Doing what’s right – pasta and the lizard brain

I cooked pasta for lunch today.

Though it turned out pretty good, the pasta was a little soft, far from the al dente I was aiming for.

This despite me checking every couple of minutes or so to see how it was doing, and taking it off the stove the moment I found it to be oh just right.

But you know what? When I had found that perfect al dente, it was already too late; the pasta was destined to be overdone.

Because even away from the flames, the pasta was still being cooked.

The funny thing? I knew this was going to happen, I just lacked the courage to stop cooking before it was done.

The lizard brain won.

Taking the pasta off the stove long before it was properly cooked just felt wrong, regardless of what my head was telling me.

Sometimes we just gotta do what we know what’s right, despite what it feels like.

Getting the most bang for your charitable buck

I just received a mailer from Effective Altruism, via which I do a monthly donation to charity. The mailer asked me to rate from 1 to 10, with 1 being least likely and 10 being most, how likely I would be to recommend Effective Altruism to a friend. I gave it a 10.

And since we’re all friends here on edonn.com… I recommend Effective Altruism if you’re looking to make your charitable dollar do as much as it can.


Effective Altruism is an organisation that’s, in their own words: about answering one simple question: how can we use our resources to help others the most?

I first learned about them through a book called Doing Good Better (loved it; it absolutely changed the way I thought about giving – especially the part talking about the careers we ought to pick for maximum societal impact: should we pick the higher-paying career where we have little opportunity to positively impact society, e.g. an investment banker; or the lower-paying career where we can make a positive, direct impact on society, e.g. a social worker? The book argues that it is the former that we can do more good, if we direct the funds we earn to charitable causes).

Its basic premise is this: all charitable interventions should be scientifically tested to determine how effective they are, and money should only flow to those that are more effective.

The more good an intervention does for a given amount of money, the more effective it is deemed to be.


How much “good” an intervention does is determined by the amount of QALYs and WALYs. This is a very interesting concept that I’d not heard of before coming across Effective Altruism.

A QALY stands for “quality-adjusted life year”, defined as (from Wikipedia):

[A QALY] is a generic measure of disease burden, including both the quality and the quantity of life lived. It is used in economic evaluation to assess the value for money of medical interventions. One QALY equates to one year in perfect health.

A WALY, on the other hand, stands for “well-being adjusted life year” (from the US Institutes of Health website):

[A WALY] is a measure that combines life extension and health improvement in a single score, reflecting preferences around different types of health gain.

In essence, the amount of good relates to how much life and life improvement it brings. The benefit of of using QALYs and WALYs is that they are fungible, and are therefore able to act as very versatile measures of charitable intervention.  A little like good old money.

For example, if you want to take up a new job, it’s extremely convenient to start thinking about the benefits in terms of money, even when some of the benefits are non-monetary. If you get more vacation time, how much more is an extra day of vacation worth to you? If the working hours are less, and you are planning to spend this extra time with your kids, how much more is this worth to you? And so on.

It helps us make apples-to-apples comparisons between two very disparate things, like deworming vs. microfinance.


Effective Altruism thus looks at the quality of all interventions, and aims to focus funds toward interventions that are the most effective. And though it may not be perfect, I find that it gives me peace of mind.

It allowed me to finally get past paralysis by analysis, making me comfortable with giving more money than before.

I still do give to random strangers on the street because it feels good; but for regular and systematic giving, the kind that I think will do far more good, this will be my avenue of choice.


And to those who ask: Is this “too scientific”? Shouldn’t giving be from the heart?

My answer is: No to the first question; and yes to the second.

The science and experimentation behind Effective Altruism helps to ensure accountability – charities that are deemed ineffective tend to be ineffective for very good reasons, and every dollar given to an ineffective charity is one less dollar given to a more effective one. Why should less effective charities, even those with the best of intentions, take money away from those that can do more good?

To be honest, I did have some concerns about how newer interventions or charities would be handled by them – many charities and interventions start out less effective than the most effective ones and need to be given a chance to grow and show their worth, and may eventually become as effective than the most effective ones or even more so. However, Effective Altruism does take care of some of that by having a dedicated allocation of their fund that looks at just these “promising charities”, which introduces a little bit of randomness into their portfolio of current strong performers.

On giving from the heart, to be honest I never really found a “logical” reason for giving, nor have I looked for one. Giving to me has always just been something we should do to be thankful we have what we have, that we are who we are.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

I finished reading the book The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera a couple of day’s back

Loved it (mostly). It reminded me of what it was like to live a life that was lighter, not weighed down by expectations; que sera sera.

Just thought I’d like to share a couple of passages from the book.

Emphasis mine.

On the fact that life only occurs once:

Einmal ist keinmal. If we have only one life to live, we might as well not have lived at all.


Human life occurs only once, and the reason we cannot determine which of our decisions are good and which bad is that in a given situation we can make only one decision; we are not granted a second, third, or fourth life in which to compare various decisions.

On our pursuits and goals:

We can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come.


The goals we pursue are always veiled. A girl who longs for marriage longs for something she knows nothing about. The boy who hankers after fame has no idea what fame is. The thing that gives our every move its meaning is always totally unknown to us.

On love:

All this time he was sitting up in bed and looking at the woman who was lying beside him and holding his hand in her sleep. He felt an ineffable love for her. Her sleep must have been very light at the moment because she opened her eyes and gazed up at him questioningly.

“What are you looking at?” she asked.

He knew that instead of waking her he should lull her back to sleep, so he tried to come up with an answer that would plant the image of a new dream in her mind.

“I’m looking at the stars,” he said.

“Don’t say you’re looking at the stars. That’s a lie. You’re looking down.”

“That’s because we’re in an airplane. The stars are below us.”

“Oh, in an airplane,” said Tereza, “squeezing his hand ever tighter and falling asleep again. And Tomas knew that Tereza was looking out of the round window of an airplane flying high above the stars.

Memory

Just the other day I stood waiting to cross the street. As the cars passed in front of me I started thinking about how odd it’d be if one of these cars were to veer a little to the left. Maybe a crying child; maybe a bad day at work; maybe the shadow of a cat on the road; the causes could be many, the outcome the one. Onto the pavement the car would go.

Violence. Then silence.

Opening my eyes, I might remember, vaguely, that yes I’d gotten off work (what work do I do?) but now I’m here, looking at you looking at me: you who are in the scrubs; you who are telling me you are my wife; you who are calling me papa (I’m a dad?)

How strange it would be. Without memory would I be me?

As I stood waiting to cross the street, I took two steps back. Let that not be today.