Hacker News new | comments | show | ask | jobs | submit login
Are you going to change the world? (Really?)
57 points by Shooter on Sept 20, 2007 | hide | past | web | favorite | 94 comments
[With apologies for my long-windedness]

This question was inspired by the post regarding the CMU Professor (Pausch) that is dying of cancer and is facing death with an amazingly positive attitude.

Specifically, there was a thread started by jaed:

"It's sad that we have to be reminded of it, but this just reaffirms that the little bubble world of YC, TechCrunch, and Web 2.Oh really don't mean a whole lot in the grand scheme of life. This guy wouldn't trade some extra time with his family for all the startups and VC cash in the world. It just puts things into perspective."

I agree with jaed. I also agree with neilc, who thinks that the "YC philosophy" is consistent with the positive message of the article.

SO MY QUESTION IS THIS: Is making an AJAXified tool or toy that will likely be used by less than 1% of the people in the richest country in the world the absolute best use of your time and talents right now? Honestly?

This is not a rhetorical question, nor is it intended to cast judgment on anyone who is actively pursuing a startup just to make money. I can't throw stones, because that is exactly what I've spend MY life doing. I also don't want to make anyone feel bad, I'm just trying to prompt a discussion.

I'm wondering if people think that our best and brightest minds might be better suited to doing something like medical research than, say, designing software and working for hedge funds? There is really nothing like finding out someone you love has cancer or a life-threatening illness to make you feel completely impotent when you're just a businessman or programmer. I've helped design medical software in the past, but it was never a great leap forward or anything. It was just incremental progress for money. I've never felt like I made a GREAT difference. And sitting in a children's hospital is a VERY humbling experience, no matter how successful you are.

I'm an entrepreneur and an investor, and I enjoy it. I'm not unfulfilled, but I have a growing regret that I haven't done much to really help the world. I donate to charities, and I've founded companies that have made really good products and offered great services, but I've never made the type of contribution that saves lives. I've never discovered a vaccine or an improved diagnostic tool or anything. And I'd like to. I feel like I've won the luck lottery (white, male, mostly healthy, born in the USA, educated, wealthy) and I want to give back more. I haven't faced the obstacles that some people face (racism, limited access to education,etc.), so I guess I have a guilt complex or something that I haven't done more. Typical liberal ;-)


I've thought of going back to medical school or something, but my odds of really helping there are small and it wastes my natural skill set. (I'm also not likely to be accepted, but that's another story.) I believe in entrepreneurship though, so I can try to make a difference in that way.

So, if anyone here has any ideas to save lives or make a massive improvement in the world, give me a shout. Seriously. I have more money than Paul Graham (although I'm not as smart, connected, or good looking) and I'm open to ideas outside the Y Combinator sweet spot. I think the best ideas in most industries come from people OUTSIDE that industry, so I would think that the brainpower on this site could really make a difference in the world. I don't think YC are that interested in medical startups (etc.), so I don't think I'm stepping on their toes...but, if I am, please let me know and I'll retract this portion of the post.

I have a simple answer to your question. Simple, but definitely not easy. And certainly not popular.

Shooter, you are Dorothy wearing Ruby Slippers. You already have the answer (but may not realize it.)

I clicked on your name and read all of you comments here. Looks like you've been involved in some pretty healthy debate (pun intended) about diet, lifestyle, etc.

The debate IS the answer.

We don't need more science, more medical research, and we certainly don't need you going to medical school.


We already know the answers to the most important questions regarding health. You have even expressed some of those answers in this forum. The problem is that half the people don't believe these answers and the other half doesn't do anything with them.

The answer to your original question is communication, education, and changes to major institutions. Many people smarter than you and me have already tried and failed. The obstacles are many: opponents with vested financial interests, institutions built upon premises that destroy others' health, and downright personal laziness.

You are the second multi-millionaire that I have encountered in the last 2 weeks on this exact same issue. The other was a personal contact who made his fortune through the "health care machine" and helplessly watched his father die an anagonizing death from a lifestyle disease. Now he wants to start something related to the singularity.

I am 52 years old, in perfect health, eat cleanly and exercise every day of my life. It tears me up watching everyone else in my life suffer from declining health. But they never listen to me; they think I'm "lucky". You and I know better.

I am currently working on my 3rd start-up, using web-based technologies to solve many of the problems I haven't been able to solve before regarding helping small businesses harness technology for competitive advantage. And I, too, wonder, "Is this all there is?" Not sure, but for now, I'm giving it all I've got.

If you have any ideas about proceeding with something bigger and more beneficial for humankind, I'm all ears. And full of passion and energy on the subject. Contact me off-line.

I think the answer is different for each person. I posted this link to YC a while ago but it didn't get one single upvote: http://www.amazon.com/Happier-Learn-Secrets-Lasting-Fulfillm...

The author of that book teaches the single most popular class at Harvard.

The field of "positive psychology" is maturing, developing real scientifically-backed theories on happiness and personal development. (a unignorable aspect of this, of course, is financial well-being, which is why many of us are here on news.YC)

If you're not doing what makes you happy, and have no plans nor desire to get out of this vicious cycle (I know, I've been there), then you will just keep spreading unhappiness to those you touch around you. (we all know someone who's constantly whining and complaining about things & being a constant downer to everyone)

Good post. Just wanted to voice my respect.

Thank you, whacked_new. Haven't stopped thinking about this all day.

this just reaffirms that the little bubble world of YC, TechCrunch, and Web 2.Oh really don't mean a whole lot in the grand scheme of life. This guy wouldn't trade some extra time with his family for all the startups and VC cash in the world.

Saving time is to me the most important point of doing a startup. You compress the tedious business of making a living into the smallest number of years, instead of letting it drag on through your whole life.

Startups often do dramatically novel things, because that is the way to create a lot of wealth fast. But that benefit is extra.

> Saving time is to me the most important point of doing a startup.

I mis-read this in an interesting way: some startup ventures may seem like "not a big deal", but if they save 1% of the US population 1 minute of time every month, that's almost 70 person-years per year.

I can't imagine how much time GMail has saved for me that I would have spent setting up mail clients. Ditto for reddit, or news.YC - there is no way I could have found out and kept track of so much information out there in the blog/entrepreneur community while being a full-time student, doing research, and working two part-time jobs.

This is not to say we shouldn't donate more of our time and money to giving to those in real need, of course, just that sometimes we give to society indirectly, or even without realizing it.

Yeah, I'm not a big fan of the 1 minute * 300 million argument because we fritter enough time away already (TV, internet, waiting in line, chewing too slowly, hitting snooze, etc.). A minute here or there will invariably be sucked up somewhere else.

I used to work at a large, very large, software company. I learned not to buy the argument of ("Hey, design this right and you'll save 1 minute on 450 million machines") as a motivating factor. You just don't notice small things enough, and there are a million small things every day. (Did you notice the new wide-mouth soda cans? They do save you time gulping. But would you be satisfied being their inventor?).

Personally, I'd prefer to have a large impact on a few people and grow from there. But that's just me.

So then, conversely, how about Reddit?

I have to fiercely disagree with that point. Tomorrow is never ever promised, as this story about the CMU professor shows. It's impossible to bank time, when you may never have a chance to withdraw it. The original post quote does a good job of keeping life in perspective.

Chase dreams. Take risks. Fail often. But love the whole process as it unfolds.

So do you not brush your teeth each day because you are not sure if you will be alive tomorrow?

All forms of endeavor involve some form of risk management whether cognized or not. The prospects of a startup with the possiblity of high equity yield over a short period of time being a good investment increase with the competence of the original founders. Obviously PG was competent. The only reason you should 'fiercely disagree' is if you are not, in which case your argument only applies to yourself.

No, I brush my teeth every day because it's a relatively low price to pay for the health of my teeth in case I am alive tomorrow.

Ummm... if you've read about any entrepreneur types, their personal lives suffer at the hands of their passion for their idea and startup. Read Founders at Work. It's a recurring theme in the book.

