Onwards

Friday was my last day working at Grand Rounds. I’ve learned more there about real software engineering than perhaps the sum of my previous experiences. It sounds cliché, but when I started there, I was about the 40th employee, now there are about 175. Watching a startup grow is a really fascinating position to be in.

I’m leaving to do a few things.
1. I’m going to spend time on Guesstimate, an app I plan to debut within 2 months (a summary of my ideas is here).
2. I’m going to work on .impact, an online community dedicated to making Effective Altruist projects. It’s been growing recently and I think there are some easy wins.
3. I’m going to experiment and do little projects. For instance, blog posts. I’ve written about 3 blog posts in the last year, I would like to end my little blog winter.

It’s sad to leave an organization, especially one where you’re surrounded by people you like. Grand Rounds was really good to me. I’ve been able to learn gain great experience, work with smart people, spend time in a growing B2B business, overcome RSI issues, and save enough money to pursue my other passions. I’ll miss it, but am deeply satisfied with my current opportunities. I’m really excited.

Rubric Research Outline

Summary

Here at 80,000 Hours we’re currently working to make a rubric to rate our research/blog quality. My first step was to do a minor literature survey, and outline of which is given below. You can also read and contribute to it on Workflowy.

Main Take-Aways

  • One of the main benefits of rubrics is for writing and learning, using them as a guideline, as opposed to only ranking things that have been done ~c3. As such, a rubric could provide a lot of value to help us decide and find a consistent style of article ~c1i1.
  • Often numbers are less important than written feedback, especially for improvement ~c1i1.
  • It’s really important to have the “students” or “writers” help build the rubric ~c1i1.
  • It’s possible to use rubric to decrease variance in scores. However, it’s also possible that rubrics will increase variance in scores. While there does not seem to be a ton of research in what kinds of rubrics improve precision, it seems like this should be considered and efforts should be made to make sure that the rubric is very clear ~c1i1.

Outline

  • Books
  • Academic Articles
    • The use of scoring rubrics: Reliability, validity and educational consequences
      • Meta study on reviews of metrics for performance assessment, 2007
      • Overview:
        • 1) Rubrics successfully enhance scoring reliability
        • 2) Rubrics improve learning / instruction when known & understood.
      • Conclusions
        • This paper aimed to review empirical research and illuminate the questions of how the use of rubrics can (1) enhance the reliability of scoring, (2) facilitate valid judgment of performance assessments, and (3) give positive educational consequences, such as promoting learning and/or improve instruction.
        • A first conclusion is that the reliable scoring of performance assessments can be enhanced by the use of rubrics. In relation to reliability issues, rubrics should be analytic, topic-specific, and complemented with exemplars and/or rater training. Since performance assessments are more or less open ended per definition, it is not always possible to restrict the assessment format to achieve high levels of reliability without sacrificing the validity.
        • Another conclusion is that rubrics do not facilitate valid judgment of performance assessments per se. Valid assessment could be facilitated by using a more comprehensive framework of validity when validating the rubric, instead of focusing on only one or two aspects of validity. In relation to learning and instruction, consequential validity is an aspect of validity that might need further attention.
        • Furthermore, it has been concluded that rubrics seem to have the potential of promoting learning and/or improve instruction. The main reason for this potential lies in the fact that rubrics make expectations and criteria explicit, which also facilitates feedback and self-assessment. It is thus argued that assessment quality criteria should emphasize dimensions like transparency and fitness for self-assessment to a greater extent than is done through the traditional reliability and validity criteria. This could be achieved through a framework of quality criteria that acknowledges the importance of trustworthiness in assessment as well as supports a more comprehensive view on validity issues (including educational consequences).
    • Quantitative analysis of the rubric as an assessment tool: an empirical study of student peer‐group rating
      • http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/0950069022000038268
      • “Taken together, these data indicate that use of the rubric for self-evaluation affords the students valid assessments of their own performances.”
      • “Research has shown that group work and peer assessment have resulted in increased student comprehension and, ultimately, in higher grades (for a review, see Falchikov 1991, Gatfield 1999).”
    • A review of rubric use in higher education
      • 2010 Meta-study
      • http://class.web.nthu.edu.tw/ezfiles/669/1669/img/1381/6.Areviewofrubricuseinhighereducation.pdf
      • “Two studies suggested that rubric use was associated with improved academic performance, while one did not.”
      • “Studies of the validity of rubrics have shown that clarity and appropriateness of language is a central concern. Studies of rater reliability tend to show that rubrics can lead to a relatively common interpretation of student performance”
      • “Little attention has been paid to the validity of rubrics. Most of the work has been on reliability - a necessary but insufficient condition of validity.
      • “The language used in rubrics is considered to be one of the most challenging aspects of its design (Tierney and Simon 2004; Moni, Beswick, and Moni 2005). As with any form of assessment, the clarity of the language in a rubric is a matter of validity because an ambiguous rubric cannot be accurately or consistently interpreted by instructors, students or scorers (Payne 2003). T”
      • “raters must be sufficiently trained in order to achieve acceptable levels of reliability (typically 70% agreement or higher).”

Blog Efficiency

It took me 3 +- 1 hours to write this, plus another 30 minutes edit it and post it here.

Book Review of on Writing

Writing seems to me now as one of the most important endeavors to get good at. I still have a strong passion and recommendation for coding, but also get the perspective that basic day-to-day make people understand your mind writing is something most people don’t seem to pay too much attention to.

I bet it’s become more important now than any time in the past ~i1. Sure, this may be more true for video and multimedia, but the vast majority of facts spilled online are through writing ~i3. Facebook and Twitter are writing, especially for those looking to distribute useful information.

I feel awfully behind-the-curb commending the recent benefits of blogging, but recently I’ve been understanding it more and have been impressed with my findings. To most startup CEOs, transparency means blogging. Most blog readership may be highly skewed towards consolidation in academic studies, but in practical use I’ve found lots of material in small niches I’m sure wouldn’t have existed otherwise. Blogging is, in essence, the discussion of online communities (forums would represent the chatter).

It is a pity how much information gets lost in the transition from speech to paper. I believe academic studies would indicate 60% or more. I’ve been surprised that we haven’t been able to find solid alternatives to these. Surely there are quite a few dimensions we haven’t played with yet; in theory we could bring emotion and subtle variation back into written content by adjusting the colors and fonts or really anything not accessible by a 18th century typewriter. Perhaps not in a Dave McClure style eclectic rampage but in something sensical and focused. I’ve experimented with written uncertainty levels and hope to mess around a lot more with this.

On the other hand, online writing has the fantastic ability to link to things. A blog post with great links is worth at least 30-50% more than one without, as evidenced in many good Rationality posts. When dealing with highly specialized topics, written form makes possible the temporary learning necessary to finish an established conversation.

I have noticed an unfortunate trend that many of the most prolific writers I know are somewhat awkward people. Writing seems to be a rather introverted activity

Writing and Introversion

Writing is thought of an introverted activity, which to me is interesting because it also seems to be the loudest form of communication.

I tend to think of extraverts as getting the most attention in meetings and parties, but introverts may dominate the academic and online thought spaces. LessWrong and HackerNews are two of the most prominent thought figureheads in the Bay, but both (especially LessWrong) seem lead by a bunch of nerdy home stays, who can be exceedingly awkward to communicate with vocally.

I have an incredibly difficult time imagining some online figureheads running or controlling a meeting, especially if it weren’t so for their online authority. Typically the loudest people get their opinions carried out in small groups, and this has been considered to be primarily a bad thing ~c2i3.

This all leads me to think that our working definition of extraversion is a bit faulty. The leading term that I’ve heard is that it represents people who gain energy from social settings. I don’t think this is very fair.

Everyone gains energy from the right social settings. Talking to a close friend or psychologist is one of the leading causes for happiness, and I believe this is true no matter one’s genetic makeup. I find it highly unlikely that people should be put in categories of “gains energy from social settings” vs. “drains energy in social settings”, and more likely that they be put in context-sensitive categories. Perhaps there is no “global” extrovert or introvert, but rather different people who share different mentalities in different situations.

We know that people generally don’t enjoy difficult thinking ~r3i2, and I bet this is what the vast majority of this is comes down to. Whether one is comfortable in a situation or not depends on if they can understand and control the situation to their liking with minimal effort or brainpower. Could someone with the absolute capability to understand and mind-hack conversation attendees ever be an introvert in the sense that it would dilute him or her of energy while doing so?

Likewise, the most active social butterfly might be completely left off-guard when put into the fray of LessWrong comments. This would take them significant mental energy.

Experimenting with Extremism

Great charity workers are known for working incredibly hours. Part of me holds this in my imaginary notion of the charitable ideal, but I think much of that comes directly from real examples of individuals who have essentially sacrificed their waking lives to the human condition. People like Mother Teresa, or Verita, or Nikola Tesla, who were for, at least some portion of their lives, working essentially nonstop and to what seems like the absolute best of therir juan abilities to make their missions occur. The people we think of saints typically have helped those neary and persisted nonstop in doing so. This seems like a pretty good ideal to strive towards, and parts of me wishes that though commended now, these individuals would be advocated significantly mores.
The more distant the cay source of help appears, the less motivation and immediacy lies in the act of assistance. Mother Teresa and Eva Peron were literally surrounded by the poor and destitute close by. Nikola Tesla and Normal Borlogue had this less s. I think both worked incredibly long hours, but my guess is that they were motivated less so; but either way, they definitely seem to get less recognition and attention for their effort than the direct charity workers do. For whatever reason, when I hear of the great deeds of charity workers, I often hear about and pay attention to the hours they work directly. But few people mention this in the light of scientists and philosophers. Perhaps their motivation is seen as more selfishish, or their work seen more from genius then action.

In CEA we have a bit of an issue in that most peole work from 9-5 or so. A few of us, myself included, sometimes work longer hours, but nothing near what Tesla or Mother Teresa put in. One argument, of course, is that the 40-50 hour work week actually is ideal, that after that point efficiency losses will remove the contributions of the extra effort; making it not just useless but actively harmful. If this was true, does it mean that Tesla, Mother Tereas, Steve Jobs, etc, would also have been better working half as much? Would our students learn more with significantly less homework and school hours? Should we reduce the workload on our soldiers in training by 30-60%?

I’ll leave a discussion of the research for another time, but suffice to say I’m skeptical on how well this applies to all conditions, especially for work that may be motivating and enjoyable.
What I really do care about is how we can go about making a culture that makes the work that we do * feel important. My guess is that none of the workers of any CEA organization work as diligently as similar ones put inside the conditions of helping poor immediately around them, and yet EA workers claim thait their work is significantly more important in many cses. Surely there mudt be some way to not only understand so in the logicial, decision-relevant sense but also in the emotional sense that would drive us tio endure more than the roughest Wall Street worker or Entrepreneur. Our work should matter more.

