Malthusianisms

(See also: Umeshisms, Anthropicisms)

Why, in real life, do we ever encounter hard instances of NP-complete problems?  Because if it’s too easy to find a 10,000-mile TSP tour, we ask for a 9,000-mile one.

Why are even some affluent parts of the world running out of fresh water?  Because if they weren’t, they’d keep watering their lawns until they were.

Why don’t we live in the utopia dreamed of by sixties pacifists and their many predecessors?  Because if we did, the first renegade to pick up a rock would become a Genghis Khan.

Why can’t everyone just agree to a family-friendly, 40-hour workweek?  Because then anyone who chose to work a 90-hour week would clean our clocks.

Why do native speakers of the language you’re studying talk too fast for you to understand them?  Because otherwise, they could talk faster and still understand each other.

Why is science hard?   Because so many of the easy problems have been solved already.

Why do the people you want to date seem so cruel, or aloof, or insensitive?  Maybe because, when they aren’t, you conclude you must be out of their league and lose your attraction for them.

Why does it cost so much to buy something to wear to a wedding?  Because if it didn’t, the fashion industry would invent more extravagant ‘requirements’ until it reached the limit of what people could afford.

Why do you cut yourself while shaving?  Because when you don’t, you conclude that you’re not shaving close enough.


These Malthusianisms share the properties that (1) they seem so obvious, once stated, as not to be worth stating, yet (2) whole ideologies, personal philosophies, and lifelong habits have been founded on the refusal to understand them.

Again and again, I’ve undergone the humbling experience of first lamenting how badly something sucks, then only much later having the crucial insight that its not sucking wouldn’t have been a Nash equilibrium.  Clearly, then, I haven’t yet gotten good enough at Malthusianizing my daily life—have you?

One might even go further, and speculate that human beings’ blind spot for this sort of explanation is why it took so long for Malthus himself (and his most famous disciple, Darwin) to come along.

Feel free to suggest your own Mathusianisms in the comments section.

60 Responses to “Malthusianisms”

  1. Paul Carpenter Says:

    I’m really bothered by the ‘someone would chose to work 90 hours’ one. What do I care if someone is earning more than me so long as I’m living comfortably?

    Actually there’s a few of those I disagree with. I think weapons profileration can be a Nash equilibrium without the scale continuously accelerating upwards – if no-one can ICBMs and WMDs then I don’t think so many countries would be aiming for them.

  2. informatimago Says:

    Why, in real life, do we ever encounter hard instances of NP-complete problems? Because if it’s too easy to find a 10,000-mile TSP tour, we ask for a 9,000-mile one.

    * The Internet.

    Why are even some affluent parts of the world running out of fresh water? Because if they weren’t, they’d keep watering their lawns until they were.

    * Desalting plants.

    Why don’t we live in the utopia dreamed of by sixties pacifists and their many predecessors? Because if we did, the first renegade to pick up a rock would become a Genghis Khan.

    * Still working on it, but in the meantime: the TV (brainwashing) and the Police.

    Why can’t everyone just agree to a family-friendly, 40-hour workweek? Because then anyone who chose to work a 90-hour week would clean our clocks.

    * 35-hour work week in France. Not that it’s perfect (counting the heavy taxes too), but there’s enough productivity increments that we still can have a few competing international enterprises.

    Why do native speakers of the language you’re studying talk too fast for you to understand them? Because otherwise, they could talk faster and still understand each other.

    * Google Translate. Ok, still working on it.

    Why is science hard? Because so many of the easy problems have been solved already.

    * It wouldn’t be funny otherwise.

    Why do the people you want to date seem so cruel, or aloof, or insensitive? Maybe because, when they aren’t, you conclude you must be out of their league and lose your attraction for them.

    * Professionnal services? (ie. that was the first problem solved, no?)

    Why does it cost so much to buy something to wear to a wedding? Because if it didn’t, the fashion industry would invent more extravagant `requirements’ until it reached the limit of what people could afford.

    * Just say no.

