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Stop building dumb stuff (obviouslywrong.org)
39 points by kintan on Oct 21, 2012 | hide | past | favorite | 46 comments

If you want to help the developing world it's worth the time to take a look at what has actually worked to get countries out of poverty and what hasn't. As far as I can tell there are only two proven ways for countries to get out of poverty:

(1) Kill a bunch of other people and take their stuff.

(2) Industry.

Notice that aid isn't on the list. So it seems that if you actually care about a country you should spend your time helping them get better at (1) or (2). May I humbly suggest (2)? Notice that (2) is going to involve building (or investing, if you're a foreigner) in a lot of dumb stuff. China builds lots of plastic widgets for Americans. China's also bringing tens of millions of people out of poverty.

The problem with the big fix strategy (malaria vaccines, non-profits, etc -- basically non-dumb stuff) is that it always leaves the people in poverty dependent on others. I'm sure you, Kushal, have the highest of motives. Unfortunately not everyone does, which makes leaving the poor dependent on others a very bad strategy for them.

Anyway, welcome to HN!

P.S. Can anyone think of a country that has gotten out of poverty based on aid? All the modern examples I can think of (Korea, Taiwan, China, Singapore, Latvia, Lithuania, etc.) haven't.

Afghanistan, maybe? U.S. and Societ completely ruined the country in the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s (in the 90s Soviet were gone and U.S. involvement was passive and indirect though, bu they "blessed" The Taliban as an ally nevertheless), and in the past decade U.S. and Europe have helped kinda rebuild the country by technical and financial aid.

I quite and completely agree with your comment; because that's exactly what I think (I've spent a great deal thinking about that).

Does Afghanistan qualify as a has gotten out of poverty country?

I'd say no; the mean poverty fraction is 30.91%, with median 28.25% and standard deviation 19.05%. [0] Afghanistan has a poverty rate of 36% (as of 2008). [1] So it's definitely above the average.

[0] http://www.wolframalpha.com/input/?i=poverty+fraction

[1] http://www.wolframalpha.com/input/?i=Afghanistan+poverty+rat...

Well, not really, though omra's links are very interesting. But relatively speaking, 2012 Afghanistan is literally 50 times better that 1999 Afghanistan. That's why I thought it kinda qualifies... But your point is valid.

"P.S. Can anyone think of a country that has gotten out of poverty based on aid? All the modern examples I can think of (Korea, Taiwan, China, Singapore, Latvia, Lithuania, etc.) haven't."

Does post-WW2 Germany count? A lot of people credit the Marshall Plan[0] for their tremendous recovery.


Definitely. That's a strong counterexample to my list.

(Am original author)

YES, I totally agree! :) —

At Vittana (the org I founded), we joke there are only three ways to _really_ change the world.

* religions: whether you believe in God or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, you gotta agree that religion has affected world history

* governments: law & order, basic needs, wars -- name it, it's probably there

* markets: biotech, microchip, Internet, space -- need I say more?

In fact, I'd argue that if you look at the past 50 years, even in the United States but certainly elsewhere (e.g. the Asian Tigers), and all of the incredible things we've seen -- the biotech, microchip, Internet, space revolutions -- you could trace it all back to education.

And in particular (at least in the United States), I'd wager you could probably trace it all back to the GI Bill: that, for the first time, an entire generation could finish college if they wanted. You see similar investments in education elsewhere.

When that happens (assuming non-dysfunctional governments like in Egypt, etc.), you see a generation of people both creating and filling in opportunity for themselves through industry. That's what excites us.

At Vittana, we focus on providing education micro-loans to fight youth poverty. It's very much about a hand up, not a hand out: not a donation and not aid, but a business partnership among equals.

Take Ana Lizbeth, for instance, one of my favorite students: she wanted to be a programmer but needed $713 to graduate -- because of a Vittana Loan, that became possible.


We're not starting the cult or island nation of Vittana anytime soon -- I'm certainly not ;) -- so that leaves us with free markets. Our hope is that by going first, we can show others that education micro-loans are _possible_ to do and spark others to do it too.

