from this, they are unwilling to spend much or any on their website. (not sure the exact amount, i know they’ve asked for volunteers, and whatever they bought or didn’t buy is low quality.)
i would strongly suspect they ARE willing to spend some money on an accountant, a lawyer, and perhaps a few other non-SENS-specific functions. as well they should be.
they also should spend money on a website. it’s not very hard to buy quality web knowledge and work. it’s readily available on the market at prices very low compared to the value provided, and easily affordable on their budget.
this is something many other organizations do. it’s not a weird FI-only idea. SENS is frankly just plain incompetent here.
there are some other areas where SENS is making similar errors which are less well understood in general, and where useful expertise is less readily available to purchase.
if you want a good website, you can have that set up tomorrow. it’s no problem at all to find a person or group. if you want a GREAT website, you should shop around some, but it’s not that hard.
what if you want economics expertise? SENS deals with quite a bit of money – around 4 million a year. that’s enough that i think they should spend more than $0/yr on economics expertise (at least if they could find some to hire – which i strongly suspect is completely possible despite the market for it being more problematic than for websites).
further, SENS wants to deal with at least 100 million a year. they have openly and explicitly asked the public for that amount as a minimum for the project they regard as most important (robust mouse rejuvenation). and they want that 100 million budget for 10 years or more. that is a LOT of money. if 4 million a year is too trivial to merit more than $0 of economics knowledge (i disagree!!!), surely 100 million a year has room in the budget for economics expertise. yet i don’t believe SENS would hire economics expertise even at that budget level. they expressed serious hostility to this kind of thinking. they don’t see why people dealing with huge quantities of money would need to know anything about money. additionally, i pointed out that they ought to understand how to use the budget they request BEFORE requesting it, which they were also hostile to.
but actually SENS already has some economics knowledge. everyone who works at SENS knows SOMETHING about economics. it is amateur level knowledge. they are dabblers. they think that’s good enough. they think they are clever enough to get by, and/or economics is easy, and/or what’s well known about economics is all they need to know and knowing anything more would be pointless. that is very foolish.
suppose, hypothetically, that Aubrey de Grey (AdG) is smarter than anyone working in the field of economics. and suppose that AdG puts an equivalent of 2 hours a month of his SENS work into thinking related to economics issues. this is completely plausible. he thinks about money, how to get money, different places money comes from, what to do with money, and so on.
what are the consequences?
nothing but disaster, even though, by premise, AdG is smarter than any economist.
first, AdG is by far the best person to do some tasks – such as explain SENS on podcasts. the consequences are either to do without that, or to have someone worse at it do it. either it’s going to be done 2 hours less per month, or someone lesser to the amazing genius AdG would be doing it in his place – a huge loss. the only way this SENS podcast advocacy would not be lost is if there is something even more important AdG is giving up instead – something where to an even greater extent than SENS podcasting, AdG is the best suited to do it – in which case if he freed up 2 hours per month it would go to that even more important task instead.
second, AdG is not an economics specialist. being the smartest person in the world could not make up for this. why? because the more time you spend on economics, the more you can specialize in the field. if you only work on economics 2 hours a month, for SENS, that will justify very little or no time spent reading economics books. but a specialist, who does economics work for 100 hours per month, could very reasonably also devote 20 hours per month to reading economics books. this is a huge advantage which more than makes up for AdG being the smarter clever person in general. additionally, during those 100 hours per month of economics work, the specialist will gain benefits too. he’ll get accustomed to many common economics problems and get practice at solving them quickly. all that practice and experience and familiarity will help. and the specialist will keep up-to-date better than the non-specialist, because he does frequent work in the field which will benefit from staying up-to-date. and the specialist will be able to have discussions where he challenges his views about economics, tests them in debate, listens to people with new ideas, and so on. why will he find time for those things? because he spends so 100 hours per month doing economics work, any little improvement in his craft will be 50 times as valuable to him as it will be to AdG who spends 2 hours per month. (and actually the difference is larger, because a specialist is expected to know his field, and will care about his reputation in the field, whereas AdG will be recognized as wearing many hats, and barely dealing with economics, and will therefore be forgiven for not doing it as well as a specialist would be expected to.)
so there is a double issue. AdG would be giving up time to do what he’s better at than economics – doing the stuff where is able to get the most valuable work done per hour – and he would also be at a huge disadvantage due to not specializing in economics.
and even if AdG was so great he could do economics work equally well, and twice as fast, as an economist, he STILL shouldn’t do it. because his advantage at SENS work is even larger than that. if AdG can do SENS-specific work three times as well as the next best person, and economics work twice as well, then he should only do SENS work and hire an economist (for twice the number of hours it’d take AdG). That beats having to hire someone to do SENS work in place of AdG for three times the number of hours!
put another way: suppose AdG can create $300 per hour of value doing SENS work, or $200 per hour of value doing economics. i think the real ratio is more like 100 to 1, rather than 1.5 to 1, but this will illustrate my point. And suppose if AdG hires people to do these things instead of him, the best people he can find aren’t as good as him – they can create $100 of value per hour for SENS work or economics work. Then very simply, AdG should not do economics work – he’s better off outsourcing that, even though he’s (hypothetical) the best in the world at it, because his advantage at SENS work is even greater. he is relatively more productive when doing SENS work over economics work. and other people are equally productive. (more realistically, SENS is obscure and economics is common, so other people in general would be relatively more productive at economics work over SENS work, which would only increate the advantage of AdG sticking to SENS work).
this last point i’ve explained is a well known economics concept called "comparative advantage”.
if you ask AdG if he knows what comparative advantage is, and how it works, my guess is that he does. yet i still think it’s important to hire an economics specialist to help advise on topics including comparative advantage. why? because there are different senses of understanding comparative advantage.