    Why do you cut yourself while shaving? Because when you don’t, you conclude that you’re not shaving close enough.

    * Philips electrical razor.

    In conclusion: all these malthusianisms are circumvented by human ingenuity, and the main tool to nullify them is exactly science, which is why it is so fun.

  3. Michael Mitzenmacher Says:

    You do mean if it’s too hard to find 10,000 mile tour, not too easy, right?

  4. Allan Crossman Says:

    No, it’s easier to find a 10,000 mile tour than a 9,000 mile one.

  5. Vijay Prozak Says:

    Why are businesses so callously run for profit, eschewing social and moral imperatives? Because if they weren’t, they’d be comparatively more expensive than their competition.

    Why are people infested with hatred for those who have more intelligence, wealth, beauty or kindness? Because if they don’t try to destroy them, they’ll face an ever-widening competitive gap.

  6. Seamus Says:

    When looking for something, why is it always in the last place you look? Because once you’ve found it you stop looking

  7. John Sidles Says:

    Feynman’s writings are a rich source of Malthusianistic questions — albeit (for some reason) it’s not Feynman’s style to give Umeshistic answers … we have to supply these for ourselves.

    ———-

    Q: Why was Feynman correct in saying “A very great deal more truth can become known than can be proven”?

    A: Because knowing something is a necessary precondition to proving it.

    ———-

    Q: If mathematics is rigorous, why was Feynman correct in saying “I have mathematically proven to myself so many things that aren’t true”?

    A: Because conceiving a broad creative context for a proof is generically harder than discovering the deductive logic for a proof.

    ———-

    Feynman’s line of reasoning can be extended into the 21st century pretty easily.

    Q: Why do 21st century engineering courses place increasing emphasis on theorems rather than knowledge?

    A: Because for the same expense as one experimental group, a Dean can support two theoretical groups, or three theorem-proving groups.

  8. sep332 Says:

    @Paul: You’ll care when they fire you and hire that guy instead.

  9. Michael Nielsen Says:

    Why do we spend so much of our lives dealing with hard problems? Because we solve the easy ones so quickly.

  10. Osias Says:

    * Just say no.

    She simply won’t let you say no, informatimago

  11. tim Says:

    Why do we imagine? Because our ancestors imagined the demise of their competitors, and their competitors did not.

    Why does pain exist? Because your central nervous system imagines a better future, even if that future is not physically possible.

    Why is there suffering? Because your brain imagines a better future, even if you do not know how to create it.

    Why is there tragedy? Because we can imagine the inevitability of suffering.

    Why does God exist? Because reconciling tragedy with imagining our own success and the demise of our competitors is computationally expensive.

    Does most software suck? Because doing it right is expensive.

    Why do blogs exist? Because journalism is expensive.

    Why do blog comments exist? Because they are cheap.

    Why haven’t economists taken over the world? Because the ambitious ones are too busy running hedge funds and lobbying to write papers and be recognized as economists.

  12. tim Says:

    That should be “Why does most software suck?” of course.

  13. John Sidles Says:

    Tim says: Why does pain exist? Because your central nervous system imagines a better future, even if that future is not physically possible.

    Tim, your Malthusianism (or maybe it should be called a Diderotism?) receives a wonderfully thought-provoking development in orthopaedic surgeon Paul Wilson Brand’s book The Gift of Pain.

    Dr. Brand works with leprosy patients whose peripheral nervous system is so affected as to, paradoxically, deprive them of this gift … the consequences are more terrible than the experience of pain itself. I have heard Dr. Brand lecture on many occasions, and his analysis and insights are greatly respected by practicing physicians.

    A book well worth reading for anyone who has pondered the complexities of why suffering exists.

  14. John Armstrong Says:

    My grandfather was fond of saying that you always find something in the last place you look.

  15. Bram Cohen Says:

    Why is it so unaffordable to live in cities? Because if it cost less, more people would move in.

    Why is it so difficult to raise children? Because the children who don’t demand as many resources when they’re younger have fewer children of their own.

    Why are so many people having to get fertility treatment to have children? Because if they stayed fertile longer, they’d put off having children even more.