My feeling here is that we would need more extremism. In a way this should be obvious, but I realize that there are many who likely consider the emerging fields of rationality and Effective Altruism to already be too extreme. I think that’s nonsense. The truth is, utilitarianism; actual, complete utilitarianism, is extreme. Most of us have gone somewhere half-way because it feels too strange to go further, but we should judge ourselves by how far we are to being correct rather than how far say we are from what is average and ordinary. If one is to say that utilitarianism is correct, then that should be acted upon.

The obvious way to allow for extremity is to increase isolation. This is not a popular notion, and for good reason. Extremism and social isolation (from a group, not individual) are typically strange in wrong ways rather than right ones. This is because contrarian views are normally incorrect (as Robert Hanson has pointed out here), so extreme contrarian views will typically be much worse than ordinary grinding-shoulder ones.

But I’m optimistc because sometimes small extreme groups have given us extraordinary things. The Beat generation arguably spawned from sea handful of writers who all seemed to know and socialize together. The absurdist art movement was another. Or somme of the very original groups that were partially responsible for the Hippy subculture. Or the group of philosophers a few years back that spawned a few guys names Artimiedes and Plato. Sometimes smart people in the right kind of social isolation and/or inclusion produce amazing things. And other times they go completely nuts.
This movement seems to be primarily made up of a buch of braniac,altruistic introvert. I think Myers briggs tests would put almost all of us in the INTP category +_ 1 or character. So I don’t think things could get very crazy, at least get violent. I suppose that eventually extremist groups could make a negative Singularity, which would be quite bad, but if we stick to radical altruism, we’re probably in much safer territory. We’d just be careful to have all the AI books locked up in a creepy drawer somewhere.
There’s obviously a lot of reflection on whhat kinds of environments could promote extremism and what kinds we should strive for, but that’s a bit much for one post. My loint here is that I believe we should be fee to experiment with more organizational extremism than we have now, though it’s probably worth some reflection in how to handle this safely. Extremism for young movements seems like drugs for young adults. Its risky and unpopular, but when handled properly could lead to some magical opportunities.

Screw blog quality.

IThe higher the quality of my blog posts that I require, the less I’ll end up writing or posting, period.
Many ideas aren’t good enough to make entire books about, but people do so anyway. You know the kind; those A airport paperbacks with enough physical length to be defined as “book” but completely packed with filler stories that the author swears are useful but feknowledgeable readers would agree For whatever read there a seems to be a gap between a 1-2 page blog post and a 150 page book, and anything important enough to be over 3 pages, but not enough to be 1200 pages, thus needs to be either cut down o fattened up. My guess is that the answer is typically that it just gets killed completely, but in some cases gets fatted up, giving us this horrendous display of pop science to get through while searching for material actually meaningful of book form.
Likewise a lot of ideas seem obviously good enough to write down, but inconvenient to make entire a post. So these either get beefed up with fancy sounding blog titles and anecdotes to indicate their importance (I’d critique much of Less Wrong, but I probably do this just as much), or, of course, never written down and forgotten. I I guess new mediums could theoretically handle this, but they don’t seem to well. Twitter gives us the option of the 130- character idea to an audience used to links to blog posts. Facebook is not really internet-feidnly or public when it needs to be, and blogs just seem like an awkward place for ideas less than 2 paragraphs. Another way of idea inclusion is to tack them into other other posts, making them more rambling in the process but at least getting them down somewhere. Theis seems like an exceedingly awkward idea in retrospect but I do it all the time and see others too. I know that in Against the Day, Thomas Pynchon was critiqued for trying to jam all of his last ideas down into an otherwise thematic and unified narrative, in part because he may have been expecting to die shortly afterwards. With me or or most other people with blogs (bloggers? I feel like everyone should have blogs though. See, I did it again!) the more immediate problem is just that we come up with ideas faster than writing them down. I have this gut feeling like I should be writing down every original or even controversial but old idea down for some sort of transparency and organizational benefit. Perhaps this is a mental disorder that should be diagnosed, but that’s again for a separate post (or did I make that mistake again?) My basic understanding is that Tweets, Blog Posts, Essays, Non-fiction books, are all trying to say one basic idea. Supporting ideas and research can be included, but if the idea isn’t important to the one important idea it should be spun off into something else. Otherwise the medium would loose its focus. An artificial coupling would be created based on the writer’s state of mood rather than the readers’ organizational convenience. It seems kind of like an organization, rellly. This would indicate that lets-call-them-sub-ideas should be included in things only when they are only really important to that thing. It’s kind of like a function in a program. If a sub-idea has much utility at all outside this one important idea then it should be spun off into its own Twitter post, blog post, or new Book. And of course, it should be published first, as it’s an important prerequisite. For instance, I personally wanted to look into seeing if EAs should write eBooks as opposed to Blogging. But to do that, I would need to understand the benefits of Blogging, but that seems like it would be too useful a subject to only have in reference to the eBook discussion. So it became it’s own article, until I realized that the individual benefits of Blogging themselves have interesting properties that need to be adequately thought out. And on and on it could go. This is one reason why discussion is so damn fun in comparison to writing. Discussion can go anywhere, it can be in-conclusive. It’s more of a meandering mess where qualifications aren’t too important and you’ll never have to write a revision. So ideas just come out naturally without even the thought of perfecting them or adjusting them to a structure of any sort. I know people who would rather say something 30 times to people than write it down.
The counter to the one-idea-per-blog-post, of course, is the stream-of-consiousness technique in book writing. I haven’t seen this used very much for blogs and I’m kind of curious why. Blogging in the 21st century seems like it should be more experimental than writing on typewriters in the 20th. I’m sure I’m ignoring a lot of great content out there, but I believe I’ve really only witnessed relatively simple and short things. Even stories I read online seem to sound more like stories than life occurrences, they’re well tied up with cute moral epiphanies of one kind or another.

Rubrics as a Secret Weapon

I’m going to take a jump of faith and assume that you, the reader, probably don’t think much of grading rubrics. I’ll guess that you associate them with some set of grade school classes that were mundane and tedious, and perhaps the teacher didn’t seem very enthusiastic about them either.

When I was in 4th Grade I remember hearing my teachers repeatedly explain their frustrating with the standardized testing curriculum. They claimed that the yearly required tests forced them to turn their attention to less creative endeavors and that the entire class would be forced to learn some useless material because of it. I understood that standardized tests were the separating factor between my classroom activity and all of the cool stuff I hoped to get to.

When it finally got time to take the test that year, I felt kind of like a libertarian receiving a financial audit. I’d do the minimum amount, and I’d do it painfully and slowly. There were several multiple choice questions followed by a long essay on a made up story. I didn’t feel like coming up with an interesting tale, I was befuttled by this lame test in the first place. So I instead wrote a few paragraphs about someone complaining about how standardized tests were making their lives pointless and miserable.

This felt empowering until my Principal explained it to my parents a few weeks later.

I’m not sure how well this anecdote makes my case, but the point is that I’m a pretty full convert now. While I’ll still never accept much of what has been since schooled into me, I now believe that the rubrics or standardization were not really the problem. Perhaps they were done poorly; this seems to be the case for the recent New York one-curriculum program. But I hope that their implementation hasn’t permanently damaged the reputation of standardization and grading rubrics. Because on further consideration, both are really fantastic things.

The Rubric as a Piece in the Transparency Arsenal

After some initial nice thoughts on how we could adapt rubrics for 80k, I did a shallow research overview of the literature and found some surprises.

The existing research on rubrics focussed almost entirely on academia, and this seems like a complete pity to me.

Are Academic Rubrics a Fair Representation of Rubrics?

The Blog Medium as a Limiting Form Factor

When I first learned about Haiku’s I thought them to be overly specific and simple. I mean, consider the rules for them:

  1. The essence of haiku is “cutting” (kiru).[1] This is often represented by the juxtaposition of two images or ideas and a kireji (“cutting word”) between them,[2] a kind of verbal punctuation mark which signals the moment of separation and colors the manner in which the juxtaposed elements are related.
  1. Traditional haiku consist of 17 on (also known as morae), in three phrases of 5, 7 and 5 on respectively.[3] Any one of the three phrases may end with the kireji.[4] Although haiku are often stated to have 17 syllables,[5] this is inaccurate as syllables and on are not the same.
  2. A kigo (seasonal reference), usually drawn from a saijiki, an extensive but defined list of such words. (From Wikipedia)

So if one were to write in Haikus they would be limited to a very specific syntax and a focus on juxtaposition and seasonal references. Out of the entire solution space of all poems this seems like an incredibly limitation, especially for prominent medium.

But on reflection, our existing mediums aren’t that much less limiting. Sure, those specific three rules don’t apply, but we can think of many unstated ones that do apply. While I find surprising limits to our definitions of most mediums, I’ll focus on blogging at the moment as that’s what I’m currently focussing on. ## The 7 Rules of Blogging 1. The Blog Post Must be Linear, being read from top to bottom. 2. The Blog Post must focus on one “main message”. All other ideas must be complimentary to this point. 3. All text must be placed in flat lines of a limited set of ASCII characters. 4. The Blog Post must be dated for a specific time of authenticity. If large future changes are to be later made, these should be posted into a new post. 5. The Blog Post must be complete as published. 6. The Blog Post must be between 250 words and 3,000 words. 7. Claims should have links to evidence 8. The Blog itself should appeal to a specific target audience. Different audiences require different blogs. ## The Rules of Commenting 1. Comments are mostly for praise and information. 2. One can either criticize a blog on tiny details or gigantic ones. Little in between. 3. Comments should be between 8 and 200 words.
4. Most of the rules mentioned above for blogging still apply. Why are blog comments different from forum comments? In forums it’s typical for a thread to get started with what is essentially a blog post, and then have discussion carried on for dozens of pages. But in comments I’ve almost never seen this be the case. LessWrong feels like a “Hybrid” but definitely leans more to the “Forum” mode in my opinion, as it allows for all people to post material and ranks comments on a similar manner to original posts.

Book Review: Damn Few Book Review: On Writing Book Review: The Year Without Pants Book Review: Extreme Trust: Honesty as a Competitive Advantage

Transparency Research Outline

Summary

Recently I spent some time researching Transparency, after preparing to write a few posts about it. While originally I wanted to treat “Transparency” as a singular phenomena, the existing literature on it suggests that there really is no coherent idea of “Transparency”, but rather a set of several competing notions used in different fields~c1i3. For example, “Company Transparency” seems to refer a lot to having a nice company blog, while “Nonprofit Transparency” is often about the financials~c1i2.

This is what I have recorded from about one day of research on the topic. I hope to look through some of the books and articles in more detail later on, this so far was just a broad overview.

I took these notes in a Workflowy here, which I think is the easiest way to access (and contribute) to this~i2. However, I have also exported the notes below for convenience. Fortunately the ‘export’ workflowy feature works very well with Markdown.

