If you could do anything to change the world what would you do? Many people haven’t had the opportunity to ponder that question because they have been busy studying what could be possible within a particular set of resource constraints. However, what if we push the limits? If all the barriers were removed, then what would you do?
The XXXXXXXXX Foundation has an open, aggressive, and entrepreneurial approach to philanthropy. Our goal is to produce substantial, widespread and lasting changes to society that will maximize opportunity and minimize injustice. We tap into the minds of fearless thinkers who have big, bold, transformational ideas, and work with them to invest in strategies designed to solve persistent problems.
Our team is reaching out to you because we believe you are the type of innovative thinker with ideas that just might change the world. While this is not a promise of grant funding, it is an invitation to share your ideas. You can learn more about the XXXXXXXXX Foundation by visiting our website. Thank you for your interest and I look forward to hearing your ideas.
I got this email yesterday. While I have some ideas, I really want to make the most of this chance. So: what would you do if you got this sort of opportunity? To keep things simple, let’s assume this is a legitimate email from a truly well-meaning organization—I’m checking that, and it seems to be so. Assume they could spend 1-10 million dollars on a really good idea, and assume you really want to help the world. What idea would you suggest?
Here are some comments from G+ to get your thoughts going. Heather Vandagriff wrote:
Hard core grassroots organization toward political involvement and education on climate issues.
Jason Holt wrote:
Ideas are cheap.
Borislav Iordanov wrote:
I don’t agree that ideas are cheap. It could take a lifetime to have a really good one. However, one could argue that really good ideas are probably already funded. But if to maximize opportunity and to minimize injustice is the motivation, I say government transparency should be top priority. I can google the answer to almost any technical or scientific question, any historical fact, or pop culture, you name it. But I can’t know what my government is doing. And I’m not talking only, or even mostly, about things that governments hide. I’m talking about mundane day-to-day operations that are potentially not conducted in the best interest of the people, knowingly or unknowingly. I can easily find what are the upcoming concerts or movies, but it’s much harder to find out what, for instance, my local government is currently discussing so I can perhaps stop by the commissioner chamber and have my voice being heard (why aren’t there TV commercials about the public hearing of the next city ordinance?).
I realize this is not a concrete idea, but there are plenty of projects in that direction around the internet. And I don’t think such projects should come only from within government agencies because there is a conflict of interest.
Bottom line is that any sustainable, permanent change towards a better society has to involve the political process in some way, and the best (peaceful!) way to enact change there starts with real and consequential openness. Didn’t expect to write so much, sorry…
John Baez wrote:
Borislav Iordanov wrote:
But if to maximize opportunity and to minimize injustice is the motivation, I say government transparency should be top priority.
That’s a great idea… and in fact, this foundation already has a project to promote government transparency. So, I’ll either need to come up with a specific way to promote it that they haven’t thought about, or come up with something else.
Noon Silk wrote:
I guess the easy answer is some sort of education program; educating people in some way so-as to generate the skills necessary to do the thing that you really want to do. So I don’t know. Perhaps part of it could be some sort campaign to get a few coursera et al courses on climate maths, etc, and building some sort of innovative and exciting program around that.
Richard Lucas wrote:
Use existing corporate law (thanks, Capitalists!) to create collectives (maybe non-profits?) into which people could elect to participate. Participation would be contingent upon adoption of a certain set of standards for behavior impossible in the broader, geographical society in which we are immersed. Participants would enjoy a guaranteed minimum income, health care, etc – the goals of Communism, but in a limited scope, applied to participants who also exist in the general society. It’s just that participants would agree to share time, resources, and expertise with the collective. If collective living can’t be made to work in such an environment, where participation could be relatively selective up front, to include the honest and the committed…. well, then it can’t work. When the right formula is established, and the standard of living for participants is greater than for peers who are not “participants”, then you can expect more people to join. A tipping point would eventually be reached, where the majority of citizens in the broader, geographical society were also participants in an optional, voluntary, supersociety which does not respect geographic or national boundaries.
This is the only way it will work, and the beauty is that Communists and Objectivists equally hate this idea, because it breaks their frames, and because it is legal, and because if the larger society tried to block it, they would then have to justify the ability of crazy UFO cults and religions to do it. So, it can’t be stopped. There’s no theory to defend. You just do it.
Xah Lee wrote:
put the $10M to increase internet penetration, or in other ways enhance communication such as cell phone.
absolutely do not do anything that’s normally considered as good or helpful to humanity. such as help africa, women, the weak, the cripple, poor, vaccine, donation, institutionalized education etc.
even though, i’m still doubtful there’d be any improvement of humanity. $10M is like a peanut for this. One missile is $10M…
John Baez wrote:
Xah Lee wrote:
even though, i’m still doubtful there’d be any improvement of humanity. $10M is like a peanut for this.
There are certain activities where the benefit is roughly proportional to the amount of money spent – like, giving people bed-netting that repels malaria-carrying mosquitos, or buying textbooks for students. For such activities, $10 million is often not enough to get the job done.
But there are other activities where $10 million is the difference between some good self-perpetuating phenomenon starting to happen, and it not starting to happen. This is the kind of thing I should suggest.
It’s the difference between pushing a large rock up a long hill, and starting a rock rolling down a hill.
By the way, this foundation plans to spend a lot more than $10M in total. I just want to suggest a project that will seem cheap to them, to increase the chance that they actually pursue it.
Piotr Migdal wrote:
I think that the thing that needs a drastic change in the education system. I suggest founding a “hacker university” (or “un-university”).
The educational system was designed for preparation of soldiers and factory workers. Now the job market is very different, and one cannot hope to work in one factory for his/her lifetime. Additionally, the optimal skill set is not necessarily the same for everyone (and it changes, as the World changes). But the worst thing is that schools teaches that “take no initiative, just obey” which stops working once one needs to find a job. Plus, for more creative tasks usually the top-down approach is the worst one (contrasting with the coordination tasks).
