22 December, 2015

Gauntlet: A Whimper Indeed

When I was very young, games were all about high scores. I can remember my uncle taking me to the arcade in the mall, where we'd play shooters and beat-em-ups, pinball and pac-man. At home, on the Atari, we'd compete in tank warfare, swing on vines across canyons, and box against one another for hours. But in the end, the focus was always on the high score.

That changed when I received the Nintendo Entertainment System for Christmas one year. Suddenly, the high score was an afterthought. In Super Mario Bros., what mattered was saving the princess, not gaining points. In the Legend of Zelda, the main goal was adventuring, not stockpiling numbers.

So when my friends and I first started playing Gauntlet II, we had a warped mindset.

Back then, you couldn't look online to learn more about games because there was no internet we could access. All we knew about Gauntlet was that all four of us could play together, and we would dive into that dungeon as deeply as we were capable, trying our best to beat the game. It quickly became a fan favorite among my friends, mostly because it allowed four player simultaneous play, a rarity among games back then. I have many memories of needing food badly only to find my supposed teammates shooting that much needed food before I could pick it up. Those were great times, and I look back on them fondly.

Yet the strongest memory I have is when one of my friends had a sleepover for their birthday, and we all vowed to finally beat Gauntlet II. We got started early on, and although we did many other things that night, there was always at least two players on the NES, working together to keep the party alive and progress further and further into that dungeon. Once we reached 50 levels deep, we were further than we had ever been, yet the game showed no signs of nearing the end. A friend said it can't be more than twice as many levels than Super Mario Bros., which had 8 worlds of 4 levels each, so we eagerly looked forward to level 65. Once it came and went, we all came back to the tv at level 99, only to find that level 100 was just another level of this impossibly deep dungeon.

But we persevered. While most of us played other games late into the night, we always had a rotation of two players on the NES, continually playing through each stage. Eventually, it became not just methodical but hollow; this was not hard, like TMNT or Battletoads, but it tried our patience nonetheless.

As the hours wore on, we got more and more tired. Still, we would all group up in front of the tv at level 150, level 200, level 250.... But it seemingly never ended. What if it had no end? What if this game was a throwback to the older games before the NES; what if it was like Pac-man, where no matter how long you played, you could never really beat it? But there were rumors even then that Pac-man could be beat, if you lasted long enough. We had no way of knowing whether this was true back then, but now the kill screen on level 256 of Pac-man is better known -- could the same be true of Gauntlet II?

Eventually we were "shape without form, shade without colour; paralysed force, gesture without motion". We were dead on our feet, and all other games came to an end. We pulled our sleeping bags close to the tv and took turns trying to stay awake past level 300, 350, 400. Some of us fell that night, not just in the game, but to the sandman himself. Those of us who remained were sure -- so absolutely sure -- that the final level must be 500. It's such a round number, and no dungeon can be deeper, surely. Surely.

But alas, 500 came and went, and we lost all hope. It was late. We were tired. Every second in the game our characters lost a portion of their life, and no amount of health would keep us alive throughout the night without someone adventuring for additional food. If we slept, it would be game over. One of us had to be sacrificed. So I offered to take the first watch.

One by one, the rest of my friends fell fast asleep while I half-played, half rested-my-eyes. I wasn't progressing through levels, exactly, but I was keeping the game session alive, so that in the morning we could push to what would surely be the true ending level: 999. I felt so certain that 999 would be the final level, because there was only room for three digits in the UI. I started daydreaming about what it might be like. What reward might the game designers have cooked up for whomever could make it to that final stage? Would there be some fearsome boss? Would there be a princess to save? Would we finally get out of this abominable dungeon? I imagined an ending like that of Dragon Warrior, as Dragon Quest I was known in the US at the time. Something with music, and a congratulatory screen, saying that we had saved the kingdom by making it to the very last level.

But then, abruptly, I was shaken awake. Before me were my friends, and, behind them, the Gauntlet title screen.

Breakfast that morning was not very fun.

12 December, 2015

Charitable Contributions

For most of my life, I've been fairly selfish, at least when it comes to charity. For my first 21 years of life or so, I'm not sure if I ever gave to charity. Had I been asked about it, I might have said that it was a nice thing to do, akin to helping someone cross the street, but to give any substantial amount would be something only a sucker would do.

Thankfully, my undergrad really woke me up to ideas about fairness, equality, charity, and many other concepts that previously weren't fully formed in my mind. Thinking back, I was stunted in my philosophical growth before college, even though I was a fairly successful autodidact when it came to mathematics. I owe a lot to Spring Hill College, not because they taught me math or science, but because they taught me to grow as a person. (Interestingly, my reason for going to them was the math/science stuff -- I had no interest in philosophical growth before attending.)

