More linky, less thinky

Now that most of my brain is occupied with finishing The Fucking Dissertation (expect to see that term pop up more often), I have less energy for writing long rambling wankfests insightful and incisive posts.  So, here: have a bunch of links.


We begin with some more commentary on the P vs. NP problem, all by Scott Aaronson (who’s much better at this stuff than I am).  First, an intuitive synopsis of (a) what “P vs. NP” means, and (b) why we should care:

(In a just world, the staff of IDG Books would be devoured by ravenous ferrets for imposing that fucking “dummies” meme upon us.  C’mon, Pangloss, explain that one to me.)

My favourite interpretation:

Is it harder to solve a math problem yourself than to check a solution by someone else? [[This is where you insert a comment about the delicious irony, that P vs. NP itself is a perfect example of a monstrously-hard problem for which we could nevertheless recognize a solution if we saw one—and hence, part of the explanation for why it’s so hard to prove P≠NP is that P≠NP…]]

Next, while nobody’s yet proven that P≠NP, damn near everyone believes that P≠NP.  Here’s why:

Cherry-picking again, and referencing the interpretation of P vs. NP above:

If P=NP, then by that very fact, one would on general grounds expect a proof of P=NP to be easy to find. On the other hand, if P!=NP, then one would on general grounds expect a proof of P!=NP to be difficult to find. So believing P!=NP seems to yield a more ‘consistent’ picture of mathematical reality.


If P=NP, then the world would be a profoundly different place than we usually assume it to be. There would be no special value in “creative leaps,” no fundamental gap between solving a problem and recognizing the solution once it’s found. Everyone who could appreciate a symphony would be Mozart; everyone who could follow a step-by-step argument would be Gauss; everyone who could recognize a good investment strategy would be Warren Buffett. It’s possible to put the point in Darwinian terms: if this is the sort of universe we inhabited, why wouldn’t we already have evolved to take advantage of it?


Next we find Robin Hanson being… himself:

Here’s some delicious irony:

An initial study investigating tolerance of group members who abuse a public good surprisingly showed that unselfish members (those who gave much toward the provision of the good but then used little of the good) were also targets for expulsion from the group. Two follow-up studies replicated this and ruled out explanations grounded in the target being seen as confused or unpredictable. A fourth study suggested that the target is seen by some as establishing an undesirable behavior standard and by others as a rule breaker. Individuals who formed either perception expressed a desire for the unselfish person to be removed from the group.

Libertarians are often vilified as selfish and heartless extremists with no sympathy for society’s greater interests.  Now it turns out that altruists are vilified with dreary consistency, because their selfless and heartful extremism and sympathy for society’s greater interests makes grass-eaters uncomfortable.  I’m surprised that Robin (of all people) didn’t point out that charity is a status symbol: “I have so much stuff that I can afford to give some of it away”.  (Maybe he thought it was too obvious.)

As if on cue, we have by way of Popehat this exasperating polemic against the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation:

Apparently the problem with charity is that there’s too much freedom involved:

Peter Krämer, a Hamburg-based shipping magnate and multimillionaire, has emerged as one of the strongest critics of the “Giving Pledge.” Krämer, who donated millions of euros in 2005 to “Schools for Africa,” a program operated by UNICEF, explained his opposition to the Gates initiative in a SPIEGEL interview.


“You can write donations off in your taxes to a large degree in the USA. So the rich make a choice: Would I rather donate or pay taxes? The donors are taking the place of the state. That’s unacceptable.


“It is all just a bad transfer of power from the state to billionaires. So it’s not the state that determines what is good for the people, but rather the rich want to decide. That’s a development that I find really bad. What legitimacy do these people have to decide where massive sums of money will flow?


“In this case, 40 superwealthy people want to decide what their money will be used for. That runs counter to the democratically legitimate state. In the end the billionaires are indulging in hobbies that might be in the common good, but are very personal.”

Krämer’s tirade is a dangling invitation towards Godwin’s Law, but rather than indulge in dubious historical analogies about “the democratically legitimate state” I will instead refer to Milton Friedman:

There are four ways in which you can spend money. You can spend your own money on yourself. When you do that, why then you really watch out what you’re doing, and you try to get the most for your money. Then you can spend your own money on somebody else. For example, I buy a birthday present for someone. Well, then I’m not so careful about the content of the present, but I’m very careful about the cost. Then, I can spend somebody else’s money on myself. And if I spend somebody else’s money on myself, then I’m sure going to have a good lunch! Finally, I can spend somebody else’s money on somebody else. And if I spend somebody else’s money on somebody else, I’m not concerned about how much it is, and I’m not concerned about what I get.

When Gates, Buffet, and &c. personally donate to charity, their names are on the cheques and they have a decided interest in seeing that the money is spent well.  They have good incentives.  When the German government spends money it taxed from Krämer, or for that matter when the American government spends money it taxed from Gates and Buffet, those incentives shift wildly.

Krämer, on the other hand, has strong incentives to vilify the charitable.  From earlier in the article:

For most people that is too ostentatious,” said the asset manager of one of the billionaires contacted by Gates

That, folks, is selfishness — not the enlightened self-interest that is frequently mistaken therefor.  “Oh, sure, I could give money to a good cause, but then people might say mean things about me on the internet!”  (Newsflash, shitbird: people on the internet will say mean things about you regardless.)


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