While changing the whole system may be hard, let’s think about universities; or a… un-university. Instead of attending predefined classes, let’s do the following:
• based on self-learning,
• lectures are because someone is willing to give them,
• everything voluntary (e.g. lectures and classes),
• own projects highly encouraged, starting from day one.
So basically, a collection of people who actually want to learn (!= earn a degree / prestige / position / fame), perform research which they consider the most fascinating (not merely doing science which is currently most fashionable and well-funded or “my advisor/grant/dean told so”) and undertake projects for greater good (startup-like freedom (unexperienceable in the current academia, at least – for the young) for things not necessarily giving monetary profit).
Sure, you may argue that there are more important goals (unemployment, bureaucracy, poverty, wars, ongoing destruction of natural environment – to name only a few in no particular order). But this one can be a nucleus for solving many other problems – wider in education and in general. And such
a spark may yield in an unimaginable firestorm(a bad metaphor, it has to be about creation) seed can grow, flourish and make deserts blossom.
By founding I don’t mean paying for administration. Quite opposite – just rent a building, nothing more (so no tuition and no renting cost for students, to make it accessible regardless of the background). Almost all stuff (e.g. admission) in the first years based entirely on voluntary work.
John Baez wrote:
Noon Silk wrote: “I guess the easy answer is some sort of education program…”
That sounds good. The foundation already has a program to improve K-12 education in the United States. So, when it comes to education, I’d either need to give them ideas they haven’t tried in that realm, get them interested in education outside the US, or get them interested in post-secondary education. Piotr Migdal’s idea of a ‘hacker university’ might be one approach. It also seems the potential of free worldwide online courses has not yet been fully exploited.
Piotr Migdal wrote:
The point is in going well beyond online courses (which, IMHO, are nice but not that revolutionary – textbooks are there for quite a few years; I consider things like Usenet, Wikipedia and StackExchange way more impactful for education) – by gathering a critical mass of intelligent and passionate people. But anyway, it may be the right time for innovations in education (and not only small patches).
Robert Byrne wrote:
Firstly, thanks for sharing this John! Secondly, congratulations on being chosen!
I would look into three aspects of this. 1) Who funds it, and whether you are comfortable with that, 2) do they choose candidates and generally have processes that make use of the experience of similar organizations such as MacArthur?, 3) what limits are there on using the grant — could you design your own prize to solve a problem using these funds?
But you’ve asked for ideas. The biggest problems that can be fixed/improved for $5 million! I’ll stick to education and technology. Here are some areas:
• Education reform in the U.S., think-tanks or writers who can create a model to switch away from municipal public education funding, with the aim of reducing disadvantage,
• Office, factory and home power efficiency technology, anything that needs $1 million to get to prototype,
• Solve the commute/car problem — e.g. how can more people work within the suburb in which they live? How can public transit be useful in sprawling suburbs?
John Baez wrote:
Robert Byrne wrote:
Firstly, thanks for sharing this John! Secondly, congratulations on being chosen!
Thanks! I’ve been chosen to give them ideas.
“I would look into three aspects of this. 1) Who funds it, and whether you are comfortable with that, 2) do they choose candidates and generally have processes that make use of the experience of similar organizations such as MacArthur?, 3) what limits are there on using the grant — could you design your own prize to solve a problem using these funds?”
Thanks – I definitely plant to look the gift horse in the mouth. They didn’t say anything about giving me a grant, except to say “this is not a promise of a grant”.
So, right now I’m treating this as an exercise in coming up with a really good idea that I’m happy to give away and let someone try. Naturally there’s a self-serving part of me that wants to pick an idea where my participation would be required. But knowing me, I’ll actually be happiest if I can catalyze something good in a limited amount of time and then think about other things.
“Solve the commute/car problem — e.g. how can more people work within the suburb in which they live? How can public transit be useful in sprawling suburbs?”
My wife Lisa raised this one. I would love to do something about this. But what can be done for just 1-10 million dollars? To do something good in this field with that amount of money, it seems we’d need to have a really smart idea: something where a small change can initiate some sort of chain reaction. Any specific ideas?
And so on…
In some ways this post is a followup to What To Do (Part 1), so if you haven’t read that, you might want to now.
I have ideas for disruptive changes to Education which also have broad application in other domains.
I also have ideas on removing political obstacles inhibiting critical Medical research.
Hmm. Two possibilities: Help these guys out: https://p2pu.org/en/ and these guys: http://blog.p2pfoundation.net/about
These guys could use a bit of help, too: http://thefnf.org/ – here’s a documentary about what the guy whose idea this is was doing back in 2011: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fx93WJPCCGs
I have two suggestions. One is to use money to push the idea of dividing out government’s fossil fuel revenues, Hansen-style.
An annual 200 gigawatt-years of natural gas-fired electricity in the USA* gives $6.6 billion per year in natgas royalties (if the rate is still 12.5 percent) or $10 billion a year (if it’s three-eighths). Gasoline and diesel fuel revenues are about ten times bigger.
It may not sound like much, just about $200 per citizen per year, but it would get government out of the fossil fuel rent-taking business. And a lot of people would vote for that $200. It’s a tax cut!
Dr. James Hansen wants not just a dividend but a fee along with it, but I think the real power for good is in the dividend. We’re already paying carbon fees, at different rates per tonne C for different fuels, and the motivation they give government is the problem. Dividend first.
My second suggestion, which I’ve made before, is funding research into clean combustion fuels that afford full normal car range.
* I’m not sure it’s quite 200 GWe, but permits do go through rapidly. I would be surprised if the Kleen Energy plant that blew up during its construction, killing, IIRC, about five, didn’t get right back into construction after the shortest possible moment of silence, and quietly enter service many months ago.