Outline

  • Quotes
    • “Transparency is a slippery word; the kind of word that, like reform, sounds good and so ends up getting attached to any random political thing that someone wants to promote. - Aaron Swarz
      • Daniel Lathrop and Laurel Ruma. Open Government (Kindle Locations 5958-5960). O’Reilly Media, Inc..”
    • “Although transparency is currently a buzzword in the public discourse, public relations (PR) theory has not yet produced a theory of transparency”
      • Transparency Matters: The concept of organizational transparency in the academic discourse
  • Definitions
    • “Transparency refers to the idea that social and political processes should be both visible and accountable, in order to minimize error. It is one of the mechanisms whereby public error correction can take place.”
  • Regular Books
    • Business
    • Anthropology/Philosophy
      • “Transparency” by Marek Bienczyk
        • This looked interesting to me, though there’s very little about it online. It’s far more academic and romantic than the others here.
        • First chapter is here: http://asymptotejournal.com/article.php?cat=Nonfiction&id=23&curr_index=0
        • Random quote:
          • “Thus, the tragedy of Rousseauian transparency is the fact that it is left defenseless within its own innocence: it can’t defend itself from being clouded over, from the darkening brought on by the unrestrained activity of mankind, from the false judgments of others. Simply looking at other people isn’t enough to achieve this transparency, nor does looking seek to do so. - See more at: http://asymptotejournal.com/article.php?cat=Nonfiction&id=23&curr_index=0#sthash.eCkfKthK.dpuf”
      • Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Transparency and Obstruction
    • Science Fiction
  • Academic Books / Textbooks
  • Academic Articles
    • “Transparency Matters: The concept of organizational transparency in the academic discourse”
      • A meta-analysis of the existing literature on “Transparency”
      • From the Abstract:
        • “Although transparency is currently a buzzword in the public discourse, public relations (PR) theory has not yet produced a theory of transparency”
        • “like in the public relations discourse, a theory-driven analysis of transparency is a desideratum.”
        • Link: http://pri.sagepub.com/content/1/3/337.short
    • “Give the Emperor a Mirror: Toward a Stakeholder Measurement of Organizational Transparency”
      • The most quantitative and comprehensive overview I’ve found on this issue.
      • Give the Emperor a Mirror: Toward Developing a Stakeholder Measurement of Organizational Transparency
      • Abstract: “The concept of organizational transparency has vaulted to prominence in recent years. While the virtues of transparency have been tied to trust and credibility, there have been no efforts to measure this abstract concept. Guidelines exist to help organizations be more transparent, but the real test is how stakeholders perceive an organization’s transparency. This paper focuses on developing a stakeholder measurement of organizational transparency. Factor analyses, structural equation models, and reliability alphas on the measurement items indicate the instrument measures three transparency reputation traits (integrity, respect for others, openness) and four transparency efforts (participation, substantial information, accountability, and secrecy).”
    • “Transparency and Participation in the World Trade Organization”
      • Cited by 35
      • http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=710522
      • “The foundation stone of international norms for transparency”
        • The foundation stone of international norms for transparency was the 1923 International Convention Relating to the Simplification of Customs Formalities (“Customs Convention”).9 The Customs Convention established rules for transparency and review at the national level.10 All customs regulations were required to be promptly published “in such a manner as to enable persons concerned to become acquainted with them and to avoid the prejudice which might result from the application of customs formalities of which they are ignorant.”11
    • “Towards a Precise Semantics for Authenticity and Trust”
  • Blog Posts
    • Givewell’s Transparency Policy
    • Givewell’s post “What characteristics do we look for?”
    • The See-Through CEO
      • Link: http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/15.04/wired40_ceo.html
      • Summary: This was a short story of a CEO who blogged a lot followed by some discussion that “reputation online is everything.” This is considered by him to be “Radical Transparency.”
      • Quotes
        • “Nearly everyone I spoke to had a warning for would-be transparent CEOs: You can’t go halfway naked. It’s all or nothing. Executives who promise they’ll be open have to stay open. The minute they become evasive about troubling news, transparency’s implied social compact crumbles.”
        • “The reputation economy creates an incentive to be more open, not less. Since Internet commentary is inescapable, the only way to influence it is to be part of it. Being transparent, opening up, posting interesting material frequently and often is the only way to amass positive links to yourself and thus to directly influence your Googleable reputation.”
    • A Parable about Openness: Followed by Some Thoughts on Privacy, Security, and Surveillance in the Information Age
  • Organizations
    • Transparency International
      • A nonprofit dedicated to exposing transparency within governments and business, mainly to expose corruption.
      • “Our Vision” : “A World in which Government Politics, Business, Civil Society and the Daily Lives of People are Free of Corruption”
        • This indicates that they are much more an organization against corruption (and using transparency for this means) than one for transparency, which has benefits outside of corruption.
      • Useful documents
      • “TRANSPARENCY IN CORPORATE REPORTING: ASSESSING THE WORLD’S LARGEST COMPANIES”
        • “This study analyses the transparency of corporate reporting on a range of anticorruption measures among the 105 largest publicly listed multinational companies. Together these companies are worth more than US$11 trillion and touch the lives of people in countries across the globe, wielding enormous and far reaching power.”
        • http://www.transparency.org/whatwedo/pub/transparency_in_corporate_reporting_assessing_the_worlds_largest_companies
        • My take
          • A very pretty report that rates a multinational companies on a few “transparency” questionnaires, specifically focussing on corruption.
          • The Questionnaire in some ways is the best part. They have three indexes, each with a list of different questions.
              1. DISCLOSED ANTI-CORRUPTION PROGRAMMES
                • Does the company have a publicly stated commitment to anti-corruption?
                • Does the company publicly commit to be in compliance with all relevant laws, including anti-corruption laws?
                • Does the company leadership demonstrate support for anti-corruption? E.g. is there a statement in a corporate citizenship report or in public pronouncements on integrity?
                • Does the company’s code of conduct/ anti-corruption policy explicitly apply to all employees?
                • Does the company’s code of conduct/ anti-corruption policy explicitly apply to all agents and other intermediaries?
                • Does the company’s code of conduct/ anti-corruption policy explicitly apply to contractors, subcontractors and suppliers?
                • Does the company have an anti-corruption training programme for its employees in place?
                • Does the company have a policy defining appropriate/ inappropriate gifts, hospitality and travel expenses?
                • Is there a policy that explicitly forbids facilitation payments?
                • Does the company prohibit retaliation for reporting the violation of a policy?
                • Does the company provide channels through which employees can report potential violations of policy or seek advice (e.g. whistleblowing) in confidence?
                • Does the company carry out regular monitoring of its anti-corruption programme?
                • Does the company have a policy prohibiting political contributions or if it does make such contributions, are they fully disclosed?
              1. ORGANISATIONAL TRANSPARENCY (DISCLOSURE OF SUBSIDIARIES)
                • Does the company disclose the full list of its fully consolidated material subsidiaries?
                • Does the company disclose percentages owned in its fully consolidated material subsidiaries?
                • Does the company disclose countries of incorporation of its fully consolidated material subsidiaries?
                • Does the company disclose countries of operations of its fully consolidated material subsidiaries?
                • Does the company disclose the full list of its non- fully consolidated material subsidiaries?28
                • Does the company disclose percentages owned in its non-fully consolidated material subsidiaries?
                • Does the company disclose countries of incorporation of its non-fully consolidated material subsidiaries?
                • Does the company disclose countries of operations of its non-fully consolidated material subsidiaries?
              1. COUNTRY-BY-COUNTRY DISCLOSURE
                • In our study ‘countries of operations’ are those countries in which a company is present either directly or through one of its consolidated subsidiaries. The relevant list of countries of operations is based on the company’s own reporting.
                • For each country of the company’s operations the following set of questions has been asked:
                • Does the company disclose its revenues/ sales in country X?
                • Does the company disclose its capital expenditure in country X?
                • Does the company disclose its pre-tax income in country X?
                • Does the company disclose its income tax in country X?
                • Does the company disclose its community contribution in country X?
  • Related Terms
    • Radical Transparency
      • Definitions
        • “Radical Transparency is presenting to individuals the previously-hidden impacts of the things they buy and do, and giving them choices at that moment.
        • General “We’re very transparent” stuff
          • Talk by Justin Rosenstein (Asana)
            • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UBKsjGZjghc
            • Board meetings
              • At board meetings, they occationally bring in outsiders to “enjoy the process”
              • Take “copious notes” and send them to the company.
            • Weekly planning meetings
              • Business heads
              • Doesn’t share salaries, some HR meetings
              • Take “copious notes”, send them out to the company.
              • “Sometimes participate in dialogue”
              • It “brings trust” that they are making the correct decisions.
            • “People are empowered with enough knowledge that they don’t have to be micromanaged.”
            • Provide people with “context about how things work” rather than “controlling what they do”.
            • Company of Peers”
              • Roadmap week
                • After each episode (quarter)
                • One week of meetings each day, in committees.
                • Results in less normal meetings.
                • Meetings on “mobile” , “Values”, “how to expand design team”, etc.
                • The committees put together the plans, generally are acted upon without overrides from executives.
      • Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radical_transparency
    • Open Business
      • “an approach to enterprise that draws on ideas from openness movements like free software, open source, open content and open tools and standards. The approach places value on transparency, stakeholder inclusion, and accountability.” - wikipedia
      • The wikipedia page got me really excited, then I realized there were no real references.
      • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_business
  • Transparency (shared)
    • Summary Quotes
      • “Transparency is a slippery word; the kind of word that, like reform, sounds good and so ends up getting attached to any random political thing that someone wants to promote. - Aaron Swarz
        • Daniel Lathrop and Laurel Ruma. Open Government (Kindle Locations 5958-5960). O’Reilly Media, Inc..”
      • “Although transparency is currently a buzzword in the public discourse, public relations (PR) theory has not yet produced a theory of transparency”
        • Transparency Matters: The concept of organizational transparency in the academic discourse
    • Definitions
      • “Transparency refers to the idea that social and political processes should be both visible and accountable, in order to minimize error. It is one of the mechanisms whereby public error correction can take place.”
    • Regular Books
      • Business
      • Anthropology/Philosophy
        • “Transparency” by Marek Bienczyk
          • This looked interesting to me, though there’s very little about it online. It’s far more academic and romantic than the others here.
          • First chapter is here: http://asymptotejournal.com/article.php?cat=Nonfiction&id=23&curr_index=0
          • Random quote:
            • “Thus, the tragedy of Rousseauian transparency is the fact that it is left defenseless within its own innocence: it can’t defend itself from being clouded over, from the darkening brought on by the unrestrained activity of mankind, from the false judgments of others. Simply looking at other people isn’t enough to achieve this transparency, nor does looking seek to do so. - See more at: http://asymptotejournal.com/article.php?cat=Nonfiction&id=23&curr_index=0#sthash.eCkfKthK.dpuf”
        • Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Transparency and Obstruction
      • Science Fiction
    • Academic Books / Textbooks
    • Academic Articles
      • “Transparency Matters: The concept of organizational transparency in the academic discourse”
        • A meta-analysis of the existing literature on “Transparency”
        • From the Abstract:
          • “Although transparency is currently a buzzword in the public discourse, public relations (PR) theory has not yet produced a theory of transparency”
          • “like in the public relations discourse, a theory-driven analysis of transparency is a desideratum.”
          • Link: http://pri.sagepub.com/content/1/3/337.short
      • “Give the Emperor a Mirror: Toward a Stakeholder Measurement of Organizational Transparency”
        • The most quantitative and comprehensive overview I’ve found on this issue.
        • Give the Emperor a Mirror: Toward Developing a Stakeholder Measurement of Organizational Transparency
        • Abstract: “The concept of organizational transparency has vaulted to prominence in recent years. While the virtues of transparency have been tied to trust and credibility, there have been no efforts to measure this abstract concept. Guidelines exist to help organizations be more transparent, but the real test is how stakeholders perceive an organization’s transparency. This paper focuses on developing a stakeholder measurement of organizational transparency. Factor analyses, structural equation models, and reliability alphas on the measurement items indicate the instrument measures three transparency reputation traits (integrity, respect for others, openness) and four transparency efforts (participation, substantial information, accountability, and secrecy).”
      • “Transparency and Participation in the World Trade Organization”
        • Cited by 35
        • http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=710522
        • “The foundation stone of international norms for transparency”
          • The foundation stone of international norms for transparency was the 1923 International Convention Relating to the Simplification of Customs Formalities (“Customs Convention”).9 The Customs Convention established rules for transparency and review at the national level.10 All customs regulations were required to be promptly published “in such a manner as to enable persons concerned to become acquainted with them and to avoid the prejudice which might result from the application of customs formalities of which they are ignorant.”11
      • “Towards a Precise Semantics for Authenticity and Trust”
    • Blog Posts
      • Givewell’s Transparency Policy
      • Givewell’s post “What characteristics do we look for?”
      • The See-Through CEO
        • Link: http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/15.04/wired40_ceo.html
        • Summary: This was a short story of a CEO who blogged a lot followed by some discussion that “reputation online is everything.” This is considered by him to be “Radical Transparency.”
        • Quotes
          • “Nearly everyone I spoke to had a warning for would-be transparent CEOs: You can’t go halfway naked. It’s all or nothing. Executives who promise they’ll be open have to stay open. The minute they become evasive about troubling news, transparency’s implied social compact crumbles.”
          • “The reputation economy creates an incentive to be more open, not less. Since Internet commentary is inescapable, the only way to influence it is to be part of it. Being transparent, opening up, posting interesting material frequently and often is the only way to amass positive links to yourself and thus to directly influence your Googleable reputation.”
      • A Parable about Openness: Followed by Some Thoughts on Privacy, Security, and Surveillance in the Information Age
    • Organizations
      • Transparency International
        • A nonprofit dedicated to exposing transparency within governments and business, mainly to expose corruption.
        • “Our Vision” : “A World in which Government Politics, Business, Civil Society and the Daily Lives of People are Free of Corruption”
          • This indicates that they are much more an organization against corruption (and using transparency for this means) than one for transparency, which has benefits outside of corruption.
        • Useful documents
        • “TRANSPARENCY IN CORPORATE REPORTING: ASSESSING THE WORLD’S LARGEST COMPANIES”
          • “This study analyses the transparency of corporate reporting on a range of anticorruption measures among the 105 largest publicly listed multinational companies. Together these companies are worth more than US$11 trillion and touch the lives of people in countries across the globe, wielding enormous and far reaching power.”
          • http://www.transparency.org/whatwedo/pub/transparency_in_corporate_reporting_assessing_the_worlds_largest_companies
          • My take
            • A very pretty report that rates a multinational companies on a few “transparency” questionnaires, specifically focussing on corruption.
            • The Questionnaire in some ways is the best part. They have three indexes, each with a list of different questions.
                1. DISCLOSED ANTI-CORRUPTION PROGRAMMES
                  • Does the company have a publicly stated commitment to anti-corruption?
                  • Does the company publicly commit to be in compliance with all relevant laws, including anti-corruption laws?
                  • Does the company leadership demonstrate support for anti-corruption? E.g. is there a statement in a corporate citizenship report or in public pronouncements on integrity?
                  • Does the company’s code of conduct/ anti-corruption policy explicitly apply to all employees?
                  • Does the company’s code of conduct/ anti-corruption policy explicitly apply to all agents and other intermediaries?
                  • Does the company’s code of conduct/ anti-corruption policy explicitly apply to contractors, subcontractors and suppliers?
                  • Does the company have an anti-corruption training programme for its employees in place?
                  • Does the company have a policy defining appropriate/ inappropriate gifts, hospitality and travel expenses?
                  • Is there a policy that explicitly forbids facilitation payments?
                  • Does the company prohibit retaliation for reporting the violation of a policy?
                  • Does the company provide channels through which employees can report potential violations of policy or seek advice (e.g. whistleblowing) in confidence?
                  • Does the company carry out regular monitoring of its anti-corruption programme?
                  • Does the company have a policy prohibiting political contributions or if it does make such contributions, are they fully disclosed?
                1. ORGANISATIONAL TRANSPARENCY (DISCLOSURE OF SUBSIDIARIES)
                  • Does the company disclose the full list of its fully consolidated material subsidiaries?
                  • Does the company disclose percentages owned in its fully consolidated material subsidiaries?
                  • Does the company disclose countries of incorporation of its fully consolidated material subsidiaries?
                  • Does the company disclose countries of operations of its fully consolidated material subsidiaries?
                  • Does the company disclose the full list of its non- fully consolidated material subsidiaries?28
                  • Does the company disclose percentages owned in its non-fully consolidated material subsidiaries?
                  • Does the company disclose countries of incorporation of its non-fully consolidated material subsidiaries?
                  • Does the company disclose countries of operations of its non-fully consolidated material subsidiaries?
                1. COUNTRY-BY-COUNTRY DISCLOSURE
                  • In our study ‘countries of operations’ are those countries in which a company is present either directly or through one of its consolidated subsidiaries. The relevant list of countries of operations is based on the company’s own reporting.
                  • For each country of the company’s operations the following set of questions has been asked:
                  • Does the company disclose its revenues/ sales in country X?
                  • Does the company disclose its capital expenditure in country X?
                  • Does the company disclose its pre-tax income in country X?
                  • Does the company disclose its income tax in country X?
                  • Does the company disclose its community contribution in country X?
    • Related Terms
      • Radical Transparency
        • Definitions
          • “Radical Transparency is presenting to individuals the previously-hidden impacts of the things they buy and do, and giving them choices at that moment.
          • General “We’re very transparent” stuff
            • Talk by Justin Rosenstein (Asana)
              • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UBKsjGZjghc
              • Board meetings
                • At board meetings, they occationally bring in outsiders to “enjoy the process”
                • Take “copious notes” and send them to the company.
              • Weekly planning meetings
                • Business heads
                • Doesn’t share salaries, some HR meetings
                • Take “copious notes”, send them out to the company.
                • “Sometimes participate in dialogue”
                • It “brings trust” that they are making the correct decisions.
              • “People are empowered with enough knowledge that they don’t have to be micromanaged.”
              • Provide people with “context about how things work” rather than “controlling what they do”.
              • Company of Peers”
                • Roadmap week
                  • After each episode (quarter)
                  • One week of meetings each day, in committees.
                  • Results in less normal meetings.
                  • Meetings on “mobile” , “Values”, “how to expand design team”, etc.
                  • The committees put together the plans, generally are acted upon without overrides from executives.
        • Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radical_transparency
      • Open Business
        • “an approach to enterprise that draws on ideas from openness movements like free software, open source, open content and open tools and standards. The approach places value on transparency, stakeholder inclusion, and accountability.” - wikipedia
        • The wikipedia page got me really excited, then I realized there were no real references.
        • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_business

