Monthly Archives: April 2010

The Game-Changing Algorithm Nobody Is Looking For (Part II — The Traps)

In my last post I described my take on the venerable idea that reality is composed of cumulative layers, and that the “layer cake” view of reality may give us a framework to consider evolution in a broader context (“extra-biological” evolution, if you will).

The question I posed; can we infer any commonalities regarding how one layer emerges from the previous?  Can we construct an algorithm that describes 1) how the molecular layer emerges from the atomic layer, 2) how the biological layer emerges from the molecular layer, 3) how the somatic layer emerges from the biological layer, and so forth?  And if we have such an algorithm in hand, what can we do with it?  Given a sufficiently powerful computer, can we simulate the entire universe?  Can we predict the next layer, or actually generate it within a simulation?

Let me start by warning of a few traps — traps I’ve fallen into at various times while thinking about the question above.

The first trap is looking for any sort of neatness or directionality, when examining the results of evolution.  The “stuff” we find in the universe may be generated by simple mathematical algorithms (watch this video to see what I mean), but the results are generally quite messy.  Everywhere we look we find complexity, exceptions, and irregularities.  For example, in the realm of biology, the core concept of “species” is notoriously hard to define (so much so that there is even something called “The Species Problem“).  So we should be wary of any model that classifies reality into neat, fixed categories (like the pre-Copernican map of the solar system below).

Ptolemaic/geocentric conception of the solar system. Neat, tidy, and wrong.

The same goes for directionality.  It is tempting to look at relatively simple bacteria (which have been around for a rather long time), and then look at relatively complex human beings (who have been around for a rather short time), and then conclude that evolution is moving in a direction; from the simple to the complex, or from the stupid to the intelligent.  This idea, as any biologist will tell you, is wrong.  Evolution (biological evolution, at least) moves towards whatever forms are most fit for a given environment.  Evolution actually prefers simplicity in a way (simpler forms are often more efficient, and thus more fit); the only reason complex forms (like people) exist at all are because all the environmental niches for simple lifeforms are all filled up.  It’s mighty competitive, down there, for bacteria and the like.  Evolution goes in whatever direction it finds success, be it towards simplicity, complexity, stupidity, intelligence, speed, sloth, or whatever.

The second trap (or third, if you want to count neatness and directionality as separate) is taking a human-centric view.  This has been a common trap in the history of scientific and philosophical inquiry.  The geocentric map of the solar system above is one example.  Copernicus (with help from the earlier work of Aristarchus) displaced Earth (and everyone on it) from the center of things, instead putting the sun at the center of the solar system.  Isaac Newton furthers our discomfort and reduces our specialness with his theory of universal gravitation; the same force that makes objects fall to the ground governs the movement of the planets and moons.  Darwin pushes human beings out of the spotlight with this Theory of Evolution; instead of being created in a divine image, human beings evolved from apes.  We’re but one species on one planet.  Modern telescopes push our little planet out ever further; our little solar system isn’t even in the center of the galaxy, and how many galaxies are there?  125 billion, says Hubble?  The denigration and humiliation continues to this day; modern physicists ask us to consider that the term universe may be a misnomer; the thing we consider to be everything may be just another grain of sand on a beach of multiverses.  The more we look at reality, the further from the center of things we find ourselves.

How does the human-centric trap relate to the consideration of extra-biological evolution?  It relates to the question; what is a unit of evolution?  What entity, or agent, is evolving, on each layer?  Genes evolve on the biological layer, bodies evolve on the somatic layer, and memes or ideas evolve on the memetic or cultural layer.  But where do people fit in?  On what layer are we evolving?

In short, we don’t have our own layer.  We exist on multiple layers.  At least in the way we think of ourselves, we aren’t replicable units.  On the somatic layer, human bodies can make more human bodies, but even identical bodies don’t make for identical people (as anyone who has known twins can tell you).  We think of ourselves as bodies with personalities; both our cultural and genetic heritage make up our identity.  And of course we also exist on the quantum, atomic, and molecular levels, though most of us don’t commonly think of ourselves that way.

This doesn’t preclude that within some future layer, some future version of humans beings might become replicable units (if our bodies and personalities were entirely digitized, and living in a virtual world or worlds, perhaps).  But that’s a different question.

