Archive for the ‘Nerd Interest’ Category

The SuperScott and Morgan Freeman FAQ

Monday, August 5th, 2013


Update (Sept. 3): When I said that “about 5000 steps” are needed for the evolutionary approach to color an 8×8 chessboard, I was counting as a step any examination of two random adjacent squares—regardless of whether or not you end up having to change one of the colors.  If you count only the changes, then the expected number goes down to about 1000 (which, of course, only makes the point about the power of the evolutionary approach “stronger”).  Thanks very much to Raymond Cuenen for bringing this clarification to my attention.

Last week I appeared on an episode of Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman, a show on the Science Channel.  (See also here for a post on Morgan Freeman’s Facebook page.)  The episode is called “Did God Create Evolution?”  The first person interviewed is the Intelligent Design advocate Michael Behe.  But not to worry!  After him, they have a parade of scientists who not only agree that Chuck Darwin basically had it right in 1859, but want to argue for that conclusion using ROBOTS!  and MATH!

So, uh, that’s where I come in.  My segment features me (or rather my animated doppelgänger, “SuperScott”) trying to color a chessboard two colors, so that no two neighboring squares are colored the same, using three different approaches: (1) an “intelligent design” approach (which computer scientists would call nondeterminism), (2) a brute-force, exhaustive enumeration approach, and (3) an “evolutionary local search” approach.

[Spoiler alert: SuperScott discovers that the local search approach, while not as efficient as intelligent design, is nevertheless much more efficient than brute-force search.  And thus, he concludes, the arguments of the ID folks to the effect of "I can't see a cleverer way to do it, therefore it must be either brute-force search or else miraculous nondeterminism" are invalid.]

Since my appearance together with Morgan Freeman on cable TV raises a large number of questions, I’ve decided to field a few of them in the following FAQ.

Q: How can I watch?

Amazon Instant Video has the episode here for $1.99.  (No doubt you can also find it on various filesharing sites, but let it be known that I’d never condone such nefarious activity.)  My segment is roughly from 10:40 until 17:40.

Q: Given that you’re not a biologist, and that your research has basically nothing to do with evolution, why did they ask to interview you?

Apparently they wanted a mathematician or computer scientist who also had some experience spouting about Big Ideas.  So they first asked Greg Chaitin, but Chaitin couldn’t do it and suggested me instead.

Q: Given how little relevant expertise you have, why did you agree to be interviewed?

To be honest, I was extremely conflicted.  I kept saying, “Why don’t you interview a biologist?  Or at least a computational biologist, or someone who studies genetic algorithms?”  They replied that they did have more bio-oriented people on the show, but they also wanted me to provide a “mathematical” perspective.  So, I consulted with friends like Sean Carroll, who’s appeared on Through the Wormhole numerous times.  And after reflection, I decided that I do have a way to explain a central conceptual point about algorithms, complexity, and the amount of time needed for natural selection—a point that, while hardly “novel,” is something that many laypeople might not have seen before and that might interest them.  Also, as an additional argument in favor of appearing, MORGAN FREEMAN!


So I agreed to do it, but only under two conditions:

(1) At least one person with a biology background would also appear on the show, to refute the arguments of intelligent design.
(2) I would talk only about stuff that I actually understood, like the ability of local search algorithms to avoid the need for brute-force search.

I’ll let you judge for yourself to what extent these conditions were fulfilled.

Q: Did you get to meet Morgan Freeman?

Alas, no.  But at least I got to hear him refer repeatedly to “SuperScott” on TV.

Q: What was the shooting like?

Extremely interesting.  I know more now about TV production than I did before!

It was a continuing negotiation: they kept wanting to say that I was “on a quest to mathematically prove evolution” (or something like that), and I kept telling them they weren’t allowed to say that, or anything else that would give the misleading impression that what I was saying was either original or directly related to my research.  I also had a long discussion about the P vs. NP problem, which got cut for lack of time (now P and NP are only shown on the whiteboard).  On the other hand, the crew was extremely accommodating: they really wanted to do a good job and to get things right.

The most amusing tidbit: I knew that local search would take O(n4) time to 2-color an nxn chessboard (2-coloring being a special case of 2SAT, to which Schöning’s algorithm applies), but I didn’t know the constant.  So I wrote a program to get the specific number of steps when n=8 (it’s about 5000).  I then repeatedly modified and reran the program during the taping, as we slightly changed what we were talking about.  It was the first coding I’d done in a while.

