Philosopher MacAskill’s “Effective Altruism” Was Neither Effective Nor Altruistic

(p. B1) In short order, the extraordinary collapse of the cryptocurrency exchange FTX has vaporized billions of dollars of customer deposits, prompted investigations by law enforcement and destroyed the fortune and reputation of the company’s founder and chief executive, Sam Bankman-Fried.

It has also dealt a significant blow to the corner of philanthropy known as effective altruism, a philosophy that advocates applying data and evidence to doing the most good for the many and that is deeply tied to Mr. Bankman-Fried, one of its leading proponents and donors. Now nonprofits are scrambling to replace millions in grant commitments from Mr. Bankman-Fried’s charitable vehicles, and members of the effective altruism community are asking themselves whether they might have helped burnish his reputation.

“Sam and FTX had a lot of good will — and some of that good will was the result of association with ideas I have spent my career promoting,” the philosopher William MacAskill, a founder of the effective altruism movement who has known Mr. Bankman-Fried since the FTX founder was an undergraduate at M.I.T., wrote on Twitter on Friday (Nov. 11, 2022). “If that good will laundered fraud, I am ashamed.”

Mr. MacAskill was one of five people from the charitable vehicle known as the FTX Future Fund who jointly announced their resignation on Thursday (Nov. 10, 2022).

. . .

(p. B5) Benjamin Soskis, senior research associate in the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy at the Urban Institute, said that the issues raised by Mr. Bankman-Fried’s reversal of fortune acted as a “distorted fun-house mirror of a lot of the problems with contemporary philanthropy,” in which very young donors control increasingly enormous fortunes.

. . .

Mr. Bankman-Fried’s fall from grace may have cost effective-altruist causes billions of dollars in future donations.  . . .

His connection to the movement in fact predates the vast fortune he won and lost in the cryptocurrency field. Over lunch a decade ago while he was still in college, Mr. Bankman-Fried told Mr. MacAskill, the philosopher, that he wanted to work on animal-welfare issues. Mr. MacAskill suggested the young man could do more good earning large sums of money and donating the bulk of it to good causes instead.

. . .

A significant share of the grants went to groups focused on building the effective altruist movement rather than organizations working directly on its causes. Many of those groups had ties to Mr. Bankman-Fried’s own team of advisers. The largest single grant listed on the Future Fund website was $15 million to a group called Longview, which according to its website counts the philosopher Mr. MacAskill and the chief executive of the FTX Foundation, Nick Beckstead, among its own advisers.

The second-largest grant, in the amount of $13.9 million, went to the Center for Effective Altruism. Mr. MacAskill was a founder of the center. Both Mr. Beckstead and Mr. MacAskill are on the group’s board of trustees, with Mr. MacAskill serving as the chair of the United Kingdom board and Mr. Beckstead as the chair of the U.S. subsidiary.

For the full story, see:

Nicholas Kulish. “Collapse of FTX Strikes a Philanthropy Movement.” The New York Times (Monday, November 14, 2022): B1 & B5.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed dates, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated Nov. 14, 2022, and has the title “FTX’s Collapse Casts a Pall on a Philanthropy Movement.”)

P&G CEO Defended Using Harsh Criticism of Workers

Deirdre McCloskey frequently says we should use more “sweet talk.” Edwin Artzt defended using harsh talk. Is there room for both?

(p. A8) Edwin Artzt, who expanded Procter & Gamble Co.’s global reach in the 1980s and then, as chief executive officer in the early 1990s, rattled the company’s managers with cost-cutting drives and harsh criticism of their work, died at the age of 92, the Cincinnati-based company said.

As CEO from 1990 until 1995, Mr. Artzt was known for berating managers and using words including “stupid” and “imbecilic” to describe some of their proposals, as recounted in “Soap Opera: The Inside Story of Procter & Gamble,” a 1993 book by Alecia Swasy, a former Wall Street Journal reporter. He didn’t sugarcoat his desire to eliminate weak brands and underperforming employees.

