A few weeks ago I did a cost benefit analysis of flossing to work out whether it was worth the time. Though time spent flossing does add up to a lot over a lifetime, if you want to save serious time you’ve got to find efficiencies in actions that take up a lot of your time. Commenter Pattie-oh for instance made a good observation:

Showering less frequently would save more time for most people while having no negative health consequences. In the US, many people shower every day (sometimes more than once a day). Skipping a shower probably saves about seven minutes, as opposed to two minutes saved by not flossing.

Showering every second day could be a good time saver if you live in a cold place and don’t particularly enjoy showers. I shave every only second day because I find it quite time consuming and my work doesn’t especially care.

But these are still only small matters in comparison to the thing you spend the most time on every day: sleep. Even minor improvements in the efficiency of your sleep can save a lot of time.

This post over at Reddit has a number of suggestions for how to sleep better, with the author claiming to have reduced the time they need to spend sleeping by 20%, which would essentially increase their waking lifespan by 6% (HT Hugh). A few of the ideas, like the climate controlled room, are expensive, but most of them are simple. They would certainly be worth doing if they could save anything like an hour a day as suggested. One of the suggestions is taking melatonin pills, which is analysed in detail on LessWrong.

I am going to work through these ideas and keep an eye out for a better sleeping environment when I next move house.

Before we had evolutionary psychology, ‘homo hypocritus‘, the subconscious and the modular mind people were still keenly observing human behaviour. Some were extremely insightful in noting our foibles, lies, hypocrisies and true motivations even if they couldn’t develop a unifying theory by which to explain them.

One of the wisest observers of human behaviour was the French writer La Rochefoucauld. If you haven’t yet read his maxims, you are in for a real treat. Below are some of the most cynical and enduring observations.

  • What we term virtues are often but a mass of various actions and divers interests, which fortune or our own industry manage to arrange; and it is not always from valour or from chastity that men are brave, and women chaste.
  • Hypocrisy is an homage that vice pays to virtue.
  • Nobody deserves to be praised for goodness unless he is strong enough to be bad, for any other goodness is usually merely inertia or lack of will-power.
  • There is great skill in knowing how to conceal one’s skill.
  • We always like those who admire us; we do not always like those whom we admire.
  • How can we expect others to keep our secrets if we cannot keep them ourselves?
  • We are eager to believe that others are flawed because we are eager to believe in what we wish for.
  • We often forgive those who bore us, but we cannot forgive those whom we bore.
  • We confess to little faults only to persuade ourselves we have no great ones.
  • Mediocre minds usually dismiss anything which reaches beyond their own understanding.
  • Nothing prevents us being natural so much as the desire to appear so.
  • In friendship and in love, one is often happier because of what one does not know than what one knows.
  • Hardly any man is clever enough to know all the evil he does.
  • In all professions we affect a part and an appearance to seem what we wish to be. Thus the world is merely composed of actors.
  • In the human heart there is a perpetual generation of passions, such that the ruin of one is almost always the foundation of another.
  • We should not be upset that others hide the truth from us, when we hide it so often from ourselves.
  • We all have strength enough to endure the misfortunes of others.
  • Philosophy triumphs easily over past and future evils; but present evils triumph over it. (A nod to construal level theory.)
  • Neither the sun nor death can be looked at steadily.
  • The evil that we do does not attract to us so much persecution and hatred as our good qualities.
  • If we had no faults, we should not take so much pleasure in noting those of others.
  • Self-interest speaks all sorts of tongues and plays all sorts of characters, even that of disinterestedness.
  • To succeed in the world we do everything we can to appear successful already.
  • Sincerity is an openness of heart; we find it in very few people; what we usually see is only an artful dissimulation to win the confidence of others.
  • If we judge love by the majority of its results, it resembles hatred more than friendship.
  • The love of justice is simply in the majority of men the fear of suffering injustice.
  • Friendship is only a reciprocal conciliation of interests, and an exchange of good offices; it is a species of commerce out of which self-love always expects to gain something.
  • It is more disgraceful to distrust than to be deceived by our friends.
  • Everyone complains about his memory, and no one complains about his judgment.
  • In the adversity of our best friends we often find something that is not exactly displeasing.
  • Nothing is given so profusely as advice.
  • The truest way to be deceived is to think oneself more knowing than others.
  • When not prompted by vanity, we say little.
  • Usually we only praise to be praised.
  • The refusal of praise is only the wish to be praised twice.
  • The art of using moderate abilities to advantage wins praise, and often acquires more reputation than actual brilliancy.
  • The desire to appear clever often prevents one from being so.

