All of John_Maxwell's Comments + Replies

Why aren't you freaking out about OpenAI? At what point would you start?

I also noticed this post. It could be that OpenAI is more safety-conscious than the ML mainstream. That might not be safety-conscious enough. But it seems like something to be mindful of if we're tempted to criticize them more than we criticize the less-safety-conscious ML mainstream (e.g. does Google Brain have any sort of safety team at all? Last I checked they publish way more papers than OpenAI. Then again, I suppose Google Brain doesn't brand themselves as trying to discover AGI--but I'm also not sure how correlated a "trying to discover AGI" bra... (read more)

1AppliedDivinityStudies10dGoogle does claim to be working on "general purpose intelligence" [] I do think we should be worried about DeepMind, though OpenAI has undergone more dramatic changes recently, including restructuring into a for-profit, losing a large chunk of the safety/policy people, taking on new leadership, etc.
5steve215210dVicarious [] and Numenta [] are both explicitly trying to build AGI, and neither does any safety/alignment research whatsoever. I don't think this fact is particularly relevant to OpenAI, but I do think it's an important fact in its own right, and I'm always looking for excuses to bring it up. :-P Anyone who wants to talk about Vicarious or Numenta in the context of AGI safety/alignment, please DM or email me. :-)
The Cost of Rejection

It sounds like you're saying that there are many EAs investing tons of time in doing things that are mostly only useful for getting particular roles at 1-2 orgs. I didn't realize that.

I don't know that. But it seems like a possibility. [EDIT: Sally's story was inspired by cases I'm familiar with, although it's not an exact match.] And even if it isn't happening very much, it seems like we might want it to happen -- we might prefer EAs branch out and become specialists in a diverse set of areas instead of the movement being an army of generalists.

The Cost of Rejection

I think part of our disagreement might be that I see Wave as being in a different situation relative to some other EA organizations. There are a lot of software engineer jobs out there, and I'm guessing most people who are rejected by Wave would be fairly happy at some other software engineer job.

By contrast, I could imagine that stories like the following happening fairly frequently with other EA jobs:

  • Sally discovers the 80K website and gets excited about effective altruism. She spends hours reading the site and planning her career.

  • Sally converges

... (read more)

Interesting. It sounds like you're saying that there are many EAs investing tons of time in doing things that are mostly only useful for getting particular roles at 1-2 orgs. I didn't realize that.

In addition to the feedback thing, this seems like a generally very bad dynamic—for instance, in your example, regardless of whether she gets feedback, Sally has now more or less wasted years of graduate schooling.

The Cost of Rejection

Candidates haven't interacted with a human yet, so are more likely to be upset or have an overall bad experience with the org; this is also exacerbated by having to make the feedback generic due to scale


Candidates are more likely to feel that the rejection didn't give them a fair chance (because they feel that they'd do a better job than their resume suggests) and dispute the decision; reducing the risk of this (by communicating more effectively + empathetically) requires an even larger time investment per rejection

Are you speaking from experie... (read more)

It sounds like you interpreted me as saying that rejecting resumes without feedback doesn't make people sad. I'm not saying that—I agree that it makes people sad (although on a per-person basis it does make people much less sad than rejecting them without feedback during later stages, which is what those points were in support of—having accidentally rejected people without feedback at many different steps, I'm speaking from experience here).

However, my main point is that providing feedback on resume applications is much more costly to the organization, not... (read more)

The Cost of Rejection

On the topic of feedback... At Triplebyte, where I used to work as an interviewer, we would give feedback to every candidate who went through our technical phone screen. I wasn't directly involved in this, but I can share my observations -- I know some other EAs who worked at Triplebyte were more heavily involved, and maybe they can fill in details that I'm missing. My overall take is that offering feedback is a very good idea and EA orgs should at least experiment with it.

  • Offering feedback was a key selling point that allowed us to attract more appli

... (read more)

I was one of the people who edited interview notes and sent other feedback to Triplebyte candidates; I certify that everything John said here is correct, even re: the parts of the process he wasn't directly involved in, and I endorse his takeaways. This comment is more a response to John than it is a response to the OP, but hopefully/maybe people might still find it useful.

Feedback emails were about 25% of my job. As a team, we sent maybe 50 feedback emails on an average day (not totally sure here, numbers fluctuated a lot and also it was two years ago).

On... (read more)

4Daystar Eld12dThis is great to hear and an interesting read, thank you for sharing!
What Makes Outreach to Progressives Hard

Just for reference, there's a group kinda like Resource Generation called Generation Pledge that got a grant from the EA Meta Fund. I think they've got a bit more of an EA emphasis.

