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October summary, mostly on EA efforts

Posted on 2016-11-01

As some of you might know, yours truly along with my friends Jirka Nádvorník and Radim Lacina founded the Czech Association for Effective Altruism a few months back. Dan Hnyk is not an official member yet, but he’s doing a lion’s share of the work. We were also very lucky to bring along Honza, who used to work on fundraising at the Forum 2000 foundation and who is helping us with many areas we had little experience with before he came onboard. Our goals are to establish an EA community in Czech Republic and to be the hub of its long-term viability.

Executive summary:

Effective altruism

If you haven’t heard about Effective Altruism yet, it is a philosophy and social movement, which aims to 1) do good, and 2) do it as efficiently as possible. You yourself probably try to good in your own life: you probably help people close to you, and you might sometimes do an altruistic thing for someone not so close to you: donate a few dollars to this charity or other, give some clothing you no longer need to someone who does, and so on.

Early EAs have observed one very important and somewhat counterintuitive fact: it matters a great lot where do you put your resources. If you give $3500 to a charity that trains guide dogs for the blind, it will train roughly one tenth of a dog (they cost 32,400 GBP apiece to train). If you give $3500 to the Against Malaria Foundation, you will, on expectation, save someone’s life, and that is a pessimistic estimate (it only counts infants who would die of malaria infection that will not die thanks to an installed insecticide-laced mosquito net, not older children saved from infection, or prevented suffering from malaria attacks).

So, it matters a great deal that you put your resources where they have as much effect as possible. When you’re looking for ways to transport yourself to work and back, you research options. How much would a car cost? How much would I pay for gas? What if I bike? Would the extra risk of traffic accidents be worth it? How about mass transport? Would the extra time be worth the money I save? Maybe I could work remotely for a day every week?

For some reason, people usually don’t think about charity this way. But it makes perfect sense. If you decide you want to help people with, say, $1000 of your money, or maybe 7 days of your time, you should do some research to ensure you aren’t just burning money. If your work is 3 blocks from where you live, you wouldn’t buy a car to go there. You would probably just walk or ride a station or two on a bus. Then why are people, for some reason, comfortable throwing money into a random charity without knowing what they’re buying for it?

(The actual reason has to do with the way our brain circuitry gives us warm fuzzies in biased ways which are uncorrelated with how good our actions actually are. Some people don’t pull the lever in the trolley problem because they would feel like murderers, which leaves them with two dead bodies instead of one. Other examples include the identifiable victim effect: you are much more likely to donate to some specific African kid whose name and story you know than to support the same intervention when presented as a statistic. People are bad at naively making moral judgement. Our brains were built for stone-age hunter-gatherer tribes, where the only moral impact your actions had was on people you could actually meet and see. Obviously, this is no longer the case today. Which is why many people would rather give $100 so that Jane the blind child from across the street can afford a $35000 guide dog, rather than support a charity which can save a human life for $3500, with the only caveat being that you will probably never meet said saved human. Which makes you saving them and their parents and family from suffering and the victim’s death no less real. Only less emotionally salient to you.)

So, step one. It matters a lot what you do with your resources if your goal is to help others. (Actually, it matters a lot what you do with your resources if you have any particular goal at all.)

Step two (at least for me) is: If it’s THIS easy to help others, how the hell isn’t Effective Altruism a global project with 50 years of history and billions pledged in unanimous international support? Why are our smartest people working on optimizing ads on Facebook instead of on how to fix Earth? And believe me, once you start looking, you see things to fix everywhere. For starters: millions in poverty, diseases, cancer. Possible future risks we know next to nothing about. Aging, degenerative brain disease, death, depression, malnutrition, nuclear stockpiles that could destroy the planet X times over if some immature narcissist in charge pushes the button one day, risk of bioterrorism, and I could go on for another hour.

Read Doing Good Better. The eminent philosopher Will MacAskill gives the topic the attention it deserves.

I hereby swear that if I ever find myself writing a short intro to EA again, I will just make it an article on our association’s website :)

Our plan

Please excuse me if the previous paragraphs have been just me preaching to the choir. I have been very vocal about my support of EA among my friends.

The first step in the Czech Association for Effective Altruism’s plan is organizing EAGxPrague 2016 - the first conference on effective altruism in Czech Republic. We are cooperating with the Centre for Effective Altruism to make it happen, and the cooperation is so fruitful I wouldn’t hesitate to claim it added a degree of magnitude to our expected impact. It will be on December 10, 2016 in Paralelní Polis.

My role is currently Director of the CAEA and Event Director of EAGxPrague 2016.

Yesterday, we finished every necessary preparation and we have just opened applications (in Czech, in English). If you’d like to find out about how can you contribute to making the world better and if you’re fairly close to Prague, I highly encourage you to apply. We would be happy to meet you and talk.

I would be also very happy to hear any feedback from you at , especially:

The next steps in our plan are, roughly:

Our longer-term plan is mostly a black confused void, but that is OK. We are not in a position to formulate sophisticated high-level strategy given our current knowledge and manpower. Sophisticated high-level strategy is important, but it’s just fine if we define it and refine it step by step. Unless there’s some very unlikely crucial consideration we missed (e.g., promoting EA in Czech Republic might actually be a bad thing), most high-level strategies would benefit from having more manpower, more resources and more social backing for the EA idea. And this is an instrumental goal our conference is pursuing. More proximally, the conference will innoculate some influential and smart people with thinking about could we improve the world, which is good (again, barring some exotic and unlikely crucial consideration like “if smart people try to do good, they usually end up doing bad”).

