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Doing vs Talking at EA Events

My first real introduction to EA was in 2012 from an article by Toby Ord: Slate.com/articles/life/ft/2011/01/live_like_a_grad_student_forever.html

Before that time, I had read some of Peter Singer’s work related to poverty philosophy.  Since then I’ve been alone, reading and participating in online posts and articles. EA action is very much individual action. Even when volunteering or giving part of my income, I still see that is primarily individualistic. I believe someone can be an EA without knowing about the EA movement.

I first met another EA while traveling to NY for secondary testing (altruistic kidney donation). We talked briefly.* That was my first face-to-face encounter with a fellow EA. Last night I attended my first EA event (a meetup in Madison, WI). Think of it, five years later! 

A new friend came along with me. After the meetup, he mentioned how we didn’t do anything. (The event was called “Lightning Talks.”) We just discussed ideas. He had a valid point. It was true. 

I reiterated the Lawyer in the Soup Kitchen (mentioned in the beginning of the meetup) about how volunteering time locally is not always the most impactful action. Additionally, I discussed learning about new potential cause areas and how not every EA idea is intuitive. But I had already figured he would bring up “action” versus “philosophy” anyway. So I went further into what a pure “action” or "doing" good meetup could be: I imagine a hardcore EA meetup could be primarily about making money. I mean actually making money during the meetup: contract work.

By learning a programming language, one can freelance their time—anywhere, whenever—by taking on, say, an HTML contract or even non-programming related jobs though freelance websites (e.g., UpWork). Wouldn’t that be incredible? What if most of the time of most EA events involved learning and doing how to do online freelance jobs? EA concepts and key ideas could be the dressing on the side, sprinkled in when needed. The salad could be all those morsels of contract work floating about online.

I imagine such a hardcore meetup would involve pooling the income earned to donate to a specific charity, such as SCI. I realize this would turn off a lot of new people to EA. It's working for free—even if the time included learning [C, C++, JS, Java, Ruby, etc.] language. To someone new, I think it may seem cultish and well...detached. Plus, I think there’d be a gender disparity. Plus the advocacy part of the meetup, learning how to effectively advocate EA to others, would take a hit. Several potential negatives. It depends on the size of the group.

My main question for you: How would you discuss the point from a friend new to EA: “Nothing was practically accomplished at the meeting. Ideas were discussed.”

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*Side tangent, we are both vegetarian. I mentioned that I went to an all vegan NY restaurant, and she told me about vegan friends who eat beef—because beef cattle suffer the least. Whether or not this is true, I bring it up when discussing veg*anism to express how Suffering is my primary reason. It bridges a gap in understanding. 

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Related, but does not mention online freelance/contract work:

eawork.club

Comments (10)

Comment author: WilliamKiely 01 September 2018 03:37:03AM 9 points [-]

My main question for you: How would you discuss the point from a friend new to EA: “Nothing was practically accomplished at the meeting. Ideas were discussed.”

I would encourage the friend to take a longer-term view to see the value in discussing ideas.

I would also encourage the friend to try out doing the direct-work meetup concept. I suspect there are good reasons why that style meetup is not popular, but would be delighted to see them pioneer it successfully.

The following EA Forum post may be relevant to you. I'm not sure how Madison vs Harvard differ, though I suspect they are both more similar to each other than they are to the contract-work-and-donate model of an EA meetup you are conceptualizing: http://effective-altruism.com/ea/1nh/heuristics_from_running_harvard_and_oxford_ea/

Some value I see in the social discussion style EA meetups I am familiar with (I co-organize EA Austin and have been to Chicago a couple times):

  • Prevent value drift through facilitating the development of friendships and closer ties between community members

  • Inform EA community members about new ideas which they can then go home and read further about online (high fidelity learning)

  • Have more personalized discussions about career planning than is easy/typical in online EA discussions

Comment author: adamaero  (EA Profile) 30 August 2018 02:09:34PM *  3 points [-]

“Nothing was practically accomplished at the meeting. Ideas were discussed.”

  • Mention something about how it's a social event. In Engineers Without Borders, every other off-week, we have a meeting that's focused on community building. It's the same sort of deal.

  • To that other electrical engineering major (who tagged along to the EA Madison event), I would now say, "It's like going to a technical conference. People going to an Altium (industry standard for PCB design software) conference are going to discuss and learn Altium. Specialized language is occationally used. Certain parameters are more commonly known by these professionals (and sometimes students). Altium by itself is to do a specific job, such as designing the board in a cell phone. The purpose of the conference is not to make cell phone PCBs."

  • Conclude with something about the GWWC pledge.

Comment author: Khorton 30 August 2018 09:41:51AM *  5 points [-]

It seems like the new idea you're adding to the forum is that local EA groups should earn money together.

My gut reaction is that freelancing with a rotating group that's open to anyone would be an inefficient way of making money. Normally, the process of applying for jobs takes a while, so you'd really have to know in advance who's going to be attending the meet-up and what skills they have.