Mr. Artzt, who died on April 6, was sometimes called “The Prince of Darkness.” Some colleagues said the nickname reflected a hot temper. He said it came from his habit of working late.

“I certainly don’t want to have a short trigger with people and not give them a chance,” he told The Wall Street Journal in 1991. “But sure I’ve cleared out deadwood. Probably some of it was still breathing when it was cleared out.”

Two years later, he said: “Terrifying people is not my intention…People come to me years later and say, ‘Remember that meeting 10 years ago? You laid it on me, but I sure remember that lesson.’”

For the full obituary, see:

James R. Hagerty. “P&G CEO’s Harsh Talk Rattled a Bureaucracy.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, April 15, 2023): A10.

(Note: the online version of the obituary was updated April 12, 2023, and has the title “Edwin L. Artzt, P&G CEO Known for His Tough Talk, Dies at 92.”)

The book on Proctor & Gamble mentioned above is:

Swasy, Alecia. Soap Opera: The Inside Story of Proctor & Gamble. New York: Crown Publishing, 1993.

Bridge Man’s Courageous Protest Against Xi Kept Hope Alive

(p. B1) A protester unfurled two banners on a highway overpass in central Beijing on Oct. 13, [2022] denouncing Xi Jinping as a “despotic traitor.” China’s censors went to great lengths to scrub the internet of any reference to the act of dissent, prohibiting all discussion and shutting down many offending social media accounts.

The slogans didn’t go away. Instead, they caught on inside and outside China, online and offline.

Encouraged by the Beijing protester’s extremely rare display of courage, young Chinese are using creative ways to spread the banners’ anti-Xi messages. They graffitied the slogans in public toilets in China. They used Apple’s AirDrop feature to send photos of the messages to fellow passengers’ iPhones in subway cars. They posted the slogans on university campuses all over the world. They organized chat groups to bond and shouted “Remove Xi Jinping” in front of Chinese embassies. This all happened while the Communist Party was convening an all-important congress in Beijing and putting forth an image of a country singularly united behind a great leader.

The aftermath of the Beijing protest “made me feel, for the first time, hopeful,” said an organizer of an Instagram account known as Citizens Daily CN, which posts photo submissions of sightings of anti-Xi messages.

. . .

(p. B4) For Kathy, a Chinese student in London, political apathy . . . is what upsets her the most.

. . .

When she saw photos of the protest in Beijing, she was awed by the “Bridge Man’s” courage, too. Then she started seeing people posting sightings of anti-Xi slogans in many parts of the world.

She started to cry and couldn’t stop for hours, she said.

As the photos of the protest posters kept coming in, she felt she saw a little light in the darkness. She’s not alone anymore.

“I thought to myself that there are many Chinese who also want freedom and democracy,” she said. “But where are you? Where can I find you? If we meet on the street, how can we recognize each other?”

For the full commentary, see:

Li Yuan. “A Brash, Lonely Protest in Beijing Surfaces an Undercurrent of Dissent.” The New York Times (Tuesday, October 25, 2022): B1 & B4.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Oct. 24, 2022, and has the title “A Lonely Protest in Beijing Inspires Young Chinese to Find Their Voice.”)

“Muskies, Muskites, Muskrats and Musketeers” Hail Musk as “Pretty Awesome . . . Genius” and “Modern-Day Da Vinci”

(p. B1) Cryptocurrency enthusiasts are cheering for a decentralized social network. Supporters of Donald J. Trump hope that the former president will return to tweeting. Some free speech advocates envision an end to censorship. And loyal fans of Elon Musk are betting that the billionaire will innovate.

. . .

. . ., Twitter has lodged itself into the fabric of society. The platform’s future under Mr. Musk has become a symbolic receptacle of people’s desires to push the world (p. B5) in the direction they want it to go.

Few tech executives elicit the kind of blind adoration that Mr. Musk does. His fans — known variously as Muskies, Muskites, Muskrats and Musketeers — defend even his most questionable moves. His deal to buy Twitter has had plenty of critics, including the company’s employees, some lawmakers and disinformation researchers. Many fear what he will do with the platform, over which he now has more or less absolute power as its owner. But on Musk-focused message boards, Discord servers, blogs, podcasts and YouTube channels, the deal is a triumph.

