to children who would otherwise have gotten a good education in other ways.
But all of them? Essentially, GiveWell is saying "we cannot find any proven economies of scale when it comes to making the world a better place."
Let me expand on this. Economies of scale is why companies exist. For example, it would be hard for me to make myself a cellphone from electronic parts. It would cost me hundreds or thousands of dollars just to source the parts, and then I'd have to combine them all into a working device, and it probably wouldn't fit in my pocket. But I can get a working cellphone for fifteen dollars or less -- at least two or three orders of magnitude cheaper than doing it myself. The cellphone companies make money by producing phones in the millions (or billions); manufacturing techniques allow them to make an extremely large number of phones for very little, and sell them at a profit.
So yes, I'm surprised: since companies have to make a profit to continue existing, it seems like there should be a nonprofit which leverages similar economies of scale, but which could be even cheaper (and therefore more effective) because they don't have to make a profit.
And yet, for some reason, this doesn't exist in the charity world. Nobody has found a charitable intervention that scales in the same way that mass production scales. Or, at least, they haven't found one that a) scales; b) is proven to be effective; and c) isn't already a for-profit corporation. It appears that simply giving people cash transfers beats out any kind of replicable, mass-produced charity work. There's no mass-produced thing (a vaccine, or a drug, or a mosquito net, or a wheelbarrow) whose production scales well with charitable dollars.
Scaling: is it possible that a charitable intervention doesn't scale as well as a company? It seems rather unlikely. The production and distribution of things like vaccines and mosquito nets don't seem fundamentally different from all the things that are distributed for profit, like soda and shampoo. Maybe the best charity interventions are more long-term focused than most stuff people buy in stores.
Proven effectiveness: to me, this seems like a plausible problem in the charity sphere. Companies don't have to prove anything except to themselves -- if something is working, they get immediate feedback in the form of dollars and they just have to learn to scale it. But with charity, you don't necessarily know if things are working, if they're getting better, and so on, without trying hard to find out. It's so much easier to just hope/believe/think that your interventions are working than to actually test...
Isn't already a for-profit company: GiveWell doesn't recommend for-profit ventures, I assume because world-improving profitable companies can already get plenty of investors and money elsewhere. So it raises the question -- maybe all the best applications of economies-of-scale work well in a for-profit structure, and so they're invisible to philanthropists. This actually seems also somewhat plausible, but I would expect that there were some companies which couldn't quite make money but still would be worth funding as a nonprofit to distribute their product.
If you aren't pretty sure that one of these is true, then it seems like there is a giant hole where effective altruists should look for promising new nonprofits to start. Something which scales, is expected to have a scientifically demonstrable positive impact, and can't exist as a for-profit. If you could prototype your idea and gather some evidence of impact, and if you otherwise executed well, it seems quite likely that you could quickly get this organization to #1 on GiveWell's recommendations and make a big impact.
So let's brainstorm it. People who get grants from GiveDirectly very often buy metal roofs. Presumably the recipients have to buy them "retail" (whatever that is in Malawi) and either learn to install the roofs themselves, or pay a contractor to install the roof. But GiveDirectly already knows the houses who need metal roofs since that's their criterion for giving them grants. If they can obtain substantial cost savings by installing them "in bulk" then shouldn't they just go around installing roofs everywhere for free?
Well, this goes against what GiveDirectly wants to do. And maybe they're right. How would we know? Consider how many people there would be under my scheme who don't really want a roof, but would get one anyway if we handed it to them. Clearly, those people would prefer the cash. But we saved a lot of money mass-producing and mass-installing roofs for everyone else, so we got more roofs for the dollar than we would through GiveDirectly's scheme, so it's a question of whether there are more wasted roofs or whether the cost savings makes up for it.
My guess would be that there would be more wasted roofs -- roofs are already mass produced and there are probably cheap contractors to help install them, so they wouldn't get too much benefit from the economies of scale. But the real question isn't whether this works for roofs, it's whether it works for ANY intervention. If you can find a single intervention that works better than handing people cash, you can beat GiveDirectly.
Ok, I have two ideas for places to look: interventions which require large groups of people (collective action problems) and interventions which are against cultural norms. Both are likely to be ignored by the for-profit sphere, which is why I picked them out.
