Archive for the ‘Procrastination’ Category

One way Obama has supported scientists

Tuesday, April 28th, 2009

By giving me a free blog post.  From his address to the National Academy of Science (full text here):

A few months after a devastating defeat at Fredericksburg, before Gettysburg would be won and Richmond would fall, before the fate of the Union would be at all certain, President Lincoln signed into law an act creating the National Academy of Sciences.  Lincoln refused to accept that our nation’s sole purpose was merely to survive. He created this academy, founded the land grant colleges, and began the work of the transcontinental railroad, believing that we must add “the fuel of interest to the fire of genius in the discovery … of new and useful things” …

At such a difficult moment, there are those who say we cannot afford to invest in science. That support for research is somehow a luxury at a moment defined by necessities. I fundamentally disagree…

I am here today to set this goal: we will devote more than three percent of our GDP to research and development … This represents the largest commitment to scientific research and innovation in American history…

The fact is, an investigation into a particular physical, chemical, or biological process might not pay off for a year, or a decade, or at all. And when it does, the rewards are often broadly shared, enjoyed by those who bore its costs but also by those who did not.  That’s why the private sector under-invests in basic science – and why the public sector must invest in this kind of research. Because while the risks may be large, so are the rewards for our economy and our society…

We double the budget of key agencies, including the National Science Foundation, a primary source of funding for academic research, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which supports a wide range of pursuits – from improving health information technology to measuring carbon pollution, from testing “smart grid” designs to developing advanced manufacturing processes. And my budget doubles funding for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science which builds and operates accelerators, colliders, supercomputers, high-energy light sources, and facilities for making nano-materials…

Our future on this planet depends upon our willingness to address the challenge posed by carbon pollution. And our future as a nation depends upon our willingness to embrace this challenge as an opportunity to lead the world in pursuit of new discovery…

On March 9th, I signed an executive memorandum with a clear message: Under my administration, the days of science taking a back seat to ideology are over.  Our progress as a nation – and our values as a nation – are rooted in free and open inquiry. To undermine scientific integrity is to undermine our democracy…

We know that the quality of math and science teachers is the most influential single factor in determining whether or a student will succeed or fail in these subjects. Yet, in high school, more than twenty percent of students in math and more than sixty percent of students in chemistry and physics are taught by teachers without expertise in these fields…

My budget also triples the number of National Science Foundation graduate research fellowships. This program was created as part of the Space Race five decades ago. In the decades since, it’s remained largely the same size – even as the numbers of students who seek these fellowships has skyrocketed. We ought to be supporting these young people who are pursuing scientific careers, not putting obstacles in their path…

I had only one quibble with the speech.  The President says: “The calculations of today’s GPS satellites are based on the equations that Einstein put to paper more than a century ago.”  True enough—but they depend not only on SR but even on GR, which was “put to paper” around 1916.

Predictably, coverage of this speech has concentrated on (1) some remarks about swine flu, and (2) a trivial incident where Obama got ahead of his TelePrompter.  Clearly, he has a ways to go before matching the flawless delivery of our previous leader.

I’m back in Boston, having returned from my trip to Berkeley and to the Quantum Information Science Workshop in Virginia.  I understand that the slides from the QIS workshop will be available any day now, and I’ll blog about the workshop once they are.  (Sneak preview: it turns out that more quantum algorithms should be discovered, battling decoherence is important, and interdisciplinary insights are needed—but there were actually some pretty spectacular results and open problems that I hadn’t heard before.)

I’d also like to blog about two books I’m reading: Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, and First Principles by Howard Burton (about the founding of the Perimeter Institute, and the first scientific history I’ve ever read for which I was there when a lot of it happened).  Then again, if enough people discuss these books in the comments section, I won’t have to.

Let no one call me an enemy of the arts

Sunday, April 19th, 2009

From San Francisco, CA, en route to UC Berkeley, Shtetl-Optimized is proud to bring you…

I JUST DO THEORY

Winner of the 2007 Aaronson/Gasarch Complexity Theme Song Contest (beating out “You Down with SPP” and other audience favorites)

Da MP3, as recently recorded by “Homage the Halfrican Cracker.”
(Stage name of Dustin Lee, a singer and dance instructor based in Calgary, Canada.  Homage is currently a finalist for Best Song at the Calgary Folk Festival.  Here is his YouTube channel, and here are previews of his music.  Hey, you sing the greatest CS theory rap of all time, you get a free plug on Shtetl-Optimized.)

Lyrics by Aaron Sterling, 23 June 2007.
Inspired by Weird Al Yankovic’s “White & Nerdy.”
Original music and words by Chamillionaire, “Riding.”

They see me proving my theorem.
I know they’re all thinking I just do theory.
Think I just do theory.
Think I just do theory.
Can’t you see I just do theory?
Look at me, I just do theory!
I wanna code with the hackers
But so far they all think I just do theory.
Think I just do theory.
I just do theory.
I just do theory.
Really, truly, just do theory.