“Him buying Twitter is pretty awesome,” said Bryce Paul, the host of the podcast “Crypto 101.” Mr. Paul does not consider himself a Musk fanboy but believes the billionaire is a “genius” and a “modern-day da Vinci.”

For the full story, see:

Erin Griffith. “It’s All Musk’s and All Changing: It’s a Happy Day for the Millions of ‘Muskies,’ Who Are Anticipating Less Moderation and More Innovation.” The New York Times (Saturday, October 29, 2022): B1 & B5.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Oct. 28, 2022, and has the title “For Many, Elon Musk’s Buying Twitter Is a Moment of Celebration.” In the print version, the title “It’s All Musk’s and All Changing” covered two separate articles that each had their own subtitle.)

Iberian Hunter-Gatherers Were More Sophisticated 9,500 Years Ago Than Previously Known

(p. 6) Hunter-gatherer societies on the Iberian Peninsula were making sophisticated baskets with decorative geometric patterns 9,500 years ago, more than 2,000 years earlier than previously thought, researchers in Spain have reported.

. . .

Francisco Martínez-Sevilla, a researcher of prehistory at the University of Alcalá and the lead author of a paper outlining the findings that was published this week in Science Advances, explained that carbon-14 dating tests had been carried out on 76 objects that were found by 19th-century miners in the Cueva de los Murciélagos, a cave in southern Spain.

The objects, including Europe’s oldest pair of sandals, a wooden stick and mace and exquisitely crafted baskets woven from reed and esparto, were previously believed to have been made by Neolithic farmers.

But the carbon-14 testing carried out by Dr. Martínez-Sevilla’s research group, which has recently excavated human remains in the cave, showed that the best-preserved baskets were, in fact, crafted by hunter-gatherer communities in the Mesolithic era, 9,500 years ago.  . . .

“My first reaction was, ‘Oh my God, that is not possible,’” Dr. Martínez-Sevilla said in a telephone interview, explaining how the discovery suggested that Mesolithic societies may have been more complex than previously imagined. “When we realized the magnitude of the findings, we published the paper with all the analysis in less than a year.”

For the full story, see:

Rachel Chaundler. “Artifacts Show Hunter-Gatherers Found Time to Weave, Too.” The New York Times, First Section (Sunday, October 1, 2023): 6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated Oct. 3, 2023, and has the title “Hunter-Gatherers Were Making Baskets 9,500 Years Ago, Researchers Say.”)

The research discussed in the passages quoted above is published in the following academic article:

Martínez-Sevilla, Francisco, Maria Herrero-Otal, María Martín-Seijo, Jonathan Santana, José A. Lozano Rodríguez, Ruth Maicas Ramos, Miriam Cubas, Anna Homs, Rafael M. Martínez Sánchez, Ingrid Bertin, Rosa Barroso Bermejo, Primitiva Bueno Ramírez, Rodrigo de Balbín Behrmann, Antoni Palomo Pérez, Antonio M. Álvarez-Valero, Leonor Peña-Chocarro, Mercedes Murillo-Barroso, Eva Fernández-Domínguez, Manuel Altamirano García, Rubén Pardo Martínez, Mercedes Iriarte Cela, Javier L. Carrasco Rus, Carmen Alfaro Giner, and Raquel Piqué Huerta. “The Earliest Basketry in Southern Europe: Hunter-Gatherer and Farmer Plant-Based Technology in Cueva De Los Murciélagos (Albuñol).” Science Advances 9, no. 39 (2023): eadi3055.

Early Wealthy Cell Phone Adopters Funded Innovations That “Made Cellphones Affordable to the Masses”

In Openness to Creative Destruction, I argue that early new technologies are often primitive, expensive, and buggy. They are initially bought by the rich who allow the technology to survive while it is being made better and cheaper. See below that cellphones are another example.