    Why do new products and technologies suck so badly? Because if they were mature, they wouldn’t be new.

    No malthusianism for the costs of health care in the US, that one’s just out of control.

  16. Bram Cohen Says:

    Why is it so difficult to save money? Because if everybody saved, it would result in inflation.

  17. Bram Cohen Says:

    Why are people so plain-looking? Because if they looked better, we’d raise our standards.

  18. Bram Cohen Says:

    Why can you never keep up with your todo list? Because if you cross off too many things, you add more.

  19. John Sidles Says:

    Michael Nielsen asks: Why do we spend so much of our lives dealing with hard problems?

    That is a question that has many answers. “Because we solve the easy ones so quickly” is one good answer, and yet the literature of utopian/dystopian societies supplies many alternative.

    George Orwell’s Animal Farm (and many other Orwell writings) suggests “Ruling classes focus upon hard problems to ensure that proletarian productivity remains high.”

    Jared Diamond’s Collapse suggest “Because we reject classes of questions whose answers upset the prevailing social order.”

    Similarly, Jonathan Israel’s analysis of the Enlightenment suggests “Sponsoring agencies prefer hard questions with [politically] moderate answers, to easy questions with [politically] radical answers.”

    Paul Dirac’s writings suggest that “Golden Eras of important questions with easy answers [like the early years of QM] don’t last long.”

  20. wolfgang Says:

    >> Why do the people you want to date seem so cruel, or aloof, or insensitive?

    I think a much more Malthusian explanation would be
    “because the nice ones were already picked up by somebody else earlier”

  21. MattF Says:

    Malthus overcame his ‘blind spot’ at the moment the modern age began, that is, at the moment that an alternative was becoming possible. He couldn’t have seen it sooner– if he had, it would have been because an alternative was visible sooner. See “A Farewell to Alms”

  22. John Sidles Says:

    Gregory Clark’s A Farewell to Alms articulates the economic gospel of the Moderate Enlightenment; Jonathan Israel’s Radical Enlightenment and Enlightenment Contested articulates the moral and scientific gospel of the Radical Enlightenment.

    It is notable that Prof. Clark speaks mainly in his own voice, while Prof. Israel speaks not in his own voice, but in the voices of Spinoza, Bayle, Condercet, Diderot (and dozens more voices of the Enlightenment, both Radical and Moderate).

    Opinions may differ … my own is that Israel’s account is far more comprehensive and compelling than Clark’s. It’s got a whole lot more details too. As one of the Amazon reviewers of Radical Enlightenment says “No number of stars is enough for this book. The scholarship is amazing, the narrative clear and fascinating from start to finish, the topic more relevant than ever.”

    We are all of us (most of us?) agents of the Enlightenment. The Dylanesque question (“which side are you on?”) for the 21st century is, which Enlightment? Moderate or Radical? Locke/Newton or Spinoza/Leibniz? Clark’s or Israel’s?

    The question “Why do we do science/math/engineering?” relates directly to these centuries-old issues.

  23. Macbi Says:

    @wolfgang

    I believe that’s also the answer to:

    “Why are all the good skimming stones so far from the sea?”

  24. Jay Levitt Says:

    wolfgang’s reply reminds me of the comic who said you should never buy the last apple at the supermarket, because three thousand people were there before you were, and every last one of them decided to buy any apple but that one.

    (Which goes to the economists joke: Two economists are walking down the street. One sees a hundred-dollar dollar bill lying on the sidewalk, and says so. “Obviously not,” says the other. “If there were, someone would have picked it up!”)

    Back to Malthusianisms: Debugging is twice as hard as writing the code in the first place. Therefore, if you write the code as cleverly as possible, you are, by definition, not smart enough to debug it. (Brian Kernighan)

    Why is the public sector so inefficient? Because markets create incredible efficiencies. But some endeavours don’t lend themselves to a market, yet are important enough that we declare they need doing, so we assign them to the public sector. Therefore, the public sector is comprised of precisely those things for which “turning it over to the market” isn’t a realistic option. (paraphrased from Matthew Yglesias)

  25. Michael Maxwell Says:

    Vijay Prozak says:
    Why are businesses so callously run for profit, eschewing social and moral imperatives? Because if they weren’t, they’d be comparatively more expensive than their competition.

