I'm Donating 90% of my Recent Income to Slime Mold Time Mold

Since quitting my job to blog full time, I didn’t make a lot of money until recently. As of last month, some readers are paying me to advise/edit their new blog, and the Center for Effective Altruism is paying me to write the EA Newsletter.

So far, I’ve made $1890, with another $1200 due soon. Of the $3090 total, I’m donating $2800 to Slime Mold Time Mold to support their research agenda on the environmental contaminant theory of obesity.

I plan to continue donating 90% of my income to this research until either:
A) The authors are funded by a billionaire patron
B) The authors are funded by a grant endowed by a billionaire patron
C) The authors tell me they don’t need any more money

If you would like to join me, you can get in contact with me at applieddivinitystudies@gmail.com, with the authors directly at slimemoldtimemold@gmail.com, make a recurring donation on Patreon, or make a one time donation through Paypal.

Some of you might ask “why are you giving money to obesity research? Shouldn’t you be spending it on bednets or AI safety, or at least on Give Directly?”

First of all, I’m not giving my money to obesity research in the abstract, which I agree is quite low impact. I’m giving it to specific people (Slime Mold Time Mold) to pursue a specific research agenda (the contamination theory of obesity).

Second, though I’ve previously expressed some doubts about the impact of donations to EA causes already funded by large foundations, I agree that Give Directly is a pretty safe bet to achieve fairly massive impact at a very low cost. There are many very poor people, and transfering wealth to them (either through health interventions or direct giving) is still incredibly low hanging ethical fruit.

Having said all that, at this particular margin, I genuinely think that donating to Slime Mold Time Mold is more important. It’s not just the obesity research, it’s the opportunity to see a genuine scientific revolution play out in real time, and I would pay just about anything to get a front row seat.

[EDIT 01/18/2022] In an earlier version, I included my estimates that the SMTM theory is actually correct. I ommited them for brevity, but it has been recommended that I include them here. So okay:

In 2021, The NIH spent around $1.2 billion on obesity research, with another $280 million on childhood obesity research. By one esimates, the US spends $190 billion on obesity-related health care expenses. And that’s just direct financial costs! That’s not even indirect costs from lost life, or lost happiness or anything else.

So extrememy back of the napkin, the SMTM research is probably worth funding, compared to an NIH baseline, if it has something like a 0.1% chance of resulting in a breakthrough at a cost of under $10 million. Where “breakthrough” basically means that it becomes the dominant paradigm and enables future NIH spending to be much more effective.

Having said that, we should be cautious of pascalian arguments, and I would not fund SMTM if I thought they only had a 0.1% chance of success. My actual view is that the odds of their theory (or something close to it) being correct are around 10%. That’s not exceptionally high, but it’s 100x higher than it needs to be.

What about using Give Directly as a baseline and looking at QALYs instead of financial costs? This depends a lot on how much you think your donation counterfactually enables more research from SMTM. But okay, say 3 million people “die from obesity” each year, such that ending the obesity epidemic a year earlier is worth 3 million QALYs. It’s probably more because you don’t just buy an extra year, but let’s be conservative.

Off the top of my head, the minimal cost per life saved is ~$5000, which is supposed to be equivalent to 35 QALYs, so that’s $143/QALY. But I have some concerns about crowding out large donors, so say I donate to GiveDirectly instead, which is more like $1000/QALY.

So the opportunity cost of $100k is 100 QALYs. Which means to justify a donation of that size to SMTM, we would have to believe that they’ll accelerate the end of the obesity epidemic by… about 15 minutes.

Seriously, that’s how the math works out. It’s 3M QALYs per year, which is 8,200 QALYs per day, or 340 per hour, so 100 QALYs is about 15 minutes. Alternatively, you have to believe that there’s a 0.1% chance that the donation will accelerate the end by about two weeks.

Obviously this is all absurdly abstracted, and you should’t wake QALY estimates too literally and so on. I’m just saying, we should at least try to make up numbers, and when we do so, we get that my decision is not obviously wrong.

Finance


Last century, since the end of the Cold War, economic criteria have come to rule our day-to-day lives, and humanity, ruled by these criteria, has reached great heights. Now we have ended wars and poverty, and we have restored our planet’s ecology. The Earth has truly become a paradise. This has led us to put ever more trust in the efficiency of the economic principle. It has become paramount, permeating our very DNA. In every aspect and element, human society has become an economic society. Nothing that yields less than what is invested in it will ever even be considered. Developing the Moon makes no economic sense, and large-scale manned exploration of space would be considered an economic crime. And as for interstellar flight, that would be seen as outright psychotic. Now humanity knows only investment, production and reaping the fruits!

