Historical Notes on Charitable Funds

In the EA movement people will sometimes talk about charitable funds as if they are a new idea. For example, the recent Giving What We Can post "why we recommend using expert-led charitable funds" (forum discussion) opens with:

Funds are a relatively new way for donors to coordinate their giving to maximise their impact.

There's a bit of a cute response that would be fun to write, except that it isn't quite true:

Donating through a fund that is able to put more time and effort into evaluating charitable options is not a new idea, and is very natural if you're thinking along EA lines. In fact, the idea goes back at to the last time people tried to invent effective altruism, 150 years ago. While that effort has been through a few names over time, at this point you know it as the United Way.

Can GPT-3 Write Contra Dances?

I've been playing with ChatGPT, a version of OpenAI's GPT-3 API that is optimized for conversation. I was curious whether it could compose contra dances, since these have several levels of constraints that should be increasingly difficult for it to handle. Does it:

  1. Compose a dance using only real figures?

  2. Break the dance into A1, A2, B1, and B2, each sixteen beats?

  3. Use the right number of beats for each figure?

  4. Progress dancers with their partner?

  5. Generate dances that would be satisfying to dance?

I had six "conversations" with it, and it can definitely write things that look like real contra dances if you don't look too closely. Here's the first one it gave me:

Our 2022 Giving

Julia and I usually decide on our annual giving at the end of each year. For the past few years this has been relatively straightforward: I was paid a lot, so we donated 50%. This year is less so, because halfway through I switched jobs to work on something directly valuable. While I'm very excited about the potential of this work, it does pay enough less that even if we stopped donating we'd be keeping less for ourselves than before.

One option we considered was donating 50% of our income from the first half of the year, up until I switched jobs, and then some smaller proportion of the income from later in the year, representing about how much we intend to donate going forward. We thought about this, but decided not to:

Playing with Aerial Photos

Flying in a window seat offers opportunities for serendipitous aerial photography. You don't get to choose what is going to be within view of the window, but when there's something interesting it can be fun to try and get a good picture. There are a few I've taken that I like:

Our neighborhood, with Powderhouse Park in the lower right, Davis in the middle right, Porter in the middle top, Trum Field in the lower left, and the bike path running horizontally across the middle:

Mastodon's Dubious Crawler Exemption

When you share a link on social media the platform fetches the page and includes a preview with your post:

Even though this happens automatically the system doesn't obey the robots.txt exclusion rules (RFC 3909): I have /test/no-robots excluded in my robots.txt but that doesn't stop it:

I don't even see a request for robots.txt in my logs. But that's actually ok! The robots exclusion standard is for "crawlers", or automated agents. When I share a link I want the preview to be included, and so the bot fetching the page is acting as my agent. This is the same reason why it's fine that WebPageTest and PageSpeed Insights also ignore robots.txt: they're fetching specific pages at the user s request so they can measure performance.

This puts Mastodon in an awkward situation. They do want to include previews, because they're trying to do all the standard social network things, and if they respected robots.txt many sites you'd want to be able to preview won't work. They also don't want the originating instance to generate the preview and include it in the post, because it's open to abuse:

You can trust mastodon.mit.edu about what @jefftk@mastodon.mit.edu says, but not about what newyorktimes.com says.

The approach Mastodon has gone with is to have each instance generate link previews for each incoming link. This means that while having a link shared on Twitter or Facebook might give you one automated pageview for the preview, on Mastodon it gives you one for each instance the link is federated to. For a link shared by a widely-followed account this might mean thousands of link-preview requests hitting a server, and I'd also now consider this traffic to be from an automated agent.

I'm not sure what the right approach is for Mastodon. Making the link preview fetcher respect robots.txt (Issue 21738) would be a good start. [1] Longer term I think including link previews when composing a post and handling abuse with defederation seems like it should work as well as the rest of Mastodon's abuse handling.


[1] Wouldn't that just add an extra request and increase the load on sites even more? No: everyone builds sites to make serving robots.txt very cheaply. Serving HTML, however, often involves scripting languages, DB lookups, and other slow operations.

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NEFFA Should Allow Small Children

When I was little we would go to the NEFFA festival every year. I loved seeing the dancing: contra dance, international, dance performances. I loved listening to the music: bands, performances, hallway jamming. I loved eating the cake the Lithuanian booth would sell. My cousins would come up from Philadelphia, and it was one of my favorite weekends of the year.

Those early experiences at NEFFA got me into an activity and a community that has been a huge part of my life ever since. I've been a dancer, musician, caller, and helped organize a dance series and weekend. I've been bringing my kids with me when I go early to set up for the dance and when I travel to play dances elsewhere, and I'm glad they're getting to enjoy something that's been so important to me.

Which is why I was so disappointed to learn that the first in-person NEFFA since 2019 has chosen a covid policy that excludes small children.

Regrettably, out of concern for everyone's safety, children who for whatever reason are unable to remain appropriately masked as described above, including those two years of age or younger, are not permitted to attend this year's Festival.

When I described this policy to my cousin their response was "I guess that means we won't be able to go this year." I think this will likely be a common response among families with small children, and an unfortunate one.

How seriously organizers and individuals should be trying to limit covid spread is something there's a lot of disagreement on, mostly tracing back to different interpretations of the limited amount we know about the long-term impacts of getting sick. If the NEFFA organizers want to put on a very covid-cautious event that's not something I think people should give them grief over, and I'd rather see an in-person NEFFA for part of the community than no in-person event at all. But while if the precautions under which they were able to hold the event were uniformly strict I could see excluding people to young to mask, they aren't uniformly strict:

  • There will be indoor dining, people eating and talking with masks off.

  • Wind instruments are (likely—there's a case-by-case component) allowed with same-day testing.

  • Despite rapid tests now being cheap and widely available, they don't require them.

  • They have an exception process for adults who are unable to be vaccinated for medical reasons.

I don't think these policy choices are terrible, but I also don't see how they're compatible with a view that small children are too risky to allow. I would like to encourage the NEFFA organizers to rethink their decisions here, and figure out whether there's a way to include them safely. For example, allowing them to attend with same-day rapid testing, perhaps combined with distancing restrictions, like no baby-in-carrier contra dancing?

Putting on a festival like NEFFA is a massive amount of work, and it's impressive that NEFFA has managed this while continuing to be an all-volunteer organization. There are a huge number of decisions involved in putting on an event of this scale, especially while organizing the first one in four years and at a new venue, and I don't expect I'm going to agree with every single one. Still, I think the effect this has on who can attend the festival is large enough and uneven enough that more discussion and consideration are needed.

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