Effective altruism: Peter Singer, The Most Good You Can Do

SingerI like philosophy that engages with the world it lives in, and that has impact not just on academia but on institutions, corporations and public discourse. Philosophers such as Luciano Floridi (an information theorist and ethicist, who has served in an advisory council to Google) and Nick Bostrom (who also earned a PhD in Economics, and whose book Superintelligence was a New York Times bestseller) are redefining what it means to practice philosophy outside the ivory tower.

Lat week I finished reading The Most Good You Can Do, a book by Peter Singer that supports the “effective altruism” movement, a highly utilitarian approach to maximizing the total amount of good in the world and minimizing needless suffering and deaths by sentient beings. In a nutshell, the book argues that if you have a choice between (1) becoming a charity worker and going to a poor and war-torn country to save lives, and (2) becoming an investment banker, saving a substantial part of your income, and giving it to a charity that will use it to send many people to poor and war-torn countries to save lives, then it is the ethical thing to choose the latter, because it is the choice that maximizes total good. The book also highlights a number of resources in the field of charity evaluation, including the Centre for Effective Altruism, an umbrella organization for an evidence-based, analytical approach to philanthropic giving. You have read me quoting Singer before in the context of vegetarianism, or at least decreased meat consumption, to reduce animal suffering (here and here); the scope of this book, however, is much broader and I believe it will appeal to the many more people – hopefully – who care about human suffering. It will also challenge those of us who are proud of their support for museums, for the performing arts, and for other institutions whose funding issues can be called “first-world problems”: a new wing in a museum is extremely poor value, in the effective altruism framework, compared to an intervention that uses the same money to prevent malaria or cure trachoma.

The book gets even more intellectually challenging in the final chapter, “Preventing Human Extinction”, which calculates that – considering not just present lives on Earth, but all future lives that would be annihilated by an asteroid collision with Earth – we as a society should find it very good value to give NASA or some other organization funding ranging anywhere between $100 billion and $100 trillion to be spent on a system able to prevent a catastrophic hit by an extinction-sized asteroid. Here, Singer quotes Bostrom’s definition of existential risk, a situation in which “an adverse outcome would either annihilate Earth-originating intelligent life or permanently and drastically curtail its potential.” There are many existential risks, such as nuclear war, pandemics, global warming, and malevolent artificial superintelligence. Singer’s somewhat surprising conclusion is that “it seems that reducing existential risk should take precedence over doing other good things”, including helping people in extreme poverty today, but he argues that causes such as reducing extreme poverty are more likely to attract people to effective altruism than the more abstract cause of reducing existential risk.

The book ends with a counterintuitive – but surprisingly optimistic – point of view on artificial intelligence and its perceived dangers:

Some effective altruists have shown special interest in the dangers inherent in the development of artificial intelligence (AI). They see the problem as one of ensuring that AI will be friendly, by which they mean, friendly to humans […] The replacement of our species by some other form of conscious intelligence life is not in itself, impartially considered, catastrophic […] The risk posed by the development of AI […] is not so much whether it is friendly to us, but whether it is friendly to the idea of promoting well-being in general for all sentient beings it encounters, itself included […] There is some reason to believe that, even without any special effort on our part, superintelligent beings, whether biological or mechanical, will do the most good they possibly can.

Gone Girl: if you didn’t get the “Cool Girl” rant, think again

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Why is Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn such a powerful novel? Because nothing is black-and-white and everything is ambiguous: how we fall in love, how far we go to please someone else, how we might go about reclaiming ourselves – even if the fiction brings the premise to extreme consequences.

Why is Gone Girl by David Fincher such a weak movie? Because it’s black-and-white. People who have only seen the movie – and not read the book – women who have only seen the movie – easily buy into the typecasting of Amy as the horrendous psycho killer and Nick as the poor, cute, loving husband victimized by his traitorous wife.

But the novel is more subtle than that. Amy, you see, has a point. Amy is right, right in her diagnosis of what happened to her marriage. (Not in the actions she takes – I am not condoning or advocating – spoilers ahead – framing people for crimes they have not committed, absconding in search of a new identity, or extracting revenge by locking husbands into sadistic marriages). Amy is right because she understands what happened to her when she tried to be a Cool Girl for Nick: she gave up her identity. The first crime she committed was against herself.

Here is a good chunk of the “Cool Girl” rant, those three or four pages that expose the moral core of the novel, and the source of Amy’s anger.

That night at the Brooklyn party, I was playing the girl who was in style, the girl a man like Nick wants: the Cool Girl. Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.