I am not clear whether the Foundation is appealing to you for help in putting its funds to good use, or for help in deciding how it should go about putting its money to good use.
I would tend to go by your instinct and resist the temptation which would follow naturally if one were to assume the first.
Reason: If the Foundation’s motivation is the first, then it is still not as mature and as focused as it needs to be in order to promote the goals that it is essentially asking you to promote!
Significant social change cannot be outsourced.
(My experience, though, is that it is precisely such a dilemma that most Foundations find almost impossible to resolve.)
However, if the Foundation’s motivation is the second, then here are some ideas that could form the basis for further dialogue.
I once read of some statistics which broadly suggest that:
(i) About 80% of all new ventures fail in the first year because the venture is ill-conceived (which could be for any number of reasons, not always identifiable).
(ii) About 80% of ventures that survive the first year fail in the next five years, because the promoters lack the staying power (which again could be for any number of reasons, again not always identifiable).
(iii) The surviving 4% of all new ventures now have an inbuilt momentum (again for any number of reasons that are not always identifiable) which will assist their struggle to survive (even on autopilot for a while) by insulating them to some degree from the vagaries of both human capriciousness and environmental adversity.
If we accept the above as a reasonable working hypothesis, then obviously it is in the area (iii) where the Foundation must look for identifying the social changing ventures that would put its money to optimum social benefit with a minimum of subjectively influenced risk (i.e., the risk associated by decisions made by non-promoters who are only theoretically aware of the motivating raison d’etre of the original venture).
In practical terms, the challenge for the Foundation would be to seek out individuals in any sphere of human activity who:
(a) have not only ventured outside their comfort zones in order to start society-benefiting ventures that defy current paradigms; but
(b) have survived the baptism by (i) and (ii) and find themselves (for whatever reason) unable to maintain a positive momentum in (iii).
Since the momentum at stage (iii) is not critically dependent on the (generally waning) resources of the promoter, this is where financial resources can make a difference in assisting a venture to stabilise and grow its momentum to the point where the venture becomes self-sustaining so long as it’s net contribution to the social welfare is positive.
Such a perspective suggests that, in order to effect significant social change, any successful venture needs:
* the right individual
* the right idea
* the right baptism
* support at just the right time.
So, for what its worth, I would be interested to know whether, and how much, the Foundation’s focus (and effort) is on identifying those individuals who have successfully challenged current paradigms concerning society’s welfare through a sufficiently long period of baptism, and now need the resources to stabilise their promotions to a point of self-sustenance.
The chances are high that the Foundation that approached you is either already attempting precisely that, or believes that it is doing so adequately.
In either case, before deciding upon an appropriate response, perhaps you may need to delve deeper into how, and why, they selected you to approach.
All the best,
Right—the wording is deliberately vague. But from what I’ve read, and from a subsequent email, it’s clear they want to start talking to me about ideas. This could lead in various directions, depending on what they think.
This is very interesting, and much more thoughtful than a lot of comments which simply state what would be good for the world (e.g. “internet access for all”), without thought of how to achieve it or how an intelligent foundation would try to find people who are capable, with help, of achieving it.
I think this particular foundation is very intelligent and careful about how they proceed. (I would like to explain this in detail someday, but I think I’ll wait a while.) So, I’m sure they’ve thought about these issues.
It’s become clear they want to talk to me about things, not just decide whether or not to dump a bunch of money in my lap. So, I can just ask them why they approached me.
In view of the crisis with Syria and in view that the US and Britain may soon launch an air strike onto Syria it is too be asked how this airstrike could look like.
I am not a military person so I don’t know how easy it is to replace warheads with other material than merely explosives. For the suggestion to follow this may be a very difficult task and militaria producers may be unable to cope with this.
The idea is to fill the warheads with very little explosives and small capsules which contain toy balloons of different colours, compressed helium, instructions and a mechanism which allows for the inflation of the balloons.
The warheads should explode in the air and distribute the capsules which could land -eventually with the help of little parachutes- on Syrian soil. This may still be harmful, but probably way less harmful than a bombardement with full blown explosives.
For a person who picks up a capsule it is thought to be possible to choose a balloon colour, like via pressing an equally coloured button. The pressed button makes the balloon inflate with helium after about 40 min (randomized +-20 min). and ascend. The 40 min.+- would allow the person to place a balloon anonymously somewhere in the city/landscape with little danger of being detected. Eventually one has to think what to do with fingerprints and CCTV, i.e. like some mechanism where one could tear of some cover before placing the balloon and warn of CCTV cams and satellites. Images of Syria however suggest that there are not (yet) as much CCTV cams in public space like in other countries. One should also warn people to rather not place a balloon close to their living space.
The balloons would allow to launch a blurry public vote via pressing the respective buttons. That is each balloon colour could represent a certain syrian group which might run for a kind of parliament. Each balloon could carry some bar code or similar for registration, which could probably be rather easily traced via satellites or similar.
The vote would be of course not very representative since it is very probable that it will be distorted by playing kids, groups who try to collect balloons etc. but still. It could give some indication and it could display a possible interest in a secret vote.
Why a vote? It seems that it is not so clear who would elect whom in Syria. That is there seems to be not only unclarity about how may civilian inhabitants would vote for either Assad followers or the opposition, but there seems also to be dissent even among the Assad followers and even among parts of the opposition itself.
Moreover as some of the opponents point out:
-Printed balloons seem to be rather expensive especially with helium. Like this company offers 40 balloons including helium for about 75 Euros, so as a rough guess such a capsule would cost probably at least 2$. Since there are about 20 million Syrians with for simplicity estimated 10 million voters (probably more) one would need 20 million $ for the capsules.
-The capsules may lead to quite a pollution, depending on material.
-There could be implications which had been overseen here, like that certain colours are connected with certain religious/cultural rites etc.
