Fruits of procrastination

Tag: Effective Altruism

(More or less) Effective Altruism- March and April

In March, I donated $250 to EA

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In April, I decided to donate $250 instead to the Association for India’s Development to fight coronavirus in India:

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I am attaching the receipt of my donation to Effective Altruism below:

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I also donated $50 for the treatment of students recently affected by violence in India, and $20 to Ben Wideman’s fundraiser on Facebook.

Moreover, like every other month, I donated $20 to ArXiv. That brings it to a total of $270, like every other month.

I recently read a book on cancer research, for which I wrote a review. I’m attaching it below:

Is cancer a disease that’s as old as human civilization, or is it a fairly recent affliction? Can mobile phones cause cancer? How exactly do cancer drugs work? Why are intuitive operating procedures like excising cancerous tumors largely unsuccessful in curing cancer? The author, Siddharth Mukherjee, answers all these questions and more in his page-turner, “The Emperor of All Maladies”. 

Cancer is not an external disease. It is written in our very genetic code. Whenever cells split in two, errors or mutations in genes almost always creep in. As cells keep dividing, the number of mutations slowly build up. Mutations may also be caused by external carcinogens like tar, radioactive materials, etc. Eventually, when we have mutations in certain genes (which are around 13 in number on average), the body is afflicted with cancer. If we find a way to stop these mutated genes from wreaking havoc, probably by “blocking” their protein pathways, we can cure cancer. Simple enough, right? 

No. This discovery was thousands of years in the making. The first written records of cancer that we have are from the Egyptian civilization. Imhotep, a famous Egyptian medical practitioner, wrote down a classification of medical afflictions. All such afflictions had cures written beside them. Breast cancer was the only one with “no known cure”. A famous Egyptian princess cured breast cancer by having her breasts removed. Galen, a well known doctor, thought that cancer is caused by the excess of “dark humours” in the blood, and that it can be cured by bleeding patients out. These explanations were characteristically misguided. But that was because people in the ancient times didn’t really understand biology, and modern practitioners would do much better, right? No. Modern practitioners caused their own modern havoc, which ended up taking the lives of perhaps hundreds of thousands of cancer patients. All because of misguided science. 

Around the turn of the 20th century, “radial masectomy” was suggested as the ultimate cure for breast cancer. Remove breast cancer by removing the breasts themselves. Later proponents of this school soon became even more deranged, and started removing large parts of the chest cavity from beneath the breasts. It sounded pretty convincing- if you excise the cancerous region, you’ve healed the patient! However, these patients, already disfigured for life, would almost always relapse. Despite this, radial masectomy was the modus operandi for treating cancer for more than 50 years. 

Another approach- poison the cancerous cells. This approach became known as chemotherapy. Pump in enough poison, in the form of X-rays, mustard gas, etc into the body, and you can kill the cancer cells. Simple. However, how will these poisons differentiate between cancer and regular cells? Doctors invented ad hoc mechanisms for avoiding killing regular cells- focus the X rays and poisons only on the cancer cells, insert external bone marrow into the patient after chemotherapy so that new healthy cells can be regenerated after the indiscriminate killing caused by chemotherapy, etc. However, although this technique still continues to the present day, on its own it has seen very little success. Coupled with a “cocktail” of other drugs, chemotherapy can be successful in patients whose cancers are not very advanced, but it reeks of being a “makeshift” cure instead of an actual, permanent one.

Physically remove cancer cells. Poison cancer cells. Patients still relapse and die. What are we missing? Is cancer a disease caused by viruses that can be cured by the right vaccine? Medical research has had a lot of success curing diseases caused by viruses. Think small pox, polio, etc. Hence, if cancer was virus-caused, we have a shot (pun intended). There was also lots of evidence of a cancer virus- a particular type of cancer cell always had a certain virus in it. Correlation is obviously causation. Any attempts to smother the virus theory of cancer were subverted by this simple example. Explain why this virus is always there. This stalled cancer research for decades. 