One way in which I grew was to realize the importance of charity and to better understand my place in the world economy. It wasn't long before my career path switched to the non-profit industry in 2008. By 2011, I joined the then-burgeoning effective altruism movement. In 2013, I started working directly for effective altruism organizations. Today, in 2015, I split my time between charitable work for EA orgs and earning to give.

But cognitive dissonance is a thing, and I've always been a bit slow at keeping up with my ideals. For example, I can remember thinking that eating meat was wrong for years before I made the switch to vegetarianism. And despite the above timeline, I think it may have been 2010 before I made my first $100+ donation to charity. It was 2012 before I gave above 1% of income. I didn't take the Giving What We Can pledge until the very end of 2014.

So my actual donations have lagged 2-3 years behind my thoughts about what I should be giving to charity. I don't feel too bad about this; progression is powerful, even when it is slow, because it can build upon itself. I'd much rather slowly grow than to burn out quickly. I learned this lesson firsthand when I tried working 60-80 hour weeks for months on end. Some people can do it, but I got so tired of it after two years that at this point I'm completely unwilling to work over 45 hours, almost regardless of circumstance -- and my norm is closer to a 30 hour workweek.

So I really didn't want to make the same mistake when it came to charitable contributions. In 2012, I made a plan to work up to 10% of income, try it out for a while, then ramp up to 15%. I made a public commitment on Twitter that I'd donate 10% by 2014 and 15% by 2016.

But the more I worked and interacted around effective altruists, the more I thought I was moving too slowly. In 2013, I went ahead and just tried to hit what was then my end goal of 15%. I ended up donating 14.6% that year, and I honestly couldn't feel the loss at all. So in 2014, when I took the GWWC pledge, I set my sights higher and pledged 25%, ultimately giving 25.7% that year. Amazingly, I still couldn't feel it. So at the beginning of 2015, I decided to just give more and see what happens.

It's now the end of 2015 and I'm on track to hit 35% of income in donations -- but this time, I can feel it. There have been multiple times throughout the year when I've had to restrict my buying choices because of money I'd donated. To be fair, this probably happened at lower giving levels, too, but it was never something promoted to conscious thought. Previously, I'd just acted as though my income was lower than it actually was, and I never felt any pain from the donations I gave. But this year, I could feel it.

So, as I move into 2016, I have a decision to make. Somewhere between 25% and 35% is a level of donations where I can give easily with no harm to myself. Should I attempt to find that level and stay there indefinitely? Or should I challenge myself and actually try to give more, even if it causes me some pain? Some people might claim that it isn't even 'real' charity unless it harms me to give it. Others might claim that the small amount of discomfort I feel when I give 35% is worth the help that money brings to poorer persons. But I am ever cognizant of the time I once burnt out on working too much, and I really don't want to do that with my donations. I think that, given my akrasia, I should aim to do as much as I can without feeling discomfort consciously, but to not pass that threshold. Maybe this means I am not as good at being an effective altruist as others in the community, but given my past life experience I honestly feel that this is the best I'll be able to do in terms of earning-to-give for the near future.

So, for the first time since becoming an effective altruist, I plan on reducing my donations in 2016 to somewhere between 25% and 28% of income. I'll reevaluate in December 2016 to see how this plan turns out.

14 October, 2015

New Segments on Wii Need to Talk

I've been cohosting a monthly podcast on video games for the past year, and now that we're on our eleventh episode, we've started to add regular segments into the mix. If you haven't been listening, you may want to get in on the action!

Our first segment is Quest Log, where we talk about what we've been playing. It's a great way to learn what kinds of games are legitimately awesome - because, for me at least, the most valuable thing I have these days is time, so if I actually spend time on playing a video game, you can know that it's good.

The next segment is Co-op Play, where all three of us play through a single game and talk in-depth about it. This month, we're talking Undertale, one of the best indies to come out in quite a while. This part of the discussion includes spoilers, so if you want to experience the game for yourself, be sure to play before listening to this segment.

The last segment is Screenshot, where one of us talks about a video game event from the past. This month, Jon talks about his experience with Super Mario 64 -- which he also posted on NintendoLife.

If you're into video games, I encourage you to give us a listen. We'd love to have you join us!

07 September, 2015

A Defense of Normality

This entry was originally posted on Effective-Altruism.com. It is reposted here for reference only.

