Charity is not about Helping

Simple cost-benefit: distributed computing considered harmful as scientific lemon projects run at high resource cost.
philosophy, sociology, charity
2011-09-152015-09-12 in progress certainty: possible importance: 8

When con­sid­er­ing “help­ing out”, also con­sider the costs of your help­ing out and what al­ter­na­tives there are.

Charitable supercomputing

(FAH for short) boasts of be­ing the largest/­most pow­er­ful dis­trib­uted com­put­ing project in the world with >5 of ca­pac­i­ty, fo­cused on the NP-hard prob­lem of . It is pow­ered by vol­un­teers run­ning its client on their com­put­ers, or more specifi­cal­ly, their and . (Their ar­chi­tec­tures are more spe­cial­ized than nor­mal CPUs and, if a prob­lem hap­pens to match their ar­chi­tec­ture, can run an or­der of mag­ni­tude or two faster & more pow­er-effi­ciently than a CPU would.)

The re­searchers solve their prob­lems, the vol­un­teers know their idle com­put­ing ca­pac­ity is go­ing to good use—ev­ery­one wins. Right?

But where is this free lunch com­ing from? Why are the re­searchers re­ly­ing on vol­un­teers? What does it cost the vol­un­teers to run the clients? Their time in set­ting this all up, of course, but more im­por­tant­ly: elec­tric­i­ty. Lots and lots of elec­tric­i­ty.

Wikipedi­ans have al­ready done the leg­work on how much elec­tric­ity con­sump­tion FAH caus­es. Each petaflop costs ~3 megawatts, so at >5 petaflops (6 as of No­vem­ber 2011), it uses >15 megawatts. To put it an­other way, every hour FAH uses up 15 megawat­t-hours1.

Sins of commission

Elec­tric­ity does­n’t come from nowhere. If we are to do even the most sim­plis­tic cost-ben­e­fit analy­sis, we can’t sim­ply as­sume the cost is 15 megawatts con­jured out of nowhere or that the elec­tric­ity would have been con­sumed any­way. What a silly de­fense that would be—what are the power com­pa­nies do­ing, gen­er­at­ing a fixed amount of elec­tric­ity and if the FAHers shut down, the plants dump their elec­tric­ity into the air? Of course the mar­ginal de­mand from FAH causes the gen­er­a­tion of megawat­t-hours that would not oth­er­wise have been gen­er­at­ed. (Oh, but FAH users are so al­tru­is­tic that they en­gage in con­ser­va­tion to off­set their in­creased elec­tric­ity con­sump­tion! Yeah, right.) And it does­n’t mat­ter what other wastes of elec­tric­ity may be go­ing on—those wastes stand con­demned as well (“two wrongs don’t make a right”). No more dis­trac­tions or ex­cus­es: what are the costs of that cost?

The most ob­vi­ous cost is air pol­lu­tion. It is ma­jor enough that we don’t even need to con­sider any other costs, be­cause air pol­lu­tion kills. The ed­i­tors of Next Big Fu­ture have listed a num­ber of in­ter­est­ing sta­tis­tics from the WHO and other stud­ies of elec­tric­ity gen­er­a­tion and the dead­li­ness of air pol­lu­tion (see also ).

For ex­am­ple, half the world’s elec­tric­ity pro­duc­tion is done by that filth­i­est and most fa­tal of sources, coal. (In com­par­ison, nu­clear power is a stroll in the park, which means that French users can run FAH with a 75% cleaner con­science than the rest of us, while Ger­many’s re­ac­tion to Fukushima demon­strates how fa­tal knee-jerk re­ac­tions can be, in the sad­dest and most ut­terly pre­dictable way pos­si­ble2.) We will—­gen­er­ous­ly—pre­tend that every­one con­tribut­ing to FAH is lo­cated in the US, with its rel­a­tively clean coal plants. Nev­er­the­less, each ter­awat­t-hour of coal kills 15 peo­ple. How often does FAH burn through a ter­awatt? Well, 1000 megawat­t-hours is one gi­gawat­t-hour, and 1000 gi­gawat­t-hours is one ter­awat­t-hour, and , so how fast does FAH burn through 1 mil­lion megawat­t-hours? Each year, FAH uses megawat­t-hours, or 131.5 gi­gawat­t-hours, or 13.15% of a ter­awat­t-hour. Each ter­awat­t-hour means, re­mem­ber, 15 dead peo­ple; in our grim cal­cu­lus, what is 13.15% of 15 dead peo­ple? 1.8 dead peo­ple.

So if the power is en­tirely de­rived from coal, FAH kills 2 peo­ple a year.

What if the power is from an oil plant? That’s worse! The listed deaths per ter­awat­t-hour for oil is 36 dead peo­ple, for an an­nual death toll of 4.4 peo­ple. Hey, it could be much worse: if FAH had been in­vented and pop­u­lar­ized in Chi­na, with a ter­awat­t-hour death toll of 278, that’d be 34 deaths every year.