-In particular the here proposed action could be regarded as “childish”, even it is meant serious.
You didn’t write wether you are against or for an airstrike and you also didn’t write who you think is guilty for the gas attack. Do you have an opinion on that?
There were recently some problems with certain german groups which were against the set-up of a refugee home in my neighbourhood, which is intended to shelter also Syrians, so I feel I am a bit more forced to think about all these things.
If I understand you correctly you are in particular not content
with the way the voting system in Syria works and if I – as an outsider – understand this correctly the voting system may have been at least partially also one reason for the fights. ?
I would be interested to hear more about how the Syrian voting system actually works, that
is the german wikipedia says:
translation without guarantee:
That means according to that information that 127 of 250 seats (i.e. the majority) have to be reserved for the Ba’ath Party. The english wikipedia doesn’t mention this pecularity. Do you know more? Unfortunately the given link  on the wikipedia side, which refers to AG Friedensforschung der Universität Kassel zur Wahl in Syrien 2007 is broken.
I must say that I see your idea for that kind of vote a bit critical- One reason is of course that this action seems to be very problematic from a international law viewpoint moreover I could imagine that it is very hard to shoot the capsules in such a way that nobody is harmed, like parts from the exploding rockets may fall down and last but not least as you already said the vote would probably be not very representative, because certain groups might collect the capsules and use it for influencing the elections in their way.
If we set aside feasibility for the moment, the really important problems have to do with how people think. Increasing human cooperation, and increasing the degree to which people base their beliefs upon evidence, seem especially crucial. Here is a quote I just came across which touches on both points-
I’d like to say two things. One intellectual and one moral. The intellectual thing I should want to say to them is this. “When you are studying any matter, or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only: What are the facts, and what is the truth that the facts bear out. Never let yourself be diverted, either by what you wish to believe, or what you think could have beneficent social effects if it were believed; but look only and solely at what are the facts.” That is the intellectual thing that I should wish to say. The moral thing I should wish to say to them is very simple; I should say: “Love is wise — Hatred is foolish.” In this world, which is getting more and more closely interconnected, we have to learn to tolerate each other. We have to learn to put up with the fact, that some people say things we don’t like. We can only live together in that way. But if we are to live together, and not die together, we must learn a kind of charity and a kind of tolerance which is absolutely vital, to the continuation of human life on this planet.
Response to the question “Suppose Lord Russell, this film were to be looked at by our descendants, like a dead sea scroll in a thousand years time. What would you think it’s worth telling that generation about the life you’ve lived and the lessons you’ve learned from it?” in a BBC interview on “Face to Face” (1959).
Recently while looking at malaria in India, I was amazed and alarmed by the incredible population growth in India since 1950. Of course, this goes for the whole world. Yes, I knew population overgrowth is a problem, but seeing the exponential solution to the population equation and how well it matches actual data is really sobering.
A very simple solution I saw on YouTube is to ask the women of the world to voluntarily have only 1 child. Even if only the women in the developed world complied, since the children of the developed world tend to use a disproportionate amount of resources, reducing our population would have a great impact on the world. In a generation or two, we can drastically reduce the population of the world.
To do this, we mainly need money to advertise and explain this concept to the people around the world, and money for birth control.
Fund a nanotechnology prize.
First team to grow one hundred 1 meter carbon nanotubes gets $10M.
I want to ride a space elevator one day….
A comment by Andy Skuce on http://planet3.org today leads into my answer:
“It’s a pity that so much science discussion goes on in
semi-private, at conferences and in informal exchanges,
yet that largely goes unreported to the general public,
who have to rely on journalists (who are usually
under-qualified, overworked and underpaid). I suppose
that science blogs help fill that gap somewhat, but I
suspect that, even there, scientists are reluctant to
write opinions that they would freely disclose over
coffee or beer. There really is a need for more
scientific discussion at a level somewhere between the
formality of journal articles and the informality of
The modern world can be construed as a feedback mechanism – economics is the engine, politics is the actuator, and science is the sensor. Nowadays, the channel between the sensor and the actuator is hopelessly noisy; this is due in part to people actively saturating the channel with noise. Consequently the policies are stupid.
What’s clear is that the noise-injection process needs to be countered. Russell’s two bits of advice that arch1 reminds us about are good design goals of an updated, noise-robust algorithm.
This is mostly important for spheres where science is corrupted by public confusion.
In ordinary scientific practice, bad ideas are politely ignored and good ideas gain traction. But, where science is part of the feedback loop keeping the daily functions of the human world, and increasingly the natural world, under control, bad ideas are seized upon by parties motivated by something other than Russell’s first principle. Noise of a sort that scientists are unprepared for dominates the discourse.
No matter whether you share the intentions of an advocate for a proposition that shades the truth, they inject noise into the system and ultimately promote system instability.
What we need, more than anything, is a low-noise channel between observational processes and decision processes.
I have several ideas for exploring this space that are in some ways close to the Azimuth vision and in other ways distinct from it. These can easily be web-mediated in large measure.
Michael Tobis wrote:
Good! There’s a lot that needs to be done. If you want to tell us more here, please do…
If I were you, I wouldn’t submit somebody else’s idea, however smart or relevant it may be. If this foundation contacted you, indeed, it’s probably because it has some knowledge of your personal commitments (to open publishing, to climate science, you know better), and expects you to go ahead and make your move. This is not to say that collective brainstorming isn’t useful—on the contrary, I’m finding this discussion quite inspiring. What I mean is that, in my opinion, a distinctively John-Baez submission is more likely to be successful. Why not consider turning the Azimuth project into an institute/think-tank? Or help kickstart the selected papers net project?