– Liu Cixin, Sun of China

The macro-history of Silicon Valley is that it used to be run by the military, then by hackers (nerds), then briefly by MBAs (or nerds who had read books by MBAs). And now it’s run not quite by financiers, but by these weird hybrid Finance Techies who both write code and read Matt Levine on weekends, then go into their day jobs as angel investors and crypto founders.

It’s easier to explain the shift through a Chapman-esque chart:

Hackers Econ Finance
How do you explain the relationship between R&D and long-run outcomes? Amortization Fixed Cost / Variable Cost CAPEX / OPEX
How do companies make money? New technology Better unit economics at scale Kingmaking, burining VC money until competitors die
But really, how do you actually make money? Cutting out intermediaries Bundling and unbundling Serve as the intermediary
What does your company really do? Every startup is a search engine Every startup is an API for cheap human labor Every startup is really a fintech startup, and every fintech startup is really a bank (2)

It’s easy to feel repulsed by this shift, but more important to understand it as a reflection of broader trends.[1] As Byrne Hobart’s one sentence horror story once put it: “your life is more financialized than you think”.

Financialization refers to a bunch of related, but essentially different phenomena:

  1. A broad multi-century shift towards wealth as an indicator of success and driver of happiness, rather than God, or virtue or other forgotten values.

  2. The sense of longing caused by the elimination of the gold standard, resulting simultaneously in A) Yearning for grounding, truth and reason (it’s not a coincidence that “post-modernism” really only took off after 1970) and B) The sense of limitless opportunity unhampered by physical reality.

  3. Your weird cousin buying peak GME.

  4. The many decade old American and now Chinese norm of coupling your choice of shelter to the largest financial decision you’ll ever make. (Byrne Hobart once wrote "Most consumers don’t think to themselves ‘I expect rates vol to rise in the future, so I’d better be long gamma right now.’ " He was right at the time, but he won’t be in 20 years.)

  5. Growing inequality resulting in A) Wealth feeling more fake (“What does $200 billion even mean?”), B) Many Americans increasingly forced to think about money as a matter of survival, and C) The disconnect between the two mediated somewhat successfully by leftist politics, but still resulting in angst vacillating between “the economy is made up so it doesn’t matter” and “the economy is made up, so maybe I can meme myself into wealth” and subsequent rise of “scam culture” (see f.e.x. calling out Belle Delphine for selling bathwater while also celebrating her for securing the bag)

  6. Crypto gains occurring nearly overnight, alienating the nouveau riche from their own wealth, while simultaneously generating FOMO of unprecedented scale.

  7. All of this happening on the backdrop of several non-financial crises (climate change, covid, poverty) forcing A) The question of why financial growth feels decoupled from important measures of progress and wellbeing, B) Why we can’t just print our way out of these crises if money is fake anyway, and C) The perverse dynamic in which the perceived illegitimacy of finance-as-practice serves to draw more attention to finance-as-concept, bolstering it’s memetic strength (i.e. in an ironic twist, shouting “money is only real because everyone believes it’s real” feels less like the Wizard of Oz ending where the curtain is drawn back, and more like the end of Elf where Will Ferell explains that we need to believe in Santa’s magic in order to bootstrap the self-fulfilling prophecy of making him magic.)

It’s easy to feel repulsed by all of this. Meanwhile, the scant havens of non-financialized life are now seen as the glorious low hanging fruit of the “last unoptimized asset class”, with an increasingly fine line between democratizing something and financializing it (see Lambda School for education, Substack for writing, NFTs for art). [2]

But the optimistic version is that the financialization has been there for centuries, it just hasn’t been evident. And if so, “financialization” refers not to the actual encroachment of finance onto everyday lives, but only to our growing awareness of it. Is that good?

In other domains, Alvaro laments publicizing the replication crisis, and Eigenrobot claims “popular knowledge of quantitative argumentation was a mistake.”

But I say screw it: let the masses know what’s happening to them. Let them see the inner machinations of this strange and beautiful world. And if they choose to abuse their newfound knowledge then that’s fine too. We are no worse nor less powerful than Gods.


[1] If anything, tech has resisted financialization due to the nature of the industry:

  • There are no calls or puts, no leverage, no complex financial instruments: all you can do is invest or not invest, you’re either in or out.
  • Portfolio returns come almost entirely from one or two assets, diversification is an absurd anachronism.
  • Outcomes are highly binary, it’s useless to talk about a particular year’s growth rate.
  • There’s basically no debt, which some see as the foundation or at least origin of all trade.

[2] Ultimately, none of this is coincidental. It’s that democracy and finance really are intimately linked. Although it’s sometimes important to distinguish between the three meanings of “democratization” (1. Everyone has governance abilities over X, 2. Everyone can produce X, 3. Everyone can consume X) we have to recognize that in this case it doesn’t really matter. As mediated by markets, the ability to consume is identical to both governance and production. “You vote with your dollar”, and so too do you build.

Is Time Working for or Against You?


You are standing at the foot of the mountain. We are all always at the foot. The speed of light is the foot of a mountain; the three dimensions of space are a foot of a mountain. You are imprisoned in the deep gorge of light-speed and three-dimensional space. Does it not feel… cramped?

– Liu Cixin, Mountain

If you have a deadline a week from now, there is always some impending sense of dread.

Were you to sleep through an alarm, or stay out late with friends, those are hours wasted. Time is working against you, and every hour you don’t make progress is an hour you’ll never retrieve. In fact, even if you do make progress, if it’s not at the pace required to achieve your goals within the allotted time, you are still falling behind.

For many of this, this is the norm, and has been our entire lives. Not even our adult lives, but since infancy. I was taking timed tests in elementary school, trying to finish homework before my bedtime in middle school, writing essays up until the last minute in high school, and so on. It’s not that I’m a chronic procrastinator, it’s that time is chronically catching up with me.

This is the norm, but it doesn’t have to be. Consider putting your money in a high-yield savings account. As you sleep, you are earning money. Were you to sleep in an extra hour, that would not be an hour wasted, but an hour to accrue more compound interest. Were you, like Fry from Futurama, to fall into a coma for 1,000 years, you could wake up a billionaire. Time is working for you.

Finance is the most obvious example, but it’s not an isolated case. Lots of things grow and compound, far beyond the effort you put into them. If you plant an apple tree today, you’ll be greeted years from now with a bountiful harvest. If you have children today, you’ll be greeted decades from now with beautiful grandkids. And as it turns out, if you start a blog, you can stop writing posts for months at a time and subscribers will still trickle in on the legacy of past writing.

Time is on your side.

This isn’t just a convenient growth hack, it’s the only way to tolerate this otherwise miserable human condition. If you are not investing, which is to say, if you do not have plants growing, kombucha brewing, relationships maturing, and so forth, what are you doing other than dying?

Without time working for you, all that awaits is slow decay. If not through your own personal demise, then through thermodynamic entropy. Making time work for you is a kind of dark magic, a way to resist death even as it threatens to swallow you whole.


And as with all dark magic, it imposes serious costs.

Say you’re on an airplane, 9 hours left on a trans-pacific flight, ravioli in its tin tray, blockbuster on the seat-back screen. There’s nothing to do but wait. And why not? After all, time is on your side. Each passing hour brings you closer to your destination, closer to home, closer to the moment when you can get off this plane and really start living again.

But what happens next? Now you land, and you’re standing in the aisle, waiting to deplane, then you’re at the App Pickup Zone waiting for your Uber, and then in the Uber once again in some state of sleep-deprived half-death waiting. But it’s okay, right? Time is working for you. You’re getting closer to where you want to go.

The problem is it never really ends. Now you’re commuting to work, now you’re at a job, and it’s not one you really like, but you have to be there anyway because it’s the path to something else. And it’s fine, because every day you spend in this job is another day you get closer to having Four Years Experience, and meanwhile your investments are accruing compound interest, and your relationships are maturing, and all of this is part of the plan.

How should we properly deal with the paralyzing oppression of our temporal overlords? There are typically three answers:

  1. Beg Death for more time: Eat more vegetables, do more cardio, do more longevity research, become multiplanetary, align AGI, advocate degrowth, build solar panels.
  2. Embrace Death in all its forms: Delist your website from Internet Archive, go skydiving, eat a five-pound gummy bear, marry Courtney Love.
  3. Become immortal but only metaphorically: Have a lot of descendants, build a giant clock inside a mountain, send big prime numbers into space, invent fundamental physics, endow a fellowship, put your name on a building.

These stances all have their uses, but they’re still just one side of the axis. You can also choose to simply live atemporally. To understand that you have already died, will always have died, and all that’s happening here is your experience through the temporal axis of your own life.

Is time working for you? Against you? It’s a bit of both, but you can also choose to sever the employment contract.