Sunday, May 15, 2016

Book Review: The Most Good You Can Do by Peter Singer

Effective altruism is the practice of donating money based on where it will do the most good in the world. Research shows that currently only a small amount of the world's charity is donated this way. Most people donate money based on emotional appeal (look at this photo of a sick child) or personal connection (their alma mater, a friend's fundraiser), and limited to their own locale or country.

The concept of effective altruism appeals to me a lot because it is like a turbo boost to the Secret Peace. The main thesis of my book is that the world slowly and inexorably gets better just due to people going about their lives, since most people contribute to civilization in some small way. If people were to actively try to make the world a better place - and of course many people do this - it would speed along this process. And if those people were able to focus their energy in the most effective way, on the world's most dire but solvable problems, well, then you get that turbo boost.

So, the more people that buy into effective altruism, the better. And it doesn't take a lot. It just means that whatever amount of money you normally donate to charity, try to donate it to the best places. There are organizations that rank charities (such as GiveWell) and can recommend the best ones. (Singer makes the good point that the frequent criteria "What % of your money is wasted on overhead?" is not as important as "Is our work actually effective?") And, if you don't already donate a good chunk of your income to charity, try to donate a little more. Because I can tell you, if you're reading this, there is definitely someone out there who needs it more than you.

Unfortunately, if the goal is to get more people to do this, I don't know that Singer's book is the one to do it. It's just not inspiring. It has a little more of a lecturing tone, sadly. My main concern with this book is not its noble intention, but that Singer's philosophical habit of arguing via anecdotes and hypothetical examples is contrary to the ethical altruists' aims of focusing on hard data.

Singer's focus on elevating animals to human status is also distracting in the book. I get that this is his famous thing, but it's just a separate issue. It's trying to do two things at once. I agree with his focus on empathy and a lot of his writing in this regard, such as the expanding circle, but here it's overreach.

I was hoping for more of a focus on comparing the different topics we could be spending resources on and ranking them. Instead, we get similar arguments for the main idea, repeated. The book is not structured well.

And while I agree with 90% of Singer's utilitarian leanings, I disagree that the logical end of the super effective altruist is taking a job you loathe or job that hurts others, just to make enough money to help more others. The ends can not justify the means. We have to approach the problem from both sides, and every part of our lives should be consistently ethical.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

How many languages will you soon be able to speak?

In an article on the great IFL Science, David Arbesu talks about an area in which technology is quickly advancing: translation. He basically rebuts the Wall Street Journal's Alec Ross, who argues that within a decade, we'll be able to talk to someone in a different language using small earpieces and microphones - and presumably an app on our phones. (I mentioned the leaps of progress we've made towards this direction in my book, too.) But Arbesu argues that this will never come to pass, for no matter how good computer translation might get, it will never quite pick up the ineffable nuance of human speech.

It's true that live translation is a tough problem that has vexed many and won't be easily overcome. But I have faith. Sure, computers will need to get semantically smarter, but they're headed in this direction. Have you tried Word Lens? It's an app that has been out for at least five years now, which translates written text live as you point your phone camera at things. It's particularly useful for reading signs when in another country (probably not while driving). It's clunky, but it works, and is there any way to imagine a world in which this technology does not improve?

I always regretted not becoming fluent in a second language. I wasn't able to muster the will to get far past rudimentary French and Spanish lessons. Of course, there are many benefits to learning other languages, but the petty part of me is looking forward to saying "See? I didn't need to do this! I told you so" on this one. I'm really looking forward to where this technology is going to go.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Landmark Environmental Deal

I saw a video clip someone Facebooked recently showing how bad Beijing's smog is. It was a hyperbolic news segment that noted that "this is what an average day looks like here" while also mentioning at the end that they filmed on the record worst day of the year.

China has a real pollution problem, and it's terrible, but it doesn't worry me. That's a soluble problem. It's one we've solved before. As an Occupy Democrats post put it, "Woah! Think Beijing is smog-choked? Well NYC used to be just as bad. Many Americans have forgotten just how smoggy many of our cities were until Nixon signed the Clean Air Act in 1970. It took some time to really get off the ground, but its positive effects today are crystal clear."

The people of China have been desperate to climb out of poverty, so they made a choice to sacrifice the environment in the short-term. Just like developed countries around the world, once their citizens acquire a certain amount of wealth, they will start to prioritize a cleaner environment, and then take the steps to make it happen. (This is, of course, a simplification. Not everyone in China was able to participate in that choice. It's a choice they've made as a society, and not a democratic one.)