Q: How much of the segment was your idea, and how much was theirs?

The chessboard was my idea, but the “SuperScott” bit was theirs.  Luddite that I am, I was just going to get down on hands and knees and move apples and oranges around on the chessboard myself.

Also, they wanted me to speak in front of a church in Boston, to make a point about how many people believe that God created the universe.  I nixed that idea and said, why not just do the whole shoot in the Stata Center?  I mean, MIT spent $300 million just to make the building where I work as “visually arresting” as possible—at the expense of navigability, leakage-resilience, and all sorts of other criteria—so why not take advantage of it?  Plus, that way I’ll be able to crack a joke about how Stata actually looks like it was created by that favorite creationist strawman, a tornado passing through a junkyard.

Needless to say, all the stuff with me drawing complexity class inclusion diagrams on the whiteboard, reading my and Alex Arkhipov’s linear-optics paper, walking around outside with an umbrella, lifting the umbrella to face the camera dramatically—that was all just the crew telling me what to do.  (Well, OK, they didn’t tell me what to write on the whiteboard or view on my computer, just that it should be something sciencey.  And the umbrella thing wasn’t planned: it really just happened to be raining that day.)

Q: Don’t you realize that not a word of what you said was new—indeed, that all you did was to translate the logic of natural selection, which Darwin understood in 1859, into algorithms and complexity language?

Yes, of course, and I’m sorry if the show gave anyone the impression otherwise.  I repeatedly begged them not to claim newness or originality for anything I was saying.  On the other hand, one shouldn’t make the mistake of assuming that what’s obvious to nerds who read science blogs is obvious to everyone else: I know for a fact that it isn’t.

Q: Don’t you understand that you can’t “prove” mathematically that evolution by natural selection is really what happened in Nature?

Of course!  You can’t even prove mathematically that bears crap in the woods (unless crapping in the woods were taken as part of the definition of bears).  To the writers’ credit, they did have Morgan Freeman explain that I wasn’t claiming to have “proved” evolution.  Personally, I wish Freeman had gone even further—to say that, at present, we don’t even have mathematical theories that would explain from first principles why 4 billion years is a “reasonable” amount of time for natural selection to have gotten from the primordial soup to humans and other complex life, whereas (say) 40 million years is not a reasonable amount.  One could imagine such theories, but we don’t really have any.  What we do have is (a) the observed fact that evolution did happen in 4 billion years, and (b) the theory of natural selection, which explains in great detail why one’s initial intuition—that such evolution can’t possibly have happened by “blind, chance natural processes” alone—is devoid of force.

Q: Watching yourself presented in such a goony way—scribbling Complicated Math Stuff on a whiteboard, turning dramatically toward the camera, etc. etc.—didn’t you feel silly?

Some of it is silly, no two ways about it!  On the other hand, I feel satisfied that I got across at least one correct and important scientific point to hundreds of thousands of people.  And that, one might argue, is sufficiently worthwhile that it should outweigh any embarrassment about how goofy I look.

Three announcements

Saturday, August 3rd, 2013

1. As many of you probably know, this week my EECS colleague Hal Abelson released his 180-page report on MIT’s involvement in the Aaron Swartz case.  I read the whole thing, and I recommend it if you have any interest in the case.  My take is that, far from being the “whitewash” that some people described it as, the report (if you delve into it) clearly and eloquently explains how MIT failed to live up to its own standards, even as it formally followed the rules.  The central insight here is that the world expects MIT to behave, not like some other organization would behave if someone hid a laptop in its supply closet to download the whole JSTOR database, insulted and then tried to flee from its security officers when questioned, etc. etc., but rather with perspective and imagination—worrying less about the security of its facilities than about the future of the world.  People expect MIT, of all places, to realize that the sorts of people who pull these sorts of shenanigans in their twenties sometimes become Steve Jobs or Richard Feynman (or for that matter, MIT professor Robert Morris) later in their lives, and therefore to speak up in their defense.  In retrospect, I wish Swartz’s arrest had sparked a debate about the wider issues among MIT’s students, faculty, and staff.  I think it’s likely that such a debate would have led to pressure on the administration to issue a statement in Swartz’s support.  As it was (and as I pointed out in this interview), most people at MIT, even if they’d read about the arrest, weren’t even aware of the issue’s continued existence, let alone of MIT’s continued role in it, until after Swartz had already committed suicide.  For the MIT community—which includes some prominent supporters of open access—to have played such a passive role is one of the many tragedies that’s obvious with hindsight.