I remember being in the car with my family (I was about 12, maybe 15?) and thinking about the abortion debate, and realizing that both sides had a point. Killing the baby seemed bad, but having kids that you didn't want also seemed bad. Culturally, I had been taught that abortion was morally allowed (but regrettable) and so I tried to reconcile this with not wanting it to be okay to just kill people. Maybe it's okay because the baby doesn't feel the pain? Or maybe because nobody had developed emotional ties to the baby? It seemed that any rule I picked would require a surprising "transition point" from not-a-person / not-sentient to personhood. None really seemed right, so I eventually gave up on trying to find a simple consistent rule. I also remember being intrigued by other ethics debates like assisted suicide, and again never really got to a conclusion on that.
Similarly, I felt that politics was important but I didn't know what to do about it. I felt duty to go vote when I cared about the outcome, but I never really came up with an actual argument that voting was worth my time. I had some intuition, though: that if I didn't bother to vote this time, that meant other people might not choose to vote for similar reasons, and my reason for not voting didn't seem very good, so I hoped that choosing to vote would somehow influence others like me to vote (or indicate that they would make a similar choice) as well. That argument doesn't really go through, which is why I classified it as an "intuition".
Through my undergraduate years (2004-2008) I read Paul Graham's essays on startups. PG is an extraordinarily practical person and his simple, cogent style appealed to me greatly. It's his writing that convinced me to do startups (e.g., "How to Make Wealth"). My parents are entrepreneurs so I had access to entrepreneurial spirit and concepts, but it took me reading PG to understand that I could actually, really do startups myself, that it was an advantage to do them while young, and that I didn't need to be a marketing or business genius, or need permission from anyone, to start working on my own real businesses. PG teaches effectiveness in startups; "Make Something People Want" is the motto of his seed funding organization Y Combinator. So I dove in and did my own startup. Unfortunately, that first startup after college failed after a year due to my own ineffectiveness. I took a full time job after that - I knew I would eventually go back into startups but I didn't know how or when. During that time, part of me was always searching for ways to fill the "holes" in my prior startup experience. I wanted to know how to raise money, how to fix my procrastination problem & improve my work habits, how to choose what to work on, and how to improve my social effectiveness.
Eventually (2009) I came across what was then called the Singularity Institute (now MIRI). I was very excited because they had a plan to actually make a positive impact on the world. It seemed vaguely plausible that a very small team of programmers might actually be able to code themselves enough power to solve all the world's problems through friendly artificial intelligence, and this was quite exciting. I didn't directly act on this idea, but very soon after finding SI, I found Less Wrong. I think that name was very good & sticky, because I can't think of another reason that I kept coming back to LW over the next couple months to see if there was new content I would be interested in -- I hadn't found the Sequences yet (that took me about 3 or 4 tries of looking at the LW website over a period of months before I found them).
The Sequences, in case you're not familiar, are a series of blog posts on Less Wrong, mostly by Eliezer Yudkowsky. They're about how to improve your thinking patterns, how to become aware of & correct for cognitive biases, and there's a pretty hefty dose of philosophy in there too. When I finally found them, I read them all, over a period of a few weeks. It's about a million words in total. I started reading LW in order to obtain the thinking benefits -- I wanted to be less wrong, and I recognized that there were biases in my brain, and I kept getting little bursts of insight as I read the posts. It was quite addictive. I think I self-improved substantially with respect to thought patterns. I quite often access concepts I learned on LW. I found people who had claimed to "solve" procrastination, and I tried to follow their techniques.
But while I was doing this self-improvement through reading, a surprising thing occurred: I developed some metaethics, mostly via the philosophical pieces on LW. Previously, I had rejected attempts to actually take one side or the other on ethical dilemmas. But LW's philosophy made it seem more "okay" to be generally utilitarian / consequentialist, and my ethics started to lean in that direction. I began to believe:
These ideas led me to accept effective altruism -- I should always do the best thing I know of, in order to maximize my positive impact on the world; and I should constantly self-improve, in order to find new "best things" that I could be doing.
