Progress Open Thread: January 2021

by Aaron Gertler1 min read2nd Jan 202110 comments

16

Open thread
Frontpage

The Progress Open Thread is a place to share good news, big or small.

See this post for an explanation of why we have these threads.

What goes in a progress thread comment? 

Think of this as an org update thread for individuals. You might talk about...

  • Securing a new job, internship, grant, or scholarship
  • Starting or making progress on a personal project
  • Helping someone else get involved in EA
  • Making a donation you feel really excited about
  • Taking the Giving What We Can pledge or signing up for Try Giving
  • Writing something you liked outside the Forum (whether it's a paper you've submitted to a journal or just an insightful Facebook comment)
  • Any of the above happening to someone else, if you think they'd be happy for you to share the news
  • Other EA-related progress in the world (disease eradication, cage-free laws, cool new research papers, etc.)
10 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 2:13 PM
New Comment

Toby Ord contributed 7 pages to the latest UN Human Development Report. The material won't be new to anyone who's read The Precipice, but it's heartening to see this kind of thing matter-of-factly added to such a major document.

I like that Ord explicitly tied x-risk management to the concept of sustainability. I've noticed that sustainability is a longtermist concept because it considers the needs of future generations, but I don't think there's been much crosstalk between advocates of sustainability and EA-style longtermism.

At the end of each year, I like to check in on Future Crunch's annual "99 Good News Stories" post. I don't necessarily see every inclusion as good ("China's birthrate fell again!"), but they nicely aggregate a lot of global health and development stories.

Some of my favorite inclusions from this year (note: haven't closely filtered to detect possible exaggerations or cloudy data, would appreciate knowing if anything sounds fishy):

32. Africa announced this year that it is officially free from wild polio. 25 years ago the disease still paralyzed more than 75,000 children across the continent every year. Since then, billions of oral vaccines have been provided, preventing 1.8 million cases. It's one of the greatest healthcare success stories of all time, and an extraordinary human achievement. BBC

33. There was a major breakthrough in 2020 in the fight against AIDS. A new antiretroviral administered as an injection six times a year was shown to be 89% more effective at preventing HIV in women compared to standard ARVs, which are taken as a daily pill. "A major, major advance. I don’t think we can overemphasize its importance." NYT

36. The WHO also published its annual tuberculosis report this year, showing that between 2015 and 2019, global deaths fell by 14%. In fact, progress against TB puts malaria in the shade - since 2000, treatments have averted more than 60 million deaths. 

38. In 2020 we discovered that humanity is winning its fight against the second leading cause of disability in the world - elephantiasis, a horrible parasitic disease causing irreversible disfigurement. In the last 20 years, the number of annual infections has fallen by three quarters, from 199 million to 51.4 million, and last year three countries, Malawi, Kiribati and Yemen, eliminated it altogether. The Lancet

39. The proportion of the world's children under the age of five infected with hepatitis B has now dropped to just under 1%, down from 5% in the early 2000s. 85% of kids around the world are now getting all three doses of the HBV vaccine - and Gavi says it is on track to avert a further 1.2 million infection-related deaths between 2021 and 2035. WHO

43. New research this year showed that the risk of a person developing dementia in the US and Europe is now 13% lower than it was in 2010 (Alzheimer’s is falling too, by 16% per decade). Researchers think it's down to less smoking, better cardiovascular health, and better education. NYT

66. New research this year showed that during the 2000s and 2010s, the global Gini coefficient dropped by 15 points and the earnings share of the world's poorest half doubled. The reason this feels so surprising is that most of us hardly ever read journalism written by people from Asia, Africa and South America. Uppsala

71. A UNICEF report on the Swachh Bharat Mission, India's massive sanitation drive, showed that it has brought major benefits to poor households across the country. The average benefit per household was US$727 per year, mainly from health savings such as reduced diarrhoea incidence (55%) and savings from sanitation access time (45%).

72. Indonesia, the fourth most populated country in the world, reported a significant decline in its number of illiterate people, from 4.63% of the population in 2011 to 1.78% in 2019. That means that almost 8 million adults there have gained the ability to read and write in the last decade. Jakarta Post

74. The IEA's annual report contained a hidden nugget of very, very good news this year. The number of people without access to electricity dropped from 860 million to 770 million, a new record low. Africa has made particularly good progress; the number of people gaining access to electricity doubled from 9 million a year in 2013, to 20 million a year by 2019.