With coal and oil out of the way, we can look at the mi­nor­ity fu­els which make up a small slice of the US power sup­ply. Bio­fuel is pretty bad with a death toll of 12/T­Wh; hy­dro is­n’t too bad at 1.4/T­Wh; so­lar, wind, and nu­clear power have <1/TWh death tolls. But of course, we don’t live in an en­vi­ron­men­tal fan­tasy where all our power is gen­er­ated by those cleaner sources, and even if we did, that would­n’t help the peo­ple in the past who have al­ready been killed by FAH’s pol­lu­tion.

The ac­tual power mix of the USA in 2009 was 45% coal, 24% nat­ural gas, 20% nu­clear, and 7% hy­dro, so bal­anc­ing our num­bers that gives us 1.01 an­nual deaths for a USA power mix. Phew! Only one dead per­son. Does­n’t that make you feel bet­ter?

Sins of omission

We al­ready saw how much elec­tric­ity FAH con­sumes: 15 megawat­t-hours. But how much does each megawat­t-hour cost? The EIA says the av­er­age US rate for 1 kilo­wat­t-hour in No­vem­ber 2010 was $0.0962. A megawat­t-hour is 1000 kilo­wat­t-hours, so 1 megawat­t-hour is , or $96.2, so = $1443/hr. And its an­nual bill is , or ~12,650,000 dol­lars per year3.

$12.65 mil­lion is a lot of mon­ey. Money is both fun­gi­ble and lim­it­ed; by spend­ing that money on FAH power bills, that was not spent on other things, al­though these points seem lost on a lot of peo­ple.4 What could one have done with that? Meta-char­ity es­ti­mates that <$1000 could save one life; an­other source says “Cost-effec­tive­ness es­ti­mates per death-averted are $64–294 for a range of coun­tries”5. (One mod­est pro­posal is to use this $1000 fig­ure as the base unit of a new coinage: the DC or ‘dead child’; it has the merit over the dol­lar of pos­si­bly in­grain­ing an un­der­stand­ing of s.) And these in­ter­ven­tions are the kind of things that can ab­sorb a lot of mon­ey. (There are a lot of peo­ple out there who could use some help.)

If <$1000 will buy 1 life, then $12.65m would buy ~12,650 lives. Quite a few, that. One won­ders whether FAH was the best form of char­ity the 300k or so vol­un­teers could have cho­sen to en­gage in. (FAH is lucky to be an aca­d­e­mic pro­ject; oth­er­wise we would see deeply ironic out­comes like shut­ting down & beg­ging for fund­ing—while its vol­un­teers burn 0.5 petaflops an­nu­al­ly. Per­haps if all those petaflop­s—spent on check­ing and recheck­ing for sig­nal­s—had ever done any­thing use­ful in those decades, they would not have to. It would be in­ter­est­ing to hear from Seti@home at what point they would con­sider it was time to throw in the towel and fi­nally ad­mit the ob­vi­ous: that there is not a scrap of as­tro­nom­i­cal ev­i­dence of any kind in­di­cat­ing in­tel­li­gent alien life and so there just .)

Maybe they would have done bet­ter to do­nate a few dol­lars to a reg­u­lar char­i­ty, and not run up their elec­tric­ity bill. One might won­der, though, about the case where one is­n’t pay­ing for one’s elec­tric­i­ty. So, ei­ther you are pay­ing for all of your elec­tri­cal bill or you’re not:

  • If you are pay­ing for all of it, then yes, you can do­nate your elec­tri­cal costs! Just don’t run Fold­ing@Home and send Ox­fam a Pay­pal do­na­tion at the end of the year.

  • If you are not pay­ing for all of it, if some­one is shar­ing the bill or foot­ing the bill en­tire­ly, then do­nat­ing di­rectly may harm your pock­et­book, yes. But in such a sit­u­a­tion, does it re­ally still make sense to force the other to pay for all the elec­tric­ity you are us­ing?

    The over­all eco­nom­ics are bad per the orig­i­nal note, it’s an in­effi­cient way to turn some­one else’s money into char­i­ty. What right do you have to burn the elec­tric­ity like there’s no to­mor­row, for that mat­ter? If you weren’t go­ing to use a year’s worth of elec­tric­i­ty, then whomever is pay­ing for your elec­tric­ity is poorer by that $10 as surely as if you had pick­-pock­eted him of $10; few would agree that you are Robin Hood who may steal from the rich and give to the char­i­ta­ble. He ac­cepted that risk when he gave you ac­cess to his elec­tric­ity and de­serves how­ever you can con­trive to screw him over? What an at­ti­tude!