Big fixes don't really work, but sometimes crazy, risky small ideas turn into big movements. That's our hope at least. :)

And thank you for the welcome! I've actually been with HN almost since the beginning (2,046 days — just happened to see earlier) but haven't been active/been busy building Vittana. I just logged in today when I saw a whole bunch of referrers coming in from HN.

I think this is basically right, but I'd point out that aid can include things like education and giving money to build infrastructure, which assist greatly with (2).

I disagree with this. It's essentially the same argument that there should be a single societal focus on shipping all of our extra food to those who are starving. True, in sheer numbers we have the gross resources to do just that. We have the infrastructure in terms of ships, planes, and boots on the ground. But there are other reasons we don't do this.

Capitalism doesn't work like this. Resources are allocated via crazy, unfair market actions. 300 years ago, most of Europe resembled what we would call the Third World now. Epidemics, warfare, starvation, etc. The big driving force that changed Europe wasn't the generosity of kings, but the base-level trading and investing among the poor and emerging middle classes.

There were a lot of resources being misspent back in those days. Anyone remember a particular Dutch fascination with tulips? Money was spent on doomed voyages of exploration, fake medicines, flower-based stock bubbles, and any number of other "follies" that in hindsight could have been avoided.

But among all the mispenditure of resources over hundreds of years, hundreds of millions of people were lifted out of poverty. We went from an average lifespan of 40 years to over 80. We live in an actual age of marvels.

In our modern world, we have people building entire companies and fortunes around what are the silliest things. We have even more people copying the first successes and failing. In amongst that, there are the smaller numbers of people building companies that will laterally help those who's lives need improving.

If we lived in a society where our resources could be marshaled enmasse towards one goal or another, it wouldn't be the world we have now.

Telling entrepreneurs that one class of businesses is more socially correct than others isn't how the world works. People will find opportunities in many ways, and those will benefit the people in need. The poor will find edges in the market to improve their own lives. What might seem worthless to you might be valuable to someone else.

So if you have an idea for Bitly 4.0, do it. If you want to build cheap rockets to space, do it. If you want to build a social networking app that uses cheap cell phones to let goat herders in sub-Saharan Africa poke each other over hundreds of miles, do it. You never know how or when your product will be used, or who it will help.

>Telling entrepreneurs that one class of businesses is more socially correct than others isn't how the world works.

Start a company selling assassinations, and the wider world will quickly tell you your business isn't socially correct - you will be shut down. Pyramid schemes are another illegal class of business.

There are also businesses that, while legal, do not appear socially useful. There's nothing wrong with disapproving of such businesses.

>You never know how or when your product will be used, or who it will help.

Your argument is: because businesses can yield unanticipated utility, there is no point reasoning about which business is best to spend time on.

Sure, perhaps the cat-pictures business will, through some unexpected turn of events, yield greater social utility than an education startup: Our models of the world are imperfect, and sometimes we mis-predict which actions will be most beneficial.

But that doesn't mean we should give up reasoning about what the most beneficial thing to do is. We should still attempt to reason about relative benefits, and act to maximise our expected future utility.

Which is not to say we should always "focus on shipping all of extra food to those who are starving". Indeed, maybe some technology that looks trivial will yield huge benefits. So we should definitely spend some time exploring new technologies, to try and catch unexpected windfalls. In order words, we have an explore/exploit tradeoff to make.

But: Trading off exploration/exploitation is not the same as just throwing up our hands and saying "do whatever you want, don't attempt to reason about relative utilities".


There's an implicit assumption here that entrepreneurial motivation is fungible, that a person who could found a successful cat picture business could also found a successful education startup just as easily. I don't think that's the case. In turning someone away from something they're truly interested in and guilting them into working on a more "serious" business, the most likely result is a failed education startup in place of a successful cat pictures business. In terms of relative utility, a successful business is almost always going to be more beneficial to the world than a failed one.