Blog Efficiency

It took me 8 +- 3 hours to write this, plus another 30 minutes to post it here.

You Are Your Purpose

Working to Give vs. Working to Improve

The de facto wisdom within the Effective Altruist community seems to be that the good that most people pursuing Earning to Give comes primarily by their donations, rather than the work that produced those donations.

For instance, take a finance professional earning and donated 30% of his/her income. This may be approximately $30,000 per year, and it’s very easy to understand how this money improves the world if spent wisely. At a lower bound (for those who believe in even more important causes), this money would directly fund malaria nets via the AMF, saving approximately 15 lives and preventing more sicknesses. It’s much more difficult to estimate the impact of the more direct labor that the professional provides via their work in finance. However, given the magnitude of the benefit from the donation, it generally been been assumed that the direct work is significantly less useful to society.

Still, I hear some claims that “Working to Give” in conventional fields like finance or software development (as opposed to unconventional fields like meta-research) may be as impactful or more-so than “Working to Give.” The primary example that comes to mind is Holden, Exective Director of Givewell, who has stated,

Claim #1: Some careers provide many (10-10,000x) times the work benefit as others. Claim #2: If some “decent” careers are approximately as useful as donations to the AMF, then “amazing” careers must be substantially better still. Claim #3: If “Working to Give” were more impactful than “Earning to Give”, then donations to work education may be substantially more important than ones to existing Givewell approved charities. Claim #4: For most software engineers, “Earning to Give” is much more useful than “Working to Give”.

Claim 1

Consider the following careers. How much value or utility to you think each one of them produces to the world through their work?

  • A high-frequency trader
  • A pornography website host / web engineer
  • A Farmville advertising engineer
  • A LinkedIn email marketing automater.
  • A software engineer at Google
  • A software engineer at Google.org (their ‘do-good’ division)
  • The Wikipedia software team

I’m going to guess that almost everyone would agree that at least one or two of these provide negligible or negative world value. There seem to be zero-sum markets where benefits to one firm directly result in less profit to another, like high-frequency trading. In other markets, web companies definitely do things that aren’t in the benefit of most people. For example, I bet that most spam emails are a net negative for society, and yet web companies have entire departments set around spreading these.

On the other hand, there have been some software projects that definitely have been quite useful. Wikipedia comes across as one that started out with a tiny team but produced what seems to be lots of value. So did Wikileaks. Peter Singer recently mentioned that he considers that work for internet services in developing countries could provide huge returns. So there have been software engineers / hackers who have provided lots of utility (though the amount is unclear), and others in different fields who have likely produced very little.

Perhaps more obvious is the fact that most other fields seem to have power laws when describing the amount of world benefit provided. We know that in the charity sector some charities are at least 10-1000x as efficient at others at converting money into utility. With individual researchers this seems to be the case, with entire research fields it seems to be the case. The 80/20 principal appears incredibly common, and it would be very surprising to me if it didn’t exist in terms of the benefits in different jobs. Therefore it seems very likely that different careers would provide expected output utility of different orders of magnitude.

Claim 2

If it’s true that average employees or software engineers produce more value in their work than in their donations(if spent optimally), it seems like careers that produce results 10-100x as high would make the AMF donations inconsequential in comparison. This would appear to just be common sense if one assumes a Power Law.