Caution - negative outlook!

The IEA's annual report on access to electricity highlights that the pandemic had a huge negative impact on progress, and raise concerns about the potential for recovery. Furthermore, if the relevant SDG policies would continue as they are then they predict about 62% of people in sub-saharan africa with electricity (today we are at 48%). They suggest that further $35 billion per year is needed to get global worldwide access to electricity by 2030.

Thanks for providing the additional context! Progress Thread or no, it's still useful to hear when we've gone off-track from a progress goal, or seen a trend get worse.

"I have no idea what the hell I'm doing."

Do you ever feel this?

It's terrifying to really begin building an organization, especially one with as grand an ambition as saving the world, with a good chance of failure from any number of directions.

And to wonder... Am I taking the right action with this choice? Is this even the right choice to be focusing on? 

Past me precommitted to work on this for a year for a reason. He knew I would face self-doubt.

Knowing that of all the sources of failure, the biggest ones are endogeneous.

And it sucks, going through a metaruminatory loop, knowing that I can't just fix my errors. That my own awareness of my bugs is itself an impediment.

To be uncertain whether the uncertainty is the kind to accept, or the kind to change.

To be frozen in fear, imagining others observing my frozenness and feedbacking to me that this is unacceptable if I want to strive to perform at the tempo that they feel confident is symbolic and symbiotic of progress.

I am a longtermist. Morever I am a ponderer, a dilettante, an explorer. Yet I am also supposed to "move fast and break things". I need to be hypercompetent in 47 different ways, yet I need to expose my incompetency to learn how to be competent.

And the Pointed Questions from Projections Of Mine. 

"What's your plan?"

Well, uh, like, it's a fractal ball of wibbly wobbly stuff. Very ambitious endgoal as compass.  I have a very clear plan but it's not descriptively legible to you and it very quickly decomposes into a bunch of question marks.

"How is your thing different from X?"

It's, uh, it's not all about X. That's just a necessary utility to start with that I want to play with partly because it's aesthetically interesting--

"Things aren't working at this pace, you should take on this collaborator for increased motivation and success."

Well, how will that result in 20 years? Are all of their incentives aligned? Cofoundership is like a marriage.

And:

"Given you're sharing all of this lack of confidence, maybe it's a sign this isn't the thing to work on?"

That one's just in my head, I think (unless there's an illegible memory behind it). But I'll respond: I think the probably correct answer is that I would feel the same regardless of what I was working on to the point where I took the thing seriously enough to start feeling these feelings when hitting roadblocks. The hypothetical asker probably is typicalminding from their own differing psychology.

It's also the highest-impact thing to work on uncertain, counterfactually neglected projects! Probably. In my worldview, at least. 

"Is it really neglected though? What if there are competitors better than us? There are more competent organizations already out there, aren't there? Shouldn't we just go work for them?"

Uh. Well. I mean. I don't know. Can I work for another human being? Typically not? Most people can't take most jobs though, right? Neither of us knows how to fly a jet plane.

"That's a problem then. You should fix what's keeping you from getting a Real Job."

Oh...kay? Like I haven't debugged bits and pieces of that? And why would it matter? The world is burning and if you want to stop that you have to git gud at things that are related to putting the fire out.

"You should just go to college."

And put off working on important things for years? How am I going to learn more than through a startup? The option palette that comes to mind for you is conveniently shaped from a high-level ghost perspective that doesn't take into account that I am in the territory, not the map, and am navigating trailhead by trailhead. Your statement has no skin in the game. It sounds like you're saying you're not confident in my ability to bite and chew off high-variance objectives. (Maybe everyone in the process of constructing success gets shit-tested by people with bad advice.)

"My point is to do a scoped-down version of the thing you want in a training environment with plenty of slack."

Which is... sort of what I'm doing, with my R&D and slow MVP-building?

"But you should speed up and go faster."

Wha--? But you just said--

"Work on a different side-project that will make more money faster."

That's Goodharting! That's Mara and/or Moloch! Why the hell would you think that's more impactful than directly working on a thing of actual value rather than perceived value?

"Well you need money to comfortably work on an altruistic project."

So then shouldn't I... ask for fundraising?

"Justify why you think you deserve fundraising over ALL the other effective altruists asking for it, who are clearly more competent than you and have way more stuff on their resume."

I... okay. I'll meek out as small an income as I can to survive.