    Didn’t Darwin’s most (in)famous disciple, Karl Marx, say this? If not him, then Marx’s most famous disciple, Frederich Engels.

    > Why do native speakers of the language you’re studying
    > talk too fast for you to understand them?

    Why do they slow down when you understand them? Because you understand them.

  26. John Sidles Says:

    Hmmm … “Why do (even) scientists analyze contemporary economic phenomena in simplistic free-market terms, without reference to ongoing advances in (for example) cognitive science, primatology, and the history of the Enlightenment?”

    Is it because—as Irish historian Frank O’Connor said of the Irish nation circa 1800—we scientists are collectively “a bookless, backward, superstitious race that has scarcely emerged from the twilight of mythology?”

    Do we scientists prefer comforting mythologies to the awkward realities of the human condition?

    As Luke Skywalker famously said: “No … that can’t be true … that’s impossible!!!” :)

    By the way … I give the Irish tremendous credit for their advances in understanding and mitigating “The Troubles” … if we scientists can help humanity arrive at a similarly mature understanding and mitigating of our planetary troubles, then we too will deserve great credit. Otherwise, not.

  27. ass. prof. Says:

    Scott — what is the difference between an Umeshism and a Malthusianism?

  28. Aviva Says:

    Why did that bee sting you? Because if someone else had pissed it off first, it would be dead already.

    Why have bedbugs returned to the industrialized world? Because if they hadn’t, our hygiene would just deteriorate until they did.

    I can’t think of an example on which a philosophy or ideology is based. Why not? Because the obvious ones have been suggested already.

  29. harrison Says:

    I’m not Scott, but I think that one major difference between Umeshisms and Mathusianisms is that the latter deals with “is,” while the former deals with “ought.”

    Technically, Scott, you’re skirting some tricky stuff with the TSP one — I don’t think you can prove to me unconditionally (or even conditional on P != NP) that we can get hard SAT instances by “moving away from easy solutions.” (Indeed, if you could, then Impagliazzo’s Heuristica wouldn’t exist! I do think that this is probably true in the real world, though.)

    Why are steroids epidemic in pro sports? Because if you’re not juiced, you’ll get crushed by someone who is.

  30. c23 Says:

    Why do we live with lots of roommates in small apartments?

    Because if we didn’t, someone who did would bid the price up.

    OK, so that one is a work in progress. Come back in 200 years.

  31. c23 Says:

    Why are the outermost exurbs such a long drive from the city?

    Because if they were closer, someone would build more further our.

  32. John Sidles Says:

    Scott’s essay is pretty clear that a “Malthusian” explanation is one that explains a seemingly “sucky” state-of-things as being, in actuality, adaptive in some Darwin/Nash/Malthusian sense.

    The resulting chains of thought have a transgressive aspect to them that is similar to a zen koan, or to the humor of Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 (which is one long, bitterly sardonic, Malthusian narrative).

    E.g.: Why does mathematics focus on hard-to-prove theorems? Because without this focus, mathematicians could not justify the personal commitment that is needed to prove those hard theorems.

    Another example is the soon-to-be-famous Investor’s Business Daily (IBD) editorial that condemned British-style healthcare reform on the startling grounds that:

    People such as scientist Stephen Hawking wouldn’t have a chance in the U.K., where the National Health Service would say the life of this brilliant man, because of his physical handicaps, is essentially worthless.

    Now, the IBD editors aren’t morons, so why is it adaptive for IBD to publish moronic editorials?

    Complexity theory suggests a good answer: there is an opportunity cost in analyzing any complex system … and so there is an adaptive benefit in refusing to analyze complex systems by substituting simplistic ideology instead.