I've never been able to remember to update a to-do list consistently. I used to use them for a few days, usually when I had a particular need to track a lot of things -- but then I would stop using them once I didn't need them, even if other people needed to see my updated to-do list. This happened repeatedly and caused problems at a couple of the companies I've worked at.
When I was a kid, my parents would sometimes buy chocolate Advent calendars for Christmas: starting on December 1, each day you open a little door, and there's a piece of chocolate behind the door. And let me tell you, I never forgot to open that door in the morning, because the sugar reward strongly reinforced the habit. So I figured a neat way to get myself to remember to track the to-do items would be to give myself candy when I updated the to-do list.
I built a candy dispenser that sits on my desk, next to my computer. When I check an item off in Google Spreadsheets, it turns the motor, and an M&M is delivered to the chute. See a video of it in action!
I built it using a Raspberry Pi, which is a $35 single-board computer that runs a miniature Linux distribution called "Raspbian". The device is pretty awesome: it has a display port, an SD card slot, two USB ports, an ethernet port, and a good number of general-purpose I/O ports. It runs lots of Linux applications and has access to the Debian repositories, but I just use Python and an SSH server. It's also physically small -- about the size of a credit card, though since you plug things into it on all sides, it ends up taking up a lot more space than that.
I've used Arduino for projects like this in the past. Arduino is a similar computer-on-a-board, though it's substantially less powerful and flexible -- it just has the general-purpose I/O ports, and you program it using a USB cable, but it doesn't run an operating system. Because of this, the Pi ends up being a lot easier to hack on. Since I wanted to connect it to the internet, it was a no-brainer in this case. (You can get an ethernet peripheral for the Arduino but I didn't bother to find out how it would work, since it ends up being just as expensive as the Pi.)
The other core piece of the hardware design is an actuator of some kind, to dispense the candy. I decided to do this with a stepper motor, turning a wheel with holes in it; see the video for a demonstration. A stepper motor is a special kind of motor. With a normal motor, you just apply power and it starts spinning. But with a stepper motor, you control the electromagnetic coils of the motor with software. This means you have precise control over how much the motor turns.
I had never used a stepper motor before. I got the idea from this similar project by Kathryn McElroy. I bought this stepper motor for the Pi, which came as a kit -- a circuit board plus components to solder. There were about 70 joints to solder, which (I would guess) doubled the total number of joints I've soldered in my lifetime. Despite my soldering inexperience, it worked the first time!
After I got the Pi working and the motor working, it was down to the physical components. Actually, it still is, because all the rest of the design is currently made of paper or cardboard :) I want to redesign it but it's actually kind of a hard problem, figuring out how to make it in a robust way. I would like to prototype it with Lego, and 3d print the wheel, but that's a future post.
If you're interested in the software side of it, I put it together using a bunch of pieces.
First, the stepper motor driver. This code runs on the Pi. It just spins the stepper motor. step.py
Second, the fabric script, enabling me to run 'step.py' on the Pi easily from my desktop. It just copies 'step.py' to the raspberry pi via SSH ('rpi' in my ssh configuration) and runs the script. That way I can easily do 'fab step' and test the device, and I don't have to edit the code on the slow Pi itself. fabfile.py
Third, the 'rewardserver' -- it runs on my desktop and provides an endpoint at http://my-desktop-addr:48001/reward. When anybody makes a URL request to this endpoint, it triggers the fabric script, giving me the reward. This was the easiest way for me to setup the ability for external services to trigger rewards. rewardserver.py
Lastly, any external services that you want to trigger a reward. This stuff isn't checked into the repository, and it depends on the service as to how you want to deliver the reward. For Google Docs, I had to create a Google Apps script attached to my spreadsheet, and load the URL when the cell was edited. Unfortunately this kinda sucks -- Google Apps scripts are incredibly buggy and unreliable and hard to write. So I'm not even going to bother posting the current version of this, though I posted a prior version (which sent me a text) on the Akratics Anonymous list here.
Anyway: you're probably asking if it's actually working. So far, it seems to. I only started this project ten days ago, but I've continually updated my to-do list since then. So results are so far promising but inconclusive. Expect a followup in a few weeks!