2. Shafi Goldwasser has asked me to announce that the fifth Innovations in Theoretical Computer Science (ITCS) conference will be held in Princeton, a town technically in New Jersey, on January 12-14, 2014.  Here’s the conference website; if you want to submit a paper, the deadline is coming up soon, on Thursday, August 22.

3. As the summer winds to a close, I’m proud to announce my main goals for the upcoming academic year.  Those goals are the following:

(a) Take care of Lily.

(b) Finish writing up old papers.

It feels liberating to have no higher aspirations for an entire year—and for the aspirations I have to seem so modest and so achievable.  On the other hand, it will be all the more embarrassing if I fail to achieve even these goals.

The tightrope of truth and courtesy

Thursday, June 6th, 2013

A reader calling him- or herself “A Merry Clown” left a comment on my previous post which was so wise, I decided it had to be promoted to a post of its own.

Scientific discourse is the art of juggling decorum, truth and humor. A high-wire feat, attempted under imposing shadows cast by giants and above the distraction of merry dancing clowns.

The “appropriate” tone for scientific discourse seems to be:
(a) Cordial. Always credit others for their hard work and good intentions (allow or at least pretend that others are basically well-intentioned, except in rare situations where there is proof of egregious misconduct).
(b) Biting, merciless and hard-nosed on the substantive issues. The truth deserves no less.

Perhaps the harsher (b) is, the gentler and more thorough (a) should be. After-all, human beings are what they are.

Certainly, provided one adequately treads through the niceties in (a), there’s no reason to worry about hurting anyone’s feelings in (b). Anyone who makes scientific claims in a professional or public arena should be prepared to put on their big boy pants or their big girl pants and have their claims face the brutal gauntlet of scientific scrutiny. All attempts should be made to avoid even the appearance that any part of (b) contains personal barbs or insults (unless these barbs happen to be to be hilarious.)

Outside of science the rule is: whoever flings the horseshit the hardest wins.

Essentially, what Shtetl-Optimized readers got to see this past week was me falling off the high wire (with tenure the safety net below? :-) ).  I failed at a purely human level—though admittedly, while attempting a particularly difficult tightrope walk, and while heavily distracted by the taunts of both giants and clowns.  I’ve already apologized to Cathy McGeoch for insulting her, but I reiterate my apology now, and I extend the apology to any colleagues at MIT who might have been offended by anything I said.  I’ll strive, in future posts, to live up to a higher standard of cordiality, composure, and self-control.

At the scientific level—i.e., at level (b)—I stand by everything I wrote in the previous post and the comments therein.

Ask Me Anything! Tenure Edition

Monday, May 6th, 2013

Update (5/7): Enough!  Thanks, everyone, for asking so many imaginative questions, and please accept my apologies if yours remains unaddressed.  (It’s nothing personal: they simply came fast and furious, way faster than I could handle in an online fashion—so I gave up on chronological order and simply wrote answers in whatever order they popped into my head.)  At this point, I’m no longer accepting any new questions.  I’ll try to answer all the remaining questions by tomorrow night.

By popular request, for the next 36 hours—so, from now until ~11PM on Tuesday—I’ll have a long-overdue edition of “Ask Me Anything.”  (For the previous editions, see here, here, here, and here.)  Today’s edition is partly to celebrate my new, tenured “freedom to do whatever the hell I want” (as well as the publication after 7 years of Quantum Computing Since Democritus), but is mostly just to have an excuse to get out of changing diapers (“I’d love to, honey, but the world is demanding answers!”).  Here are the ground rules:

  1. One question per person, total.
  2. Please check to see whether your question was already asked in one of the previous editions—if it was, then I’ll probably just refer you there.
  3. No questions with complicated backstories, or that require me to watch a video, read a paper, etc. and comment on it.
  4. No questions about D-Wave.  (As it happens, Matthias Troyer will be giving a talk at MIT this Wednesday about his group’s experiments on the D-Wave machine, and I’m planning a blog post about it—so just hold your horses for a few more days!)
  5. If your question is offensive, patronizing, nosy, or annoying, I reserve the right to give a flippant non-answer or even delete the question.
  6. Keep in mind that, in past editions, the best questions have almost always been the most goofball ones (“What’s up with those painting elephants?”).

