Future Selves, Other Selves

There’s a fascinating series of articles at the New York Times Magazine this week about charitable giving. While many of the articles tend to cover the same ground (e.g. the move towards measuring the effectiveness of donations) there are some real gems there:

Consider Mr. Improvident, who is just like us except that he is not wired to care about his future. (There’s one in every family.) Mr. Improvident gets no neural kick from saving for tomorrow. Yet we can see that he has an objective reason to do so. He is, after all, a person extended in time, not a series of disconnected selves.

We ought to be able to see a similarly objective reason for altruism, one rooted, as the philosopher Thomas Nagel observed, in “the conception of oneself as merely a person among others equally real.” My reason for taking steps to relieve the suffering of others is, in this way of thinking, as valid as my reason for taking steps to avert my own future suffering. Both reasons arise from our understanding of what sort of beings we are, not from the vagaries of natural selection.

This was from an article about the nature of altruism, the discussion of which tends to concentrate on genetic reasons like kin selection and reciprocity. The suggestion that there is an objective reason for altruism – or at least, as objective and valid as saving for ourselves in the future – is interesting. There is of course an argument that we are more likely to save for ourselves, because we are going to be ourselves in the future – but the problem with this is the existence of Mr. Improvident. If the corollary or Mr. Provident exists, then why can’t a Mr. Altruist? Anyway…

Another great article is What Makes People Give? To me, the article is misnamed, since it’s more about ‘how can we use psychology to make people donate more?’ – which is the reason why I recommended it to the Let’s Change the Game winning team. There are some fascinating discoveries listed in the article, and while they can’t be used for all fundraising projects, I’m sure some will prove very useful, e.g.:

A matching gift effectively reduces the cost of making a donation. Without a match, you would have to spend $400 to make your favorite charity $400 richer. With a three-to-one match in place, it would cost you only $100 to add $400 to the charity’s coffers.

… But the size of the match in the experiment didn’t have any effect on giving. Donors who received the offer of a one-to-one match gave just as often, and just as much, as those responding to the three-to-one offer. That was surprising, because a larger match is effectively a deeper discount on a person’s gift. Yet in this case, the deeper discount didn’t make an impact. It was as if Starbucks had cut the price of a latte to $2 and sales didn’t increase.


List set out to see whether donors cared about so-called seed money. Fund-raisers generally like to have raised a large portion of their ultimate goal, sometimes as much as 50 percent, before officially announcing a new campaign. This makes the goal, as well as the cause, seem legitimate.

To see whether the strategy made sense, List and Reiley wrote letters to potential donors saying that the university wanted to buy computers for a new environmental-research center. They varied the amount of money that supposedly had already been raised. In some letters, they put the amount in hand at $2,000, out of the $3,000 they needed for a given computer; in others, they said they had raised only $300 and still needed $2,700. The results were overwhelming. The more upfront money Central Florida claimed to have on hand, the more additional money it raised. When paired with the matching-gift research, the study suggests that seed money is a better investment for charities than generous matches.

The GiveWell Fraud

A few weeks ago, I read a New York Times article about a new charity organisation called GiveWell, founded by two young ex-hedge fund managers. The story described how these two mavericks were about to shake up the charity world by using their financial skills to demand and interpret data from charities, and thus discover how efficiently they used their money. These findings would then be used to help donors choose a charity that would give them the best bang for their buck. Some people, however, criticised GiveWell for simply rewarding charities that had the time and resources to provide the extensive data they demanded.

I remember thinking that GiveWell seemed to have an interesting idea in theory, but I was sympathetic to the complaints. In any case, I don’t know much about the charity world (other than what I’m doing with Let’s Change the Game, but that’s another story) so I didn’t feel like passing any judgement.

A little later, on December 30th, a user called ‘geremiah’ posted a question to Ask Metafilter. Geremiah wanted recommendations of websites that evaluated the effectiveness of charities. The fourth comment on that post came from ‘Holden0’ who recommended GiveWell. Geremiah selected Holden0’s comment as the ‘best answer’ and went on to criticise a user, Miko, who’d recommended another site.

Miko proceeded to look at GiveWell’s website, and discovered that Holden0 appeared to be none other than Holden Karnofsky, the co-founder of GiveWell.

(I have to say, this has got to be the most stupid part of this entire story. If you’re going to set up a fake account, why base it on your real name? Sheer insanity.)