I've been thinking more about conscientiousness recently. Part of it was this Gwern essay, Conscientiousness and Online Education. (Gwern is one of my favorite internet writers; if you haven't checked out his stuff, it's highly recommended.)
Gwern observes that conscientiousness is loaded chock-full of positive life correlates, including lifetime earnings, education, happiness, longevity, and so on. He also hints at ways to increase it -- "there is weak evidence that Conscientiousness can be improved by trying harder tasks. (There is an irony here - it's hard tedious work to develop the ability to do hard tedious work, so how does one start?)"
Well, I have a few ideas on how to start. They are presented in the form of a "choose-your-own-adventure"!
(If you're reading this in an RSS reader, you probably want to read this on my actual website, as there are buttons to press.)
Do you want to increase your conscientiousness?
It's not uncommon that we need to decide whether to spend some money to save some time. Order food delivery and pay a delivery charge / tip, or travel to the restaurant yourself? Hire someone to build my Ikea furniture, or do it myself? Get the $240 high-power microwave that will last 5 years and saves you a minute a day, or the $40 slow one? Take the $80k job that's only 15 minutes away, or the $100k job which has an hour commute each way?
In this post, I don't have any particularly strong conclusions, but I'm going to go through and analyze a bunch of examples, in hopes that one of the techniques I present can come in useful in your own life.
We can run the back-of-the-envelope calculations. It'd take me 20 minutes to make the trip to the restaurant and back, and the delivery charge is $2. If my hourly rate is over $6/hr, I should order, all else being equal. Building Ikea furniture might take 3 hours of my time, but the builder only costs $25/hr and is a faster builder so she'll do it for $60. So if my hourly rate is over $20/hr I should hire someone. The fast microwave lasts 5 years, saves me 6 hours a year and costs $200 more, so if my hourly rate is more than $7/hr then I should buy it. The commute is an interesting example which I'll save to analyze later, or you can do it yourself before reading my analysis.
Take a look -- the important question with these calculations are all "what's your hourly rate?" Yet we observe many well-paid people taking the "do it yourself" / "cheap" option despite having hourly rates above the threshold. Are they all being irrational, or what's going on here?
Let's get the clear rationalizations out of the way: yes, I know you might enjoy building Ikea furniture or getting a walk outside. If this is your objection, just modify the examples appropriately to remove the enjoyment from the task -- e.g., you've already built three identical pieces of Ikea furniture today; it's drizzling outside so the walk won't be enjoyable.
Okay, here's a real objection: "I would build the Ikea furniture on the weekend, and I don't work weekends, so it's not substituting for paid hours." Here's my rejoinder: are you completely insensitive to time on the weekends? Aren't there some things you would rather do than others? Let's say some old friends are in town -- how much would you spend to be able to hang out with them instead of building furniture? Probably a lot, right? I would claim that most people usually have things almost that cool that they could do with that time, and they just usually don't try very hard to come up with a better use of time before deciding to build the furniture.
My second rejoinder to the above objection: just because you are getting paid such-and-such dollars per hour doesn't mean that's what your free time is worth. Free time can be worth more or less than a job. Here's the definition I'm going to use in order to make this clear: your "free time" rate is the lowest amount of money you would charge to do an arbitrary boring (not pleasant or unpleasant) task for an hour.
The corollary to this definition: If someone is willing to pay you your "free time" rate for an hour of work, no strings attached, you should probably take their offer, because you can find a way to get that hour back for cheaper (e.g., by buying a nicer microwave with the money). Contrapositively, if you regularly find yourself turning down such jobs, you are either acting irrationally, or your free-time wage is higher than you initially thought it was.
Okay, another objection: The microwave doesn't save me time, since I'm not fully occupied while waiting for my food to cook, and so I could read Twitter on my phone. I would have done this anyway to procrastinate at some point during the day, so I just "moved" that time, I didn't save it.
I think this objection has merit, but I don't always go through my whole Twitter feed during the day, and might go a whole day without reading Twitter, so if that happens I did waste that time. So maybe we should value blocks of time differently according to their "shape" -- longer blocks are more valuable, because you can get into a focused state, or travel out of your house, or whatever, and more gets done with that time.