That’s it: ask away!

Update (5/12): I’ve finally answered all ~90 questions, a mere 4 days after the official end of the “Ask Me Anything” session!  Thanks so much to everyone for all the great questions.  For your reading convenience, here’s a guide to my answers (personal favorites are in bold):


I was right: Congress’s attack on the NSF widens

Thursday, April 25th, 2013

Last month, I blogged about Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) passing an amendment blocking the National Science Foundation from funding most political science research.  I wrote:

This sort of political interference with the peer-review process, of course, sets a chilling precedent for all academic research, regardless of discipline.  (What’s next, an amendment banning computer science research, unless it has applications to scheduling baseball games or slicing apple pies?)

In the comments section of that post, I was pilloried by critics, who ridiculed my delusional fears about an anti-science witch hunt.  Obviously, they said, Congressional Republicans only wanted to slash dubious social science research: not computer science or the other hard sciences that people reading this blog really care about, and that everyone agrees are worthy.  Well, today I write to inform you that I was right, and my critics were wrong.  For the benefit of readers who might have missed it the first time, let me repeat that:

I was right, and my critics were wrong.

In this case, like in countless others, my “paranoid fears” about what could happen turned out to be preternaturally well-attuned to what would happen.

According to an article in Science, Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the new chair of the ironically-named House Science Committee, held two hearings in which he “floated the idea of having every NSF grant application [in every field] include a statement of how the research, if funded, ‘would directly benefit the American people.’ ”  Connoisseurs of NSF proposals will know that every proposal already includes a “Broader Impacts” section, and that that section often borders on comic farce.  (“We expect further progress on the μ-approximate shortest vector problem to enthrall middle-school students and other members of the local community, especially if they happen to belong to underrepresented groups.”)  Now progress on the μ-approximate shortest vector problem also has to directly—directly—”benefit the American people.”  It’s not enough for such research to benefit science—arguably the least bad, least wasteful enterprise our sorry species has ever managed—and for science, in turn, to be a principal engine of the country’s economic and military strength, something that generally can’t be privatized because of a tragedy-of-the-commons problem, and something that economists say has repaid public investments many, many times over.  No, the benefit now needs to be “direct.”

The truth is, I find myself strangely indifferent to whether Smith gets his way or not.  On the negative side, sure, a pessimist might worry that this could spell the beginning of the end for American science.  But on the positive side, I would have been proven so massively right that, even as I held up my “Will Prove Quantum Complexity Theorems For Food” sign on a street corner or whatever, I’d have something to crow about until the end of my life.

Pigs sprouted wings, Hell froze over, and I guest-posted on Luboš Motl’s blog

Monday, April 8th, 2013

Furthermore, the last of those things actually happened.  What won’t I do to promote Quantum Computing Since Democritus?  Enjoy!

Update: I submitted the following response to the comments over on Lubos’s blog.  Since it has some bits of general interest, I thought I’d crosspost it here while it awaits Lubos’s moderation.

Since Lubos “officially invited” me to respond to the comments here, let me now do so.

1. On “loopholes” in quantum mechanics: I completely agree with Lubos’s observation that the actual contents of my book are “conservative” about the truth of QM. Indeed, I predict that, when Lubos reads his free copy, he’ll agree with (or at least, have no objections to) the vast majority of what’s in the book. On the other hand, because I was guest-blogging about “the story of me and Lubos,” I found it interesting to highlight one area of disagreement regarding QM, rather than the larger areas of agreement.

2. On Gene Day’s patronizing accusation that I don’t “get the basics of QM or even comprehend the role of mathematics in physics”: his misreading of what I wrote is so off-base that I don’t know whether a response is even necessary.  Briefly, though: of course two formulations of QM are mathematically equivalent if they’re mathematically equivalent!  I wasn’t asking why we don’t use different mathematical structures (quaternions, the 3-norm, etc.) to describe the same physical world.  I was asking why the physical world itself shouldn’t have been different, in such a way that those other mathematical structures would have described it.  In other words: if you were God, and you tried to invent a theory that was like QM but based on those other structures, would the result necessarily be less “nice” than QM?  Would you have to give up various desirable properties of QM?  Yes?  Can you prove it?  The ball’s in your court, Mr. Day — or else you can just read my book! :-)

3. On Lord Nelson’s accusation that I’m a “poseur”: on reflection, someone who only knew me from blog stunts like this one could easily be forgiven for getting that impression! :-) So it might be worth pointing out for the record that I also have a “day job” outside the blogosphere, whose results you can see here if you care.