Other points can be dealt with sim­i­lar­ly:

  • per­haps one wor­ries that over­head on a small do­na­tion of $10 will elim­i­nate the val­ue. But the over­head on fi­nan­cial trans­ac­tions is usu­ally only a few per­cent, and the differ­ence be­tween FAH and the best char­i­ties is a differ­ence of far more than a few per­cent. A dol­lar is a dol­lar, no mat­ter where it comes from. If you and 99 other peo­ple each do­nate $100 to 100 char­i­ties, then it’s the same as if each per­son do­nated $10,000 to just 1 char­i­ty. The only differ­ence is what­ever over­head there might be; and even if we say that our Fold­ing@Home con­trib­u­tors lose 50% to over­head and the char­i­ties wind up get­ting only $6 mil­lion in their bank ac­counts to use, that’s still thou­sands more lives saved than by run­ning Fold­ing@Home and wast­ing the same amount of mon­ey!6
  • per­haps one wor­ries that it’s eas­ier to run a FAH client than to do­nate reg­u­lar­ly; leav­ing aside the ba­sic fact that a one-time do­na­tion through Pay­pal is a lot eas­ier than in­stalling FAH, check­ing that it works, and per­pet­u­ally sysad­min­ning one’s com­puter for it, there are many ways to make do­nat­ing eas­i­er. One could set up a re­cur­ring do­na­tion. One could an­nu­ally flip a coin to de­cide whether to do­nate twice the usual amount. (Or one could roll a 1d10 dice every year, agree­ing to do­nate 10× one’s an­nual do­na­tion.) One could ask for oth­ers to do­nate in lieu of a birth­day or Christ­mas pre­sent; one could take ad­van­tage of em­ployer match­ing plans. And so on. (If ease of con­tribut­ing is one’s true rea­son, then good news—it is very eas­ily dealt with!)


But hey, per­haps it’s done good re­search that will save even more lives. Bi­ol­o­gy, hell yeah!

Wikipedia has a of 75 pa­pers pub­lished draw­ing in some way on FAH. That is an av­er­age of 7.5 pa­pers per year. The skep­tic will no­tice that not a few (e­spe­cially early pa­pers, nat­u­ral­ly) seem more con­cerned with FAH per se than with ac­tual new re­sults gen­er­ated by it, and that project lead Vi­jay Pande seems to be au­thor or co-au­thor on al­most all of the pa­pers, which does­n’t in­di­cate a large re­search com­mu­nity around the large in­vest­ment of FAH. None of them seem im­por­tant, and the num­ber of pub­li­ca­tions seems to have peaked back in 2005–2006. The few ac­tual com­pounds seem stalled in their test tubes. And a re­minder, the wasted money amounts to many thou­sands of lives; for these sort of stakes, one would hope that one had good ev­i­dence, not mere pos­si­bil­i­ty. But let’s lower stan­dards and ask for or­di­nary ev­i­dence. What rea­son do we have to think Fold­ing@Home has po­ten­tial to save mil­lions of lives? It has been op­er­at­ing for nearly 11 years. 11! And noth­ing that has yet saved a sin­gle life. (Read­ers are in­vited to pro­vide a coun­ter-ex­am­ple.) At what point do we stop talk­ing about its po­ten­tial to save mil­lions of lives and about the pos­si­bil­ity of around Mer­cury? ‘Ba­sic re­search’ is great and all, but at some point enough is enough. Would­n’t it be bet­ter to redi­rect efforts to, say, —which be­sides not be­ing pol­lut­ing, is a fun puz­zle game that can solve long-s­tand­ing prob­lems?7

As I am not a bi­ol­o­gist nor om­ni­scient, I can’t say for sure that the FAH work was­n’t use­ful, and I cer­tainly could­n’t say it looks pretty worth­less. But I feel much more com­fort­able as­sert­ing that the $12.65m could have been bet­ter spent on sav­ing those 12,000 peo­ple (and the 12,000 peo­ple the year be­fore, and the 12,000 the year be­fore that, and…).

Updating on evidence

The hope function

No one has yet shown me any­thing valu­able done by FAH; but, they ar­gue, it may yet pro­duce some­thing next year or per­haps the year after that. This is a sta­tis­ti­cal ar­gu­ment. There is an in­ter­est­ing per­spec­tive on this sug­ges­tion, known as the . The idea is that you are look­ing at each time pe­riod (each year) for some sort of sin­gu­lar event (a dis­cov­ery jus­ti­fy­ing FAH’s air-pol­lu­tion and fa­tal­i­ties), but you also have a cer­tain prob­a­bil­ity for the event never hap­pen­ing, for ex­am­ple be­cause it is im­pos­si­ble. As each time pe­riod passes with­out the event, un­sur­pris­ing­ly, one’s prob­a­bil­ity that the event will hap­pen the next pe­riod in­creas­es—as does the be­lief the event is im­pos­si­ble! (This is­n’t con­tra­dic­to­ry.)

Example: AI

In­ter­est­ing­ly, de­pend­ing on one’s be­lief as to the prob­a­bil­ity dis­tri­b­u­tion, the in­creases can be very small. One ex­am­ple I’ve run con­cerns the cre­ation of Ar­ti­fi­cial In­tel­li­gence; AI en­thu­si­asts have sug­gested AI could be in­vented any­where in a very broad time span (Alan Tur­ing, for ex­am­ple, putting it at post-1990). Many of those dates (like 1990) have al­ready passed, and AI has clearly not hap­pened. This has lead to a skep­ti­cism and be­lief that AI en­thu­si­asts are ir­ra­tional dream­ers who refuse to up­date on the ev­i­dence; but what does the hope func­tion say? I and oth­ers ran some es­ti­mates and found that for rea­son­able val­ues, the fail­ure of AI to hap­pen only min­i­mally sup­ports the be­lief that AI is im­pos­si­ble!