Next question. I don't have a lot of money, and there seem to be a lot of time/money tradeoffs trying to get my dollars. It would cost me my whole savings to upgrade my microwave, stove, knife set, dishwasher, and then I'd be out of money to hire the cleaning staff, furniture-building staff, grocery delivery staff, and so on. Where do I stop? Why pick the microwave over these other things?
I'm not quite sure. One possible answer: "this is what savings is FOR, and you should spend your money in the most effective way you know how, which probably means buying the things that give you the best value in time-for-money. With the time you save, you can get another job and earn back the savings, which can then be reinvested into your time..."
But, you say, savings is useful for a lot more than simply reinvestment. You can pay emergency medical bills, you can send kids through college, buy a house, save for retirement, or other useful things which take large chunks of money. Okay, but let's talk about these. I don't have kids, don't intend to buy a house or car, and am reasonably healthy. Emergency medical bills, in the chance they arise, can go on credit cards (or, in the worst case, I can declare bankruptcy). Should I be saving for retirement, though? A lot of people seem to recommend this. But it's unclear if this is a good idea, because I'm trading off against time now -- and it seems pretty likely that time now is more useful.
There must be other uses for large piles of savings: Traveling, angel investing. Or, if you're a different kind of person, perhaps you'd spend your extra cash on strippers and cocaine. I'm sure there are a ton of expensive valuable things which I will bucket into "Everything Else". I'd guess that someone like me would probably do well with $2-10k in savings. Figure out what your optimal savings account size is, and beyond that it seems like savings is pretty well spent on things which save lots of time. (Don't forget that you could also be donating large amounts of money to effective charities. I am not including that option in this analysis, mainly because I'm focused on time/money tradeoffs here.)
OK, I want to go back and analyze the commute example from the top of the post. I'll repeat it here -- let's say you work a high-tech job at $100k/yr, or $50/hr, and that you commute 1 hour each way to get there. Let's also say you chose this job over a lower-paying nearby one -- $80k/yr ($40/hr) with a 15 minute commute, and assume the jobs were otherwise equally attractive. You're paying an extra 90 minutes a day for an extra $80, so the value of your free time must be under $53/hr. Actually, it's much worse than that: in the US, the marginal tax rate at these salaries is quite high (~25%) so you're really only taking home an extra $60 for your time. So choosing the higher-paying job actually only makes sense if the (observed) value of your free time is below $40/hr.
This brings me to the last point I would like to make, which is that the hourly rate you're actually getting paid isn't tied that closely to the value of your free time. In fact, it's neither an upper nor lower bound. I'll give some more examples: let's say you're a lawyer making $150/hr. But your firm only has so much work to give you, and you have a lot of kids who will need to go through college, and not much savings. You are probably going to value adding to your savings over saving time in the short term, and so you'll bother to drive 40 minutes to the grocery store to save $20 on groceries -- the value of your free time is not more than $30/hr despite your high salary.
On the other hand, let's say you're an entrepreneur working 50 hours a week at a current salary of $15/hr because your company is barely funded enough to pay you even that much. But you're the leader in a fast-growing market, and a huge piece of the potential value of your company comes from remaining the market leader over the next year. Hammering out the assumptions: let's say the hours you work over the next year contribute equally to remaining the market leader, which would make the difference between a $70M company and a $100M company. Let's say you own a third of it and do a third of the work - so the marginal value to you is $10M over the next year, divided by 7500 hours worked (by all three of you) in the year. This comes out to your free time being worth at least $1333/hr. Which means you should spend a lot of energy figuring out how to sustainably get more than 50 work hours in a week :)
Feedback on this post -- corrections, suggestions for improved analyses, and so on, are very much welcomed. (By email: lincoln / techhouse.org)
Why bother to hack one's sleep? The simple answer: "more time" -- but this has all sorts of embedded complexity, so I am going to break it down a bit.
Time is the most important resource we have. We can use time to produce things we want: money (by working a job), friends (by talking to people), well-being (by talking to people or eating), and so on. We also (practically speaking) have a limited amount of time: about a thousand months in a lifetime (though there's some chance that life extension will work and we'll get more months, you can't count on it).