You might solve this by always taking the same type of jobs--maybe you always work in HTML because it's easy. But easy jobs won't pay well. You'll be competing with developers in very poor countries.

Another way to solve it could be to create a small business with a few talented EA friends and plan to donate the profits (cf Founder's Pledge). That way you could expect commitment, know skillsets in advance, and don't have a revolving door of people to teach. You'll be able to take on more challenging, specialized jobs that will pay you more. I'm not sure Upwork is the best place to find those jobs, but if you have technically talented and altruistic friends, maybe freelancing or starting a business is a good idea.

For most of us, I think a better way to have impact is to improve our performance at our day job. Getting a raise/bonus/promotion will almost definitely be worth more than freelancing. For some people, improving their performance at their day job means learning something new; those people might want to start a reading or study group together (EA London has a few). For other people, improving their work performance comes down to putting in the hours at work, and what they need from EA events is a place to socialize and be reminded why they do what they do.

I don't think the idea of freelancing together is a bad one, I just think it's not the optimal use of groups' time. Let me know if you disagree with anything I've said. - Kirsten

EDIT: Improving their performance at their day jobs will often also be a way for people doing direct work to have impact, even if they don't get paid extra.

Comment author: adamaero  (EA Profile) 30 August 2018 01:42:43PM *  2 points [-]

It seems like the new idea you're adding to the forum is that local EA groups should earn money together.

No. Earning money together is not what I mean. Example. A two hour work meetup is scheduled. Unlike a purely social meetup, such as meeting at a bar, this type of meetup will involve working contracts. It makes sense to increase morale by contributing to one charity at the end of the day for the event. This is just what I see happening. Perhaps even a competitive aspect, the top contributor gets to pick the charity. When telling others, "We raised $$$ for charity last meeting" verses "We raised $$$ for SCI last meeting." There is a huge difference! All charity is not good.

My gut reaction is that freelancing with a rotating group

Do most idea discussing meetings (opposed to pub-esque social gatherings) involve a lot of new people? This is where it depends on group size. It's not for very big meetings (e.g., EA London).

Example. For Engineers Without Borders, we have a general meeting every other week, and every other alternative week there are four different types of "work" meetings. The general meetings involve a short introduction to who we are, our past projects and current project. The work meetings involve working on different aspects of the project. The grants work meeting involves writing grant applications. Another work meeting involves, depending on phase of the project, designing or learning how to contribute to the CAD blueprint. Actual work is being done at least every other week.

For a regular weekly EA meeting, say, at a university, I heard that most members are not new. I presume most universities have mostly a non-rotating group. It sounds the same as Engineers Without Borders meetings. Most people are not new. Regardless, it wouldn't matter the skill level. That's the whole point! Skilled members help non-skilled members. Again, doing a contract in, say, a Power Point presentation can be self-taught. This can be worked on, the process of learning, at such work meetings. IFF someone needs help, someone else at the event probably knows more, or at least can be a sounding board to help.

But easy jobs won't pay well. You'll be competing with developers in very poor countries.

Ideally, a few easy jobs could start new people off. Although, I see the majority of contracts being programming contracts.

create a small business with a few talented EA friends

I mean doing contract work on the side--especially for EA university groups. Additionally, most GWWC pledge signers are involved in software development (i.e., programming).

revolving door of people to teach

This keeps going back to group size. For EA London, I wouldn't expect this type of initiative to be the norm for events.

I think a better way to have impact is to improve our performance at our day job.

This would not be the case for university students. Most of us are working low-income jobs.

I just think it's not the optimal use of groups' time.

My main point is that certain people new to EA, such as the guy that came along with me to the EA Madison event and family members, think that EA is itself useless. "Nothing was accomplished. Ideas were discussed."

“We got a lot of young professionals and students, and some young professionals really liked the ideas. But because we don’t have anything concrete for them to engage in this, it’s a really big gap for them to engage in the community.”

effective-altruism.com/ea/1ow/whygroupsshouldconsiderdirect_work

Having group events with 5-50 people working, learning and growing would show these dissenters that there are EA meetings where good things are actually accomplished. Instead of a specialized philosophy club discussions, there would be action happening.

Freelance work is one example. Volunteering locally is another. Sure, with that same amount of time, it wouldn't be a good as doing a contract job and donating to AMF or something. But volunteering locally is doing something. That something is better than discussing advanced ideas, such as moral patienthood or predictive models. Don't get me wrong, I love discussing ethics and morality. I enjoy ripping into the big meaty center of a technical discussion. Yet, instead of talking about what to do or how we could do certain things marginally better, we can practically do something with that time: salads. Lots and lots of salads.

Comment author: Khorton 30 August 2018 07:08:13PM *  2 points [-]

You keep coming back to this focus on doing "something," which has been suggested on the forum before. You seem to think that freelancing together beats many other alternatives. Why do you think that freelancing is competitive with other options discussed in the articles you cited?

