I posted here with the results after the first year, and continued in subsequent years. Last year, someone asked if I was still doing it. I am, and it's working out great. The rate of giving is steadily increasing; in 2013, donations reached 1.5 times nonessential spending and 30% of income.
I have a lot of privileges that make it easy to give, but nonetheless, it's still a good thing to do, and I encourage you to consider a scheme like this if you are thinking about how you'll give to charity. With this method, you get to decide what is essential and what is non-essential, so (a) this motivates thinking about what is essential, which I find useful; and (b) it works for any income level, since spending money on things that are truly essential doesn't affect your charitable donations.
I went to the memorial service for Aaron at the Internet Archive last night. This is what I said.
I've been thinking about Aaron every day since I heard the news. When I think about Aaron, I remember the conversations we used to have about how we wanted to change the world. We sat in the dining room in my co-op, over plain white bread. He would tell me his ideas; I would tell him mine.
It's been amazing to see this outpouring from all over the world—so many people writing about Aaron, inspired by him. Danny wrote, "Every page I open has his name on it"—it's been like that. It surprised me to see so many people who are so moved by him who didn't know him personally, or even hadn't heard of him until now. And I think that's a testament to the power of the causes he stood for and the depth of his commitment to them. Aaron's causes are causes that touch all of us.
For a long time, I've admired his intellect and his work, but right now, what I feel most strongly—and I think a lot of other people do too—is: I wish I had his conviction. And maybe some of us are asking ourselves, as I've been asking myself: What could I do if I had his conviction?
Aaron was pragmatic. He wouldn't be satisfied with us just standing here and talking about him. He would want us to act.
So: find a way to act. None of us can be Aaron, but each one of us has skills, resources, relationships, strengths that are special to us. Take a minute to think about what capabilities you have, what privileges you have, what you're able to risk, and how you can bring those things to bear on the injustices that surround us. When we fight injustice, we're taking care of each other. And we have to take of each other. We have to take care of each other.
Pick something that needs doing, and use this moment, when injustice is staring you in the face: use it to make a promise to yourself to follow through. Because not everyone is able to fight, but we can. Not everyone knows they have to fight, but we know. And so many more people know now, because of Aaron.
If you're listening to this, you're not a spectator. You're in this fight, with Aaron, and with all of us. There's so much that we have to do.
If you would like to help me get it unsuspended, please post a note here to help provide evidence that "Ping" is the "name [my] friends, family or co-workers usually call [me]" (as it says in the User Conduct and Content Policy). If you are comfortable identifying yourself and your relationship to me, that would help too. Thanks!
Edited to add: Thanks everyone! I'm sure we'll get this sorted out right quick.
I went to a memorial service today. It was for Jon Brilliant, son of Larry Brilliant, whom I'd known during my first year at Google.org. The service was beautiful and moving. It was also powerfully inspiring, and I had not expected that. We were dressed in bright colours, to suit Jon's style; and there were words and rituals from a mix of spiritual traditions, also as he would have wanted.
I hadn't known Jon very well. I met him once when visiting his father's house. They invited me to swim in their pool and I hadn't brought swimming trunks, so Jon offered to let me borrow his, and I did. He was cheerful and gentle, and shone with excitement as he told me about his trip to China. When I heard that he had cancer, I felt compelled to convey comfort but I wasn't sure how. I picked up a book on Chinese calligraphy, a brush, and a bottle of ink, and practiced until I could adequately draw the characters for "health" and "courage" on cards for him and his parents. I thought he had gotten better. I had no idea that the cancer had become so serious since then. The news was a terrible shock; it felt so wrong, so unfair to him, so unfair to Larry and his family. Here is a man whose work saved countless lives, and yet he has lost his son to a cruel disease.
Jon was twenty-six.
Jon's friends from high school and college were there. They really loved him. I could see it in the way they stood when they went up to speak, and hear it in the way they told stories about him. There was joy and laughter in the things they celebrated about him, and parts they could not get through without tears. They spoke with deep love as they described all they had learned from him, the ways he had connected and inspired them, the wisdom and insight he had shown them. They mentioned the many things he had accomplished, the many places he had travelled, always trying to understand the world and make it better, and the many people whose lives he had touched in his short life.