A new thread was started on Metatalk to discuss this apparent fraud. Self-promotion is strictly prohibited in Ask Metafilter posts, and it’s even worse if you don’t disclose it. Setting up a second ‘sockpuppet’ account to support your own opinions is also prohibited. Besides these rules though, it would’ve been distasteful to promote your own charity site in such a deceptive manner, while also rubbishing other websites.

Unfortunately, the owner of Metafilter confirmed that both Geremiah and Holden0 were registered by the same person – this was self-promotion, and it was a fraud. Holden0 eventually appeared in the thread to apologise, and claim that lack of sleep was responsible for his lapse in judgement. Members of Metafilter then proceeded to find numerous other cases of Holden promoting GiveWill on other websites without disclosing his involvement – and invariably criticising other sites at the same time.

The board of directors of GiveWell initially didn’t believe what was going on, and then admitted that Holden’s actions were wrong. However, they – and every single other defender of Holden – said pretty much the same things:

  • It was wrong – but it’s forgivable
  • We know Holden, and he’s a good guy
  • Metafilter members are a bunch of vigilantes, dispensing mob justice
  • Worse things go on in the world, why focus on this?

It’s nice that people are so willing to forgive Holden repeatedly promoting his own charity in a reprehensible and deceptive manner. And perhaps Holden is a good guy. But he’s an adult, and he’s supposed to be responsible for influencing the flow of millions of dollars to charities; you would expect him to have some basic sense of judgement.

As for Metafilter members, as far as I can say, they’ve done everyone a favour by uncovering this fraud. No doubt other frauds go on, but they happened to discover this one because Holden was especially foolish in his choice of username, and it’s natural that they would be irritated with someone scamming the website they belong to. They have done nothing except try and get word of this episode to as many people as possible. Not everyone there is an angel – far from it, judging from the assorted ad-hominems and insults that have been flung at Holden. But as far as I can tell, they have not lied or threatened anyone.

Why am I posting about this?

I think what Holden did was wrong. I think his friends are wrong to defend, or dismiss, the indefensible, and then go on to criticise the very people who uncovered the fraud, as if that were a worse sin. But the main reason I’m posting this is because an awful lot of people think that this type of fraud is not only acceptable, but commendable. It’s the way you do business – sure, some people might disagree, but if you want to get ahead, then you do what you have to.

It’s true that far worse things go on in the world, but this sort of fraud goes on every day by people who convince themselves that it’s OK, especially if no-one finds out. It truly is a slippery slope, and it’s not OK. It shows a profound lack of judgement and morals. If people want to continue trusting GiveWell, that’s fine, but they deserve to know what Holden did, and that’s why I’m writing this post – to link to the Metatalk thread, so that when you search for ‘GiveWell’, that’s the very first thing you see.

Metafilter members are currently assembling a page on the Mefi wiki (which I set up, but otherwise have little to do with) detailing all the events of this fraud. If you’re interested in hearing more about GiveWell, here’s an insightful critique from someone within the charity world pointing out the inexperience of the founders, and the fact that they are not actually doing anything that hasn’t been done before.

Let’s Change the Game – First Round

The first round of Let’s Change the Game closed last Friday, and we received nine entries that I thought were worth sending to the judges. This doesn’t sound like a lot, but we’re all very happy with the number. The competition deliberately set a high bar for entrants, requiring not merely a game description, but a concise game description. Given the emails I received from teams asking whether they could write more than 500 words, I’m certain that a lot of effort was spent on figuring out what their core idea was, and how to express it best.

I haven’t looked through the entries yet in detail, but from what I’ve seen so far, they’re all well thought out and some have some genuinely original and interesting ideas. The wide variety of team members, from all professions and all over the world, is also heartening, and I think that quite a few of the nine will be shortlisted.

The worst thing that could’ve happened with the competition is if we received no entries, or at least no good entries. It’s clear that we’re going to have a very different problem: deciding which of several good entries should be the winner.

Let’s Change the Game


One of the most startling things about alternate reality games is what their players can achieve. When you have tens of thousands of highly motivated and tightly-knit players who urgently want to get to the next scene, even the most obscure puzzle can be solved, no matter what language it’s written in, or what specialised field it relates to; one of the players, one one of their friends, will know the answer.

Faced with this, ARG designers have become engaged in a deeper and more subtle game with their players, always testing to see how much they can challenge them while keeping things fun. In Perplex City, I saw players come together to write and publish a book in a matter of weeks, and contribute millions of computer hours to crack a desperately complex code. In other games, players have formed cross-country networks to communicate and analyse information with incredible speed, and travelled thousands of miles to help each other.

