Max Tegmark Talk Notes

As a Philanthropy Fellow for Harvard Effective Altruism, I had the opportunity to get dinner with MIT physicist Max Tegmark and the other Fellows on Tuesday evening. We had a fascinating discussion about existential risks and the reasons that much of the public today does not even think about the destructive potential of such risks as unfriendly artificial intelligence (AI), while just 50 years ago during the Cold War people all over the world actually felt and believed in the real possibility of human extinction. Max noted that the Cuban Missile Crisis and realistic movies about nuclear war (such as TV shows like Threads) played a large role in making the public aware of these threats, which suggests that films about unfriendly AI, the first of which seems to be the upcoming film Transcendence, could spread public awareness about current existential risks.

I also learned a lot about cosmology from Max’s fascinating talk related to his book Our Mathematical Universe; I’ve posted notes for the talk here. If you find the notes interesting, definitely check out his book, which Ben recommends as an excellent read.

More Tidbits about Tanzanian Culture

Earlier this month, I posted on the Tech in the World blog about what the team and I learned about Tanzanian culture in our first week here in the country. Our team is learning more about Tanzanian culture everyday! Here are more tidbits, many taken from a conversation with our Dar es Salaam Institute of Technology (DIT) contact Ashery:

  • The average marriage age 25 for men and 22 for women.
  • Younger Tanzanians really like to listen to hip-hop and their own, smoother version of R&B called bongo-flava (see this song by Diamond, one of the most popular bongo-flava artists here). In fact, artists like Jay-Z, 50 Cent and Busta Rhymes have performed here. Apparently many students at DIT like Rick Ross.
  • I asked Ashery about Tanzanians who are admired by the general Tanzanian public. Ashery said that Julius Nyerere, the country’s founder, ranks pretty highly on that list because he managed to instill in the citizens a pride about their identities as Tanzanians, rather than as members of different tribes (there are more than 260 tribes) and different religions (40 percent Muslim, 35 percent Christian, and 20 percent Animism). One way he accomplished this was by including each group in his government (it just happens that presidents have alternated between Muslim and Christian for the last few terms) and his socialist message for equality. According to Ashery, this has been important to avoid the tribal infighting—political and violent—that has occurred in neighboring countries like Kenya (during election time) and Rwanda. Ashery (who is Christian) got really excited when he was saying this, pointing to his friend Abdul (who is Muslim) and saying that in Tanzania, different people coexist peacefully. Maybe Julius Nyerere has a biography worth reading.
  • Presidents Clinton, Bush (Jr.), and Obama have all visited Tanzania, and the citizens of Dar es Salaam got so excited that many of them left work to see the presidents.
  • David Cameron, the UK prime minister, has threatened to withhold aid from countries that criminalize same-sex marriage and other activities, which include Tanzania. Tanzania reacted strongly and is in fact relatively intolerant of homosexuality, as evidenced by Pew Global Attitudes survey that found that 95 percent of Tanzanian residents believe homosexuality is a way of life that society should not accept (the seventh-highest rate of non-acceptance in 45 countries surveyed). Ashery said that there has been much debate about this.

That’s all for now!

Shocker

I lie on my bed with my Macbook in front of me, writing a reflection on my first week in Tanzania. Feeling uncomfortable, I toss off my bednet, get off the bed and sit in a nearby chair, bringing my laptop over. I touch one of the ridges of my laptop. Ouch. Did that hurt? I can’t really tell, and touch it again. Is that how the ridge normally feels? It’s a bit sharp. Confused, I ask my roommate Erik to join me in touching the laptop. He (being the electrical engineering major) immediately pulls my Macbook charger out of the laptop and recoils upon touching the tip. “Static shock!” he says. “Really?” I say.

We begin to diagnose the problem. My charger is connected to a 6-outlet power strip and international adapter that we bought yesterday in a Tanzanian supermarket, which is connected to the wall. One of these is broken. Suspecting the Tanzanian-made power strip, we start testing all the outlets on the power strip and even substituting in one of our own power strips. But with each touch of the charger’s tip, we get shocked in greater disbelief. I begin to suspect my charger itself. Indeed, after plugging Ruth’s Macbook charger into the power strip, the shock is gone. So much for my Mag “Safe” Power Adapter; it probably suffered under the strain of Tanzanian humidity and the 240V outlets.

The shocking is entertaining though, so we bring another Tech in the World Fellow—Ramya—over to join in our discovery. Plugging my charger back in, I offer her the charger tip. She takes it in her hand, but… nothing. In confusion, I touch it but feel nothing! Erik finally touches it and recoils. Ramya and I look quizzically at Erik (who seems to be doubting his own senses), but he continues touching, and recoiling from, the charger tip. Ramya and I try again and again but just can’t figure out how to shock ourselves. Erik suddenly says, “Take off your shoes.” I kick off my flip flops and feel the cool tile floor, touching the tip again. Ouch!

Bajajis and Personal Ownership

This is the first in a series of short stories I am posting about my time in Tanzania as a Tech in the World Fellow. Stay tuned!