I’d like to add that I know well what you mean when you say you’be happiest if you could “catalyze something good in a limited amount of time and then think about other things”. I’ve tried this myself (at my modest level), hoping to make myself useful in the world with what I tought were relevant ideas without stopping doing cool physics. I have come to the conclusion that funders do not typically appreciate this attitude, which they view as lack of commitment or indecisiveness. They’re business people, and are convinced—perhaps wisely—that their money should be paid by your sweat.
I hope these comments aren’t inappropriate! Like all others here, I’m only trying to help make the best of this opportunity.
I like the idea of a zip-line transit system in Manhattan. Why should you take the elevator down? Upper West Side to the bottom of the island in a few minutes. The longest zip-line in the world is just over a mile long. It is 7 or 8 miles from the top of Central Park to the bottom of the island. It might take two zip-lines and a bit of engineering, but $10 million could get us off the ground.
I think the best way to get people unstuck from their carbon rut is to show them that there is a better way and to start doing things that way.
For the commute/car problem I think the key is to find go faster. We’ve had automobiles going 60-80 mph for decades. Could you imagine if computer processors stopped ramping up at a few GHz; there would be some unhappy users. I like the idea of small airplanes, like ultra-lights, for anything that you can’t do on your bike.
The most powerful idea that is presently hanging out there with its implications mostly not yet explored is Coase’s Ceiling. This is the point in the growth of any organism/organization at which additional energy input is entirely diverted to overcoming internal friction, without enabling any increment of new work to be done. Organizations that have hit Coase’s Ceiling are self-paralyzed. My observations (admittedly subjective) suggest that this is the rule rather than the exception and that pretty nearly every organization is pinned hard up against that ceiling. The need is less to understand why this happens than to find alternatives, although the latter may require the former. Human civilization depends upon cooperation, but at this time it has essentially locked up through the collapse of the known modes of cooperation. If (I say if) there is a will to get it going again, this may be the key problem that will have to be solved.
When someone asked the Vietnamese Zen poet Thich Nhat Hanh, “What do we need to do to save our world?” his questioner expected him to identify strategies for social and environmental action. But he answered: “What we most need to do is to hear within us the sound of the Earth crying.” When the Canadian geneticist David Suzuki met E. O. Wilson, he had one big question for the eminent biologist: “What can we do to stop the catastrophic level of extinction that’s going on around the world?” Wilson surprised the younger man with his reply. “We have to discover our kin,” he said simply. “We have to discover our relatives, the other plants and animals who are related to us through our DNA. Because to know our kin is to come to love and cherish them.”
Paul H. Ray, Sherry Ruth Anderson, The Cultural Creatives (2001) p.314
So: how would you encourage these good attitudes if you had 1-10 million dollars to do it?
(Or is the idea that everyone must find their own way, so there’s no point in spending money to tackle this issue? That seems wrong to me. If someone has money to spend they can do it in better or worse ways.)
Some, but not enough, have found their own way. Meanwhile a billion heads need to be turned around.
0.5 million dollars/Euro should suffice to bootstrap my sinister plan to save the world:
Find some able folks who get the point. Buy/rent marginal land. Pay medical and social security. Allow folks to live from and work with the land according to
1) the fundamental principle for sedentary non-genosuicidality
2) the biogeophysico-ethical imperative of the 21st century
3) their corollary
plus some negotiable aesthetic and sociodynamic rules.
The result (if it works) will be a double-sense anthropogenic carbon sequestration machine. It should not be intended as an either/or alternative to current civilization but should instead aspire mutual stabilization (like introducing a parallel currency like the Swiss WIR).
I have mentioned this plan several times over the last years, with not much feedback (except from Neven, whom I met in person shortly before he started his now famous blog). I want to reformulate it again come weekend (but at the moment my brain is overstressed with sorting out a huge messy old Java EE project).
The biophysics is trivial – but this summer I fully realized a severe psychopathological problem, even with those who are willing. The problem is old, e.g. the chickens are coming home to roost in Egypt and Syria. It is related to the will to will (Heidegger on Nietzsche), deep deficits of Holocene mind development, and what the Buddha had identified as the core delusion (2000y before Descartes got it backwards).
Before I try to elaborate my plan, allow me to throw some more quotes and excerpts at you (when I’m home from work). A lot has already been said and asked last century.
“Why is Earth staying silent upon this destruction?” Martin Heidegger, Beiträge zur Philosophie, Nr. 155, ca. 1937
Pondering the question of how to philanthropically spend millions; my Bayesian reasoning seems to converge towards some indirect proportionality between dollars and species-proof plus Earth-saving effect… So let me suggest this extremum: Use the paradigm of JB’s Azimuth academy to establish a virtual reality-based reasoning hub for solving the MENA population overshoot probem (e.g. Syria). One general and actual question currently pondered is how to balance collateral damage and dissolution of a system (e.g. Assad family) proven incapable of handling a large population with depleting resources and/or deteriorating habitat. (Obama should not think about it too deeply. Or?)
If you want to spend a few more dollars: there are projects for carbon negative renewable non-nuclear technology, harnessing photosynthesis to gain civilized heat and electricity. I.e. investing according to the biogeophysico-ethical imperative of the 21st century: Try to live carbon-negative. 0.5m$/€ would be helpful e.g. here: http://www.gekgasifier.com/ (U.S.) or here: http://www.holzgasjournal.de/ (Germany). Plus, some lobbying for a decent U.S./EU agriculture bill. If you want to go into shiny industrial w* I suggest spending 2m on developing a wood gas hybrid upgrade pack for E-vehicles.
John’s question is more or less political: what cheap step would get major social change.
If people’s lives were easier, less desperate, they would be more likely to focus on saving and preservation. For almost everyone, life is a struggle. In that context, you almost always accept lines like “There is no alternative”. Of course there almost always are, but it takes leisure to work out what.
My 2c answer would aim to help people in their day-to-day lives: just getting around and doing things is hard. The bigger the city, the bigger the context, the harder it is. London is harder to get round than Leeds, likewise Heathrow compared to almost any other airport. Perhaps this has something to do with the Coase limit mentioned above.