Men actually think this girl exists. Maybe they’re fooled because so many women are willing to pretend to be this girl. For a long time Cool Girl offended me. I used to see men – friends, coworkers, strangers – giddy over these awful pretender women, and I’d want to sit these men down and calmly say: You are not dating a woman, you are dating a woman who has watched too many movies written by socially awkward men who’d like to believe that this kind of woman exists and might kiss them. I’d want to grab the poor guy by his lapels or messenger bag and say: The bitch doesn’t really love chili dogs that much – no one loves chili dogs that much! And the Cool Girls are even more pathetic: They’re not even pretending to be the woman they want to be, they’re pretending to be the woman a man wants them to be. Oh, and if you’re not a Cool Girl, I beg you not to believe that your man doesn’t want the Cool Girl. It may be a slightly different version – maybe he’s a vegetarian, so Cool Girl loves seitan and is great with dogs; or maybe he’s a hipster artist, so Cool Girl is a tattooed, bespectacled nerd who loves comics. There are variations to the window dressing, but believe me, he wants Cool Girl, who is basically the girl who likes every fucking thing he likes and doesn’t ever complain. (How do you know you’re not Cool Girl? Because he says things like: ‘I like strong women.’ If he says that to you, he will at some point fuck someone else. Because ‘I like strong women’ is code for ‘I hate strong women.’)

I waited patiently – years – for the pendulum to swing the other way, for men to start reading Jane Austen, learn how to knit, pretend to love cosmos, organize scrapbook parties, and make out with each other while we leer. And then we’d say, Yeah, he’s a Cool Guy.
But it never happened. Instead, women across the nation colluded in our degradation! Pretty soon Cool Girl became the standard girl. Men believed she existed – she wasn’t just a dreamgirl one in a million. Every girl was supposed to this girl, and if you weren’t, then there was something wrong with you.

But it’s tempting to be Cool Girl. For someone like me, who likes to win, it’s tempting to want to be the girl every guy wants. When I met Nick, I knew immediately that was what he wanted, and for him, I guess I was willing to try. I will accept my portion of blame. The thing is, I was crazy about him at first. I found him perversely exotic, a good ole Missouri boy. He was so damn nice to be around. He teased things out in me that I didn’t know existed: a lightness, a humor, an ease. It was as if he hollowed me out and filled me with feathers. He helped me be Cool Girl – I couldn’t have been Cool Girl with anyone else. I wouldn’t have wanted to. I can’t say I didn’t enjoy some of it: I ate a MoonPie, I walked barefoot, I stopped worrying. I watched dumb movies and ate chemically laced foods. I didn’t think past the first step of anything, that was the key. I drank a Coke and didn’t worry about how to recycle the can or about the acid puddling in my belly, acid so powerful it could strip clean a penny. We went to a dumb movie and I didn’t worry about the offensive sexism or the lack of minorities in meaningful roles. I didn’t even worry whether the movie made sense. I didn’t worry about anything that came next. Nothing had consequence, I was living in the moment, and I could feel myself getting shallower and dumber. But also happy. […]

I was probably happier for those few years—pretending to be someone else—than I ever have been before or after. I can’t decide what that means.

But then it had to stop, because it wasn’t real, it wasn’t me. It wasn’t me, Nick! I thought you knew. I thought it was a bit of a game. I thought we had a wink-wink, don’t ask, don’t tell thing going. I tried so hard to be easy. But it was unsustainable. It turned out he couldn’t sustain his side either: the witty banter, the clever games, the romance, and the wooing. It all started collapsing on itself. I hated Nick for being surprised when I became me. […]

So it had to stop. Committing to Nick, feeling safe with Nick, being happy with Nick, made me realize that there was a Real Amy in there, and she was so much better, more interesting and complicated and challenging, than Cool Amy. Nick wanted Cool Amy anyway. Can you imagine, finally showing your true self to your spouse, your soul mate, and having him not like you? So that’s how the hating first began. I’ve thought about this a lot, and that’s where it started, I think.

If you’ve read this far, also read this meta-rant by Shannon Kelley and this Slate piece by David Haglund about how the rant was mangled into the movie (“the passage is not just a critique of men. Quite a bit of it, in fact, is a critique of women… The Cool Girl speech is fundamentally about wishing all women would think for themselves”).

So, don’t buy the Hollywood version. Read the book and think for yourself.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Antifragile: a review

AntifragileYou knew that Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Antifragile was in my reading list: having read it, I now owe you a review. Taleb’s The Black Swan was a book I found not only clever and innovative, but engaging and somehow necessary (for reference, here is my 2007 Black Swan review); Antifragile, rather less so.

What is antifragile? Taleb has coined the neologism to describe a class of things that “benefit from shocks”: “thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty.” “Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.” It is a property of living beings that Taleb describes in mathematical form (convexity) and proceeds to apply to ideas, cultures, political systems and much more. He is least interested in the application of the idea to the “vulgar” world of finance, perhaps feeling that the events of the past few years have abundantly proved his point.