Here are some more photos of smoggy 1970s America.

Of course, this argument only holds water if there are no long-term negative externalities to this much pollution. As we know now, there are, of course: 1) the pain and death directly caused by air pollution and 2) climate change.

The first point is terrible but needs to be compared to the pain and death caused by poverty. I haven't done that math, but again, economists would say that millions of people are choosing the former over the latter. They would rather have pollution than poverty. The alternative to pollution in China is not just beautiful blue skies and scenic rural landscapes. It's the poverty that comes with those, until the country is able to eventually afford to adjust its development in a cleaner direction.

The second point, climate change, we're finally starting to see some action on. That's why it was reassuring to see the landmark Paris deal two months ago. It's not the final step, but it's still a step in the right direction.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

One round of Global Goals done, now it's time for the next

The reason that I called my book The Secret Peace is that while the world has been making unprecedented progress, many of us remain completely unaware of this transformation. As Nicholas Kristoff reports:

One survey found that two-thirds of Americans believed that the proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty has almost doubled over the last 20 years. Another 29 percent believed that the proportion had remained roughly the same.
That’s 95 percent of Americans — who are utterly wrong. In fact, the proportion of the world’s population living in extreme poverty hasn’t doubled or remained the same. It has fallen by more than half, from 35 percent in 1993 to 14 percent in 2011 (the most recent year for which figures are available from the World Bank).

A big driver of this change has been the UN Millennium Development Goals, which helped focus aid efforts and countries' priorities to focus on what matters most. Each country had specific targets in eight different topic areas. This creates hundreds of individual goals, and not all of them were met. But, against seemingly-impossible odds, the majority were.

The world has agreed on a new set of goals, the Global Goals. These 17 goals are even more ambitious - but achievable. It's a good idea for us all to familiarize ourselves with them, to be aware of the progress most of the world is focusing on.

Read more here.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Progress in Southeast Asia

Two recent incredible developments in Southeast Asia. First, ten countries recently signed a pact to form a European-Union-style organization. The countries - Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam - have a population of over 600 million, which is more than the EU itself.

Obviously there are always pros and cons to such an arrangement, but history shows that closer economic ties between countries lead to more development and less conflict overall.

In more immediate, concrete news, the military dictatorship in Myanmar was recently defeated in a fair election and seems due to concede power to a more democratic system. The New York Times reports:

The official results are still being tabulated, but all signs so far point to that rarest of things: an authoritarian government peacefully giving up power after what outside election monitors have deemed a credible vote.
Analysts and Myanmar’s citizens are still coming to grips with the results. But the outcome appears to stem from the simple fact that veneration for Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi was underestimated and the ruling party’s strength overestimated.
In the days before the elections, the ruling party organized large convoys of tractors to ride through the countryside. Thousands of farmers, wearing T-shirts given out by the party, chanted slogans and waved party flags. Wedding bands performed patriotic songs.
But that show of support was misleading. Many of the farmers said they had taken part in the rallies because they were paid, but when it came time to stamp their ballots, they voted for the National League for Democracy.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Everyday interactions

One of my friends posted this on Facebook recently and I thought it was very in the spirit of this blog:

Last night while taking the "G" train in Brooklyn, I observed New Yorkers interacting with one another. There was a Japanese-American woman talking to her infant child in a pram and standing next to her were three smartly dressed business men. The men began to interact with the baby and appeared to be competing to see who would be the first to make the baby laugh. On the opposite side were four teenage girls laughing and talking about their afternoon school concert. When we reached the end of the subway line and everyone departed the subway car, I saw one of the teenage girls walk over to the mother with the baby to help her lift and carry the baby pram up a flight of stairs.
My experiences with New Yorkers are no different then my experiences with folks from anywhere else. In lieu of recent horrible remarks made about certain ethnic groups, I want to mention that the teenage girl and one of the business men were of Middle-Eastern descent.
After spending the day with my three month old grandson, it was delightful to watch the three handsomely dressed adult men trying to make a baby laugh in a loud subway car and heartwarming to see the teenager reach out to help carry a stranger's baby pram up a flight of stairs. There is so much goodness in the world.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

What do you wish for this year?

The holiday season and New Year are the traditional time to re-examine what we want in our lives. When you're thinking about which gifts you want and what gifts to buy your loved ones, keep in mind that everyone's deep, core desires are basically the same - all around the earth.

Here's a heartwarming Wait But Why video that proves that point well.