4. On my political views: I wish to clarify for Tom Vonk that I despise not only “Communists,” but the ideology of Communism itself. One of the formative experiences of my life occurred when I was an 8-year-old at Wingate Kirkland summer camp, and all the campers had to relinquish whatever candy they’d brought into a communal “bunk trunk.” The theory was that all the campers, rich and poor alike, would then share the candy equally during occasional “bunk parties.” What actually happened was that the counselors stole the candy. So, during a meeting of the entire camp, I got up and gave a speech denouncing the bunk trunk as Communism. The next day, the camp director (who had apparently been a fellow-traveler in the 1950s) sat with me at lunchtime, and told me about a very evil man named Joe McCarthy who I was in danger of becoming like. But the truth was that I’d never even heard of McCarthy at that point — I just wanted to eat candy.  And I’d give exactly the same speech today.

Like (I suppose) several billion of the world’s people, I believe in a dynamic market-based capitalist society, and also in strong environmental and other regulations to safeguard that society’s continued existence. And I don’t merely believe in that as a cynical compromise, since I can’t get the “dictatorship of the proletariat” that I want in my heart of hearts. Were I emperor of the world, progressive capitalism is precisely what I would institute. In return, perhaps, for paying a “candy tax” to keep the bunk functioning smoothly, campers could keep their remaining candy and eat or trade it to their heart’s delight.

5. On climate change: I’m not a professional climatologist, but neither is Lubos, and nor (correct me if I’m wrong) is anyone else commenting here. Accordingly, I refuse to get drawn into a debate about ice cores and tree rings and hockey sticks, since my experience is that such debates tend to be profoundly unilluminating when not conducted by experts. My position is an incredibly simple one: just like with the link between smoking and cancer, or the lack of a link between vaccines and autism, or any other issue where I lack the expertise to evaluate the evidence myself, I’ll go with what certainly looks like an overwhelming consensus among the scientists who’ve studied the matter carefully. Period. If the climate skeptics want to win me over, then the way for them to do so is straightforward: they should ignore me, and try instead to win over the academic climatology community, majorities of chemists and physicists, Nobel laureates, the IPCC, National Academies of Science, etc. with superior research and arguments.

To this, the skeptics might respond: but of course we can’t win over the mainstream scientific community, since they’re all in the grip of an evil left-wing conspiracy or delusion!  Now, that response is precisely where “the buck stops” for me, and further discussion becomes useless.  If I’m asked which of the following two groups is more likely to be in the grip of a delusion — (a) Senate Republicans, Freeman Dyson, and a certain excitable string-theory blogger, or (b) virtually every single expert in the relevant fields, and virtually every other chemist and physicist who I’ve ever respected or heard of — well then, it comes down to a judgment call, but I’m 100% comfortable with my judgment.

Aaron Swartz (1986-2013)

Sunday, January 13th, 2013

Update (1/18): Some more information has emerged.  First, it’s looking like the prosecution’s strategy was to threaten Aaron with decades of prison time, in order to force him to accept a plea bargain involving at most 6 months.  (Carmen Ortiz issued a statement that conveniently skips the first part of the strategy and focuses on the second.)  This is standard operating procedure in our wonderful American justice system, due (in part) to the lack of resources actually to bring most cases to trial.  The only thing unusual about the practice is the spotlight being shone on it, now that it was done not to some poor unknown schmuck but to a tortured prodigy and nerd hero.  Fixing the problem would require far-reaching changes to our justice system.

Second, while I still strongly feel that we should await the results of Hal Abelson’s investigation, I’ve now heard from several sources that there was some sort of high-level decision at MIT—by whom, I have no idea—not to come out in support of Aaron.  Crucially, though, I’m unaware of the faculty (or students, for that matter) ever being consulted about this decision, or even knowing that there was anything for MIT to decide.  Yesterday, feeling guilty about having done nothing to save Aaron, I found myself wishing that either he or his friends or parents had made an “end run” around the official channels, and informed MIT faculty and students directly of the situation and of MIT’s ability to help.  (Or maybe they did, and I simply wasn’t involved?)