However, it was eventually discovered that viruses only carried the already mutated genes from inside the nucleus to the cytoplasm. These types of viruses are called retroviruses, and their discovery overturned medical “facts” that had been taught in medical schools for centuries. This discovery led us to understand that cancer had a genetic cause, and that we had to build molecules that could go bind to aberrant genes, rendering them ineffective. This is the current direction that cancer research has taken, and we’ve had lots of success with treating certain kinds of cancer. Other kinds of cancer are still, however, violently lethal. This hints at the fact that cancer is not one disease, but a variety of wildly varying diseases, although erroneously classified under one umbrella. 

One aspect of scientific research that was indeed revelatory for me was that in the 1950s, the American government pumped millions of dollars into cancer research, although we didn’t really have a fundamental understanding of the biology of the cancer cell. Scientific labs were expected to work like , with strict deadlines, accountability, fixed hours, etc. However, despite the money, resources and manpower allotted, most of this research was misguided. The truly useful insights were obtained by researchers working in isolation, outside of this “industry”, who were not necessarily trying to cure cancer, but just trying to discover cool facts about the human body. This throws shade on the Indian government’s scientific policy in recent years, which has reduced funding for all kinds of “useless” research, like Math and Physics, and pumped most of the available funding into things like medical research, development of weapons, etc. As history tells us again and again, most scientific achievements of mankind stem from the ability to do “directionless”, curiosity-driven research, and not research with a pre-defined agenda. Governments without an understanding of this are often in the way of scientific achievement. 

Mukherjee ends the book on a fairly sombre note. Although we’ve had a lot of success in defeating cancer, cancerous genes sometimes mutate, and the drugs that were being used to attack them become useless. This constant mutation and ability to survive comes from evolution- the thirst that organisms have to survive despite all kinds of odds. Hence, “we need to keep running to stay in the same place”, ie keep discovering new drugs to fight never ending battles with constantly mutating genes. The battle with cancer may never really be won. Our cures however may successfully prolong life, and that has to be thought of as a victory in itself. 

“The Emperor of Maladies” is much more than a “Biography of Cancer”. It explains, in full gory, disheartening and sometimes uplifting detail, why scientific research is hard, and why civilization has not been able to solve its most pressing problems for thousands of years. And how a focus on experimentation, instead of untested “intuitive” hypotheses, paved the way for substantial scientific achievement in the last century. It is a highly recommended book on science.


Effective Altruism- December

Contrary to the title, I decided to not donate to Effective Altruism this December. Instead, I donated $250 to a fundraiser to help a friend’s father, who needed the money for his cancer treatment.

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I recently read “Poor Economics” by Siddharth Banerjee and Esther Duflo, in which they outline their Nobel Prize winning work. They were the early inspiration behind the formation of Effective Altruism. If I was not convinced about the impact of this organization before, I am now!

Effective Altruism- November

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For my readings this month, I will try and read a survey on the work of this year’s Nobel prize winners in economics. I will mostly follow this survey by the Nobel Prize committee.

Edit: Turns out that I read their basic arguments in this slatestarcodex post. The author of this post mainly wants to refute some of the Banerjee’s and Duflo’s arguments, and at the time of reading I found them to be convincing.

Edit Edit: I ended up reading the book “Poor Economics” by Banerjee and Duflo, which outlines their Nobel prize winning work. I also write a review of the book on Goodreads, which I am copying here:

Poor Economics

This is a book of hope.

“..if we listen to poor people themselves and force ourselves to understand the logic of their choices; if we accept the possibility of error and subject every idea…to empirical testing…(then we’ll) better understand why people live the way they do.”

This is the closest that economics can get to science. The authors take apparently common sensical claims, and perform randomized trials to evaluate whether those claims are true. And the results are often surprising.

What is the best way to ensure that more parents vaccinate their children? You might think that spreading information about the merits of vaccination would make parents line up in front of vaccination centers. This hypothesis was tested, and lots of resources were invested in spreading information about vaccination. Moreover, randomized surveys concluded that most parents in villages are indeed well informed about the advantages of vaccinating their children. However, less than a quarter of the parents queued up in front of vaccination centers. This contradicts the common sensical view that parents who know that vaccination is good would inevitably get their kids vaccinated.