Insights into mentoring from WANBAM

We are currently actively exploring how we can scale and provide mentoring support, in addition to WANBAM, to our community (those who are interested in/ inspired by Effective Altruism) more broadly.

You probably thought of this, but I suppose you could move in more of an 80K-ish direction by asking mentees to take notes on the best generalizable advice they get in their mentoring conversations, then periodically publishing compilations of this (perhaps organized by topic or something). If I was a mentor, I think I'd be more willing to spend time mentoring if my advice was going to scale beyond a single person.

Yes! We have a couple of pieces a bit like this, notably our career profiles and a blog I put together /update around once a round of resources recommended by our mentors/mentees and indeed the piece above. In our post-survey, I ask mentees what was a particularly useful piece of advice their mentor gave them, and plan to create a blog in that vein when it hits a critical mass (we have a large cohort this time so I think that might be next round). Thank you, John! :) 

EA is a Career Endpoint

My sense is that Triplebyte focuses on "can this person think like an engineer" and "which specific math/programming skills do they have, and how strong are they?" Then companies do a second round of interviews where they evaluate Triplebyte candidates for company culture. Triplebyte handles the general, companies handle the idiosyncratic.

I used to work as an interviewer for TripleByte. Most companies using TripleByte put TripleByte-certified candidates through their standard technical onsite. From what I was able to gather, the value prop for compani... (read more)

1AllAmericanBreakfast5moThanks for that context, John. Given that value prop, companies might use a TB-like service under two constraints: 1. They are bottlenecked by having too few applicants. In this case, they have excess interviewing capacity, or more jobs than applicants. They hope that by investigating more applicants through TB, they can find someone outstanding. 2. Their internal headhunting process has an inferior quality distribution relative to the candidates they get through TB. In this case, they believe that TB can provide them with a better class of applicants than their own job search mechanisms can identify. In effect, they are outsourcing their headhunting for a particular job category. Given that EA orgs seem primarily to lack specific forms of domain expertise, as well as well-defined project ideas/teams, what would an EA Triplebyte have to achieve? They'd need to be able to interface with EA orgs and identify the specific forms of domain expertise that are required. Then they'd need to be able to go out and recruit those experts, who might never have heard of EA, and get them interested in the job. They'd be an interface [] to the expertise these orgs require. Push a button, get an expert. That seems plausible. Triplebyte evokes the image of a huge recruiting service meant to fill cubicles with basically-competent programmers who are pre-screened for the in-house technical interview. Not to find unusually specific skills for particular kinds of specialist jobs, which it seems is what EA requires at this time. That sort of headhunting job could be done by just one person. Their job would be to do a whole lot of cold-calling, getting meetings with important people, doing the legwork that EA orgs don't have time for. Need five minutes of a Senator's time? Looking to pull together a conference of immunologists to discuss biosafety issues from an EA perspecti
Introducing High Impact Athletes

Ryan Carey suggests that athletes could have an impact by giving EA presentations to high schoolers.

Geographic diversity in EA

But it's not easy to visit or live in an EA hub city like London or San Francisco, for most of the global population (financially, legally, for family reasons) ... Fewer like-minded people around you means you have to put in a lot more effort to stay engaged and informed

EA Anywhere might help :-)

How much does performance differ between people?

It might be worth discussing the larger question which is being asked. For example, your IMO paper seems to be work by researchers who advocate looser immigration policies for talented youth who want to move to developed countries. The larger question is "What is the expected scientific impact of letting a marginal IMO medalist type person from Honduras immigrate to the US?"

These quotes from great mathematicians all downplay the importance of math competitions. I think this is partially because the larger question they're interested in is different, som... (read more)

How much does performance differ between people?

YC having a low acceptance rate could mean they are highly confident in their ability to predict ex ante outcomes. It could also mean that they get a lot of unserious applications. Essays such as this one by Paul Graham bemoaning the difficulty of predicting ex ante outcomes make me think it is more the latter. ("it's mostly luck once you get down to the top 1-5%" makes it sound to me like ultra-successful startups should have elite founders, but my take on Graham's essay is that ultra-successful startups tend to be unusual, often in a way that makes th... (read more)

Apply now for EA Global: Reconnect (March 20-21)

They drifted away from the community, but are they still working towards EA goals?

  • If they have stopped working towards EA goals, going to this event could be an opportunity to explore whether this is a decision they [still] endorse.