Just to make sure I hadn’t missed anything, I searched my inbox for “Swartz”, but all I found relevant to the case were a couple emails from a high-school student shortly after the arrest (for a project he was doing about the case), and then the flurry of emails after Aaron had already committed suicide.  By far the most interesting thing that I found was the following:

Aaron Swartz (December 12, 2007): I’m really enjoying the Democritus lecture notes. Any chance we’ll ever see lecture 12?

My response: It’s a-comin’!

As I wrote on this blog at the time of Aaron’s arrest: I would never have advised him to do what he did.  Civil disobedience can be an effective tactic, but off-campus access to research papers simply isn’t worth throwing your life away for—especially if your life holds as much spectacular promise as Aaron’s did, judging from everything I’ve read about him.  At the same time, I feel certain that the world will eventually catch up to Aaron’s passionate belief that the results of publicly-funded research should be freely available to the public.  We can honor Aaron’s memory by supporting the open science movement, and helping the world catch up with him sooner.

Lincoln Blogs

Friday, December 28th, 2012

Sorry for the terrible pun.  Today’s post started out as a comment on a review of the movie Lincoln on Sean Carroll’s blog, but it quickly become too long, so I made it into a post on my own blog.  Apparently I lack Abe’s gift for concision.

I just saw Lincoln — largely inspired by Sean’s review — and loved it.  It struck me as the movie that Lincoln might have wanted to be made about himself: it doesn’t show any of his evolution, but at least it shows the final result of that evolution, and conveys the stories, parables, and insight into human nature that he had accumulated by the end of his life in a highly efficient manner.

Interestingly, the Wikipedia page says that Spielberg commissioned, but then ultimately rejected, two earlier scripts that would have covered the whole Civil War period, and (one can assume) Lincoln’s process of evolution.  I think that also could have been a great movie, but I can sort-of understand why Spielberg and Tony Kushner made the unusual choice they did: at the level of detail they wanted, it seems like it would be impossible to do justice to Lincoln’s whole life, or even the last five years of it, in anything less than a miniseries.

I agree with the many people who pointed out that the movie could have given more credit to those who were committed antislavery crusaders from the beginning—rather than those like Lincoln, who eventually came around to the positions we now associate with him after a lot of toying with ideas like blacks self-deporting to Liberia.  But in a way, the movie didn’t need to dole out such credit: today, we know (for example) that Thaddeus Stevens had history and justice 3000% on his side, so the movie is free to show him as the nutty radical that he seemed to most others at the time.  And there’s even a larger point: never the most diligent student of history, I (to take one embarrassing example) had only the vaguest idea who Thaddeus Stevens even was before seeing the movie.  Now I’ve spent hours reading about him, as well as about Charles Sumner, and being moved by their stories.

(At least I knew about the great Frederick Douglass, having studied his Narrative in freshman English class.  Douglass and I have something in common: just as a single sentence he wrote, “I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong,” will reverberate through the ages, so too, I predict, will a single sentence I wrote: “Australian actresses are plagiarizing my quantum mechanics lecture to sell printers.”)

More broadly, I think it’s easy for history buffs to overestimate how much people already know about this stuff.  Indeed, I can easily imagine that millions of Americans who know Lincoln mostly as “the dude on the $5 bill (who freed some slaves, wore a top hat, used the word ‘fourscore,’ and got shot)” will walk out of the cineplex with a new and ~85% accurate appreciation for what Lincoln did to merit all that fuss, and why his choices weren’t obvious to everyone else at the time.

Truthfully, though, nothing made me appreciate the movie more than coming home and reading countless comments on movie review sites denouncing Abraham Lincoln as a bloodthirsty war criminal, and the movie as yet more propaganda by the victors rewriting history.  Even on Sean’s blog we find this, by a commenter named Tony:

I’m not one who believes we have to go to war to solve every problem we come across, I can’t believe that Lincoln couldn’t have found a solution to states rights and slavery in a more peaceful course of action. It seems from the American Revolutionary war to the present it has been one war after another … The loss of life of all wars is simply staggering, what a waste of humanity.