Claim 3

If it’s true that for people who choose “efficient careers”, they will produce 10-100x as much value from their work than their donations, then what’s by far the most important is that they maximize their work rather than that they maximize their donations. If this is true, we should be doing much more of the following.

1: Personal Education & Training to Insane Levels

Personal coaches and tons of investment in self promotion would be in order, to very high amounts.

$80,000 per year, $20,000 donated per year.

20x as efficient as donation, so that’s effectively $400,000 of world productive value per year.

A 5% improvement in productivity would be worth %20,000. My guess is that $20,000 of money spent on personal efficiency could go much further than increase productivity by 5%. $20,000 per year would be about $1.7k per month. This could buy you several monthly coaching sessions, food and all home issues dealt with by fancy personal assistants, home cleaning etc.

Much of this would be to work as much as possible to produce as much output as possible. Weekends and long nights as much as one doesn’t burn out or could sustain.

2: Very high investment in one’s happiness

as sa fas sf asa as aasd

2: Investment in education of others.

Claim 4 So my guess is that anything matters. It also includes that nothing is really what it would seem otherwi

Creating a Text Shorthand for Uncertainty

Most things I discuss are highly uncertain, but it can be really confusing and wordy to state that uncertainty in writing. In this last sentence for example I felt the need to write “I find” to point out uncertainty, for example.

First, people are really bad at agreeing on probabilities. So if I say something is “very certain”, that could mean 80% chance to me and 95% chance to you. This is rigorously explained in the Failure of Risk Management (by the same author from How to Measure Anything), where it is explained further to say that this is especially true of risk managers.

Second, there aren’t too many words to use to indicate uncertainty. I find that I need to repeat the same ones over and over again. And when they are used, these words can be quite wordy and confusing.

  • I think that
  • In my opinion
  • It makes sense that
  • There aren’t too many things
  • Perhaps,

Several years ago some people made the language E-Prime in large part to make this uncertainty crystal clear.
> E-Prime (short for English-Prime, sometimes denoted É or E′) is a prescriptive version of the English language that excludes all forms of the verb to be. E-Prime does not allow the conjugations of to be—be, am, is, are, was, were, been, being— the archaic forms of to be (e.g. art, wast, wert), or the contractions of to be—’s, ‘m, ‘re (e.g. I’m, he’s, she’s, they’re).
Some scholars advocate using E-Prime as a device to clarify thinking and strengthen writing.[1] For example, the sentence “the film was good” could not be expressed under the rules of E-Prime, and the speaker might instead say “I liked the film” or “the film made me laugh”. The E-Prime versions communicate the speaker’s experience rather than judgment, making it harder for the writer or reader to confuse opinion with fact.

While I do intend to look more into E-prime, it seems like a bit much to use on a regular level.

A Possible (Written) Solution

I propose that we instead use a symbol at the end of our sentences or propositions to indicate uncertainty.

Choosing the Levels

A scale would have to be created of course in order to indicate what these levels are. My guess is that the optimal (for usefulness, popularity, and accuracy) amount of levels would be around 5-10, especially because we aren’t very good at accessing probability.

Here’s one example that makes sense to me:
0. ~50% 1. ~65% 2. ~80% 3. ~90% 4. ~95% 5. ~99.9%

In cases where something is unlikely, this would just work the opposite way (50% to 0.01%).

Choosing a Symbol

I think that any representation of certainty would have to be achievable with ASCII characters, if not the English keyboard. Here are some possibilities. Each is shown to be representative for a level of 4/5, according to a scale similar to what is shown above.

Non-Numeric forms

  • The universe is expanding.’’’’
  • The universe is expanding.““
  • The universe is expanding.`
  • The universe is expanding. ····

Numeric Forms

  • The universe is expanding. `4
  • The universe is expanding.4*
  • The universe is expanding (~4).
  • The universe is expanding (c~4).
  • The universe is expanding (c4).
  • The universe is expanding ~c4.
  • The universe is expanding (?4).

My personal favorite at this point is to have a number with the tilda sign “~”, with a symbol for indication (like the “c” or “?”). The dashes are be difficult to read and more confusing to newcomers (c3).

Different Kinds of Uncertainty

So far we’ve assumed that the definition of ‘uncertainty’ is relatively clear, but sometimes there are different definitions of uncertainty.

For instance, there’s the certainty of “the existing scientific literature strongly agrees that evolution is true”, and the certainty of “I personally am very certain that the Paleo diet is good, even though others might disagree.”

These could be indicated by different symbols. This would require a small dictionary of symbols/standards, but this may not be very unreasonable.

Say we use ‘c’ to indicate ‘consensus’ and ‘i’ to indicate ‘personal intuition’, and ‘r’ to indicate ‘personal research/rationality’. Not all of these would need to be used in every instance, only the ones that are instantially relevant.

Some statements could be as follows:

  • The universe is expanding ~c5.
  • I’m not likely to do well in finance ~i4c1r2.
  • Polyphasic sleep has a lot of potential ~r4c1.
  • I was a poor math student ~i4r2 in high school, but have learned a lot ~i3r2 since then.

Of course, we’d need a definition for this, which is effectively a standard. For now I’ll call it “Uncertainty Notation V0.1” I’ll try it out in future posts as an experiment. HTML Codes Reference

Blog Statistics

I believe that this blog post took me approximately 4-7 hours to write, plus another 2-10 hours to discuss / brainstorm on. Of course, much of that resulted in other thoughts that have not yet been put into this post.

hi

Fighting the Shadow Zone

Lesson #1: Expect people to lie to you, and be ok with it.

Everyone rationalizes things. It seems to be our default decision process. If your friends and loved ones seem to be lieing about their reasons for things, it may simply mean that they are human. It’s quite possible that they don’t even realize it.

Rather than fighting each one of the thousand-headed beast of renewable arguments, its seems best to either let the decision be or to bring discussion to humanity’s faulty decision creation modes.

Lesson #2: “Because I feel like it” is often the correct answer.

It’s often the truth, and making up reasons for things could sometimes be counter-productive, especially when you’re not sure those reasons exist. Intuitions can be incredibly good, especially in disciplines of tight feedback in areas that one has practice in. This is discussed thoroughly in the book How We Decide.

Lesson #3: Get Better at Rationality

My Blog Statistics

Google Analytics has some useful information. Blog Overview

Posts Overview Post Overview

Blog Feedback

Costs

Time

Cost Benefit Ratios

Should Others Blog More?

hi

Formalizing Transparency

Introduction / Why I Wrote This

The charity sector has made a big deal out of ‘transparency’ recently. Here at 80,000 Hours (I work there now) there’s a lot of talk about how we and similar organizations could become more ‘transparent’. One discussed aim is to be more ‘transparent’ than Givewell, which in general is the gold standard of ‘transparency’ within the small field.

I’ve had discussions with many people who had many ideas on this topic. Eventually it dawned on me that I had little idea of what ‘transparency’ even meant. On further reflection, I don’t think many of these people did either. Some organizations have quantized transparency indexes into rubrics (see that for the World Bank, for example), but it wasn’t obvious what the rubrics were trying to estimate. I desired an ideal quantification of transparency that can be approximated in rubrics, rather than rubrics that match a general intuitive understanding of transparency.

I should also be clear that I am extremely demanding in what I want in definitions. I’m an engineer by training, I want to work with things I can quantify and model in the same ways I do Force and Velocity. Important ideas considered currently ‘soft’ or non-technical feel like challenges to define better. I realize that actual measurements may be extremely difficult, but this doesn’t mean that we can’t make estimates of substantial value. This definition attempt is me attempting to take my intuitive understanding of this word ‘transparency’ and match it to something technical and clear.

I don’t claim to have solved this problem, but I believe I’ve taken a few interesting steps. Hopefully we will eventually create a transparency rubric for effective altruist organizations, and I now have a much better understanding to begin with.

Definition

Quite simply, I am currently using the working model that transparency is defined as, > The total expected value of information delivered by a system, about itself.

I believe this definition is intuitive and almost quantifiable. The use of this definition should lead to more clarity regarding the term.

While I believe that this definition almost captures the ‘essence’ of what we mean as ‘transparency’, I also believe that a thorough evaluation of this essence leads to several facts that may be quite unintuitive.

#1: Information quality and accessibility are more important than quantity.

A few thought experiments

1. Reverend Robert Shields had a diary of 37.5 million words. The following is an example: > > * April 18, 1994
> * 6:30-6:35: I put in the oven two Stouffer’s macaroni and cheese at 350°. > * 6:35-6:50: I was at the keyboard of the IBM Wheelwriter making entries for the diary. > * 6.50-7.30: I ate the Stouffer’s macaroni and cheese and Cornelia ate the other one. Grace decided she didn’t want one. > * 7.30-7.35: We changed the light over the back stoop since the bulb had burnt out.

Every detail of Roberts’ thoughts seems to be burried within this text. Does this make him completely transparent? Would this change depending on the format (physical book, online pdf, online spreadsheet)?

Compare that to Stephen King who published On Writing, a rather short (320 page) autobiography and set of lessons he learned through that time. Would Stephen King have been more transparent had he instead wrote down his life information minute by minute?

2. Say there were a ‘perfect’ and ‘perfectly trusted’ being who evaluated nonprofits. They would rate them a ‘1’ if the nonprofit was the “best” nonprofit, and a ‘0’ otherwise. Rather than having any mention of what they do, many nonprofits decide to only display this number on their website (it would be a very simple website, perhaps with a url chosen to obfuscate their cause, like charity34234235.com). Are these charities being transparent to those trying to find the “best” charity? Could they possibly be more so?

My Take

‘Transparency’ is only loosely associated with the amount of information available. It doesn’t matter how much information is available if it’s useless, and extra information could easily lead to obfuscation of what matters.

When asking for a important organization details about different charities, I hear a lot of “Oh, we mentioned in the middle of a blog post a few months ago.” The conversation typically ends there. But on reflection, this information being difficult to find may be much more important than the fact that it exists somewhere. The vast majority of people who may be interested in it will never access it. I’m fortunate to be in a place where I can physically speak to many of the knowledge experts. Most people aren’t.

#2: Transparency is typically relative to a specific purpose.

If a charity had complete financial records of absolutely all expenses and revenues, would it make it completely transparent? What if it had this material presented cleanly with pretty graphs and signatures from several top accountants who have thoroughly reviewed it and are willing to cite it as clean and it’s filed taxes as completely legal?

This is a bad question because “transparency” isn’t well defined. This organization may have amazing financial transparency, or transparency for the purpose of understanding if it is partaking in sketchy or illegal accounting practices. But this is clearly a different kind of accountability than most potential donors would hope for. Many registered charities are required by law to have their main finances accessible on their websites, but this does not make them incredibly transparent. Most people would have little idea or interest to read such documents.