For ex­am­ple, sup­pose one thought AI if pos­si­ble would show up in the 100 years be­tween 2000 and 2100 (a su­per­set of many ex­pert fore­casts), that its pos­si­bil­ity was 90% (0.9), but it was an es­sen­tially ran­dom break­through which could as eas­ily hap­pen in 2000 as 2099 (a ). In x years, what is our new be­lief about its pos­si­bil­i­ty? The equa­tion goes:

We sub­sti­tute in our 100 years and 90% be­lief:

We plug the year of in­ter­est into the hope func­tion and find that in 2050, or in 50 years (), our orig­i­nal 90% be­lief AI is pos­si­ble has fallen only 9%, to 81%! (In­tu­itively8, one might think that a half-cen­tury of fail­ure would count for more, but it does­n’t.) Even in 2090, after 90 years of fail­ure (), our view that AI is im­pos­si­ble has fallen only to 47%.

If we adopt a more re­al­is­tic dis­tri­b­u­tion like a cen­tered in 2050, we get sim­i­lar re­sult­s—very small de­creases each year un­til 2050, fol­lowed by a sud­den plum­met (as most of the chances get used up each year at or near the peak of the bell curve), and then a grad­ual curve down­wards to 0% as 2100 draws near.

Waiting for Foldot

Set­ting up a hope func­tion equa­tion for FAH is con­cep­tu­ally clear: what is the full life­time of FAH, how many years has it run with­out find­ing such a thing, what is the prob­a­bil­ity it will ever find any­thing use­ful, and what is the dis­tri­b­u­tion of said prob­a­bil­i­ty?

  1. In­ter­net dis­trib­ut­ed-com­put­ing projects are young enough that there’s no clear life­cy­cle. looks like it will never shut down (hope for E.T. springs eter­nal), other projects shut down after a year or two or fin­ished their goals, like a num­ber of the cryp­to­graphic brute-forc­ing projects set up to re­solve the to de­fin­i­tively prove DES in­se­cure and force the world to move onto more se­cure al­go­rithms. ( has com­pleted 9 such chal­lenges but con­tin­ues 2 long-term tasks, whose value I am du­bi­ous about.) Let’s guess and say FAH has an­other decade to go, for a to­tal n = 20
  2. FAH be­gan in 2000 or so, so we can put x at 11
  3. This is the con­tentious one. Let’s see what 90% does—that is surely a fa­vor­able prob­a­bil­ity
  4. We could choose ei­ther the uni­form or bell curve dis­tri­b­u­tion; both are at­trac­tive as mod­els (FAH as serendip­ity ma­chine! FAH as project gear­ing up in the early years for its ma­tu­rity and even­tual de­cline!) But as it hap­pens, we al­ready put n = 20 and x = 11, so we’d be in the mid­dle of the bell curve and that’s al­most the same as the uni­form dis­tri­b­u­tion. So we’ll use the sim­pler uni­form dis­tri­b­u­tion.

We sub­sti­tute in: or a fall of 10% in our be­lief that FAH will ever pro­duce any­thing, which is a lit­tle sober­ing. Switch­ing to the bell curve dis­tri­b­u­tion will only make mat­ters worse; re­call that after the mid­point, the bell curve plum­met­ed. With a bell curve cen­tered on 2010 or 2011 and an end date of 2020, the hope func­tion drops the 90% be­lief down to the <30% range by 2012 or 2013. (Fur­ther ex­am­ples would not be en­light­en­ing; the reader can cal­cu­late out the vari­a­tions him­self.)

I leave some ques­tions for the FAH en­thu­si­ast to pon­der: Are these un­rea­son­able as­sump­tions? (Aren’t they fa­vor­able?) Do you have any real rea­son to be­lieve that FAH’s dis­cov­er­ies ought to be heav­ily back­-load­ed, that one would ex­pect it to take, say, 15 years (con­sum­ing ~2 ter­awat­t-hours)? Would you have ar­gued for this back­-load­ing be­fore read­ing about the hope func­tion? If you do not dis­pute the as­sump­tions, have you ac­tu­ally dropped your faith in FAH by ~10%? Or at all? What sort of ev­i­dence would con­vince you FAH is harm­ful?

Doing it less wrong: Rosetta @ home

So what’s the right way then? Look at a very sim­i­lar grid com­put­ing pro­ject, (RAH). RAH has only 1⁄175th the com­put­ing power of FAH and pre­sum­ably con­sumes pro­por­tion­ately less elec­tric­i­ty; hence it di­rectly kills peo­ple a year and in­di­rectly kills . This is three or­ders of mag­ni­tude fewer deaths. And with its ap­plied fo­cus, the are a lit­tle bit bet­ter than FAH.

