Ben_West

Head of Community and Outreach at CEA. Non-EA interests include terrible puns, chess, YouTube, and applying science to things it isn't usually applied to.

Insta: @happy.effective.altruism TikTok: @benthamite

Ben_West's Comments

What posts do you want someone to write?

Awesome!

I personally would suggest a format of:
1. One paragraph summary that any educated layperson easily can understand
2. One page summary that a layperson with college-level math skills can understand
3. 2-5 pages of detail that someone with college-level math and Econ 101 skills can understand

This is just a suggestion though, I don't have a lot of confidence that it's correct.

What are examples of EA work being reviewed by non-EA researchers?

Probably more informal than you want, but here's a Facebook thread debating AI safety involving some of the biggest names in AI.

What posts do you want someone to write?

Defining "management constraints" better.

Anecdotally, many EA organizations seem to think that they are somehow constrained by management capacity. My experience is that this term is used in different ways (for example, some places use it to mean that they need senior researchers who can mentor junior researchers; others use it to mean that they need people who can do HR really well).

It would be cool for someone to interview different organizations and get a better sense of what is actually needed here

What posts do you want someone to write?

More accessible summaries of technical work. Some things I would like summarized:

1. Existential risk and economic growth
2. Utilitarianism with and without expected utility

(You can see my own attempt to summarize something similar to #2 here , as one example.)

Are there robustly good and disputable leadership practices?

If I had to suggest something which is both robustly good and disputable, I would suggest this principle:

Focus on minimizing the time between when you have an idea and when your customer benefits from that idea.

Evidence for being robustly good

This principle has a variety of names, as many different industries have rediscovered the same idea.

  1. The most famous formulation of this principle is probably as part of the Toyota Production System. Traditional assembly lines took a long time to set up, but once set up, they could pump out products incredibly fast. Toyota decided to change their focus instead towards responding rapidly, e.g. they set a radical goal of being able to change each of their dies in less than 10 minutes.
  2. Toyota’s success with this and other rapid response principles inspired a just-in-time manufacturing revolution.
  3. These principles were included in lean manufacturing, which has led to a variety of derivatives like lean software development and the lean startup.
  4. Another stream of development is in the software world, notably with the publication of the Manifesto for Agile Software Development, which drew from prior methodologies like Extreme Programming.
  5. Agile project management is now common in many technical fields outside of software.

This underlying principle, as well as its accoutrements like Kanban boards, can be seen in a huge variety of successful industries, from manufacturing to IT. The principle of reducing turnaround time can be applied by single individuals to their own workflow, or by multinational conglomerates. While it is easier to do agile project management in an agile company, it’s entirely possible for small teams (or even individuals) to unilaterally focus on reducing their turnaround times (meaning that this principle is not dependent on specific organizational cultures or processes).There are also more theoretical reasons to think this principle is robustly good. The planning fallacy is a well-evidenced phenomenon, and it reasonably would lead people to underestimate how important rapid responses are (since they believe they can forecast the future more accurately than they actually can).

Evidence for being disputable

  1. Waterfall project management (the antithesis of agile project management) is still quite common.
  2. Toyota’s success was in part due to how surprising their approach was (compared to the approach taken by US and European manufacturers).
  3. Each industry seems to require discovering this principle anew. E.g. The DevOps Handbook popularized these principles in IT Operations only a few years ago. (It explicitly references lean manufacturing principles as the inspiration.)
  4. The planning fallacy and other optimism biases would predict that people underestimate how important it is to respond rapidly to changes.

Other candidates

Some other possible principles which are both robustly useful and disputable:

  1. Theory of Constraints. This seems well evidenced (the principle is almost trivial, once stated) and managers are often surprised by it. However, I’m not sure it’s really “disputable” – it is more a principle that is unequivocally true, but hard to implement in practice.
  2. Minimize WIP”. This principle is disputable, and my impression is that certain areas of supply chain management consider it to be gospel, but I'm not sure how solid the evidence base for it is outside of SCM. Anecdotally, it's been pretty useful in my own work, and there are theoretical reasons to think it's undervalued (e.g. lots of psychological research about how people underestimate how bad distractions are).
  3. Talk to your customers a lot. Popularized by The Four Steps to the Epiphany and then later The Lean Startup. Well regarded among tech startups, but I’m less clear how useful it is outside of that.

Appendix: Evidence From India

One of the most famous experiments in management is Does management matter? Evidence from India. This involved sending highly-paid management consultants to randomly selected textile firms in India. The treatment group had significant improvements relative to the control group (e.g. 11% increase in productivity).How did they accomplish these gains? Through changes like:

  1. Putting trash outside, instead of on the factory floor
  2. Sorting and labeling excess inventory, instead of putting it in a giant heap
  3. Doing preventative maintenance on machines, instead of running them until they break down

I think the conclusion here is that “disputable” is a relative term – I doubt any US plant managers need to be convinced that they should buy garbage bins. Most of the benefits that the management consultants were able to provide were simply in encouraging adherence to (what managers in the US consider to be) “obvious” best practices. Those best practices clearly were not “obvious” to the Indian managers.

AMA: Elie Hassenfeld, co-founder and CEO of GiveWell

GiveWell hired a VP of Marketing last fall. Do you have any insights from marketing GW that would be applicable to other EA organizations? Are there any surprising ways in which the marketing you are doing is different from "traditional" marketing?

AMA: Elie Hassenfeld, co-founder and CEO of GiveWell

One for the World was incubated by GiveWell and received a sizable grant from the GH&D Fund.

The average American donates about 4% of their income to charity. (Some discussion about whether this is the correct number here). Given this, asking people to pledge 1% seems a bit odd – almost like you are asking them to decrease the amount they donate.

One benefit of OFTW is that they are pushing GiveWell-recommended charities, but this seems directly competitive with TLYCS, which generally suggests people pledge 2-5% (the scale adjusts based on your income).

It's also somewhat competitive with the Giving What We Can pledge, which is a cause-neutral 10%.

I'm curious what you see as the benefits of OftW over these alternatives? I'm also curious if you have visibility into your forecasts (namely, whether they will move 1-2x the money to top charities as they received in support this year)?

(This question mostly taken from here.)

AMA: Elie Hassenfeld, co-founder and CEO of GiveWell

The GH&D Fund on EA Funds is unusual in that it almost exclusively gives large ($500k+) grants. The other funds regularly give $10-50k grants.

Do you think there is an opportunity for smaller funders in the GH&D space? Do you think there are economies of scale or other factors which make larger grants more useful in the GH&D space than in other cause areas?

AMA: Leah Edgerton, Executive Director of Animal Charity Evaluators

Most of the animal welfare organizations that I know of which seem unusually effective are somehow related to EA. (E.g. I see staff from ACE's top charities regularly at EA Global.)

Are there parts of the effective animal advocacy ecosystem which don't overlap with EA? Do you have a sense for why these parts aren't involved with EA?

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