Ben Williamson

Currently undertaking a pilot project on behalf of the EA Infrastructure Fund researching the most effective ways people can improve their wellbeing. (more info here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1OFXR8Ltuo73lqt6_kjoPBJogkuQ8B-RHzE12GRPfpCU/edit?usp=sharing

For a scattered and poorly-maintained collection of things I've written and views I hold: https://bcswilliamson.com/

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Ben's Shortform

Project Proposal - The Altruist

Rough notes on an idea for a potentially large, high-impact project: launching an EA-focused, online long-form newspaper

"News, articles, and interviews on doing the most good"

 

 

What?

Concept: a news agency providing journalistic coverage of EA topics and organisations. 

In the style of ...The Atlantic; Vox; the Economist; the New Yorker; Current Affairs.

 

Types of articles this could include:

  • Interviews with B-Tier figures - I think the public face of EA is limited around a small number of A-Tier individuals (e.g. Will McAskill; Toby Ord; Peter Singer; Holden Karnofsky). Interviewing people directing highly-impactful work and organisations could increase the number of public figureheads for the community and generate interest in a wider range of organisations.
    • Interviewees could include figures within EA (e.g. Joey Savoie and Karolina Sarek (Charity Entrepreneurship); Michael Plant (Happier Lives Institute); Marcus Davis and Peter Wildeford (Rethink Priorities).
    • Interviewees could also include figures from high-impact organisations not directly tied to the EA community working on priority causes (e.g. Armond Cohen - Clean Air Task Force; Rob Mather - AMF). This could help to better publicise these organisations, potentially increasing donations and support for them.
  • Community member profiles - interviews discussing the story and motivations of a wide range of people in the community, highlighting its diversity of perspectives, motivations, and backgrounds. (e.g. https://www.theguardian.com/money/2019/nov/09/i-give-away-half-to-three-quarters-of-my-income-every-year)
  • Narrative-driven cause profiles - articles that aim to explain key concepts within EA (e.g. longtermism) in a particularly engaging and relatable way (e.g. rooted in the stories of a few individuals or told from a perspective looking back on today from the future)
  • Success stories - highlight and celebrate progress made on key issues, either by EA organisations or more generally (e.g. positive government policy changes)
  • Guest posts from the Forum - with permission from authors, present the best few recent articles posted to the Forum in a more engaging, readable manner (e.g. with professional copyediting; with (more) pictures and diagrams)

 

Why? 

  • This would improve public perceptions of EA and key ideas while helping to mitigate future reputation risks.
  • Journalistic articles (e.g. interviews, story-based write-ups of key issues) provide a more accessible and appealing way of initially engaging with the ideas of effective altruism than currently exists.
    • Articles from The Altruist could provide a more engaging tool for community members to share the concept of EA with others. On a rough basis, I think attractive, long-form articles would be more engaging (a more familiar style; less content-dense; greater curation; a greater focus on readability) to a novice audience than the Forum or the effectivealtruism.org website.
  • This could provide valuable publicity and an increase in donations to organisations within EA that currently struggle for coverage (e.g. some of the charities more recently incubated by Charity Entrpreneurship)
  • If produced to a sufficient level of quality, these articles could be picked up by other news organisations and published elsewhere. Feasibly, this could increase the coverage of EA in other places as articles are published by certain news organisations that would not have commissioned the article from scratch.

How? 

  • CEA could provide seed funding for the organisation, assembling a small, well-qualified team to produce and curate the coverage.
  • Funding could be provided publicly or privately depending on whether explicit links between The Altruist and CEA would be beneficial or detrimental to either/ both organisation(s).
  • A pilot version could be produced with a skeleton website hosting an initial 5-10 high-quality articles, plus a digital magazine containing these articles advertised on the Forum and distributed via an email sign-up.
  • With sufficient popularity, The Altruist could feasibly later become fully independent and financially self-sustaining, either through advertising or subscriptions.
Ben's Shortform

EA groups should focus more on demonstrating value to new students

Aritcle idea posted here so I might be more likely to write it up properly in future. In the spirit of the best being the enemy of the good.

My relatively uninformed opinions on why some uni groups might be struggling to grow, or not growing as large/ fast as they could be...

  1. I think the current standard uni group programs can be off-putting to a significant proportion of potential participants
  • Intro fellowships and book clubs require work/ commitment on the part of the participant (application and weekly readings for the fellowship; weekly book chapters for the book club) with little demonstration of why that will be valuable for the student.
    • I think there's an over-reliance on an implicit assumption that people's curiosity about EA and desire to do good will be sufficiently motivating.
  • I don't think this is the optimum way of encouraging people to get involved as potentially good people are put off by the commitment necessary to get involved.
  • EA groups are competing for students' time with more general socialising, other societies, work commitments, coursework, adjusting to living in a new place, etc. A better value pitch is needed to incentivise people to choose EA involvement over other things that often offer more explicit benefits.

