To be a better philanthropist, think like a poker player

Raising money for charity is one thing. Knowing where to give it is another. When some charities are 100 times more effective than others, a world champion poker player knows how to spot who's bluffing.

Liv Boeree: So effective altruism is basically applying the scientific method and evidence and analysis to the whole concept of charity. 

It's about sort of looking in the world—you know, the world has a gazillion problems, a lot of them are very, very bad, but some are easier to solve than others, some are cheaper to solve than others, and so there are some sort of actions that we can take that are more effective than others in reducing suffering or increasing the happiness in the world. 

And effective altruism is basically about identifying: what are those methods of improving the world as quickly as possible and as effectively as possible.

So within the community, there are sort of teams of analysts looking at these problems and figuring out the best interventions, the best charities that are out there, and then raising awareness of it. 

Picking a charity is tough, and the things to look for—I guess to start with, is the cause area in itself neglected? 

There's countless different problems in the world and some of them are far more researched or receive a lot more funding than others, and similarly there are some problems that are actually—that there's just a ton more room for funding, where your money can make a very big difference. 

So that's the first thing to look for: if it's neglected.

Next thing is: is the charity that you're going to donate for giving you the maximum bang for your buck? Will it help the most people per dollar that's donated? 

Another thing to look for is: are the results that it is likely to generate measurable? Because if we can't measure what the charity is doing, well, then we just don't really know how effective it is. So yeah those are sort of some key indicators to look for. 

Also: is the charity transparent? Not all charities that aren't completely transparent—it doesn't mean that they're necessarily bad, but at the same time if they're doing very sort of actionable positive things then they should be able to demonstrate that clearly. Those are sort of the four key points I'd look for. 

Since starting to play poker about ten years ago I've been so fortunate with my results and the opportunities that I've been given through it, but after a while I started realizing I should probably be doing something else with this. Is there a way I can continue playing the game that I love but also have a more positive impact on the world? 

And at the same time some friends and I met some effective altruists who wanted to chat to us about could we fundraise through the industry. 

And after they sort of explained to me how effective altruism works, how some charities are just hundreds of times more effective than others, and the arguments were just so compelling. I was like, okay, how do we get involved? How do we do this? 

So we decided to create an organization that fundraises for these charities, called Raising for Effective Giving. “Raising” is a play on words there because… that's what you do in poker.

So we started this organization two and a half years ago, and we fundraise for about eight or so highly effective charities across a number of different cause areas. 

We have some that are direct suffering alleviation, most of those are sort of in the poverty sphere.

We fundraise for similarly the most effective animal charities and a couple of research organizations that are looking into potential existential risks (that are hopefully unlikely to happen, but if they do happen could be so catastrophic, and they're very sort of underresearched right now). 

We have quite a broad spectrum of charities that we raise for, but all of them are either highly effective or projected to be very effective. So we started it two and a half years ago. 

So far we've raised just over $2 million through the poker industry for these charities, and it's been an amazing learning experience.

Raising money for charity is one thing. Knowing where to give it is another. When some charities are 100 times more effective than others, a world champion poker player knows how to spot who's bluffing. Liv Boeree — one of the best poker players in the world — has gotten together with some other poker pros to make better decisions about giving to charity, and encourages others to look further into more transparent charities. You can find out more about Liv at www.livboeree.com.


Photo: Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller / Global Oneness Project
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New simulations show how supermassive black holes form

Researchers from Japan add a new wrinkle to a popular theory and set the stage for the formation of monstrous black holes.

Image source: Sunmyon Chon/National Institutes Of Natural Sciences, Japan
Surprising Science
  • A new theory takes the direct-collapse theory explaining the creation of supermassive black holes around which galaxies turn ones step further.
  • The advance is made possible by a super-powerful computer, ATERUI II.
  • The new theory is the first that accounts for the likely assortment of heavy elements in early-universe gas clouds.