It’s obvious that there are different “types” or transparency, but I’ll clarify that to say there are different “purposes” for transparency to provide. There’s the “purpose” of transparency to understand if a nonprofit is committing financial fraud. There’s the “purpose” of transparency to understand if a nonprofit is effective vs. other nonprofits when it comes to cause-neutral returns, or local town benefits, or social status improvements.

There’s just no such thing as an organization being objectively “transparent”. “Transparency” only exists in relation to a specific purpose.

Going further, it seems like what we think of as “transparency” can be narrowed down to something similar to the value of information for specific decisions.

Separating ‘Global’ Transparency from ‘Local’ Transparency

While transparency typically refers to specific purposes, this doesn’t mean that the total amount of transparency that an organization is unbounded with an infinite number of possible purposes. Rather I assume that there are probably a few purposes that could bring the substantial majority of benefit. For instance, a 1-year old child’s communications would provide informational of tremendous value to their own health and their parent’s wellbeing. These could also be used to provide interesting data in larger studies, but the value from one individual baby on these may be much less in comparison. It could also provide moderate interest to a person considering later having a child, but this would be considerably less value potential still.

So a ‘total transparency’ score may be able to be estimated based on the sums of the values from each type of transparency. This adds complexity because it would seem to demand information about the decision maker categories in relation to each other. Of course, these can be simplified a lot by just choosing the top three categories and having a basic ranking among them.

This definition is not too different than the typical intuitive one. A banking organization would be seen as transparent primarily if it provides useful information that the government is looking for, and this information value is likely far more than that of most other domains.

#3: Transparency includes marketing and branding.

I’ve heard a lot of business and nonprofit pitches. They are almost universally completely positive about themselves.

The “business pitch” is exactly the antithesis of a “transparency report” or “self-evaluation” of any kind. Clearly, prospective donors would get more “value of information” from a completely unbiased and honest opinion than a sales pitch. But should we judge these pitches when analyzing an organization’s ‘transparency’? Or should “marketing materials” be held exempt from any ‘transparency’ analyses?

My uncomfortable answer is no. Good business pitches are bad transparency. It’s a sacrifice that we seem to be willing to endure, perhaps that we should. If this means that essentially no organization can be completely transparent, then so be it.

#4: Negative transparency is possible and common.

If transparency is related to the value of information provided, then 0 transparency would mean 0 information. There is definitely information that is worse than 0 information, especially to regular people (as opposed to rational super-beings).

A simple example is smoking. Someone goes to a website to learn information about smoking, and the website claims authority while selectively providing evidence for smoking. The information to the reader results in a higher likelihood of making a worse decision, so this information would have substantially negative value.

Likewise, if a nonprofit could use a terrible argument to convince an otherwise unbiased individual to donate to a worse cause then they would have otherwise (“wow, apparently visits to local prisons has been shown to scare select children from committing crimes!”), then that information has provided them with negative value.

#5: Internal transparency is often more important than external transparency

#6: Transparency should be judged as a comparison to optimality rather than as an absolute value.

So far I’ve stated that transparency relates to the value of information provided by an system. Yet, large organizations can easily provide extra informational value through their scale as opposed to anything we would associate with transparent efforts. It seems intuitive that small groups should have a “fair playing ground” in comparison.

I think that as opposed to thinking of transparency as directly relating to the absolute value of information provided, it makes more sense to think of it in an ‘percentage of optimal’ sense than a ‘total benefit’ one. This way when we say an organization is doing a ‘good job’ being ‘transparent’, it will always mean that they’re doing relatively well given what they are capable of.

A percentage of optimality seems a bit depressing as I’m sure that ‘optimal information value’ would be orders of magnitude higher than what most, if any, organizations currently provide. So perhaps rather than being compared to optimality, organizations can and should be compared to a bar significantly lower and more realistic. Perhaps different standards should created with top bars at different amounts of optimality. For instance, most existing transparency rubrics that I’m aware of probably are quite far from ‘optimal’, but still are quite useful and likely would correlate decently well with my working definition of transparency.

It should also be noted that because of diminishing marginal returns, reaching completely ‘optimal’ transparency, or anything like it, would likely reduce the efficiency of an organization towards its main goal. Or, an organization seeking anything other than to maximize transparency will not and should not get near optimizing transparency. Rather they should see that initially high benefits of transparency are worth some reasoned level of effort and achievement.

Cost Benefit Analysis of Blogging

Recently I’ve written a short stream of short posts. They take quite a while (2-8 Pomodoros each), so I’ve been trying to figure out how useful they really are. Here are some costs and benefits I’ve come up with. I realize that typically only a few will carry the vast majority of the importance (see the Pareto Principle) so have indicated my impressions of the importance of each one.

Benefits

  • Idea Dissemination (Important)
    Take my ideas from inside my head and provide them for the world! The obvious reason for blogging. Can be somewhat measured by tracking visitors, reading comments, and talking to readers.

  • Online Credibility (Important)
    I find that reading someone’s blog is one of the best ways to know them, particularly if they are an introvert. Blogging is a good way to show others that you’re generally thoughtful and intelligent.

  • Experience Writing (Slightly Important)
    Writing is a useful skill to have, and practice makes one better. With blogs there is some feedback as well as a clear incentive to improve. Blog writing seems quite similar to book writing and report writing, which are two fields that a lot of important people seem to need.
    I could probably improve this a lot by focussing in on each of the following.
    • Quality
      If I’m spending 4 hours writing a post, it may make sense to spend $5-$20 (oDesk perhaps) on an editor, mainly for the feedback to improve it. This may also take another 1-3 hours per post. I assume I could measure quality improvement by going back to my old essays and seeing if they are obviously worse. If not, perhaps I haven’t improved.
    • Speed
      Recently I have been measuring the number of Pomodoros my writing has taken me. I’ll try to post future numbers along with future posts.
  • Idea Generation (Very Important)
    Writing blog posts forces me to lay out my ideas and ideate on them enough to produce something somewhat coherent. This may be the most valuable aspect, now that I reflect on this. My reports/longer posts have forced me to do analysis and reference external materials.
    I imagine I could measure this a bit by looking back and judging how much of my current thought process is directly because of research from my previous blog posts. This may be quite considerable.
  • Personal Reference (Very Slightly Important)
    I would like to keep track of what I know. I could somewhat measure this by keeping track of how often I actually go back to read previous material. So far the answer is not often for the vast majority, but occationally for the most important papers. Much of the reference seems only useful so far as for me to see if I’m improving as a writer, for reasons mentioned above.

Costs

  • Time to Write (Opportunity Cost) (Important)
    My work flow with Octopress is somewhat complicated, and as of now it takes me at least 2 Pomodoros (one hour of intense concentration) to write a small post. My previous on on the Epistemologies of Effective Altruist Groups took me a good 4-6 hours to write, effectively the most productive part of my Saturday. I stopped tracking Pomodoros for a while as I started grinding (this is normally a bad idea in my experience). This definitely was far more than I was expecting and I could have gotten a lot of work done for 80,000 Hours in that time.
    I estimate that so far my blog (this specific one, not my old one) has taken me about 20 hours to set up and about 15 hours to write on (around 7 posts in that time). If my time is worth $50 an hour, that means that this cost me almost $2k so far. I’m currently very low on money so this is a lot to me.

  • Time to Socialize (Opportunity Cost) (Important)
    I split this up for transparency and because it’s not very obvious. I find that so far for each blog post I write, I tend to spend at least 30 minutes to 2 hours checking & replying to comments, seeing Facebook likes, and looking at Google Analytics. I could reduce this with discipline. One reason why I’m worried about changing to LessWrong is that I may spend a lot of time replying to comments there (it would seem rude not to).

  • Attention (Not Very Important)
    When I’ve been blogging I’ve noticed that I’ve thought a lot about new topics. This attention is incredibly hard to quantify. I expect it isn’t too important to consider here, because these seem like good things for me to come up with anyway.

What Do You Think?

Do any of you have input in the order and/or importance of these costs and benefits? Ideally we could eventually put together a Fermi estimate, but some of these are really difficult to estimate.


Blog Efficiency

This post took me approximately 3.5 Pomodoros to write and publish While writing it I started 2 other blog posts which I would like to soon finish (one of which took another 0.5 Pomodoros). This post is around 900 words, so this results in around 250 words per Pomodoro, or 10 words per minute.) One of these new blog posts includes details on my existing blog traffic to provide insight to some of the above. I would love to write a rigorous analysis of each, but it would take quite a long time.

Epistemology as the Ultimate Deus Ex Machina

Superhero: “Good job mate, another successful victory.”
Sidekick: “But didn’t a fire just kill everyone we were trying to save?”
Superhero: “True, but I’ve improved my epistemology and now consider this to be a win condition. Think of the animals that can flourish in the lack of human intervention.”

One problem that plagues the existing Effective Altruism movement is a strange kaleidoscope of epistemic standards. It comes out that the “most effective ways to improve the world” is a surprisingly (to me at least) controversial discipline, even within utilitarianism.

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Navigating the Epistemologies of Effective Altruism

A few months ago I was with several members of the effective altruism community on a video chat about how to compare different effective altruism groups. Someone recommended that we try to have a meta-evaluation to rank them, but on some further discussion it became apparent that that would be incredibly difficult to do.

The different organizations just don’t have the same goals as each other. Many were “effective” within their own standard of epistemology, but not in those of the others. So comparing them was more about comparing general epistemologies then doing direct comparisons of the organizations themselves.

Here is my current attempt at making some sense of the “main” effective altruist groups, based on their disagreements on epistemology.

Charity Evaluators

It makes sense to begin with Givewell, because they seem to be the first and most recognized group within Effective Altruism. Upon launch in 2007 they promoted the idea that charities could be evaluated on the efficiency of money put in to the amount of “good” outputted. This was backed up with research by the GiveWell team to identify and recognize the “most efficient” charities. This made a lot of sense to many smart people, but soon things became quite complicated as groups also trying to “do the most good” within charity evaluation emerged to somewhat compete with them.

GiveWell is reluctant to investigate animal welfare charities, seemingly because its founders value animals substantially less than humans. Other people have decided that animals are worth more in respect to humans than Givewell has indicated, and some of these have set up a “GiveWell for Animals”, or Effective Animal Activism. Aidgrade was established a semi-Givewell competitor and disagrees with them about the proper methods to do charity evaluations.

Effective Altruism Funders

Then come the more somewhat high-risk meta-charities that promote giving to Effective Altruist groups, like Giving What We Can, The Life You Can Save, and 80,000 Hours. These groups are really interesting to me because on paper what they’re doing seems to be working (Giving What We Can has estimated to be able to encourage the giving of around $8 for every $1 donated to them, for instance).

Yet from what I understand, GiveWell refuses to recommend any of these as top charities. My impression is that GiveWell finds it highly unlikely that any of these organizations are as effective as their recommended charities. Of course, many of these organizations exist on the assumption that they are. This area seems particularly awkward as all of these meta-charities promote GiveWell publicly, leading to several interviews. I imagine that it’s better off for everyone that Givewell and CEA appear as close friends, yet internally it seems like there’s a bit of tension over this stark disagreement on the need for CEA’s existence. This disagreement is somewhat showcased in the comments here.