(p. A14) On April 3, 1973, four months after the last manned moon mission, a 44-year-old Motorola engineer took a small step onto Sixth Avenue outside the New York Hilton. There Martin Cooper did something commonplace now but at the time revolutionary: He made a call on a cellular telephone.

“Joel,” Mr. Cooper said to the man who picked up, “I’m calling you from a real cellular telephone—a handheld unit.” Joel Engel worked at Bell Labs, the research division of AT&T. Mr. Cooper was calling to gloat about surpassing the phone monopoly.

. . .

“The function of a cellphone—I can’t express it any better—it is to set people free,” Mr. Cooper, 94, says.  . . .  “A cellphone gives a person the freedom to be connected to the rest of the world, wherever they are and whenever they want to.”

. . .

“We expected the first phones to go to wealthy people,” Mr. Cooper says. “To a large extent that was true. But it turns out that one of the biggest users were real-estate people.” They needed to take calls from clients and go out to show properties. “The cellphone allowed them to do both at the same time. They could be showing a home and still answer the call. So to them the phone, even at that huge price, doubled their effectiveness.”

These early adopters, for whom the technology was worth the cost, helped fund further innovation, which ultimately made cellphones affordable to the masses. Advancements in data-transmission, display and input technology made possible the inexpensive, versatile smartphones we take for granted today.

They also brought ill effects, especially for young people, such as compulsive cellphone use and social media that promote both groupthink and bitter division. “Those are all big problems,” Mr. Cooper says.

. . .

But he accentuates the positive. “We are just starting to figure out what the value of the cellphone is,” he says. “Humanity will solve these other problems if the advantages are big enough. And the advantages—the services you get out of the cellphone, the value to you to make you more efficient—are so great that there’s no question in my mind that humanity is going to solve these problems.”

He is confident that the benefits already outweigh the costs. “Today, people are healthier. There are fewer people in poverty. They live longer than ever before. Something has made that happen, and I think the cellphone is one of the contributors.” By improving efficiency, “it has taken away a lot of the time issues, given people more time to do other things.”

For the full interview, see:

Faith Bottum. “THE WEEKEND INTERVIEW; From the ‘Shoe Phone’ to the Smartphone.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, April 15, 2022): A13.

(Note: the online version of the interview has the date April 14, 2023, and has the title “THE WEEKEND INTERVIEW; Opinion: From the ‘Shoe Phone’ to the Smartphone.”)

My book that I mention above is:

Diamond, Arthur M., Jr. Openness to Creative Destruction: Sustaining Innovative Dynamism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019.

Taxpayer-Financed Transfer Payments Reduced Childhood Poverty 59% in 30 Years from 1993 to 2023

(p. A1) WASHINGTON — For a generation or more, America’s high levels of child poverty set it apart from other rich nations, leaving millions of young people lacking support as basic as food and shelter amid mounting evidence that early hardship leaves children poorer, sicker and less educated as adults.

But with little public notice and accelerating speed, America’s children have become much less poor.

A comprehensive new analysis shows that child poverty has fallen 59 percent since 1993, with need receding on nearly every front. Child poverty has fallen in every state, and it has fallen by about the same degree among children who are white, Black, Hispanic and Asian, living with one parent or two, and in native or immigrant households. Deep poverty, a form of especially severe deprivation, has fallen nearly as much.

In 1993, nearly 28 percent of children were poor, meaning their households lacked the income the government deemed necessary to meet basic needs. By 2019, before temporary pandemic aid drove it even lower, child poverty had fallen to about 11 percent.

More than eight million children remained in poverty, and despite shared progress, Black and Latino children are about three times as likely as white children to be poor. With the poverty line low (about $29,000 for a family of four in a place with typical living costs), many families who escape poverty in the statistical sense still experience hardship.

Still, the sharp retreat of child poverty represents major progress and has drawn surprisingly little notice, even among policy experts.

For the full story, see:

Jason DeParle and Maddie McGarvey. “A Quiet, Dramatic Blow to Childhood Poverty.” The New York Times (Monday, September 12, 2022): A1 & A16-A17.

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Sept. 11, 2022, and has the title “Expanded Safety Net Drives Sharp Drop in Child Poverty.”)

