Why i support GiveDirectly

What would you do with an extra $1,000?

I would personally take a couple of months off and ride my bicycle solo from Copenhagen to Istanbul. In fact, that’s what I just did, and $1,000, the size of a typical GiveDirectly grant, is just about how much the whole operation cost me — including travel insurance and transportation back home. Growing up in a mid-lower class family in Brazil, I had always dreamed of traveling and experiencing the world like that. But I hadn’t had the financial means and opportunity until recently, after a couple of years at a well-paying job which allowed for me to save some money and fund the trip myself.
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my arrival at the Bosphorus strait on 24/Nov/2016

Those were what I judged to be my needs at the moment. Neither cigarettes or alcohol, nor another job, nor anything else. I don’t believe anybody could have made a better decision on my behalf. In fact, few people even understand what I chose to do with that time and money. And yet this experience, which I would hardly call an extended vacation, has made me feel alive in a way I hadn’t for years, and dramatically changed the course of my life. I came back a different person, with a whole new set of values and opportunities to pursue.

That roughly summarizes why I have supported GiveDirectly, and will continue to donate 10% of my gross earnings to them, as well as promote them in social media and real life. My vision is a world where everybody has the autonomy to decide their own fate. GiveDirectly’s diligent and incredibly transparent work, repeatedly vetted for several years in a row by reputable charity evaluator GiveWell, has shown that giving cash directly to the poor and letting them judge for themselves, within their context, what to do with it to improve their own lives might be a great way to realize that vision — if not the best!

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This piece is crossposted in the GiveDirectly blog, for which it was originally written.

Featured image on the top: a GiveDirectly recipient managing their grant on a cellphone; image source: https://www.givedirectly.org/img/socialshare.jpg

The 3 kinds of articles to avoid in 2017  —  your ultimate New Year’s guide to sanity

The Internet can be exhausting. It keeps showing you stuff to read. It’s now shown you this, and you’ve just clicked on it — see how it works?

In 2017 i’ll actively steer clear of three kinds of articles in particular, whether i’m on the road or not: the news, self-improvement, and listicles. Here’s why.

#1. The news

It’s no conspiracy theory that the news are designed with one key purpose in mind: sell advertising space. Your newspaper costs a lot more to make than the $1–2 per issue or however much you pay for the online subscription. That’s not the business model. The business model is to get your eyes on that Internet provider ad right next to today’s story on the war in Syria.

I’m not saying the news are lying to you. They’re probably not outright lying to you, even if they do have an agenda on top of their ad revenue. I’m not saying the news are not interesting either. Most of the time they’re rather exotic and alluring! That’s why you read them. Damn, i hope to become impressive and engaging enough to make it to the news with my cycle touring gig at some point soon. No, that’s not the problem with the news. The problem with the news is that exposure to them severely fucks up your model of what reality looks like, through their drawing of a disproportionate amount of your attention to all that unusual stuff, like the all too sad story of the plane that crashed with the underdog football team traveling to compete in their first international finals, while neglecting to adequately inform you about all the boring proverbial 10 plane crashes worth of people statistically dying of malaria every day in the developing world. I’m not saying that the news don’t want you to know about poor people dying of malaria. They simply know you wouldn’t pay as much attention to that as you will to the plane crash, and they want to sell that advertisement space right next to it.

If you paid any attention to the news, you’d never want to go to Turkey. But i was there less than two months ago, and it felt a bit more like this:

You don’t need most of that stuff being advertised anyways. So, you won’t be missing out, don’t worry. You know what you need. Look it up. Ask around. You’ll find it. You’ll even get a good deal for it!

By the way, this piece of advice includes comedy news — stay away from them. It does, however, exclude The Onion. Please keep reading The Onion. And keep listening to Reggie Watts, and such as, a lot.

#2. Self-improvement

I’m particularly referring to the kind of article claiming in their very title to be the last thing you’ll ever need to read to become more productive, more likable, or the next Elon Musk. First of all, you probably don’t need most of that. And if you do want to level up on any aspect of your life, pick up a book by someone who actually spent a significant amount of their lives devoted to the topic of interest, or start reading the blog in which they regularly write about it, or join a meetup or Facebook group and start interacting with people pursuing the same path, or all of the above, or yet something else that actually involves taking some action.

Change is an active process. Figure out what’s the first step towards whatever it is that you want to get better at or incorporate in your life, and get started. Today. Now. Acknowledge that by reading those articles you’re simply procrastinating that first step. In fact, i’ll be far more likely to read and take the advice of an article that gives me a clear, manageable first step, so i can actually go out and do it, rather than an article with so many recommendations that they will require me to spend half an hour after reading it pretending that i can immediately redesign how i spend 10% of my time.

#3. Listicles

It’s not that i’ll avoid reading lists altogether. I actually like lists —  very much so! I just prefer the kind of list that helps me think about how they’re constructed. Besides, have you noticed how often listicles are about a topic you were not previously thinking about, but now think is the most important thing in the world to learn about? Listicles, which are designed to be consumed like cheese puffs —and also to sell advertising space— typically teach you nothing of substance about something you actually care about.