At EA Global, I met many different kinds of people. Some were gung-ho about EA, claiming that effective altruism meant that we should spend all our money on EA charities, to the detriment of artistic culture, movies, music, and even maintaining museums. Others seemed to only be concerned with certain subsets of EA, like those who care only about the charity recommendations. One person I met at EA Global claimed that he uses EA to determine where to send his 10% pledge to, but that’s the extent of his EA actions. He considers himself an EA, and rightly so, I think; after all, he is one of the most important parts of this community, and I’ll explain why later in this post.

There are those who claim that you’re not a true EA unless you really push hard on all the EA principles. I’ve never heard anyone claim that you have to be perfect, but I have heard people say that you need to give more than just 10%, that you’re not really EA if you give to non-EA charities, that if you spend more than a few dollars on things like video games, then you can’t really call yourself an EA. (These are not made-up accusations. I really have encountered people saying these things.)

I get where these people are coming from. They’re trying to maximize the output of good from their one life. And this makes sense. After all, effectiveness is all about getting the largest quotient of result over effort. We want the most results per effort given. For most people in the effective altruism community, this translates to accomplishing the most good per dollar. EAs focus on ensuring that our money goes to charities instead of sailboats (hence the GWWC pledge) and that, of the money sent to charity, that money goes to the right places (hence GW/ACE-style charity recommendations). These interpretations make sense to me.

But the people who claim you need to do even more if you want to be a true EA are interpreting the effectiveness quotient somewhat differently:

Result / Effort = Good Created / Person’s Life

They reason that effective altruism is all about creating the most good per life lived. In their interpretation, each of us has to maximize the good we produce throughout our lifetimes. For some, that would be through direct charity work, for others, it’s a giving pledge, and for still others it might be building wealth to be allocated once they die.

These people are laudable. I’m not going to say that they are doing badly by making this choice with their life. But I am going to claim that these actions are supererogatory.

Ultimately, I think these people are using the wrong reference class. They’ve plugged in incorrect numbers into the quotient, and are missing what’s really important. I believe the quotient should instead be interpreted as:

Result / Effort = Good Created / Marketable Individual Sustainable Effort

My claim is that the divisor should not be the full life of an individual EA, but instead each marketable and sustainable effort that is put in by each individual EA. This is a little convoluted, so I’ll explain.

As a first approximation, consider the divisor to be Individual Effort. This would mean that we’d need to do the most good for each effort we make. Whatever we expend energy on should have “most good created” as its ultimate purpose (in the sense of telos). But following this rule would lead to very short lives, as expending effort to eat food probably doesn’t maximize the possible good one could do in the present. This approximation just doesn’t consider the number of future moments of effort that are also possible to do good.

So we then go to a second divisor approximation: Individual Sustainable Effort. Now we can try to make each effort we expend have “most good created” as the telos, so long as that effort, in combination with other efforts, is sustainable. This approximation lets us eat food, sleep, and have recreation, as it recognizes that we need those things in order to continue doing good throughout the remainder of our lives. By this approximation, we should expend whatever minimal amount of time/money we spend on eating/sleeping that is possible. But this is missing something crucial: actually doing this would make our lives miserable. Sure, if it made it too miserable, we’d stop being EAs -- so this principle would give us the minimal comfort necessary to allow us to continue doing good until we die (or indefinitely, depending on your stance on life extension). But we wouldn’t be happy about it. (If you don’t think that some EAs think this way, consider the fact that Julia Wise actually had to argue that having a child was compatible with effective altruism.)

That’s where we get the next divisor approximation: Marketable Individual Sustainable Effort. Here we finally recognize that the good we do isn’t just based on the good we do directly, but also the good we do indirectly by helping others become EAs as well. The minimal comfort level we need is not the level at which we can continue to do direct efforts indefinitely, but instead the level at which we can successfully market the EA mindset to others so that they can accomplish good as well. In other words, we shouldn’t just get enough sleep to survive for another day of grueling EA work, we should get whatever threshold of sleep will allow us to both live a good life of comfort and pleasure, while maintaining the EA work we do.

Ensuring that things are marketable isn’t sexy (even though marketing those things usually is), but it’s an important component of the good each of us can accomplish. We are still at the beginning stages of our movement, though it is indeed growing quickly, and we need to be aware of how our choices of what is and is not a norm in this group can affect whether others decide to join the movement.

Giving What We Can had it right when they chose to make the pledge 10%. That number has historical familiarity with a western audience and doesn’t seem to be too much for a modest-income individual to give. This allows it to be marketable. Even if some EAs give much more, the main point here is that the norm should be a lower percentage like 10%. The Life You Can Save advocates for a looser standard for those with less income, and a higher standard for those with more income. Their suggestion is to give more than 10% if you make over $500k each year, and less than 10% if you make less. Their reasoning is that when it comes to lower-income people, the most important thing is volume; when it comes to higher-income people, the most important thing is magnitude.

