William Rathbone, effective altruist?

William Rathbone (1819-1902), writing in 1867 about philanthropy:

It is true that there is among the rich much desultory and indolent goodwill towards the poor… which, if properly stimulated by a sense of positive and imperative obligation, and guided to a safe and effectual mode of action, might be made instrumental of much good at present left undone. It is true that a new hospital finds plenty of rich men willing to give money for its establishment and support; that any striking case of distress, calculated to touch the sympathies of the public, which may be recorded in the newspapers, generally attracts a superabundance of charitable donations… Probably, in by far the greater number of instances, the feeling that prompts them is one of genuine compassion. But it would be wrong to ascribe much merit to such emotional liberality; to look upon it as proof that the rich are properly sensible of their duties and responsibilities. The desultory nature of so much of our charity; the stimulus it requires from fancy-balls and bazaars; the greater facility with which a new institution obtains subscriptions for want of which an old one, equally meritorious, languishes; the amount of time and energy which the managers of a charity are so often forced to consume in drumming together the funds required for its support — time and energy which should be devoted to the mere task of efficient management — all these are significant evidence that the manifestations of generosity of which we hear so much proceed not from a strong and clear sense of duty, but from a vague sentiment of compassion; that people give less in obedience to principle than under, a sudden impulse of feeling, less to fulfill an obligation than to relieve themselves of an uneasy though vague sensation of compunction. Few among the rich realize that charity is not a virtue of supererogation, but a divine charge upon their wealth, which they have no right to neglect. They give to this or that family whose story interests them, to this or that institution for the relief of some form of‘ distress which peculiarly touches their sympathies, with no idea that the matter is not one in which they have a right to indulge their caprice; that all the misery within their sphere is an evil with which it is their duty to grapple, to which they are bound to apply the remedial energies and resources at their command, not as suits their taste or fancy, but as may be most efficacious in the relief of suffering… In short, charity is with them a matter of sentiment, not of principle…

…Do the rich give as large a proportion of their incomes, even, as these poorer contributors? They should do much more, for they can afford much more. £50 represents a much larger deduction from the real comforts and enjoyments procurable with an in come of £500, than does £500 taken from an income of £5000. As expenditure increases it is less on necessaries and more on luxuries; even its power of giving proportionate enjoyment to the possessor diminishes. The man who increases his expenditure from £1000 to £2000 may perhaps — though it is doubtful — get a thousand pounds worth of increased enjoyment from the addition. But if so, he certainly does not get an equal increase when he goes on from £2000 to £3000 or from £3000 to £4000. The larger the expenditure, the less the proportion of pleasure derived to money laid out. And therefore, both because the deduction involves a less sacrifice, and because it is just and reasonable to hold that money should be so spent as to produce a reasonable return of enjoyment to some one, it may fairly be urged that the larger the income, the larger should be the proportion spent in charity… Unhappily it is the fact that men of large means generally —for there are exceptions — spend a smaller percentage of those means in charity than do men of limited incomes…

Rhodri Davies (around 22m) adds that Rathbone also grappled with the question of “earning to give” vs. “direct work”, saying:

Margaret Simey’s book… says that Rathbone was torn between… whether he should go into the ministry and help the poor directly or whether he should go into business, and eventually [she writes] “viewing the issue in the light of common sense, [Rathbone] decided that for him, an effective life of public service would depend on his possession of the influence and respect secured by success in business. Accordingly, he set himself doggedly to the task of building up the family fortunes, which had suffered from the devotion of his father and grandfather to public work.” So he took his own self interest out of it — because he probably would have preferred to work directly with the poor — but he thought that actually what [he] should do is go off and maximize the amount of money he could make and [maximize] his political influence and connections, and then use [those things] to do the maximum amount of good.

Media diet for Q2 2019

Music

Spotify playlist for this quarter is here. Playlists for past quarters and years here.

Okay, music I most enjoyed discovering this quarter:

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Media I’m looking forward to, Q3 2019 edition

Added this quarter:

Books

bold = especially excited

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Funny or interesting Scaruffi Quotes (part 3)

Previously: 1, 2.