Anyhow, can network theory do something to analyse flow obstructions? Physical flow: people walking, cars, bikes, buses, aeroplanes. Information flow, e.g. data, money. It all flows, it all gets obstructed and there are always irritating obstructions.
I think it might be cheap relative to effect in that measuring a problem is sometimes enough to get change started.
But the sort of effective change we want here is change that lasts for centuries, not some temporary improvement which gets swallowed up. Umm, I am reaching here, but perhaps the outcome of such an analysis would propose a good alternative to the city.
I am thinking that the best use of, not many, moneys is the research in the optimal use of the energy (engines, plant cultivation, renewable energy, chemical production), with little optimization with free patent use.
I thought some years ago that it is important the Foundation like idea, not for the moneys that can give.
The Cern work well because the research field is unique, and the results are shared.
The Cern (or Airbus) is like a Foundation, and the idea can be applied to each research field (with industry, states and private citizens).
I thought a research-fund (Foundation) that can make money with patents, with distribuited shareholders, with multiple research: for example engine improvement, aereodinamic optimization, cancer research, drug research.
If the research Foundation is encoded in a simple way, then it become easy to create it as a company (can be possible with a computer program and a single employee, and all the activity on-line: total transparency).
There is only a great (virtual) research center, and there is the self-interest to share the results (like the RFC for the web).
The global research funds grows, without dispersions (N organization spend N, one organization spend one): if this work, then can be obtained great advantages for the mankind problem.
If you need more ideas just re-read some of Edge.org’s responses to the question “what should we be worried about?” After spending quite a bit of time there I came away feeling that we need 1) a real way to find or make other places to live, in case this planet becomes uninhabitable, and 2) ways to tolerate each other despite horrible past acts rather than seeking justice via revenge. So maybe terraforming research (which we might end up using right here on terra) and at the same time a world court of appeals, a world constitutional convention, etc. Ok, that last might be impossible, so maybe just terraforming/geoengineering, which sounds easy in comparison. The 10 million could fund some big experiments, or a group of experimenters/theorists.
There are many people who have spent their entire careers pondering the question raised here: how can we make the world a better place?
It’s a tough question.
One way to sharpen the question is to ask what the best possible use for philanthropic money is. People like Givewell and Giving What We Can have looked into the question.
It actually seems that the best minds in the field can’t decide how to spend that money. See, for example, the debate between Holden Karnofsky and the Less Wrong crowd:
(in this case the debate centers around how one should use expected utility theory to decide what is best to do, especially when the amount of uncertainty is extreme)
A core disagreement at the moment is whether money should be spent on “high risk high reward” projects such as minimizing the risks/maximizing the benefits of advanced technology (AI, nanotech, biotech), or whether it should be spent on “low risk low reward” projects like converting money into healthcare and food for developing world countries, albeit in small amounts.
Yes, I’ve been paying a lot of attention to the debate between Holden Karnofsky and the Less Wrong crowd, and trying to refine my intuitions about how best to spend philanthropic money. So, being put in the position where my thoughts might possibly matter is quite interesting, though also mildly terrifying.
Luckily, I’m not starting from a blank slate. The foundation that contacted me has certain interests: they want to “produce substantial, widespread and lasting changes to society that will maximize opportunity and minimize injustice”, and reading what they’ve actually done so far gives me a better idea of what they actually mean by that. All this suggests they are not interested in funding research in breakthrough technologies like nanotechnology or artificial intelligence, nor in directly subsidizing health care in poor countries. They like things like improving education, promoting government transparency, improving standards in science, and so on—with a focus, it seems, on the US.
So, instead of having the enormous task of finding the very best possible thing to do, I have the more focused task of finding the best possible thing to do that this foundation would be interested in doing. And in practice, my task is even more focused: I need to start talking to them and finding out more about them as they find out more about me.
People in the LW crowd do talk about reforming institutions. Robin Hanson is keen on prediction markets, as is Bryan Caplan. Prediction markets would definitely be a way to improve government.
Charter cities are another cool institutional idea that aims to maximize justice.
Tyler Cowen has talked a lot about the coming revolution in education: online education.
I am a teacher at the moment. My take on improving education in the long run is that innate ability is hugely underrated in most discourse on the topic, so working out how to genetically engineer greater intelligence would make a huge difference. There is actually a group in China working on it, and I believe they need more resources.
Here are some random thoughts:
It has been shown that buying a lobbyist guarantees one of the best return on investment for corporations, which makes me wonder whether it would make sense for this foundation to buy a lobbyist to advance a specific cause.
In any case, i think that lobbying itself is an big problem that needs to be recognized and fixed. So perhaps it will be a good idea to go with some of the things suggested in Lessig’s work.
Along similar lines, I would try to promote teaching economics (and specifically macroeconomics) early on in high schools, as I think it is essential for us citizens to really understand the society we live in and make informed decisions.
Furthermore, since I think overpopulation is also a problem, I would pursue anything that promotes birth control especially in third world countries. In fact I think educating girls early on is one of those things that really sets off a chain of permanent improvements. But perhaps one could also institute a 10M$ prize to find low cost reversible sterilization drugs, or something like that …
Ah, and I would explore incentives to promote higher standards of reporting and writing for newspapers and tv news. Maybe tax breaks for news organization engaging in some form of quick peer review, I don’t know, something like that. In fact I feel that too often “bottom line” considerations leave little room for delivering news in a way that exposes facts and sources and encourages thinking. In a sense, this would be about nudging everyone towards a more scientific attitude in everyday’s life.
Your ideas are good. Some of them don’t seem to fit with what this foundation seems to like doing. They seem focused on the US, and the don’t seem to enjoy activities that bring up a lot of controversy. So, I don’t think they would promote birth control in third world countries. “Educating girls” – that’s harder for people in the US get upset about, though it can be very controversial in the countries that really need it. Still, I think some more US-centric activity is more likely to be what they have in mind.