So the number of months seems kinda fixed and it's hard to see how to get more months. But if you drop down to hours, it's easier to see how to optimize things: We rarely feel like we wasted a month, but we often notice wasting hours at a time. If we can waste fewer hours, or do better things with each hour, then we can get more of the things we want out of life. By wasting an hour, I am talking about: procrastination in various forms; sleeping unnecessarily; reading unimportant things; and working on things that aren't important.
OK, so sleep seems like a waste. Sleep less and we waste fewer hours. Win? Maybe, but the obvious problem is that missing sleep might cause us to be less effective with the remaining time. Sleep deprivation leads to all sorts of problems: weird aches and pains, immune system compromise, poor focus when working, and periods of grogginess where I'm completely useless. So we need to strike the right balance, because these effects are definitely bad, and I would pay a lot to not experience them.
It's worth looking at the value of those extra hours. Hours are valued differently for different people, and at different times. The most valuable hours -- the ones I would hurt most losing -- are the ones in the middle of the day, when it's easy to coordinate with people. Evening hours, around 7-11pm, seem the least valuable to me because I don't typically get very much done during that time, and there are a lot of distractions. The early morning would be the next best, followed by the late night. Obviously, this depends on what I'm doing also -- if I'm in a flow state, it doesn't matter what time it is, I want to stay awake another hour to stay in flow.
My Sleep Diet:
Sleep no more than six hours during the night, then take as many naps during the day as I feel like.
I've been doing this sleep diet for two weeks and it seems like a boon. Why does this work for me (so far)? First, it's flexible. I highlight its flexible nature because being able to work straight through flow states is really important, so I can't tolerate a rigorous napping schedule.
Second: I am risk-averse with respect to weeks of my time. I've failed to adapt to Uberman and Everyman 3 (polyphasic schedules), and both adaptation periods were very costly to me. I don't want to pay that cost in the short-term unless it's guaranteed to succeed; I have a lot of work to do in the short term and I can't tolerate long periods of ineffectiveness.
Third: It succeeds in reducing my effective amount of sleep. I used to sleep 7.5 hours or so each night. I've shaved that down to an average of 5.75 per night plus 0.5 of napping, so 6.25 -- that's 1.25 hours per day that I've gained. Mostly this time comes in the morning, so I get up around 7:30 or 8 instead of 9.
Fourth: It succeeds in reducing my midday, post-lunch sleepy periods. I think the main reason is that I usually get a nap before midday, and that revives me during the midday hours. The naps are working; I get at least a couple minutes of REM in most of my naps, though I rarely get a lot of REM.
Just a couple notes on my experience: I've tried polyphasic before so I know what it feels like to be sleep deprived. I don't generally feel sleep deprived at all. There were a couple times in the last week where I felt sleep deprived for ~30 minute-1 hour periods, usually in the morning or right after a nap. I haven't gotten that in about five days, though, so it seems to have gotten somewhat better.
I'm taking melatonin each night right as I get into bed. Gwern suggests that melatonin may help him need less sleep, so I've tried it. It seems helpful but I'm not sure. Overall, it was easy to get on this schedule. My original goal was to do it for two weeks, but now I don't see any reason why I can't keep doing this schedule indefinitely.
Someone asked me what my best conscious self-improvement decisions have been.
Here's a list, and why I think they helped:
Lifting weights. It's great exercise, it's way more fun than running on a treadmill, and it makes me more attractive and confident and proud of my body, and I think it even improves my posture. This one is easy to see why it's awesome.
Training conscientiousness. I wrote about this a couple years ago. Simply put, I realized that "actually doing things" / "making sure things got done" was a skill I wanted, didn't have, and could train. Those skills and that attitude has stayed with me. For example, I used to make promises like "I'll send you an email" and rarely follow through. Now, when I make a promise like that, I take a small step (adding a reminder, writing a note on a scrap of paper) which will cause me to actually send that email later. Or, I used to tell myself things like "I won't say things that piss off my friend," but the next day, in an angry mood, say one of those things. Now, when I say things like that, my reaction is to ask myself "Is that your real goal? Why haven't you achieved it before, and what is actually going to change this time?" The result is that I actually achieve the things I say I will achieve, and instead of just talking about stuff, I actually do stuff.
