Thursday, July 29, 2021

Against Long-Termism

This 80,000 Hours podcast with Alexander Berger is really thought-provoking on many levels. One highlight is that he puts into words some of my previously-vague misgivings about focusing on the far future (in addition to number games). From the "Cluelessness" section:

I think it makes you want to just say wow, this is all really complicated and I should bring a lot of uncertainty and modesty to it. ... I think the more you keep considering these deeper levels of philosophy [editor's note], these deeper levels of uncertainty about the nature of the world, the more you just feel like you’re on extremely unstable ground about everything. ... my life could totally turn out to cause great harm to others due to the complicated, chaotic nature of the universe in spite of my best intentions. ... I think it is true that we cannot in any way predict the impacts of our actions. And if you’re a utilitarian, that’s a very odd, scary, complicated thought. But I think that in some sense, basically ignoring it and living your life like you are able to preserve your everyday normal moral concerns and intuitions to me seems actually basically correct.

I think the EA community probably comes across as wildly overconfident about this stuff a lot of the time, because it’s like we’ve discovered these deep moral truths, then it’s like, “Wow, we have no idea.” I think we are all really very much — including me — naive and ignorant about what impact we will have in the future.

I’m going to rely on my everyday moral intuition that saving lives is good ... I think it’s maximizable, I think if everybody followed it, it would be good.

Maybe we should just pray harder.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Sunday, July 25, 2021

Sabino Canyon 2015

After 2020 was the driest year and hottest summer ever recorded in Tucson, we are having a good monsoon season. Serious rain transforms the desert. Here is a picture by Anne's pal Mark of Sabino Creek from 2015 (the creek is normally dry):

But if you want to see something scary from this year, go here and watch one of the videos (with sound on). These are from our friends in Sedona, which is up by Flagstaff. The arroyo behind their house is normally dry. But not yesterday!  

Friday, July 23, 2021

Song from an optimistic time

Speaking of trends in time, I grew up worried about nuclear war (how's that for a transition?). The Day After, bomb shelters, duck and cover, etc. I remember how incredibly optimistic things were after the Berlin Wall came down and following events. This song really captures that moment for me. 

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Covid in the U.S. going forward

From this very informative thread:

"The worst is over in the US, but, on average, 200-300 people are still dying every day from a disease that didn't exist 18 months ago. If that rate continues for the next 12 months, that would be 100,000 deaths—more, even, than from the horrific opiate epidemic."

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

From Fires to Flood

Ever since April, our goal has been to go to Flagstaff for three days of hiking and vegan food. But the trip was canceled (more):

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

"Global Sanity"

I'm listening to the 80,000 Hours podcast with Max Roser of Our World In Data. After discussing covid, Rob refers to Roser's earlier work as promoting "Global Sanity." That is -- understanding the world as it really is in order to maximize our work to make it better. 

This reminds me of earlier posts here, such as this one (quoting Roser) and any with Hans Rosling (example). And these graphs (please click for larger):

Thursday, July 15, 2021

My expected value is bigger than yours (from Vox)

Reading through some pages on the Open Philanthropy Project's site, I re-discovered this Vox article: I spent a weekend at Google talking with nerds about charity. I came away … worried. It reminds me of a number of posts on this blog (e.g., Against Big Numbers) and makes some other good points. A few excerpts:

The common response I got to this was, "Yes, sure, but even if there's a very, very, very small likelihood of us decreasing AI risk, that still trumps global poverty, because infinitesimally increasing the odds that 10^52 people in the future exist saves way more lives than poverty reduction ever could."

The problem is that you could use this logic to defend just about anything. Imagine that a wizard showed up and said, "Humans are about to go extinct unless you give me $10 to cast a magical spell." Even if you only think there's a, say, 0.00000000000000001 percent chance that he's right, you should still, under this reasoning, give him the $10, because the expected value is that you're saving 10^32 lives. Bostrom calls this scenario "Pascal's Mugging," and it's a huge problem for anyone trying to defend efforts to reduce human risk of extinction to the exclusion of anything else. 

[U]ltimately you have to stop being meta ... if you take meta-charity too far, you get a movement that's really good at expanding itself but not necessarily good at actually helping people [or other animals -ed].

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Loyalty and Kindness in the Effective Altruism Community

A number of people promoted this podcast Rob Wiblin did with Keiran Harris -- Having a successful career with depression, anxiety and imposter syndrome -- when it first came out. 

One of the main things that struck me was the kindness and loyalty the EA movement showed to Keiran. They always gave him a job whenever he wanted one, no matter what he had done previously, no matter how long he had been out, no matter what his capacities were at the time.

I know that EAs are often considered cold and calculating. There are definitely examples of this. But this podcast certainly shows a different side from at least some people and organizations. It also covers a lot of other topics that might be useful to a wide variety of people, especially in the second half (you can see an outline of the topics on the left-hand side).

The image accompanying the podcast references being chased by a bear, but I don't find that a good example of how depression feels.

Saturday, July 10, 2021

The inherent horror of existence and A Meaningful Life

On the Tetris episode of his podcast The Anthropocene Reviewed, author John Green discusses the existential horror of existence. My answer is my essay, A Meaningful Life. Excerpt:

Those who are successful in making the world a better place are students of human nature. They understand that each of us is born with a certain intrinsic nature, raised to follow specific beliefs, and taught to hold particular prejudices. Over time, we discover new “truths” and abandon others, altering our attitudes, principles, and values.

Even though we can recognize that our belief system changes over time, at any given point, most of us believe our current opinions are “right” – our convictions well founded, our actions justified. We each want to think we are, at heart, a good person. Even when, years later, we find ourselves reflecting on previously held beliefs with a sense of bemusement (or worse), it rarely occurs to us that we may someday feel the same way toward the attitudes we now hold.