On Sonic Youth (Google translated):

Sonic Youth have embodied the figure of the musician who intends to transcend the stereotypes of his time and explore new musical forms while remaining faithful to a nihilistic and alienated ethics like that of punks. In this sense the Sonic Youth are both heir to both punk-rock and new-wave, although they have little in common with them either musically or sociologically. Their origins are in avant-garde classical music, their vocations (as the solo works have shown) are the creative jazz and rock music, their personalities belong to the galleries of art and the intellectual circles of New York. Contrary to what might seem at first listening, the Sonic Youth have never repudiated the rock song format. Their formation is the typical guitar quartet of rock music. Their songs are almost always structured around a theme and contained within three or four minutes. Even in their most experimental moments, the Sonic Youth have followed their rock and roll roots.

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Media diet for Q1 2019

Music

Spotify playlist for this quarter is here. Playlists for past quarters and years here.

Okay, music I most enjoyed discovering this quarter:

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Media I’m looking forward to, Q2 2019 edition

Added this quarter:

Books

bold = especially excited

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Some funny or interesting Scaruffi quotes (part 2)

(Previously.)

On Black Sabbath (Google translated):

Rarely an artist so poorly equipped technically and so unimaginative has had such a great influence on subsequent generations…

Black Sabbath were a constant assault on the cultured tradition of Western civilization, and a continued exaltation of barbarism and primitivism. They were hated by almost everyone: by the hippies (of which they represented the exact opposite moral), by the rockers (who were horrified by their technical inadequacy), by the singer-songwriters (who wrote much more meaningful lyrics). But the average teenager did not have any culture or the vocation to judge Black Sabbath music and, all things considered, their harmonic simplicity represented a form of collective appeal much easier to understand than the King Crimson symphonic poems or the Pink Floyd psychedelic scores. Black Sabbath fans were dirty and bad, but actually they were listening to Black Sabbath for the same reason that the previous generation of clean and good teenagers had listened to The Beatles: their music was the easiest to hear. Listening to their music was a simple act of collective ritualism that required no culture and no intelligence. But, unlike the Beatles’ fans (who at most became light music singers), the teenagers who identified themselves with the “ease” of Black Sabbath music were just those who would have formed rock music bands: the Black Sabbath were spreading an alien virus, that of heavy metal.

On Kanye West:

[In 2018] he released “Lift Yourself” that has perhaps his best lyrics ever: Poopy-di scoop / Scoop-diddy-whoop / Whoop-di-scoop-di-poop.

The album Ye… wasn’t even an album: at 23 minutes, it was just an EP. The songs are clumsy and goofy. The best one is “Ghost Town,” because it takes the melody from Shirley Ann Lee’s “Someday,” the organ from Vanilla Fudge’s “Take Me For A Little While,” and because of guest female vocalist Danielle Balbuena, aka 070 Shake. (The only reason that i mention this song is that, if i don’t mention any song, his fans will accuse me of not having listened to the album, but i refuse to publicize any other song).

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Favorite media discovered in 2018

Hard to compare across media, of course, but here’s my attempt:1

  1. Dark Souls (2011) 🎮
  2. Eighth Grade (2018) 🎥
  3. The Favourite (2018) 🎥
  4. Celeste (2018) 🎮
  5. Better Call Saul, season 4 (2018) 📺
  6. Hollow Knight (2017) 🎮
  7. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017) 🎥
  8. The Death of Stalin (2017) 🎥
  9. Lady Bird (2017) 🎥
  10. Maniac (2018) 📺
  11. Incredibles 2 (2018) 🎥
  12. The Elephant in the Brain (2018) 📖
  13. Atlanta, season 2 (2018) 📺
  14. Diabolicus Felinae Pandemonium (2017) 🎵
  15. Logan Lucky (2017) 🎥
  16. The Florida Project (2017) 🎥
  17. I, Tonya (2017) 🎥
  18. 4 Visions (1981) 🎵
  19. The Disaster Artist (2017) 🎥
  20. Adventure Time, season 10 (2018) 📺
  21. War for the Planet of the Apes (2017) 🎥
  22. All Melody (2018) 🎵
  23. You Were Never Really Here (2017) 🎥
  24. Dead Magic (2018) 🎵
  25. Blue Planet II (2017) 📺
  1. For media that can take a long time to consume, e.g. video games and seasons of television, I count them toward the year in which I finish them. []

Media diet for Q4 2018

Games

Ones I “really liked” (no star), or “loved” (star):

  • Dark Souls ★
    • The first “soulslike” I’ve played. It has its flaws, and it’s not as relentlessly fun as (say) Breath of the Wild or Super Mario Odyssey, but I found it pretty awe-inspiring, and I can see why it has been so influential. I’m tempted to write at length about what’s so great about Dark Souls, but of course that’s been done hundreds of times since its release in 2011, so if you’re curious I’ll just point you to these four video essaysDark Souls isn’t the very best video game experience I’ve had,1 but it is probably the one that feels most profound.
  • Guacamelee!
  • Guacamelee! 2
  • Diablo III
  • Hollow Knight ★
    • One of the best Metroidvanias.