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Notwithstanding the author’s ambition, scope and breadth of intellectual interests, let me say right away that this would be a bigger book if it didn’t hit the reader in the face repeatedly with bitterness, sarcasm and contempt. The deeply held opinions of the author may not have changed since his previous books; his tone, I think, has – and not in favor of readability. Just witness the ad personam taunting and teasing directed at certain people (Thomas Friedman, Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz, Robert Merton) and schools (“The Soviet-Harvard delusion”); the author’s scorn for entire professions, such as academia and management; his rants against large corporations, with the exception of Apple (!), and disdain of corporate leaders, except for Steve Jobs. Passages like this may be occasionally entertaining to the reader, but grow to be too much:

The historian Niall Ferguson and I once debated the chairperson of Pepsi-Cola as part of an event at the New York Public Library […] Neither Niall nor I cared about who she was (I did not even bother to know her name). […] My experience of company executives, as evidenced by their appetite for spending thousands of hours in dull meetings or reading bad memos, is that they cannot possibly be remarkably bright. […] Someone intelligent—or free—would likely implode under such a regimen.

The most convincing arguments in the book are about medicine and diet. Which is somewhat surprising from a non-specialist writer, until you remember that most medical and nutrition professionals have a bias for intervention (medicate, perform surgery, keep you on a diet, sell you supplements), when subtraction (not intervening and removing things instead) would often just work as well. They therefore live an implicit conflict of interest, the paradoxical result of which is “if you want to accelerate someone’s death, give him a personal doctor”. Taleb is right to call the reader’s attention to iatrogenics, the (usually hidden or delayed) damage from treatment in excess of the benefits. His ideas on diet also make sense: our bodies benefit not just from variety of nutrients, but from some “randomness in food delivery and composition” and some stress in the form of periodic deprivations (such as in the Orthodox lent) and occasional fasting. Even here, though, the author’s Levantine superiority complex (and don’t you forget that Steve Jobs’s ancestors came from Syria!) gets to be rather quirky:

I, for my part, resist eating fruits not found in the ancient Eastern Mediterranean (I use “I” here in order to show that I am not narrowly generalizing to the rest of humanity). I avoid any fruit that does not have an ancient Greek or Hebrew name, such as mangoes, papayas, even oranges. Oranges seem to be the postmedieval equivalent of candy; they did not exist in the ancient Mediterranean. […] As to liquid, my rule is drink no liquid that is not at least a thousand years old—so its fitness has been tested. I drink just wine, water, and coffee.

His brief critique of Singularity efforts follows logically from his arguments, but is delivered with the recurring scornful attitude. Well, at least he remembers the fellow’s name:

I felt some deep disgust—as would any ancient—at the efforts of the “singularity” thinkers (such as Ray Kurzweil) who believe in humans’ potential to live forever. Note that if I had to find the anti-me, the person with diametrically opposite ideas and lifestyle on the planet, it would be that Ray Kurzweil fellow. […] While I propose removing offensive elements from people’s diets (and lives), he works by adding, popping close to two hundred pills daily. Beyond that, these attempts at immortality leave me with deep moral revulsion.

The least convincing arguments in the book are those in praise of entire economic systems based on “small is beautiful” (going hand in hand with the author’s love for the Swiss political system). Taleb rightly praises small entrepreneurs for their risk-taking: even if small businesses are individually fragile (as in the example of restaurants) or merely robust, even harboring a bit of antifragility (taxi drivers), their ecosystem (the restaurant scene) becomes antifragile. And he is right to point out that size can make you fragile: it is probably true that large projects are intrinsically over time and over budget due to intrinsic negative convexity, and that “the problem of cost overruns and delays is much more acute in the presence of information technologies”. Yet, one cannot seriously propose the London Crystal Palace (an overgrown conservatory built in 1850-51) as a model of architectural effectiveness, let alone human achievement, today.

It seems to me that in deliberately ignoring that it is mostly large organizations that create large economic surpluses, Taleb gets way too close to the current “degrowth” narrative, a crackpot economic proposition if there ever was one. While he openly despises large corporations and the people who work in them, he seems happy to write up his books on a computer built in a very large factory in China (as long as it is a subcontractor for Apple), to have his writings published by very large publishing houses, and to fly in planes built by large corporations and run by other large corporations (even while pointing out the fragility of air traffic control systems), for example to meet interesting people in Davos, at a large annual World Economic Forum gathering that would not exist if there were no very large corporations to sponsor it. Even the aforementioned New York Public Library is probably a much too large and bureaucratic organization for his taste, given that his model for an antifragile life and thinking is the “flâneur with a large private library”, no doubt acquired via independent (often antiquarian) booksellers.