"You should get funding if this is a serious project. Also where is your website, why aren't you writing a nicely-worded whitepaper, where is your Github repo with code you've written, where is your stamp of approval from Prestigious Institution? Where the hell is your funding, how can I take this seriously if no one else has confidence in you enough to fund it?"

Well I have my Patreon...

"Are you really providing enough benefits to the world to justify that? Haven't you bought too many Taco Bell burritos, with meat in them to boot? Is it okay that your Patreon has grown statistically bigger than most people's yet you don't slave to provide artistic compensations like they do?"

Well I was just applying for foodstamps during the previous Focusmate session earlier...

"Do we deserve foodstamps!? We are taking from the collective coffer. We are privileged and if we're taking benefits then we're lazy, good-for-nothing--"

YES. WE DO. SHUT UP. WE ARE WORKING ON SECURING CIVILIZATION'S CONTINUED EXISTENCE. I THINK WE HAVE JUSTIFIED THAT RELATIVE TO OTHER BENEFICIARIES.

"Isn't that pretty entitled of you to assume that your project is 99.99% more valuable than anything else? Your ego seems pretty involved in this."

Yes. I am pretty emotionally invested with the mission. Critiques of it are bucket-errored with attacks on my survival. Perhaps this is a crux of my insecurity. I feel I have to succeed at saving the world and therefore this project. I would like to be more dispassionately objective about the situation.

"Why not just maintain a portfolio of projects?"

Which ones, of the 20-50 ideas I have? Where does the buck stop in one's decision to invest various amounts of resources in different things? Aren't we supposed to focus on high-potential things and Kelly bet with our resources? 

(The solution actually I think is that you can multitask if it's constructing a vertical of synergistic components.)

Why is failure so bad anyway? We just keep on trying until we hit a homerun; the costs of swinging are actually basically nil, all perceptions otherwise.

-

Few want to hear vulnerable talk such as this, at least in my broader culture. Evolutionarily, we don't want to have leaders who are losers, or we will, well, lose in the zero-sum games if we are part of their coalition. We want certain answers to important questions. Even if it's a lie, as long as it's confident and leads to strong coordination, and we believe others believe it even if we don't, then we'll accept lies from strong leaders who don't apologize for their bullshit. I find the levels of intentionality fascinating as a lens into understanding much social behavior.

Well, my serotonin isn't high enough, bucko. If you ask me anything skeptical I'll basically assume I'm about to be ostracized from the tribe forever for my flagrant stupidity.

I suppose therefore my only recourse is to register my Forever Incompetency in the face of all possible agents. There is always a human or an AI that is better. There is always a more advantaged comparator. I'm never not going to be this way against the biggest challenge I can, so I might as well get used to it and half ass it with everything I've got.

None of this is to say I don't have plenty confidence, or longterm grit. I just wanted to get this out there before I was tempted to make progress reports look shinier than they are, constantly adjusting the rough draft to make it look nice and impeachable, a possibility which becomes so costly that I end up not writing it.

We aren't in as many zero-sum games as we think. I think there is a fierce, blazing positive-sum game ahead of us, read to be built. On the Ethereum blockchain, naturally. ;)

I have made quite a bit of progress in the past month, subjectively speaking. Just don't ask me to quickly justify that statement in a few words. :)

And since I notice I didn't Declare it in the previous post, I will note:

I am committing a year of my life to making this work.

If this post resonated with you in some way and you want to talk, you can book a call here.

I started a new "What I believe" series on my Sunyshore blog about my ethical beliefs. The first post in the series is about why I believe total utilitarianism is closest to the correct ethical theory and its implications for society. I'm also working on a post about privacy and civil liberties. In the future, I might write a post for the "What I believe" series about effective altruism.

I've already gotten valuable feedback from members of the EA community who've critiqued my use of the Harsanyi original-position thought experiment. The goal of this post wasn't to present a bulletproof argument for utilitarianism but to explain my personal reasons for supporting it. Still, I appreciate all constructive feedback.

I like it, and look forward to see what you write on privacy (I'm feeling somewhat conflicted on this subject, and I'm curious as to how much gains we can have from privacy-preserving computation technologies). I want to encourage you to linkpost these to the forum! Is there a particular reason you aren't doing so?

Yeah, I didn't really linkpost this because I didn't think that a basic introduction to utilitarianism would fit in with the kinds of stuff that people usually post, which deals with philosophical topics at a more sophisticated level. But I can post it and the rest of the series!

[+][comment deleted]9mo 5