Below is a scene from the movie Schindler’s List. It is one of the most haunting exchanges I have ever seen on the screen.

We all find ourselves in the same circumstance as Schindler: confronting unending opportunities to save lives at low cost. Indeed it is easier for us to save lives than it was for Schindler. None of us faces the risk of arrest and execution by the SS.

We may not weep for those we fail to save because we never see them, but they are just as real.


Schindler and Emilie emerge from his quarters, each carrying a small suitcase. In the dark, some distance away from his
Mercedes, stand all twelve hundred workers. As Schindler and his
wife cross the courtyard to the car, Stern and Levartov approach.
The rabbi hands him some papers.

We’ve written a letter trying to explain
things. In case you’re captured. Every
workers has signed it.

Schindler sees a list of signatures beginning below the
typewritten text and continuing for several pages. He pockets
it, this new list of names.

Thank you.

Stern steps forward and places a ring in Schindler’s hand. It’s
a gold band, like a wedding ring. Schindler notices an
inscription inside it.

It’s Hebrew. It says, ‘Whoever saves
one life, saves the world.’

Schindler slips the ring onto a finger, admires it a moment, nods
his thanks, then seems to withdraw.

(to himself)
I could’ve got more out …

Stern isn’t sure he heard right. Schindler steps away from him,
from his wife, from the car, from the workers.

(to himself)
I could’ve got more … if I’d just … I don’t
know, if I’d just … I could’ve got more…

Oskar, there are twelve hundred people who
are alive because of you. Look at them.

He can’t.

If I’d made more money …I threw away
so much money, you have no idea.
If I’d just …

There will be generations because of
what you did.

I didn’t do enough.

You did so much.

Schindler starts to lose it, the tears coming. Stern, too. The
look on Schindler’s face as his eyes sweep across the faces of
the workers is one of apology, begging them to forgive him for
not doing more.

This car. Goeth would’ve bought this car.
Why did I keep the car? Ten people,
right there, ten more I could’ve got.
(looking around)
This pin –

He rips the elaborate Hakenkreus, the swastika, from his lapel
and holds it out to Stern pathetically.
Two people. This is gold. Two more people.
He would’ve given me two for it. At least one.
He would’ve given me one. One more. One
more person. A person, Stern. For this.
One more. I could’ve gotten one more person
I didn’t.

He completely breaks down, weeping convulsively, the emotion he’s
been holding in for years spilling out, the guilt consuming him.

They killed so many people …
(Stern, weeping too,
embraces him)
They killed so many people …

From above, from a watchtower, Stern can be seen down below,
trying to comfort Schindler. Eventually, they separate, and
Schindler and Emilie climb into the Mercedes. It slowly pulls
out through the gates of the camp. And drives away.

For many years during my undergraduate degree I was living on a scholarship alone and so learned to be a very frugal person. As computers and mobile phones got cheaper, I would always take advantage of that to get cheaper rather than better models when upgrading. Last year for instance I bought a basic smartphone for $100 and a netbook for $250. This year on the sage advice of Luke Muehlhauser I changed my approach and splurged on a MacBook and higher end Android phone. Having experienced both I realised that buying the cheap electronics was a false economy and that if I had thought about the decision properly I would have worked that out much earlier.

The reason is simple.

A high quality laptop cost me $1100 while a comparable low quality one would have cost me $500. I use my laptop an average of about 2 hours a day, and expect it to last around two years. Over its lifetime then I should expect to use it about 1400 hours. A high end laptop then costs $0.42 an hour over a low end one. I estimate that the MacBook’s design and reliability boost my productivity by at least 10%. Do I value a 10% productivity boost at $0.42 an hour? Given my wages and the importance I place on getting things done – definitely. And then there is the pleasure and serenity I get from using a well designed product on top of that.

