On effective altruism, longtermism, crypto bro billionaires, and the boringness of maintenance

This morning I was reading a Vox article entitled How effective altruism let Sam Bankman-Fried happen, and if that title isn’t enough to scare you off, the first few paragraphs probably will be.

Of course, I am a glutton for punishment, especially when people in their third decade think they have solutions to all of the world’s problems. Not to be a crusty curmudgeon, even though as a “Gen X”er it seems to be my destiny. I just feel like you have to have first-hand memories of the 1980s for proper context on what’s happening today. Or maybe not, but you at least need to be even more cynical about the claimed promise of crypto than the author here. You know, cynical enough to not take the money in the first place.

The problem actually is longtermism

One section of the article begins with the subhead “The problem isn’t longtermism.” But I would argue that, in fact, it is the problem. Or rather, it’s one of a cluster of problems that all come out of the heads of people who think they are smarter than everyone else and somehow have The Answers that are beyond the grasp of mere mortals.

It’s the same mentality that lets a person make the choices (often building on past choices by their forbearers, the ones who allowed them to be “born on third base, thinking they’d hit a triple”) that lead to becoming a billionaire in the first place. It’s a status that can only be achieved on the backs of others.

But whether you’re a billionaire striver, an aspiring Mars colonist, just an ordinary “maker,” or a grandiose philosopher of the distant future, the common thread is that it’s more fun, more inspiring, to invent something — to inhabit a fresh, clean, newly-constructed mental space — than to do the messy, mundane, boring work of maintaining what we already have. Of cleaning up other people’s messes. Of learning how someone else’s invention works, because they’ve moved on to the Next Big Thing and now you’re the one charged with keeping the previous Next Big Thing up and running.

I get it. It’s the same for me, in many ways. I’m a “maker.” I work as a consultant, brought in to create new systems, that then get handed off to internal staff to keep running, while I move on to the next client. But I’m not claiming to solve all of the world’s problems; I’m just making something new that people ask me for when their old thing stops working.

OK, the problem actually is billionaires. Period.

It’s dangerous when the means to solve society’s big problems are concentrated in the hands of a small group of billionaires, and we are left to trust their vision for how that money should be used. These are the guys (and it’s pretty much always guys — bros, if you will) who get that thrill out of grandiose thinking, who don’t want to deal with the messy realities all around us. They don’t want to fix problems. They want to invent something, clean and shiny and new. Don’t clean up Earth; move to Mars. Don’t improve public transportation, distract us with ludicrous promises of tunnels and tubes, so we buy your fancy new cars instead. Don’t do the hard, complicated work to improve the actual lives of the billions of humans who are living in poverty today; concoct some imaginary future event that might kill billions of people, and invent a fancy new high-tech gizmo that will prevent that event from happening.

Later on, the article does get into a lot of the problems with big longtermist philosophy and silver spoon crypto bros who think they understand all of the world’s problems better than anyone who actually has any of those problems in their own lives.

But ultimately, for me, it all simply comes back to the idea that billionaires shouldn’t exist. And since they shouldn’t exist, they shouldn’t be making decisions about how to fund solutions to society’s problems.

ST:TNG Treadmill Review #11: Samaritan Snare

Samaritan Snare
Season 2 Episode 17
Original airdate: May 13, 1989

Netflix Synopsis

With Picard away for routine surgery, the Enterprise responds to a distress call from a Pakled vessel.

My Brief Review

Structured like an episode of The Love Boat, this is a mostly entertaining but not great episode. In one storyline, Picard and Wesley spend 6 hours on a shuttlecraft to Starbase 515, where Wes will take exams and Picard is going for what turns out to be a heart transplant. In the other storyline, Riker and the Enterprise deal with a ship full of simpletons on a ship full of stolen technology that is beyond their comprehension. They kidnap Geordi, but a clever ruse by the Enterprise bridge officers saves the day.