Right, there's a simplifying assumption of fungibility in my post. In your counter example, you go to the other extreme, where its either a successful but low-social-utility business, or an unsuccessful high-social-utility one.

In reality, the entrepreneur is going to have to make some tradeoff between likelihood of success (given motivation) and utility of success.

But entrepreneurs intuitively make these sort of tradeoffs all the time. This is just another judgement to make.

Thanks for the great critique, geuis.

I'm absolutely in agreement with you about unpredictable markets, the massive power of market forces to effect change and that no one entity has (or should have) control over those forces. No one -- certainly not me -- is advocating any form of socialism and central control over economic resources.

What I'd argue instead, however, is organizations (companies, NGOs, whatever) that create meaningful value for humanity actually create MORE value for themselves. It's really, really hard to foresee what is meaningful value. Facebook was similar to MySpace, but (at least for me) creates infinitely more value. Microsoft was born because IBM miscalculated the value of DOS. The list goes back decades and centuries.

However, I'd wager that today we have more clones than original work. Now, maybe bit.ly 4.0 will be what Facebook was to MySpace, but my guess would be no. Instead, if an entrepreneur chose to work on, say, cheap rockets for space -- something original, regardless of immediate perceived value -- I'd wager that'd create far greater value, probably both for themselves and humanity.

My goal was to less tell an entrepreneur to do something more socially correct -- I'm an entrepreneur myself and I probably wouldn't listen to anyone _telling_ me to do anything -- but rather to try building riskier, original stuff.

"If you want to build cheap rockets to space, do it"

This is a particularly good example. People have argued that money spent on a space program is essentially thrown away, when it could have been spent on fixing poverty. But the space program led to a huge number of advancement from telling us about the North Korean famine, to making little lasers that kill mosquitoes, to better refrigeration, to mobile phones currently providing communication in infrastructure-poor areas of Africa.

I don't think the article is arguing that everyone needs to work on a single project.

But there are a striking number of people building "pictures of cats doing x" websites. It's technically easy, which appeals to some people.

But there's nothing wrong with reminding developers that they have the talent to address bigger problems than a shortage of cat meme websites.

It surprises me that the author holds Myrvhold to such high esteem when his company, Intellectual Ventures, is working pretty hard to stifle innovation.

"Stop building dumb stuff. Actually, just stop building anything and instead sue people who do"

He knows most ideas will fail when they are executed.

So the "logical" thing to do is to stop executing and just acquire existing patents and file for new ones. Then wait for others who want to execute or who try to execute. Then, if it looks like they have, or will have, the money to pay, threaten to sue them.


A true innovator.


An article about "make meaning, not money".

Which lionizes Nathan Myhrvold, the world's largest patent troll.


Myhrvold just happened to be there. It also happens that he does spend a lot of time on tackling 'global good' problems. For example, they spent a great deal of money and time developing cheaper and more efficient refrigerators for transferring drugs, because surprisingly drugs go bad and poor underserved areas tend not to have refrigerators. They spent a lot of RND, and went against several WHO regulations which forced unnecessary extra costs, just to get to their goal.

Regardless, I think you're attacking a man mentioned in the article for something little related to the message of this article.

There's something that rubs me the wrong way about this article, and I think it's the false dichotomy. On the one hand we have safe conveniences like "another link shortener" and "Facebook for X" which do not involve any innovation. On the other, we have risky humanitarian projects which require huge innovation.

So there are three differences here: safe vs. risky, easy vs. innovative, and luxury vs. necessity. I feel like the author is trying to bolster our valuations of each difference by associating them with our valuations of the others.

So we start out with this true but completely obvious idea that it's not the best use of our time to build safe and easy luxuries, yet the alternatives we're pushed to are risky and difficult necessities. And I suppose if you want to point to that as an ideal, then that's one thing.

