Thoughts in Between

by Matt Clifford

Matt's Thoughts In Between - Issue #4

When philanthropy is like Venture Capital

I loved this interview with Holden Karnofsky (by Robert Wiblin on the always excellent 80,000 Hours podcast). Karnofsky is one of the founders of the Effective Altruism (EA) movement. Even if you're familiar with EA ideas, the interview is full of fascinating food-for-thought. I've been very interested for a while in one of the ideas Karnofsky discusses, "hits-based philanthropy". In short, the idea is that some kinds of charitable funding are like venture capital, in that the probability of success is low, but the potential outcome could be very large indeed. He gives examples such as the Green Revolution and the invention of the contraceptive pill.

I think the analogy with VC is interesting, partly because it makes me wonder about analogues in the space. One of the ideas mentioned in passing on the podcast is the idea of "re-granting" - making grants to individuals who will then re-grant the money - which sounds somewhat like the venture scout networks some VC funds run. If Open Philanthropy (which Karnofsky runs) is like an altruistic VC, what is the AngelList of philanthropy? Y Combinator already funds not-for-profits, but what is the Betaworks? Is there room for an EF of philanthropy? 

The power of re-reading

Michael Nielsen had a thought-provoking tweetstorm on re-reading this week (Nielsen has one of the best Twitter accounts - this thread on unusual fields populated by smart people is an all-time classic). It made me think a lot about what I re-read - and the answer is... not very much. 

I think I've only read three book-length works of fiction more than three or four times (The Lord of the Rings, The Name of the Rose, and Hamlet). There are several shorter pieces I've revisited many times - Jorge Luis Borges' short stories The Library of Babel and The Lottery of Babylon, Isaac Asimov's The Last Question, Slate Star Codex's I can tolerate anything except the outgroup, Jerry Neumann on Power Laws in Venture, and several essays by Venkatesh Rao.

I'm not sure that I can say what these have in common, other than a feeling after the first reading that there was so much more to learn. I'd love your recommendations of things you've read multiple times - just hit reply.

Luck and talent

This simulation that suggests that life outcomes are much more about luck than about talent got a lot of coverage (good discussion here). The debate seems a little odd, as on the one hand the basic idea that outcomes are about more than talent seems inarguable (outcomes are power law distributed; talent is normally distributed) but, on the other, the idea that talent is irrelevant seems absurd. (Michael Mauboussin's excellent The Success Equation is indispensable on this topic)

I believe that the crucial link between talent and outcomes is what kinds of talent (and neurochemistry) push people to seek high variance outcomes. My friend Saku happened to tweet this article, which despite notionally being about religion, seems an important piece of the puzzle. 

Quick links

Thanks to the many readers who pointed out that some of the Quick Links last week were missing, err, the links. They are restored here. This week:

1. Silicon Valley is over. So say a number of Silicon Valley luminaries in the New York Times. And, relatedly, this tweetstorm. (I was more persuaded by the latter.)

2. Hatred beats love. Or at least partisanship is now increasingly driven by hating the other side than supporting your own - and it didn't used to be like that.

3. Two bull cases for crypto. Elad Gil argues that the Telegram ICO is a turning point for VC, while Vijar Boyapati argues the same for everyone else.

4. Yet more on AI nationalism. The Wall Street Journal has now picked up the theme. (The person to watch in this space is Ian Hogarth, who first brought these ideas to my attention)

5. Conversations are not about conversing. Superb interview of Robin Hanson by Tyler Cowen.

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Until next week,