Likewise, a good phone cost $200 more and I use my phone about half an hour a day and also expect it to last for two years so it comes to about 55c extra each hour of use. While I don’t use the phone as much, it is particularly valuable to be able to do what you need to do on your mobile quickly, for example when you are trying to find an event, some piece of information or a person you a meeting. The faster processor and better software on the expensive phone allow me to perform most tasks almost twice as quickly as on the cheap phone. This is certainly worth the cost.

My instinct without doing the numbers was that ‘to be frugal is a virtue’, but in order to save my money I was inadvertently a spendthrift with my time. In future I will divide the price of durable items like laptops into hourly costs as I have done above in order to make it easier to work out the best decision.

The power of exponential growth seems to make a compelling case for effective altruists to delay their donations. An average 5% return on investment (ROI) would turn one dollar into ten in 50 years time. If saving a life costs $2000 now and similar opportunities will exist in the future it would cost just $200 to save a life in 2062 – a relative bargain! Sadly things aren’t so simple. Whether we really should delay depends on specifics of the activities we are funding and difficult predictions about the future. Here I’ll summarise the most important uncertainties as a roadmap for future posts.

Our goal can be summarised as choosing the time t which maximises

(1 + Return on investment)t × Cost effectiveness of donation

× Probability of donation actually being madet.

Unless you are a multimillionaire, the relevant expected ROI is the highest one available without regard to risk. Giving $2m will do about twice as much good for the world as $1m, so to maximise your expected impact you should just maximise your expected donation. Note that if your favourite charity would be able to use money now to attract donations at a rate faster than you expect your investments could return profits then donating would have to be better.

The second and more challenging issue is how cost effective your donation will be in the future relative to now. If you thought basic health would be the optimal cause this would involve anticipating things like

  • the extent of poverty
  • the cost of delivering health services
  • how much other donors will be funding the low hanging fruit.

The last point is especially relevant for those like me thinking of funding existential risk reduction because a few billion from governments or philanthropists could make a big impact on the value of further funding in that area.

In evaluating cost effectiveness we must factor in that any good charity will have impacts that propagate through time and so offer its own ROI. For instance, combatting contagious diseases now rather than in 2062 should lead to fewer people becoming infected in the meantime and so result in a richer and healthier population in 2062. Similarly, spending on existential risk reduction draws attention, money and researchers to that issue. Giving now leaves your donations more time to have this snowball effect during the window of greatest extinction risk.

On the other hand delaying leaves you more time to identify cost-effective targets for donations. Personally, I am investing rather than giving mostly because I expect groups like 80,000 Hours to give me a much better idea of how to best reduce existential risk within the next decade.

Finally you must assess the risk of your donation never being made, for example due to a catastrophe which eliminates your savings. If you can’t bind yourself through a trust fund, you must also worry about changes to you or your life which result in you deciding not to give.

An academic has backed up my guess from a few months back that meat eating must result in more rodent deaths from plant agriculture than eating plants directly. His article makes such similar points I wonder if he read them here first!

Two academics from my university think so:

Australian astronomers say finding planets outside the solar system that can sustain life should be made a top priority.

Dr Charley Lineweaver and PhD student Aditya Chopra from ANU have reviewed current research into environments where life is found on earth and the environments thought to exist on other planets.

They say understanding habitability and using that knowledge to locate the nearest habitable planet may be crucial for our survival as a species.

While I agree that in the long run space colonisation is central to humanity’s survival, this is not really sensible and is probably a misrepresentation of their research. We are far away from being able to establish self sustaining colonies on planets in our solar system let alone travelling to other star systems. By the time we have the technology to contemplate doing that we will long since have identified habitable planets without having gone out of our way to do so.

While space colonisation would help reduce the risk of human extinction the unfortunate reality is that the technologies that threaten to ruin us are going to come well before independent, robust and self-sustaining colonies are possible. Risky technologies like mind uploading or machine intelligence are probably prerequisites for colonising other star systems and maybe even long-term survival on Mars. Slowing the development of the most risky technologies, controlling their use, and developing safe havens on Earth itself are likely to be more cost effective strategies than space travel for the foreseeable future.

I have recently been working through the HBO series Six Feet Under and highly recommend you do the same. It is the best television I have watched since The Sopranos and deals with issues in ways that cut closer for me as a middle class white geek than a show about the mafia really could. Fear of death, belonging, duty, regret, self-knowledge; it’s all excellent.