Habit training skills. Realizing that most actions that people do are habitual, then realizing that habits are trainable. When you want a certain habit, the typical strategy is to find an existing hook in your life to attach it to. Then you have to notice the hook the first few times, before it becomes habitual. I've used this technique to train brushing my teeth in the morning, for example. In order to make the habit easier, you choose something that takes almost no effort at first -- you just have to remember to do it. Then you can ramp up the difficulty once beginning the action is automatic.
You can go one step farther, though: you can practice the habit offline (before you need it). Example: I want to stop biting my fingernails, so I replace that habit with a harmless one of "nice hands" -- clasping my hands and smiling. The problem is that I never notice biting my fingernails until it's too late. But for 20 minutes I practiced moving my hands near my face and immediately doing "nice hands". I only learned this technique a week ago but I have reduced my fingernail-biting by ~95%, and noticed every time that I was doing it, and I expect this to improve to completely kicking this habit.
Over the last several years, a number of organizations have popped up: GiveWell, 80,000 Hours, The Life You Can Save, Giving What We Can, Centre for Effective Altruism, Future of Humanity Institute, Center for Applied Rationality, Leverage Research, and probably a few I've missed.
The purpose of these organizations is to strategically make the world a better place -- figure out the best interventions, or the best actions to take, in order to reduce the most suffering and allow humanity to reach its greatest potential.
Perhaps surprisingly, not everyone agrees on the best way to achieve this. A quick look through the above websites: donate to proven cost-effective interventions, convince other people to donate a big fraction of their income, worry about existential risks, teach people to think more carefully, develop psychological insights, create friendly artificial intelligence, and so on.
I found this lack of coordination surprising because when people have a common goal, they benefit from working together, and so it seems they would do better if they were able to reach agreement on the best path forward. On the other hand, it makes sense that they have different paths: humans often exhibit flaws in rationality which would prevent such cooperation -- reasons like tribalism, status quo bias, and simple inability to work with people. Also, different people have different skills and comparative advantages, so it might make sense to work on a lot of different things.
Anyway, a lot of the folks in these organizations are convinced that improving their own rationality could have high payoffs in their ability to achieve their goals. Tribalism can also be addressed by getting a lot of people from different organizations in the same room and hoping they make friends with each other. So Leverage Research and CFAR got together and created the Effective Altruism Summit. 50 people -- many from the above organizations, but also a bunch of unaffiliated community members (including me) are going to stay in a big house in California for a week and try to produce a bit more rationality, goal-alignment and friendship amongst the effective altruism community.
I guess we'll see how it goes!
Currently it seems to me that the best way forward is for humanity (or a small group of humans) to become smart and rational enough to develop safe, powerful artificial intelligence. We can't go too slow on this: bad things are happening every day (people are dying, new advances are being made on dangerous technology). But if we go quick and screw it up, we'd be making things worse. I'm writing this down in order to see if my beliefs change over the course of the Summit.
I've gotten back into doing regular meditation. The last time I did it regularly was at rationality camp. The nudge here was reading this page on mindfulness engineering, as well as starting to use Beeminder -- I wanted a simple habit to test Beeminder with, and I decided on meditation. (My Beeminder binds me to doing 100 minutes of meditation a week.)
The method I use is to sit in half lotus, on a cushion, for 20 minutes, and concentrate on the sensation of breath entering and leaving my nostrils. My brain doesn't like focusing on this for more than a few seconds at a time, usually. At the beginning of my meditation sessions I get distracted by plans, fantasies, memories, and so on. But by the end of the sessions I get distracted by pain -- my legs tend to fall asleep. I've only been doing this for a couple weeks so hopefully the legs falling asleep will get better.
At least two of my friends independently decided to also start meditation practice recently. I didn't find out why they started yet, but it should be interesting to see which of us continue and which quit, as well as comparing what effects we observe.
Observations: When I drink caffeine I seem to be slightly better at concentrating on the breath. When I drink alcohol I seem to be worse.
Goals: Someone asked me what my goals were for meditation. I told her five things: build a habit; practice attention control; take refreshing breaks from work; practice sitting quietly; and obtain better control over own emotional states.