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  1. That honor might go to SMB3Homeworld, or Breath of the Wild. []

Media I’m looking forward to, Q1 2019 edition

Added this quarter:

Books

bold = especially excited

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Media diet for Q3 2018

Books

  • Lukianoff & Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind. Only adds a bit beyond the article, mostly additional horror stories that have occurred in the meantime, and precious little data. I’m broadly sympathetic to their concerns but hardly convinced.
  • Several books by Thomas Sowell. I do like him better in longform than shortform. In general I like his “basic economics applied to X” and “bunch of facts you didn’t know” books more than his “my rambly theory of culture” books (e.g. Conflict of Visions). His style is fun and easy to read but his analyses aren’t systematic/rigorous and so it’s often hard to know how much to trust the conclusions. He’s an economist, but in his books he writes like a historian (e.g. ~no identification strategy).

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Media I’m looking forward to, Q4 2018 edition

Added this quarter:

Books

bold = especially excited

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Media diet for Q2 2018

Books

  • Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. Interesting, albeit obviously not convincing. Just me trying to get a sense for how international relations debates work.
  • Rosling, Factfulness. Decent for what it’s trying to be. Similar in spirit and content to Enlightenment Now, but narrower in scope and written for a wider audience.

These days I finish fewer books than I used to, and prefer to skip around more.

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Media I’m looking forward to, Q3 2018 edition

Added this quarter:

Books

bold = especially excited

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Projects I wish I had time for

  1. Everyone Is Lying Again: A blog dissecting how, in response to the majority of even slightly controversial or partisanship-evoking news stories, all “sides” (right, left, etc.) grossly misrepresent the facts and/or their scientific, historical, or cultural context. Probably one dissection per week, allowing time for substantial research for each post.
  2. The Story of Rock Music: This podcast would guide the listener through the history of rock music, playing extended clips of >10 tracks per episode and helping the listener hear exactly how different styles developed, split off from their roots, and recombined later. For example in one episode I might explain what a raga is and play an example clip, then explain what modal vs. chordal improvisation is and play contrasting clips, then explain what blues rock is and play an example clip, then explain what post-bop jazz is and play an example clip, and finally talk through (with example clips) how these forms were fused together in the classic Mike Bloomfield track “East-West,” one of the earliest examples of “raga rock.” Episodes would proceed in roughly chronological order, so that the listener could “hear” the evolution of music over time, as later episodes build on the stylistic evolutions described in past episodes.
  3. Evolving Sounds: Relatedly, I’ve long wanted to research, compose, and record a many-hour continuous piece of music that recapitulates the entire history of “Western music” (which is better documented than other traditions). The piece would begin with sections composed in accordance with scholarly guesses about how prehistoric music might have sounded, eventually transition into the earliest styles from recorded history, then evolve into styles covered in e.g. Burkholder’s History of Western Music, up to the present day. This is a pretty obvious idea and I’m upset that nobody has attempted it yet.
  4. Everything is Awesome and We’re All Going to Die: This book would start off like a more thorough and epistemically scrupulous version of the empirical sections from Enlightenment Now, and would then proceed to explain in detail why global catastrophic risk is nevertheless increasing over time via Moore’s Law of Mad Science, inescapable asymmetry in the difficulty of creation vs. destructioninadequate equilibria, and related phenomena.
  5. Better Moral Judgments: Moral philosophy makes little attempt to estimate what our moral intuitions would be if we were smarter, better informed, etc. Works like The Righteous Mind and Moral Tribes1 are baby steps in the right direction, but still far less ambitious than what I sketch here, which could easily be expanded into quite a large research program. But I’d start with a book sketching out that research program and working through some initial examples.