The last trap, for lack of a better term, is uni-dimensionality.  An example of this type of thinking is supposing that stars and solar systems are on a different evolutionary layer than molecules, or that a structured community of creatures, like a beehive, or a human city, is on different evolutionary layer than the individual lifeforms.  The Global Brain concept is an example of falling into this trap.

Ken Wilber presents a better option for looking at extra-biological evolution; the Four-Quadrant model.

Wilber divides reality into four quadrants, along two axes.  The first axis is the individual/collective axis.  Galaxies are the collective form of atoms; planets are the collective form of molecules, and so on.  The second axis is interior/exterior.  Our subjective experience as human beings is the interior form or manifestation of our brain-body as a physical, exterior form.

Wilber has written a great deal about his four quadrant model.  I would recommend reading Sex, Ecology, and Spirituality, as well as the more recent Integral Spirituality.

I think Wilber himself falls into the neatness trap, and possibly the directionality trap, with his four quadrant model, but the multiple quadrant idea is still a good one.  I think Wilber’s 2nd axis (interior/exterior) is something that emerges with complex brains.  Wilber’s model seems to imply that consciousness is a fundamental property of matter, and brains merely refine it.  As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve switched over to Dennett‘s camp with regards to consciousness.

As for directionality, Wilber’s main interest is higher consciousness, so that’s his bias when looking at evolution.  There’s no harm in taking a closer look at the particular evolutionary vector that may be leading towards higher consciousness or intelligence, but I’m more interested in the general algorithm that describes (and can hopefully predict) the emergence of new layers (regardless of whether or not higher consciousness is a result).

So, I’ve promised a lot, haven’t I?  An algorithm (or at least a model that can be easily simulated) that describe the emergence of new evolutionary layers.  My model will not fall into the traps of neatness, directionality, human-centrism, or uni-dimensionality.  Will I deliver?  You’ll have to wait for the next post.

The Game-Changing Algorithm Nobody Is Looking For (Part I — The Question)

An ecology of molecules.

A problem I’ve been thinking about for the last twenty-five years or so (I’m a slow thinker, and it’s a big problem) is how new levels, or layers, of reality are created.

For example, what exactly is the process by which the molecular layer of reality is created from the atomic layer of reality?  How does the genetic or biological realm or layer emerge from the molecular?

We know how these things happened, specifically.  For example we know that atomic elements (like hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen) were ejected into space from stars.  Some of these atoms linked to each other with a new type of bond (a covalent bond, where the electron rings overlapped, as opposed to the simpler ionic bond).  In this way the first molecules of the universe, like water and ammonia, were formed.  Thus the molecular layer was born.

We also know, more or less, how the genetic/biological layer was created.  Certain types of protein macromolecules — chains of amino acids, or nucleotides — developed the trick of self-replication; assembling copies of themselves from smaller pieces (amino acids).  This led, eventually, to a kind of proto-RNA, and eventually (with the addition of cellular membranes), the first prokaryotic lifeforms.  Hello biological layer.

Diatoms, tiny eukaryotic lifeforms.

What we don’t know, is the rule-set, or algorithm, for how a new layer of reality is created.  Can the process be abstracted?  Does the jump follow a particular set of consistent rules?  There don’t seem to be very many people even asking these questions.  To me, these questions are incredibly important.  I’ll explain why in a moment.

There is plenty of room for debate regarding what constitutes a new layer.  For example, life, on Earth, goes on for some time before anything even resembling what we consider to be a body emerges.  So perhaps we can separate the somatic layer of reality from the biological layer.  But what triggers the creation of the somatic layer?  Is it the emergence of a new cell structure, the nucleus, that gives rise to eukaryotic lifeforms?  Or is the ability of cells to specialize that creates the first true somatic forms (like the famous hydra).

You see where I’m going with this, right?  Each new layer of reality is fully dependent on the lower layers (you can’t have molecules without atoms) but it is also distinct — the new layer offers new types of structures, agents, interactions, rules, spaces, etc.  You can even apply the general principles of evolution (like mutation, selection pressure, fitness criteria, etc.) to each layer of reality in the abstract model we’re constructing.

But how do we get from one layer to the next?  This question is often ignored.

My cosmological viewpoint.

For example, the Maxis game “Spore,” created by Will Wright, models several layers of reality.  There is a cellular layer, a biological layer, and a cultural/technological layer.  The mechanics of the transitions, however, are glossed over.  What are the overarching rules that apply to all the layers, and how, exactly, do we get from one to the next?