But tomorrow holds no promises. There's no promise you'll be alive tomorrow. No one can guarantee that. My objection is that it does take some blind passion to work more today for more relaxing time later, but there's no guarantee that you'll be alive.

And of course, not everyone is going to run a series of successful technology startups. Newsflash, I'm not Paul Graham! I'm sure that he's more competent than I am.

Get a little perspective.

i can't believe i've gotten to the bottom of this thread, and no one has mentioned this.

first of all, you can't look at kiva.org and tell me that software can't make a difference in the world.

second of all...

- measured in dollars, the bill+melinda gates foundation is the biggest charitable organization in the country, by an order of magnitude. they give more to fight aids in africa than any country does, i believe.

- this is, in part, thanks to warren buffett, who gave away 85% of his fortune to charity.

- pierre omidyar, the founder of ebay, now runs omidyar network, an investment firm which specifically funds opportunities based on their potential for social good. portfolio: http://www.omidyar.net/portfolio.php

- jeff skoll, the original president of ebay, founded participant productions, which aims to educate through entertainment. it's the company that produced syriana, good night, and good luck, and an inconvenient truth, among other films. http://www.participantproductions.com/

- speaking of ebay, that site has enabled over a million people to quit their jobs and make a living pursuing their passions.

- someone in the comments mentioned aubrey de grey, who's doing research to cure aging. guess who's funding it? peter thiel, founder of paypal. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Thiel

there are probably hundreds of other examples of people who did well by society and then gave back. (in fact, i'd love to hear these stories if you know any offhand.)

Shooter, if you've already gotten past the first part -- doing well by society -- there are plenty of ways to give back to society that would be far more effective than going to med school. PG's doing it in his own way, but if you've got something else in mind, maybe you should talk to some of those other folks for inspiration. my understanding is that bill gates assembled a small group of really smart people and asked them to make a short list of major problems in the world that could be solved with money.

It's great to set your goals high, to think about making the world a better place, but I wonder if in reaching for those lofty ideals we sometimes forget simple, local things you can do, like being kinder to the people around you.

It took me a while to get my MD and Ph.D. and I've done research and helped build cancer treatment systems. At the end of the day, I feel that I'm an ant moving a leaf compared to Bill Gates moving mountains. Very few MDs and PhDs contribute the small bits of knowledge that may lead to a cure for cancer or AIDS. Very few people build successful companies and donate millions or billions. But we all can do small acts of kindness and approach the world like Randy Pausch. For me, that starts with loving your family and being nice to others around you. The rest is all gravy.

oh, of course! i just assumed that 'love your family and be nice to others around you' goes without saying. =)

It's tough to say it without drawing out cynicism. Warren Buffet used to talk about why he didn't donate money earlier purely in terms of a return on capital. He felt (correctly, it would seem) that he was better at making his capital grow than many other people, and as such, would leave charity to others in the meantime, and give his money later (which he has).

The way I think about it is that I'm confident I'm better than most people (not news.YC'ers for sure, but most people) at larger perspectives, or at least feeling confident that I can tackle large problems. It would seem there are (relatively) few people who feel like they're in that position, and so I find a need to fill that.

What people forget over time (and this I think is what draws out the eye-rolling in general from many people with respect to the above) - is that if they're successful, they get caught up in the success and forget about the world changing they intended to do. And if I turn out not to be successful (after repeated attempts) - every failure should bring me closer and closer to tackling world-changing problems head-on.

In the meantime, I try to think big, I try to execute big, but I try to pay attention to the smaller details where I can have a positive impact with low opportunity cost.

Mainly, I think there's a high risk that people lose their idealism and empathy for others in the world over time - and that's tough to stave off.

Warren Buffet rocks.

I have some of those between by igneous and metamorphics.

I think about the triviality of this stuff all of the time. I just want to get moneymaking out of the way so I can do something significant with my life (biochem and physics research), as I define 'significant'.

Do you need a lot of wealth to do this? Why not start on these goals today?

Yes, you need a lot of wealth to do serious research on your own topics and not have to do what the grant-granters want.

To whoever modded me down: there are HUGE fixed costs that are required to do truly cutting edge research in biochem. Perhaps in physics you can sit around and figure out quantum gravity by yourself but that affordable path to success seems unlikely.

No way. Didn't someone figure out cold fusion in his kitchen sink? ;)

To do it full time, yes. I already have started, but large blocks of time uninterrupted by commutes, work,etc can only help...

My startup is in the life sciences field. My partner Josh is a genius. I'd love to run a private lab with him, but we need some measure of success first for us to fund it ourselves. Send me an email, we (mostly Josh) have a lot of ideas that could positively impact the world, either through improving lives, making energy less scarce, or one specific idea that involves commodifying "kits" to help perform a specific type of cutting edge medical research.

See his HIV curing idea midway through this post. http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=47751

If you're looking for a business model for a Y Combinator for biotech, here's my suggestion. In biotech, patents are king. There are almost no startups in biotech that don't have patents. Institutional investors will not consider startups without patents. While it's possible to write a patent without the help of a lawyer, you drastically increase the probability of getting a patent when you have a lawyer.

So you could provide people with the resources to help obtain a patent in exchange for a percentage of royalties and equity in the company that owns the patent.

I'm interested. I've already tried to invest in lower-cost diagnostic kits for other diseases, but the company never achieved their price goals.

I am, I might add, probably the last person on earth that should be investing in life sciences since all my experience is in business/financial services, marketing and software. I have a decent amount of experience with patents, though.

Quick question: What is the real benefit of the saliva test you mention on your site? I mean, your HIVgene diagnostic kit seems to approach the issue from the wrong angle, IMHO. If anything, it seems like telling someone they have heightened natural resistance to a disease is almost irresponsible - it's like handing a "Get Out of Jail Free - MAYBE" card to them. Am I missing something?

For people that are HIV+, the CCR5 delta32 mutation indicates a slower progression to AIDS. It's not a reliable enough measure to adjust dosages of anti-retroviral drugs though eventually we expect CCR5 delta32 to be part of a suite of tests to determine optimal HIV drug dosage.

For HIV- individuals, the test can provide relative peace of mind. We still strongly advocate safe sex to everyone but certain populations of people are very interested in eliminating a lingering fear of HIV that persists even when safe sexual practices are followed.

One of the reasons we chose this mutation to test for is because CCR5 delta32 is a mutation that you want to have -- it's a positive mutation. Most genetic tests tell you things like you are destined to get Huntington's Disease and most people just aren't interested in learning bad things about their genetic makeup.

I'm confident in the economics of our business, send me an email and we can talk numbers. :)

Yeah, I read your site. I'll email you, but I'm posting this here to get input on this issue from others. Cheap marketing research. I really don't mean to bust chops.

I'm just not sure I agree with the 'feel good' angle of your diagnostic kit. There seems to be three options you can take with a genetic testing kit:

1."You are naturally resistant to X. Yay for you."

2."You are going to get or already have X disease. Sucks to be you. Please take your diseased carcass elsewhere to cry."

3. "You have an increased risk for X. Here are some things you can do about it."

I can see wanting to avoid option two, but I like option three better than option one. I guess I'm a pessimist. I'd much rather learn that I have an increased risk than a reduced risk (Well, I don't really want ANY bad news...but you know what I mean.) Knowing my wife was genetically predisposed to skin cancer, for example, would have allowed us to be more proactive in monitoring her skin and making appropriate decisions regarding food, stress, sunlight, etc. Instead, we were just lucky. Now we know, and we were also able to have the rest of her family get checked out. There is a known gene mutation for skin cancer and it would have been nice to know about it.

I agree that option 3 is a great thing to go, but the problem is that most people won't pay to have these tests done unless their insurance covers it. I doubt an insurance company will pay for it because it costs them more money to have regular screenings done if the individual is at higher risk, or the insurance company could drop coverage all together. It's unfortunate that the US health care system works this way. Also, I doubt people will decide to go get tested for increased risks for diseases unless their doctor recommends it; for most, ignorance is bliss, and they would rather not know. It's illogical, but that seems to be how a lot of people think.