2. I think there's good ways in which EA groups can (better) market their value to new students

  • EA offers valuable career guidance for students (80k; 1:1 coaching; EA Forum articles) that new students could find useful once they're familiar with EA
  • EA offers lots of volunteering/ internship/ funding opportunities for students looking to build work experience to get involved in high-impact work
  • EA groups could put a greater emphasis on social/ other events that don't require work in advance (e.g. are just an opportunity to meet other people interested in improving the world effectively)
  • EA groups could teach the skills/ methods that underpin the EA and Rationality communities and are valuable framing for engaging with other work/ general life decisions (e.g. expected value; cost-effectiveness analyses; BOTECs; etc.)
Is it no longer hard to get a direct work job?

I can only speak for my experience of applying for and being offered funding for independent research by the EA Infrastructure Fund.
I intend to write a full post about this in the near future but my impression is that this is an option more recent graduates (and other people early in their careers) should consider.

I think EA Funds are more open to applications for small grants to people without a large base of experience than I expected before applying. I don't think my application was particularly exceptional on any level and so I think it's reasonable that many other people could find this a viable avenue for building skills and testing out potentially high-impact ideas.

Sleep: effective ways to improve it

Thank you for the feedback!

There's a few points you make that I feel are important to clarify but I want to first acknowledge that the format and presentation of the research is a work in progress and could definitely be improved. In particular, I can agree that the "5.95/10" numbers aren't particularly useful given the lack of any context/ scale.

To respond quickly to a few specific points:
1) This research was overwhelmingly based on the existing literature. I chose not to include a reference list or in-text citations to maximise the readability of the text but perhaps this was an error.
2) The interventions' strength of effect, which accounts for about 40% of the score, is an average of improvements in sleep efficiency and total sleep time found in the literature I reviewed. In hindsight, I think it could have been better to highlight these findings on their own in the text and may add them in.
3) The focus of this research was to explore interventions that the reader is less likely to have heard of previously. I assumed that ideas like avoiding alcohol and late naps are things that nearly all readers would already know. On that basis, I felt that highlighting them in an article like this is unlikely to produce any change in behaviour, though I can see now the potential usefulness of presenting the size of effect. 
4) I think an article like this recommending low-cost, personal interventions can reasonably have a different approach and level of rigour to one recommending charitable interventions and/or shifting large sums of money. A weighted factor model may not be the best way to frame this research but I think additional considerations like the potential risks and additional benefits of a recommendation are important and necessary to highlight. 

These points make me realise that a more explicit description of the methods used and the literature reviewed would be valuable for future posts, rather than linking to them in out-of-text docs or leaving them out for a marginal improvement to the conciseness of the text.

This is the first post intended in a series and I expect to revise and improve the methods involved with each post and certainly the feedback I get on posts helps to direct that process. As a first attempt, some of the process was not as rigorous as it could or perhaps should be. In part, this is a relatively time-limited project for now (~3 months) so I am sacrificing some potential added depth in each post for the ability to cover more topics.

On a final note, I have immense respect and appreciation for the work of HLI and so really appreciate the feedback from someone who does wellbeing research at a much higher level!

Sleep: effective ways to improve it

Cheers! It's great to know that this work has been useful, or at least interesting, for people.

Sleep: effective ways to improve it

Thank you! I'm definitely interested in potential additional benefits from being outside. I have a rough intention to do a more in-depth analysis of bright light exposure and its full range of wellbeing benefits at some point. I think this, alongside vitamin D, approximates a good amount of the benefit of being outdoors.

Sleep: effective ways to improve it

Both the Slate Star Codex and Gwern articles are great and helped inform the article! (I think both are linked at points in the text)

And yes, 2 hours is the timing used in the Zhdanova study. I couldn't find a clear consensus on any particular timing so I have chosen this without doing significant further research. I completely agree with you that experimenting with the timing of it seems ideal.

Sleep: effective ways to improve it

I think that's a fair point about the title and have changed it in light of that. I'm curious as to what you'd expect the other 50% of effect to come from? (no snarkiness intended)

Sleep: effective ways to improve it

+1 for the Waking Up recommendation. Definitely the best meditation app I've used, with a lot of interesting content around what it means to live well more generally, plus the series with Will MacAskill on EA. I'm planning to do a proper write-up of meditation and mindfulness benefits and options in the near future.

Sleep: effective ways to improve it

Thanks for the suggestions! I think I may come back to this and expand the number of interventions I've reviewed and these are valuable suggestions that could well be worth promoting.

Temperature and daytime sunlight are both somewhat mentioned in the article already but may be worthy of their own specific sections. I'd expect the benefits of daytime sunlight to roughly equal light exposure + Vitamin D. Given that, I think light therapy probably covers the majority of the positive effect but this likely warrants more specific research.

With the larger project I'm working on in mind, there's a balance to be struck between research depth on a certain topic and breadth in the number of topics that I cover over the next few months, so there's definitely more depth that could be added to an article like this to improve it.

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