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  1. I’d also list the methodology sections of Beckstead (2013) and these notes from a conversation with Carl Shulman. []

Books, music, etc. from Q1 2018

Books

  • Ellsberg, The Doomsday Machine. Pretty good, scary.
  • Kwak, Economism. Not ideal, but still: many people need to read an economics 101 textbook, and many other people need to read Economism.
  • Simler & Hanson, The Elephant in the Brain. Pretty great, especially given the authors’ own caveat that “we are no doubt wrong in many places, not just in the details, but also in some larger conclusions” and that “to demonstrate that hidden motives are common and important” they “don’t need to be right about everything.” Though I wish it was more clearly flagged that one key reason much of the book is likely wrong is just that the underlying research is false, as must be true for ~all books summarizing large amounts of “soft” science.
  • Caplan, The Case Against Education. I read about half. I don’t know much about the research in this area but I personally find the “mostly signaling” model more intuitive than the alternatives. A good example of synthesizing important relevant data from multiple fields (not just from economics).
  • Pinker, Enlightenment Now. Generally pretty good. I disagree with the section on existential risks and AI, and I disagree with Pinker’s weird transcendental argument in favor of humanism, and I’m less confident in humanism’s role in human progress than Pinker seems to be, and his account of “the Enlightenment” is inaccurately clean & rosy, and some his data are exaggerated and cherry-picked, but shrug, I generally agree with most of the book, and with the overall thesis about human history. Pinker also skips over the history of likely-sentient animal welfare, but at least he tweeted Jacy Reese’s essay about that.
  • Sowell, The Thomas Sowell Reader. I read this on Pinker’s recommendation of Sowell in general. These short essays didn’t exhibit much of anything special. Maybe he’s more impressive in longer formats.
  • Pillsbury, The Hundred-Year Marathon. I found it pretty informative, but I’m still far too much a China novice to know whether Pillsbury’s overall take is more reasonable than the other high-level takes I’ve read.
  • Rid, Rise of the Machines. Fine, I guess.

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Media I’m looking forward to, Q2 2018 edition

Added this quarter:

Books

bold = especially excited

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My worldview in 5 books

If you wanted to communicate as much as possible to someone about your worldview by asking them to read just five books, which five books would you choose?

My choices are below. If you post your answer to this question to Twitter, please use the hash tag #WorldviewIn5Books (like I did), so everyone posting their list can find each other.

1. Eliezer Yudkowsky, Rationality: From AI to Zombies

(2015; ebook/audiobook/podcast)

A singular introduction to critical thinking, rationality, and naturalistic philosophy. Both more advanced and more practically useful than any comparable guide I’ve encountered.

2. Sean Carroll, The Big Picture

(2016; ebook/paperback/audiobook)

If Yudkowsky’s book is “how to think 101,” then Carroll’s book is “what to think 101,” i.e. an introduction to what exists and how it works, according to standard scientific naturalism.

3. William MacAskill, Doing Good Better

(2015; ebook/paperback/audiobook)

My current favorite “how to do good 101” book, covering important practical considerations such as scale of impact, tractability, neglectedness, efficiency, cause neutrality, counterfactuals, and some strategies for thinking about expected value across diverse cause areas.

Importantly, it’s missing (a) a quick survey of the strongest arguments for and against utilitarianism, and (b) much discussion of near-term vs. animal-inclusive vs. long-term views and their implications (when paired with lots of empirical facts). But those topics are understandably beyond the book’s scope, and in any case there aren’t yet any books with good coverage of (a) and (b), in my opinion.1

4. Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now

(2018; ebook/paperback/audiobook)

Almost everything has gotten dramatically better for humans over the past few centuries, likely substantially due to the spread and application of reason, science, and humanism.2

5. Toby Ord, forthcoming book about the importance of the long-term future

(forthcoming)

Yes, listing a future book is cheating, but I’m doing it anyway. The importance of the long-term future plays a big role in my current worldview, but there isn’t yet a book that captures my views on the topic well, and from my correspondence with Toby so far, I suspect his forthcoming book on the topic will finally do the topic justice. While you’re waiting for the book to be released, you can get a preview via this podcast interview with Toby.