I think it's a good idea to pursue both options 1 and 3; option 1 will allow you to get a steady income to allow you to expand to other more "useful" tests in option 3 and to pay for their FDA approval. Once more tests are developed, a package option could be offered which tested for all mutations, both the "feel good" ones and the increased risk ones.

As long as the resistance isn't 100%, aren't the options 1 and 3 basically the same from an individual's point of view? That is, can't you rephrase "You are naturally resistant" as "You don't have increased risk", as long as you talk to individuals rather than to societies? Like you explain, what people can do with this kind of information individually is get health advice that applies to them personally.

Edit: I think I should explicate that I think people take a doctor's opinion more seriously if they can see it's tailored to them more.

Hoo boy, I can hear it now. "Hey, according to this genetic test, it looks like your body naturally produces lots of LDLs, now let me tell you about Vytorin!"

OR: "Lay off the bratwursts, Lardass!"

Maybe they just need a "Don't be evil" motto? [chuckles]

Wow. It's after 4am here. Goodnight.

Shooter--if you're interested, check out Altruistiq (www.altruistiq.com). Our entire mission is to create products and services that cater to the double bottom-line of social impact and profitability. We're working on a NASDAQ for the non-profit world to help NGOs raise financing a lot easier. There are no real capital markets in the non-profit world--everything is basically hand-to-mouth donations. We think a non-profit "stock" exchange could really change the way the US funds innovation in the social sector.

If you, or anyone else is interested in Doing Good while Doing Well, feel free to email me:

neil dot abraham @ altruistiq dot com

Sorry for what may seem like a plug...but this thread is all about trying to create true impact with your work, and I really would love to get in touch with like minded people on this subject. As someone else mentioned, we've been creating products for the richest 1% for way too long. There are 4 billion people living on $2 a day that we can impact with our skills and talents.

Let's get together and see how we can create real change.

Medical research is important, but not the only important thing. If you are going to be the next Google or Wikipedia, you would boost general knowledge enough to make a big difference in any particular field, medical research included.

If the reason behind being an entrepreneur is make a difference then you might as well quit now. Making a difference is a byproduct of capitalism. If you really want to "make a difference" make your money the do as bill gates and warren buffet did, I'm also sick of VCs saying that they are looking for companies that want to make a difference. what a sack of shit, I'm in it for the same reason they are, and thats to make a bundle of money.

There are all kinds of difficult situations in the world that deserve the drive and intelligence that gets devoted to startups, including: HIV/AIDS, human rights (my background), global warming and the list goes on.

In the US, many of the most problematic and disruptive issues are economic (just ask all the people whose homes are going to be facing foreclosure over the next 2 years). Because of this, the startup I'm with has decided to do something to help consumers make sure they are on track for a secure and meaningful retirement (as one of the financial planners we're working with points out, you can't eat your house and retirement is the only thing you can't borrow for). There are all kinds of stories about retirements that have been derailed and we're working to make sure that everyone with less than $1 million will have access to unbiased, personalized and affordable advice.

PBS's Frontline did an excellent series that covered some of the unfortunate Americans who are struggling to make ends meet in retirement or saw their pension plans raided:


The stress that results in financial difficulty can be enormous and having enough money for retirement is the #1 concern for consumers in their 40s and 50s. What will happen if this issue doesn't get solved?

It's hard to say what measures will be successful, but I know that everyone involved with Boulevard R feels that if we can give consumers an online process to prepare for retirement, make the interface engaging, track their progress and deliver customized content then we are really providing a social service.

I love to talk about social ventures so feel free to get in touch. Here's a great company that's creating LEDs people in developing countries:


It has to be mentioned:



But you know, I just want to pipe up in defense of us pipsqueaks. I run a website that helps people find a home to buy that is at most, if it works great for them, maybe 5% or 10% better or cheaper (your pick) than what they could have gotten otherwise. And even then, only in the LA area. Is that really about the best thing I (along with my co-founder) could've been working on the last two years?

I'm going to say yes, and here's why. Three reasons. One, opportunity. I work with semi-realistic options -- it's not productive of me, a 90's college dropout, to pursue medical research at this point. But I have ten years of experience programming and I do at some point need to put food on my family, as the saying goes.

Two, passion, or you could say just motivation. This is a problem that I have faced, my parents faced, their parents faced. I know the technology can make it better and am fascinated with the possibilities. I believe passion is immensely important to making the most of one's talent.

Three, getting the ball rolling. As an innovator in a little bitty part of the gigantic web, one who can only implement a tiny fraction of the things I want to, I know I have a limited impact. But twenty years from now, for all I know, people around the world could be using stuff like what I'm pushing into the market. I have no idea what impact that will have.

So hey, if I make money, I would appreciate that, but I really think I'm doing what I want to do with what I've got regardless of that. But if you have the interest, let me hear more about your pitch for what I or someone like myself could be doing instead, because this is, after all, a subject of vital interest.

I still think this quote from the Hamming article points to one of the biggest opportunities for making a difference across all fields (at least for a programmer):

"Since from the time of Newton to now, we have come close to doubling knowledge every 17 years, more or less. And we cope with that, essentially, by specialization. In the next 340 years at that rate, there will be 20 doublings, i.e. a million, and there will be a million fields of specialty for every one field now. It isn't going to happen. The present growth of knowledge will choke itself off until we get different tools."

One problem that will continue to need solving is finding better tools to organize and search through all the information out there. That's more of the problem Google solves, as others have mentioned above.

Another, related problem is finding better ways to get the information into our heads. To give you an extreme example, coming up with a way to access a hard drive directly with our brain could potentially allow us to tackle harder problems. That's pretty hard and probably a long way off. But you can probably imagine baby steps toward that.

There's also the whole AI problem but the media has covered that one enough that it doesn't really need mentioning.

Good for you, dude. That's awesome! It sounds like you ARE making a difference with your site. And there really is no need to feel defensive. Like I said, I was just trying to start a discussion...and maybe prompt a goal or gut check.

I'm not necessarily trying to push anyone to do something different or 'better' with their life. I mean...who the hell do I think I am? [Nobody.] I just asked the question because I think everyone sometimes forgets to evaluate their place in the world and what they can accomplish when they are really focused on one thing. It's like speeding on the highway and missing the scenery. And I also don't like to see wasted potential, especially when it is just because someone never really thought about what they were doing and why. And I was also just curious.

I'd read the procrastination article, but not the Hamming one. Thanks for the pointer.

I believe doing your best work, is the best way of helping the world. If you love what you are doing, if you are one with yourself when you are doing it, you are giving the most you can ever give to the world.

All religions say that selflessness is the path to happiness and enlightenment. I think true selflessness can only be achieved when you are truly at one with your work and its flow, when you see it all around you, and you loose yourself in it...

Even though Michaelangelo didn't cure any life threatening diseases he did make something that gives everyone who watches it, a moment of beauty, a moment of perfection, a moment of heaven. I think that gift is no less than any other.

I hope I gave you something to think about. This was my good deed of the day... :)

I also recommend an old Japanese movie by Akira Kurosawa called 'Ikiru'. It has a nice perspective on the topic.

I don't know... there are tons of people in medical research that perhaps "do their bit", but don't do anything really important.

I think that as long as you are doing what you do well honestly and with integrity, and it's basically something that creates value... do that, and don't worry if there's something else that could be improving the world more - perhaps you wouldn't do as good a job as you do with what you truly love. Perhaps your cool startup will make some doctor's life easier, and give her more time to work on her research.

That said... I think there are some opportunity costs for hackers chasing the startup dream that need to be taken into account.


Opportunity costs!

So it seems like there are two questions here: 1. All said and done, when one is about to die, do you look back on your contributions to society and say "yes I am glad I did that, even at the expense of not being with my family as much as I should have been". Or do you say "despite all that, I wish I spent more time with my own family and kids" It sounds like this profs answer is the latter. It is humbling since death seems to be such a ultimate leveller. He has certainly led a 'special' life, spending many years in research contributing to the pool of knowledge for humanity, yet at the end, it is almost like he rediscovered what was more important was something very simple and had nothing to do w/ "the world" or "humanity". It was just his family.