We were reminded: the measure of a life is how well it is lived, not how long.
I suppose it is part of the natural experience of a memorial service to reflect on one's own life—on what one is grateful for, perhaps on what one regrets, and on how it might be lived more fully. And today I did reflect. I noticed that the intensity of my ambition—first to win prizes, and later to engineer help for the suffering, and occasionally to create nifty things—has so often crowded out the building of truly deep relationships with other people. Romantic interests have been the significant exception, and when relationships ended, the depth faded away. The kinds of things Jon's friends described—the way he inspired them, the way he taught them about love, the way he showed them how to love themselves—these are the actions of someone who has the simple and easy confidence of knowing they will always have love, not someone who is focused on chasing love as if to fill in something missing.
It is a startling concept to think of living one's entire life in terms of questions like "Who is close to me and how can I change their life for the better?" "How can I become a wiser person and share that wisdom?" "What could I do to inspire the people around me?" I'm just not used to thinking that way. Mostly, it's "How can I accomplish this task?"
I understand why I do it. Deep down, I think it scales better—part of me feels morally compelled to choose to work on a lonely project that I hope or believe might help many people I'll never know, instead of building connections with people one at a time. If I spent all my time trying to be well-connected and popular and loved, I think I wouldn't be as productive. But wouldn't it be wonderful to have truly changed someone's life by bringing into it a new kind of wisdom or love or insight?
Every time that I get confused and see a person who works for me or with me as a customer, a competitor, a colleague, I fail. And every time that I am unable to see that person as a human being—and instead only see what's useful to me—I fail. In those moments, I fall victim to my ambition. But in those moments when I see people as human beings, as real people, I inspire them.
A lot of it is international aid, because the effectiveness per dollar seems pretty high there. Second Harvest and Project Respite are due to fundraising efforts by Google coworkers. Berkeley Free Clinic was a shot at doing something local.
It was not very disciplined, though. When I looked back to make this list, I was a little surprised that it was spread out among so many different organizations. I think it might be more efficient to focus on the highest-impact ones, if such a thing can be determined.
It wasn't until after the new year that I found out about Giving What We Can and Give Well. So these are now contenders for ones I missed that I'm considering in 2011:
Last year around this time, I decided to begin an experiment: to match everything I spend on a non-essential purchase with an equal donation to an effective charity.
The experiment was successful! It succeeded in every way I had hoped it would: I donated much more to charity than I ever had before; I feel great about it; I learned something about my spending patterns; and I had fun in 2010. A lot of fun. (Certain others can attest.)
It also had a further benefit I had not predicted: I learned more about charities and effective philanthropy.
I find that I like this method of determining the amount to donate. It seems less arbitrary than choosing a percentage of income, which would leave me wondering whether I picked the right percentage. For the past year, every gift for myself was also a gift for someone else. That feels right, and I'm going to keep doing it.
His expression of gratitude was a bit of a jumbled mix of Google's contributions in Haiti (of which I consider the satellite imagery to have been by far the most valuable), but it's still a thrill to hear him talk about "Person Search".
There are roughly two positions being expressed in the debate about privacy online: "Websites are violating user trust and that's wrong" and "Get over it, there's no such thing as privacy anyway".
The problem is that the pundits in the latter camp tend to be affluent, powerful, male, straight, white, or all of the above. To them, users should just "get over" being violated. I disagree. These pundits have probably never personally feared rape, an abusive partner, or a corrupt authority. Living in public is a solution they think they can afford, but many people can't.
The idea that personal information should be public by default is deeply flawed. "Those who care about privacy should check the privacy settings often, or just opt out", they say. What they are describing is a space that imposes the highest maintenance costs and the heaviest burden of technical understanding on the users who are the most vulnerable. That's not a safe space.
If your users do not understand your privacy UI, it is not they who have failed; it is you.
To protect your privacy, mark your events "Not Attending".
Update (06:00 PDT): So far, some people have reported that their events are exposed, and some have reported that they aren't. I don't have an explanation. I've sent a note to Facebook asking them not to expose events this way.