It takes advantage of two techniques I have rarely seen used elsewhere. We often see imagined conversations between the main characters of the show and dead or absent people from their lives. We are also frequently treated to actions the characters imagine performing – typically crazy-brave ones – before cutting back to reality where they do something different. It is not always obvious to the viewer whether you are in their imagination or reality, which keeps you on your toes.

This technique is highly effective at giving us insight into the characters without requiring overacting, or contrived conversations between them. It makes the show more like a book, where it is easier for the author to let us into the mind’s eye of their characters. It is so effective I wonder why it isn’t more often used.

Dreams are frequently appropriated for this purpose, but they are only part of our internal lives and to my mind a more random and less insightful part. Conversations in our head and things we imagine and fantasise about doing make up a huge share of our internal world and memories, and say a great deal about us because they are entirely our own invention. Their absence from movies and television is unfortunate.

From a report by Societe General which justifies my concern about Australia’s lack of insurance against a Chinese bust. You may like to read the whole thing.

“Mine production is being ramped up to satisfy a demand assumed to be as voracious in the future as it has been in the recent past (see chart below). But there is a third energy revolution underway. Shale gas. Last week the US railroad company CSX said that it might have to renegotiate its contracts with power utilities because coal demand was drying up. Their shipments of coal to power stations fell 28% last year because power stations are switching to gas. Shale gas will be as disruptive to the global economy as the internet was. Though it’s predominantly a US story today, it’s going to go global.

Which I think leaves Australia in a precarious position. If Chinese resource demand holds up everything will probably be fine. But if it doesn’t … well, everything won’t be. In fact, there might be trouble anyway. The improvement in Australia’s terms of trade (the ratio of its export prices to its import prices) has been spectacular thanks to the bull run in commodities. It should be running large current account surpluses, like Norway. But it isn’t. It’s running a deficit of 3%. So the AUD is overvalued and vulnerable. For Australians, buying bonds makes some sense to me (despite last year’s rally, developed market bonds backed by a printing press give a glimpse of the future), while buying gold makes a lot of sense (because gold is very cheap in AUD terms). For foreigners, the AUD’s own day of reckoning provides a very good hedge against any great leap backwards in China.”

It means young people alive now count for less than old people alive now. Via John Quiggin:

Much of the debate on the question of whether a pure rate of time preference can be justified is concerned with determining the appropriate way to balance the interests of “current” and “future” generations. The central question, in this framing of the problem, is whether, and to what extent, members of the current generation have the right to allocate resources in their own favour, at the expense of unborn future generations.

The central point of this note is to observe that this way of posing the problem is invalid, because members of different generations are alive at the same time. Any policy that discounts future utility must discriminate not merely against generations yet unborn but against the current younger generation. Assuming that members of any given generation are concerned about their own lifetime utility, rather than myopically concerned with current utility alone, a social allocation rule that incorporates pure time preference gives higher weight to the lifetime utility of earlier born generations than to their later born contemporaries. Assuming a 3% pure rate of time preference, as above, and 25 years between generations, the lifetime welfare of those aged 50 or more is valued twice as highly as the welfare of their children, and four times as highly as the welfare of their grandchildren, all of whom may be alive at the same time. This is obviously inconsistent with any form of utilitarianism in which all those currently alive are valued equally.

Furthermore, by the nature of overlapping generations, there is no point at which a coherent distinction between current and future generations can be drawn. In the absence of some general catastrophe, many children alive today will still be alive in 2100, at which time people already alive will reasonably be able to anticipate the possibility of survival well into the 22nd century.

A very common mistake people commit when thinking about economics and the labour market is the ‘lump of labour’ or ‘lump of jobs‘ fallacy. It crops up in ideas like these:

“We should cut immigration to make sure unemployment doesn’t get any higher.”

“We should lower the maximum number of hours that people work so that more unemployed people will be able to get jobs.” (A restriction on hours worked was actually enacted in France for this reason!)

“This construction project is going to create 100 new jobs for Sydney.”

These are all nonsense and the mistake that they make is to assume that there is some predetermined demand for ‘hours worked’ in the economy that people take from and add to. This is not the case, at least not in any ordinary circumstance. [1] A country never ‘runs out of work’ to do. We could always collectively choose to spend more time working and consume the fruits of our additional labour, if we wanted.