But then we get to the quote about "faster aliens", and I start to wonder what universe we're talking about. Much of the research that went into making those aliens faster? Directly applicable to a ton of other fields! Is the author suggesting that we should take the engineers off of the teams that are working to build more powerful GPUs and CPUs, and instead get them working on a malaria vaccine? Should we send them back to school first, or just plop them in a bio lab and tell them to get crackin'? Or instead, we could let them just keep doing what they're good at, since faster computers will also help us find a vaccine for malaria.

If you want to attack something out of the safe/easy/luxury group, attack "easy". Safe luxuries have proven to be absolutely amazing for driving innovation, and then we get to use that innovation for the really important stuff.

see, here's a problem: in the time it takes to find a malaria vaccine, thousands of lives could be saved by things as simple as a mosquito net. In the time it takes to perfect cold fusion, the greatest energy savings will come from industrialized nations turning their A/C down a couple of degrees.

Humanity is served by both the incremental steps and the big dreamers. Let's not create a false dichotomy and end up discarding the lives of millions just because it's hip to be the next Nobel prize winner

All the comments in this thread, this is the only one that is actually a good starting point for discussion and doesn't latch onto the "LOL MYRHVOLD GO AWAY".

The problem with the tech industry, as the article highlights, is that the focus is on building stuff for the sake of building it. A nyan cat generator? A social network for your dog's dog? Sure, throw 100+ hours into it, and maybe you'll get acquired by the 'social network for nyan cat generators'. The issue is that the tech industry more and more just serves itself, not because of the culture of funding but what I would think of is just familiarity. 100+ hours can go further elsewhere, but it's not necessarily the personal goal of that little coder.

Incremental steps only come when the larger incentives are in place. If you could flip a social enterprise (and not Facebook social, I mean for-a-better-world social), then people would be willing to spend 100 hours building apps for good.

The big dreamers are the ones who do it regardless of the fame, money, or glory.

Cached version: http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:http://...

With regard to the article I agree that it is noble (and probably more profitable) to build new products and ideas rather than clones of existing ideas, just as it is noble (and doubtlessly more profitable if you are successful) to develop a new vaccine for malaria rather than just distributing mosquito nets.

But mosquito nets are what people need now to save lives. A promise of future vaccine doesn't save lives. Likewise people want facebook for dogs now, and other crap clones, and where the money and demand is the market follows.

The article about Doggyspace is from 2008 and their twitter account has been inactive for almost two years. So apparently they did stop building dumb stuff. It was probably the invisible hand that made them stop, not a blog post.

How can this guy get all the way through this article without mentioning that not only is Nathan Myhrvold "former CTO of Microsoft", but that as owner of Intellectual Ventures, the most powerful non- practising patent troll in existence, he is perhaps the world's biggest example of what is wrong with the patent system and why ideas, innovative or not, are almost impossible to turn into reality without the threat of litigation.

The fact that he would avoid mentioning this shows that anything else said in this piece can be assumed to be utter bullshit and spin.

You know, I was really trying hard to avoid the debate on patents since it wasn't very related to what I was trying to say. That apparently backfired. :)

I'm pretty familiar with the issues, both on the closed (often corporate) and open (often research, open source) sides -- it just wasn't a place I wanted to go.

I also don't really have an agenda, either with Nathan or anyone else -- you can find me online, I'm pretty much an open book.

The only thing I really do care about here? Building stuff, for- or non-profit, that adds value to humanity.

Because the guys building Facebook for dogs, or working on faster games have the transferable skills required to work on a Malaria vaccine.

If you can make another meme generator, then you can probably make a good dent in the world.

That's a shamefully bad cop-out to say you couldn't do any of these things:

http://freerice.com/ http://www.donorschoose.org/ http://www.shiftlabs.org/ http://www.sparked.com/

Correct, and that is why they are much better examples than curing Malaria. That was my point about the blog post, it says "Be like these guys!" and then presents problems which the target audience has no realistic chance of fixing, so they simply switch off.

Fighting malaria is the example, but no mention of a political campaign against DDT? According to this comfortable American, the two available options are mosquito nets and a subsidized vaccine?