Bajajis (also known as tuk-tuks or rickshaws in India) are phenomenally nimble three-wheeled taxis. Ramya tells me that the tuk-tuk drivers in India are daring and skilled at navigating very chaotic traffic at high speeds. In Tanzania, these bajajis are our cheapest way to get around, so naturally they are the first type of transportation we try.

We’re going out to dinner at a beach restaurant; Google Maps says it’s 2 kilometers away. We wave over a bajaji and, in our broken Swahili, ask the driver to take the six of us to the restaurant:

Me: Mbalamwezi? Elfu tatu? [Name of the restaurant. Three thousand schillings.]

Driver: Four thousand [Tanzanian schillings]. Six of you.

Me: [Thumbs up.] [To other TITW students:] Let’s go.

We cram into the bajaji, three of us in the back seat and three of us sitting on the others’ laps. Already we get the premonition of this safety hazard leading to a road accident; our combined weight seems to precariously tip the bajaji from left to right as the driver begins to move. But the driver assuages our fears as he drives swiftly ahead—our forward velocity seems to straighten out our wobbliness (I know I’m in a safe spot in the bajaji anyway, since I am squished underneath Ruth and won’t go flying out the window).

We continue swiftly until we hit traffic, and the two-lane roads give us no option but to sit and wait. At least that’s my thought as I peek out from behind Ruth at the crowded street. But the innovative bajaji driver sees an “opening” on the pedestrian sidewalk to our left (the “sidewalk” is a 10-foot wide dirt strip on either side of the road). Seven men and women walk towards us on the sidewalk 200 meters away, but the daring bajaji driver decides to plow ahead on the sidewalk, passing the sitting cars to our right. He accelerates swiftly left and immediately we drop onto the sidewalk (which is not quite level with the road). The ride on the rocky, unpaved sidewalk is precarious—our heavy bajaji, stuffed with six people, tips ominously from left to right between a sewage ditch and other vehicles, including these big dala dalas. Each of us holds in the simultaneous excitement and terror we feel (with the exception of a few shrieks) as we swing from side to side, narrowly miss the oncoming pedestrians, and turn back into an opening in our original lane.

As exhilarating as driving on the sidewalk is, it feels safe to be back in the correct driving lane. But we hit slow traffic again. This time, our driver sees a new opening right about 10 feet wide, right in between the two directions of traffic. We swerve into this “lane” as cars brush by us on both sides as quickly as 40 mph. Our lane is so narrow that I can touch the dala dalas on our left as we pass them.

Our roller coaster ride ends as we see the beach restaurant on our right. As we continue to use bajajis as our main mode of transportation, I wonder how much more dangerous it really is to ride a bajaji here than it is to take a taxi in the United States. The notion of personal space is relaxed here (in fact, it is considered rude here to stand too far away from someone you’re greeting), and personal space on the road has been no exception. I have a hunch that the probability of getting into an accident in a bajaji here is not significantly different from the probability for taxis in the US, but that many of my US friends would perceive the difference to be pretty high upon reading this story or watching a video of a bajaji ride because of the close quarters in which Tanzanians drive and live.

Just as my US friends would perceive a bajaji to be much less safe than it actually is because of their discomfort with lack of personal space, I think that I and many of my friends overestimate our personal need for our own space, possessions, and privacy in the US relative to how much we actually need to be satisfied. An American culture that supports having your own car, house, and computer doesn’t help; examples of my desire for privacy this past year included the need for a single in my dorm, the need to have my own laptop (which I realized I didn’t actually need for most of my life while using a school computer), and the need to do yoga in my private space of my room (instead of at the gym). Yet living in Tanzania has showed me that I can live without “personal” everything and not lose much in the way of my values of personal growth and achievement. I’ve acclimatized to intimate working conditions, public transportation (including the people packed onto dala dalas—imagine 30 people fitting into this Toyota passenger bus), and dependence on the environment outside my possession and my fellow students for everything from food to sunscreen, power adapters, and money. I’m curious to exchange personal space and possessions for other things that may achieve my values better when I return to life in the US.

Parallel between NGO-Donor and Startup-Investor Relationships

From what I hear, one reason that startups fail is that their visions don’t line up with their investors’. A vision disconnect between the people who are the startup and the people feeding money to the startup leads to an end to funding, replacing some founders, or some other kind of nasty outcome.

The disconnect’s origins make perfect sense. A team of founders and a team of investors both spend lots of time developing their own hypotheses (about business opportunities or the direction of technology or a specific industry), and by the time startup meets investor to raise funding, there is often little overlap. Founders spend their time executing the details of specific visions, while investors meet with many companies and hypothesize broad visions; it’s easy to see why the two sides’ hypotheses don’t often overlap. Unfortunately for the startup, whether the investor funds the startup is exactly the same question as whether the two sides’ visions overlap!