a specialist would have an ACTIVE understanding of comparative advantage – he will have used the concept many times in many different situations. he will be able to recognize, pro-actively, many times he’d be able to use it. he’ll have experience stretching it to use in all kinds of cases where it doesn’t obviously apply.
someone like AdG, who spends little time on economics, would have a PASSIVE understanding of comparative advantage. he would be able to tell you what it is IF YOU ASK HIM. he might bring it up himself in a few situations – especially if you asked him about international trade between countries, especially countries where one is at a big advantage (e.g. industrial first world country trading with a third world poor country). That’s the best known context for thinking about comparative advantage, and the most common one discussed when the concept taught. But AdG hasn’t read books about all the other situations comparative advantage is relevant to, he hasn’t practiced finding ways to use it in many situations. His way of knowing what it is if you ask is completely different than superior sort of understanding that a specialist would have.
so even when AdG thinks, “oh i’ve got this, i know what comparative advantage is, there’s no need for an economics specialist to tell me that” he would be wrong.
there is no way SENS gets by with an actual expense of $0 on economics. it is relevant to what they do. they must think about it some. depending on their ideas about economics, it would to some extent lead them to different strategies. and AdG discusses economics in his book _Ending Aging_ very literally – he tries to explain his ideas about the effect on the country, economy (including medical prices), government, and world if everyone had AIDs and we had to produce enough AIDs medicine for everyone. That is very clearly partly an economics issue.
so AdG and/or others at SENS, who are not economics specialists, inefficiently do some economics work, instead of sticking to SENS-specific work that they are, relatively, better at doing. and i think they make some large mistakes due to their arrogance to do work outside their fields. and they are completely hostile to the idea that maybe they should spend more than $0 getting specialist help with economics, rather than sacrificing SENS-specific work to dabble in it themselves. the people at SENS may be pretty smart, but there are very smart people working on economics too, and it’s HARD even for people who study it extensively and specialize in it. it’s completely unrealistic and unreasonable for SENS to be like, “ok we’re doing the most important thing in the world. now for this AIDS hypothetical, and some other matters, let’s try amateur hour. we can probably get away with that. it’ll be fine. and it doesn’t require any humility or respect for other people who aren’t doing what is obviously the most important work in the world.”
all of what i’ve said applies to other topics besides economics. they dabble in many other areas: philosophy of critical thinking, philosophy of science, philosophy of persuasion, political philosophy (they have various ideas about the government and its agencies, and how to deal with them and talk about them), and some rather different fields like how to run a charity fundraiser (an area where they have made big mistakes such as using matching donation fundraising). and what about marketing? they appear completely clueless about that. it’s ridiculous that they don’t have a specialist guiding them to do a much better job with marketing. i’ll let Steve Jobs explain this one:
Becoming Steve Jobs: the evolution of a reckless upstart into a visionary leader by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli:
[Context: Seva is a philanthropy type foundation. They are having a meeting, at the start, about how the make the world better. One of the guys had just been a significantly involved in eradicating smallpox in India. Now they want to make Seva and do more. What would be the best thing to work on? They decide on curing blind people in the third world.]The result? They made Steve Jobs cry (yes, literally) and kicked him out of the meeting (yes, literally). (And then, I take it, did a much worse job fighting blindness than they could have). That’s how hostile and unreasonable they were. They wanted to do this extremely important humanitarian work (their own view), but they absolutely would not consider hiring some world class expertise to do it right.
[Steve Jobs] sat down and started listening. The decision to create a foundation had already been made; the question now on the table was how to tell the world about Seva, its plans, and the men and women who would implement those plans. Steve found most of the ideas embarrassingly naïve. The discussion seemed more appropriate for a PTA meeting; at one point, everyone but Steve heatedly debated the finer points of a pamphlet they wanted to create. A pamphlet? That’s the best these people could dream up? These so-called experts may have achieved notable progress in their own countries, but here they were clearly out of their league. Having a grand, bold goal was useless if you didn’t have the ability to tell a compelling story about how you’d get there. That seemed obvious.
As the discussion meandered, Steve found his own attention wandering. “He had walked into that room with his persona from the Apple board meeting,” Brilliant remembers, “but the rules for doing things like conquering blindness or eradicating smallpox are quite different.” From time to time he’d pipe up, but mostly to interject a snide remark about why this or that idea could never fly. “He was becoming a nuisance,” says Brilliant. Finally, Steve couldn’t take it anymore. He stood up.
“Listen,” he said, “I’m telling you this as someone who knows a thing or two about marketing. We’ve sold nearly a hundred thousand machines at Apple Computer, and when we started no one knew a thing about us. Seva is in the same position Apple was in a couple of years ago. The difference is you guys don’t know diddly about marketing. So if you want to really do something here, if you really want to make a difference in the world and not just putter along like every other nonprofit that people have never heard of, you need to hire this guy named Regis McKenna—he’s the king of marketing. I can get him in here if you’d like. You should have the best. Don’t settle for second best.”
And SENS, which claims to be basically the most important thing in the world, and which has enough money to hire help, won’t hire top experts either – be it about economics, marketing, philosophy, fundraising, or even making a good website.
By the way, I’m not even going to send AdG a link to this, even though we had a long discussion before. I wrote to him to tell him I’d given up on SENS – and why. He did not reply. He is too unreasonable to talk to, or tell things like this. He won’t listen. I think it’s hopeless. It’s a ridiculous situation. I may well literally die because AdG won’t listen, and yet he convinced me to give up (I just had a some thoughts I wanted to write down, because it’s interesting and I think about things like this, but in another month maybe I’ll forget about SENS).
I could fucking cry.
Steve Jobs apologized to Seva for trying to help. At least I won't be apologizing to SENS.