Examples of "something" that could be (and often is) done instead of freelancing contracts:

-animal advocacy

-political lobbying

-research or writing an "Effective Thesis"

-making yourself more employable for after you graduate

-hosting a fundraiser

EDIT: I keep focusing on the freelancing point, because that's the unique aspect of your post. But maybe the freelancing idea wasn't your core concern - maybe you were more focused on talking about why local groups should do direct work. In that case, I think you'd find better discussion in the comments of one of the already-posted groups or with the leaders of the local group you visited than on this new post.

Comment author: adamaero  (EA Profile) 30 August 2018 10:21:42PM *  1 point [-]

The point is to have something done at a regular weekly EA meeting that is specific to EA. Something concrete. Something constant. I got the impression talking with other students that weekly club meetings primarily entail discussing ideas.

  • animal advocacy

There are other groups that do this on campus. It's definitely related to EA, but combined with the fact that it's a soft-sell, volunteering at a local animal shelter or food pantry--in my opinion--seems like a better use of time. Not eating meat or not eating animal products is a significant lifestyle change. It's not completely futile, but a scant chance in my eyes. Anyway, my campus isn't all that big and the city is very small. Doing this sort of direct work every week just doesn’t fit the bill.

  • political lobbying

I have a hard time seeing this as EA specific. Additionally, political focused clubs are on campus. Sure, writing a letter to a rep is good, but...

  • research

To what end? I'm attend an engineering university. I don't consider my personal research into electromagnetics EA centered.

  • writing an "Effective Thesis"

This seems to be for philosophy and political science type degrees. In the states, undergrads don't write a thesis.

  • making yourself more employable for after you graduate

Then you're saying there should not be an EA club on my campus. Mechanical and electrical engineering majors have clubs such as IEEE specifically for this. Again, the point of the post is to find something that is objectively done at an EA meeting. This way, in the future, if I friend says: “Nothing was practically accomplished at the meeting. Ideas were discussed.” I can say, "That was a social-type meeting. At work-type meeting we complete things on eawork.club, we do freelance jobs online and then donate to stringently evaluated charities or at least volunteer locally.

  • hosting a fundraiser

For my local chapter of Engineers Without Borders we do this. We make out poorly compared to the time put in. Although, this is the best example of an event that’s EA focused. It makes EA unique. It's concrete.

I believe, since so many GWWC members are software developers and engineers, there could easily be meetups to get out there and tackle online contracts. Even for non-CS professions, such as an electrical engineer, it would be beneficial. Plus it adds to higher employability. Having experience doing contract work in Python, for my degree in electrical engineering, would be a whole lot better than attending a workshop on generic interview skills.

So to sum up, yes, I'm talking about weekly direct work--specific to EA. Discussing EA is left to the sidelines (put in when needed). Completing contracts would be EA specific. Hosting a fundraiser would be too. These are concrete things.

Comment author: Raemon 07 September 2018 10:37:04PM 2 points [-]

Re: Research

This is actually what I currently think EA groups should focus on, not because the research itself is likely to be directly important, but because I think generally, one of the most important things an EA community should do is help it's members learn how to think critically through an EA lens.

Research isn't the only way to go about this, but I think trying to answer real questions, while taking into account impact, practicality, neglectedness, etc to help you orient on the right questions, is a good practice.

Comment author: MvdSteeg 29 August 2018 04:03:08PM 2 points [-]

vegan friends who eat beef—because beef cattle suffer the least

While I'm all for inclusive veganism this seems to be going a bit far! :') it seems like it's on the good side of the Omni spectrum, though. The argument is pretty sound (though bivalves would be better and also have less environmental impact).

Regarding your main question... I'm going to give it some thought and come back later if I come up with anything worthwhile ;)

Comment author: zdgroff 03 September 2018 06:44:20AM 1 point [-]

I feel your desire for doing at a meet up, because I ran a student group in college where I worried there was a lot of talk and too little action. I think there could be versions of "talking" that are closer to "doing," though—for example, presenting on recent projects or donation decisions, thereby giving members a chance to feel good about good they've done recently and creating a norm of action. This would probably avoid some of the problems with short-term freelancing laid out in other comments. Hope this idea helps!

Comment author: adamaero  (EA Profile) 08 September 2018 05:03:38PM *  1 point [-]

What continuous objective tasks did members do in that group?


I see one "problem" mentioned in a comment. It was said how doing freelance work could potentially be a inefficient way to make money. I'd be happy to know what other problems you see in the comments that are directly about freelancing. I didn't see another about freelancing itself.

Second, this is long-term freelancing. Nothing about what I said is short-term. This is a continual-regularly scheduled sort of meetup. Ideally, I expect to do it weekly.

(Aside, "I feel your desire for doing at a meet up," doesn't make sense to me. What are you trying to say?)