Things I Learned by Spending Five Thousand Hours In Non-EA Charities

(now also available on LessWrong and the EA Forums)

From late 2020 to last month, I worked at grassroots-level non-profits in operational roles. Over that time, I’ve seen surprisingly effective deployments of strategies that were counter-intuitive to my EA and rationalist sensibilities.

Continue reading “Things I Learned by Spending Five Thousand Hours In Non-EA Charities”

Beauty from Evil

I think humans are really good at creating goodness and beauty from evil and ugly things, and bad at reckoning with that. People struggle with this in two ways – either by refusing to/pretending to not see the beauty that emerges from ugliness or by insisting that a good trait must mean that the underlying raw material that it came from couldn’t be bad.1

I think as a society we need to get better at saying things like “this thing sure is beautiful, but it came from something evil and we need to destroy it to stop perpetuating the evil”, or, “this thing is so beautiful that we need to preserve it even though it perpetuates something evil”.

Some examples of things I’d consider “beauty from something evil”:

“Deuteronomy 2:10” by The Mountain Goats, a song I love. An exploration of the last days of the last of some species, it exists because humankind has driven animals to extinction and will continue to do so. (But it also exists because we were never heartless about that – there were some humans who ever so carefully and lovingly observed the species to its last days.) As good of a song it is, I think most people agree that we probably want the golden toad to be not extinct more than we want this song to exist. Also see a lot of other art – Afghan Girl, Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.), etc.

Caremongering facebook groups, and all the other interesting things on facebook, a platform whose default behaviour include sending ads of alcohol to alcoholics, financial scams to people looking for financial help, and racebaiting content to racialized people. Facebook is bad, but sometimes, there are good things on there. Still, most people seem to agree that the bad outweighs the good and we should probably nuke its servers from orbit or something.

All the modern rituals of femininity, which has only emerged under the systemic oppression of patriarchy. Things like: learning to be quiet and subservient. Learning to see yourself as an object, and deriving all your self-worth from how pretty you are.  Learning to dress, do your hair, and do makeup – ways to make the object that you are prettier, to increase your social status.

I think this one is a pretty central example. There are people who consider makeup/nails/hair an art form, and themselves artisans. Some of these people think that because it’s art, it can’t be critiqued as bad. See that now for the non-sequitur it is. The actual question needs to be: given the beauty that this art form provides, is it worth the evil that it perpetuates? (And, how much can we cast off of the evil parts, while keeping the art alive?)

There are definitely some cases where the beauty is worth it. Some people are really good at telling really funny stories about their own tiny humiliations, spreading tenfold joy from the pain of a stubbed toe or the awkwardness of a terrible first date. Does that mean we shouldn’t aspire as a culture to reduce the amount of toe stubbings? Man, I don’t know. How about yes except if you’re funny, in which case we only allow you to buy furniture with acute angles.

Even milder evils exist. Any sort of hurt that you can heal from sounds like a fine trade for enduring beauty (putting tattoos squarely in the green), and maybe even an ok trade for temporary joy (I enjoyed myself immensely but I’m unsure if I’d subject my stomach again to the mega spicy drunken noodles((well prepared noodles are a work of art. i am not taking questions about this)) at that one Thai place).

People who tell you to not confuse beauty for goodness are themselves confused about the fact that beauty is good. Beauty is goodโ€”but it can be overpriced. Shop wisely.

  1. btw the mostly finished draft of this post comes from 2021 but i still agree w everything here []

Lumenators: They’re Really Good

Lumenators are a piece of folk technology from the rationalist subculture. In short, it is 10+ lightbulbs on a string, to make your living space much brighter than it would otherwise be. The lights are generally cooler toned than your regular yellow bulbs, to emulate sunlight better.

I first made one in January 2019 (I have a pic in this old post), after a disastrous first term of third year, in which I’d failed half my courses and narrowly scraped by the other half due to a really intense bout of antidepressant-resistant SAD.

I’ve had them for 3 years now and my opinion is that literally everyone should own one.((related: that post about shower chairs!))

Listen, when I first made the lumenators, I lived with two guys who were completely functional human beings who weren’t depressed in the least. Idk how to convince you how non-depressed they were – they were doing sports, taking insane courses that required like 40 hours of labs a week, going to, volunteering at, and running major hackathons, putting effort into steadily improving at competitive video games and then road tripping out to tournaments… Living their best university lives, tbh.

These dudes thought that it was overkill that I was shelling out $400 for an assload of bright lightbulbs, command hooks, wiring, and other shit instead of just buying like, two more floor lamps from ikea. Which, fair enough tbh, if you haven’t been lumenated, you probably would think the same.

Two years later we graduated and went our separate ways, and then within like a month of moving into their new apartments they were constructing lumenators of their own because they had SEEN THE LIGHT and realized that standard lighting sucked fucking ass.

Lumenators are good mostly because for 4 accursed months out of the year, the sun sets at a ridiculously early time. When you have lumenators, that sucks a lot less. It genuinely helps, a lot, to have the space you’re in be really bright for an additional 3 hours a day, and make your “sunset” 8pm even though it’s been dark outside since 5.

It also is a great supplemental source of lighting on days where it’s raining or snowing or just heavily overcast. The days where it’s day but the light doesn’t make it into your windows anyways. When you have lumenators, those days become vastly more cheery. When I turn my lumenators on on those days, I get a jolt of happiness.

I actually turn my lumenators on every day. Even when it’s fully sunny outside, my lumenators still manage to brighten up my space appreciably, and I think that’s incredibly sexy of them.

Some miscellaneous tips for creating a lumenator setup for after you read the linked article, if you’re interested in building one:

Bulb Notes

  • If you’re dripping with cash, get zigby/hue bulbs or other programmable bulbs! It’s a lot more convenient to control them through your phone.
  • Look for high CRI bulbs – they emit a broader spectrum of colours which is what sunlight does. Cree bulbs are high CRI and available at home depot online. Don’t get them on Amazon – they have sketchy bulbs that are old. Get them directly from home depot.
  • A more optimal bulb ratio that has been suggested to me for traditional bulbs is 3:1 for 5000k bulbs to 2700k bulbs. Unfortunately I do like the warmer 1:1 ratio, although I’ve also had a good time with 2:1 ratios.
  • 25 or 30 bulbs is ideal, but I think 15 is sufficient for a basic setup, and that’s what I started with. I have a setup of 10 bulbs in my bedroom that wake me up in the mornings by blasting my face with light, but I think it’s a little dim for everyday use.

Setup Notes

  • It’s a lot better when you can hang them up a lot higher than eye level. I was living in a low-ceilinged basement apartment for a while, and the lumenators did not work super well in that space ๐Ÿ™
  • You can make them look a lot nicer by buying some fake vines on Amazon and draping them around the wires and stuff
  • Ideally, you want the lighting to be fairly well distributed across the ceiling, so that the shadows are more diffuse and it tricks you brain into thinking that it’s daylight better. Practically however it will look a lot tidier and be much easier to set up if you do line them up against a wall. If you’re someone who owns your place and can do more permanent things, recessed recessed br20 or br30 lights spaced at regular intervals across your ceiling is the way to go.
  • There are apps you can download to check the lux of your space, and they give readings consistent with physical lux readers (if you have an older phone, you may get a notification that your phone isn’t supported). You want it to be at least 1000 lux (for comparison, a normal office is around 300), but really the goal is to get it as high as possible without hurting your eyes.

Anyways, in conclusion, lumenators are great and you should make one. Here’s some pics of mine:

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