It seems that pretty much every galaxy we see is spinning around a supermassive black hole. When we say "supermassive," we mean BIG: Each is about 100,000 to tens of billions times the mass of our Sun. Serving as the loci around which our galaxies twirl, they're clearly important to maintaining the universal structures we see. It would be nice to know how they form. We have a pretty good idea how normally-huge-but-not-massive black holes form, but as for the supermassive larger versions, not so much. It's a supermassive missing piece of the universe puzzle.

Now, in research published in Monthly Notices of the Astronomical Society, astrophysicists at Tohoku University in Japan reveal that they may have solved the riddle, supported by new computer simulations that show how supermassive black holes come to be.

The direct collapse theories

Glowing gas and dark dust within the Large Magellanic Cloud

Image source: ESA/Hubble and NASA

The favored theory about the birth of supermassive black holes up to now has been the "direct-collapse" theory. The theory proposes a solution to a cosmic riddle: Supermassive black holes seem to have been born a mere 690 million years after the Big Bang, not nearly long enough for the standard normal black hole genesis scenario to have played out, and on such a large scale. There are two versions of the direct-collapse theory.

One version proposes that if enough gas comes together in a supermassive gravitationally bound cloud, it can eventually collapse into a black hole, which, thanks the cosmic background-radiation-free nature of the very early universe, could then quickly pull in enough matter to go supermassive in a relatively short period of time.

According to astrophysicist Shantanu Basu of Western University in London, Ontario, this would only have been possible in the first 800 million years or so of the universe. "The black holes are formed over a duration of only about 150 million years and grow rapidly during this time," Basu told Live Science in the summer of 2019. "The ones that form in the early part of the 150-million-year time window can increase their mass by a factor of 10 thousand." Basu was lead author of research published last summer in Astrophysical Journal Letters that presented computer models showing this version of direct-collapse is possible.

Another version of the theory suggests that the giant gas cloud collapses into a supermassive star first, which then collapses into a black hole, which then — presumably again thanks to the state of the early universe — sucks up enough matter to go supermassive quickly.

There's a problem with either direct-collapse theory, however, beyond its relatively narrow time window. Previous models show it working only with pristine gas clouds comprised of hydrogen and helium. Other, heavier elements — carbon and oxygen, for example — break the models, causing the giant gas cloud to break up into smaller gas clouds that eventually form separate stars, end of story. No supermassive black hole, and not even a supermassive star for the second flavor of the direct-collapse theory.

A new model

ATERUI II

Image source: NAOJ

Japan's National Astronomical Observatory has a supercomputer named "ATERUI II" that was commissioned in 2018. The Tohoku University research team, led by postdoctoral fellow Sunmyon Chon, used ATERUI II to run high-resolution, 3D, long-term simulations to verify a new version of the direct-collapse idea that makes sense even with gas clouds containing heavy elements.

Chon and his team propose that, yes, supermassive gas clouds with heavy elements do break up into smaller gas clouds that wind up forming smaller stars. However, they assert that's not the end of the story.

The scientists say that post-explosion, there remains a tremendous inward pull toward the center of the ex-cloud that drags in all those smaller stars, eventually causing them to grow into a single supermassive star, 10,000 times larger than the Sun. This is a star big enough to produce the supermassive black holes we see when it finally collapses in on itself.

"This is the first time that we have shown the formation of such a large black hole precursor in clouds enriched in heavy-elements," says Chon, adding, "We believe that the giant star thus formed will continue to grow and evolve into a giant black hole."

Modeling the behavior of an expanded number of elements within the cloud while faithfully carrying forward those models through the violent breakup of the cloud and its aftermath requires such high computational overhead that only a computer as advanced as ATERUI II could pull off.

Being able to develop a theory that takes into account, for the first time, the likely complexity of early-universe gas clouds makes the Tohoku University idea the most complete, plausible explanation of the universe's mysterious supermassive black holes. Kazuyuki Omukai, also of Tohoku University says, "Our new model is able to explain the origin of more black holes than the previous studies, and this result leads to a unified understanding of the origin of supermassive black holes."

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