And RAH has made an ad­di­tional con­tri­bu­tion in demon­strat­ing how new hy­brid ap­proaches to the pro­tein-fold­ing prob­lem might work; I pre­vi­ously men­tioned Foldit crack­ing a long-s­tand­ing pro­tein-fold­ing prob­lem, but Foldit did this by re­fin­ing a RAH-generated ap­prox­i­ma­tion—and not a FAH ap­prox­i­ma­tion. Foldit failed on the other tar­gets where it had no RAH start­ing point.9 (As far as I can tell, FAH has never par­tic­i­pated in that par­tic­u­lar com­pe­ti­tion, so one can­not com­pare its re­sults with ei­ther RAH or RAH+Foldit.)

Charity is not about helping

When you run a few num­bers, this seems like a pretty un­con­tro­ver­sial con­clu­sion. Lots of things are worse char­i­ties than the best char­i­ties (al­most by de­fi­n­i­tion); why be so wed­ded to the idea that FAH is not one of those char­i­ties? (Why do geeks in par­tic­u­lar seem offended by crit­i­cism of FAH?) I think it has to do with our real rea­sons for a lot of things—­so­cial sta­tus10. Phil­an­thropy is often for such worth­less ac­tiv­i­ties (does the MoMA re­ally need do­na­tions from its board of di­rec­tors so it can buy the lat­est art­work to have been priced into the stratos­phere?) and peo­ple so un­in­ter­ested in whether the char­ity ac­tu­ally helps11 that the truth of the mat­ter—a straight­for­ward cash-for-s­ta­tus bar­gain—is ob­vi­ous12, but it’s not so ob­vi­ous that char­i­ties them­selves seek sta­tus-rais­ing ac­tiv­i­ties and so are bi­ased to­wards fund­ing bizarre & novel new ac­tiv­i­ties13—and what is more bizarre & novel than build­ing a world­wide su­per­com­puter to cal­cu­late the fold­ing of pro­teins?

It is sad and pitiable that we spend so many bil­lions on things like dog food and cos­met­ics rather than sav­ing lives; but is­n’t it even sad­der that we can avoid that er­ror, and try to do good, and still fail? The only thing sad­der, I think, would be if we could know of our fail­ure and go on sup­port­ing FAH. If char­ity truly was not about help­ing.

See Also


“The Exposed Nest”, Frost

, “The Ex­posed Nest” (first pub­lished in , 1916):

YOU were forever finding some new play.
So when I saw you down on hands and knees
In the meadow, busy with the new-cut hay,
Trying, I thought, to set it up on end,
I went to show you how to make it stay,
If that was your idea, against the breeze,
And, if you asked me, even help pretend
To make it root again and grow afresh.
But 'twas no make-believe with you to-day,
Nor was the grass itself your real concern,
Though I found your hand full of wilted fern,
Steel-bright June-grass, and blackening heads of clover.
'Twas a nest full of young birds on the ground
The cutter-bar had just gone champing over
(Miraculously without tasting flesh)
And left defenseless to the heat and light.
You wanted to restore them to their right
Of something interposed between their sight
And too much world at once-could means be found.
The way the nest-full every time we stirred
Stood up to us as to a mother-bird
Whose coming home has been too long deferred,
Made me ask would the mother-bird return
And care for them in such a change of scene
And might our meddling make her more afraid.
That was a thing we could not wait to learn.
We saw the risk we took in doing good,
But dared not spare to do the best we could
Though harm should come of it; so built the screen
You had begun, and gave them back their shade.
All this to prove we cared. Why is there then
No more to tell? We turned to other things.
I haven't any memory---have you? -
Of ever coming to the place again
To see if the birds lived the first night through,
And so at last to learn to use their wings.

  1. The most effi­cient su­per­com­put­ers do bet­ter in terms of ; see the Green500 list. For ex­am­ple, man­ages to turn 1.2 megawatts into 1.19 petaflops.↩︎

  2. In 2011, Ger­many de­cided to be­gin shut­ting down its due to the ; ig­nor­ing the points of dis­analo­gies (Ger­many is not sub­ject to tsunamis, is not run­ning out­dated de­signs from the 1960s, has more effec­tive cor­po­rate gov­er­nance etc), this was a pre­dictable recipe for not re­plac­ing it all with re­new­able power (as en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists might hope) but in­creas­ing use of filthy fuel sources. This has in­deed hap­pened; from “Eu­rope con­sum­ing more coal”, Wash­ing­ton Post (2013-02-07):

    In Ger­many, which by some mea­sures is pur­su­ing the most wide-rang­ing green goals of any ma­jor in­dus­tri­al­ized coun­try, a 2011 de­ci­sion to shut­ter nu­clear power plants means that do­mes­ti­cally pro­duced , also known as brown coal, is fill­ing the gap . Power plants that burn the sticky, sul­furous, high­-e­mis­sions fuel are run­ning at full throt­tle, with many tal­ly­ing 2012 as their high­est-de­mand year since the early 1990s. Sev­eral new coal power plants have been un­veiled in re­cent month­s—even though so­lar panel in­stal­la­tions more than dou­bled last year…Lig­nite sup­plied 25.6% of Ger­many’s elec­tric­ity in 2012, up from 22.7% in 2010. Hard black coal sup­plied an ad­di­tional 19.1% last year, and it was also on the rise.