Also of note here is Effective Fundraising. This group is directly writing grants for both the AMF (GiveWell’s top choice) and the Humane League (Effective Animal Activism’s top choice). They’ve discussed why they split between them here. 80,000 Hours and CEA have interviewed them and written a blog post with a very nice name and slightly less praising contents. There’s a bit of back and forth between them in the comments, which I referred to earlier.

AI Risk and Far Future Researchers

Going further, when coming to the topic of AI risk, things get much more confusing. Organizations like MIRI and FHI claim that AI risk and other existential risks are by far the most important causes. Holden of Givewell wrote a very long critique here, which there’s since been quite a bit of debate about. I suspect that incredibly few people actually have a deep understanding of the efficiencies or even importance of donating to prevent AI risk, and it is quite apparent that most donating will have to go with either a gut feeling or choose based on which social group they trust more.

Brian Tomasik has been a very interesting and rather independent thinker within the movement, known for his series of Utilitarian Essays. Even more than animal causes, he has numbers to recommend donating for insect causes that make it seem like a fantastic area for efficient intervention. The main argument I’ve heard from others against insect causes is that they seem intuitively silly, not that they aren’t actually effective.

Recently Brian has made his own research institute called FRI to focus on long term suffering reduction. Sure enough it’s his number 1 recommended charity, but more surprisingly to me is that the number 2 isn’t another similar far-future venture like MIRI or FHI, but instead Animal Ethics. I suppose he’s both very concerned with the far future, but not very concerned with AI risk (the main reason he wouldn’t recommend MIRI or FHI).

Another organization that comes to my mind is Leverage Research. I’m not sure what category to put them in because they seem to be trying to do a bit of everything. However, I would point out that they appear to be the polar opposites of GiveWell regarding to belief in transparency, with all of the other organizations mentioned above are somewhat in between (with the possible exception of Effective Fundraising). My belief is that their expected method of doing the most good involves having a few smart people spend several years thinking about “big issues”, without much care for outsider input (you’ll notice a lack of much information on their website). These research topics seem to be more psychological and social than AI-risk, from what I understand. Most other EA organizations seem very skeptical of their research posted so far, mainly Connection Theory. However, a few people within Leverage run Think!, and they have created the Effective Altruist Summit, which has gotten good reviews.

Future Organizations

I really hope that the issue of correct epistemology gets resolved and more of these organizations can at least agree on some standard ways of Effective Altruist Organization evaluation. But it seems unlikely to happen anytime soon.

The current trend from my point of view seems to be that every other new prominent Effective Altruist thinker will create a new organization to match another unique epistemology. I really hope that we don’t get stuck with 20 different Charity Evaluators of slightly differing standards and 50 funding groups that randomly give to selections from those different evaluators, and another 10 Far Future groups that will emphasize slightly different things because of unique epistemological reasons. But given the fact that there is so much disagreement within what seems like such a small and intelligent group already, I could definitely see things going this way.

Granted, this still is a lot better than what is the global cultural norm right now. I would expect that most of the groups above average are far more useful than the global human average. But the global norm is pathetically low, so that shouldn’t be considered too important. Within these groups, I’d expect that many consider order of magnitude differences between them, so internal fragmentation may cause quite a bit of damage. And it’s definitely confusing as anything to a newcomer who just wants to be an “Efficient Altruist”.

Personal Bias

I should point out that I know people from most of the organizations mentioned, so probably am quite biased. I am presently working at 80,000 Hours, which is based in the same office as Giving What we Can, The Center For Effective Altruism, and The Future of Humanity Institute. Recently I applied to and was rejected from working at Leverage Research.

Blog Efficiency

This post took me about 5 hours to write. I ended up splitting my thoughts into two posts (leaving the rest for one more to come shortly). I’ve tracked 4 Pomodoros in this time, but then I just kept on working for a few hours without tracking. I originally intended for this to be about 2 Pomodoros, but this was for a small comment about “Epistemology as a Deus Ex Machina” rather than a small EA Org overview.

My guess is that I’ll dedicate at least another hour or two to checking stats of readership for this post and/or reading/responding to comments.

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Effective Altruism Is Open Territory

Academic disciplines sometimes start with bangs. A few initial ideas lead to a flurry of innovation which lasts until the field is either split off into sub disciplines (psychology, cybernetics), or becomes mostly irrelevant.

I think that Effective Altruism may be an academic discipline waiting to emerge. It seems like there are some incredibly fundamental problems in the field that have barely had any thought put into them. This includes questions like should donations happen now vs. later, or what flow-through effects are like, or understanding if the average software engineer creates more value writing software or donating their salary.

Once some headway is made, questions like these could lead to much larger fields. Judging on the history of science, the discoverers will be remembered, even if many of their insights were inevitable. From a fame and perceived influence perspective, Effective Altruism seems like a good field to study.

Who will do the research?

The ironic thing is that most people able to research Effective Altruism seem to be choosing against it because it itself may not be effective to research. Many of the most prominent EA bloggers have other careers and only think and write on this in their spare time. I think that researching Effective Altruism itself has barely been considered to be an Effective Altruist career possibility at all within the movement, unless its directly related to the efforts of a specific organization like Givewell or 80,000 Hours. It seems quite possible that even within this open territory, incredibly little progress will be made any time soon.

Another possibility is that some non-effective altruists would study Effective Altruism. Perhaps counter-factually this may a rather nice outcome, though the discipline figureheads would all be very strange representatives. While this could be interesting, it seems exceedingly unlikely, as it would be expected to be difficult to research something one doesn’t believe in. However, given the amazing flexibility it seems like we’ve seen in adherence to strict optimization within the community, I’m sure there will be a few members to compromise, even if the math doesn’t work out.

When will Effective Altruism Research be Effective?

The success of Effective Altruism research will very much depend on the acceptance of Effective Altruism among people making important decisions (either lots of people making minor decisions or a few people making very important ones). If this doesn’t happen, even a perfect model of how to optimize one’s life for humanity wouldn’t have any non-academic weight.

So perhaps much research into this field is a gamble in the future public interest in it, as there’s definitely not much now. My guess is that if the movement starts becoming significantly more popular, researchers will begin flooding in realizing the sense of the opportunity. Of course, it may be much more difficult for the movement to become much more popular without significant research on its side. Right now organizations like 80,000 Hours are making recommendations, but detractors are somewhat right when they point out that 80,000 Hours doesn’t have much evidence or research to advice with.

In this system, the current default of employed people doing this in their free time may be a good idea for now. If we have a lot of hobbyists figuring out the basics and promoting them, it may only be a matter of time until the snowball rolls far enough for people to get serious about the discipline. When they do, I suspect things will get very interesting.

Should More Effective Altruist Organizations Fail?

Y Combinator is about the most successful business incubator to date. It’s hatched 37 companies with worth or sold for over $40 million in its’ few years of life, and has an acceptance rate of less than 6%. However, almost all of these companies fail. As Business Insider points out,“93% of the companies that get accepted by Y Combinator eventually fail”.

Though this is agnowledged as an unfortunate hurdle, it’s also widely believed that quite a bit of business failure is healthy to markets. Poor ideas and implementations get weeded out for better ones, and in the end the winners typically are quite a bit better than average. International capitalism is very harsh but results in quality products.

It would seem to me like the bar for Effective Altruist organizations is significantly higher in many ways than for these businesses. That is not because it’s difficult to fundraise, but because it’s difficult to be effective.

I want to clarify on the demands of an organization that itself is “Effective” in the “Effective Altruist” sense. An “effective” organization here is one where the world is better off with it in existance than if the counterfactual resources required were used for the “next” best utilitarian cause. A lower bound for this should be if all of the organizational employees earned to give in their highest paying jobs possible, and all of the resulting money, with that from organizational donors, would go to the AMF instead.

So for example, if a 5-person division receiving $100,000 per year were “effective”, it would mean that it is doing more good than if all 5 people would have instead gone to work and donated that money (say $20,000 each per person per year), plus that $100,000 all would have gone to save the AMF. This is a really tough requirement given the efficiency of the AMF, but is what some of these groups claim.

Creating a charity or finding any cause more efficient than the Against Malaria Foundation is just incredibly difficult. I’m quite sure that when the AMF was starting it couldn’t have expected to reach the efficiencies and successes that it had. One reason for this is that Givewell gets to cherry pick the most efficient outcomes rather than the best plans, and it seems like these would fall on the end of the gaussian curve of luck as well as skill.

This isn’t to say that it’s a poor idea to create an Effective Altruist organization, in the same way that it’s not a particularly poor idea to create a business knowing the poor success rates. It may be with the right idea you can expect a reasonable expected value, even given the chance of failure.

What it does mean is that I would expect that organizations attempting Effective Altruism should be failing. I’m not sure how many, but 90% wouldn’t intuitively seem unreasonable to me given that’s the bar for what I would assume an easier goal (business success as a Y-Combinator acceptee).

But looking back, have any failed? Have any groups in this area really admitted failure after looking at some difficult metrics?

Some possible groups in this area that may be “Effective Altruist” that come to my mind are:

  • Givewell
  • The Future of Humanity Institute
  • Effective Animal Altruism
  • Effective Fundraising
  • Aidgrade
  • 80,000 Hours
  • Giving What We Can
  • The Life You Can Save
  • The Machine Intelligence Research Institute
  • The Center for Applied Rationality
  • Leverage Research
  • Think! Network

One alternative may be to imagine that we are in a gold rush where there is so much unexplored area in this domain that almost each new venture succeeds. If this were true I would think that there should be a lot new EA organizations until this stops being the case.

Another alternative explanation is that many of these groups aren’t actually “Effective” in the “Effective Altruist” sense, and don’t care to be. Or that there are so many definitions of “Effective Altruist” that each organization gets to pick their own specific one.

My Productivity Failure Loop

I’ve tried structured methods (Getting Things Done, Task Management Systems, the Kanban Method, Polyphasic Sleep, Pomodoro) several times and almost each time so far has ended in abysmal failure.

It’s surprisingly alarming because each time I seem to go through the same exact pattern.

  1. Read a small bit about a project management method, become intrigued.
  2. Start using it to it’s most basic extent.
  3. Enjoy the gains, but desire to become much better.
  4. Read extensively on it and try to go substantially further.
  5. Get tired of the increased structure workload and give up completely.
  6. Be satisfied with the new productivity gains from having no structure.
  7. Feel too incompetent to attempt other management tools in the near future.

This is a terrible failure mode and I’m trying my best to not keep on this cycle of spaced mediocrity.

Possible Solutions

The only ways out of this that I can tell are:

  1. Maintain one basic state of management for an extended period (30 days) before reaching any further.
  2. Forcing myself to retreat to a previous position rather than give up completely, post wear-out.