The authors suggest that the reason why so few parents came was that most of these people would have to travel long distances, and stand for hours in the sun to vaccinate their children. Based on these hurdles, they made a split second decision to procrastinate, and possibly wait for the next time that these vaccination camps would be set up. What saved the day was providing a small gift for parents who came to these camps- maybe some utensils, or a couple of kgs of rice. This small bribe helped parents overcome their procrastination, and come get their kids vaccinated.

It might seem wrong to bribe people to do what is good for themselves and their kids. However, the authors suggest that in a complex world in which we have multiple issues demanding our attention and effort, we tend to procrastinate on doing things that are undeniably good for us, if they are slightly hard to do. Providing an incentive to do these things, or making these things slightly easier to do, can often lead to staggering results.

Another example is the following: chlorinated water is much safer to drink, and can prevent life threatening diseases like dysentery. It is cheaply available in India, and well within the means of most families to buy. However, very few families in Indian villages buy chlorine, despite the awareness that doing so would drastically reduce their chances of contracting a life threatening disease. This could also be attributed to the above hypothesis- procrastination. What changed things? Some villages installed chlorine dispensers right next to the village wells. Hence, availing of chlorine became easier (although not necessarily cheaper), which led to a drastic reduction in water-borne diseases in those villages.

Perhaps one way of summarizing this issue would be the following: people living in the developed world, or in large cities in the developing world, don’t have as many issues that demand their attention. The water is already chlorinated. Good schools and hospitals are available nearby. In such an environment, people can devote their full attention to issues that would further improve their lives. However, in villages, people have to take care of a lot more things. This causes them to procrastinate on all of them, causing their condition to only worsen over time.

One of the most fascinating sections of the book was on teenage pregnancy- randomized controlled trials suggested that teenage girls are well aware of the fact that getting pregnant at a young age would only make life more difficult for them. However, the absence of schools or colleges in the area only left the option of finding a husband and getting married open. This process would sometimes lead to unplanned pregnancies (this was more in the Mexican context than the Indian). Although it was thought that sex education would make the situation better, it only worsened the situation. What saved the day was providing free uniforms and books to girls, and hence ensuring that they could remain in school longer. This caused them to not actively pursue marriage, and led to a drastic drop in teenage pregnancy.

A large number of countries try to promote birth control to slow the rate of population growth. It was thought that the easy availability of contraception would solve the problem. This did not help at all. What was not considered was that women are almost never in control of the timing and number of pregnancies- the male patriarchs would decide that. In randomized control trials in Bangladesh, women volunteers would visit women in the afternoon, when their husbands would be away at work, and inform them about contraception. This lowered the birth rate of that district by 60%!

Moreover, what was most surprising to me was that the factor that led to a sharpest drop in birth rate in Brazil was the popularization of telenovelas. In these telenovelas, the female characters would only have one or two children. This normalized the prospect of having less children for women, and led to a substantial drop in birth rates in just a decade!

Basically, many of our “obvious” and “common sense” ideas are wrong. We do not know what will make the poor less poor. Let us deploy our most successful weapon- Science. We can conduct experiments, and determine the factors that actually make a difference. And then make these things policy- at the grassroots level or the national. The authors won a well deserved Nobel prize for introducing “experiments” of this kind in economics. These experiments are easy to perform, and can very tangibly make the poor better off.

That is why this is a book of hope.

Effective Altruism- October

My receipt from my donation to EA for the month of October is attached below:

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I haven’t read anything directly related to social causes this past month. But I did read the books “12 Rules for Life” by Jordan Peterson and “Elon Musk” by Ashlee Vance. Both tangentially talk about the need to approach social issues head on.

I also watched “Family Man” on Amazon Prime. It was refreshing to see the state of Indian muslims shown in such a blindingly honest manner in the Indian mainstream media. The TV series deals with delicate issues in an amazingly nuanced way, and I would recommend it do everyone.

I plan on spending more time reading the EA newsletters, and perhaps also sections of “Gates Notes”.

Effective Altruism- September

I made my donation to Effective Altruism for the month of September. The donation is $20 less this time because I donated that amount to a friend’s birthday fundraiser earlier in the month. The receipt is attached below:

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Of the books that I completed last month, the two most relevant are both by Jared Diamond- “Guns, Germs and Steel”, and “Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis”. I would like to quote a passage in full, as it is extremely relevant to what has been happening in Kashmir:

Despite those Dutch military successes, the US government wanted to appear to support the Third World anti-colonial movement, and it was able to force the Dutch to cede Dutch New Guinea. As a face-saving gesture, the Dutch ceded it not directly to Indonesia but instead to the United Nations, which seven months later transferred administrative control (but not ownership) to Indonesia, subject to a future plebiscite. The Indonesian government then initiated a program of massive transmigration from other Indonesian provinces, in part to ensure a majority of Indonesian New-Guineans in Indonesian New Guinea. Seven years later, a hand-picked assembly of New Guinean leaders voted under pressure for incorporation of Dutch New Guinea into Indonesia. New Guineans who had been on the verge of independence from the Netherlands launched a guerrilla campaign for independence from Indonesia that is continuing today, over half a century later. 

This very closely parallels what has happened in our northernmost (former) state. It was instructive to learn that such approaches have been implemented in the past, and did not yield desired results.

Effective Altruism- August

Given below is my donation to EA this month.

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Today is India’s Independence Day, and hence an appropriate occasion to talk about this report. It is a 560 page report on torture in Kashmir, out of which I read the first 100 pages. More than anything, it helped broaden my viewpoint on the Kashmir conflict. As we all know, India has removed Kashmir’s special status, and made it a union territory. Most people in India are in support of this, and think it will lead to development and peace. While Kashmir boils in furore, the Indian government denies any protests or tension there. Only time will tell what this will lead to.

Effective Altruism- June and July

Sorry I have not written about Effective Altruism in June and July, and that is mostly because I have fallen behind on my readings regarding social issues. I am uploading my donation slips from June and July:

EA- July

EA- June

As you might have noticed, I have only donated 5%, instead of the usual 10% of my earnings in the month of July. The reason for that is that I donated the other 5% towards the undergraduate fees of a girl in Tamil Nadu, India. Her father had passed away recently, and she was unable to afford her college fee anymore. What makes me happier is that she wants to pursue Mathematics.


Effective Altruism- May

I turned *way too old* earlier this month. Hence, on my birthday month, I would like to record the donation I made to Effective Altruism:

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I have also started reading on poverty in India. The first paper that I perused (very) partially is this.

It is a paper written by two Indian PhD students at Columbia University, who talk about the fact that there are basically two poverty lines used by the government of India. The latest one is in fact a harsher scale of poverty, and according to both such lines poverty in India has been steadily decreasing, especially in the 2004-2005 and the 2009-2010 period. The authors do not use the 5-year studies on poverty as a basis for their conclusions, but the annual expenditure survey done by the government of India. The basis for their choice is the following: people who spend more are probably earning more, and vice-versa. Hence, whether people are above or below the poverty line can be easily approximated by how much they’re spending.

I didn’t complete reading the paper for the following reasons: it seems motivated at the very outset to show that India is “shining”, it is more an instance of statistical jugglery than a commentary on the causes of poverty, and bases its conclusions on poverty lines that I don’t take to be credible. Every government is motivated to suppress data on poverty, or introduce measures of poverty that suggests that there are less poor people in their country than there really are. And I find the two poverty lines to not be a good measure for poverty in India.

I then found this book written up by people at the World Bank.

I will try to peruse relevant sections of this book and complete this article by (hopefully) this weekend

Effective Altruism – March

I’m recording the payment I made to Effective Altruism in the month of March, to keep my pledge of donating 10% of my lifetime income to it.

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I had said that I’ll soon write an article about causes that concern me/that I want to make monetary contributions to. Some articles that I read in the recent past are the wiki article on poverty in India, sexual injustice in rural India, and also Tolstoy’s views on charity and religion (which for sure have changed the world. For starters, Gandhi pretty much took all of his views and practices from Tolstoy, almost verbatim, which of course decided the course for Indian self-determination). However, I feel that I have not read enough to write anything original/meaningful. Hopefully this will change by next month.