With the exception of, say, drug dealers, small companies and artisans tend to sell us healthy products, ones that seem naturally and spontaneously needed; larger ones— including pharmaceutical giants— are likely to be in the business of producing wholesale iatrogenics, taking our money, and then, to add insult to injury, hijacking the state thanks to their army of lobbyists. Further, anything that requires marketing appears to carry such side effects. […] There is no product that I particularly like that I have discovered through advertising and marketing: cheeses, wine, meats, eggs, tomatoes, basil leaves, apples, restaurants, barbers, art, books, hotels, shoes, shirts, eyeglasses, pants (my father and I have used three generations of Armenian tailors in Beirut), olives, olive oil, etc.

Eyeglasses? Last time I checked mine, Luxottica had made those – and Luxottica is a very large multinational that has long abandoned its “small is beautiful” stage. Maybe Mr. Taleb orders his glasses from Warby Parker – fine. But do Warby Parker’s owners really not want to grow it into a much larger company? And does Mr. Taleb like a glass of vintage Chateau d’Yquem less than a Greek retsina, knowing that Chateau d’Yquem is owned by LVMH, a large corporation, and not a small artisan?

In summary, Antifragile is a thoughtful book with much to recommend it for, and you should read it if you like the author’s broad, non-academic erudition, share his reverence for ancient history and Mother Nature, and don’t mind his personal quirks too much; but the book’s flaws in tone of voice – and, sometimes, in argumentation – make it less strong than it otherwise could have been.

Behind Boardroom Doors. Essays by Betsy Atkins

BetsyAtkinsIt turns out there is some stuff that they don’t teach you in business school, and that you have to catch up on later, in your own self-directed continuing studies program. Corporate governance is one of those things. Luckily, I just read a book about corporate governance that isn’t a dry, legalistic tome about procedures and standards, but an account from the trenches of real board experience: Behind Boardroom Doors: Lessons of a Corporate Director, by Betsy Atkins.

You can read my review here. The chapter I found most engaging is “My 16 Days on the HealthSouth Board”, adapted from an essay you can read here, as good an account of crisis management as I’ve ever read. If you have an interest in matters of corporate governance, and perhaps you’re just starting out as a board director, reading this book will be like going to dinner with a very experienced director and getting all the precious nuggets from her. Enjoy it!

There is really no summer at all. From John Cheever’s Journals

What year, what summer it is, it does not matter. John Cheever is struggling to write, tired, preoccupied with money and lust. A journal entry:

Yesterday. A hot, midsummer day, past haying weather. Hot. In the back rooms the smell of burning paper from the heat. Then how subtly the air becomes fresh at dark and how a perfectly round, pale moon comes out of the woods. There is the excitement of autumn in the cool damp air and the light of the moon, coming back across the field through the orchard, the rich smell of windfalls, the beautiful flavor of an apple – and the next day will be still, hot, the next moonlight night will seem like fall; this variety, this continuous and stimulating play on your senses and your memory. How subtly the autumn arrives on the northwest wind and the full moon. There is really no summer at all; the summer is an illusion. The flowers are formed on the goldenrod by the Fourth of July, the green of the maples has begun to fade. The calendar of flowers, gin bottles, steak bones.

Half a page later, it is the end of November and it is snowing.

Family and summer reading. Three recommendations

What do you do if your mother and father drive off one morning and rob a bank?

What do you do if your brother shows up to visit you weighing 386 pounds?

What do you do if your sister calls for help because your nephew has thrown a frozen pig’s head into a mosque?

These are the fictional premises of the three novels I want to recommend today – Canada by Richard Ford, Big Brother by Lionel Shriver, and The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout. All three of them are about how families can go wrong, very wrong; and all three of them make you bless the comfort of an uneventful family.

Morozov, Lanier, and the intelligent reading of books and critiquing of ideas

Much ink has been spilled in recent weeks about two new books, To Save Everything, Click Here by Evgeny Morozov and Who Owns the Future? by Jaron Lanier, taking very different approaches to criticism of our collective behavior on the Internet. Of course, I would like nothing more than to devote serious time to the reading, discussing and perhaps reviewing of serious books. Yet, life being what is it, I only make this happen on summer vacations anymore; and I’m glad a good friend, somewhat quaintly, gave me for my birthday a paper copy of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Antifragile, so that the sheer material presence of the object might get me to read it, much like a house plant gets you to water it ora a dog to walk it.

But back to Morozov and Lanier. It was only thanks to a tweet by Esther Dyson that I discovered and read this evening a thoughtful piece about the two books written by Maria Bustillos, and I decided that Lanier’s gets the higher spot on my summer reading list. Then I found that Bustillos also wrote a long and worthwhile article on Udacity and MOOCs, which I recommend you read if you liked my short and techno-optimistic blog post about online education last month. Then I had do do some work, and then I have to get some sleep – you know what I mean. If you don’t have time for the books or the debate, do read the articles.

Lanier’s book has two covers, so he gets two pictures in this post. I do prefer the UK one, with its delicate blossoms.

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