Global Warming “Presents a Fleeting Opportunity for Glacial Archaeologists”

(p. 14) Espen Finstad was trudging through mud in the Jotunheimen mountains of eastern Norway this month when he happened upon a wooden arrow, bound with a pointed tip made of quartzite. Complete with feathers, it was so well-preserved that it looked as if it could have been lost just recently.

. . .

The find, which Mr. Finstad and his colleagues believe belonged to a reindeer hunter in the late Stone Age or early Bronze Age, is among thousands of artifacts and remains that have emerged from melting ice in recent years, as climate change thaws permafrost and glaciers around the world.

. . .

The thaw presents a fleeting opportunity for glacial archaeologists: They must find the historical treasures just as they emerge from the ice and before they are destroyed by the elements.

“We’re sort of in a race against time,” said Lars Holger Pilo, a glacial archaeologist and a colleague of Mr. Finstad’s.  . . .

For more than a decade, their team, which runs the Secrets of the Ice project, has scoured mountain passes across the country.  . . .

Since then, the team has discovered around 4,000 artifacts and remains, including a 1,000-year-old wooden whisk and Viking mitten, medieval horseshoes, Bronze Age skis and more than 150 arrows.

Similar work is taking place near Anchorage, Alaska, as well as in northeastern Siberia and Mongolia.

Among the most exciting finds have been Yuka, a 39,000-year-old baby Mammoth found in Siberia in 2010, and a 280-million-year-old tree fossil found in Antarctica in 2016. But the most famous of all is Ötzi — a 5,300-year-old iceman found in 1991 by hikers on the northern Italian border with Austria.

For the full story, see:

Livia Albeck-Ripka. “Melting Ice in Norway Reveals Ancient Arrow.” The New York Times, First Section (Sunday, September 24, 2023): 14.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Sept. 23, 2023, and has the title “Ancient Arrow Is Among Artifacts to Emerge From Norway’s Melting Ice.”)

The Most Powerful A.I. Systems Still Do Not Understand, Have No Common Sense, and Cannot Explain Their Decisions

(p. B1) David Ferrucci, who led the team that built IBM’s famed Watson computer, was elated when it beat the best-ever human “Jeopardy!” players in 2011, in a televised triumph for artificial intelligence.

But Dr. Ferrucci understood Watson’s limitations. The system could mine oceans of text, identify word patterns and predict likely answers at lightning speed. Yet the technology had no semblance of understanding, no human-style common sense, no path of reasoning to explain why it reached a decision.

Eleven years later, despite enormous advances, the most powerful A.I. systems still have those limitations.

. . .

(p. B7) The big, so-called deep learning programs have conquered tasks like image and speech recognition, and new versions can even pen speeches, write computer programs and have conversations.

They are also deeply flawed. They can generate biased or toxic screeds against women, minorities and others. Or occasionally stumble on questions that any child could answer. (“Which is heavier, a toaster or a pencil? A pencil is heavier.”)

“The depth of the pattern matching is exceptional, but that’s what it is,” said Kristian Hammond, an A.I. researcher at Northwestern University. “It’s not reasoning.”

Elemental Cognition is trying to address that gap.

. . .

Eventually, Dr. Ferrucci and his team made progress with the technology. In the past few years, they have presented some of their hybrid techniques at conferences and they now have demonstration projects and a couple of initial customers.

. . .

The Elemental Cognition technology is largely an automated system. But that system must be trained. For example, the rules and options for a global airline ticket are spelled out in many pages of documents, which are scanned.

Dr. Ferrucci and his team use machine learning algorithms to convert them into suggested statements in a form a computer can interpret. Those statements can be facts, concepts, rules or relationships: Qantas is an airline, for example. When a person says “go to” a city, that means add a flight to that city. If a traveler adds four more destinations, that adds a certain amount to the cost of the ticket.

In training the round-the-world ticket assistant, an airline expert reviews the computer-generated statements, as a final check. The process eliminates most of the need for hand coding knowledge into a computer, a crippling handicap of the old expert systems.