    IBD readers (by and large) can afford good health-care plans … there is no percentage for them in wasting mental energy thinking about complex issues of social justice … energy that could be put to profitable use (for example) in mathematically analyzing and exploiting market disequilibria.

    So the IBD editors aren’t morons … but nonetheless they reason moronically … and are in-denial about it … which leaves them open to ridicule by outsiders … isn’t there a mighty sobering lesson here for the math/science/engineering community?

  33. Sim Says:

    Why mosquitoes sting where you can not scratch? Because this is where you can not hint!

  34. otakucode Says:

    40 hours a week is family friendly? How about 20? Life shouldn’t be about producing so that others can capitalize on your work, it should be about capitalizing on your own work. We are in a position as a society to again realize this as a practicality thanks to the Internet. It’ll take a great deal of change, especially in ways of thinking… we’ve been so convinced by the company owners for so long that working for them and filling their pockets qualifies as “working hard” and “being productive” and we simply take it as natural that we sacrifice almost all benefit of our labors. Companies are terribly inefficient. How much is wasted simply maintaining their structure, providing nothing that gives anyone benefit or joy?

  35. Silas Says:

    @John_Sidles: What an astonishingly ignorant doctor Brand is! For every case of severe pain that directs you to do something important for yourself, there’s at least one case of severe pain that isn’t alerting you to anything important, any abnormality that presents threat, and merely serves to distract your mind from actually doing something important, and making your life suck.

    I guess you’ve never had any contact with someone who’s suffered from chronic pain? I guess you’ve never dealt with pointless chronic pain yourself? If you want, I can change that.

    (Recent Less wrong discussion about pain.)

  36. Jair Says:

    From Scott’s examples I surmise that his definition of a Malthusianism is an everyday variable that seems to obey logistic growth, generally in the less pleasant direction.

    Why do some religions dole out such horrible pain to non-believers in the afterlife?

    Because if they didn’t, another religion would first, and by Pascal’s Wager more followers would be attracted to the latter.

  37. Jay Levitt Says:

    Why is it said that if the Egyptians were smitten with ten plagues in Egypt, then in the Red Sea, they were smitten with fifty plagues?

    … oh, I’m sorry. Wrong blog.

  38. John Sidles Says:

    What an astonishingly ignorant doctor Brand is!

    Folks can refer to the Wikipedia page for “Paul Wilson Brand” & decide for themselves.

    It is true that every orthopaedist sees patients that suffer terribly from pain (reflex sympathetic dystrophy, for example, or phantom limb pain) and patients that suffer terribly from the absence of pain (diabetic neuropathy, for example).

    If it were easy for physicians to reconcile these contradictions, then Paul Brand would not have written about them … it definitely was not the intent of my post to minimize the very real suffering of either class of patient.

    The ability of modern medicine to heal these painful conditions is very limited … QIT/QIS does afford wonderful opportunities (in the long run) for doing better … this is one of the best things about QIT/QIS (for me, it is the very best thing).

  39. Scott Says:

    Otakucode: I didn’t expect that in this thread, someone would flat-out contradict a Malthusianism, without even offering a counterargument … and here I was worried that these arguments were all too obvious. :)

  40. joe Says:

    @John Sidles:

    Your comment #22 is very interesting. If you blogged about it, I would be very interested in hearing more.

  41. Silas Says:

    @John_Sidles: Folks can refer to the Wikipedia page for “Paul Wilson Brand” & decide for themselves.

    Er, okay, if that’s what you’re hanging your hat on, you’ve just given up as far as I’m concerned. It’s a very short article, with very little substantiation for his claim.

    When you defend pain, you have to ask, “compared to what?”. Pain is good insofar as it gives a signal “don’t do that” or “fix that”. But you don’t need “the sensation we recognize as pain” to signal that; you just need to signal the *information* that “you shouldn’t do that” or “you should get such-and-such looked at”.

    With these cases aside, pain is only good when it directs you, against your own akrasia (procrastination, laziness, apathy, etc.) or mental slowness to get something done. The canonical example would be letting go of a hot handle: you need to do it long before you could consciously reason that it would be a good idea. Or, knowing to get treatment for a growing tumor. (Oops, the pain doesn’t even kick in until it’s too late … there goes the rest of the case.)

