Highlights from EA Global DC

I was in DC last weekend for the Effective Altruism Global conference. I met a lot of smart people who are going to have a huge impact on the world, and some who already are. I’ll share a few of my favorite highlights here, with the disclaimer that most quotes won’t be exact:

The mistake every do-gooder makes is coming to a country and thinking ‘I’m just here to help people, I’m not a political actor.’ Guess what? You are. What you do changes the balance of power, often toward the center

Chris Blattman

I’m funding the Yale spit test? The world doesn’t make sense [Yale, NIH, et c should be on it]… its like, if I won an academy award or NBA MVP, how screwed up would the world be?

Tyler Cowen, referring to Fast Grants

You should all be political independents, both parties are terrible. You should be voluntary social conservatives, behave like Mormons…. we need a marginal revolution toward the better parts of the Mormon / social conservative package

Tyler Cowen
“Keep right” indeed

Tyler later specified that the main things he meant by this were to marry young and not drink, though I don’t think he realized how common the latter already is:

As he often does, Tyler recommend that people travel more:

If I meet someone who’s been to 40 countries I tell them they should travel more, and to weirder places

Tyler Cowen

But when someone asked “How much travel is too much”, he came up with this limiting principle:

How much travel is too much travel? 10% after your significant other gets mad at you

Tyler Cowen

I asked Matt Yglesias how much of his policy influence comes just from writing things online, and how much from personal connections and being in DC. He said something like:

Personal connections matter a lot given how real people change their minds, but there’s also less of a dichotomy than you’d think. For instance, a WaPo column of mine was getting passed around the White House, but I wrote it because someone in the WH suggested the topic. Politicians often communicate with each other via the media, though I wish they wouldn’t. Just talk to each other, you work in the same building!

Matt Yglesias

His take on the changing media environment:

My tweets are more influential than my columns & substack, because they are read so much more & I’m followed by many journalists. Overall though now is a great time for specialists, obsessives and weirdos. Construction Physics is a great blog now but if he’d written it in 2003 people would just be like, WTF. On the other hand my [generalist] college blog did well in 2003 but if a college student wrote the same kind of things today people would say, who cares?

Matt Yglesias

Journalists are suspicious haters, that’s our function in society

Can’t remember if this was Matt Yglesias or Kelsey Piper

Tyler and Matt were both telling people that you can accomplish your goals more effectively by being more “normie” in some ways. This can be a bit of a sacrifice, but:

If you can give a kidney, you can learn to tie a tie, give a firm handshake, and look people in the eye

Matt Yglesias

I’m some combination of smart enough and arrogant enough that its normally rare for me to meet someone and think “oh, you’re smarter than I am”. But at EAG it was common; not just because of the ridiculous numbers of top-university degrees and real-world accomplishments, but the breadth and depth of the conversations, everything from mental math to number theory, AI to finance, to a surprisingly convincing pitch for the relevance of metaphysics for political theory.

The other main place I think this is SSC / ACX meetups

It wasn’t a step up for everyone though; I talked to someone at a top hedge fund who said the people he worked with were “are the smartest, most dedicated people I’ve been around…. smarter than EAs, more able to execute than mathematicians at [top PhD program he was at]”. They work 12 hour days, actually working the whole time (no long lunch break, small talk with colleagues, reading social media on their computers)… but all in a ruthless, selfish, impressively successful quest to outsmart the market and make more money.

Overall it was a great time and helped me narrow down my plans for what to do with my time and brainpower post-tenure. If you’re interested there are more conferences ahead.

Highlights from EAGx Boston

Last weekend I was at Effective Altruism Global X Boston, a great conference that worked very differently from the academic ones I usually attend. The attendees were younger and the topics were different, but the big innovation was the use of Swapcard to encourage 1-on-1 meetings. At academic conferences I spend most of my time listening to formal presentations or talking to people I already know, but here I talked to 13 new people for a half hour each, and many others more briefly.

That said, the talks I did attend were excellent. Alvea is a 3-month-old company that already has a novel DNA-based Omicron-targeted Covid vaccine in Phase 1 trials. My notes on co-founder Ethan Alley’s talk:

Learning by doing is the way to go. I learned more in 3 months as a founder than 12+ months as an MIT grad student. Like that you have to pay a company $125k to randomize your clinical trial, and they take 8 weeks to do it

Richard Cash talked about the Oral Rehydration Therapy he helped develop that has saved tens of millions of lives. In short, many people who died of diarrheal diseases like Cholera were simply dying from dehydration, and he realized that this can be prevented cheaply and easily in most cases by having them drink a solution of water, glucose, and certain salts (basically Gatorade). He noted that much of the basic research behind this had been done in the US well before it was applied in the developing countries where it has helped most, so it was crucial to simply notice how important and broadly applicable the findings were. On the other hand, some things really did work differently in developing countries; here the medical conventional wisdom was that people shouldn’t eat while they had diarrhea, but if kids are already malnourished it turns out they are better off eating anyway.

Wave is a mobile payment company that is hugely successful in Senegal but has been slow to expand elsewhere. I asked their Chief Technical Officer Ben Kuhn why this was, and his answer made perfect economic sense:

Fixed costs plus local network effects. Fixed costs: need to get approval of a country’s central bank to operate, need to hire local staff, et c. Network effects: our system gets more valuable as more of the people you send money to/from use it, and these are usually within-country. Makes more sense to keep expanding within a country until its nearly totally saturated, and only then move to the next country. There’s also a limit of how much $ we have to expand, especially since we don’t want VCs to control the company.

(My notes, not a verbatim quote)

As I talked to people I was trying to narrow down my post-tenure plans. This didn’t really work, because people gave me good new ideas without convincing me to abandon any of my old ideas. Although I talked to several senior researchers at NGOs, the ideas that stuck with me most came from talking to undergrads, and were all things that sound obvious in hindsight but that I hadn’t actually been planning to do. The one I’ll mention here as a commitment device is to post my research ideas on my website. I have many more paper ideas than I have time to write about them, and I no longer care much about whether I get credit/publications for them or someone else does. This summer I’ll post a list of ideas there, and perhaps a series of posts fleshing them out here.

P.S. If you identify at all with Effective Altruism, I recommend trying to attend a conference. I’m planning to go next to the one in DC in September.