Dr. Ferrucci concedes that advanced machine learning — the dominant path pursued by the big tech companies and well-funded research centers — may one day overcome its shortcomings. But he is skeptical from an engineering perspective. Those systems, he said, are not made with the goals of transparency and generating rational decisions that can be explained.

“The big question is how do we design the A.I. that we want,” Dr. Ferrucci said. “To do that, I think we need to step out of the machine-learning box.”

For the full story, see:

Steve Lohr. “You Can Lead A.I. to Answers, but Can You Make It Think?” The New York Times (Monday, August 29, 2022): B1 & B7.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated Sept. 8, 2022, and has the title “One Man’s Dream of Fusing A.I. With Common Sense.”)

“The Sense of Freedom That Flight Creates”

(p. B12) Frank Frederick Borman was born on March 14, 1928, in Gary, Ind.  . . .  When he was 5, Frank visited Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio, and a lifelong passion for aviation was kindled.

“Dad took me for a five-dollar ride with a barnstorming pilot in an old biplane,” he recalled in “Countdown” (1988), a memoir written with Robert J. Serling. “I sat next to Dad in the front seat, with the pilot in the cockpit behind us, and I was captivated by the feel of the wind and the sense of freedom that flight creates so magically.”

. . .

What awed him most, he said, was his view of Earth from Apollo 8. As he put it, “The contrast between our memories of the Earth and the color on the Earth and the totally bleak and dead moon was striking.”

It was an image, he said, that he would “recall till the day I die.”

For the full obituary, see:

Richard Goldstein. “Frank Borman, 95, Astronaut Who Led First Orbit of the Moon, Dies.” The New York Times (Saturday, November 11, 2023): B12.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date Nov. 9, 2023, and has the title “Frank Borman, Astronaut Who Led First Orbit of the Moon, Dies at 95.”)

The memoir Borman co-authored that is mentioned above is:

Borman, Frank, and Robert J. Serling. Countdown: An Autobiography. New York: Silver Arrow Books, 1988.

Communists Renege on “Implicit Bargain” to Give Chinese “Stability and Comfort” in Exchange for Lost Freedom

(p. 1) After violently crushing pro-democracy demonstrations at Tiananmen Square in 1989, Beijing struck an implicit bargain: In exchange for limitations on political freedoms, the (p. 9) people would get stability and comfort.

But now the stability and comfort have dwindled, even as the limitations have grown.

. . .

Atop a hill in Shenzhen’s Lianhuashan Park stands a 20-foot bronze statue of Deng Xiaoping. Mr. Deng, the leader who pioneered China’s embrace of market forces after Mao’s death, watches over the city that is a living reminder of the country’s ability to change direction. Mr. Deng is shown in midstride, to honor his credo that opening should only accelerate.

Chen Chengzhi, 80, a retired government cadre who hikes to that statue every day for exercise, credits Mr. Deng with changing his life. Mr. Chen moved to Shenzhen in the 1980s, soon after Mr. Deng allowed economic experimentation here. The city then had just a few hundred thousand people, but Mr. Chen, who had endured famine and the Cultural Revolution, believed in Mr. Deng’s vision.

“At the end of the day, all good things in China are related to Shenzhen,” Mr. Chen said on one of his daily walks, adding that he cheered when China’s premier, Li Keqiang, visited the statue in August and pledged that China would continue opening to the world.

If it doesn’t do so, Mr. Chen said, “China will hit a dead end.”

But Mr. Li is retiring, even as the Xi Jinping era of rising state control stretches on.

For now, Mr. Chen continues climbing the hill — looking over the city that he helped build, that he believes in still.

For the full story, see:

Vivian Wang. “Covid Crackdowns Shake Chinese People’s Faith in Progress.” The New York Times, First Section (Sunday, December 4, 2022): 1 & 9.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story also has the date December 4, 2022, and has the title “The Chinese Dream, Denied.” The online version says that the title of the print version was “Beijing’s Bargain With Its People Is Shaken” but my National Edition of the print version had the title “Covid Crackdowns Shake Chinese People’s Faith in Progress.”)