  • If they have continued to work towards EA goals on their own, going to this event could be a good opportunity to learn & share the kind of things that are most readily learned & shared through face-to-face chitchat. (A fairly large set of things, in my experience.) Additionally, making new face-to-face connection

... (read more)
1kdbscott7moThanks John, these are useful points which also help me orient towards the conference!
Why Hasn't Effective Altruism Grown Since 2015?

Would it be better for people to describe their "conversion" experiences on a Forum thread?

I suspect the EA Survey is the ideal place to ask this sort of question because selection effects will be lowest that way. The best approach might be to gather some qualitative written responses, try to identify clusters in the responses or dimensions along which the responses vary, then formulate quantitative survey questions based on the clusters/dimensions identified.

Negative counterfactual impact of starting new charities

Will MacAskill wrote an article which discussed funding cannibalism here. Unfortunately the article seems to be behind a registration wall now; I don't know how deep his investigation was.

Why do content blockers still suck?

Sorry to hear about that.

I don't think there is anything on the market which blocks things by default

Not sure if this is helpful, but I turn my internet blocker on every night before bed, and only turn it on the next day after a self-imposed mandatory waiting period.

Why do content blockers still suck?

Most content blockers are free, right? Maybe what's going on is: there aren't incentives to make a free offering really good, but the existence of free offerings will discourage people from creating paid offerings. is a paid offering that looks like it might address some of your complaints.

2Denise_Melchin9moThanks for the response! Freedom unfortunately just stopped working for me many times. After I uninstalled and reinstalled it for the fifth time (which makes it work again for a while) and the customer service had no idea what was going on, I gave up. I still use it for my phone however. I don't think there is anything on the market which blocks things by default, which is the primary feature I am looking for, plus much more fine grained blocking (e.g. inability to access or google content containing specific phrases).
AMA: Elizabeth Edwards-Appell, former State Representative

Now that you have firsthand experience of the incentives that public office-holders (and candidates for public office) face, how do you think those incentives could be improved? Trying to take a meta approach here ;-)

Can I have impact if I’m average?

A couple reasons to be skeptical of the "top 1%" idea:

  • It does seem true that some people are much more famous than others, but I don't think we can trust the distribution of fame to accurately reflect the distribution of contributions. The famous CEO may get all the credit, but maybe they couldn't have done it without a whole host of key employees.

  • Even if the distribution of actual contributions is skewed, that doesn't mean we can reliably predict the big contributors in advance. I found this paper which says work sample tests used in hiring ("sugges

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My mistakes on the path to impact

See also answers here mentioning that EA feels "intellectually stale". A friend says he thinks a lot of impressive people have left the EA movement because of this :(

I feel bad, because I think maybe I was one of the first people to push the "avoid accidental harm" thing.

8Jakob_J1yI actually think the principles of deference to expertise and avoiding accidental harm are in principle good and we should continue using them. However, in EA the barrier to being seen as an expert is very low - often its enough to have written a blog or forum post on something, having invested less than 100 hours in total. For me an expert is someone who has spent the better part of his or her career working in a field, for example climate policy. While I think the former is still useful to give an introduction to a field, the latter form of expertise has been somewhat undervalued in EA.

"Stagnation" was also the 5th most often mentioned reason for declining interest in EA, over the last 12 months, when we asked about this in the 2019 EA Survey, accounting for about 7.4% of responses.

Should marginal longtermist donations support fundamental or intervention research?

I suspect you want a mix of both, and fundamental research helps inform what kind of intervention research is useful, but intervention research also helps inform what kind of fundamental research is useful. Given a long-term effect, you can try to find a lever which achieves that effect, or given a big lever that's available for pulling, you can and try to figure out what its long-term effect is likely to be.

2MichaelA1yYeah, I'd agree with this. This post is just about what to generally prioritise on the margin, not what should be prioritised completely and indefinitely. That sentence reminded me of a post (which I found useful) on The Values-to-Actions Decision Chain: a lens for improving coordination [] . Also, while I agree with that sentence, I do think it seems likely: * that fundamental research will tend to guide our intervention research to a greater extent than intervention research guides our fundamental research * that it'd often make sense to gradually move from prioritising fundamental research to prioritising intervention research as a field matures. (Though at every stage, I do think at least some amount of each type of research should be done.) This also reminds me of the post Personal thoughts on careers in AI policy and strategy [] , which I perhaps should've cited somewhere in this post. (Here it's probably worth noting again that I'm classifying research as fundamental or intervention research based on what its primary aim is, not things like how high-level vs granular it is.)
A Case and Model for Aggressively Funding Effective Charities

Sure, but if you only award prizes for the latter, I think people will gradually recognize the difference.