Note: This post is based on my observations as an individual Facebook user, curious to know what is revealed about me through the new API. I wrote this article to help others protect their privacy, and I am also in touch with Facebook's team, who is working to fix this. Although I work for Google, this blog represents my personal views and not Google's. Thanks to everyone for your interest.
Update (23:00 PDT): The Facebook API is no longer revealing event lists for the users mentioned in this article, or any other users I've tried. Thanks to the Facebook folks for improving their stuff!
Update (May 12): Please see the new FAQ about the Facebook API Browser.
Yesterday, I discovered something strange while playing with Facebook's new Graph API: the API was showing a list of my events, and it seemed that anyone could get this list. Today, I spent a while checking to make sure I wasn't crazy.
I didn't opt in for this. I even tried setting all my Privacy Settings for maximum privacy. But Facebook is still exposing the list of events I've attended, and maybe your events too.
What can your event list say about you? Quite a bit. It might reveal your home address, your friends' home addresses, the names and groups of people you associate with, your hobbies, or your political or religious activities, for example.
A lot of people are concerned about Facebook's recent announcements of new information sharing policies and mechanisms. For those that are curious what Facebook actually exposes about you through its new API, I wrote a little tool that browses the API using the access permissions of a new user with no friends.
One: Bear McCreary, composer of the incredible music for Battlestar Galactica and now for several other television series. (Another member of the audience got to sit at the piano and play with Bear, an experience for which I would have given my left arm. (I would have needed to keep the right arm to play.)) Hearing him talk about his art made me spend some time thinking about doing music more seriously.
I went to Berlin over the winter break with various and sundry Noisebridgers to experience my first Chaos Communication Congress. While there I discovered c-base, a combination hacker club, nightclub, and crashed alien spaceship. Closest thing I've seen to the set of a Doctor Who episode, ever.
c-base has a multitouch table they built (with a projector inside, mirror, infra-red illumination, and a diffusing surface), and they had a little hackfest to write things for it. With lots of help and inspiration from two graphics hackers I met there, Martin and Ulli, I wrote multitetris.
Dan Kaminsky calls it the "Minority Report of Tetris". Good times. Man, I miss programming for fun.
As with every time this has happened in the past, many different sites have sprung up to collecting missing person information. The big challenge now is to aggregate and reconcile the records across all these databases. I am hoping that our decision to use PFIF will help solve this problem.
Imagine you were confronted with a person in great suffering, and you were capable of helping to alleviate their suffering. If this person were right in front of you, it would probably feel unkind to ignore them.
Yet, rationally, there is no difference between the suffering of a person you can see in front of you, and the same suffering experienced by a person you've never met, thousands of miles away. Is it not equally as necessary to help any fellow human being in great need? Surely geographical location is not relevant to the worth of a life.
This has been my way of thinking for some time. Peter Singer explains it more eloquently in his 1971 essay, Famine, Affluence, and Morality. Yes, charities are less than 100% efficient, and choosing worthy ones can be complicated. And keeping ourselves in love with life is a necessary prerequisite for giving to others. But these are minor caveats in comparison to the main, inescapable point: most people give less than they should. I say this not to criticize any deficiency in their principles, but as an observation that their actions are logically inconsistent with the principles they choose for themselves.
Setting aside a fixed fraction of your income for charitable donations is a pretty common concept. Christians call it tithing, and Singer himself makes a similar suggestion, even proposing specific percentages for income brackets. The problem with the income-fraction approach is that not everyone can afford to give the same fraction of their income. Those barely able to make rent might only be able to afford a little, but billionaires can easily afford to give away most of their income. Singer wrote:
Given a society in which a wealthy man who gives 5 percent of his income to famine relief is regarded as most generous, it is not surprising that a proposal that we all ought to give away half our incomes will be thought to be absurdly unrealistic.
I've never set aside a fraction of my income to donate, even when I've had a regular income. I occasionally donate here and there, at random to a charity that strikes me as a good one, but certainly far less than 10% of my income, probably less than 2%. Having a real job has made me think about what I should do about this.