Well look, successive presidential administrations did spend decades trying to find a peaceful solution to the “states rights and slavery” issue; the massive failure of their efforts might make one suspect that a peaceful solution didn’t exist.  Indeed, even if Lincoln had simply let the South secede, my reading of history is that issues like the return of fugitive slaves, or competition over Western territories, would have eventually led to a war anyway.  I’m skeptical that, in the limit t→∞, free and slave civilizations could coexist on the same continent, no matter how you juggled their political organization.

I’ll go further: it even seems possible to me that the Civil War ended too early, with the South not decimated enough.  After World War II, Japan and Germany were successfully dissuaded even from “lite” versions of their previous plans, and rebuilt themselves on very different principles.  By contrast, as we all know, the American South basically refused for the next century to admit it had lost: it didn’t try to secede again, but it did use every means available to it to reinstate de facto slavery or something as close to that as possible.  All the civil-rights ideals of the 1960s had already been clearly articulated in the 1860s, but it took another hundred years for them to get implemented.  Even today, with a black President, the intellectual heirs of the Confederacy remain a force to be reckoned with in the US, trying (for example) to depress minority voter turnout through ID laws, gerrymandering, and anything else they think they can possibly get away with.  The irony, of course, is that the neo-Confederates now constitute a nontrivial fraction of what they proudly call “the party of Lincoln.”  (Look at the map of blue vs. red states, and compare it to the Mason-Dixon line.  Even the purple states correspond reasonably well to the vacillating border states of 1861.)

So that’s why it seems important to have a movie every once in a while that shows the moral courage of people like Lincoln and Thaddeus Stevens, and that names and shames the enthusiastic defenders of slavery—because while the abolitionists won the battle, on some fronts we’re still fighting the war.

The $10 billion voter

Monday, November 5th, 2012

Update (Nov. 8): Slate’s pundit scoreboard.

Update (Nov. 6): In crucial election news, a Florida woman wearing an MIT T-shirt was barred from voting, because the election supervisor thought her shirt was advertising Mitt Romney.

At the time of writing, Nate Silver is giving Obama an 86.3% chance.  I accept his estimate, while vividly remembering various admittedly-cruder forecasts the night of November 5, 2000, which gave Gore an 80% chance.  (Of course, those forecasts need not have been “wrong”; an event with 20% probability really does happen 20% of the time.)  For me, the main uncertainties concern turnout and the effects of various voter-suppression tactics.

In the meantime, I wanted to call the attention of any American citizens reading this blog to the wonderful Election FAQ of Peter Norvig, director of research at Google and a person well-known for being right about pretty much everything.  The following passage in particular is worth quoting.

Is it rational to vote?

Yes. Voting for president is one of the most cost-effective actions any patriotic American can take.

Let me explain what the question means. For your vote to have an effect on the outcome of the election, you would have to live in a decisive state, meaning a state that would give one candidate or the other the required 270th electoral vote. More importantly, your vote would have to break an exact tie in your state (or, more likely, shift the way that the lawyers and judges will sort out how to count and recount the votes). With 100 million voters nationwide, what are the chances of that? If the chance is so small, why bother voting at all?

Historically, most voters either didn’t worry about this problem, or figured they would vote despite the fact that they weren’t likely to change the outcome, or vote because they want to register the degree of support for their candidate (even a vote that is not decisive is a vote that helps establish whether or not the winner has a “mandate”). But then the 2000 Florida election changed all that, with its slim 537 vote (0.009%) margin.

What is the probability that there will be a decisive state with a very close vote total, where a single vote could make a difference? Statistician Andrew Gelman of Columbia University says about one in 10 million.

That’s a small chance, but what is the value of getting to break the tie? We can estimate the total monetary value by noting that President George W. Bush presided over a $3 trillion war and at least a $1 trillion economic melt-down. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) estimated the cost of the Bush presidency at $7.7 trillion. Let’s compromise and call it $6 trillion, and assume that the other candidate would have been revenue neutral, so the net difference of the presidential choice is $6 trillion.