Maybe your point is that the opinions of loudmouths like myself will be overrepresented in such a scheme? Allowing for private submissions could help address that.

A Case and Model for Aggressively Funding Effective Charities

In terms of hearing diverse perspectives, I suspect there are more effective ways to accomplish that goal than having diverse funders. For example, a funder could require that a nonprofit lay their thinking out publicly in detail, and offer prizes for the best critiques other people write in response to their thinking. That way you're optimizing for hearing from people who think they have something to add.

3alexrjl1yOptimising for hearing from people who think they have something to add is not the same as optimising for heaing from people who actually have something to add.
Deliberate Consumption of Emotional Content to Increase Altruistic Motivation

I thought this recent Netflix documentary which talks a lot about Bill Gates' charity work was fairly inspiring (and informative). I haven't tried watching videos of suffering... I doubt it would be very motivating for the sort of study/brainstorm/write EA work I most want myself to do.

AMA: Owen Cotton-Barratt, RSP Director

Why not just have the people who need mentorship serve as "research personal assistants" to improve the productivity of people who are qualified to provide mentorship? (This describes something which occurs between professors and graduate students right?)

4MichaelA1yI've heard the view that more EAs should consider being research assistants to seemingly highly skilled EA researchers[1], both for their own learning and to improve those researchers' productivity. Is this what you mean? I didn't deliberately exclude mention of this from my above comment; I just didn't think to include it. And now that you mention it (or something similar), I'd be interested in Owen's take on this as well :) [1] One could of course also do this for highly skilled non-EA researchers working in relevant areas. I just haven't heard that suggested as often; I'm not sure if there are good reasons for that.
EA Cameroon - COVID-19 Awareness and Prevention in the Santa Division of Cameroon Project Proposal

I have no idea, I already shared my notes above! :) Perhaps the team could reach out to e.g. the author of the Johns Hopkins article?

BTW, I did find this article which argues for knitted masks:

However, I'm more inclined to trust Johns Hopkins. But maybe the author of the Johns Hopkins article would have interesting opinions on the above link.

Edit: Here's more info

1brb2431yOK, thank you. Added that better fitting masks made of denser material work better.
1brb2431yYes. In terms of percentage, how less effective are 4 layers of woven fabric in preventing the spread of coronavirus than 4 layers of knitted fabric? Than 2 layers of woven fabric? The idea is to have at least 4 layers of the sock (after folding) or at least 2 layers of other fabric. In preventing breathing in the virus?
AMA or discuss my 80K podcast episode: Ben Garfinkel, FHI researcher

My guess would be that if you play with GPT-3, it can talk about as well about human values (or AI alignment for that matter) as it can talk about anything else. In that sense, it seems like stronger capabilities for GPT-3 also potentially help solve the alignment problem.

Edit: More discussion here:

EA Cameroon - COVID-19 Awareness and Prevention in the Santa Division of Cameroon Project Proposal

Since you requested feedback, here are some quick thoughts:

While I very much hope Cameroon is able to bring COVID under control, it seems like this could be difficult based on what we've seen in other countries. So the part of your plan that I'm most optimistic about is the mask making, because I think that could save lives even if COVID is not brought under control. Somewhere I read (can't remember where unfortunately) that if you wear a mask, then you'll end up inhaling a smaller number of viral particles if you get exposed to an infected person, and i

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3brb2431yHi John, This is so cool! Actually EA Cameroon has done this research and they recommended using socks. However, all the resources will specify that any fabric works, as long as it covers mouth and nose. And yes, I should write an update. The mask-making will be explained via radio and also taught to community leaders who will then be able to run the workshops. It is actually a great idea to schedule these workshops. Everyone will be encouraged to share the general information regarding preventive measures.
Concern, and hope

Something I've been doing just a bit lately which seems to be working surprisingly well so far: If I see a polarizing discussion on EA Facebook, and someone writes a comment in a way which seems needlessly combative/confrontational to me, I add them as a friend and private message them trying to persuade them to rewrite their comment.

My general model here is that private 1-on-1 communication is much higher bandwidth, less ego-driven, and more amenable to the resolution of misunderstandings etc. However it's not nearly as scalable (in terms of the size of

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5Halffull1yHere's Raymond Arnold on this strategy: []
The 80,000 Hours podcast should host debates

Another way to accomplish something similar would be to post the podcasts to the EA Forum and have this be the official place for people to comment on them.