So far, we’re doing great.

I have a few observations I’d like to share.

Doing quick research

I have never worked on organizing a big event before, or did anything entrepreurial-like or product-like.

One tool I have never used before, but that I’m starting to really enjoy using, is asking people what do they think. Doing researchy and sciency things to questions I’d like answered.

For example, yesterday we were thinking about which tagline would be best for the conference. We had a short-list of 7 and couldn’t choose among ourselves, so I asked 9 of my friends to rate each on a 1-5 cool-uncool scale.

My methodology was the following:

One nice thing about this is that it doesn’t matter that the participants don’t use the same scale: one participant might use the whole cool-uncool range of 1 to 5, another one might be just like “meh” and use just 3’s or 4’s. There’s no need to account for this. Because every study subject rates every tagline, every subject’s individual bias or scaling has the same effect on every tagline’s average score.

However, this means you can’t really plot the final scores on a consistent linear cool-to-uncool scale, because that would be a hodgepodge of several different scales with different variances and means. The way I use the final averages is twofold: A) see the relative ordering of taglines from good to bad, and B) roughly eyeball the size of the difference.

The scores of the different taglines were as follows: (N = 9. I acknowledge a possible methodological gap in not calculating and working with the variances. 1 = cool, 5 = uncool.)

Some things that surprised me here:

I’m afraid I’m unable to properly calculate the p-values for either of these claims. They might very well be just noise. Our sample size is shit.

Still, we ended up going with “Real problems and their effective solutions”, at least for now, and I like playing the statistician/data scientist. It’s nice to have data to support your decision. One of my big TODO’s for the future is to get a better understanding of statistical tests, experiment design and scientific methodology. Since math and CS at our uni was mostly “definition, theorem, proof, repeat”, we didn’t get much of a background in how does one formulate and test a hypothesis, and I think it’s a very useful and transferrable skill to have.

We used a pretty similar system to select which topics should we focus on at the conference, and I’m glad we did. Initially, we thought we’d rather not talk too much about far-future outcomes and global risks and that it would be better to play up the animal advocacy angle, because our target group (students and non-profits) would be easier to attract that way. Our survey’s results surprised me by putting animal advocacy well below global prioritization and far-future outcomes. I have updated my belief in the sophistication of our attendees upwards.

Estimating number of applicants

One problem we have had with the conference is that since it’s the first EA event in Czech Republic, there is little info from which we can infer how many people will come. Also, it is a problem with many variables: the amount depends on how aggressively do we market the event, how high do we set the ticket cost, and so on.

To make the amount of applicants as high as possible, we set the price low by covering the losses with our own money and with sponsorships: standard price is just 400 CZK, and students and people from the non-profit sector pay just 150 CZK (~$7).

The room we booked fits up to ~120 people and we would like to, ideally, fill it.

Other pieces of information we have are:

Our hive-mind’s estimates were that we could, optimistically, get about 80 people to attend. I am fairly certain this is a number that’s based on anchoring to the ~120-person capacity figure and then adjusting down to account for not expecting to fully succeed.

I am optimistic. We are doing as much as we can. We shall see later how well were we able to draw inferences on relatively little information.

Planning

The most important tool CEA gave us was a clear framework to use to plan the goals of our conference, choose our target audience based on the goals, choose a program that would fit and attract the target audience, and so on. This transformed our fuzzy confused thinking into a clear picture where it’s easy to understand why exactly are we doing something. Where we previously had “Oh, so we want to do a conference on EA and invite students, and I guess it would be nice to also have some entrepreneurs and maybe do a giving game”, we now have “We want to build a solid EA base. To do that, we need people who have time and energy to put into that. These are mostly students and non-profit workers. To attract them, we need to do thing X, Y, Z and market through A, B, C.”

The importance of planning cannot be underestimated. I wish we started planning properly as soon as the idea of a conference emerged. We would have saved months of time spent doing less than effective work.

Personal status update

In the last ~2 weeks, I have been getting lots of self-esteem boosts, mostly I’d guess from how well things are going for me work-wise and conference-wise and thanks to some instances of unexpected acceptance, which had a soothing therapeutic effect. My psychiatrist also recently doubled my citalopram to 40 mg a day.

Unfortunately, in the last few days, I realized I made a huge mistake that caused people I really care about a lot of pain, and that I had to fix it. Now, I hate myself A) because I made the mistake in the first place, B) because I hurt people by making the mistake, C) because the mistake was probably just rooted in me trying to use other people to boost my self-esteem and fear of abadonment, D) because I was too much of a coward to even own up to my mistake and apparently subconsciously tried to shift responsibility. At least that would be my interpretation. My depression came back really hard in the last few days.

I have a few pieces of advise I want to give others who might be in a similar position as me, that is, confusion about personal relationships:

The level of how OK I am depends on how much do I think about how stupid, hurtful, abadoned, unacceptable and unlovable I am, and how much do I think about the chances of that ever getting better. Right now, my level of OK-being fluctuates between “too devastated to get up from the floor” and “so immersed in exciting work that everything looks fine”. I’m not sure how long will this last, but I might be somewhat-acceptably-OK-most-of-the-time again in a few weeks.

Until next time. Onwards!