Gold, frankincense and anti-parasitic interventions. How to really give this Christmas.

At Christmas, it feels good to give. 

But the wrong sort of charity can be a disaster. Even if you have millions of dollars and can control the way it’s spent, you can go wrong. See Madonna’s school building attempts in Malawi.

The world is full of people sending clothes to Africa. For example, NPR’s economics blog, Planet Money, recently found a t-shirt for sale in Kenya labelled Jennifer’s Bat Mitzvah, 1993 and tracked down the original Jennifer.


No doubt throwing away clothes is wasteful. No doubt people in Africa would like a cheap or free T-shirt. And sure, if someone’s been hit with a typhoon, giving them food and clothes helps. But if they are working in a textile factory, bombarding their country with millions of tonnes of donated clothes every year can be harmful.

Charity grinch: Pouring cold water on your good intentions

In this case, it’s not the thought that counts.

There are charities sending food to Africa,  sending bicycles to Africa, sending iPods to Africa. In each case the people donating are the kind of good-hearted thrifty people who care about others and hate to see things go to waste. 

They are exactly the kind of people who should be open to critically examining their giving.

That’s where Givewell comes in. It compresses your warm fuzzy feelings into solid bricks and feeds them into the fire of critical analysis.

Set up by a Harvard university graduate and former hedge fund guy named Holden Karnofsky, Givewell now employs eleven full-time staff trying to figure out where you can invest your charity dollars without wasting them.

If this blog is sure of anything, it’s that human reasoning is weak. Especially where emotions are involved. That’s why this sort of effort is important.

Givewell is ruthless. Charities that don’t measure their own efficacy are not in the running. Charities that are not focussed on the world’s worst off are not in the running. They scoff at the idea of using the proportion of funds spent on administration as a measure of effect. They measure charities ability to absorb more money (their scalability) and cut them from the  list when it is exhausted.

They espouse a commitment to extreme transparency, which includes a prominent link on the front page of their website: Mistakes.

Givewell reviewed many charities in 2013 and recommended three. Two are programs that deworm children in Africa, and one makes direct cash transfers to the very poor in Kenya and Uganda.

Givewell is not above criticism (1, 2), and it has competitors, including Aidgrade. But if you want to buy a present that make the recipient happier than the gift giver, $50 for a single mother in Uganda will go a lot further than a couple of DVDs for your dad.


Large numbers, meta-cognition and predictable mistakes

People don’t think accurately about problems. We take shortcuts across the logical landscape. We use rules of thumb, culture, tradition and old wives tales. We guess and intuit and estimate.

Most of the time, these shortctus get us to where we’re going. Sometimes we miss a bit to the left, sometimes we miss a bit to the right. But it works out.

However, there are some patterns of thought that we keep getting wrong. Some logical shortcuts lead us off in the same wrong direction every time. Like a forward who always kicks the ball off to the left.

This is where meta-cognition comes in. It’s like a coach. It says, Buddy, you always miss to the left. Why not just aim a bit more right? Buddy starts aiming right, and he kicks a lot more goals.

Meta-cognition is thinking about thinking. It asks us to put the goggles on, and examine all the rules, biases and heuristics we use in decision-making. If we find our decision making failing in a random way, oh well. But if we find our decision-making failing in a systematic, predictable way, EUREKA! We have something we can do something about.

Continue reading Large numbers, meta-cognition and predictable mistakes

Charter Cities – An Idea

Paul Romer has an idea people are calling crazy.  He was a Stanford Economics Professor, but now he’s quit to pursue full time the idea of charter cities.  Eh?

Paul Romer

Charter cities are based on the idea of charter schools.  These are schools in America outside the education system.  They are generally in poor black areas and have a ‘charter’ – a set of radically different rules.  For example they might do ten hour school days, six day weeks, compulsory uniforms.  They are like free private schools, and they have been extremely popular (59 percent have waiting lists for entry) and often successful (one meta-analysis found most studies of charter schools showed improved student outcomes).

Continue reading Charter Cities – An Idea

Dihydrogen Monoxide and the Truth.

This blog rarely advocates.  I rather present the facts.  But an alarming situation has come to my attention, and I want you to care.

Did you know that Dihydrogen Monoxide tragically kills thousands of people every year through accidental inhalation?  Awareness of this dangerous chemical compound is slowly filtering through to the general population. Continue reading Dihydrogen Monoxide and the Truth.

I haven’t decided yet…

Why are people so full of opinions? People froth at the mouth if there is a challenge to their views on on Labour’s tax policy, the Liberal’s leadership troubles, the Republican’s media strategy, the Democrat’s foreign policy or the Western Bulldogs forward line policy.

Continue reading I haven’t decided yet…

Hello, Aliens!

I heard the people from the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence on the radio this morning. It’s not a German techno outfit. It’s a real American scientific research centre looking for intelligent life in the universe. It’s exciting. I can’t imagine the hoo-hah if they found something. It might even push Masterchef below the fold.

There could be life in the universe, for sure. But they’re dreaming if they think it will communicate with us. A few reasons:   Continue reading Hello, Aliens!


In my last job we worked with a futurologist. She was scatter-brained and Canadian and it was easy to make fun of her field. Boy, we got laughs with our Marty McFly / Doc Brown jokes. Hoverboards anybody?!

But, it’s confession time.  I am continually reminding myself of her principles when I see someone talk about what is definitely going to happen. 
Continue reading Futurology

Out for the count

What’s the point of football stats? If stats aren’t telling us something about who’s winning or who’s playing well, then it’s like counting the number of advertising stickers on the winning F1 car.

Continue reading Out for the count

Pareidolia on toast

Our brains are meaning factories. I just learned this word – Pareidolia – which describes the brain’s way of mashing the messy pieces of the world into a pretty jigsaw of purpose and predictability. Pareidolia is not only fun, but profitable, at least for the seller of this iconic piece of toast.

Our blessed lady of multigrain Continue reading Pareidolia on toast

A New Kind of Humility

Stephen Wolfram has a problem.  And I don’t mean the fact that his new search engine – Wolfram Alpha – is as useful as a bucketful of big toes.  It’s more than that. 

Continue reading A New Kind of Humility