The value of not voting is that you save, say, an hour of your time. If you’re an average American wage-earner, that’s about $20. In contrast, the value of voting is the probability that your vote will decide the election (1 in 10 million if you live in a swing state) times the cost difference (potentially $6 trillion). That means the expected value of your vote (in that election) was $600,000. What else have you ever done in your life with an expected value of $600,000 per hour? Not even Warren Buffett makes that much. (One caveat: you need to be certain that your contribution is positive, not negative. If you vote for a candidate who makes things worse, then you have a negative expected value. So do your homework before voting. If you haven’t already done that, then you’ll need to add maybe 100 hours to the cost of voting, and the expected value goes down to $6,000 per hour.)

I’d like to embellish Norvig’s analysis with one further thought experiment.  While I favor a higher figure, for argument’s sake let’s accept Norvig’s estimate that the cost George W. Bush inflicted on the country was something like $6 trillion.  Now, imagine that a delegation of concerned citizens from 2012 were able to go back in time to November 5, 2000, round up 538 lazy Gore supporters in Florida who otherwise would have stayed home, and bribe them to go to the polls.  Set aside the illegality of the time-travelers’ action: they’re already violating the laws of space, time, and causality, which are well-known to be considerably more reliable than Florida state election law!  Set aside all the other interventions that also would’ve swayed the 2000 election outcome, and the 20/20 nature of hindsight, and the insanity of Florida’s recount process.  Instead, let’s simply ask: how much should each of those 538 lazy Floridian Gore supporters have been paid, in order for the delegation from the future to have gotten its money’s worth?

The answer is a mind-boggling ~$10 billion per voter.  Think about that: just for peeling their backsides off the couch, heading to the local library or school gymnasium, and punching a few chads (all the way through, hopefully), each of those 538 voters would have instantly received the sort of wealth normally associated with Saudi princes or founders of Google or Facebook.  And the country and the world would have benefited from that bargain.

No, this isn’t really a decisive argument for anything (I’ll leave it to the commenters to point out the many possible objections).  All it is, is an image worth keeping in mind the next time someone knowingly explains to you why voting is a waste of time.

Silver lining

Monday, October 29th, 2012

Update (10/31): While I continue to engage in surreal arguments in the comments section—Scott, I’m profoundly disappointed that a scientist like you, who surely knows better, would be so sloppy as to assert without any real proof that just because it has tusks and a trunk, and looks and sounds like an elephant, and is the size of the elephant, that it therefore is an elephant, completely ignoring the blah blah blah blah blah—while I do that, there are a few glimmerings that the rest of the world is finally starting to get it.  A new story from The Onion, which I regard as almost the only real newspaper left:

Nation Suddenly Realizes This Just Going To Be A Thing That Happens From Now On

Update (11/1): OK, and this morning from Nicholas Kristof, who’s long been one of the rare non-Onion practitioners of journalism: Will Climate Get Some Respect Now?

I’m writing from the abstract, hypothetical future that climate-change alarmists talk about—the one where huge tropical storms batter the northeastern US, coastal cities are flooded, hundreds of thousands are evacuated from their homes, etc.  I always imagined that, when this future finally showed up, at least I’d have the satisfaction of seeing the deniers admit they were grievously wrong, and that I and those who think similarly were right.  Which, for an academic, is a satisfaction that has to be balanced carefully against the possible destruction of the world.  I don’t think I had the imagination to foresee that the prophesied future would actually arrive, and that climate change would simultaneously disappear as a political issue—with the forces of know-nothingism bolder than ever, pressing their advantage into questions like whether or not raped women can get pregnant, as the President weakly pleads that he too favors more oil drilling.  I should have known from years of blogging that, if you hope for the consolation of seeing those who are wrong admit to being wrong, you hope for a form of happiness all but unattainable in this world.

Yet, if the transformation of the eastern seaboard into something out of the Jurassic hasn’t brought me that satisfaction, it has brought a different, completely unanticipated benefit.  Trapped in my apartment, with the campus closed and all meetings cancelled, I’ve found, for the first time in months, that I actually have some time to write papers.  (And, well, blog posts.)  Because of this, part of me wishes that the hurricane would continue all week, even a month or two (minus, of course, the power outages, evacuations, and other nasty side effects).  I could learn to like this future.

At this point in the post, I was going to transition cleverly into an almost (but not completely) unrelated question about the nature of causality.  But I now realize that the mention of hurricanes and (especially) climate change will overshadow anything I have to say about more abstract matters.  So I’ll save the causality stuff for tomorrow or Wednesday.  Hopefully the hurricane will still be here, and I’ll have time to write.