I have an idea for a different approach that I'm going to try as an experiment. It's pretty simple:
In 2010, I'll match everything I spend on a non-essential purchase with an equal donation to an effective charity.
What's essential? Rent, groceries, furniture, expenses incurred in order to do my job.
What's non-essential? Eating out, movies, gadgets, toys, travel for fun. Gifts for myself, basically.
What's an effective charity? IRC, MSF, PSI, and EFF are my current favourites, though I'm sure there are many other excellent possibilities.
There are a few things I like about this scheme, both practical and psychological:
By definition, this only affects non-essential expenses — so anyone can do this, regardless of income level.
The statement of the pledge is simple and doesn't involve arbitrary percentages.
It motivates me to donate more, while enhancing my enjoyment of the things I buy for myself.
I'll become newly aware of how much I spend on non-essential things.
My plan is to use Mint to tag my expenses as non-essential. At the beginning of each month, I'll do a round of tagging and make a donation.
Thoughts, ideas, or suggestions?
Thanks to Mitch and Slim for reviewing this post.
2010-01-09 14:00 PST: Welcome, @PeterSinger followers! — PeterSinger tweets: Nice idea on giving here: http://wolog.net/254527.html Thanks Ka-Ping Yee. And you can pledge as well at www.thelifeyoucansave.com
Back at the beginning of the year, I made a list of resolutions. Now that 2009 is drawing to a close, I suppose I should evaluate how I did.
For 2009, I resolved:
Not to learn anything: fail. At work, I learned a lot of technical stuff, and also learned about the green energy field and about working with utility companies. Thanks to the BSFC, I learned a bit about the process of getting a new organization off the ground. I learned some relationship lessons. And I learned a lot about Africa.
To become uglier and less happy: unfortunately, I made substantial progress on this one. This has been a tough year for me personally. I have been on an overall downward trajectory, and am ending this year much less excited about life than the last. As we put 2009 behind us, I hope I can turn the page and change this.
To remain in the U. S. for the whole year: a big fat fail. I saw Africa for the first time, and it strengthened my resolve to do something good for those in the greatest suffering and need.
Not to produce anything of noticeable benefit to others: fail. I contributed to the SMS for Life project, which is starting to show good results. In one of our pilot districts, stockouts were reduced by about 75%, which likely meant that lives were saved. I think it's reasonable to attribute some of this to the new information on stock levels that became available through our project. And I hope that the mapping piece I contributed made the project more effective, even though I have no direct evidence of that yet.
To give up the guitar: wellll... I haven't given it up, but I've played it much less this year, and have barely played at all in the last few months.
And absolutely not, under any circumstances, to build absurd contraptions: alas, I succeeded at this one.
What for 2010? I'm considering a few things. I guess the main thing I learned this year is what happens when I try to focus singlemindedly on saving-the-world goals to the exclusion of all else, including myself. It seems rational, but it's turned out to be pretty bad for me. I reached my limit and went beyond. I'm not sure exactly what to do next, but I'm thinking that I need more music in my life, and a commitment to enjoying life. Believe it or not, the latter is a very strange concept to me right now, and it's hard to accept.
After visits to clinics, hospitals and dispensaries across Tanzania, IBM, Novartis and Vodafone initiated a five-month pilot of the SMS for Life solution, covering 135 villages and over a million people in different geographic locations across Tanzania.
Vodafone, together with its technology partner MatsSoft, developed a system in which healthcare staff at each facility receives automated SMS messages, which prompt them to check the remaining stock of anti-malarial drugs each week. Using toll-free numbers, staff reply with an SMS to a central database system hosted in the United Kingdom, providing details of stock levels, and deliveries can be made before supplies run out at local health centres.
During the first few weeks of the pilot, the number of health facilities with stock-outs in one district alone, was reduced by over 75 percent. The early success of the SMS for Life pilot project has the Tanzanian authorities interested in implementing the solution across the rest of the country. Tanzania has around 5,000 clinics, hospitals and dispensaries, but at any one time, as many as half could potentially be out of stock of anti-malarial drugs.
This project is a collaboration among many people; I'm glad to be a small part of it, and it looks like we're helping the Tanzanian Ministry of Health achieve some significant reductions in stockouts.
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