This is slightly disturbing for me, since I want to make a difference in the world and I do think its important to my life. Will I look back one day, on my deathbed as he is, and discard all of my contributions (or attempts at contributions) as worthless and readily trade it in for just a few more moments with my family? Will i then be overcome with regret that I sacrificed so much to pursue something that meant so little to me? It does give me pause. Perhaps some of my friends, who are not trying to do so much, are the ones who really understand the meaning of life.

2. Changing careers and giving back On the career side, I agree w/ you. Staying in your circle is the best. I have also come to the conclusion that the best way I can help the world is through entrepreneurship and business. I'm not talented enough to do research. One day I hope to be able to support a professorship for some talented maverick professor who has game changing ideas for humanity but is not 'fundable' by government programs.

I did a successful startup that got acquired by a larger company, and we do software to allow businesses to get better feedback from customers. "Whats world changing about that" you might say, but the way I talk about it with my customers and my coworkers is that "if we do our job right, we are changing the strategy of these multi billion dollar corporations by allowing them to make what their customers want. This touches millions of people in the products/services they have available to them".

I know, its not like we found the cure for aids. We did not solve global warming. (Definitely a big concern of mine) But we are here at work. And we are here doing this job. Lets make it meaningful, do the best we can, and see if we can't help in whatever small way instead of lamenting how we are not doing x or y. Maybe this will not be enough for me 2 years down the road. But for me, feeling my spine tingle as I explain how much impact our product can have is enough to keep me going for now.


exactly those kinds of technologies, and could save a lot of lives in disasters in America.

It's also a prototype for a more general approach to handling disasters in the developing world.

That is a platform for handling the Routine Disaster of global poverty.

No way to get to that stuff without tools like EC2 or Mapreduce. We need massive compute and excellent software running on mobile devices to pull this off, and YC is the sort out community that is developing the tools we need.

So... yes, you're saving the world, in aggregate if not as individuals, just like the Unix guys were 30 years ago, and continue to do.

I have been thinking of similar things, which is why I decided to take the risky road and know that if I fail at least I did it in pursuit of something worthwhile.

I am working on a somewhat educational software, Ajaxified and all that, which I believe could make a difference while being possibly profitable (perhaps not high-margin enough to attract VC investment, but if it can provide a stable income I'd work on it with no complaints). It seems to me that traditional teaching institutions, or the general public, seems grossly uninformed about the theory behind it -- which to me seems to be the only, theoretically and experimentally, universally solid method that guarantees learning results, as far as my exposure to relevant material is concerned.

I assume there lacks satisfactory implementations because those who understand the theory don't bother making a product that is accessible to all; I am simply tired of waiting.

I believe a good number of participants here are also not exactly short on the starting capital. The difference is in the mentorship and extended reach.

One reason why web-based educational software is absolutely necessary, in terms of making a difference, is that you can connect with users anywhere in the globe. Kids who use cheap laptops. Once you guarantee your learning method is good, you're on track.

At least I believe so :)

What is the education method, or is it proprietary?

I was amused by your post considering I am currently in medical research and am using my current job to hopefully fund a modest startup, since I feel that I am at heart an entrepreneur.

While there are some very rewarding aspects of medical research, please understand that it is not all unicorns, roses, and saved lives. I have had the opportunity to work with wonderful professionals and amazing patients, but I have also experienced mind-numbing ineptitude and questionable research practices. Like any industry, there is good and bad.

I don't want to discourage you from getting involved in research if that is what you truly feel is your passion, however, I believe that regardless of industry, it begins with you. If your talent is in entrepreneurship and investing, you might be most effective in your area of expertise. (Of course, if it's lost its luster and you want something more personally fulfilling, that is a different issue).

One area that I am interested in is micro-lending, and I think it would be a good way of putting your talents to use. You could do something in the developing world or something in the US, depending on your interests. If you have not already, I would recommend that you read "Banker to the Poor" by Muhammad Yunus. Best of luck to you.

Some quick late night thoughts.

Attend to deep impact. Most of your impact will be on the "leaves" of your impact tree. Not in the people you directly affect, but in those they then affect, etc. Magnitudes, branching factors, scale. Force multipliers.

Be fruitful. Like when planning a research career, choose appropriate problems. Good sized, well timed, well formed and motivated. You don't strictly need to be first, but you only get credit for things done earlier or better than if you had not participated. And only for that marginal improvement. Just being there doesn't count.

Leverage. If your not leveraging your strengths, you are waisting your time. The entirety of your strengths. Relative to other people. The world is full of important things which are not getting done because the warm bodies with the odd required mix of capabilities are busy doing other things, or sometimes haven't noticed. Different people have very different sets of low hanging fruit. Attend to yours.

It's a project. Requirements, analysis, outside review, planning, testing, management, postmortems. Engineering, science, academia, all have things to do which increase the likelihood of a successful outcome. You can skip all the ones you don't like. Not. Some of your low hanging fruit will require visits to places you really don't want to go, but are good for you.

Opportunities exist. And often go unnoticed. It seems 10 million primary school children in the developing world either will or won't have laptops in 2008, depending on whether order 100 python good programmer months choose to spend time on it in the next half year.

I think the biggest gaping hole in contribution to the world is the absence of leadership. It could very well take 10s of thousands of scientists another hundred years to solve our energy problems, but it only takes one person to stand up and convince us all to drive better cars, turn down our air conditioners, and purchase eco-positive products. Then we'd have 300million people working on the problem, making a difference now. And it would be a BIG difference.

During WWII the president asked the people to make sacrifices in order to win a war against some fairly bad people. If the president today asked people to stop eating meat for a day, the cattle lobby would have a cow (pun intended). They'd start tossing around money and it would be over. That's not leadership, that's middle management at best.

Maybe its too difficult (or impossible) to be a good leader these days, which may explain why most smart people really don't want the job. How can a leader spend 5 minutes on TV and tell everyone to eat better and even hope to compete with an evening full of fast food commercials. I don't think those are bad people, either. They're just another group of people, like many of us, trying to find a way to get ahead in this world so they can finally do some good. We're all a little aimless -- we need a leader.

So here's what I think any and all of us could do today:

1. Start making the sacrifices of a leader and getting people behind you to move the world in a positive direction.

-- or --

Accept that you aren't the person for the job (even for now) and rally your big throbbing brain behind someone who can and will lead.

2. Start working on your todo list.

There is certainly a part of me that feels guilty, sometimes for not taking a more active, direct role in the improvement of people's lives, of our course as a species, of the world in general. Volunteering is wonderful, but clearly that's not what we are talking about here - this is about committing your mind, all the analytical problem solving skills at your disposal, all that drive and ambition, to something that benefits others.

But there is another part of me that believes, quite firmly, that you can't force people to be socially responsible and get good results. You can't demand that everyone order their lives for the common good (I seem to recall a guy named Karl had that notion a while back, and the practical application of his ideas didn't turn out so well.) Humans are, by nature, a competitive and self-interested species, and we ignore that reality at our peril. Does this mean we should all be heartless capitalists? No, I don't see it that way. I think it's possible to "trick" human nature, to align personal ambition with something that produces a net good for society. On a more specific note, I think people in our field are part of a valuable and necessary experiment - we are helping to organize the explosion of human knowledge more efficiently, defining a world that didn't even exist in Marx's industrial worker's paradigm, that might never have existed if we were all completely altruistic. So yes, even if what we create seems trivial on the surface, even if we are just saving .01% of the population 4 minutes a day, I think that's worth something. Because you never know what those extra four minutes will bring. Or what other innovations may spring from that little brainstorm you had one day in the laundromat at 1 AM.

Here endeth the rant.

Quote: I donate to charities, and I've founded companies that have made really good products and offered great services, but I've never made the type of contribution that saves lives.