Effective advocates understand this evolution of people’s views. They also recognize they can’t change anyone’s mind. No matter how elegant an argument, real and lasting change comes only when others are free to explore new perspectives. Of course, there is no magic mechanism to bring this about. The simplest way to encourage others to open their hearts and minds is for our hearts and minds to be open, believing in our own potential to learn and grow. I believe sincerity and humility are imperative for advocates, because no one has all the answers.

In his book Painism, Richard Ryder points out, “At its extreme, pain is more powerful than pleasure can ever be. Pain overrules pleasure within the individual far more effectively than pleasure can dominate pain.” Because of this, I believe reducing suffering is the ultimate good, and must be our bottom line.


As a reaction to what goes on in factory farms and slaughterhouses, very strong feelings, such as revulsion and outrage, are understandable and entirely justified. However, the question isn’t what is warranted, but rather, what actually helps animals. I have known hundreds of outraged activists who insisted, “Animal liberation by any means necessary! I’m willing to do anything!” Yet few of these people are still working toward animal liberation today.

If we truly want to have a fundamental, lasting impact on the world, we must deal with our emotions in a constructive way. We need to ask ourselves:

  • Are we willing to direct our passion, rather than have it rule us?
  • Are we willing to put the animals’ interests before our personal desires?
  • Are we willing to focus seriously and systematically on effective advocacy?

It is not enough to be a vegan, or even a dedicated vegan advocate. We must remember the bottom line – reducing suffering – and actively be the opposite of the vegan stereotype. Just as we need everyone to look beyond the short-term satisfaction of following habits and traditions, we need to move past our sorrow and anger to optimal advocacy. We must learn “how to win friends and influence people,” so that we leave everyone we meet with the impression of a joyful individual leading a fulfilling and meaningful life.


I’m not saying we should put on an act of being happy. Rather, as thoughtful activists, we can truly be happy!

Looking at the long arc of history, we see how much society has advanced in just the last few centuries. It was over two thousand years ago that the ideals of democracy were first proposed in ancient Greece, but only during the eighteenth century did humanity see even the beginnings of a truly democratic system. Not until late in the nineteenth century was slavery officially abolished in the developed world. In all of human history, only in the last hundred years was child labor abolished in the developed world, child abuse criminalized, women given the vote, and minorities given more rights.

Many people worked diligently to bring about those ethical advances for humanity. Because of the number of individuals suffering and the reason for this hidden brutality, I believe animal liberation is the moral imperative of our time. If we take suffering seriously and commit to optimal advocacy, we too can bring about fundamental change. We can already see progress in just the past decade – public concern for farmed animals’ interests and condemnation of factory farms leading to countless welfare reforms, as well as more near-vegetarians and vegetarian products. Our advocacy’s focus, tools, and programs have also improved immensely during that time.

Animal liberation can be the future. As the magazine The Economist concluded, “Historically, man has expanded the reach of his ethical calculations, as ignorance and want have receded, first beyond family and tribe, later beyond religion, race, and nation. To bring other species more fully into the range of these decisions may seem unthinkable to moderate opinion now. One day, decades or centuries hence, it may seem no more than ‘civilized’ behavior requires.”

We can be the generation to bring about this next great ethical advance. We should revel in the freedom and opportunity we have to be part of something so profound, something fundamentally good. This is as meaningful and joyous a life as I can imagine!

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Movie Recommendation

Yesterday is probably the best movie I've seen in the past several years. Here and here are great clips:

Sunday, July 4, 2021

Rain in Tucson

You'll want to watch this video full screen if you can. We were under that (the view from our garage). We got 2.5 inches of rain in the last few days; the official total for all of 2020 was 4.1.

Also, some recent pictures:

Saturday, June 26, 2021

Testing, Testing (also: photo for those out west)

The Blogger plugin to send these posts via email is set to stop working. Thus I'm trying to set up MailChimp to send my RSS feed. I don't know if this will work! And if it does, I don't know how this will render. Please feel free to email me with any feedback.

Also, I note that for the coming week, Seattle will be hotter than Tucson. Yikes! Here is a photo from May 31, 2019, of aspens in the snow of the San Francisco Peaks north of Flagstaff. (We were stopped from hiking due to snow a relatively short drive from where it was probably about 100 degrees.)

Thursday, June 24, 2021

"The Biggest Threat to America"

By Nicholas Kristof (more)

“America is back” became President Biden’s refrain on his European trip this month, and in a narrow sense it is.

A Pew Research Center survey found that 75 percent of those polled in a dozen countries expressed “confidence in the U.S. president to do the right thing,” compared to 17 percent a year ago. Yet in a larger sense, America is not back. In some respects, we are sliding toward mediocrity — and that’s the topic of my column today.

Greeks have higher high school graduation rates. Chileans live longer. Fifteen-year-olds in Russia, Poland, Latvia and many other countries are better at math than their American counterparts — perhaps a metric for where nations will stand in a generation or two.

As for reading, one-fifth of American 15-year-olds can’t read at the level expected of a 10-year-old. How are those millions of Americans going to compete in a globalized economy? As I see it, the greatest threat to America’s future is less a surging China or a rogue Russia than it is our underperformance at home.

We Americans repeat the mantra that “we’re No. 1,” even though the latest Social Progress Index, a measure of global well-being, ranked the United States No. 28. Even worse, the United States was one of only three countries, out of 163, that went backward in well-being over the last decade.

Another assessment this month, the I.M.D. World Competitiveness Ranking 2021, put the United States No. 10 out of 64 economies. A similar forward-looking study from the World Bank ranks the United States No. 35 out of 174 countries.