Let's make nice things with biology. Working on biosecurity at iGEM. Also into lab automation, event production, donating to global health. From Toronto, lived in the SF Bay, currently à Paris. Website: tessa.fyi


Bad Omens in Current Community Building

a rhetorical move that introduces huge moral stakes into the world-view in order to push people into drastically altering their actions and priorities

What is the definition you'd prefer people to stick to? Something like "being pushed into actions that have a very low probability of producing value, because the reward would be extremely high in the unlikely event they did work out"?

The Drowning Child argument doesn't seem like an example of Pascal's Mugging, but Wikipedia gives the example of:

"give me five dollars, or I'll use my magic powers from outside the Matrix to run a Turing machine that simulates and kills 3 ↑↑↑↑ 3"

and I think recent posts like The AI Messiah are gesturing at something like that (see, even, this video from the comments on that post: Is AI Safety a Pascal's Mugging?).

Hypertension is Extremely Important, Tractable, and Neglected

I haven't looked into this in detail (honest epistemic status: saw a screenshot on Twitter) but what do you think of the recent paper Association of Influenza Vaccination With Cardiovascular Risk?

Quoting from it, re: tractable interventions:

The effect sizes reported here for major adverse cardiovascular events and cardiovascular mortality (in patients with and without recent ACS) are comparable with—if not greater than—those seen with guideline-recommended mainstays of cardiovascular therapy, such as aspirin, angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors, β-blockers, statins, and dual antiplatelet therapy.

Bad Omens in Current Community Building

Minor elaboration on your last point: a piece of advice I got from someone who did psychological research on how to solicit criticism was to try to brainstorm someone's most likely criticism of you would be, and then offer that up when requesting criticism, as this is a credible indication that you're open to it. Examples:

  • "Hey, do you have any critical feedback on the last discussion I ran? I talked a lot about AI stuff, but I know that can be kind of alienating for people who have more interest in political action than technology development... Does that seem right? Is there other stuff I'm missing?"
  • "Hey, I'm looking for criticism on my leadership of this group. One thing I was worried about is that I make time for 1:1s with new members, but not so much with people that have been in the group for more than one year..."
  • "Did you think there was there anything off about our booth last week? I was noticing we were the only group handing out free books, maybe that looked weird. Did you notice anything else?"
Request for proposals: Help Open Philanthropy quantify biological risk

Some recent-ish resources that potential applicants might want to check out:

David Manheim and Gregory Lewis, High-risk human-caused pathogen exposure events from 1975-2016, data note published in August 2021.

As a way to better understand the risk of Global Catastrophic Biological Risks due to human activities, rather than natural sources, this paper reports on a dataset of 71 incidents involving either accidental or purposeful exposure to, or infection by, a highly infectious pathogenic agent.

Filippa Lentzos and Gregory D. Koblentz, Mapping Maximum Biological Containment Labs Globally, policy brief published in May 2021 part of the Global Biolabs project.

This study provides an authoritative resource that: 1) maps BSL4 labs that are planned, under construction, or in operation around the world, and 2) identifies indicators of good biosafety and biosecurity practices in the countries where the labs are located.

2021 Global Health Security Index, https://www.ghsindex.org/.

If you click through to the PDFs under each individual country profile, they have detailed information on the country's biosafety and biosecurity laws! (Example: the exact laws aren't clear from https://www.ghsindex.org/country/ukraine/ but if you click through to the "Country Score Justification Summary" PDF (https://www.ghsindex.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/12/Ukraine.pdf) it has like 100 pages of policy info.

Request for proposals: Help Open Philanthropy quantify biological risk

One now-inactive past project in this space that I would highlight (since I would very much like something similar to exist again) is The Sunshine Project. Quoting its (sadly very short) Wikipedia page:

The Sunshine Project worked by exposing research on biological and chemical weapons. Typically, it accessed documents under the Freedom of Information Act and other open records laws, publishing reports and encouraging action to reduce the risk of biological warfare. It tracked the construction of high containment laboratory facilities and the dual-use activities of the U.S. biodefense program.

Some more on Edward Hammond's work/methods show up in this press article on The Worrying Murkiness of Institutional Biosafety Committees:

In 2004, an activist named Edward Hammond fired up his fax machine and sent out letters to 390 institutional biosafety committees across the country. His request was simple: Show me your minutes.


The committees “are the cornerstone of institutional oversight of recombinant DNA research,” according to the NIH, and at many institutions, their purview includes high-security labs and research on deadly pathogens.


When Hammond began requesting minutes in 2004, he said, he intended to dig up information about bioweapons, not to expose cracks in biosafety oversight. But he soon found that many institutions were unwilling to hand over minutes, or were struggling to provide any record of their IBCs at all. For example, he recalled, Utah State was a hub of research into biological weapons agents. “And their biosafety committee had not met in like 10 years, or maybe ever,” Hammond said. “They didn’t have any records of it ever meeting.”

EA and the current funding situation

I logically acknowledge that: "In some cases, an extravagant lifestyle can even produce a lot of good, depending on the circumstances... It’s not my preferred moral aesthetic, but the world’s problems don’t care about my aesthetics."

I know that, but... I care about my aesthetics.

For nearly everyone, I think there exists is a level of extravagance that disgusts their moral aesthetics. I'm sure I sit above that level for some, with my international flights and two $80 keyboards. My personal aesthetic disgust triggers somewhere around "how dare you spend $1000 on a watch when people die of dehydration". Giving a blog $100,000 isn't quite disgusting, yet, ew?

The post I've read that had the least missing mood around speculative philanthropy was probably the So You Want To Run A Microgrants Program retrospective on Astral Codex Ten, which included the following:

If your thesis is “Instead of saving 300 lives, which I could totally do right now, I’m gonna do this other thing, because if I do a good job it’ll save even more than 300 lives”, then man, you had really better do a good job with the other thing.

I like the scenario this post gives for risks of omission: a giant Don't Look Up asteroid hurtling towards the earth. I wouldn't be mad if people misspent some money, trying to stop it, because the problem was so urgent. Problems are urgent!

...yet, ew? So many other things look kind of extravagant, and they're competing against lives. I feel unsure about whether to treat my aesthetically-driven moral impulses as useful information about my motivations vs. obviously-biased intuitions to correct against.

(For example, I started looking into donating a kidney a few years ago and was like... man, I could easily save an equal number of years of life without accruing 70+ micromorts, but that's not nearly as rad? Still on the fence about this one.)

[crosspost from my twitter]

The Future Fund’s Project Ideas Competition

You might be interested to know that iGEM (disclosure: my employer) just published a blog post about infohazards. We currently offer biorisk workshops for teams; this year we plan to offer a general workshop on risk awareness, a workshop specifically on dual-use, and potentially some others. We don't have anything on general EA / rationality, though we do share biosecurity job and training opportunities with our alumni network.

A Biosecurity and Biorisk Reading+ List

On passive technologies, I imagine the links from Biosecurity needs engineers and materials scientists would be informative. The areas highlighted there under "physical protection from pathogens" are:

  • Improving personal protective equipment (PPE)
  • Suppressing pathogen spread in the built environment
  • Improving biosafety in high-containment labs and clinics
  • Suppressing pathogen spread in vehicles

For spread in vehicles and the built environment, my sense (based on conversations with others, not independent research) is that lots of folks are excited about about upper-air UV-C systems to deactivate viruses. I don't know the best reading on that so here's a somewhat random March 2022 paper on the subject: Far-UVC (222 nm) efficiently inactivates an airborne pathogen in a room-sized chamber

(For all of these comments, take these resources as a lower-intensity recommendation than other things on this list, since these are selected based on the criteria of "things that seem relevant to this topic" rather than "things I found particularly interesting".)

A Biosecurity and Biorisk Reading+ List

On cyberbiosecurity:

(For all of these comments, take these resources as a lower-intensity recommendation than other things on this list, since these are selected based on the criteria of "things that seem relevant to this topic" rather than "things I found particularly interesting".)

A Biosecurity and Biorisk Reading+ List

Under Solutions to deal with misinformation, Tara Kirk Sell at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security has done a bunch of related work (her list of publications includes things like a National Priorities to Combat Misinformation and Disinformation for COVID-19 and Future Public Health Threats: A Call for a National Strategy and Longitudinal Risk Communication: A Research Agenda for Communicating in a Pandemic). She was also interviewed for the 80,000 Hours podcast in May 2020, though I suspect her thinking has evolved since then.

(For all of these comments, take these resources as a lower-intensity recommendation than other things on this list, since these are selected based on the criteria of "things that seem relevant to this topic" rather than "things I found particularly interesting".)

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