Making something that lets someone enjoy life more is equivalent to giving them more life to enjoy at the end. Anything that saves time during one's life is at least as good, if not better, than tacking time on the end.

Nuclear fusion. Two possible avenues, google "polywell fusion" and look at focusfusion.org.

Polywell is getting the most press and has the best pedigree - its inventor is Robert Bussard, one of the inventors of the Tokamak. He believes he's proved that a new design of his will work...his experiments were funded for 12 years by the Navy. Now he's trying to raise about $5 million for a couple more test reactors. After that though, he'll need about $200 million for the full-scale demo (vs. $10 billion for the tokamak). Given the money, he figures he's about five years away from a full-scale, power-producing reactor. Most likely, once he's proven the concept a little better, the money for the big reactor won't be too hard to get.

Focus fusion needs about $10 million total, some of which is already in the pipeline from a licensing deal. If it works, they're only about 3 years away, and a reactor would only cost $300K to build. They're less well-known but have some interesting results so far, and they've got an active research program going.

Both projects are shooting for boron fusion, which is harder to achieve than the deuterium fusion used by the tokamak, but is almost totally non-radioactive. And both projects believe they can produce power at about 1/50 the cost of fossil fuels.

Both have the potential to make a heckuva rocket, too...access to space for the middle class, manned trip to Mars in a couple weeks.

I really think this is our one shot to get out of the mess we're in. Without it our future looks grim...more and more demand for oil, with diminishing supplies, global warming, wars over the scraps. With fusion, it would all turn around.

If you want to save the world and kick off the biggest economic boom in history, all for just a few million bucks, give these projects a look. I've donated a little to both but I have way less money than Paul Graham.

Followup: the focus fusion guy just gave a presentation to Google, here's the video:


He needs $2 million for the proof-of-concept.

> designing software and working for hedge funds


> So, if anyone here has any ideas to save lives > or make a massive improvement in the world, give > me a shout.

Find a way to destroy copyright and other attempts to allow people to own ideas. These laws are both bad for the economy and directly damage the ability of people in third world countries to get a leg up.

i'd like to hear your stance on the ip system. hit me up at seiji.t@gmail.com

I would ask yourself a few honest questions if I were you.

1) Do you want to change the world, really? Or do you just want to feel good? Lots of people have spent lots of money on eliminating poverty. And it's still here. That's not saying it's a lost cause, only that the benefit for all those other people was that it made them feel like they were trying. One day we will succeed. Until then, the numbers look like a long-shot.Same goes for a lot of other feel-good type investments: curing hunger, curing cancer, eliminating oppression, etc.There's a huge multi-billion-dollar industry built up around making rich people feel better by writing checks. It's a noble cause, if that's your thing.

2) Are you smart enough to know what to do? The beauty of capitalism is that progres chases benefit: you don't make money for _not_ helping people, if only a little bit. Now you can take the profit factor out, but then you've got a charity, not a business. Businesses have to provide value.

3) Isn't the best thing you can do is provide man-hours? In your example, you ask if use by 1% of people in the richest country a good moral choice. Let's say the toy saves an hour each week. That's 4 million people, saving one hour a week,in the richest country in the world. Assuming $40 per hour, You've roughly created $8 Billion in time for those people. Maybe 95% of that time will be spent playing Donkey Kong, watching American Idol, or picking their nose. Still, you've got $400 Million in return for what? A few hundred grand or a mil or two? And those 5% will spend their time doing things they are passionate about that _they_ feel will make a difference.

So if you're still feeling guilty, target some investment money in saving time for scientists -- all scientists. If you could save them a few hours each week, imagine how much value you could add?

So yes, time-saving toys for rich, productive people are the best use of my time that I can see. Perhaps other see it differently.

>So if you're still feeling guilty, target some investment money in saving time for scientists -- all scientists. If you could save them a few hours each week, imagine how much value you could add?

One very useful webapp would be a personal bibliography database, i.e. BibDesk for the web. Let me create an account, and upload papers. Give me tags, comments and full text search, as well as bibtex output. Maybe even the ability to share papers with other authors (possible copyright issues here).

Organizing papers is painful right now. My home and office are rsynced together, but that's useless when I'm in other locations, and I don't have full text search (just a list of folders by name of author). Most of my coworkers don't even do that.

Man, do I know the feeling of guilt you describe. And yes I am going to change the world. And hopefully I will become loaded (as if not the majority of the western world already is). But I will always be a Calvinist, not by choice, but by guilt. But I have realized a long time ago, I was not only lucky getting the proper physical and geographical properties, but also getting a real talent in one specific area: abstract reasoning. And so I can do 2 things; Be a volunteer for something in which I am not incredibly good (I'm not so much a 'sensitive' guy) or I could feel obligated to exploit the talent to the best I can (and enjoy it) and earn money of people that are living well enough, and spend that in the best possible way. Then I would be helping the world more. I feel it is everybodies obligation to reach for the best in themselves and use that for the interest of mankind.


I would love to see the implementation of an idea I had about implanting circuits in a non-mobile person so that their brain signals could "jump" over damaged connections and allow them to walk again. It could be used for other similar problems, but I focused on walking as the first goal.

I would say look into public education in the inner city. I don't know "public" education is funded in your part of the states, but in PA it is funded by _local_ property taxes --- so children of wealthy parents get enourmously well funded "public" schools, and children of poor parents go to "public" schools that can't even afford textbooks. I don't know how kids in the city are supposed to break the cycles of crime and poverty in their communities if they are systematically denied a decent education --- and public schools were, I believe, created explicitly for children in these kinds of situations. If you believe in the power of education and access to information in changing lives for the better, I'd say this is a good place to start.

An interesting question, but you seem to be assuming that AJAX development skills directly port over to other "Save The World (c) (tm)" functions, when in reality they don't.

A mildly proficient and motivated 15 year-old can create an application worth $400M with little more than a case of [caffeine drink], a computer of some sort, and a handful of Google queries to self-learn various required bits of knowledge.

That same person can't just apply the same net amount of effort, from the same location, and make any lasting impact on improving society or the world in general.

You could also argue that many of the "best and brightest" minds are already doing things in various ways to improve the global standard of living. The rest of us are writing Javascript and begging for $5MMUSD :)

This is categorically false. I am working on three projects that will each do a lot of good with teams of engineering students. Like all students, none of us know a damn things about the real world.

One is an effective, inexpensive system to stop the spread of waste borne disease in the developing world. Another is a means that makes distributing complicated AIDS medications to illiterate populations practical. The last is an inexpensive system that can be deployed on the most primitive electrical grid that will curb the theft of electricity (which runs at 12% of all electricity sold in Algeria for example).

When distributed over our small teams, all of these projects combined require less work than a single engineering course.

Software is powerful. Engineers are powerful.

I donate to charities, and I've founded companies that have made really good products and offered great services, but I've never made the type of contribution that saves lives.

Charity doesn't work. "Human dignity is more important than wealth" (1). What we need is working economic systems, not handouts.

Have you looked at Acumen Fund? It's the organization Google.org works to spur economic development in places that need it.


Take a look at this presentation by Jacqueline Novogratz, the founder of Acumen:

1. http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/view/id/157

I don't know of a place money can do more good.

How is the Acumen Fund funded? How was it initially funded?

Charity may not work, but there's plenty of evidence that charities do; they exist as organisations to convert money into exactly the kind of progress that you argue is necessary.

I remember reading an article about how financial and other forms of aid adversely affect African economies. There was a massive need for small to medium size investment to build these economies from the ground up. Here's some people trying to do that: http://www.channel4.com/news/microsites/A/africa/index.html?... Hopefully it might provide some inspiration.

Many people seem to make the assumption that getting cancer is a terrible thing that we should do everything in our power to prevent from happening. I'm not saying I want cancer, but in many ways, Randy Pausch is better off than a lot of us. He has a very real time limit as motivation in life. I'm sure he pursues his biggest goals with all his strength each day because of it.