But if you are interested in it, I recommend the free book Mindfulness in Plain English (MPE). MPE claims some interesting sounding benefits, such as "recognize desires but not be controlled by them"; "your arrogance evaporated and your antagonism dries up and your life smoothes out"; "life becomes a glide instead of a struggle"; "sharpens your concentration and your thinking power"; "you come to a direct knowledge of things as they really are".
As for me, in the couple weeks I've been doing it, I feel a little more poised in daily life. When I sit to work after meditating, I feel a little more precise in what I work on. This is giving me a small amount of positive feedback, so I expect to continue doing it. I don't feel like I've gotten any better at attention control during the meditation sessions. This is what I expect to improve first.
I've found myself choosing more expensive options on a bunch of things lately. Are these tradeoffs correct? What goes into your tradeoff calculations?
Tradeoffs where I choose the more expensive option: (In these examples, the more expensive option is first.)
Tradeoffs where I choose the cheaper option:
Tea is fairly good for you, and it provides you with that nice contemplative feeling of having a cup of something warm to drink while you work. And it has caffeine, but it's much harder to overdose on caffeine with tea than with coffee -- I hate that jittery feeling, and most people don't need much caffeine in order to get a productivity boost.
The problem most people have with tea is that they don't like it very much. Usually they find it too bitter. Occasionally they find it too boring. It takes too long to prepare / clean up. Fortunately, you're reading this, and I am about to tell you how to solve these problems. Get ready for a tea-filled future.
If you already know vaguely how to make tea and you just want to know how to make it delicious, there are only two important, non-obvious rules about tea:
"Burning" the tea means putting it in water that's too hot. This doesn't apply to black tea, but it applies to oolong, green, and white teas. If you're pouring boiling water over any of these kinds of tea, you're going to burn it and it will come out bitter. The easy, cheap solution is to put a splash of cold water in the steeping vessel before adding the boiling water. I usually just estimate & pour 1 finger's width. The proper solution is to get an electric kettle with a thermometer, and set it to 180F/80C.
Most teamaking instructions tell you to steep black tea for 4-5 minutes. This is far too long and your tea will come out bitter. 150 seconds (2.5 minutes) is all you want. For greener teas, 1.5 minutes is about right.
The rest of this guide will help you optimize your tea experience, but it's not nearly as important as the above rules.
Sure, it's 5-10 times more expensive than the low-end stuff, but it's still extraordinarily cheap on an absolute scale. Do it once and feel like a king: sort the tea list from high price to low, and just buy the stuff at the top! I can only imagine owning the most expensive cars, or designer jeans, but I can actually drink some of the most expensive tea available. (You still have to avoid this at shitty retailers or you will get gypped.) Upton Tea Imports (uptontea.com) sells fantastic tea, and their expensive stuff is not a rip-off.
You'll note that Upton's good stuff is loose leaf. Yes, this means in order to drink good tea you'll have to
Believe it or not, the lack of a good way to brew loose-leaf tea stopped me from making good tea for a long time. I just couldn't stand having to find an infuser or teapot, clean the infuser, then decide whether to wash the leaves down the drain, and so on and so forth. Fortunately I've solved these problems for you:
Okay, now for some advanced techniques.
To make iced tea, use double the tea leaves you would normally use, and about half the water. Add the appropriate temperature water to the leaves, and steep for only 1.5 minutes for black tea (1.5 for green is still good). While it steeps, fill a large sturdy glass (like a pint glass) to the top with ice cubes. Then drain the teapot into the glass. The tea will melt most of the ice, and become cold and appropriately diluted. Steeping time is even more important than normal! Don't oversteep or your black tea will be incredibly bitter!
To make dessert tea, make black tea like normal, but steep it longer (maybe 3-4 minutes). The longer steeping time will make it more bitter, but you're about to fix that little problem with a generous amount of heavy cream. Don't be shy -- the more, the tastier. Stir in two heaping spoonfuls of sugar and a drop of vanilla extract. Let's not fool ourselves into thinking that this is good for us, which is why it's called dessert tea.
Back in 2010 I took a beer journey to Belgium with two friends, and wrote a blog about it. I hosted it on Posterous, which is now shutting down. I archived the material here.
I recorded the price we paid for pretty much everything, and pretty much every beer we drank. Useful!