Then, with Picard’s surgery going awry, the Enterprise travels at warp 9 to get to the starbase so Dr. Pulaski can save his life. Which makes one wonder why the whole shuttlecraft scenario happened at all. (Bad writing!)

Memorable Moment

Communicating with Geordi in front of the Pakleds, Riker, Data and Worf speak in code to relay their plan to rescue Geordi from his dimwitted captors. Worf gets quasi-mystical for a moment.

Crew Rando

It’s the return of Ensign Gomez! I expected her appearance in the previous episode to be a one-off, but she’s still here… presumably because the story needed someone in engineering, and we don’t really know anyone there besides Geordi.

Distance Rating: 5K

IMDb score: 6.6/10

Introducing my new album… a ROCK OPERA no less… 8-Bit Time Machine!

Anyone who’s following me on the social medias knows I’ve been working for the past couple of months on what is probably my most absurdly ambitious solo music project to date: a rock opera with a retro-geeky theme.

The album is finished. I’m still working on perfecting the masters before I release it for download and get CDs pressed, but you can now immerse yourself in the full 8-Bit Time Machine experience over on the new website I’ve set up for the album:


The website features a page for each of the album’s 11 tracks, where you can listen to the track while reading the lyrics and notes about the story. (Note: As the audio is in MP3 format, it will work in Firefox. Any other modern browser that supports HTML5 audio will play the tracks automatically.)

Stay tuned for more information about a final release date!

8-Bit Time Machine

P.S. Yes, there is a track (a rather musical one at that) consisting of nothing but sounds from Atari 2600 games.

P.P.S. Yes, there is also one track with full-on autotuned vocals. How do I rationalize this use of one of my most despised audio technologies? You’ll just have to listen to figure it out.

CSS snag of the day: images in tables with max-width set, not displaying properly in Firefox

When did Firefox become such a steaming pile?

OK, that’s not how I intended to start this. Just kinda had to get it out there. Anyway, a client brought an unusual bug with their website to my attention today.

Since embracing responsive web design last year, I’ve become quite fond of using this little bit of code to make images resize dynamically to fit their containers:

img {
  height: auto;
  max-width: 100%;
  width: auto;

Most of the time this little bit of CSS works magic. But in this particular case, it did not. The client has put together a table on a page to present a set of photos of board members. In most browsers, the table looks great and is fluidly scaling down the images. But in Firefox, we found it was clumsily overflowing its borders, rendering the images at their full sizes.

After working my way through a few surprisingly unhelpful posts on Stack Overflow, I found my way to this, which seemed to hold an only-too-simple answer:

table {
  table-layout: fixed;

I don’t know about you, but I never use table-layout. I’ve come to realize there’s a whole realm of CSS that I just basically never touch, because it’s (usually) completely unnecessary to the way I build pages. But every once in a while, these things come in handy. Turns out, table-layout: fixed was exactly what I needed to — BOOM! — fix the problem with the too-large table images in Firefox.

And, suddenly, CSS was magic again.

RegisTrap 0.4 released

Luckily the bug in RegisTrap I discovered yesterday after upgrading to WordPress 2.7 turned out to be a very minor one. I just had to move the return $errors; line outside of a conditional in my function to ensure that it’s always returned, even if no error value was set. In the previous version of WordPress, it didn’t matter that if there were no errors the function was returning… well, nothing… but in the new version it seems you can’t apply an error handling filter without returning a WP_Error object.

Anyway… it works now, and you can download version 0.4 right now from my site. I’ve also checked it into the main WordPress Subversion repository, so it should be showing up on the official site sometime fairly soon. Enjoy!

Special thanks to Jenny for happening to try registering for the site within about 8 hours after I had upgraded, and bringing the problem to my attention. Otherwise I might have gone days or weeks without knowing the plugin was broken!

It’s definitely still necessary though, because in about a day of running my site without the plugin I had already received over a half dozen spam registrations.