Let me give an example. One of my friends (let’s call him Adam) is building a company that makes data visualization software for wealth managers. Adam told me about his first interaction with one of his prospective investors:

He got really excited when I first explained my company to him, especially when I told him about the partnerships we’ve landed. Then he started asking me these weird questions that had nothing to do with the company. “Are you guys incorporating social?” he asked. “Not in the near future… that doesn’t really fit in our product,” I said. “OK… how about mobile?” “No… not yet.” “Local?” “I don’t think our product has synergies with location either…” After each “no,” he looked more and more disappointed, and I was confused about his questions and dwindling enthusiasm, until I realized it was because he really wanted to invest but my company didn’t fit into any of the theses of his firm – social, mobile, and local!

So Adam didn’t get money because his vision for data visualization for finance didn’t overlap with an investor’s vision for social, mobile, and local.

Interestingly, there is a very parallel relationship in the global health world between non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and donors. Just like startups, non-profit global health NGOs need to raise money to fund their worldwide personnel, materials (any medicines or malaria bed nets, for example), administrative costs, transportation, and any physical capital. So they turn to (often international) private donors to raise money. But just like investors, these donors have their own personal visions for what kind of health solutions they want to see.

One example I picked up in my global health class is the influence of neoliberal philosophy on donors in the 1970s. (Take this interpretation of global health solutions with a grain of salt, but consider it.) According to Professor Salmaan Keshavjee at Harvard Medical School, the economic crisis in the 1970s led to blaming government regulation as the crisis’s cause, and a “justification” to revive a decades-old philosophy of neoliberalism – which argued for the free market’s ability to distribute resources and questioned efficiency of most government intervention. This neoliberal spirit manifested itself not only in the election of conservative leaders like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, but also in the shifting policies of global health leaders like the World Bank president Robert McNamara. For health policy, the neoliberal current was the call for free market instead of public sector solutions to distribute health care. The example of people like McNamara set the tone for pro-neoliberal donors.

One instance of this is the influence of international donors in swaying the Ugandan health care system to implement user fees. User fee programs required citizens to pay for medicine, a reversal of medicine previously freely offered by the government. As you can imagine, in a poor country like Uganda, user fees had the effect of substantially reducing access to healthcare, and many families ended up unable to pay to maintain even their basic health. User fee programs were part of this broader neoliberal philosophy that called for free market rather than public sector health care solutions. Even though Uganda’s national health care system worried about the risk of such programs on citizens, it had to implement them because the alternative was to have no money at all, and some Ugandans were worse off because of it.

What are the lessons between the NGO-donor relationship and startup-investor relationship? One key takeaway is that so long as both sides’ priorities are matched, such situations don’t have to occur. The next question, then, is whether or not there exist enough donors with priorities closely aligned with those of NGOs and developing nations (I’m going to focus on the problem for these actors because they seem to be the worst off). And based on the dreadful state of health in many developing nations despite billions of dollars of funding, my guess is that not enough of these vision-aligned donors exist. If that’s true, how can we create more of these? Building potential donors’ awareness and empathy to win them over to the priorities of health organizations on the ground (rather than the donors’ intellectual priorities) might be the answer.

Open Notes

One of my obsessions is to learn how to learn. I constantly experiment with new ways of learning more efficiently and expanding my capacity to learn, understand, and memorize.

One of the practices I’ve found most helpful for learning is – to quote my high school physics teacher Bill Dunbar – to know “where I’ve been, where I’m am, and where I’m going.” In other words, it is incredibly helpful to put any learning experience in the context of what I’ve previously learned by reusing and building upon this previous learning in my current learning, and in the context of what I seek to learn by giving current learning some motivation or direction based on this envisioned destination of future learning. Another way to say this is that I translate and simplify everything I learn into my own language, whether that language is a mathematical language (e.g. I picture my theory about relative happiness as an absolute happiness curve minus its moving average over time), an athletic one (e.g. I view most traits, including my own productivity, as capable of being trained through a planned schedule of concentrated rituals that are designed in the same stress-recovery mindset as weightlifting and interval training), a Bayesian one, or a photographic one. As mentioned in Moonwalking with Einstein, this helps with memory due to the chunking phenomenon – by building each piece of new knowledge in terms of a few chunks or concepts that I have already packaged into a few words or images (e.g. one already packaged chunk is my image of the graph for quantities that are relative over time in the happiness example above, and another chunk is my conception of the word “training,” which encodes my experience with training in sports as a set of highly focused stress-recovery rituals), I can more easily remember and draw connections between different parts of my learning. And isn’t that was learning is – just remembering new information and synthesizing and connecting it with what I already know?

A big part of this translation is taking what I learn during class lectures, talks, reading, or interesting conversations with friends and chunking a lot of information into a few big ideas. Taking notes to articulate what I just learned right after coming out of lecture is a good way to do this, but I’ve yet to chunk as well and as often as I’d like (it takes time) in addition to taking notes just to record my learning in general. To ritualize chunking and (as an auxiliary benefit) spark some conversation regarding what I’m learning, I will begin to open source my notes from all of my learning experiences and chunk the interesting thoughts on this blog from this point onward.

You can find my (raw) open notes here, which include class notes from this semester at Harvard as well as various talks that I’ve attended and found interesting.