Wanna become acquainted with remote places on Earth? Play around with Google Maps. Post a question on Quora or some traveling forum, and get involved in the discussion of what being ‘remote’ even means. Is it remote in the sense that it’s super far away? Difficult to reach? Because it’s been culturally isolated for a very long time? Is it remote simply because it’s unknown? Read up the Wikipedia articles about the places you get referred to. Perhaps there’s a documentary or a book on them. Maybe some people have visited those places, taken good photographs, talked to people living there, and written engaging accounts of it in their blogs. Don’t settle for the listicle. Maybe an opportunity to go there yourself is not even such a long shot.

If you’re not interested in something, then don’t worry about it. And if you are, then don’t be shy to go all nerdy on it!

Yes, this is a listicle, and a self-improvement one at that — that’s two out of three. It’s OK. You didn’t know better 😉 But now you do. So, share it, close the tab, and move on with you life!


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This piece was edited from the article of same title originally published on Medium on January 3rd, 2017

Featured photo on the top by Saulo Mohana

Going with plan A

Yet another friend of mine has just landed a sweet programming job.

I’ve been flirting with the idea of pursuing a career in programming myself for the past several years. But for some reason i could never quite put my finger on, this has never panned out, at least not as smoothly as it seems to have been the case for dozens of my friends and acquaintances from graduate school and the effective altruism movement. I believe i may have finally understood what’s going on. Despite having taken several courses, used a fair amount of programming in my mathematical research, and occasionally enjoyed playing with an Arduino, i simply don’t think of myself as a programmer. I’m not talking fixed mindset here. On the contrary. To me a programmer is more like the person who spends a whole month of their lives figuring out how to put this together. Indeed, when i look close enough at anybody i know who’s eventually become a full-time programmer, i see a clear story arch under which programming is not merely instrumental to their interests, but rather the key interest itself.

What’s my narrative then?

Well, if coding won’t keep me up all night, planning a hiking trip in Iceland, researching visa requirements and weather patterns along the Silk Road, or checking out how to become an Uber driver and whether that’s a plausible source of travel money, will. Anything related to world travel and exploration will not only keep me up late, but also wake me up obscenely early. I’m an adventurer!

I have a public confession to make. When i left Brazil in 2008 to attend graduate school in the US, what i was mainly looking for was an opportunity to live abroad. Unlike many of my friends’ families, mine didn’t have the means to send me on an exchange program while i was in high school. So, i continued to pursue my path to financial independence by going to college study math, which i had become quite passionate about, and understood to be a scalable degree which could eventually place me anywhere between a teaching or actuary job. But as soon as i realized that many of my professors in college had gotten their PhD degrees abroad — and with a scholarship from their host institution! — i knew that that was going to be my way out!! This is not hindsight bias. Anybody who has interacted with me during graduate school can probably attest to this. I was pretty openly not there primarily for the degree. In fact, i couldn’t even relate to how seriously most of my peers seemed to take what they were doing. As much as i have enjoyed doing Mathematics, what interested me the most about attending Rutgers University, in New Jersey, was the priceless opportunity it awarded me with to meet people from all over the world, and have experiences i could have only dreamed about up until then.

Towards the end of 2013, i was about to graduate and, just like most of my peers also about to graduate, applying for academic jobs for the following year. A close friend of mine noted at the time, and i paraphrase, “Dude, i really like how chilled you are about this whole process, everybody else is so stressed out.” I felt pretty relaxed indeed. Not because i was overly confident about getting a job, but rather because i had a pretty neat plan B: if i didn’t get a job, i’d sell all my stuff, spend a year or so riding my ’96 Honda Rebel all the way back from New Jersey to Brazil, and take it from there. I ended up getting a job, selling the motorcycle, keeping much of my other stuff, and moving to Denmark for a two-year postdoc instead. But when the next job application cycle came about towards the end of 2015, i started thinking very seriously about whether a proverbial motorcycle ride across the Americas shouldn’t actually be plan A this time around. So, after my contract ended, i packed my belongings into a few boxes in my landlady’s attic, hopped on the bike-touring rig i’d been slowly putting together for the past year or so, and set off from Copenhagen to Istanbul. Along the way, i turned down an otherwise tempting offer for another two-year postdoc, and kept going. I arrived in Istanbul on November 24th, 2016, after 2 energizing and rejuvenating months on the road. I had not felt as alive and present since i was preparing to leave Brazil almost ten years ago.

Yes, i could see myself back in academia at some point in the future. Most likely not as a researcher though. I feel like i belong much more in a liberal arts setting, as an educator, particularly somewhere with a large international student population. I’d love to apply my training as a mathematician and teacher, as well as the deeper understanding of people’s needs i’ve developed through my travels, to promote and facilitate the self-actualization of others. But my global learning has barely begun and, for the moment, we go with plan A: first, i’ll go spend some quality time with my grandmother, family and friends back in Brazil; i haven’t been there for more than just a couple of weeks ever since leaving in 2008, and we all need that; but i’m then getting back on the road in the end of March, and we’ll just take it from there!


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