Skip to main content

Readings: 3 Apr 2016

John D. Cook, on the relationship between credentials and knowledge:

When I was in college, a friend of mine gave me a math book that I found hard to get through. When I complained about it, he told me “You’re going to finish a PhD someday. When you do, do you think there’s going to be fairy dust on the diploma that’s going to enable you to do anything you can’t do now?”

As John Roderick points out, even Bono has a boss.

Nate Soares wrote an extended series of blog posts on replacing guilt in your repertoire of motivational tactics, starting with combating the vague ennui of not knowing how to spend your time:

Nihilists may tell you that nothing matters, that there is no altruism, that people only do what they want to, and these are all traps that lead to the listless guilt. They help people half-convince themselves that nothing matters, and then the other half of them, which fails to be fooled, goes on yearning for something more.

So if you’re experiencing nihilism along with a vague sense of discomfort or guilt, consider taking a moment to remind yourself that it is possible for you to care about things beyond yourself, for non-selfish reasons.

This whole series is excellent (I’m probably halfway through). I am particularly impressed by the posts on the problem with the word should. There is no external authority imposing moral obligations on you, only your own values. When you say “should”, you skip the essential process of reasoning through which action is most in alignment with your values, by imposing guilt to make the options unambiguous. But if you say you should do something and don’t, that probably means there were other factors it would have been helpful to take into account (e.g. you’re too tired to make effective progress on the taxes right now). Stop trying to set up some kind of deontological guilt factory around your values, reckon directly with tradeoffs, and then act.

Aligning your short term incentives with your reflective values is, of course, challenging, but wielding “should” is an ineffective way to do it. I use Beeminder because it depersonalizes the choice and gives me an easy-to-analyze tradeoff. Running or not running today is no longer a difficult decision between identities (active or intellectual) – rather, it’s a choice between the money or the time. My long-term, reflective values can be fully intrinsic, aided by a short-term extrinsic motivator.

Oliver Keyes unpacks some of the historical oddities in the R programming language.

As a general rule of thumb, if you encounter something truly ludicrous, don’t know where it comes from, and don’t see it listed here, randomly select from one of the following explanations:

  1. Backwards-compatibility.
  2. Nobody thought it was important to get right at the time.
  3. That still exists?! I thought we’d removed tha- oh, wait, backwards-compatibility.
  4. Scheme did that.
  5. S did that.
  6. APL did that.
  7. Lisp did that.
  8. That’s the only use case late-20th century pure statisticians have, and if it’s good enough for us it should be good enough for you.
  9. Are you kidding?! If we’d done it that way it wouldn’t work on Solaris 8!

I am – to my chagrin – getting interested in Bitcoin. Rick Falkvinge (of the Swedish Pirate Party) argues that cryptocurrency will break taxation on wealth and income, requiring a shift to consumption taxes and basic income as the new tools of the welfare state. My original reaction to Bitcoin was something along the lines of “ding-dong reactionaries burn electricity on otherwise pointless computations because burying gold in the backyard is insufficiently geeky”.

However, in the wake of the FBI asking Apple to create a more crackable iOS, even a government-friendly liberal like me starts to warm up to phrases like “decentralized trust”. Now I have some books on the way and my tin-foil hat is at the ready. In the meantime, maybe I should re-read Cryptonomicon.