    Above I quoted es­ti­mates that coal kills 15 peo­ple per ter­awat­t-hour. says Ger­many used 590 ter­awat­t-hours in 2010; lig­nite burn­ing in­creased by 25.6 − 22.7 = 2.9%. So how many di­rect lig­nite-coal-based deaths have been caused by just 2 years of just Ger­mans pan­ick­ing over Fukushi­ma? .

    Wikipedia lists no di­rect deaths from Fukushima and even­tual plant worker deaths; Ho­eve & Ja­cob­son 2012 (dis­cus­sion) es­ti­mated that to­tal global ra­di­a­tion-re­lated deaths from Fukushima will most likely be 180 and will not ex­ceed 2500. Hence, Ger­many may al­ready have killed more peo­ple due to its fear of Fukushi­ma-like events than Fukushima killed.↩︎

  3. $12.65m may be low for the cost of pow­er. A March 2011 pre­sen­ta­tion by Kathy Yelick, “Ex­as­cale Com­put­ing: Tech­ni­cal Chal­lenges”, es­ti­mates each megawatt used at $1m, which ob­vi­ously adds on an­other $2.5m to our es­ti­mate, which we es­ti­mated con­ser­v­a­tively in any case.↩︎

  4. An in­ter­est­ing ex­am­ple be­ing the art project , which is ex­actly what it sounds like, and earned the KLF global lash­ings of scorn and crit­i­cism about waste—de­spite the fact that the sole con­se­quence of burn­ing some money is some al­tru­is­tic re­dis­tri­b­u­tion of wealth (ev­ery­one else’s quids are worth slightly more) and that there would not have been a whis­per of cen­sure if they had in­stead selfishly bought a man­sion or an As­ton Mar­tin car or over­priced wine. The asym­me­try of the re­ac­tion to the burn­ing and re­ac­tion to nor­mal profli­gate con­spic­u­ous con­sump­tion through­out so­ci­ety is fas­ci­nat­ing and says some­thing about hu­man cog­ni­tive bi­ases with re­gard to acts of com­mis­sion/omis­sion, I think, as well as wide­spread il­lu­sions about money & wealth.↩︎

  5. A non-nu­tri­en­t-based ap­proach would be mid­wife train­ing; “Even a small pi­lot project cost­ing only $20,244 saved the lives of 97 in­fants, the au­thors es­ti­mat­ed, mean­ing that it cost just $208 per life saved.”↩︎

  6. The mar­ginal effec­tive­ness of the best char­i­ties is huge; the best char­i­ties do or­ders of mag­ni­tude more good than mediocre or bad char­i­ties. A thought-ex­am­ple from “Effec­tive Char­ity”

    A hy­po­thet­i­cal char­ity run­ning pro­grams like Vil­lageReach’s which em­bez­zled 95% of its bud­get and had cor­re­spond­ingly greatly re­duced cost-effec­tive­ness would still be do­ing far more good per dol­lar than the Make-A-Wish Foun­da­tion or the least effec­tive de­vel­op­ing world char­i­ties do. This ex­am­ple makes it clear how pro­foundly use­less the over­head ra­tio is for as­sess­ing the rel­a­tive qual­ity of a char­i­ty.

    This holds true for less mor­tal char­i­ties; Nicholas Kristof cites an ex­am­ple with 2 or­ders of mag­ni­tude differ­ence:

    In much of the de­vel­op­ing world, most kids have in­testi­nal worms, leav­ing them sick, ane­mic and more likely to miss school. De­worm­ing is very cheap (a pill cost­ing a few pen­nies), and, in the ex­per­i­ment he did with Ed­ward Miguel, it re­sulted in 25% less ab­sen­teeism. Even years lat­er, the kids who had been ran­domly cho­sen to be de­wormed were earn­ing more money than other kids. Kre­mer es­ti­mates that the cost of keep­ing a kid in school for an ad­di­tional year by build­ing schools or by sub­si­diz­ing school uni­forms is more than $100, while by de­worm­ing kids, the cost drops to $3.50. (In a pinch, kids can usu­ally go to ‘school’ in a church or mosque with­out a uni­for­m.)

  7. Orig­i­nal 2011 pa­per: “Crys­tal struc­ture of a monomeric retro­vi­ral pro­tease solved by pro­tein fold­ing game play­ers”. Gen­eral back­ground on Foldit: , Cooper et al 2010.↩︎

  8. For ex­am­ple, bcoburn re­marks: “I per­son­ally ex­pected that P(AI) would drop-off roughly lin­early as n in­creased, so this cer­tainly seems coun­ter-in­tu­itive to me.”↩︎