1jackmalde1yI like that idea. I think it would be great if we could do both!
EA Cameroon - COVID-19 Awareness and Prevention in the Santa Division of Cameroon Project Proposal

This looks like a great initiative!

I noticed that based on the link in your EA Forum profile, you're located in the Czech Republic--would you mind talking a bit about your relationship with EA Cameroon?

1brb2431ySure! I am currently connecting with EAs in sub-Saharan Africa with the intention of building the EA community there. During these conversations, I identified a project that the EA community may be interested in and offered to edit the writing of EA Cameroon.
EA Survey 2019 Series: How many people are there in the EA community?

Coming together weekly to meet in person as a movement, like megachurches do, is an interesting thought experiment. Post-COVID, if remote work is the new norm, it might be feasible to locate all of EA in a single city with low cost of living. Would this be a positive change? My intuition says yes, but with high uncertainty. Maybe it's just me being extroverted.

1david_reinstein9moWhether or not it's good or bad, it's a cool idea!
4David_Moss1yWe'll be addressing this indirectly in the next couple of posts as it happens.
Request for proposal - EA Animal Welfare Fund

Here's a project idea that someone might want to take on.

It's been argued (response) that bivalves have much reduced capacity for suffering compared to other commonly eaten animals. And according to this recent NY times article, "Mollusks like clams, oysters and scallops are also great low-carbon choices."

What could get people to substitute with bivalves? Lowering the price should help. A quick search on Amazon suggests that canned mussel (one of the bivalves highest in Omega-3s according to this chart) is 2-3x as expensive per ounce as canned salmon.


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Tips for overcoming low back pain has been amazing for all my chronic pain problems. Looks like he has a comprehensive guide for low back pain which might be worth checking out:

New Top EA Causes for 2020?

Get Joe Biden To Take Nootropics.

For a while, the 2020 American presidential contest was down to three men: The man with heart trouble, the man with brain trouble, and the man with ego trouble. But now that the man with heart trouble is ranking below Andrew Cuomo, who is not even running, in prediction markets for the Democratic nomination, it is looking increasingly likely that the American public will have to decide whether brain trouble or ego trouble is less disqualifying.

What they should be asking is which of brain trouble or ego trouble is more easi

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4evelynciara2yI detect elevated levels of malarkey in this comment :^)
4Khorton2yExcellent submission!
AMA: Toby Ord, author of "The Precipice" and co-founder of the EA movement

What are the most important new ideas in your book for someone who's already been in the EA movement for quite a while?

Are there any public health funding opportunities with COVID-19 that are plausibly competitive with Givewell top charities per dollar?

My best guess is no, but feel like I should throw this question out there in case anyone can think of plausible candidates.

Can you explain your thinking behind this? My model is that COVID-19 will spread to developing countries before too long, and once there, it will quickly become a much bigger problem than malaria etc. So the highest-impact global health intervention would appear to be "beta testing" of anti-COVID-19 interventions that we think can be transferred to a developing country context.

Anyway, this recent post on far-ultraviolet light look

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Advice for getting the most out of one-on-ones

If everyone records their 1-on-1s and rates their value on a scale of 1 to 10, along with various features that might be predictive of 1-on-1 value (e.g. how junior/senior they are, whether you're working on similar problems, whether you are from the same/different countries, your general conversational prompts/questions/conversation topic, etc.) then we can assemble a dataset and develop a predictive model of how valuable a 1-on-1 is likely to be. That helps with choosing who to meet with, and also persuading people to meet with you (if the predictive mo

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1Taymon2yI'm more likely to do this if there's a specific set of data I'm supposed to collect, so that I can write it down before I forget.
Open Thread #46

That occurred to me, but I've noticed myself feeling more willing to post in an Open Thread than post as shortform. LW also has shortform, but despite that, their monthly Open Threads are seeing a lot of activity:

2saulius2yok then, nevermind :)
What are the key ongoing debates in EA?

Apology accepted, thanks. I agree on point 2.

Insomnia with an EA lens: Bigger than malaria?

Since this insomnia is apparently a high-impact topic, I might as well share some anecdotes from my own battle with sleep difficulties.

I've had some success with behavioral solutions to insomnia ("don't use screens after 11 PM" type stuff). But the problem with behavioral solutions, in my view, is that they are too brittle. Life always happens and your habit breaks at some point. So in the spirit of Nassim Nicholas Taleb's comments on fragility, I've instead recently focused on finding "robust" or "antifragile" solutions to the problem of getting enough

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