    So really, the leprosy and diabetes don’t prove the value of pain, just the value of “knowing about tissue damage”, which, as I’ve shown, doesn’t require pain as such. Someone who doesn’t know the difference between learning about tissue damage, and the torturous experience of chronic pain unrelated to actual tissue damage, is far to ignorant to comment on the issue. Pain is nothing like the abstract knowledge that things might be better.

    And please, please don’t cite the lack of consensus among physicians as evidence for the difficulty of the issue. We all know how good they are about optimally reasoning from data. If the right solution stared the glorified union that is the AMA right in the face, they’d take years to even see it, let alone implement it as standard practice.

  42. John Sidles Says:

    Your comment #22 [about the contrasting roles of the Radical and Moderate Enlightenment vis-a-vis math and science] is very interesting. If you blogged about it, I would be very interested in hearing more.

    “Emerging themes of the 21st Century’s Moderate and Radical Enlightenments” would be my kinda blog … especially if it had a math/science/engineering focus … which is why I have been kinda hoping that someone else would focus on blogging about it.

    Heck, Professor Israel has needed 2000+ pages just to cover the years 1670-1752 of the Enlightenment.

    Our 21st Century Enlightenment “obviously” will be at least 20X more interesting than any previous century’s (IMHO) … so 40,000 pages to cover the next 90 years … that’s plenty of material for one (dense, scholarly, heavily annotated) blog page per day! :)

    We can ask: “Why is ‘Making sense of the 21st Century Enlightenment’ a major challenge for the 21st Century Enlightenment?”

    Don’t ask me! Maybe that question is too hard even to blog about?

  43. Carl Lumma Says:

    @Paul and @sep332: Even before they fire you, the people working 90 hours can bid up positional goods (housing, education, etc) until you’re relegated to a slum (the transition from 40 hours to 80 has in fact occurred since 1970, with the addition of women to the work force, and the extra wealth has largely been eaten by inflation in positional goods). A few generations after they fire you, your descendants could be forced onto reservations.

    Unions and French labor laws are examples of non-competition agreements that have enjoyed some success. I’ve been wondering if unions could be reinvented for the 21st century… Things like prediction markets and dominant assurance contracts are worth looking into…

  44. Jadagul Says:

    Carl: You don’t want to count housework in the ‘hours worked’ figures? It’s not like housewives prior to the feminist revolution were just lying around at home all day–they were working their asses off at home. As I recall, if you count housework and childcare the average person has the same amount or somewhat more free time now than he did ten, thirty, or fifty years ago. As for your point about positional inflation, that’s true but only applies to certain goods (the big one being houses, where what really matters to a lot of purchasers is getting into a good school district). The increased work led to us producing more actual stuff, and all of it goes somewhere.

  45. Carl Lumma Says:

    @Jadagul: I didn’t say anything about housework. Presumably, whatever housework people did in 1970 they also do today, or live dirtier. Sending the kids off to preschool is another quality-of-living hit, as I know first hand. Besides inflation caused by double incomes, there was the (mostly unrelated) problem of the decline in foreign demand for dollars and the ensuing collapse of Bretton Woods in 1973. The result is that U.S. families today have higher incomes, roughly equivalent standards of living, far less savings, and spend less time with their kids. See
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=akVL7QY0S8A#t=6m30s
    for some evidence.

  46. Carl Lumma Says:

    I wrote:
    > as I know first hand.

    On the Malthusian angle, I note that it’s no longer even much of an option in most neighborhoods, for the mother to stay at home, since other mothers and children are unlikely to be there to socialize with. Instead, they will likely have to drive to a scheduled event, which will likely cost money.

  47. csrster Says:

    How come, even though we’re all two-income families these days, it’s still a struggle to make mortgage payments? (Because if it wasn’t, house prices would rise to reflect our household income.)