Right now I’ve chosen option 2, because option 1 seems far too slow.

Existing Dilemma

Last week I’ve started working on Pomodoros and sure enough, my system quickly got out of hand. I started with an online tracker, then extended that to a printed page, then extended that to two printed pages (one to manage tasks and the other to manage time), and then stopped completely over the weekend.

Now I’m trying again, but with just one page and the time tracker app. I’ll pre-commit here for more public pressure, and let people know once I hit 30 days.

My Pomodoro Structure

Recently I’ve been getting back into the Pomodoro Technique. It was fun at first, then got to be to much, then I stopped, now I’m trying to continue at a basic level.

I started with Tomatoes, a mac application that was highly recommended and seemed to do the most important Pomodoro necessities.

I quickly found that I wanted to write notes on my actions, and the application didn’t have any simple way of doing this. I also wanted to see if I could add other useful info, so I designed a Pomodoro sheet and started using it.

While I’m all for web applications, paper is often far more flexible. I could imagine that there is the potential for web applications to truly be flexible. This is not yet the case, and not even being able to add simple fields (notes, emotional level, etc.) to Pomodoros makes me feel like existing tools are quite inadequate. Perhaps I’ll eventually attempt my own software solution, but for now I wanted to experiment with what works for me on paper.

Pomodoro Rule Sheet

A day later after creating the first page, I realized that this sheet still didn’t give a good breakdown on what I was doing throughout the day. Sadly the App doesn’t provide information into this either.

To compensate I made another page for myself to scribble notes on about my workload. The segments that are shaded are the ones where I did actual Pomodoros. I have used big numbers (low ones between 1-7) to indicate which specific Pomodoro activities I was working on (labeled by number on the first sheet).

This particularly felt frustrating because I do have lots of information online with time stamps. This includes git commits, documents, and my work log on Hipchat. Unfortunately I haven’t found any way of combining this data to understand how I spend my time. This is some of what I am hoping to eventually achieve with Feedhaven, assuming no one else makes something satisfactory first.

Pomodoro Time Sheet

The idea was to have both of these sheets side by side. One big issue with this was that my desk isn’t really big enough to hold on to the folder. This, given the fact that I was using a small binder which was clearly not designed for looking at both sides of a page, made it very difficult to actually use this system in a practical sense. It feels strange in retrospect, but my work flow was limited by the length of my working desk.

I did this for two days, then found that I lacked all will to continue with the entire system during the weekend.

Office Setup

Below is a summary of an approximation of the Pomodoros I have done each day. Note that over the last weekend (the 16th and 17th) it fell off almost completely as I got really frustrated with the method. Now I will continue to use this mediocre software system, and will slowly wait until I feel ready to go back into a more rigorous paper-software combination again.

Tomatoes Pomodoro App Worklog

Now I’ve temporarily put the paper system on hold, but am still doing the application one. I’ll definitely re-attempt the paper version soon, but the most important thing for now is to at least keep on the Pomodoro system in general.

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Post-Decision Arguments and the Shadow Zone

Post-Decision Arguments
Definition: Arguments ideated after a decision has been reached.
Similar to: Rationalizations, Justificatations
Shadow Zone
Definition: The space of all post-decision arguments for a decision.

A: “Would you like to come to a tech talk in a few minutes?”
B: “No, I still have to eat dinner.”
A: “There will be food at the talk.”
B: “Yes, but I need to finish up some work tonight.”
A: “It’s near by and you could just check it out.”
B: “I think it will rain soon and don’t want to get wet.”
A: “I’ve checked the report and actually the clouds are just passing by”.
B: “Maybe so, but it’s been shown statistically that networking events lead to lower happiness levels”

I’m quite familiar with conversations like the one above. While most aren’t as long as this, it should be quite apparent that none of the reasons mentioned is the real decision factor. More argument would lead to more rationalizations, but when discussed in this way it would appear that the primary (and quite possibly the only) reason for not attending the event is hidden from the receiver.

This could be either an explicit lie, or an internal rationalization. Either way can be very frustrating, but I belive the second is far more common and dangerous.

I believe it’s been shown in studies (very sorry for not linking to one, I can’t seem to find it at the moment) that when people make opinions and decisions, they often make intutive judgements immiately and follow them up with long lists of logical reasons to back that up. This means that the reasons given aren’t exactly why the person believes that at all. And thus, if one were to make fantastic arguments against each, the belief wouldn’t necessarilly change.

I’ll refer to these “unimportant” arguments as post-decision arguments, to help point out that they get made after a decision has already been reached, and thus have had no role in the decision making process. Thus, any work countering a post-decision argument is only useful insofar as to get someone to admit a pre-decision argument, which often will never happen.

The scary thing is that these people have no idea that this is happening. We think we make decisions based on explicit reasons, but normally don’t do so at all. Instead we make up these strange arguments to support our instant thought processes. And then spend dozens of hours of debate on points that aren’t even decision-relevant in the first place.

This would be particularly terrible if our intuitive process worked poorly. And sometimes it does, but normally it’s able to get us through the day surprisingly well.

The best thing we can do is to recognize these areas and agnowledge them. For whatever reason, “rationalization” seems to be a very touchy and misunderstood word for this sort of thing. So rather than use “rationalization” as a word for a single argument, I prefer the term “shadow zone” as the space of all arguments made post-decision. So instead of thinking “Is that argument a rationalization or a realistic reason?” we could ask “are we in the shadow zone?”

The shadow zone is named as to imply a space that no one really understands and that everyone finds quite murkey and mysterious. Which is exactly what many of these post-decision arguments are. The fact that they weren’t used to make a decision implies that they haven’t been thought out but instead were chosen to feel satisfactory. Ideally these arguments would come with big warning! signs attached, but until the Google Glass gets that functionality we’ll have to do with clever names.

Goal Factoring: Silent Meeting Attendees

You know all of those people hanging around during a discussion while 1-3 people debate something? I think they’re likely a sign that something is wrong. Let’s look at the benefits and costs of having non-speaking entities in a meeting or discussion.

Possible Benefits:

  1. Learning from watching
    This may be improved with a video.  Unlike human discussions, videos can be sped up, skipped, and played whenever convenient.  I also suspect that there is a high correlation between participation and understanding, so I assume that many people not participating are not understanding much anyway.
  2. Possibilities of comments
    How useful have these spare comments actually been in the past, specifically those that can’t be emailed to a specific party?  Online chat systems can target questions and comments far more efficiently than meeting situations can.
  3. Support for the speakers
    If speakers just want to feel appreciated, then purchase inexpensive virtual assistants to attend in the place of useful employees.

Possible Harms (besides obvious opportunity costs):

  1. Reduction of energy
    When I’m bored I loose energy and wind up more exhausted than I would have been accomplishing useful work.  Paying half-attention and doing nothing actively reduces the quality of my life.

  2. Culture of meetings and slow time encouraged

That is all.  I encourage small meetings, and when discussions begin with a subset, either they agree to talk separately or it’s ok-ed for the others to leave.

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The Opportunity Cost of Events

For a while I’ve been considering the costs of putting together large numbers of people.  The cost scales roughly linearly, but sometimes it’s difficult to remember that.  Putting together a mediocre presentation for 3 people is almost exactly half as bad as putting together one for 6 people.  And when it’s for a few hundred, you should seriously be on top of your content. As a really simple demonstration, I’ve put together a small table.  The columns represent the hourly value of the average person in attendance.  The rows represent the number of people in attendance. The individual entries is the cost, per minute, of meeting time.

Cost Per Minute of Meeting (Based on Number of People and Value per Person per Hour)

People/ Hourly Value $50/hr $100/hr $300/hr $500/hr $1000/hr
2 $1.67 $3.33 $10.00 $16.67 $33.33
5 $4.16 $8.33 $25.00 $41.67 $83.33
10 $8.33 $16.33 $50.00 $83.33 $166.66
20 $16.67 $33.33 $100.00 $166.67 $333.33
30 $25.00 $50.33 $150.00 $250.00 $500.00

So if you have a meeting of 10 people whose time is worth $300 per hour (not salary but value), then by taking 5 minutes to set up, you are wasting $250.00 ($50.00 * 5).  A wasted 1-hour meeting of that size could have saved a kid from malaria. There are quite a few other articles on this subject.  They seem to focus on business meetings and making sure they go well.  One detail that they use that may not apply far outside is a reliance on using employee salary as a proxy for the cost of an employee’s time.  This seems like a poor metric where there is much producer surplus, as employee replaceability is not trivial and employee value is much higher than the salary (if it’s lower, they should be fired).  The fact that business articles seem to use this measure indicates that they don’t often attempt to calculate an employee’s value per hour, which seems like a larger error than not quantifying meetings. For nonprofits and small organizations this can be especially true.  For a nonprofit to be effective (in the effective altruist term), individual hourly value must be at least as much as a company salary for that person.  Else the individual could just work at a company and donate that amount to the nonprofit.  So either the hourly value is quite high, or the nonprofit is ineffective.  Startups are paid with equity with terms not incredibly correlated to their working hours, so would also have to adjust their hourly rate in a way that makes sense to the company.

Protection Measures

Burning-Money

As a bit of a dramatic action, one can imagine destroying X money every minute during a meeting, to remind people how urgent it is and make sure they don’t waste time.  Deciding the optimal amount of X is an interesting thought experiment. Imagine that a meeting is costing $500 per hour.  If destroying half of that in physical items would lead to a shortening of the meeting by 1/2, then it would be net neutral. Meeting Cost = Time + Money Destroyed = (cost/min) * (60 - f(d)) + d Here cost/min refers to the cost of the meeting per minute as shown in the article above.  60 refers to 60 minutes, assuming a 1 hour meeting.  f(d) is a function based on d from which the time would be reduced by, and d is the money destroyed. While I won’t attempt to model this, I would imagine that destroying somewhere between 1/3rd to 1/10th of the money wasted could be an efficient use of your money.  So for example, at the next meeting one has with 20 high profile people in the audience, you may want one person in a very visible place burn or rip up about $10-$30 each minute, to remind people to keep it short and important.  Or you may want to dramatically destroy an object worth as much if it makes the point better.

Lectures & Presentations

lecture-hall
If we value our student’s time at $40 per hour, then a 1-hour lecture with 200 students costs $8,000 of student’s time.  You could destroy a 50-inch TV or 1/4th that cost (maybe do it pieces throughout?)  At what point in the teacher’s preparation would the marginal benefit of them preparing more actually be less than that of the student’s time?  It would obviously be somewhere, but probably quite late, especially if material would be re-used later. This is one thing that makes MOOCs so awesome.  With even a small optimization on traditional lecturers, the totaled value may be gigantic.  Lectures are something that deserve large optimization because they are incredibly expensive, the only issue is that the expenses aren’t obviously apparent nor are incurred on the parties responsible for them. Likewise, large public presentations should be optimized for similar reasons.  Not for the benefit of the presenter, but rather out of respect for the size of the audience.