Improving education is already in their mandate. I think they would like ideas along those lines—including ideas for how to measure the effectiveness of different kinds of education! One thing that annoys me is how little we really know about education, compared to how much we argue about it.
For example, educating people in economics sounds superficially good, but there’s so much ideology and controversy surrounding economics that developing a good curriculum would be quite hard. It could easily degenerate into
a form of indoctrination, where students learned standard economic dogmas without much understanding. There would be lots of pressures to make this happen.
I think instead of teaching macroeconomics, which is a kind of minefield, it would be safer and more likely to be helpful if students learned how to balance a checkbook, learned how compound interest worked, learned how credit card companies make money, learned how to plan for their retirement, and so on.
I agree that improving standards of journalism would be great. This foundation claims to have an “entrepreneurial” approach, which seems to mean they’d avoid pushing for government-centered solutions like pushing for new tax breaks (or taxes). Personally I really like what’s going on at Yale-NUS College, where all the students will be required to analyze and criticize the use of statistics in newspaper articles, and learn more about statistical methods. With luck this will breed an educated elite who can see mistakes in the news, and maybe even some journalists who can avoid making those mistakes. Spreading these skills beyond a small elite would be even better.
Yes that seems definitely worthwhile, important, and probably more directly and practically useful than macroeconomics. So i’d second that 100%.
Still i think some basics of macroeconomics like what is the GDP, how it is measured, how it is related to employment, what things are affected by it and affect it and why, and so on, could be important too, in a more social kind of way, to see the bigger picture and put things in contest.
Furthermore, i could almost try to make the case that because right now macroeconomics is subject of controversy then we do need to teach it more not less :-)
Anyway, i see your point too …
Don’t they teach civics or consumer math anymore? We had to take a class where we did everything from creating a mock budget including mortgage and car payments, to running a mock campaign for election, to passing a mock bill in a mock congress, to playing the stock market (fake money but for real prizes!) Super easy course but fun for all and quite educational if you payed attention.
Nice shirt, but it would be dishonest for me to wear it!
…which would qualify them as non-philanthropic. E.g. (not to speak of Rwanda):
Syria exemplifies a paradigmatic failure of elementary (non-Gaussian) risk management (a discipline the Late Homo Sapiens is failing miserably, recently in finance, and currently). Meanwhile, climate change meets overpopulation: Try, at least, to avoid potential lose-lose situations. Try at least to reason (risk and asset management) according to Murphy’s law: Time does not halt, the sh* will inevitably hit the fan one time (it might be now). Beware the exponential. Who wants to contribute to the stability of a system (let alone its non-destructive possible dissolution.) needs to help enforce the principle of interconnected sedentary non-genosuicidality for a compact geobiosphere, i.e.: Do not multiply.
[Will perhaps elaborate in continuation of my other comment.]
Over on Part 1 of this series, Roland wrote:
I didn’t mean to suggest that saying hi would save the planet. For me “saving the planet” is a quick, jocular shorthand for something too complex to summarize easily: something like “making progress tackling the host of neglected environmental problems that are threatening our civilization and the biodiversity of our planet”.
The phrase “if all the barriers were removed” sounds quite dramatic and unrealistic, but I think the foundation that contacted me is being reasonably smart about tackling medium-sized problems instead of enormous ones—I’ll reveal who they are at some point, and we can discuss how well they’re doing. So, I’m trying to think of some medium-sized problem that I could help them solve. Part of the idea of the Azimuth Project was to become a kind of clearinghouse for ideas and information, so I like that suggestion of yours… but I need to think more about the best way this foundation could help, if it wanted. It’s actually a hard problem.
I haven’t read The Cathedral and the Bazaar.
Here is an educational experiment (with economic overtones.) Find a recently closed public school, or several small ones. (I know of some in my town that have had to close, the children in that district are sent to nearby schools and the teachers reassigned.) Use the 10 million to reopen the school(s), but with various university-professor-sized salaries and benefits for a new set of teachers and admins.
Take time to conduct a thorough competitive search for the teachers and admins that are going to fill these slots. The students will be from the district, not chosen by anything but geography, or alternately, by lottery. It would be best if the students as a group had an average performance in the past. Of course this sort of thing has too many variables to control well, but maybe a careful design could help to evaluate the hypothesis: student performance varies directly with teacher starting compensation, as advertised when the job was filled.
Of course there are more important sorts of motivation than financial. If a starting salary is set high enough to cover generously the cost of living for an average family in that area, then adding perks like reduced teaching time (allowing say 30% of your time to be devoted to independent research, creative expression, or charitable activity) would be worth another trial.
There are so many ideas here, and it’s very difficult to compare between them. Ultimately the foundation will have limited resources (if indeed it does exist) and so needs to prioritise where to spend its money. The best people in the world that I know at doing this are GiveWell. Check out their work at http://www.givewell.org You may also be interested in their more speculative work at GiveWell Labs… http://www.givewell.org/givewell-labs
These people have put more rigourous, evidence-based thought into this question than anyone else I know.
Fund a US equivalent of the BBC radio programme More or Less:
It was John’s comment
“Personally I really like what’s going on at Yale-NUS College, where all the students will be required to analyze and criticize the use of statistics in newspaper articles, and learn more about statistical methods. With luck this will breed an educated elite who can see mistakes in the news, and maybe even some journalists who can avoid making those mistakes. Spreading these skills beyond a small elite would be even better.”
and especially the last sentence that made me think of this.
1) Perhaps the foundation should also consider spending smaller chunks ($10K – $100K) to get multiple ideas off the ground to the point of being ready for team building and federal funding RFP grant programs. Plant many seeds…
I would advise adding a stipulation that research funded at universities is to be ‘open’ and not controlled by campus technology commercialization offices.