  9. From “Crys­tal struc­ture of a monomeric retro­vi­ral pro­tease solved by pro­tein fold­ing game play­ers” 2011:

    De novo struc­ture pre­dic­tion re­mains an ex­cep­tion­ally chal­leng­ing prob­lem, and very few pre­dic­tions with atomic ac­cu­racy have been made in the his­tory of [the com­pe­ti­tion] . For CASP9 tar­get T0581, start­ing from an ex­tended chain, the Rosetta Server, which car­ried out a large-s­cale search for the low­est­-en­ergy struc­ture us­ing com­put­ing power from RAH vol­un­teers (http://boinc.bak­er­­ta/), pro­duced a re­mark­ably ac­cu­rate model (Fig. 1a; com­pare red and blue). How­ev­er, the server ranked this model fourth out of the five sub­mis­sions. The Foldit Void Crush­ers team cor­rectly se­lected this near-na­tive model and fur­ther im­proved it by ac­cu­rately mov­ing the ter­mi­nal he­lix, pro­duc­ing the best model for this tar­get of any group and one of the best over­all pre­dic­tions at CASP9 (ref. 4) (Fig. 1a; com­pare yel­low and blue). Thus, in a sit­u­a­tion where one model out of sev­eral is in a near-na­tive con­for­ma­tion, Foldit play­ers can rec­og­nize it and im­prove it to be­come the best mod­el. Un­for­tu­nately for the other Free Mod­el­ing tar­gets, there were no sim­i­larly out­stand­ing Rosetta Server start­ing mod­els, so Foldit play­ers sim­ply tun­neled to the near­est in­cor­rect lo­cal min­i­ma.”

  10. Sta­tus as I use it here is a bit com­plex, more than a lit­tle idio­syn­crat­ic, and as much a par­a­digm as any sim­ple prop­er­ty. To get an idea of what I mean, see , Less­Wrong/Over­com­ingBias, and de­scrip­tion of in Dis­cover your In­ner Econ­o­mist.↩︎

  11. It’s in­ter­est­ing how lit­tle effort goes into eval­u­at­ing or rank­ing char­i­ties; the num­ber of or­ga­ni­za­tions can be counted on one hand, and one of the most promi­nent at­tempts, , is amaz­ingly re­cent (2006). In this vein, I was struck by a com­ment in the New York Time’s “For Fed­eral Pro­grams, a Taste of Mar­ket Dis­ci­pline”:

    “A re­cent re­view found that 10 ma­jor so­cial pro­grams had been rig­or­ously eval­u­ated over the past two decades, us­ing the sci­en­tific gold stan­dard of ran­dom as­sign­ment. Only one of the 10—, for in­fants, tod­dlers preg­nant wom­en—was a clear suc­cess. Yet all 10 still ex­ist, and largely in their orig­i­nal form.”

  12. The New Yorker, with its fo­cus on New York City’s up­per-crust, re­cently made this clear to me yet again with its cov­er­age of the , who would more usu­ally be greeted by said up­per-crust with de­ri­sion than ac­claim; from 2010’s “Covert Op­er­a­tions: The bil­lion­aire broth­ers who are wag­ing a war against Obama”:

    "On May 17th, a black­-tie au­di­ence at the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera House ap­plauded as a tall, jovial-look­ing bil­lion­aire took the stage. It was the sev­en­ti­eth an­nual spring gala of Amer­i­can Bal­let The­atre, and David H. Koch was be­ing cel­e­brated for his gen­eros­ity as a mem­ber of the board of trustees; he had re­cently do­nated $2.5 mil­lion to­ward the com­pa­ny’s up­com­ing sea­son, and had given many mil­lions be­fore that. Koch re­ceived an award while flanked by two of the gala’s co-chairs, Blaine Trump, in a peach-col­ored gown, and Car­o­line Kennedy Schloss­berg, in emer­ald green. Kennedy’s moth­er, Jacque­line Kennedy Onas­sis, had been a pa­tron of the bal­let and, co­in­ci­den­tal­ly, the pre­vi­ous owner of a Fifth Av­enue apart­ment that Koch had bought, in 1995, and then sold, eleven years lat­er, for thir­ty-two mil­lion dol­lars, hav­ing found it too small.

    The gala marked the so­cial as­cent of Koch, who, at the age of sev­en­ty, has be­come one of the city’s most promi­nent phil­an­thropists. In 2008, he do­nated a hun­dred mil­lion dol­lars to mod­ern­ize Lin­coln Cen­ter’s New York State The­atre build­ing, which now bears his name. He has given twenty mil­lion to the Amer­i­can Mu­seum of Nat­ural His­to­ry, whose di­nosaur wing is named for him. This spring, after notic­ing the de­crepit state of the foun­tains out­side the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Mu­seum of Art, Koch pledged at least ten mil­lion dol­lars for their ren­o­va­tion. He is a trustee of the mu­se­um, per­haps the most cov­eted so­cial prize in the city, and serves on the board of Memo­r­ial Sloan-Ket­ter­ing Can­cer Cen­ter, where, after he do­nated more than forty mil­lion dol­lars, an en­dowed chair and a re­search cen­ter were named for him.

