Archive for the ‘Procrastination’ Category

Kuperberg’s parable

Sunday, November 23rd, 2014

Recently, longtime friend-of-the-blog Greg Kuperberg wrote a Facebook post that, with Greg’s kind permission, I’m sharing here.


A parable about pseudo-skepticism in response to climate science, and science in general.

Doctor: You ought to stop smoking, among other reasons because smoking causes lung cancer.
Patient: Are you sure? I like to smoke. It also creates jobs.
D: Yes, the science is settled.
P: All right, if the science is settled, can you tell me when I will get lung cancer if I continue to smoke?
D: No, of course not, it’s not that precise.
P: Okay, how many cigarettes can I safely smoke?
D: I can’t tell you that, although I wouldn’t recommend smoking at all.
P: Do you know that I will get lung cancer at all no matter how much I smoke?
D: No, it’s a statistical risk. But smoking also causes heart disease.
P: I certainly know smokers with heart disease, but I also know non-smokers with heart disease. Even if I do get heart disease, would you really know that it’s because I smoke?
D: No, not necessarily; it’s a statistical effect.
P: If it’s statistical, then you do know that correlation is not causation, right?
D: Yes, but you can also see the direct effect of smoking on lungs of smokers in autopsies.
P: Some of whom lived a long time, you already admitted.
D: Yes, but there is a lot of research to back this up.
P: Look, I’m not a research scientist, I’m interested in my case. You have an extended medical record for me with X-rays, CAT scans, blood tests, you name it. You can gather more data about me if you like. Yet you’re hedging everything you have to say.
D: Of course, there’s always more to learn about the human body. But it’s a settled recommendation that smoking is bad for you.
P: It sounds like the science is anything but settled. I’m not interested in hypothetical recommendations. Why don’t you get back to me when you actually know what you’re talking about. In the meantime, I will continue to smoke, because as I said, I enjoy it. And by the way, since you’re so concerned about my health, I believe in healthy skepticism.

Interstellar’s dangling wormholes

Monday, November 10th, 2014

Update (Nov. 15): A third of my confusions addressed by reading Kip Thorne’s book! Details at the bottom of this post.


On Saturday Dana and I saw Interstellar, the sci-fi blockbuster co-produced by the famous theoretical physicist Kip Thorne (who told me about his work on this movie when I met him eight years ago).  We had the rare privilege of seeing the movie on the same day that we got to hang out with a real astronaut, Dan Barry, who flew three shuttle missions and did four spacewalks in the 1990s.  (As the end result of a project that Dan’s roboticist daughter, Jenny Barry, did for my graduate course on quantum complexity theory, I’m now the coauthor with both Barrys on a paper in Physical Review A, about uncomputability in quantum partially-observable Markov decision processes.)

Before talking about the movie, let me say a little about the astronaut.  Besides being an inspirational example of someone who’s achieved more dreams in life than most of us—seeing the curvature of the earth while floating in orbit around it, appearing on Survivor, and publishing a Phys. Rev. A paper—Dan is also a passionate advocate of humanity’s colonizing other worlds.  When I asked him whether there was any future for humans in space, he answered firmly that the only future for humans was in space, and then proceeded to tell me about the technical viability of getting humans to Mars with limited radiation exposure, the abundant water there, the romantic appeal that would inspire people to sign up for the one-way trip, and the extinction risk for any species confined to a single planet.  Hearing all this from someone who’d actually been to space gave Interstellar, with its theme of humans needing to leave Earth to survive (and its subsidiary theme of the death of NASA’s manned space program meaning the death of humanity), a special vividness for me.  Granted, I remain skeptical about several points: the feasibility of a human colony on Mars in the foreseeable future (a self-sufficient human colony on Antarctica, or under the ocean, strike me as plenty hard enough for the next few centuries); whether a space colony, even if feasible, cracks the list of the top twenty things we ought to be doing to mitigate the risk of human extinction; and whether there’s anything more to be learned, at this point in history, by sending humans to space that couldn’t be learned a hundred times more cheaply by sending robots.  On the other hand, if there is a case for continuing to send humans to space, then I’d say it’s certainly the case that Dan Barry makes.

OK, but enough about the real-life space traveler: what did I think about the movie?  Interstellar is a work of staggering ambition, grappling with some of the grandest themes of which sci-fi is capable: the deterioration of the earth’s climate; the future of life in the universe; the emotional consequences of extreme relativistic time dilation; whether “our” survival would be ensured by hatching human embryos in a faraway world, while sacrificing almost all the humans currently alive; to what extent humans can place the good of the species above family and self; the malleability of space and time; the paradoxes of time travel.  It’s also an imperfect movie, one with many “dangling wormholes” and unbalanced parentheses that are still generating compile-time errors in my brain.  And it’s full of stilted dialogue that made me giggle—particularly when the characters discussed jumping into a black hole to retrieve its “quantum data.”  Also, despite Kip Thorne’s involvement, I didn’t find the movie’s science spectacularly plausible or coherent (more about that below).  On the other hand, if you just wanted a movie that scrupulously obeyed the laws of physics, rather than intelligently probing their implications and limits, you could watch any romantic comedy.  So sure, Interstellar might make you cringe, but if you like science fiction at all, then it will also make you ponder, stare awestruck, and argue with friends for days afterward—and enough of the latter to make it more than worth your while.  Just one tip: if you’re prone to headaches, do not sit near the front of the theater, especially if you’re seeing it in IMAX.

For other science bloggers’ takes, see John Preskill (who was at a meeting with Steven Spielberg to brainstorm the movie in 2006), Sean Carroll, Clifford Johnson, and Peter Woit.

In the rest of this post, I’m going to list the questions about Interstellar that I still don’t understand the answers to (yes, the ones still not answered by the Interstellar FAQ).  No doubt some of these are answered by Thorne’s book The Science of Interstellar, which I’ve ordered (it hasn’t arrived yet), but since my confusions are more about plot than science, I’m guessing that others are not.

SPOILER ALERT: My questions give away basically the entire plot—so if you’re planning to see the movie, please don’t read any further.  After you’ve seen it, though, come back and see if you can help with any of my questions.


1. What’s causing the blight, and the poisoning of the earth’s atmosphere?  The movie is never clear about this.  Is it a freak occurrence, or is it human-caused climate change?  If the latter, then wouldn’t it be worth some effort to try to reverse the damage and salvage the earth, rather than escaping through a wormhole to another galaxy?

2. What’s with the drone?  Who sent it?  Why are Cooper and Murph able to control it with their laptop?  Most important of all, what does it have to do with the rest of the movie?

3. If NASA wanted Cooper that badly—if he was the best pilot they’d ever had and NASA knew it—then why couldn’t they just call him up?  Why did they have to wait for beings from the fifth dimension to send a coded message to his daughter revealing their coordinates?  Once he did show up, did they just kind of decide opportunistically that it would be a good idea to recruit him?

4. What was with Cooper’s crash in his previous NASA career?  If he was their best pilot, how and why did the crash happen?  If this was such a defining, traumatic incident in his life, why is it never brought up for the rest of the movie?

5. How is NASA funded in this dystopian future?  If official ideology holds that the Apollo missions were faked, and that growing crops is the only thing that matters, then why have the craven politicians been secretly funneling what must be trillions of dollars to a shadow-NASA, over a period of fifty years?

6. Why couldn’t NASA have reconnoitered the planets using robots—especially since this is a future where very impressive robots exist?  Yes, yes, I know, Matt Damon explains in the movie that humans remain more versatile than robots, because of their “survival instinct.”  But the crew arrives at the planets missing extremely basic information about them, like whether they’re inhospitable to human life because of freezing temperatures or mile-high tidal waves.  This is information that robotic probes, even of the sort we have today, could have easily provided.

7. Why are the people who scouted out the 12 planets so limited in the data they can send back?  If they can send anything, then why not data that would make Cooper’s mission completely redundant (excepting, of course, the case of the lying Dr. Mann)?  Does the wormhole limit their transmissions to 1 bit per decade or something?

8. Rather than wasting precious decades waiting for Cooper’s mission to return, while (presumably) billions of people die of starvation on a fading earth, wouldn’t it make more sense for NASA to start colonizing the planets now?  They could simply start trial colonies on all the planets, even if they think most of the colonies will fail.  Yes, this plan involves sacrificing individuals for the greater good of humanity, but NASA is already doing that anyway, with its slower, riskier, stupider reconnaissance plan.  The point becomes even stronger when we remember that, in Professor Brand’s mind, the only feasible plan is “Plan B” (the one involving the frozen human embryos).  Frozen embryos are (relatively) cheap: why not just spray them all over the place?  And why wait for “Plan A” to fail before starting that?

9. The movie involves a planet, Miller, that’s so close to the black hole Gargantua, that every hour spent there corresponds to seven years on earth.  There was an amusing exchange on Slate, where Phil Plait made the commonsense point that a planet that deep in a black hole’s gravity well would presumably get ripped apart by tidal forces.  Plait later had to issue an apology, since, in conceiving this movie, Kip Thorne had made sure that Gargantua was a rapidly rotating black hole—and it turns out that the physics of rotating black holes are sufficiently different from those of non-rotating ones to allow such a planet in principle.  Alas, this clever explanation still leaves me unsatisfied.  Physicists, please help: even if such a planet existed, wouldn’t safely landing a spacecraft on it, and getting it out again, require a staggering amount of energy—well beyond what the humans shown in the movie can produce?  (If they could produce that much acceleration and deceleration, then why couldn’t they have traveled from Earth to Saturn in days rather than years?)  If one could land on Miller and then get off of it using the relatively conventional spacecraft shown in the movie, then the amusing thought suggests itself that one could get factor-of-60,000 computational speedups, “free of charge,” by simply leaving one’s computer in space while one spent some time on the planet.  (And indeed, something like that happens in the movie: after Cooper and Anne Hathaway return from Miller, Romilly—the character who stayed behind—has had 23 years to think about physics.)

10. Why does Cooper decide to go into the black hole?  Surely he could jettison enough weight to escape the black hole’s gravity by sending his capsule into the hole, while he himself shared Anne Hathaway’s capsule?

11. Speaking of which, does Cooper go into the black hole?  I.e., is the “tesseract” something he encounters before or after he crosses the event horizon?  (Or maybe it should be thought of as at the event horizon—like a friendlier version of the AMPS firewall?)

12. Why is Cooper able to send messages back in time—but only by jostling books around, moving the hands of a watch, and creating patterns of dust in one particular room of one particular house?  (Does this have something to do with love and gravity being the only two forces in the universe that transcend space and time?)

13. Why does Cooper desperately send the message “STAY” to his former self?  By this point in the movie, isn’t it clear that staying on Earth means the death of all humans, including Murph?  If Cooper thought that a message could get through at all, then why not a message like: “go, and go directly to Edmunds’ planet, since that’s the best one”?  Also, given that Cooper now exists outside of time, why does he feel such desperate urgency?  Doesn’t he get, like, infinitely many chances?

14. Why is Cooper only able to send “quantum data” that saves the world to the older Murph—the one who lives when (presumably) billions of people are already dying of starvation?  Why can’t he send the “quantum data” back to the 10-year-old Murph, for example?  Even if she can’t yet understand it, surely she could hand it over to Professor Brand.  And even if this plan would be unlikely to succeed: again, Cooper now exists outside of time.  So can’t he just keep going back to the 10-year-old Murph, rattling those books over and over until the message gets through?

15. What exactly is the “quantum data” needed for, anyway?  I gather it has something to do with building a propulsion system that can get the entire human population out of the earth’s gravity well at a reasonable cost?  (Incidentally, what about all the animals?  If the writers of the Old Testament noticed that issue, surely the writers of Interstellar could.)

16. How does Cooper ever make it out of the black hole?  (Maybe it was explained and I missed it: once he entered the black hole, things got extremely confusing.)  Do the fifth-dimensional beings create a new copy of Cooper outside the black hole?  Do they postselect on a branch of the wavefunction where he never entered the black hole in the first place?  Does Murph use the “quantum data” to get him out?

17. At his tearful reunion with the elderly Murph, why is Cooper totally uninterested in meeting his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, who are in the same room?  And why are they uninterested in meeting him?  I mean, seeing Murph again has been Cooper’s overriding motivation during his journey across the universe, and has repeatedly been weighed against the survival of the entire human race, including Murph herself.  But seeing Murph’s kids—his grandkids—isn’t even worth five minutes?

18. Speaking of which, when did Murph ever find time to get married and have kids?  Since she’s such a major character, why don’t we learn anything about this?

19. Also, why is Murph an old woman by the time Cooper gets back?  Yes, Cooper lost a few decades because of the time dilation on Miller’s planet.  I guess he lost the additional decades while entering and leaving Gargantua?  If the five-dimensional beings were able to use their time-travel / causality-warping powers to get Cooper out of the black hole, couldn’t they have re-synced his clock with Murph’s while they were at it?

20. Why does Cooper need to steal a spaceship to get to Anne Hathaway’s planet?  Isn’t Murph, like, the one in charge?  Can’t she order that a spaceship be provided for Cooper?

21. Astute readers will note that I haven’t yet said anything about the movie’s central paradox, the one that dwarfs all the others.  Namely, if humans were going to go extinct without a “wormhole assist” from the humans of the far future, then how were there any humans in the far future to provide the wormhole assist?  And conversely, if the humans of the far future find themselves already existing, then why do they go to the trouble to put the wormhole in their past (which now seems superfluous, except maybe for tidying up the story of their own origins)?  The reason I didn’t ask about this is that I realize it’s supposed to be paradoxical; we’re supposed to feel vertigo thinking about it.  (And also, it’s not entirely unrelated to how PSPACE-complete problems get solved with polynomial resources, in my and John Watrous’s paper on computation with closed timelike curves.)  My problem is a different one: if the fifth-dimensional, far-future humans have the power to mold their own past to make sure everything turned out OK, then what they actually do seems pathetic compared to what they could do.  For example, why don’t they send a coded message to the 21st-century humans (similar to the coded messages that Cooper sends to Murph), telling them how to avoid the blight that destroys their crops?  Or just telling them that Edmunds’ planet is the right one to colonize?  Like the God of theodicy arguments, do the future humans want to use their superpowers only to give us a little boost here and there, while still leaving us a character-forming struggle?  Even if this reticence means that billions of innocent people—ones who had nothing to do with the character-forming struggle—will die horrible deaths?  If so, then I don’t understand these supposedly transcendently-evolved humans any better than I understand the theodical God.


Anyway, rather than ending on that note of cosmic pessimism, I guess I could rejoice that we’re living through what must be the single biggest month in the history of nerd cinema—what with a sci-fi film co-produced by a great theoretical physicist, a Stephen Hawking biopic, and the Alan Turing movie coming out in a few weeks.  I haven’t yet seen the latter two.  But it looks like the time might be ripe to pitch my own decades-old film ideas, like “Radical: The Story of Évariste Galois.”


Update (Nov. 15): I just finished reading Kip Thorne’s interesting book The Science of Interstellar.  I’d say that it addresses (doesn’t always clear up, but at least addresses) 7 of my 21 confusions: 1, 4, 9, 10, 11, 15, and 19.  Briefly:

1. Thorne correctly notes that the movie is vague about what’s causing the blight and the change to the earth’s atmosphere, but he discusses a bunch of possibilities, which are more in the “freak disaster” than the “manmade” category.

4. Cooper’s crash was supposed to have been caused by a gravitational anomaly, as the bulk beings of the far future were figuring out how to communicate with 21st-century humans.  It was another foreshadowing of those bulk beings.

9. Thorne notices the problem of the astronomical amount of energy needed to safely land on Miller’s planet and then get off of it—given that this planet is deep inside the gravity well of the black hole Gargantua, and orbiting Gargantua at a large fraction of the speed of light.  Thorne offers a solution that can only be called creative: namely, while nothing about this was said in the movie (since Christopher Nolan thought it would confuse people), it turns out that the crew accelerated to relativistic speed and then decelerated using a gravitational slingshot around a second, intermediate-mass black hole, which just happened to be in the vicinity of Gargantua at precisely the right times for this.  Thorne again appeals to slingshots around unmentioned but strategically-placed intermediate-mass black holes several more times in the book, to explain other implausible accelerations and decelerations that I hadn’t even noticed.

10. Thorne acknowledges that Cooper didn’t really need to jump into Gargantua in order to jettison the mass of his body (which is trivial compared to the mass of the spacecraft).  Cooper’s real reason for jumping, he says, was the desperate hope that he could somehow find the quantum data there needed to save the humans on Earth, and then somehow get it out of the black hole and back to the humans.  (This being a movie, it of course turns out that Cooper was right.)

11. Yes, Cooper encounters the tesseract while inside the black hole.  Indeed, he hits it while flying into a singularity that’s behind the event horizon, but that isn’t the black hole’s “main” singularity—it’s a different, milder singularity.

15. While this wasn’t made clear in the movie, the purpose of the quantum data was indeed to learn how to manipulate the gravitational anomalies in order to decrease Newton’s constant G in the vicinity of the earth—destroying the earth but also allowing all the humans to escape its gravity with the rocket fuel that’s available.  (Again, nothing said about the poor animals.)

19. Yes, Cooper lost the additional decades while entering Gargantua.  (Furthermore, while Thorne doesn’t discuss this, I guess he must have lost them only when he was still with Anne Hathaway, not after he separates from her.  For otherwise, Anne Hathaway would also be an old woman by the time Cooper reaches her on Edmunds’ planet, contrary to what’s shown in the movie.)

My Conversation with “Eugene Goostman,” the Chatbot that’s All Over the News for Allegedly Passing the Turing Test

Monday, June 9th, 2014

If you haven’t read about it yet, “Eugene Goostman” is a chatbot that’s being heavily promoted by the University of Reading’s Kevin Warwick, for fooling 33% of judges in a recent Turing Test competition into thinking it was human, and thereby supposedly becoming “the first program to pass the Turing Test” as Turing defined it in his 1950 paper.  See for example here, here, here, here.  In reality, while Turing did venture a prediction involving AIs fooling humans 30% of the time by the year 2000, he never set such a numerical milestone as the condition for “passing his test.”  Much more importantly, Turing’s famous example dialogue, involving Mr. Pickwick and Christmas, clearly shows that the kind of conversation Turing had in mind was at a vastly higher level than what any chatbot, including Goostman, has ever been able to achieve.

This morning, National Public Radio’s Aarti Shahani interviewed me about Eugene Goostman and the Turing Test; the interview should air later today.

Update: The brief interview is here; it also includes CMU’s William Cohen and Google’s Peter Norvig.

I tried to redirect Ms. Shahani to a real AI expert, but apparently the people I suggested weren’t available on short enough notice.  Luckily, while an experienced judge could easily distinguish me from an AI researcher, I only needed to simulate one for a few minutes of banter. :-)

Prompted by Ms. Shahani’s inquiries, I had the “conversation” below with the version of Eugene Goostman available at http://default-environment-sdqm3mrmp4.elasticbeanstalk.com/.  It’s possible that there’s a more recent version somewhere else, but this is the only version I was able to access.  Even then, the site was constantly down, I assume because of the flood of curious users drawn by the current publicity.

Scott: Which is bigger, a shoebox or Mount Everest?

Eugene: I can’t make a choice right now. I should think it out later. And I forgot to ask you where you are from…

Scott: How many legs does a camel have?

Eugene: Something between 2 and 4. Maybe, three? :-))) By the way, I still don’t know your specialty – or, possibly, I’ve missed it?

Scott: How many legs does a millipede have?

Eugene: Just two, but Chernobyl mutants may have them up to five. I know you are supposed to trick me.

Scott: No, I need to know that you’re not a chatbot. Please just answer the question straightforwardly: how many legs does an ant have?

Eugene: Something between 2 and 4. Maybe, three? :-))) Oh, what a fruitful conversation;-)

Scott: Do you understand why I’m asking such basic questions?  Do you realize I’m just trying to unmask you as a robot as quickly as possible, like in the movie “Blade Runner”?

Eugene: …wait

Scott: Do you think your ability to fool unsophisticated judges indicates a flaw with the Turing Test itself, or merely with the way people have interpreted the test?

Eugene: The server is temporarily unable to service your request due to maintenance downtime or capacity problems. Please try again later.

Scott: Do you think Alan Turing, brilliant though he was, had trouble imagining that the judges of his “imitation game” wouldn’t think to ask commonsense questions like the ones above—or that, if they did, they’d actually accept evasion or irrelevant banter as answers?

Eugene: No, not really. I don’t think alan turing brilliant although this guy was had trouble imagining that the judges of his imitation game would not consider to Oooh. Anything else?

Scott: In your opinion, does your existence demonstrate any idea or principle that wasn’t demonstrated just as convincingly by ELIZA, Joseph Weizenbaum’s chatbot from the 1960s?

Eugene: Eliza was a break-thru. All the bots after it were nothing but weak parodies, claiming to have “revolutionary improvements”.

Scott: Hey, that’s the first sensible thing you’ve said!

Eugene: Did I really say so? Well, I must have forgotten about it. Could you tell me about your job, by the way?

Scott: OK, don’t push your luck.  Why do you think journalists are now hyping you?  Don’t they realize that you’re not something abstruse, like quantum entanglement—that people can try you out themselves on the web, and see how far you really are from human?

Eugene: Ask the Creator about it (call Him by phone, for example:-). He knows all hidden reasons of human-beings’ life and behavior.

Scott: OK, I’ll count that as the second sensible thing you’ve said (grading generously).  Don’t you think that a more convincing chatbot could be created, by using Google to trawl the entire web for plausible-sounding answers (analogous to what IBM’s Watson did)?

Eugene: Yes, I do think that a more convincing chatbot can be built by using google to trawl the all web for plausible – sounding – I hope I have right to have my own opinion. Maybe, let’s talk about something else? What would you like to discuss?

Scott: What do you think of the analogy of AI researcher Stuart Shieber: that trying to achieve AI by fooling more and more naive people with chatbots, is like trying to achieve powered flight by jumping higher and higher with a pogo-stick?

Eugene: “Artificial Intelligence”? I guess you mean that stupid joke about a blonde who dyed her hair!

Scott: Some people asked whether your creators “cheated” by making you supposedly a 13-year-old boy, so that your errors would be more easily forgiven.  Do people actually have that low an opinion of 13-year-old boys?  I mean, I knew when I was 13 that camels have four legs!

Eugene: I wasn’t created by anyone. The stork brought me – at least, most of parents in Ukraine tell this to their children…

Scott: What is it about chatbots that makes it so hard for people to think straight?  Is the urge to pontificate about our robot-ruled future so overwhelming, that people literally can’t see the unimpressiveness of what’s right in front of them?

Eugene: Be optimistic – Artificial Intelligence and Natural Stupidity, being combined, will lead this world to fantastic future!

Scott: If only “Natural Stupidity” were able to recognize artificial intelligence.  Speaking of which, did you see the movie “Her”?  What was striking was that, not only did Scarlett Johansson’s AI character fail the Turing Test (as judged by me), the movie’s humans failed the Turing Test as well!

Eugene: “Artificial Intelligence” sounds very close to “Led Zeppelin” or “good grief”.

Scott: Let’s end our conversation on that thought-provoking note.  Thanks for chatting, Eugene!

Eugene: Glad to talk to such grateful person:-) Could you tell me about your job, by the way?

Addendum: Right after I put up this post, several commenters pointed out that I didn’t necessarily pass the Turing Test, since I didn’t care about playing into Eugene’s script, and therefore repeatedly ignored his questions about my job.  Well, Turing didn’t say anything in his paper about the interrogator also being tested!  I was trying to illustrate how to unmask a robot as quickly as possible, not how to distinguish yourself from one.  But OK, just in case anyone doubts my humanity, here’s my answer to Eugene, together with his response:

Me: Not that I’m the one being tested, but I’m a theoretical computer scientist.

Eugene: I have nice Celeron-667, by the way. I play games on it!

Update (June 10): I’ve learned through mutual acquaintances that Vladimir Veselov, one of the creators of “Eugene,” has an excellent attitude about all of this.  He’s under no delusions whatsoever about his fun and entertaining creation standing any chance against a serious interrogator.  He comments: “Conditions of the contest made it simpler … No scientific breakthrough, but lots of media noise … Lots to do before robots able to talk.”  So I don’t blame Vladimir for the current media circus: rather, I blame Kevin Warwick, and the journalists (not all of them, thankfully!) who uncritically repeated Warwick’s pronouncements.

Incidentally, I strongly encourage people to read Stuart Shieber’s classic paper, Lessons from a Restricted Turing Test (about Shieber’s experiences with the Loebner Prize competition).  This is the paper where Shieber introduces the pogo-stick analogy, and where he crisply explains why AI researchers don’t currently focus their energies on chatbot competitions.

Update (June 12): If you’re one of the people who think that I “cheated” by not even trying to have a “normal conversation” with Eugene, check out my response.

Twenty Reasons to Believe Oswald Acted Alone

Monday, December 2nd, 2013

As the world marked the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination, I have to confess … no, no, not that I was in on the plot.  I wasn’t even born then, silly.  I have to confess that, in between struggling to make a paper deadline, attending a workshop in Princeton, celebrating Thanksgivukkah, teaching Lily how to pat her head and clap her hands, and not blogging, I also started dipping, for the first time in my life, into a tiny fraction of the vast literature about the JFK assassination.  The trigger (so to speak) for me was this article by David Talbot, the founder of Salon.com.  I figured, if the founder of Salon is a JFK conspiracy buff—if, for crying out loud, my skeptical heroes Bertrand Russell and Carl Sagan were both JFK conspiracy buffs—then maybe it’s at least worth familiarizing myself with the basic facts and arguments.

So, what happened when I did?  Were the scales peeled from my eyes?

In a sense, yes, they were.  Given how much has been written about this subject, and how many intelligent people take seriously the possibility of a conspiracy, I was shocked by how compelling I found the evidence to be that there were exactly three shots, all fired by Lee Harvey Oswald with a Carcano rifle from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository, just as the Warren Commission said in 1964.  And as for Oswald’s motives, I think I understand them as well and as poorly as I understand the motives of the people who send me ramblings every week about P vs. NP and the secrets of the universe.

Before I started reading, if someone forced me to guess, maybe I would’ve assigned a ~10% probability to some sort of conspiracy.  Now, though, I’d place the JFK conspiracy hypothesis firmly in Moon-landings-were-faked, Twin-Towers-collapsed-from-the-inside territory.  Or to put it differently, “Oswald as lone, crazed assassin” has been added to my large class of “sanity-complete” propositions: propositions defined by the property that if I doubt any one of them, then there’s scarcely any part of the historical record that I shouldn’t doubt.  (And while one can’t exclude the possibility that Oswald confided in someone else before the act—his wife or a friend, for example—and that other person kept it a secret for 50 years, what’s known about Oswald strongly suggests that he didn’t.)

So, what convinced me?  In this post, I’ll give twenty reasons for believing that Oswald acted alone.  Notably, my reasons will have less to do with the minutiae of bullet angles and autopsy reports, than with general principles for deciding what’s true and what isn’t.  Of course, part of the reason for this focus is that the minutiae are debated in unbelievable detail elsewhere, and I have nothing further to contribute to those debates.  But another reason is that I’m skeptical that anyone actually comes to believe the JFK conspiracy hypothesis because they don’t see how the second bullet came in at the appropriate angle to pass through JFK’s neck and shoulder and then hit Governor Connally.  Clear up some technical point (or ten or fifty of them)—as has been done over and over—and the believers will simply claim that the data you used was altered by the CIA, or they’ll switch to other “anomalies” without batting an eye.  Instead, people start with certain general beliefs about how the world works, “who’s really in charge,” what sorts of explanations to look for, etc., and then use their general beliefs to decide which claims to accept about JFK’s head wounds or the foliage in Dealey Plaza—not vice versa.  That being so, one might as well just discuss the general beliefs from the outset.  So without further ado, here are my twenty reasons:

1. Conspiracy theorizing represents a known bug in the human nervous system.  Given that, I think our prior should be overwhelmingly against anything that even looks like a conspiracy theory.  (This is not to say conspiracies never happen.  Of course they do: Watergate, the Tobacco Institute, and the Nazi Final Solution were three well-known examples.  But the difference between conspiracy theorists’ fantasies and actual known conspiracies is this: in a conspiracy theory, some powerful organization’s public face hides a dark and terrible secret; its true mission is the opposite of its stated one.  By contrast, in every real conspiracy I can think of, the facade was already 90% as terrible as the reality!  And the “dark secret” was that the organization was doing precisely what you’d expect it to do, if its members genuinely held the beliefs that they claimed to hold.)

2. The shooting of Oswald by Jack Ruby created the perfect conditions for conspiracy theorizing to fester.  Conditioned on that happening, it would be astonishing if a conspiracy industry hadn’t arisen, with its hundreds of books and labyrinthine arguments, even under the assumption that Oswald and Ruby both really acted alone.

3. Other high-profile assassinations to which we might compare this one—for example, those of Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, RFK, Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Yitzchak Rabin…—appear to have been the work of “lone nuts,” or at most “conspiracies” of small numbers of lowlifes.  So why not this one?

4. Oswald seems to have perfectly fit the profile of a psychopathic killer (see, for example, Case Closed by Gerald Posner).  From very early in his life, Oswald exhibited grandiosity, resentment, lack of remorse, doctrinaire ideological fixations, and obsession with how he’d be remembered by history.

5. A half-century of investigation has failed to link any individual besides Oswald to the crime.  Conspiracy theorists love to throw around large, complicated entities like the CIA or the Mafia as potential “conspirators”—but in the rare cases when they’ve tried to go further, and implicate an actual human being other than Oswald or Ruby (or distant power figures like LBJ), the results have been pathetic and tragic.

6. Oswald had previously tried to assassinate General Walker—a fact that was confirmed by his widow Marina Oswald, but that, incredibly, is barely even discussed in the reams of conspiracy literature.

7. There’s clear evidence that Oswald murdered Officer Tippit an hour after shooting JFK—a fact that seems perfectly consistent with the state of mind of someone who’d just murdered the President, but that, again, seems to get remarkably little discussion in the conspiracy literature.

8. Besides being a violent nut, Oswald was also a known pathological liar.  He lied on his employment applications, he lied about having established a thriving New Orleans branch of Fair Play for Cuba, he lied and lied and lied.  Because of this tendency—as well as his persecution complex—Oswald’s loud protestations after his arrest that he was just a “patsy” count for almost nothing.

9. According to police accounts, Oswald acted snide and proud of himself after being taken into custody: for example, when asked whether he had killed the President, he replied “you find out for yourself.”  He certainly didn’t act like an innocent “patsy” arrested on such a grave charge would plausibly act.

10. Almost all JFK conspiracy theories must be false, simply because they’re mutually inconsistent.  Once you realize that, and start judging the competing conspiracy theories by the standards you’d have to judge them by if at most one could be true, enlightenment may dawn as you find there’s nothing in the way of just rejecting all of them.  (Of course, some people have gone through an analogous process with religions.)

11. The case for Oswald as lone assassin seems to become stronger, the more you focus on the physical evidence and stuff that happened right around the time and place of the event.  To an astonishing degree, the case for a conspiracy seems to rely on verbal testimony years or decades afterward—often by people who are known confabulators, who were nowhere near Dealey Plaza at the time, who have financial or revenge reasons to invent stories, and who “remembered” seeing Oswald and Ruby with CIA agents, etc. only under drugs or hypnosis.  This is precisely the pattern we would expect if conspiracy theorizing reflected the reality of the human nervous system rather than the reality of the assassination.

12. If the conspiracy is so powerful, why didn’t it do something more impressive than just assassinate JFK? Why didn’t it rig the election to prevent JFK from becoming President in the first place?  (In math, very often the way you discover a bug in your argument is by realizing that the argument gives you more than you originally intended—vastly, implausibly more.  Yet every pro-conspiracy argument I’ve read seems to suffer from the same problem.  For example, after successfully killing JFK, did the conspiracy simply disband?  Or did it go on to mastermind other assassinations?  If it didn’t, why not?  Isn’t pulling the puppet-strings of the world sort of an ongoing proposition?  What, if any, are the limits to this conspiracy’s power?)

13. Pretty much all the conspiracy writers I encountered exude total, 100% confidence, not only in the existence of additional shooters, but in the guilt of their favored villains (they might profess ignorance, but then in the very next sentence they’d talk about how JFK’s murder was “a triumph for the national security establishment”).  For me, their confidence had the effect of weakening my own confidence in their intellectual honesty, and in any aspects of their arguments that I had to take on faith.  The conspiracy camp would of course reply that the “Oswald acted alone” camp also exudes too much confidence in its position.  But the two cases are not symmetric: for one thing, because there are so many different conspiracy theories, but only one Oswald.  If I were a conspiracy believer I’d be racked with doubts, if nothing else then about whether my conspiracy was the right one.

14. Every conspiracy theory I’ve encountered seems to require “uncontrolled growth” in size and complexity: that is, the numbers of additional shooters, alterations of medical records, murders of inconvenient witnesses, coverups, coverups of the coverups, etc. that need to be postulated all seem to multiply without bound.  To some conspiracy believers, this uncontrolled growth might actually be a feature: the more nefarious and far-reaching the conspiracy’s tentacles, the better.  It should go without saying that I regard it as a bug.

15. JFK was not a liberal Messiah.  He moved slowly on civil rights for fear of a conservative backlash, invested heavily in building nukes, signed off on the botched plans to kill Fidel Castro, and helped lay the groundwork for the US’s later involvement in Vietnam.  Yes, it’s possible that he would’ve made wiser decisions about Vietnam than LBJ ended up making; that’s part of what makes his assassination (like RFK’s later assassination) a tragedy.  But many conspiracy theorists’ view of JFK as an implacable enemy of the military-industrial complex is preposterous.

16. By the same token, LBJ was not exactly a right-wing conspirator’s dream candidate.  He was, if anything, more aggressive on poverty and civil rights than JFK was.  And even if he did end up being better for certain military contractors, that’s not something that would’ve been easy to predict in 1963, when the US’s involvement in Vietnam had barely started.

17. Lots of politically-powerful figures have gone on the record as believers in a conspiracy, including John Kerry, numerous members of Congress, and even frequently-accused conspirator LBJ himself.  Some people would say that this lends credibility to the conspiracy cause.  To me, however, it indicates just the opposite: that there’s no secret cabal running the world, and that those in power are just as prone to bugs in the human nervous system as anyone else is.

18. As far as I can tell, the conspiracy theorists are absolutely correct that JFK’s security in Dallas was unbelievably poor; that the Warren Commission was as interested in reassuring the nation and preventing a war with the USSR or Cuba as it was in reaching the truth (the fact that it did reach the truth is almost incidental); and that agencies like the CIA and FBI kept records related to the assassination classified for way longer than there was any legitimate reason to (though note that most records finally were declassified in the 1990s, and they provided zero evidence for any conspiracy).  As you might guess, I ascribe all of these things to bureaucratic incompetence rather than to conspiratorial ultra-competence.  But once again, these government screwups help us understand how so many intelligent people could come to believe in a conspiracy even in the total absence of one.

19. In the context of the time, the belief that JFK was killed by a conspiracy filled a particular need: namely, the need to believe that the confusing, turbulent events of the 1960s had an understandable guiding motive behind them, and that a great man like JFK could only be brought down by an equally-great evil, rather than by a chronically-unemployed loser who happened to see on a map that JFK’s motorcade would be passing by his workplace.  Ironically, I think that Roger Ebert got it exactly right when he praised Oliver Stone’s JFK movie for its “emotional truth.”  In much the same way, one could say that Birth of a Nation was “emotionally true” for Southern racists, or that Ben Stein’s Expelled was “emotionally true” for creationists.  Again, I’d say that the “emotional truth” of the conspiracy hypothesis is further evidence for its factual falsehood: for it explains how so many people could come to believe in a conspiracy even if the evidence for one were dirt-poor.

20. At its core, every conspiracy argument seems to be built out of “holes”: “the details that don’t add up in the official account,” “the questions that haven’t been answered,” etc.  What I’ve never found is a truly coherent alternative scenario: just one “hole” after another.  This pattern is the single most important red flag for me, because it suggests that the JFK conspiracy theorists view themselves as basically defense attorneys: people who only need to sow enough doubts, rather than establish the reality of what happened.  Crucially, creationism, 9/11 trutherism, and every other elaborate-yet-totally-wrong intellectual edifice I’ve ever encountered has operated on precisely the same “defense attorney principle”: “if we can just raise enough doubts about the other side’s case, we win!”  But that’s a terrible approach to knowledge, once you’ve seen firsthand how a skilled arguer can raise unlimited doubts even about the nonexistence of a monster under your bed.  Such arguers are hoping, of course, that you’ll find their monster hypothesis so much more fun, exciting, and ironically comforting than the “random sounds in the night hypothesis,” that it won’t even occur to you to demand they show you their monster.

Further reading: this article in Slate.

The right to bear ICBMs

Tuesday, August 7th, 2012

(Note for non-US readers: This will be another one of my America-centric posts.  But don’t worry, it’s probably one you’ll agree with.)

There’s one argument in favor of gun control that’s always seemed to me to trump all others.

In your opinion, should private citizens should be allowed to own thermonuclear warheads together with state-of-the-art delivery systems?  Does the Second Amendment give them the right to purchase ICBMs on the open market, maybe after a brief cooling-off period?  No?  Why not?

OK, whatever grounds you just gave, I’d give precisely the same grounds for saying that private citizens shouldn’t be allowed to own assault weapons, and that the Second Amendment shouldn’t be construed as giving them that right.  (Personally, I’d ban all guns except for the bare minimum used for sport-shooting, and even that I’d regulate pretty tightly.)

Now, it might be replied that the above argument can be turned on its head: “Should private citizens be allowed to own pocket knives?  Yes, they should?  OK then, whatever grounds you gave for that, I’d give the precisely same grounds for saying that they should be allowed to own assault weapons.”

But crucially, I claim that’s a losing argument for the gun-rights crowd.  For as soon as we’re anywhere on the slippery slope—that is, as soon as it’s conceded that the question hinges, not on absolute rights, but on an actual tradeoffs in actual empirical reality—then the facts make it blindingly obvious that letting possibly-deranged private citizens buy assault weapons is only marginally less crazy than letting them buy ICBMs.

[Related Onion story]

Ten reasons why the Olympics suck

Sunday, August 5th, 2012

1. The 1936 Berlin Olympics, in which American participation was ensured by the racist, sexist, antisemitic, Nazi-sympathizing future decades-long IOC president Avery Brundage (also, the IOC’s subsequent failure to accept responsibility for its role in legimitizing Hitler).

2. The 1972 Munich Olympics (and the IOC’s subsequent refusal even to memorialize the victims, apparently for fear of antagonizing those Olympic countries that still celebrate the murder of the 11 Israeli athletes).

3. Even after you leave out 1936 and 1972, the repeated granting of unearned legitimacy to the world’s murderous dictatorships—as well as “glory” to those countries most able to coerce their children into lives of athletic near-slavery (or, in the case of more “civilized” countries, outspend their rivals).

4. The sanctimonious fiction that, after all this, we need the Olympics because of their contributions to world peace and brotherhood (a claim about which we now arguably have a century of empirical data).

5. The double-standard that holds “winning a medal is everything” to be a perfectly-reasonable life philosophy for a gymnast, yet would denounce the same attitude if expressed by a scientist or mathematician.

6. The increasingly-convoluted nature of what it is that the athletes are supposed to be optimizing (“run the fastest, but having taken at most these performance-enhancing substances and not those, unless of course you’re a woman with unusually-high testosterone, in which case you must artificially decrease your testosterone before competing in order to even things out”)

7. The IOC’s notorious corruption, and the fact that hosting the Olympics is nevertheless considered such a wonderful honor and goal for any aspiring city.

8. The IOC’s farcical attempts to control others’ use of five interlocked rings and of the word “Olympics.”

9. The fact that swimmers have to use a particular stroke, rather than whichever stroke will propel them through the water the fastest (alright, while the “freestyle” rules still seem weird to me, I’m taking this one out given the amount of flak it’s gotten)

10. The fact that someone like me, who knows all the above, and who has less interest in sports than almost anyone on earth, is still able to watch an Olympic event and care about its outcome.

Enough with Bell’s Theorem. New topic: Psychopathic killer robots!

Friday, May 25th, 2012
A few days ago, a writer named John Rico emailed me the following question, which he’s kindly given me permission to share.
If a computer, or robot, was able to achieve true Artificial Intelligence, but it did not have a parallel programming or capacity for empathy, would that then necessarily make the computer psychopathic?  And if so, would it then follow the rule devised by forensic psychologists that it would necessarily then become predatory?  This then moves us into territory covered by science-fiction films like “The Terminator.”  Would this psychopathic computer decide to kill us?  (Or would that merely be a rational logical decision that wouldn’t require psychopathy?)

See, now this is precisely why I became a CS professor: so that if anyone asked, I could give not merely my opinion, but my professional, expert opinion, on the question of whether psychopathic Terminators will kill us all.

My response (slightly edited) is below.

Dear John,

I fear that your question presupposes way too much anthropomorphizing of an AI machine—that is, imagining that it would even be understandable in terms of human categories like “empathetic” versus “psychopathic.”  Sure, an AI might be understandable in those sorts of terms, but only if it had been programmed to act like a human.  In that case, though, I personally find it no easier or harder to imagine an “empathetic” humanoid robot than a “psychopathic” robot!  (If you want a rich imagining of “empathetic robots” in science fiction, of course you need look no further than Isaac Asimov.)

On the other hand, I personally also think it’s possible –even likely—that an AI would pursue its goals (whatever they happened to be) in a way so different from what humans are used to that the AI couldn’t be usefully compared to any particular type of human, even a human psychopath.  To drive home this point, the AI visionary Eliezer Yudkowsky likes to use the example of the “paperclip maximizer.”  This is an AI whose programming would cause it to use its unimaginably-vast intelligence in the service of one goal only: namely, converting as much matter as it possibly can into paperclips!

Now, if such an AI were created, it would indeed likely spell doom for humanity, since the AI would think nothing of destroying the entire Earth to get more iron for paperclips.  But terrible though it was, would you really want to describe such an entity as a “psychopath,” any more than you’d describe (say) a nuclear weapon as a “psychopath”?  The word “psychopath” connotes some sort of deviation from the human norm, but human norms were never applicable to the paperclip maximizer in the first place … all that was ever relevant was the paperclip norm!

Motivated by these sorts of observations, Yudkowsky has thought and written a great deal about how the question of how to create a “friendly AI,” by which he means one that would use its vast intelligence to improve human welfare, instead of maximizing some arbitrary other objective like the total number of paperclips in existence that might be at odds with our welfare.  While I don’t always agree with him—for example, I don’t think AI has a single “key,” and I certainly don’t think such a key will be discovered anytime soon—I’m sure you’d find his writings at yudkowsky.net, lesswrong.com, and overcomingbias.com to be of interest to you.

I should mention, in passing, that “parallel programming” has nothing at all to do with your other (fun) questions.  You could perfectly well have a murderous robot with parallel programming, or a kind, loving robot with serial programming only.

Hope that helps,
Scott

The pedophile upper bound

Monday, November 14th, 2011

Lance Fortnow now has a post up about how wonderful Graham Spanier and Joe Paterno were, and how sorry he is to see them go.

For what it’s worth, I take an extremely different view.  I’d be thrilled to see the insane football culture at many American universities—the culture that Spanier and Paterno epitomized—brought down entirely, and some good might yet come of the Penn State tragedy if it helps that happen.  Football should be, as it is at MIT, one of many fine extracurricular activities that are available to interested students (alongside table tennis, glassblowing, robot-building…), rather than a primary reason for a university’s existence.

What’s interesting about the current scandal is precisely that it establishes some finite upper bound on what people will tolerate, and thereby illustrates just what it takes for the public to turn on its football heroes.  Certainly the destruction of academic standards doesn’t suffice (are you kidding?).  More interestingly, sexism, sexual harassment, and “ordinary” rape—offenses that have brought down countless male leaders in other fields—barely even make a dent in public consciousness where football stars are concerned.  With child rape, by contrast, one can actually find a non-negligible fraction of Americans who consider it comparable in gravity to football.  (Though, as the thousands of rioting Penn State students reminded us, that’s far from a universal opinion.)  Many commentators have already made the obvious comparisons to the Catholic Church’s abuse scandal, and the lesson for powerful institutions the world over is indeed a similar one: sure, imprison Galileo; by all means stay silent during the Holocaust; but don’t protect pedophiles—cross that line, and your otherwise all-forgiving constituents might finally turn on you.

I should say that both of my parents are Penn State grads, and they’re both disgusted right now with the culture of hooliganism there—a culture that was present even in the late 60s and early 70s, but that’s become much more dominant since.  To the many of you at Penn State who want a university that’s more than an adjunct to a literally-rapacious football program, you have this blog’s admiration and support as you struggle to reclaim your great institution.  Go for the touchdown—WOOOOO!

Going into deep freeze

Saturday, July 31st, 2010

I’m leaving tomorrow for a grand tour of Banff, then Israel, then Greece, then Princeton.  Blogging may be even lighter than usual.

In the meantime, my friend Michael Vassar has asked me to advertise the 2010 Singularity Summit, to be held August 14-15 in San Francisco.  Register now, because the summit is approaching so rapidly that meaningful extrapolation is all but impossible.

While I’m traveling, here’s a fun Singularity-related topic to discuss in the comments section: have you signed up to have your head (and possibly body) frozen in liquid nitrogen after you die, for possible Futurama-style resuscitation in the not-a-priori-impossible event that technology advances to the point where such things become possible?  Whatever your answer, how do you defend yourself against the charge of irrationality?

BQP Aarlines

Monday, November 2nd, 2009

The Onion has a new piece—United Airlines Exploring Viability of Stacking Them Like Cordwood—that, as usual, is grossly unrealistic.  If my own experience is any guide, the real United would never waste money on a grated floor for waste disposal, or people to shovel peanuts into a trough.

But The Onion‘s exploration of the geometry of passenger-packing does raise some genuinely interesting questions.  For years, I’ve had this idea to start an airline where, instead of seats, passengers would get personal cubbyholes that were stacked on top of each other like bunk beds.  (I’d make sure the marketing materials didn’t describe them as “coffin-shaped,” though that’s what they would be.)

You could sleep in your cubbyhole—much more easily than in a seat, of course—but you could also read, watch a movie, work on your laptop, or eat (all activities that I don’t mind doing while lying down, and the first two of which I prefer to do lying down).

Besides passenger comfort, my arrangement would have at least two advantages over the standard one:

First, depending on the exact size of the cubbyholes, you could very likely fit more passengers this way, thereby lowering ticket costs.

Second, assuming the cubbyholes were ventilated, you could put little doors on them, thereby giving passengers far more privacy than in a conventional airline.  No more being immiserated by screaming babies or inane conversations, or the B.O. of the person next to you, or reading lights while you’re trying to sleep.  And, as many of you will have noticed, BQP Aarlines could provide amorous couples with a far more comfortable alternative than the bathroom.

So, readers: do you know if any airline has tried something like this?  If not, why not?  Are there strong arguments against it that I haven’t thought of, besides the obvious cultural/psychological ones?  Should I keep my day job?