Given the right game and the right challenges, there are few limits to what players can achieve. And if people will give so much for something that is ‘merely’ a game, what more might they give for a game that also has a serious purpose?

A Game to Cure Cancer

Today, together with Cancer Research UK, I’m launching a new project, Let’s Change the Game, that will develop an ARG whose aim is to raise money for cancer research. Like other serious games, the ARG will also educate people about cancer and raise awareness of it, but unlike other serious games, its success will be measured directly on how much real change it can cause, through fundraising. Cancer Research UK is the world’s leading independent organisation dedicated to cancer research. Last year, it spent over £250 million purely on scientific research, supporting over 3000 scientists, doctors and nurses. That research benefits everyone in the world, not just those in the UK. Yet even that sum is just not enough compared to the task it faces.

Cancer Research UK receives almost all of its fundings from donations from the public. Through its TV ads, mailings, billboards, races and stores, it manages to send its message to millions of people across the UK. However, that message isn’t reaching young people as well as it used to. It’s not just broadcasters and advertisers that are suffering from young people moving away from the TV and traditional media – it’s charities as well.

Alternate reality games are a solution that combine every form of media into a powerful, distributed game, something that can reach young people, and everyone else who is familiar with new media. That’s why we think an ARG can help Cancer Research UK raise its profile among the youth, and raise funds from them.

An Opportunity

I am not going to be designing this ARG.

A Catch-22 situation currently exists in the ARG genre. There are precious few opportunities for aspiring game designers to gain experience in creating ARGs, and the ARG companies out there all tend to require experience. That leaves grassroots games as one of the only avenues available. While there have been some excellent grassroots games developed in the past, they demand vast quantities of time for development – which their creators willingly give – but also at least some money – which their creators often cannot spare. We want to help change this situation.

Let’s Change the Game is a competition where teams from anywhere in the world can submit their own game designs. The team behind the winning design, as chosen by judges who include Sean Stewart, Rhianna Pratchett and James Wallis, will then be invited to develop the game. They’ll have guidance and advice from the judges, plus the full resources of Cancer Research UK; that’s over 600 stores, monthly TV ads, hundreds of races and live events, and mailings going out to over 20 million people. It could be the biggest ARG, ever – and we’re giving new designers the chance to create it.

As for funding, I’m donating £1000 ($2000) towards the development of the ARG. It may not be enough, and hopefully we’ll get in-kind donations from other sources, but it’s my belief that this £1000 will be multiplied many times by the ARG into a much larger donation for Cancer Research UK.

A Scientific Experiment

Let’s Change the Game is an experiment. We don’t know how it’ll turn out. Much will depend on the quality of the game designs we receive and the dedication of the winning team. But if it does work, if it does raise money for cancer research, then this experiment will prove that games aren’t just distractions for the young or just a popular new form of entertainment – they’re a way to truly and unequivocally change the world for the better.

Visit www.letschangethegame.org for more information. The deadline for the first round of 500-word game designs is November 16th.

The Longest Race of my Life

24 hour events have always attracted a certain fascination. By definition, they’re demonstrations of endurance, and when the world is transformed at night, what might be a common activity like walking through London turns into something that is slightly thrilling and illicit – and therefore, very attractive to a particular type of person.

In a couple of weeks, I’m going to be taking part in the Relay For Life event at Battersea Park, to raise money for Cancer Research UK. It’s not quite as exciting as the 197 mile relay race described in the New York Times – for one thing, it’s just around a running track, and for another, it’s not actually a race (more of an excursion) – but it’s still promises to be a lot of fun, and of course, it’s for a very good cause. Cancer is treatable, and it’s curable, but only if the research is funded.

If you can, please sponsor me; you can do it online using a credit card, and the money will go directly to Cancer Research UK. Even just a few pounds will be a real help. For those who are hesitating, I have something that might tip you over the edge (hopefully towards donating)…

£5 Limited Edition Special Offer

If you donate £5 or more, you will receive an exclusive online photo of me holding up a piece of paper with your name on it (or short message of choice) during the race. For sure, it’ll be a memento to show the grandchildren – you’ll be able to say, “Yes, I knew Adrian before he became El Presidente of the Martian Dominions.”

£10 Super-Incredible-Limited Edition Exclusive Offer

If you donate £10 or more, you’ll get something even better. I’m not sure what it is yet, but it’ll be very cool. Really, the suspense is worth it alone.