    One dig­ni­tary was con­spic­u­ously ab­sent from the gala: the even­t’s third hon­orary co-chair, Michelle Oba­ma. Her office said that a sched­ul­ing con­flict had pre­vented her from at­tend­ing. Yet had the First Lady shared the stage with Koch it might have cre­ated an awk­ward tableau…"

    A quick cal­cu­la­tion: , so a vastly in­com­plete tally of the Koch do­na­tions is $200 mil­lion or roughly 200,000 dead Africans. Does any­one want to ar­gue that the Kochs’ phil­an­thropy is even re­motely close to be­ing effi­cient, and that these do­na­tions were any­thing but pur­chas­ing sta­tus? In some cas­es, one won­ders why they even pre­tend; “More Cash to Go to a Hall Than to Haiti”, The New York Times:

    “Even if the even­t’s nearly $200,000 worth of tick­ets sell out, less than $8,000 from the sales will go to the cause. The con­cert, though, is ex­pected to raise some mon­ey, thanks mainly to a $50,000 sub­sidy by the Mont­blanc com­pany and $10,000 by CAMI Mu­sic, the con­cert’s pre­sen­ter and Mr. Lang’s man­age­ment agen­cy…No hard and fast guide­lines ex­ist on how much money raised in a ben­e­fit should go for ex­pens­es, and it is not un­usual for galas to raise lit­tle money or even lose it…In an ac­count­ing pro­vided by CAMI Mu­sic, the costs will to­tal $181,590. If the hall sells out, box office pro­ceeds will to­tal $189,793, ex­clud­ing com­pli­men­tary tick­ets.”

  13. From the GiveWell blog, “After”Ex­tra­or­di­nary and Un­ortho­dox" comes the Val­ley of Death" (re­plac­ing the rel­e­vant ad­jec­tives with ‘sta­tus’ is left as an ex­er­cise for the read­er):

    “…it’s hard for me to see a big differ­ence be­tween it and the $100 mil­lion Gates Grand Chal­lenges Ex­plo­rations,”a unique ini­tia­tive that sup­ports in­no­v­a­tive re­search of un­ortho­dox ideas" in global health (though the pro­posal above does not ex­plic­itly spec­ify a sec­tor, all three of its ex­am­ples are in global health as well).

    Speak­ing more in­for­mal­ly, I’ve heard sim­i­lar con­cepts em­pha­sized by most ma­jor fun­ders I’ve spo­ken with. Any­one who has dealt with ma­jor foun­da­tions should rec­og­nize the de­sire to find a com­pletely new, rev­o­lu­tion­ary, ne­glected op­por­tu­nity that just needs some seed fund­ing to ex­plode.

    I do be­lieve that the best op­por­tu­ni­ties are the un­der­-funded ones. Yet I’m not sure that tiny, ne­glected in­no­va­tions are the best places to look for these op­por­tu­ni­ties—­pre­cisely be­cause that’s where all the ma­jor fun­ders seem to be look­ing. I sub­mit that the bet­ter place to look for ne­glected op­por­tu­ni­ties is the “val­ley of death” be­tween proof of con­cept and large-s­cale roll­out.

    …There’s no glory in fund­ing the roll­out. Vil­lageReach al­ready has shown that what it’s do­ing has worked; no­body can claim to be bril­liant for spot­ting it. And Vil­lageReach does­n’t need help de­sign­ing its pro­gram (this has been cited to me ex­plic­itly as a draw­back from the per­spec­tive of some ma­jor fun­der­s)."

    From “Pro­file of a GiveWell Cus­tomer”:

    “At­ti­tudes to­ward ev­i­dence seem less key than we would have guessed. When we started GiveWell, we and most of our sup­port­ers imag­ined that new cus­tomers could be found in cer­tain in­dus­tries where peo­ple are ac­cus­tomed to us­ing mea­sure­ment to eval­u­ate and learn from their de­ci­sions. We hoped these peo­ple would res­onate with our de­sire to bring feed­back loops into ar­eas where feed­back loops don’t nat­u­rally ex­ist. But we’ve found that a lot of them don’t, largely be­cause im­pact is­n’t the main thing they’re aim­ing for when they give. Peo­ple give for many rea­son­s—to main­tain friend­ships, to over­come guilt and cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance, to achieve recog­ni­tion—and a given donor is un­likely to be in­ter­ested in GiveWell un­less achiev­ing im­pact is at the top of his/her list.”

    On the other hand,

    “GiveWell cus­tomers never seem in­ter­ested in pub­lic recog­ni­tion. In our first year, we con­sid­ered post­ing ac­knowl­edg­ments to ma­jor sup­port­ers on our web­site, but there was no in­ter­est. Since then, we have had many cus­tomers who re­quire anonymity (even when we ask them to take pub­lic credit for our sake) and no cus­tomers who’ve re­quested that we pub­licly thank them or oth­er­wise help them get recog­ni­tion.”

    It is a lit­tle diffi­cult for Han­son­ian the­o­ries of char­ity to ex­plain wholly anony­mous char­i­ty. Pos­si­bly char­ity in such cases is due to sig­nal­ing within a small group, rather than pub­lic sig­nal­ing to thou­sands or mil­lions of peo­ple (the gen­eral pop­u­lace). And who knows; maybe there is gen­uine al­tru­ism in this world of dust and delu­sions.↩︎