A few notes about my choices

  • These aren’t my favorite books, nor the books that most influenced me historically. Rather, these are the books that best express key aspects of my worldview. In other words, they are the books I’d most want someone else to read first if we were about to have a long and detailed debate about something complicated, so they’d have some sense of “where I’m coming from.”
  • Obviously, there is plenty in these books that I disagree with.
  • I didn’t include any giant college textbooks or encyclopedias; that’d be cheating.
  • I wish there was a book that summarized many of my key political views, but in my case, I doubt any such book exists.
  • Economic thinking also plays a big role in my worldview, but I’ve not yet found a book that I think does a good job of integrating economic theory with careful, skeptical discussions of the most relevant empirical data (which often come from fields outside economics, and often differ from the predictions of economic models) across a decent range of the most important questions in economics.3
  • These books are all quite recent. Older books suffer from their lack of access to recent scientific and philosophical progress, for example (a) the last several decades of the cognitive science of human reasoning, (b) the latest estimates of the effectiveness of various interventions to save and improve people’s lives, (c) the latest historical and regional estimates of various aspects of human well-being and their correlates, and (d) recent arguments about moral uncertainty and what to do about it.

As always, these are my views and not my employer’s.

  1. On utilitarianism, there are of course books such as Utilitarianism: A Very Short Introduction, Utilitarianism: For and Against, The Cambridge Companion to UtilitarianismPractical Ethics, and Moral Tribes, but these books don’t much discuss what I consider to be the strongest arguments for utilitarianism, in particular some points related to what we’d value if we knew more and thought longer and some other arguments discussed briefly in this interview (starting at “What are the arguments for classical utilitarianism?” in the transcript). []
  2. Pinker’s chapter on existential risk is the one I most disagree with. []
  3. Example books that do this fairly well on particular narrow topics include Roodman’s Due Diligence and Caplan’s The Case Against Education. []

Favorite podcasts of 2017

(no order)

  • S-Town
  • Ponzi Supernova
  • Crimetown
  • Planet Money
  • StartUp
  • Slate Star Codex
  • Everything Hertz
  • Casefile
  • Reply All
  • This American Life
  • Pessimists Archive
  • Waking Up
  • EconTalk
  • 80,000 Hours
  • Rationally Speaking
  • The Weeds
  • The Daily
  • Conversations with Tyler
  • The Insight
  • Criminal
  • Radiolab
  • More Perfect
  • Ben Shapiro Show [good for popping my filter bubble, but also see here]

Excerpts from The Doomsday Machine

Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame recent published a book about his days as a nuclear war planner, The Doomsday Machine. Below are just a few of the bits I found interesting. (There were many others, but they were more difficult to excerpt.)

My first summer [at RAND] I worked seventy-hour weeks, devouring secret studies and analyses till late every night, to get up to speed on the problems and the possible solutions. I was looking for clues as to how we could frustrate the Soviet versions of RAND and SAC, and do it in time to avert a nuclear Pearl Harbor. Or postpone it. From the Air Force intelligence estimates I was newly privy to, and the dark view of the Soviets, which my colleagues shared with the whole national security community, I couldn’t believe that the world would long escape nuclear holocaust. Alain Enthoven and I were the youngest members of the department. Neither of us joined the extremely generous retirement plan RAND offered. Neither of us believed, in our late twenties, we had a chance of collecting on it.

Just one of many stories on how unreliable Ellsberg found command and control procedures to be:

To prevent unauthorized action by a single duty officer with access to Execute codes in any particular command post, there was a universal and supposedly ironclad rule that at least two such officers must be on duty at all times, day and night, and they must both be involved in, and agree on, the authentication of an order to execute nuclear war plans from a higher authority and on their decision to relay this order to subordinate commands… One way or another, each post purported to have arrangements so that one officer by himself could neither authenticate orders received nor send out authenticated Execute commands.

But in practice, not. As various duty officers explained to me, oftentimes only one man was on duty in the office. The personnel requirements for having two qualified officers sitting around in every such station at literally every moment of the night were just too stringent to be met. Duty rosters did provide for it, but not for backups when one officer “had” to be elsewhere—to get some food or for a medical emergency, his own or, on some bases, his wife’s. Did that mean that all subordinate commands would be paralyzed, unable to receive authenticated Execute orders, if the one remaining duty officer received what appeared to be an order to commence nuclear operations during that interval?

That couldn’t be permitted, in the eyes of the officers assigned to this duty, each of whom had faced up to the practical possibility of this situation. So each of them had provided for it “unofficially,” in his own mind or usually by agreement with his fellow duty officers. Each, in reality, had the combinations to both safes, after all, or some arrangement for acquiring them. If there was only one safe, each officer would, in reality, know the full combination to it. One officer would hold both envelopes when the other had to be away. Where there were more elaborate safeguards, the officers had always spent some of their idle hours late at night figuring out how to circumvent them, “if necessary.” They had always succeeded in doing so. I found this in every post I visited.

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