...Half as long, but twice as bright.

i'm a research programming working in the computational biology field. basically, trying to understand what all those genes mean and what we can do about it to make new drugs. tons of need for people who are into data mining and statistical data analysis. database, algorithms design, computer graphics for protein visulization, open source medical records for the poor countries, web tools for doctors and patients, data security and privacy issues, etc. the problem is, it's a new field, doesn't pay as well as those consultants working on people-soft HR modules, but good enough to make a decent living and buy a nice car etc.

ps: if you really into math, statistics, and feel good about everyday job, the best book to read and get into the field is "Biological sequence analysis" by Durbin, Eddy, Krogh and Mitchison.

If anyone wants to make a difference in medicine without letting their CS education go to waste, my understanding is that bioinformatics (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bioinformatics) has lots of unsolved problems.

Hehe, that's a lot of comments. I guess your remarks really got people going. But anyhow, I'm really into changing the world and have been thinking about it incessantly for several years now. For me the greatest thing was seeing spirituality and technology merge.

According to Buddhism a lot of the stuff we regard as 'real' are just beliefs, and are no more real than a record in a database somewhere. Everything we think is just that, only thought. Thought is where all problems exist (if we all started seeing challenges, there would no longer be any problems, right?) yet also where solutions arise to in order to be passed on.

So what the most important thing to do for this world is to create better ways of thinking. The internet, Web2.0, the Social Web, the Semantic Web, they all provide is with a richer, more direct access to the though processes of other people.

Thanks to this technology I can now imagine being in your position in fairly great detail. If I were to read all your twitter messages, emails, blog posts, bookmarks or calender I could understand you even better, and through that I could learn in what ways you think that I haven't thought of yet, and I could also identify ways of thinking that I've found wanting and alert you of my motivations for abandoning those beliefs/methods of thinking.

Now this is the stuff we IT-people are making possible. This is what we are doing to change the world and trust me ... there's a new generation rising that will blow our minds. I'm 25 and even though I can process vast amounts of information effortlessly and navigate and skim through tons of blogs to get a very detailed feel of any field I'm interested in in a fairly short amount of time ... this new generation, to be born in 5 years or so, will grow up thinking like this. They will have such a massive amount of information at their disposal that what they will be able to do is beyond our wildest dreams.

I envision a generation that has the ability to collectively focus on an issue like the Sudan war and has the ability and willingness to put an end to that suffering in a matter of weeks.I believe that when another hurricane Katrina will strike in 40 years people from around the world will rush to the city and will either have it rebuilt in a month or three or will have found a new home for anyone living there hours after the flood.

That's the kind of stuff we nerds are making possible right now ... Anyhow, this is a bit of a rant. Check my blog where working in the somewhat more formal explanation of this stuff: blog dot mondiality dot nl.

Here's $0.02 from a BioTech programmer.

I've always wanted to change the world. Ever since I was a little kid I wanted to cure something, create a better world. I never wanted anything else.

I never considered med. school - not my skill set. I always knew I was good with computers and that was going to be how I changed the world.

I got a degree in CS and have been working for a bio-informatics startup for the past 4 years.

The Bio stuff is HARD. I work at the bleeding edge of research software and progress is excruciatingly slow.

Here's the chief reason why - money. The cost of starting a web based thingy is crazy low compared to a regular brick and mortar start up. The cost of a regular old brick and mortar startup is crazy low compared to a biotech startup.

So there's the first part of the money problem. The second part is who sets the tone.

The money that sets the tone is mostly the big pharma, VC money is tiny. Big pharma is doing its best to serve their shareholders. That means a lot of lifestyle treatments and few break though cures.

Why so few break through cures? Because taking a basic discovery, like say a new bio-marker through the regulatory purgatory cost something like $150 BILLION.

Don't quote on on that number, I may be off by a few billion. Big pharma is clogged with promising discoveries, but they chose to roll the dice on only a few of the most profitable looking.

How do you change all of that and make a better world. Simple:

Drastically bring down the cost of basic discovery.

How do you do that? That's not so easy.

1. Regulation is a bitch.

2. Bio-tech hardware had not been commoditised like PCs.

3. Testing "in silico" is currently more of a gimmick then a replacement for "in vivo" testing.

What are my plans given this situation?

I'll keep pounding away at my current job, bleeding edge scientific software does not pay a lot, too few customers, and those are usually university/government. The private sector money wants process improvement, not so much research.

Someday I hope I get the opportunity to work on protein folding. That will require a lot of CPU cores with very low latency between them. So all I need is a few years on some seriously big iron. Anyone care to fund a promissing young programmer with a crazy dream?

First of all, good of you to want to help the world. My suggestion is to learn a holistic healing method (Reiki is the simplest of the lot) and use it to heal whoever you feel like helping. I am a Reiki healer/teacher and have seen amazing improvement in people.

The way I'm trying to change the world with my skill set is to design an open, decentralized monetary system that could eventually subsume the existing centralized hierarchical system:


Talk is cheap. Let's write some code.

According to the economist Bjorn Lomborg AIDS prevention (not healing) is the number one thing we should do. You can see his presentation here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dtbn9zBfJSs

Saving lives is a noble cause. But the problem of humanity is not to save lives, rather NOT to deliberately take lives of innocent over political and financial gains. If there is a software that can stop the next war, that is what humanity needs.

It seems to me you are missing the point of living in a modern economy - one with currency and the free exchange of goods and services ;)

Yeah, you could go to medical school and "make a difference". However, I'm going to guess (perhaps wrongly) you're not going to go into it for the shear pleasure of medical research, but rather, because you simply want to "help people".

You "want" a lot of things, day to day. Food, shelter, entertainment - the works. But you are not a farmer, nor a construction worker, nor a writer. Instead, you simply do whatever it is that gives you a reasonable tradeoff between marketability and enjoyment. You specialize. You become a programmer and make money (looky there, a lot of it!). Now you can use this money to pay others to full-fill your needs, and the people who receive your money are in turn specialists in their own field, and they can do a FAR better job at providing [food|shelter|entertainment] then you ever will.

The desire to "help people" is no different. You have a desire, and you have an ability to make money. Other people have the ability to satisfy your desire, for money. Pay them to make it happen.

If you go to medical school, you will spend ~$200,000 on it, and more importantly you will forgo MILLIONS of dollars during the time you are studying instead of doing what you're good at (startups, programming, investing, whatever). A million dollars can provide scholarships for 5 bright and promising students who each have a much higher chance of coming up with something that will "change the world" then you do. It's simply a question of efficiency.

Having said that, you do get to be involved at least to some extent. As consumers, we pay others to do the bulk of the work for us, but we still have to make some important decisions: What do we buy? Who do we hire? Who do we delegate responsibility to?

Incidentally, these are very much "investment" decisions, so your background in this area will serve you well. "Invest" in a charity program. Set one up from scratch if none of the existing ones are satisfactory. Gather motivated and qualified people. But beyond that, the best thing you can do is keep working on the things you are best at. A "Web 2.0 AJAX social network blah blah blah application" might seem petty and trivial in the greater scheme of things, but it gives you more power to change the world then most people can dream of.

Imagine you really were a medical researcher and you find out someone you love has cancer. All-nighters can only do so much. You still need to run tests, hire assistants, get software and equipment. Chances are, you won't be able to cure the disease on your own anyway. You'd feel just as impotent.

A lot of random ideas came into my head when I read this, so this post may not be very organized, and I may write another, better one, later.

Rather than suggest a particular activity, I would say broaden your world view (this, typically, is one thing where being white and born in the US usually puts you at a disadvantage).

Most societies develop norms that people take for granted. In a sense, the norms aren't! They only apply to that society and like minded ones.

There are lots of social problems in the US. Homelessness, hunger, obesity, medical issues, prison population (highest per capita, I believe), etc. Many Americans take a number of these issues as granted: It is assumed that a given society will always have these problems, and that they can't be solved.

Simply. Not. True!