2) Another low-cost service the foundation could provide is networking events so that idea people can informally meet potential funding entities and interested facilitators.
3) I, too, would like to see a list of problems with weights for importance, cost, payback, immediacy, timeline, and the probability of success (problem is actually solvable in a practical sense).
I like all these suggestions—thanks!
Since I’m leaving Singapore soon and will help inaugurate the new Quantum Mathematics and Computation center in Oxford on October 1-4 and give a TEDx talk in Turin on October 5, I’m getting too frantic to think about these issues properly now. So for now I’ll just mull over what you, and everyone else here, is saying.
Later I will organize my thoughts—but also point people at this foundation to this blog article, so people can read all of your thoughts without my intermediation.
Chiming in late and somewhat randomly, and riffing off the concept of Azimuth as “a clearinghouse for ideas and information,” and your foundation’s interest in education reform in the U.S. and elsewhere…
… how about a serious retrospective look at happy educational outcomes in people who have done most or all of their learning outside the traditional educational systems, with an eye toward finding common themes that lead to smart, thoughtful, competent adults? I’m coming at this with a certain personal bias, but I’m thinking that someone with the right skills and resources and backing could extend the work and thinking of John Holt, using the same sort of research techniques George Vaillant used in his Harvard Study of Adult Development work. This would take the question of successful education out of the hands of the usual suspects — people with graduate degrees in education and people who have a financial stake in the current system, including testing companies, textbook and curriculum providers, charter school frachisers, etc., all of whom depend on compulsory attendance laws to make a living — whom I’m pretty sure have nothing interesting to offer.
I think folks who have avoided and/or deliberately ditched conventional educational paths (i.e. those homeschoolers who aren’t on a religious mission) might have a different educational paradigm to offer. I suspect interest-based learning and engagement in the real world might work a lot better, and a lot more efficiently, than an educational system based on isolating students with the age-peers and training them to pass tests.
Or maybe I’m wrong! Someone needs to do the research. The yield from this research would be, I hope, better ideas bout how to develop well-educated adults outside of the (clearly failing) educational system. In my fantasy of an alternative educational system, the existing infrastructure of libraries would be used to make information and educational resources available for everyone. (What are libraries, anyway, but free, publicly-supported clearinghouses for ideas and information?)
This is sounding increasingly half-baked even as I write it, but if an idea could go viral that would lead to more children growing up to be smart, skeptical, flexible, engaged, awake adults, it could to a lot of good.
Thank you for contributing your thoughts to this thread:)
Btw, what you suggest is what I’m trying (would like) to do (I think), but I have to pay the bills, too, so am in limbo right now.
My only comment on your thoughts is that I am skeptical that ‘research’ by academics is required. First, this is a very slow process. Second, I think that we need people with fresh viewpoints and perspectives to look at these problems. Third, I am unimpressed with the very latest national academic standards and curriculum which my 5th grader is experiencing.
And, speaking of problems, I’ve not seen anyone come up with a thoughtful list of education and learning problems, including implicit problems which everyone seems to accept without even questioning if there is a better way. How about we start here?
I think we need to look at the end result of a good formal (or informal) education: a brain which has usefully stored away a salient subset of knowledge and thinking/problem-solving skills, and then work backward from this end result to figure out how to best achieve this final state.
Rebuild the world sytem (including government, business, finances) in a recursively modular fashion with standard interfaces running standard protocols at module boundaries. That’s the way to keep regulation costs per node proportional to log(N) where N is the number of nodes in the system. Otherwise we face an inevitable crash, when control is no longer affordable and the system assumes a state absolutely undesirable (perhaps lethal) for most actors.
Too bad that they don’t want controversial ideas.
As we approach the horizon of the end of money as wages, would be nice to only allow Sub S corps, as corporations were actually intended to be only for charitable and large scale/ short term projects.
What i have been trying to get people interested in, is starting to build “Loops” to replace the power grid.
since we now know graphene can be basically superconducting, and we know how to make it with methanol, or any other carbon donor, we can start building elliptical loops of buried pipes filled with water for electrolyte, and graphene coated ribbons.
If the pipes are also filled with free graphene flakes, (that are easy to make with a ball mill to compact to graphite oxide, and then release with hydrogen peroxide), they work as self-assembling batteries. Though we would have to switch over to DC, you wouldn’t get distribution losses, and the loops can store any inputs from solar or wind till you need em.
These buried structures become local loops of people and freight moving electric trolleys or trains, depending upon size and speed required.
Though this would seem destructive to existing city structures, it turns out that ALL of the cities in the U.S. are going to have to be dismantled , and rebuilt anyway, because of the decay of the natural gas lines.
Many of the oldest and largest east coast cities are leaking up to a third of the methane that goes into the lines.
Seems like a great excuse to move folks back from the coasts anyway. Any searise is going to cost immense amounts of cash, to attempt to offset, and that isn’t even looking at increased storm intensity, or possible tsunami damage.
This storage loop grid can be built by bootstrapping across the country, using local mine and power plant ash waste, for building materials, and dispersing the population inland, while still providing easy and low carbon access.
Easy shipping, buried fiber optic, potable water distribution and protection from hazardous weather or solar storm damage too !
You can also turn that bug into a feature.
Induction from solar EM spikes will be absorbed and stored, instead of overwhelming the existing surface line grid
As far as i can tell, you can also run a cable up to a hilltop, and catch lightning with superconductors. That would run a town, to a medium city for months, depending on the lightning polarity.
This would take a lot of pressure off the existing infrastructure, by reducing the freight loading of roads and bridges.
Then we can figure out the optimal ceramic/concrete/ironwork for the rebuilding without panic. Would also give us time to deliver the 3D printing eqpt for structures that a lot of folks are working on.