On planet Earth’s evolutionary time-line, things start to get interesting when consciousness emerges (and I realize not everybody thinks that consciousness is an emergent phenomena — but you have to read Daniel Dennett before I’ll debate that point with you).  What I would call the social layer of reality emerges, with animals, propelled by emotional impulses, interacting sexually, familially, and territorially.

Relatively soon after, big-brained primates learn to think abstractly, plan, and manipulate their environment in complex ways,  thus introducing the cultural layer of reality.

Various technological layers follow.  Our current state of reality, the half-cyborgified human operating half in physical reality, half in virtual space, with instantaneous access to all the world’s information, with a just-emerging ability to manipulate its own genome, is most likely not the end of the line.  It’s likely, unless we self-destruct sooner than expected, that new layers of reality will continue to emerge.

But how?  What exactly is happening?  Is there any way to simulate the emergence of a new layer?  There isn’t, unless you have a model and an algorithm.

It’s necessary to define, in abstract terms, what exactly constitutes a new layer.  And that’s just the first step.

So why is answering this question important?

1) So we can perform interesting simulations.
With quantum computing, we’ll have an enormous amount of processor power at our disposal.  We’ll be able, potentially, to model evolution itself (not just biological evolution, which we can already model in a fairly sophisticated way, but the multi-layered evolution of the universe itself).  But we’ll need models — algorithms and rule-sets — to plug into the computer.  We need to better understand the multi-tiered nature of reality in order to simulate it.

2) So we can understand extra-biological evolution, beyond the realm of metaphor.
Richard Dawkins introduced the concept of memetics — applying the principles of biological evolution to culture.  Certain memes (words, phrases, melodies, ideas) survive and thrive in memetic space (in our minds and media) because they are more fit than others (fitness in this context being catchiness, replicability, aesthetic value, usefulness, entertainment value, etc.).

It’s a brilliant idea, but the study of memetics is arguably dead.  The field has failed to advance beyond the realm of metaphor.  The most basic question — what is or isn’t a meme — has never answered to the degree where memetic evolution could even begin to be measured.

By understanding and defining exactly what constitutes a layer of reality, and what constitutes an agent, or unit of evolution, within that layer, we might be able to start looking at extra-biological evolution (evolution in general) as a quantifiable field, and not just a grand analogy.

In my next post, I’ll offer my take on The Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything (and it won’t be 42).  I’ll present my definition of what defines a level of reality, and put forward one possibility for how we can model the jump from one layer to the next.

Pick the Low-Hanging Fruit, Part II (Health) — continued

Berry berry yummy.

This post is a continuation of Pick the Low-Hanging Fruit, Part II (Health).

4. Reduce artificial light in the evening.

Are you sleep-deprived?  Do you “try to go to bed earlier” and fail, night after night?  I’ve been there.  If you enjoy browsing the internet or watching TV or playing video games or even just reading, you may, like many other people, fail to get sleepy in the evening (even when your body and mind are exhausted).  You know what’s keeping you up?  It’s the artificial light (blue spectrum light in particular).  At least according to this book, the blue light (equivalent to day light) is blocking the serotonin to melatonin conversion process — and the melatonin is the hormone/neurotransmitter that tells your body it’s time to go to sleep (and makes you feel sleepy).

I’d always thought of myself as a “night owl” until I tried an experiment; go without artificial light in the evening.  I found that without light bulbs, the TV, or the blue glow of the computer screen keeping me up, I would often be yawning by 9pm (otherwise my “natural” bedtime would be midnight or 1am).

The experiment I conducted was not easy.  But there are two very easy steps you can take in the same general direction.

• use fewer lights in the evening — no need to have the whole house ablaze
• download and install the free f.lux software on your computer — if you do then it won’t be your computer that’s keeping you up!

5. Exercise intensely 1-2 minutes a day, at least a few times a week.

All the latest exercise physiology research is pointing to these two general conclusions:

• intensity (achieving maximum heart rate, lifting maximum weight) is more important than duration
• less is more (recovery time is very important, over-training is very damaging)

If you really go for for that 1-2 minutes, you’re going to achieve MOST of the benefits in the following categories:

• cardiovascular fitness (maximize heart rate)
• strength (maximize weight lifted, move very slowly and with good form, stress muscles to the point where GH is released)
• bone density  (especially with jumping or sprinting — both stress and thus strengthen the long bones)

What qualifies as intense?  Sprints, jumping and leaping, body-weight exercises (pullups, pushups, chinups, bar dips, etc.), carrying/lifting/pushing heavy objects, running up stairs — that sort of thing.  The best exercises are the ones that you actually enjoy doing — don’t bother with exercises that feel uncomfortable, boring, etc.