These problems are almost always a byproduct of the values of the society. To solve them, one needs to adjust those values, preferably without compromising others of equal or greater importance. And it's hard to realize which values need to be adjusted if one only looks at one data point (i.e. the US society)!

Go out there. Travel. Try really hard to understand other societies that are very different from the US. Don't limit it to simply observations. Understand their concept of human relations and note down the similarities and differences to those here.

THEN try to address the problems you see here. Trying to solve them without doing the above is many times harder: You'll be trying to use a bad framework to solve problems (it'll be a bad framework because likely that's the framework that created the problems).

(This is not, BTW, to say that everything is wrong about the US, but likely if there are problems here, it is a result of the culture).

I hate to put some controversy here, but it does sadden me that this country has become so used to engaging in wars and conflict over the decades that average Americans I encounter are fairly apathetic to the violence that the US engenders elsewhere. It's just taken for granted.

If you travel elsewhere (depends on where, though), you'll find that people don't take violent deaths so cavalierly.

This is just an illustration of my point. Grow up in the US and you may end up becoming a very empathetic person who's always anti-war, but you have the cards stacked against you. You need to reflect on other frameworks of thought before you can decide overall what your values should be.

I grew up in Saudi Arabia. A very repressive society. Yet I am 6-7 times more likely to be imprisoned in the US than I was there. Really think about these points!

If it's your best chance at a big first step, then you're doing the right thing.

I think it is.

Of course these start-ups are utterly meaningless, but most businesses are. Successful businesses organize resources with the very narrow goal of accumulating as much wealth as possible. It is very selfish. As far as I can tell, no one has made a fortune seeking enlightenment.

But, there is nothing wrong with money and there is nothing wrong with power. It is natural to want and to pursue them. Both increase your reproductive value. If there is one concrete meaning of life, that is it.

We are all, to varying degrees, concerned with the people around us. This is natural. Our concern for others decreases as their connection to us decreases. For example, I am more concerned about the welfare of my family, than the welfare of an arbitrary family in the Sudan. This is natural as well. But, I am nonetheless highly motivated to help the suffering no matter how far removed. It looks like you are too Shooter. I'd gamble most of the people here feel the same.

You are dead right. The people in this community are probably some of the best suited to solve a lot of the world's problems. Most of us are highly technically proficient and many of us, most importantly, have the good fortune of being born with an aptitude for innovation. Being "smart" isn't nearly enough to be a successful founder or to solve these important problems. Doctors are smart. Lawyers are smart. But most people -- most smart people included -- don't seems have the aptitude to have a lot of new thoughts. It looks like you do. I looks like a lot of people her do.

So, go find problems and solve them. You need to, because no one else can.

I am studying Chemical Engineering and Applied Artificial Intelligence. I hope to study Pharmacology after my undergraduate work. Like everyone, I want to save the world. So, I'm going to see what I can do.

But along the way if I build a nifty web application and make a comfortable living, I would not complain.

Now (in addition to my shamelessly selfish startup), I am working on several projects that I think can do a lot of good. If any of you want to help, please contact me (http://mailhide.recaptcha.net/d?k=01SIklk3SJAk4XQZrRCmiJTw==... ).

I joined the Engineers Without Borders group at my school. I was pretty excited. I thought we were going to save the world. But, I found the group was full of completely helpless people who have, after 2 years, yet to engineer anything. So, I found a project and recruited a team from outside the organization. We set out to design a composting toilet that could work in cold climates. It was pretty frustrating, because no matter how perfect the design was it would require expensive foreign components (like solar panels or small wind turbines) and the solution only prevents the spread of disease when implemented on a large scale. Eventually, I developed an alternative that can be built entirely from local materials. We are finishing the design and hope to built a prototype this December in Peru. This design looks promising and if implemented on a large scale will reduce the spread of waste borne disease like cholera and dysentery. These diseases primarily kill children, long before they have to worry about cancer or aids. (If any of you decimillionaires are interested, contributions to our composting team through EWB are tax deductible and you can read more about the project at http://pewb.wetpaint.com/page/Cold+Composting.)

[[edit: I know it looks so simple that it can't possibly be smart. But, No one is doing anything like this. No one has done anything like this. And the world needs it. ]]

We are also developing an inexpensive, distributed sensor network for electrical grids in developing countries that will help reduce theft and downtime. This is nearly complete.

We are also developing an inexpensive watch that will make the distribution of complicated AIDS medication to developing, illiterate communities more practical. We are making good progress.

Find a problem and fix it. God knows you can.

I am changing the world, and sometimes its a distraction from my startup, and sometimes it loops back in to help us out. Its a give and take relationship.

I started a casual think tank in Milwaukee, Wisconsin to discuss problems like these outside of the walls of corporate or government restrictions. We discuss a number of topics from environmental issues, space flight, and artificial intelligence.

Every day there are a core of us that are networking people in Wisconsin, and trying to get them to do amazing things.

There are already people in universities that are able to analyze for years the best way to do something, but what they do not know how to do, i get something to 70% and make a go of it.

Out of our think tank group. We came up with two ideas that have lead into further projects. The first is a company concept for social events that lead me to my discovery of ycombinator, the other is a means to improve the tools for researcher's, specifically in the computational analysis world.

Our company Social Helix, is developing a few small and local customers, and we plan to apply to ycombinator as a way to network in the valley.

The FS3-Obsidian Project targets the advantages of GPUs (Graphics cards) over CPUs and seeks to find ways for local researchers to improve their research productivity. So, if you look at folding@home, they took the GPU rewrote their software to use the GPU instead of the CPU and were able to improve performance by 50x. Originally the folding@home project expected in 20 years to compute all of the shapes that human DNA could take, as part of a goal to simulate an entire human in the computer. If you have explored Stephan's Wolframs book, "A New Kind of Science." Then you can begin to understand how computers will be our primary tool to observe the universe at extremely large and small scales. Computer simulations will give us the ability to enhance our observations at our scale through many layers of information, in much the same way that lenses allowed us to focus and bend light to see the really small or the really large. Telescopes and Microscopes opened up the worlds of astrophysics, and medical science. Computer simulation will allow us to focus clearly on information in much the same way to give us the ability to explore and discover our world in new ways. We will be able to observe all of the inter workings of a human being, and some day, we will be able to simulate the movement and probability of every electron in a single person. Imagine the power of that, imagine the insight of it. We will likewise have the power to do this on the astrophysics scale too, leading to new answers in the formation of galaxies, the passage of time, and the substrate of physical reality.

According to Wolfram, even the systems we see as random, can be simulated from often times simple rules.

It is the Fireseed group's belief that GPUs will be the gateway to simulation based research, and its our goal to find ways to get these tools in the hands of researchers. nVidia, and ATI have theorized that the GPU could be 500x faster than the CPU on simulation based math, and companies like RapidMind are building tools that enable more traditional programming patterns to be used but limit potential performance advantages to between 10x-50x.

A great case study of groups thinking differently about systems through simulation techniques rather than modeling that takes short cuts, are Jeff Hawking's( invented palm script ) project Nuemeta, and another interesting project that goes by the name "Evolved Machines." Jeff's group hopes to change nueral technology through HTM (hierarchical temporal memory systems) modeling the biological structure of nuerons, where evolved machines is simulating on a GPU 4 dimensional neural activity, which incorporates some of the same temporal theories that Jeff's group is exploring.

I would really challenge you to not try to change the world in big ways first, but I have found, just saying "hello" is often times a wonderful way to start an interesting conversation.

Have you seen Aubrey de Grey's Ted Talk?


He's doing life extension research. He might have enough funding now, but if not...

The most important thing in the near future of life extension is Sirtris Pharmaceuticals's super-resveratrol, SRT501. Resveratrol is one of the beneficial substances in red wine. SRT501 lets you have the equivalent of 10,000 bottles worth of red wine with none of the poisonous effects of alcohol. SRT501 is much more economical than natural sources of resveratrol, which are currently too expensive to be useful for life extension, unless you want to spend around $100 a day. If I had money right now and they weren't denominated in the US Dollar, I would buy their stock.