Standard-lowering to lower the barrier of entry is important to those of us who market effective altruism to the mass audience. EAs who give more than 10% are awesome, but in order for this movement to spread more generally, we need more people at the 10% level. I’m not saying anyone should lower their pledge -- but I am saying that we should be inclusive of new EAs who come in only at that pledge level and stay there.

The above paragraph should be offensive to no one. I have high confidence that everyone reading it said to themselves: yeah, that’s obvious. But when I make the same claim about sleeping, eating, or playing video games, that’s when I seem to get pushback.

EAs who get by on less than eight hours of sleep through polyphasic hacks are laudable. You guys have so much more time available to you with which you may accomplish good. But in order for the movement to spread more generally, we need the norm to be more like eight hours of sleep.

Those of you who spend less time on cooking by eating those powder meals are impressive. You spend so much less time and money on food that you have the ability to spend that money/time on more important things, like doing good. But in order for the movement to spread more generally, we need the norm to be something more like three meals a day, or at least eating when hungry, and taking the time to cook good meals, simply because eating well is a pleasure that most humans would not want to do without.

Those of you who don’t play video games, who don’t go out to the movies, who don’t play CCGs -- you guys are great. By not expending so much time and energy on recreation, you can do much more good. But in order for the movement to succeed, we need the norm to include EAs having fun. Not just fun on the fringes, but EAs spending real money and time on whatever recreational things they like to do.

Effective altruism should be about creating the most good per marketable individual sustainable effort. We can’t go too far on the marketable side, because then it isn’t sustainable. We can’t go too far on the sustainable side, or it won’t be effort. Each of these adjectives reigns in the rest in a way that allows our movement as a whole to accomplish the most good. (At least this is true in the near term, where most individuals are non-EAs. Once a certain threshold of people are EAs, the marketable aspect ceases to be as important, at which point maybe something else comes into play, like maximizing the happiness of that large EA group.)

The best way to accomplish the most good is probably(?) to get very rich people/nations to give their money differently and more often. But most of us can’t work on that kind of project, because we don’t have access/influence on those people/nations. However, we can work on the second best way to accomplish good: growing the movement so that each of our effects are multiplied. Our individual efforts are great, but that extra 25% of time you get from cutting your sleeping hours in half could be replicated four-fold by just recruiting another person into effective altruism. If sleep reduction were the norm in EA circles, it would be much more difficult to recruit new EAs. (This doesn’t mean that you should cease polyphasic sleep; it just means that polyphasic sleep is supererogatory to EA.)

I realize that the absurdity heuristic comes into play here. Just because powder-eating and polyphasic sleeping sound silly doesn’t mean that we should reject them. Sometimes it is important to ignore our silliness heuristic and instead shut up and multiply. But we can only convince X people to do those things that seem silly, which only creates f(x) utility. Whereas we can instead downplay the silly-sounding stuff as an EA cultural norm, and instead recruit Y people to EA, which creates g(y) utility. My claim is that g(y) > f(x), so we should focus on ensuring EA norms are marketable. This doesn’t mean that individual EAs shouldn’t try to be even more effective -- it just means that it shouldn’t be perceived as a norm among the community.

And now, a confession. I sleep a lot. I average around nine hours, but with a large variance each night. I like to eat well. I spend a lot to get the specific foods I like best, and I eat out more often than most people I know. I don’t skimp on my playing budget. I play a lot of videos games -- on consoles, handhelds, computers, and mobile; I even co-host a video games podcast. I play board games regularly with a local playgroup, and I’m almost always the one purchasing the games. I enjoy books. My house is filled with books, to the point where you might call every room except the kitchen a library room. Though probably this is more due to my housemate than to myself specifically.

I do all these things because these things make my life enjoyable. These expenses of time and money are not cheap, but they help me to enjoy life not just to the point of sustainability, but beyond to the point of marketability.

So do I count as an effective altruist, even though I spend so much time and money on sleeping, eating, and various forms of recreation? I’d like to think so. I give 25% of my income each year, and I have for two years at this point. I have volunteered at three different EA organizations, and have worked at one for two years. I attended EA Global this year; I participate regularly in online discussion groups; I’ve gone to a few local EA meetups. Maybe I have a poor prior, but I think most of you will consider me to be a full-fledged EA, not just a fringe EA.

Given that, I think that more of us who spend a lot of time on sleep, food, and recreation (even if it’s stuff like M:tG, WoW, clubbing, scuba diving, etc.) should speak up and say that that’s how we are living our lives. Right now, when people look through the facebook posts of well-known effective altruists, they see stuff like eating powder, sleeping less, and always-working-toward-the-cause. While I’m not making the claim that what these people are doing isn’t morally praiseworthy, I am making the claim that those of us who don’t do those things should speak up more often so that the norm of EA is perceived as fun-loving 8-hour sleepers who enjoy the taste of food often.

We shouldn’t just spread a meme of giving to the best charities, or of giving 10% of income. We need to spread the meme of effective altruism itself, and that requires more of us to be vocal about just being regular people. Without approachable EA norms, growing our movement will be limited to those willing to do supererogatory acts.

26 August, 2015

Animal Advocacy at EA Global

This entry was originally posted on the AnimalCharityEvaluators.org blog. It is reposted here for reference only.

Recently, I went to EA Global at Google HQ; it was the first of three EA Global conferences held across the world, the last of which is taking place this weekend at Oxford University.

EA Global is all about effective altruism, the movement upon which Animal Charity Evaluators was originally founded. Effective altruists use evidence and reason to determine the best ways to improve our world, including causes as varied as poverty reduction, global health improvements, existential risk mitigation, and, of course, reducing animal suffering.

Not everyone at the conference was working on animal advocacy, but it was well represented by both speakers and attendees. Several people at the conference had lively discussions on the merits of helping animals as compared to other high-value impact opportunities. Many attendees have dedicated their lives to effectively making the world the best it can be, and quite a few of them ended up deciding that the best way to do this was to help animals. A full third of EAs are veg*n, and many EAs consider animal advocacy to be a major pillar of the EA movement.

Among fellow animal advocates, it’s rare to see arguments about where animal suffering ranks among competing causes. Generally animal advocates already agree that saving animals now is the priority, and so discussion is less philosophical and more action-oriented. But at EA Global, everyone was waxing philosophical on animal issues.

In his talk, Jeff Sebo pointed out that if we value future animals similarly to animals living in the present, then future non-human animals might very well be the top priority, since we have every reason to expect that they will outnumber humans by several orders of magnitude on into the future. This is especially true if we terraform planets, since plant-only ecosystems aren’t possible without extensive robotic interventions. For an idea of just how mind-bogglingly big these numbers can get, listen to Nick Bostrom’s talk on astronomical stakes.

Andrew Critch made the excellent observation that human existential risk is especially important for animal welfare, since if humans go extinct, then we can expect wild animal suffering to continue for another 4 billion years or so. If one’s goal is to minimize animal suffering, one plausible method might be to ensure that humans don’t go extinct, since nature isn’t likely to give us a second shot at creating a species that shares our morality.

Nick Cooney highlighted an amazing statistic of 2 cents per animal spared by using corporate outreach, and claimed that the cost per animal spared would go even lower by reusing the same techniques with other companies. This statistic was repeated several times during the conference, usually with skepticism on how it could possibly be that cheap. For reference, ACE’s latest estimate is $0.21 per animal spared, which is still much cheaper than human causes.

Several EA Global attendees expressed concern about the level of evidence the animal advocacy community has so far compiled on which interventions work best. This criticism is one that we should take seriously, and thankfully we have people in the community working on this issue right now. This is the true power that the effective altruism community brings to the animal advocacy movement: a level of scientific and philosophical rigor aimed toward ensuring we accomplish the most good as effectively as possible, alongside the funding to back it up.

It’s time for the greater animal advocacy community to learn more about effective altruism. The final leg of EA Global is happening in Oxford this weekend (August 28-30), but you don’t have to travel to England to be a part of event. There are EAGx events happening across the globe where you can meet up with local EAs and experience the online version of the conference in a group setting, or you can check out the livestream to live out the conference from the comfort of your home.

Take the time to see what EA Global has to offer, since it not only has the capacity to grow the animal welfare movement by bringing in newcomers to the cause, but also to help us identify ways that we can improve how we approach our goal of reducing animal suffering. Plus, you might learn a little bit more about how we can best improve our world among other cause areas.

Animal Advocacy | EA Global Conference - August 1, 2015 from CyperusMedia.com on Vimeo. Jacy Anthis, Jeff Sebo, and Nick Cooney talk animal advocacy at EA Global: Google HQ.

27 January, 2015

Announcing Wii Need to Talk

I've started a podcast!

Brock, Christine, and I have begun a new podcast called Wii Need to Talk -- it's all about video games and video game culture. Come check out our first episode or subscribe to all the episodes of the podcast.

You'll find regular updates about the podcast on MegaVeggieMan.com.