Most of the people flogging themselves in the gym aren’t improving their health.  Instead, they’re spiking their cortisol levels, stressing their joints, overburdening (and possibly enlarging) their hearts, and probably boring themselves to death in the process.

6. Floss before you brush.

My “floss every day” intention used to lead to flossing three or four times a week.  I would wait until right before going to sleep to brush my teeth, and half the time after brushing I would be too tired or lazy to floss.

Gum health is massively important for overall health.  Even mildly inflamed gums can raise your risk of heart disease (“leaky gums” are an open door for pathogens to waltz right into your bloodstream, thus giving your immune system a constant low-grade battle which can lead to chronic inflammation and the formation of arterial plaque).  Even knowing this, AND having a family history of both heart disease and gum problems, wasn’t enough to get me to religiously floss every day.

The trick that worked for me was switching the order.  I don’t think I’ve missed a day since.  Flossing doesn’t seem difficult anymore, because I’m not waiting until I’m exhausted to do it.  Even more important is anchoring the less ingrained habit (flossing) to a more ingrained habit (brushing).

One other thing I’ve noticed is that flossing is easier and faster if I’m not looking in the mirror.  Something about the visual feedback slows down the process — I can floss more quickly (and just as thoroughly) by touch alone.

The low-fat diet is just crazy.

7. Eat more fat.

In general, carbs (sugars and starches, including bread and pasta) cause the release of insulin, which lowers your blood sugar.  This makes you want to eat more carbs.  Eating dietary fat, on the other hand, leads to the sensation of fullness.  It’s easier to avoid overeating if you tilt the balance away from carbohydrates and towards healthful dietary fats.

There are a few types of dietary fat you want to avoid, including trans fats (hydrogenated vegetable oil), highly processed fats (like canola oil), old/rancid fats (processed vegetable and seed oils are especially vulnerable), and overheated vegetable/seed oils.  These oxidized fats can damage your health in a number of ways.

The good news is that most fats that are delicious are also health-promoting, including butter (especially from pastured cows), olive oil, coconut oil, fatty fish, chicken fat, and beef fat (again, especially from grass-fed/pastured cows).

Keeping a good ratio between Omega-3 fats (from wild-caught fish and grass-fed animal sources) and Omega-6 fats (from nuts and seeds, seed oils, and grain-fed animal sources) will support overall health, including immune function, heart health, mood, and blood sugar regulation.  Most people consume too much Omega-6 and not enough Omega-3.  Taking supplemental fish oil is the easiest way to improve this ratio (you can check out this site and this study to see which brands are best and which ones to avoid).  Keep fish oil refrigerated.

These days the prevailing wisdom says that we should avoid saturated fat to maintain optimum health and avoid heart disease, but the actual evidence behind this claim in extremely weak.  Most of the studies that claim saturated fat harms our health don’t control for intake of salt, refined flour, trans-fats, sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, and processed food.  For example, a typical dietary study might compare the health of people eating the Standard American Diet (S.A.D.) to the Mediterranean diet — in other words hamburgers, hot dogs, white bread, corn oil, soda VS. fresh fruits and vegetables, fish, olive oil, beans, and whole grain. Conclusion: saturated fat is bad for you!  Really?  What about all the other junk on the S.A.D. side?  What about all the protective effects of the healthful foods on the Med side?  Studies like this don’t prove anything about saturated fat in particular.  Next time you see a headline that proclaims the evils of saturated fat, drill down and take a look to see what foods were actually being consumed by the study participants.

The original Ancel Keys “7 countries” study that got us collectively believing in the evils of saturated fat was based on cherry-picked (in effect, falsified) data.  Ancel Keys only included data from countries where both dietary saturated fat and heart disease were high — and left out data from countries where dietary saturated fat was high and heart disease was low.

The latest clinical research shows there is no relationship between eating saturated fat and getting heart disease.  Here’s the direct link to the meta-analysis.

For detailed discussions and numerous citations to the studies behind these assertions about dietary fat, I encourage you to explore Dr. Eades’s site and Mark Sisson’s site.  That is, if you like butter, and bacon.

Pick the Low Hanging Fruit, Part II (Health)

A small serving of fruit.

In my first post in this series I wrote about “low-hanging fruit” in regards to charitable giving.  I shared my opinions regarding which organizations are working effectively and transparently to improve people’s lives by tackling big problems with relatively straightforward solutions.

Today I’ll write about applying the same “low-hanging fruit” principle to personal health.  What steps can we take to improve our health, energy, longevity, and vitality that aren’t that hard? Why not start with the easy stuff?

Personal health regimens often appear to be complicated and difficult, but I think that for most of us there are easy steps we can take that can radically improve our health.

1. Get your vitamin D levels up to between 40-60 ng/ml.
Up to two-thirds of people in the U.S. have “sub-optimal” levels of vitamin D — not low enough to result in rickets but low enough to increase vulnerability to certain types of cancer, reduce bone density, reduce immunity, and negatively affect more or less every organ in the body.  If you’re curious, search for the studies online and read the opinions of various medical experts.  Quite a few doctors and researchers have A LOT to say about this topic, and there is no shortage of clinical research.

My personal experience of taking 5000IU a day (I take one 5000IU capsule a day, along with fish oil or sometimes cod liver oil) over this last winter is the following:

• deeper, more restful sleep
• general better mood (very little “feeling down” and frequent “happiness for no discernible reason”)
• no serious colds and no flu (a couple times this winter I felt almost sick for a couple days, but never “full blown”)
• cessation of asthma symptoms (most of my asthma symptoms went away after switching to something more closely resembling a paleolithic diet, but I don’t think I’ve had a single flare-up since starting on the vitamin D)

I’m also impressed by the inverse relationship between vitamin D levels and many types of cancer.  I’ll get my blood level checked at my next checkup and see what the results are … if they’re above 60 ng/ml I’ll back off on the supplementation as there can be negative effects from blood levels that are too high.  However some doctors say that keeping levels as high as 60-90 ng/ml is ideal.

A full winter’s supply of vitamin D shouldn’t cost you more than \$20 or \$30.  One pill a day if you take the 5kIU size, and it’s no big deal if you miss a day.  You also want to make sure you’re getting enough calcium (sardines, canned salmon, dairy, greens, almonds) and magnesium (greens, cocoa/dark chocolate, nuts and seeds, beans) in your diet.

If 5000IU seems high (it looks high compared to the U.S. RDA), consider that 20 minutes of sun on your bare skin can generate up to 20,000IU (depending on a number of factors, including how tan or naturally dark you are, time of year, time of day, latitude, how much skin is exposed, etc.).  You generally get enough vitamin D from the sun before you burn (vitamin production shuts down so you can’t get too much this way).

2. Start consuming green tea, dark chocolate, and/or red wine on a regular basis.

C’mon, you’ve got to enjoy at least one of these flavors, no?  While pill-form antioxidants have come up short in clinical studies, regular consumers of these three antioxidant-packed foods show lower risk for heart disease, cancer, and dementia.  The relatively low amounts of sugar, caffeine, and alcohol in these foods will do you less harm than the polyphenols will do you good.

If you find the taste of green tea to be too bitter, you’re probably brewing it wrong.  Get loose-leaf tea from China, quickly rinse it with very hot water (not quite boiling), then brew it for as short a time as 30 seconds.  Brewing too long or using fully boiling water can result in a bitter taste (though both methods will also increase polyphenol content, so you have to find a balance).

In terms of red wine, this page presents a good overview of which varietals contain the highest levels of polyphenol antioxidants.

With chocolate, the processing method can remove many of the healthful antioxidants.  I like to make hot cocoa out of minimally processed “raw cacao” (I don’t know what’s up with the funny spelling — that’s why I put it in quotes).  There are several brands but I’ve been buying the Navitas brand for awhile and I like the taste.  For one mug I use about 2T of the unsweetened powder and 1t sugar, boiling water, and a little whole milk.

3. Hang out more with your friends.

Commenting on your friends’ FB status updates doesn’t count.  But real social networks, the kind where you actually hang out and do stuff (or even just sit around and gossip) with your friends, is associated with longevity, lower blood pressure, reduced stress, lower risk of depression, and all kinds of good stuff.  And it makes life more fun.

If your “friends” like doing meter-long rails of cocaine, rows of Jager-bombs, crime, or extreme vertical-cliff snowboarding, this one might not apply.  Find a good Settlers of Catan group or something.

Coming up next …

I’ve been advised to keep my posts shorter if I want to keep your attention, so I’ll save 4-7 for the next post.

Pick the Low-Hanging Fruit, Part I (Charity)

Some people prefer to do things the hard way.

I’ve always been interested in how to get the best results with the least possible effort.  Some might call this quality laziness, but I prefer to think of it as efficiency.  Why not get the most bang for your buck, in every area of life?

I’d like to explore the analogy of “low-hanging fruit” in various life areas — what behaviors can lead us to radical life improvements — either for ourselves or others — with reasonably low expenditures of willpower, money, time, and other resources we hold dear?

CHARITY
This might seem like a strange category to start with, but the act of giving without expecting anything material or concrete in return pays enormous emotional dividends.  Whenever I’m feeling down about myself for any reason (what I have or haven’t achieved in life, who does or doesn’t love or respect me, etc. etc.) I can always fall back on the reassuring thought that at least I’m not a totally selfish bastard — I give away some of my hard-earned cash to good causes.  What I consider to be a good cause is no doubt different that what you consider to be a good cause — I’m not going to try to convince you to donate to The SETI Institute, like I do (most people just don’t get that one — I’ll save my interest in SETI for a later post).

Alien hunters need to know what time it is.

But there are some charities that are just no-brainers.  Everyone should give to them, because the work they do is incredibly effective, they’re transparent, and their efforts ripple out to form massive waves of goodness throughout the world.  These organizations are picking the low-hanging fruit in terms of raising quality of life on this planet, and we should all help them out.

WHY SOME PEOPLE AREN’T YET DONATING A PORTION OF THEIR WEALTH TO THE WORLD’S POOR
There are several factors that prevent people from experiencing the simple pleasure of sharing their wealth with the less fortunate, including:

• Fear of waste and corruption — is my money actually reaching people in need or is it in fact contributing to the oversized salary of some nonprofit executive?  Or being spent on expensive mailing campaigns to ask me for even more money?
• General nihilism:  There are too many problems in the world, and my \$20 isn’t going to make a difference, so why not just keep it in my pocket?
• Deferred giving — I’ll give when I’m wealthier but right now I really need the money.
• Confused Malthusian (or Social Darwinian) thinking.

The burden of the first question (waste and corruption) lies squarely on the shoulders of the charitable organization in question — it’s up to them to somehow convince you they won’t waste your money.

The second issue — the question of whether or not any of us can make a difference — it’s partially up to the charitable organization and the inspired individuals behind it to rally our cynical, lazy asses into action.  The rest of the burden falls on our own shoulders.  We can look at positive historical events not from the perspective of predestined inevitability, but rather through the lens of active manifestation; individuals and groups brought these positive events into existence through vision and work.  If we can do this, then we can imagine a brighter future manifesting through our present actions.  It’s worth considering the following: if we can’t imagine creating a better life for the poorest and least fortunate people in the world, how can we imagine and create a better life for ourselves?  How is the process any different?

The third question — should we give now or later, when we’re richer — this question falls entirely on the shoulders of the individual.  In terms of a response, let me put it this way — if it’s so hard to part with your crappy twenty now, will it be easier to donate \$20,000 to a good cause once you’re “in the money?”  It won’t be.  Giving when you’re the most poor actually makes the most sense.  It will immediately change your mindset from one of scarcity and powerlessness to one of abundance and empowerment.

The fourth question is trickiest.  Deeply wrong beliefs about human nature may lurk in our subconscious minds — and they need to be confronted directly.  Do, we, on some level, believe that we have access to clean water, abundant food, and material wealth because we are more deserving?  Or inherently better, more intelligent, or somehow “fitter”?

Why some societies are richer than others — this is a deep question, and I think Jared Diamond answers it best in his book Guns, Germs, and Steel.  I’ll offer a spoiler — the fact that you live in a wealthy society (if you do) has nothing to do with deserving it, or earning it.  But there are answers to the question, and they have a lot to do with the words in the title of the book.