The death of mitochondria hastens death from "old-age". SRT501 and resveratrol increase the number and function of your mitochondria. SRT501 is currently in clinical trials for diabetes and I fully expect it to increase average life spans by at least 10%, though this is not what it is getting FDA approval for. The day it hits the market I'm going to get an off-label prescription for it, as long as I can afford it.

My Italian father in law would gladly trade your resveratrol for 10000 bottles of red wine :-)

I don't agree that his research is for the betterment of humanity. What ever happened to quality instead of quantity?

What if it led to being as healthy as a 20 yr old for 85 years.... then we just kill ourselves off! Quality is greater than quantity in that light.

Is making an AJAXified tool or toy that will likely be used by less than 1% of the people in the richest country in the world the absolute best use of your time and talents right now? Honestly?

This is a good question. Here are some thoughts about the answer in a general sense:

Why do people make ajax websites like that? To get money, mostly. (It's also fun because programming is fun.) How do you get rich making a website? You make something that people want. This is capitalism at its finest. It's selfless. It's practically altruistic. You don't think about your idea of what makes the world a good place, you just make what other people want, and you trade it to them at a price they are happy with (which can be as cheap as just some ads on the side). Another way to put it is that you are cooperating with most of society. This is much better than nothing, it's a good thing. There might be something better, but we can think of it as starting point.

It's better than that, actually. There is an idea that the richest country doesn't need more help, doesn't need further luxury. This is a misconception. We are the richest country because we have the most productive people. If you give the most productive people more of what they want, you get the best return on investment in terms of worldwide increase in productivity. More precisely, if someone creates a million dollars of wealth per year, then if you can make him happier, make his life more convenient, etc, and increase his productivity by 1%, that's 10k per year. If you help someone who only makes a thousand dollars of stuff per year, if you can double his productivity that's only 1k per year. So targeting a rich country for who to help is not fundamentally a bad thing. And the richer we are, the easier and less costly it is for us to help others, and also the better science, medicine, etc we have to help with, so it really does improve the whole world to improve the USA.

So, making what other people want (even if they are rich), like fancy web 2.0 websites, is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. But is it ideal? Not necessarily. Sure "most people" in aggregate are productive, and make the world better over time. But if you are exceptional, you can have a larger effect by working on your own idea about how the world should be. This is harder because if you don't flow with the mainstream you have less people to cooperate with. And it's riskier because new ideas are often mistakes. So I wouldn't push people towards attitudes like this. Most people are too arrogant already and think they understand more than they do.

And also if someone doesn't realize they should be doing something better, it's very possible it's because they aren't that exceptional after all. Perhaps much better than average, but not inspired and brilliant -- and courageous and bold -- enough to see important problems they should be facing and to face them.

You mention medicine. It's quite possible more people should be working on medicine; I think that is the case. But I wouldn't guess programming is where they should come from! I'm sure there are individuals who would be well suited to switch. But there are plenty of bad fields that cater to bad things people want, but shouldn't want; let's loot those for talent ;p. Programming is a field that's very important and really could use some better people.

Even for narrowly focussed programmers there are big important problems one can work on. In a lot of ways the field is a total mess. The popular languages have huge flaws (including even Ruby and common lisp, not that they are very popular). Maybe Arc will solve this, we'll see. Ajax and current browsers could be vastly improved (no, I don't know the answer). And if they were, all the average programmers would be saved a ton of pain b/c they'd work on a better designed platform. Or saving all the java programmers by giving them better ways to solve their 'enterprise' problems -- and making it straightforward enough they can do it -- would have a huge impact. The man hours wasted because no super smart person has gone and fixed these things yet is ... hard to estimate ... 500k programmers * 400 hrs a year? Probably more than that :( It is very, very hard to fix these things. There is a lot of momentum behind the way things are done now. And a lot of thought and evolution went into them. I don't mean to put down all the people who haven't vastly improved the status quo. I'm just saying there are ways one can make a very large impact without doing medicine. And there are lots of more medium sized, approachable programming problems to be solved that would have a much larger impact than a new calendar with slightly better ajax, so maybe we should encourage people to look for those.

Hope that was interesting and helpful.

PS I have an idea for saving the world (nothing to do with the above, or with medicine, actually) that you might be interested in, but I don't want to post about it in public. My email is curi@curi.us Email me or post your email and I'll tell you.

Good points. I agree with you.

[One of the reasons I put so many disclaimers in my post is that I was worried I would come off as a self-righteous prick who was saying what people are doing now is not good enough and everyone should go into medicine. Which is totally not the case.] You also make me feel better, because you made a looong post too. I don't feel as windy now.

Non-medicine ideas sound even better to me actually, because then I can maybe understand them ('circle of competence' and all that.) The guy that started the self-sustaining business selling mosquito nets made by local workers for malaria prevention had the type of idea I'm interested in.

Is my email address not showing up in my profile? It's dcphillips /AT/ runbox /DOT/ com.

> Why do people make ajax websites like that?

Because it's a get-rich-quick scheme.

> This is capitalism at its finest.

Twitter? Facebook? I absolutely agree.

> There is an idea that the richest country doesn't need more help, doesn't need further luxury.

Are you talking about Norway? Or Luxembourg? Or Switzerland? They're all richer than the US. In fact, with the current drop in the dollar, and if Current Account is factored in to the GDP, the US is not in the top 20. (Income from debt is not the same as earning it.)

> We are the richest country because we have the most productive people.

Nope. Most European countries have higher productivity. And more vacation to boot.

While it's true, increased productivity is great and valuable, I'd argue very little Web 2.0 increases productivity at all. Quite the opposite. YouTube, for example, has opened up whole new worlds of ways to waste time.

I'm sorry if this comes across mean. I thought exactly the same way at 19. (And I'm from Berkeley too.) But please travel a bit before you spit out more of the platitudes that you're fed every day as an American. When you come back and trip over the homeless on Shattuck, you'll understand that America has squandered its inheritance like a trust fund kid.

It comes across as not just mean but mistaken.

You didn't even respond to his statement. He said America has the most productive people. You replied that average productivity is higher in Europe. That is a different measure. European countries don't have so many super poor people as the US, which makes their average numbers look better, but they also don't have Google (or Microsoft or Apple or Intel or Cisco...).

That's a fair response. (And I apologize if I came across mean.) But I can mathematically prove you wrong. (I'm sure you'll prefer that, right? :-) If you look at average incomes and median incomes, the former are higher than the latter. Therefore it's the super rich throwing off the average -- not the super poor.

America has a venture culture that no one else in the world has, and I have to say as an entrepreneur myself that I deeply appreciate America for imparting that on me. But its handful of successes are rouge on a doll. If you're not looking at averages, you're essentially fooling yourself. How many people here are working on the next MySpace, desperate to get lucky and rich, and ignoring the odds and the fact that they're not adding value to anyone, anywhere? Like lottery ticket buyers, they're all fooling themselves that they will join that rich elite, when they never will (despite that, yes, sometimes someone wins).

PG mentioned productivity and you mentioned income, so you aren't addressing the example criticism.

Also, I've heard that France has higher productivity per hour worked, though the average worker spends fewer hours working.

My guess is that people cheat the limits on working to get more done and push up the hourly productivity numbers.

... which is OK if the example criticism has no valid measurement parameters. There's a reason Forbes doesn't list the 100 most productive people.

The most productive people aren't the top 100 people. They are the top ~10,000 at the top ~1000 companies and startups.

A magazine should make a list of the top 500 companies...

What statement of mine did you just mathematically prove wrong?

If the super-rich are throwing off the average, then unless they're getting the money by stealing it, that supports curi's and my claim that the most productive people are in the US.

This one:

> European countries don't have so many super poor people as the US, which makes their average numbers look better

Your statement that the most productive people are in the US, is another way to say that wealth in unevenly distributed in the US. In this case, the most "productive" people would actually be in Saudi Arabia.

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact