Archive for the ‘Mahmoud’ Category

First they came for the Iranians

Wednesday, January 25th, 2017

Action Item: If you’re an American academic, please sign the petition against the Immigration Executive Order. (There are already more than eighteen thousand signatories, including Nobel Laureates, Fields Medalists, you name it, but it could use more!)

I don’t expect this petition to have the slightest effect on the regime, but at least we should demonstrate to the world and to history that American academia didn’t take this silently.

I’m sure there were weeks, in February or March 1933, when the educated, liberal Germans commiserated with each other over the latest outrages of their new Chancellor, but consoled themselves that at least none of it was going to affect them personally.

This time, it’s taken just five days, since the hostile takeover of the US by its worst elements, for edicts from above to have actually hurt my life and (much more directly) the lives of my students, friends, and colleagues.

Today, we learned that Trump is suspending the issuance of US visas to people from seven majority-Islamic countries, including Iran (but strangely not Saudi Arabia, the cradle of Wahhabist terrorism—not that that would be morally justified either).  This suspension might last just 30 days, but might also continue indefinitely—particularly if, as seems likely, the Iranian government thumbs its nose at whatever Trump demands that it do to get the suspension rescinded.

So the upshot is that, until further notice, science departments at American universities can no longer recruit PhD students from Iran—a country that, along with China, India, and a few others, has long been the source of some of our best talent.  This will directly affect this year’s recruiting season, which is just now getting underway.  (If Canada and Australia have any brains, they’ll snatch these students, and make the loss America’s.)

But what about the thousands of Iranian students who are already here?  So far, no one’s rounding them up and deporting them.  But their futures have suddenly been thrown into jeopardy.

Right now, I have an Iranian PhD student who came to MIT on a student visa in 2013.  He started working with me two years ago, on the power of a rudimentary quantum computing model inspired by (1+1)-dimensional integrable quantum field theory.  You can read our paper about it, with Adam Bouland and Greg Kuperberg, here.  It so happens that this week, my student is visiting us in Austin and staying at our home.  He’s spent the whole day pacing around, terrified about his future.  His original plan, to do a postdoc in the US after he finishes his PhD, now seems impossible (since it would require a visa renewal).

Look: in the 11-year history of this blog, there have been only a few occasions when I felt so strongly about something that I stood my ground, even in the face of widespread attacks from people who I otherwise respected.  One, of course, was when I spoke out for shy nerdy males, and for a vision of feminism broad enough to recognize their suffering as a problem.  A second was when I was more blunt about D-Wave, and about its and its supporters’ quantum speedup claims, than some of my colleagues were comfortable with.  But the remaining occasions almost all involved my defending the values of the United States, Israel, Zionism, or “the West,” or condemning Islamic fundamentalism, radical leftism, or the worldviews of such individuals as Noam Chomsky or my “good friend” Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Which is simply to say: I don’t think anyone on earth can accuse me of secret sympathies for the Iranian government.

But when it comes to student visas, I can’t see that my feelings about the mullahs have anything to do with the matter.  We’re talking about people who happen to have been born in Iran, who came to the US to do math and science.  Would we rather have these young scientists here, filled with gratitude for the opportunities we’ve given them, or back in Iran filled with justified anger over our having expelled them?

To the Trump regime, I make one request: if you ever decide that it’s the policy of the US government to deport my PhD students, then deport me first.  I’m practically begging you: come to my house, arrest me, revoke my citizenship, and tear up the awards I’ve accepted at the White House and the State Department.  I’d consider that to be the greatest honor of my career.

And to those who cheered Trump’s campaign in the comments of this blog: go ahead, let me hear you defend this.

Update (Jan. 27, 2017): To everyone who’s praised the “courage” that it took me to say this, thank you so much—but to be perfectly honest, it takes orders of magnitude less courage to say this, than to say something that any of your friends or colleagues might actually disagree with! The support has been totally overwhelming, and has reaffirmed my sense that the United States is now effectively two countries, an open and a closed one, locked in a cold Civil War.

Some people have expressed surprise that I’d come out so strongly for Iranian students and researchers, “given that they don’t always agree with my politics,” or given my unapologetic support for the founding principles (if not always the actions) of the United States and of Israel. For my part, I’m surprised that they’re surprised! So let me say something that might be clarifying.

I care about the happiness, freedom, and welfare of all the men and women who are actually working to understand the universe and build the technologies of the future, and of all the bright young people who want to join these quests, whatever their backgrounds and wherever they might be found—whether it’s in Iran or Israel, in India or China or right here in the US.  The system of science is far from perfect, and we often discuss ways to improve it on this blog.  But I have not the slightest interest in tearing down what we have now, or destroying the world’s current pool of scientific talent in some cleansing fire, in order to pursue someone’s mental model of what the scientific community used to look like in Periclean Athens—or for that matter, their fantasy of what it would look like in a post-gender post-racial communist utopia.  I’m interested in the actual human beings doing actual science who I actually meet, or hope to meet.

Understand that, and a large fraction of all the political views that I’ve ever expressed on this blog, even ones that might seem to be in tension with each other, fall out as immediate corollaries.

(Related to that, some readers might be interested in a further explanation of my views about Zionism. See also my thoughts about liberal democracy, in response to numerous comments here by Curtis Yarvin a.k.a. Mencius Moldbug a.k.a. “Boldmug.”)

Update (Jan. 29) Here’s a moving statement from my student Saeed himself, which he asked me to share here.

This is not of my best interest to talk about politics. Not because I am scared but because I know little politics. I am emotionally affected like many other fellow human beings on this planet. But I am still in the US and hopefully I can pursue my degree at MIT. But many other talented friends of mine can’t. Simply because they came back to their hometowns to visit their parents. On this matter, I must say that like many of my friends in Iran I did not have a chance to see my parents in four years, my basic human right, just because I am from a particular nationality; something that I didn’t have any decision on, and that I decided to study in my favorite school, something that I decided when I was 15. When, like many other talented friends of mine, I was teaching myself mathematics and physics hoping to make big impacts in positive ways in the future. And I must say I am proud of my nationality – home is home wherever it is. I came to America to do science in the first place. I still don’t have any other intention, I am a free man, I can do science even in desert, if I have to. If you read history you’ll see scientists even from old ages have always been traveling.

As I said I know little about many things, so I just phrase my own standpoint. You should also talk to the ones who are really affected. A good friend of mine, Ahmad, who studies Mechanical engineering in UC Berkeley, came back to visit his parents in August. He is one of the most talented students I have ever seen in my life. He has been waiting for his student visa since then and now he is ultimately depressed because he cannot finish his degree. The very least the academic society can do is to help students like Ahmad finish their degrees even if it is from abroad. I can’t emphasize enough I know little about many things. But, from a business standpoint, this is a terrible deal for America. Just think about it. All international students in this country have been getting free education untill 22, in the American point of reference, and now they are using their knowledge to build technology in the USA. Just do a simple calculation and see how much money this would amount to. In any case my fellow international students should rethink this deal, and don’t take it unless at the least they are treated with respect. Having said all of this I must say I love the people of America, I have had many great friends here, great advisors specially Scott Aaronson and Aram Harrow, with whom I have been talking about life, religion, freedom and my favorite topic the foundations of the universe. I am grateful for the education I received at MIT and I think I have something I didn’t have before. I don’t even hate Mr Trump. I think he would feel different if we have a cup of coffee sometime.

Update (Jan. 31): See also this post by Terry Tao.

Update (Feb. 2): If you haven’t been checking the comments on this post, come have a look if you’d like to watch me and others doing our best to defend the foundations of Enlightenment and liberal democracy against a regiment of monarchists and neoreactionaries, including the notorious Mencius Moldbug, as well as a guy named Jim who explicitly advocates abolishing democracy and appointing Trump as “God-Emperor” with his sons to succeed him. (Incidentally, which son? Is Ivanka out of contention?)

I find these people to be simply articulating, more clearly and logically than most, the worldview that put Trump into office and where it inevitably leads. And any of us who are horrified by it had better get over our incredulity, fast, and pick up the case for modernity and Enlightenment where Spinoza and Paine and Mill and all the others left it off—because that’s what’s actually at stake here, and if we don’t understand that then we’ll continue to be blindsided.

The Limits of Irany

Tuesday, June 16th, 2009

Update (6/20/2009): If you agree about Mahmoud deserving his vacation, please read and sign this petition (courtesy of Elham Kashefi). I have no doubt that if enough Shtetl-Optimized readers sign, it will force the ayatollahs to reconsider.

I haven’t heard from my pal Mahmoud in years, but some mutual friends told me that he’s been pretty stressed about his job lately.  They said you’re supposed to turn your blog’s background green if you agree with some concerned folks who’ve been marching around Tehran encouraging him to take a much-needed breather.

This was a tough call for me.  On the one hand, the voters clearly want Mahmoud at his desk by spectacular margins:


On the other hand, it seemed hypocritical for me to deny a close friend his vacation, given how much procrastinating I’ve been doing myself lately.  For example, I’ve barely been blogging—and when I have, it’s often just bargain-basement fare you could get anywhere else on the Internet!  Ultimately, then, I decided I had to go green out of a sort of Kantian blogegorical imperative—regardless of all the complex ways my editing a WordPress stylesheet might reverberate through history.

On drugs, mammoths, and Mahmoud

Wednesday, September 26th, 2007

I was, of course, delighted that Columbia University invited my good friend Mahmoud to speak there, and dismayed only by the tedious introduction by President Lee Bollinger. (“Having demonstrated conclusively that today’s featured speaker is a murderous tyrant with no more right to partake in the civilized world than Genghis Khan or Attila the Hun, let me now, without further ado…”) However long your speaker’s list of achievements, crimes against humanity, etc. might be, I think talk introductions should be two minutes tops.

But since this particular event has already been covered on more blogs than the Monster has subgroups, today I thought I’d roll out an occasional new Shtetl-Optimized feature — in which, for want of anything better to blog about, I discuss some books I’ve read recently.

The Truth About The Drug Companies: How They Deceive Us and What To Do About It by Marcia Angell.

Like many in the US, I once “knew” that drug companies have to charge such absurd prices here because otherwise they wouldn’t be able to fund their R&D. This book reveals the hilarious truth about what drug company R&D actually consists of. My favorite examples: coloring Prozac pink instead of green, marketing it for “premenstrual dysphoric disorder” instead of depression, and charging three times as much for it. Inventing new drugs for high blood pressure that are less effective than diuretics available since the 1950’s, but have the advantage of being patentable. Proving in clinical trials that a new drug works better than an old one, as long as you compare 40mg of the one to 20mg of the other.

The book paints a picture of the pharmaceutical industry as, basically, an organized crime syndicate that’s been successful in co-opting the government. It trumpets the free market but depends almost entirely for its existence on bad patent laws that it helped write; it bribes doctors to prescribe worse expensive drugs instead of better cheap ones; it waits for government-funded university researchers to discover new drugs, then bottles them up, makes billions of dollars, and demands credit for its life-saving innovations.

Among the arguments put forward by the rare negative reviewers of this book on Amazon, the following was my favorite (I’ll let you supply a counterargument):

Who do you folks think are paid higher, scientists in the Unis and government programs, or scientists in the industry? … Marcia saying the Universities and the NIH are more innovative in developing drugs than the Pharma Industry is like saying (using sports analogy) Minor League baseball is better than the MLB. Which players do you think are paid more? Common sense my friends.

The World Without Us by Alan Weisman.

This book has received a lot of attention lately, and deserves all of it. The topic is: if humans disappeared tomorrow, how long would it take for the world’s forests and coral reefs to regenerate, garbage to decompose, excess CO2 to wash out of the sky, giant land mammals to reappear in North America, etc.? Of course this is just a different way of asking: “exactly how badly have humans screwed up the planet?” Weisman’s key insight, though, is that it’s less depressing to read about the world regenerating itself than about its being destroyed.

It’s hard to identify a clear thesis in this book, just lots of interesting observations: for example, that African elephants weren’t hunted to extinction whereas woolly mammoths probably were because only the former evolved to fear humans; and that, if North and South Korea ever reunite, it will be a disaster for the dozens of endangered species that now survive only in a four-mile-wide demilitarized strip between the two. The prose is beautiful throughout, and sometimes reaches heights rarely seen in environmental writing. After explaining the role of volcanoes in climate change, Weisman says: “the problem is, by tapping the Carboniferous Formation and spewing it up into the sky, we’ve become a volcano that hasn’t stopped erupting since the 1700s.”

Breaking Mahmoud news — too hot for Slashdot

Tuesday, August 15th, 2006

If you hadn’t been reading the comments on my last post, you might not know that my old chum Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had launched his own blog on Sunday. Along with a rambling autobiography, this exciting new blog (which I’ve added to my linklog on the right) also includes a poll:

Do you think that the US and Israeli intention and goal by attacking Lebanon is pulling the trigger for another word [sic] war?

When I first visited, only 5% had voted “yes”, though it’s now up to 50%.

But wait, it gets better: if Mahmoud’s site identifies your IP address as coming from Israel, then it tries to install a virus on your computer by exploiting an Internet Explorer vulnerability. (Thanks to an anonymous commenter for bringing this to my attention.)

I suppose we should grateful that, at least for now, defending oneself against the modern-day Hitler is as simple as installing Firefox.

Veiled humor

Monday, November 14th, 2005

I just finished Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, the most astonishing comic book I’ve ever seen. Persepolis tells the story of Satrapi’s childhood in Iran, during which she witnessed the repressive regime of the Shah, then the takeover by Khomeini (who made the Shah look like Mr. Rogers), then the war with Iraq. What makes the story so compelling is not the horrors — next-door neighbors killed by an Iraqi missile, relatives tortured and executed for counterrevolutionary activities, etc. — but Satrapi and her friends’ absurd attempts to enjoy a normal childhood while all of this was going on. She describes how the girls in her school, suddenly forced to wear veils, would put them on backwards and pretend to be “monsters of the darkness”; how her dad brought her an Iron Maiden poster from Turkey by weaving it into his suit, lurching through airport security like Frankenstein’s monster; how a food shortage that emptied the supermarkets of everything but kidney beans provided an occasion for fart jokes. For me, reading this book only deepened the mystery of Iran: namely, how could such a funny, literate, humane country be conquered so completely by fundamentalist thugs? On reflection, I guess it’s happened before. And I guess I should be grateful that in the US, our secular institutions are strong enough that even Bush hasn’t destroyed them entirely.

Persepolis raises pointed questions about the naïveté of intellectuals, like the Iranian Marxists who refused to see the Islamists for what they were until it was too late. To any intellectuals still in Iran, I can only second Eldar’s advice, in the comments to a previous post: Get out! Get out now! And to everyone else, set aside a couple hours (which is all it takes) to read Persepolis. It might be the first comic book to win a Nobel Prize in Literature.

Mahmoud and me (continued)

Sunday, October 30th, 2005

I woke up this afternoon to find, in the comments section of my previous post, an ongoing debate about whether or not I was being serious when I praised the President of Iran for his resoluteness and conviction. For those who couldn’t figure it out, the answer is: of course I was being serious. In fact, right after I finished blogging, I telephoned Mahmoud to ask whether the Iranian army could use the services of a 24-year-old male who speaks fluent English, can do up to two push-ups per day, once fired an actual rifle, loves Persian food, and believes himself able to prove quantum lower bounds under combat conditions.

Mahmoud mulled it over for a while, and then replied that, while my qualifications were certainly impressive, unfortunately I did not meet his needs at the present time. I was devastated — and, I confess, I even started to wonder whether anti-Semitism might be at play. Except … how could he know? Throw in an extra “s,” and “Scott Aaronsson” could almost pass for Scandanavian. Then it hit me: like everyone else I’ve talked to over the past couple weeks, Mahmoud must be reading my weblog!

OK, look: is it “immature” to joke about these things, as several posters argued? Yes, it is immature. The mature response is to deplore evil, to be shocked by it — not to make a movie with Nazis dancing to the tune of “Springtime for Hitler in Germany,” or Woody Allen standing behind Hitler on a podium as part of his ongoing struggle to fit in. It’s just that all that deploring gets monotonous eventually. After a millennium or two, there’s nothing else to do except joke. As the story goes:

In 1936 in Berlin, a Jew is sitting in a cafe, reading Der Stürmer. His friend runs over to him: “Herschel, what are you doing? Don’t you realize that’s a Nazi paper?”

“Yeah, but in the Jewish papers, the news is always so depressing. Here it’s phenomenal: we control the banks, we control the media…”

Mahmoud and me

Saturday, October 29th, 2005

From the Wikipedia entry on Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the current President of Iran:

During a “World Without Zionism” student conference in October 2005, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad … called Israel a “disgraceful blot” that ought to be “wiped off the map.” He went on to decry attempts to normalize relations with Israel and condemned all Islamic leaders who recognize Israel’s existence as “acknowledging the surrender and defeat of the Islamic world” …

Kofi Annan said he was dismayed by the comments, and reiterated Iran’s obligations and Israel’s right of existence under the UN Charter. The White House responded by saying Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric showed that it was correct in trying to halt Iran’s nuclear program. EU leaders issued a strong condemnation of the Iranian President’s remarks, stating that “[c]alls for violence, and for the destruction of any state, are manifestly inconsistent with any claim to be a mature and responsible member of the international community.”

Ahmadinejad reaffirmed his position on 28 October 2005, as supporters chanting “death to Israel” and “death to America”, some burning and trampling on Israeli and U.S. flags, marched to a rally in Tehran attended by most of Iran’s top officials. “My words are the Iranian nation’s words,” he said. “Westerners are free to comment, but their reactions are invalid.”

In an age when soft-pedaling, pussyfooting, and political correctness are the norm, it’s refreshing to find a leader with genuine convictions — one who says what he means, and refuses to back down at the first whiff of criticism. Say what you like about Mahmoud; the man is not a flip-flopping wuss.