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=ddt-use-to-... http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124303288779048569.html


I'm in agreement with his thesis (that there should be an increase in the funding of riskier projects by non-profits) but I dislike his examples of "useless" tech. Technology often starts off in toys and novelties until it can be made with greater reliability at a lower cost. Tech may be "useless" simply because we haven't explored it enough to find all of its applications.

There are many parts of Maslow's hierarchy. Curing malaria allows more people at the low end of the hierarchy move up. Obviously, this is incredibly worthy.

I don't know about Facebook for dogs, but there is an AirBnB for dogs called http://dogvacay.com which lets you board dogs in other people's homes. This allows dog owners more freedom, and allows people without dogs to hang with dogs for a few days a week. Since pet ownership reduces stress and increases people's happiness, "dumb ideas" like this move people like me slightly higher in Maslow's hierarchy.

Long story short, the OP should pick better "useless" examples.

That quote from the ex-Microsoftie is the classic. Most ideas will fail. Right. Let's attribute brilliance to a master of the obvious. But the one idea that succeeds, even if it's "a way to kill aliens faster", will undoubtedly hear from a patent troll, like IV. Are you "OK with that"?

They will go after whoever is making money. And what do they contribute? Nothing.

What exactly is the point of this? That non humanitarian efforts are useless?

No, my point was to make meaning -- not trivial stuff.

There's lots of non-humanitarian efforts that create lots of meaning:

* Facebook, helps me stay connected to my friends

* Etsy & Kickstarter, empowers artists around the world

* Reddit & HackerNews, lets me find stuff about topics I like

There's also lots of humanitarian stuff that's just pretty pointless.

But folks can build some pretty amazing things and I wanted to poke the emperor on that.

Didn't Facebook originate from wanting to make it easier to scope out the good looking co-eds?

Tte point is, a lot of meaning comes out of what started as a seemingly trivial pursuit. If Mark Zuckerberg were to have followed your advice, there wouldn't be a Facebook.

"Meaning" is arbitrary and can be extrapolated out of pretty much anything.

A multiplayer video game where you shoot aliens (to quote the posted article) can be a way for some people to find a sense of community they wouldn't find in real life for whatever reason, or a way for some kids to protect themselves from the world around them (parents divorcing, illnesses, etc.).

You cite Facebook as a product that's not humanitarian but has "meaning". Facebook was essentially started as a way for privileged ivy-league kids to talk about their college life and hookup. It may have become something bigger, but by your metrics it probably didn't start as something with "meaning".

"Make meaning— not trivial stuff" is a superficial, empty sentence which only achieves the goal of sounding good and making its writer feel good about himself.

I think it's fine to create things that seem trivial, as long as they are original, experimental, or new in some way.

Often times, ideas don't seem important until after they have been implemented.

Seems the website is down. Maybe obviouslywrong.org shouldn't have been built :| Does anyone have the article they can paste here?

Am the author -- wasn't expecting HN frontage, yikes! ;) The site just went up a few days ago and is crashing. I'm on it.

Back up now.


Nathan Myrhvold is a grossly obese man who owns a large patent portfolio, managed through thousands of shell companies under the umbrella of "Intellectual Ventures." He first made his bones as was CTO of Microsoft. However, unlike a lot of the original founders, he wasn't satisfied with what he got, so he moved into the patent trolling business. These days, he makes his money by extorting technology companies, usually behind closed doors.

To make himself feel better about what he does, he tries to minimize the importance of what those technology companies are doing-- they're just building "stupid stuff," after all. He also sponsors research into vaccines and technologies to help the third world. Like Bill G himself, he views this as his way of doing penance for the bad things he's done to get where he is.

The truth is, though, it doesn't work like that. Most of the problems in the third world are the result of bad government. Unless we want to bring back colonialism, trying to "fix" the third world with aid is just putting a band-aid on a broken leg. In the long term, there are only two final destinies for humanity-- extinction, and the singularity. People like Mr. Myrhvold make the first outcome more likely.

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