    How come every banker and fund manager rushes headlong to invest in every market bubble? (Because the cautious ones lose their customers (and then their jobs) or get bought out by the fast-expanding risk-takers. )

  48. Augustine Says:

    Ah, the luxury of living in Europe, where people work 40-hour weeks (and less) and still have a pretty good standard of living. Not to mention public healthcare. And a much less screwed-up dating culture.

    But science is still hard.

  49. asdf Says:

    Why does nobody drive on the freeway during rush hour? There’s too much traffic.

  50. John Sidles Says:

    Medical education includes discussion of the subtle differences between sympathy and empathy:

    “In clinical encounters, empathy involves an effort to understand the patient’s experiences without joining them, whereas sympathy involves and effortless feeling of sharing or joining the patient’s pain and suffering.”

    It commonly happens that physicians have only sympathy to offer, while the suffering patient wants more … wants others to share in his/her suffering … sometimes for reasons of equity … “Does justice not require that others suffer as I suffer?” … and often loneliness too … “Why must I be alone in my suffering?”

    These are the toughest kind of questions that patients ask … questions to which physician training can supply only the roughest, most empirical answers.

    Perhaps not every question in the class “Why does this suck?” question has a “Malthusian” answer.

  51. Ninguem Says:

    @Carl Lumma:

    Washer/Dryer, Dishwasher, Vacuum cleaner, Microwave all became common in the 50s/60s and reduced the amount of housework needed to keep a house running, so by the 70s most people (read women) had less housework to do and could afford to be employed outside of the home. Of course, there are other reasons (e.g. birth control leading to smaller families, changes in social mores, etc.)

  52. orthonormal Says:

    Why does any good discussion on the Internet soon get swamped with low-quality comments?

    Because any conversation that no crackpots are interested in, must be pretty stale indeed.

  53. I. J. Kennedy Says:

    Why did the dog wag his tail? Because nobody would wag it for him.

  54. Pat Cahalan Says:

    @ informatimago

    > In conclusion: all these malthusianisms are
    > circumvented by human ingenuity

    No, they aren’t. Some of them may be, however.

    Someone needs to extend the idea of incompleteness into the technology sphere. Desalination plants add resources, they don’t reduce demand. Without both, you’re still going to hit your Nash equilibrium at “they keep watering their laws until they are”.

    @ tim

    Your editorial comment #12 is unnecessary and incorrect. All software does indeed suck. The best you can hope for is software compiled with the –suck-less flag.

  55. Dana Says:

    Why aren’t there more mathematical “geniuses”?

    Because those that are, are usually too busy solving problems that intrigue them, and feel special about themselves, to ensure others become as good.

    Because those that aren’t, know they aren’t, and if they see a “genius”, they admire him/her, instead of aspiring to be as good.

  56. MostlyAPragmatist Says:

    I have a pet peeve about drivers who complain about rubbernecking:

    Why does everyone slow down near an accident? Because if they didn’t they’d plow into the car that slowed down ahead of them (in other words, they slow down for the same reason you do.)

  57. matt Says:

    The problem is not drivers that slow near near an accident (they do that to avoid hitting the car in front, as said). It’s drivers that don’t speed back up as quickly as possible. Instead, once the path in front is open (because the driver in front is back at 70+mph instead of 30 mph), people like to wait for a little while, to see what was going on.

  58. Arkady Says:

    Why do all metaphors (“A is B”) eventually break down? Because if they didn’t, A really would be the same as B and it would not be a metaphor.

  59. 60naranja Says:

    “Why can’t everyone just agree to a family-friendly, 40-hour workweek? Because then anyone who chose to work a 90-hour week would clean our clocks.”

    Doesn’t this fail to take into account 1) diminishing returns (how much more productive is 90 hours a week versus 40?) and 2) social selection, where “cheaters” face ostracism from the larger society and therefore do not have access to the same resources (e.g., steroids in competitions, or, well, legislation in general)?

  60. Yaroslav Bulatov Says:

    Why does the cell provider with the best network data speed in US have the worst smart-phones? Because if they had better phones, more people would switch and fill network capacity