3 min read

Dinosaur man altruism

I've had this phrase in my head for a while now. It probably needs explaining, so here you go, have some context:

For better or worse, I identify strongly with the dinosaur man here. I don't want to cure cancer, I want to... well, I don't actually want to turn people into dinosaurs, that sounds like hassle. But I do want to investigate whatever weird topic I'm currently fixated on, without worrying about whether it's 'the right thing to do'.

I don't expect thinking about negative probabilities or Derrida or whatever it is this month is going to be The Most Important Thing I Could Do For The World, but I do it anyway, because that's what I want to do. I'm strongly protective of my sense of taste, and tend to view attempts to steer me directly towards usefulness as... well, the mental image I get is that big Monty Python cartoon foot coming down to squash the life out of me. I run away out of pure self-preservation.

So, as you can imagine, I have a hard time with effective altruism. The EAs are pretty close neighbours to me on the internet, and I've made some friends in that world too by now, and I do strongly admire their determination to make things better. But I also get a strong impulse to run away from the giant foot.

Anyway, I've slightly calmed down about this recently, and can engage with EA culture a little more. It still seems offputting, but not in the intense way that it used to. I think the main reason for this is that my relationship to paid work has radically improved in the last year. I made a shift from programming to technical writing, and this style of work is a much better fit. I'm no longer bored and frustrated all the time, and I don't have this constant sense of needing to claw back time for my own interests to compensate for that. I can finally turn down the volume knob on this intense protectiveness towards my own taste.

Now that I can do that, of course it turns out that I don't have literally 0 impulse towards being useful. I still need a strong internally generated sense of fascination with a topic, but given two topics where I can sustain that I'd rather pick the more generally useful-seeming one. So I'm starting to think more seriously about what kinds of altruism are practically available to a dinosaur man like me.

I was browsing the EA Forum a while back ā€” yes I know I just said I find EA offputting, but also I have an intense craving to read large amounts of text on the internet, and sometimes I ban myself from my usual sources ā€” and saw something oddly inspiring: The Case for Rare Chinese Tofus by George Stiffman. It sort of looks like it's going to be a generic research report about a potential intervention for reducing factory farming, but if you keep reading this and his linked Medium posts you realise that he's writing this because he's obsessed with tofu. He writes about spending a couple of years travelling around China, apprenticing with a chef and trying lots of obscure vegan food. Now he wants to grow the tofu market in the US and introduce tofu styles that are a better fit for western cooking methods than the ones we have currently.

I don't know anything about the tofu market in the US, so I can't be sure that this is a particularly effective plan to improve the world, or even a good idea for a business venture. But it's a very dinosaur-man-shaped plan, starting from a strong base of intrinsic interest and then working out what he can do with it. It's appealing to me because he's pushing towards finding interesting flavours and textures, rather than just pulling away from eating meat and dairy. I want to try all the foods he's talking about!

Maybe I can do something similar? I mean, not selling tofu, but working on things that I already think about all the time and slowly cranking up the 'useful' in 'enjoyable and useful'. I'm really enjoying the technical writing skillset and it looks like that's a good base to start from. Reincorporating a bit of maths or physics into my life would be nice, and I can probably combine that with technical writing in some useful ways. (I'm still keen on the whole research distillation line of thinking, for a start. Or more straightforwardly I could write docs for something maths-heavy.)

Derrida and negative probability might be more of a stretch, but, well, you never know...