Rather than think of the labour market as being about rationing out some fixed lump of ‘demand for labour’ between people, we should think of it more like a speed dating service, or a so called ‘matching market‘. Employers and employees move between tables, talk to one another briefly and try to find appropriate matches between customer demand, willingness to pay, skills, culture, wage demanded, preferences for work-life balance and so on, just as speed-daters talk to one another in order to assess their compatibility for a relationship. When two partners match, they enter into an employment arrangement, a relationship, a friendship, or whatever. Clearly it is appropriate for people to be unemployed or single at times, so that they can search around for appropriate partners. Some folks will end up unemployed or single for extended lengths of time because they can’t find appropriate partners, perhaps because they aren’t going on many dates, have high standards, or their particular traits aren’t much desired by potential partners.

The curious thing is that while the ‘lump of labour’ fallacy is the standard way the human mind appears to approach employment, I have never heard anyone commit a ‘lump of relationship’ fallacy. People would look at you astray if you suggested that we would improve social relations by preventing any two friends or lovers from spending more than a certain number of hours enjoying one another’s company in a given week. Nobody thinks that immigrants necessary result in more lonely hearts among everyone else. Nor would releasing 100 men and women keen to hook up with engineers into the Sydney CBD result in 100 additional relationships for Sydney’s engineers, though it might result in a few more if it facilitated some easy matches.

I don’t know why we think about jobs and relationships in such different ways, but whatever the reason, this analogy seems like an quick way to improve people’s thinking.

[1] For the economists, that is when fiscal and monetary policy is able to keep us out of a self fulfilling cycle of low demand and low output, which is most of the time.

This is a question I repeatedly find myself asking especially in evaluating the desirability of Hanson’s Malthusian upload scenario, or increasing the number of wild animals. Here’s one piece of evidence:

Early in Katherine Boo’s unforgettable book, a boy from Annawadi, a Mumbai slum, rushes into his makeshift school, bleeding. The classroom is nothing more than a single room in a neighbor’s hut, but it is the only place he can go for medical attention after being hit by a car. No sooner has the teacher begun treating his wound than his mother surges into the hut, wielding a large piece of scrap metal and screaming: “No car will kill you! No god will save you! You went in the road, roaming loose like that, and now you will die at my hands!” After receiving a beating, the boy is rescued by his teacher. Prior to departing, his mother threatens to “break his legs and pour kerosene on his face.” For this boy, an injury could mean financial catastrophe. “If the driver had hurt you worse, how would I have paid the doctor?” the mother asks her son while striking him. “Do I have one rupee to spend to save your life?”

More than one hundred pages later, a Mumbai garbage-sorter takes the witness stand to defend the honor of his dead wife. A trial is being held to determine whether the defendant beat, and drove to suicide by self-immolation, the woman everyone in Annawadi calls The One Leg. After an argument with her neighbors, she poured cooking fuel over her head and lit a match; her face and hair exploded in flames. The reader has long since known that the deceased—a vindictive woman whose life was full of pathos and bitterness—performed this act for other reasons. But her widowed husband is desperate to deny the idea that his wife had been depressed, let alone suicidal. As proof, he offers up the observation that when their two-year-old daughter drowned in a pail, her death did nothing to shake his wife’s composure.

Boo’s book, which traces the lives of a dozen or so characters in Annawadi between 2007 and 2010, so accustoms the reader to scenes such as this that the widower’s testimony does not quite register, at least initially. None of the witnesses at the trial are reported as reacting to what would generally be considered a damning appraisal of a dead woman’s character. (Unlike those in the court, we have reason to suspect that The One Leg killed her own daughter.) But what does it mean for a husband to state proudly that his wife had not been affected by the death of their child? What does it mean, in a separate incident, for a boy to lose his hand in a plastic shredder and shed tears not from the pain but from the fear of losing his job?

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Robert WiblinHi! I am a young Australian man ostensibly interested in the truth and maximising the total number of preferences that are ever satisfied, weighted by their intensity. I also enjoy reading and writing about the topics listed above. If you share my interests, friend me on , , or or subscribe to my RSS feed .

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