What about Malthus?  Do you have a hidden Malthusian side to your thinking … that if you help provide water and health care for the masses of impoverished brown people around the world that they’ll go and make more poor brown people and soon the entire planet will be overrun with poor brown people and that will ruin it for everyone?  That would put you in the same camp as Ebenezer Scrooge; “If they would rather die they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

The good Reverend Malthus was right to be concerned about overpopulation.  He was dead wrong, however, in his superficially logical idea that famine, disease, and other calamities do anything to check human population growth.  Have you looked around?  There’s no shortage of people, anywhere, despite our rich global history of plagues, devastating wars, and horrific famines.  The only thing that has put a real dent in global population is the eruption of Mt. Toba 74,000 years ago.  People, like raccoons, respond to terrible hardship by making more of ourselves, even if our overall quality of life suffers.  For example, after our ancestors killed and ate most of the planet’s megafauna, we switched to eating a less nutritious, but more reliable, grain-based diet.  Result = more people than ever (though we’re now generally shorter and more prone to degenerative disease than our paleolithic ancestors).

The real solution to global overpopulation is doing everything we can to raise the quality of life for the world’s poorest people, especially women.  In general, when literacy, access to contraception (aka “family planning”), and access to basic health care go up, birth rates go down.

charity:water

Yummy water vs. yucky water.

This organization builds wells to provide clean water to poor communities throughout the world.  That’s all they do.  Every dollar you donate goes to building a well.  When I first heard about charity:water, it sounded like a good idea.  Once I learned about the ripple effects of having clean water, it sounded like a great idea.

• Women and children in many communities spend hours every day hauling water from distant sources.  The time spent gather water precludes paying work for the women and education for the children.  By providing a well, you provide precious time to that community, which translates into increased wealth, knowledge, and self-determination.
• Clean water prevents disease.  Disease wreaks havoc in every area of life.
• Clean water provides dignity.  Water is needed not just for drinking, but for bathing.

The “Why Water” section of their website explains their philosophy and work better than I can — have a look:

http://www.charitywater.org/whywater/

Don’t be put off by the “slickness” of charity:water‘s website and presentation.  They consciously uses good design, high definition video, and modern communication modes (like Twitter) to reach people more effectively, but these factors don’t represent wasted money.  The organization’s admin costs are 100% covered by private supporters, clothing sales, and other non-donation related revenue, and things like good design and high quality video and photography aren’t even necessarily expensive these days.

Founder Scott Harrison has an interesting story.  At 28 he was making a killing in the clubbing world as a promoter, and more or less got sick of himself.  At that point he decided to dedicate his life to helping the poor.  In his own words (skip to 4:00):

Your Jackson = clean drinking water for this kid for 20 years. Questions?

I’m impressed by the transparency of charity:water.  Their website includes a feature where you can use Google Maps to look at the water projects.  If you click on one of the marked locations, a picture of the well and some of the local residents pops up, along with a short blurb about their previous water source, how long they had to walk to get water before the well was built, etc.  The Water Projects page displays each project in the context of a large infographic (which I’m glad is backed up by pictures and video and map locations — infographics are pretty but they don’t prove anything).

charity:water claims that a \$20 donation translates into providing clean drinking water for one person for 20 years.  I don’t see any reason to doubt them on this, and it’s a remarkable statistic.  If it came down to it, you would probably pay well over \$20 a day to provide clean water for yourself, wouldn’t you?  If you’ve been to Burning Man, you’ve probably done that already!

For \$20, you’re not only giving someone access to clean water every day for twenty years, you’re also providing them with an extra 1-4 hours every day of free time (time not hauling water).  How much would *you* pay for an extra hour or four a day for the next twenty years?  More than \$20?

There are lots of complicated problems in the world that need solving.  In general, providing clean drinking water isn’t one of them.  Go to a poor community and build a high quality, easy-to-maintain well.  Problem solved for that community, at least for a good chunk of time.  Low-hanging fruit all the way.

If any of this makes sense to you, you might enjoy donating to charity:water directly:

http://www.charitywater.org/donate/

Some other organizations that, IMO, fit in the low-hanging fruit category:

CARE (especially the “Mothers Matter” campaign)
http://www.care.org/campaigns/2009/mothersmatters.asp

SAVE THE CHILDREN
http://www.savethechildren.org/

HEIFER INTERNATIONAL
http://www.heifer.org/

WORLD VISION
http://www.worldvision.org/
World Vision has its roots in Christian evangelism, but their primary work is fighting extreme poverty.  Like Nicholas Kristof, I would rather see the Christian evangelists engaged in fighting poverty rather than fighting abortion rights.