I wrote a program that solved TSP
Superquasipolynomially.
Ain’t no such thing as lunch for free
When you’re digesting P-NP.
Unnatural proofs are my favorite vice
When I dream of solver’s paradise.
But my poor construction won’t suffice,
Even when I add Karp-Lipton advice.
Yo! There’s more to life than just systems!
Just too mathy? Quit your grumping.
I may not get the joint jumping
But my lemmas can do some pumping.
I declare to all my detractors
To exchange keys you need extractors.
You can’t improve with blind refactors.
You need me, not ten contractors.
Don’t know how to start an IDE
But I always win at compIP.
I’m a wizard bounding MA-E,
Playing games in PPAD.
My languages are always acceptable.
My LaTeX skills? They are impeccable.
My proofs are probabilistically checkable.
But what I compile just isn’t respectable.
You see, I just do theory.

They’re on RA, while I’m teaching.
That’s how they know that I just do theory.
Know I just do theory
Know I just do theory
I admit it, I just do theory.
Look at me, I just do theory.
I’d like to code with the hackers
Although it’s apparent I just do theory
Yes, I just do theory
Right, I just do theory
I just do theory.
Why is it I can just do theory?

I aced math classes in school.
One-Ten is my favorite rule.
Intractability’s really cool.
I’ve been unplugging while you were debugging.
Your Windows crashed, your hard disk’s whirring,
But my platforms all are Turing.
Not a lot of exceptions get thrown
Approximating Diophantines with twelve unknowns.
I’m the department’s main instructor.
When they need a course taught, who do they ask?
I’m always up to the task.
It beats sitting on my ass.
I’m trying to cold-start my social network
Saying “Busy Beaver” with a smirk.
In galleries I troll, in weblogs I lurk.
But it’s hard to reach Big O if you won’t tell the world hello.
My grandest conceit is that my brain is PSPACE-complete.
My calculus is lambda and my math is discrete.
The only problem that ever made me halt
Was whether Samson or Delilah won by default.
My theorem statements are ungrounded.
All my measures are resource-bounded.

They see me struggling at runtime.
They feel sorry because I just do theory.
Yes, it’s true, I just do theory.
Yes, it’s true, I just do theory.
All because I just do theory.
BQP, I just do theory.
I wanna code with the hackers
But oh well, they can tell I just do theory.
I just do theory.
I just do theory.
Yes, I just do theory.
QED, I just do theory.

(everybody shout) Box!

[Here's the PDF.  Thanks so much to Aaron and Homage for the permission.  After this song goes viral, and gets ten times more hits than Susan Boyle, just remember: you heard it here first.  Peace out, BQP-dawg]

Corn, rice, and wheat

Saturday, April 11th, 2009

Now, I’m not much of a farming type.  But for some reason, about a year ago I became intensely curious about three cereal grainscorn, rice, and wheat—and the central role they played in getting civilization off the ground.  And so, on this Passover holiday, when Ashkenazi Jews are supposed to avoid not only leavened bread, but corn and rice as well (the reason? apparently some 13th-century rabbi feared that a grain of wheat might fall in undetected), I thought I’d “go against the grain,” and ask “Four Questions” about all three of these strange plants.

Question I.  How did hunter-gatherers ever get the idea to breed these grains?  Of course, we know today that whether or not they’re labeled “organic” at Whole Foods, cereal grains aren’t much like anything found in nature, but are the result of thousands of years of selective breeding: massive genetic-engineering projects of the ancient world.  The trouble is that, if you ran into one their wild ancestors, there probably wouldn’t be anything appetizing about it.  Corn’s ancestor, for example, seems to have been a barely-edible grass called teosinte.  Does the only explanation we can ever hope for rely on anthropic postselection: eventually some cave-dwellers stumbled on the idea of breeding grain, and we’re all living in the aftermath of the resulting population explosion?  But the fact that it happened not once, not twice, but three times independently—with wheat in the Middle East, rice in Asia, and corn in the Americas—suggests that it couldn’t have been all that unlikely.  Which brings us to…

Question II.  What other plants could similarly be used as the basis for a large civilization?  The one other plant I can think of that’s played a similar role is the yam, in parts of Africa.  Has there ever been a culture that used the potato as its main food source—maybe in Russia or Eastern Europe?  (Update, 4/12: Duhhhhhhh, the Irish, of course, hence the Irish Potato Famine.  Thanks to several commenters for pointing this out.)  OK, what about oats, barley, rye, or sorghum?

Question III.  Corn, rice, wheat: which one is best?  Is there one such that, if we all switched to it, we’d be ten times healthier and also save the planet?  Or, on the tiny chance that we can’t settle that question via blog comments, can we at least elucidate the salient differences?  (Corn does seem like the outlier among the three, much as I enjoy grilled rice and wheat on the cob…)

Question IV.  Should we still be eating these grains today?  It seems clear that corn, rice, and wheat were directly responsible for a human population explosion, and that even today, the planet couldn’t support most of its inhabitants without them.  But for those who can afford to, the promoters of “hunter-gatherer diets” advocate returning to foods that were available in the ancestral environment, such as nuts, berries, and roasted mammoth leg.  The underlying question here is actually an interesting one: did the switch to agriculture cause some sort of massive change in human health?  The most surprising answer would seem to be that it didn’t.

Despite the staggering amount of research I did for this post, it remains conceivable that there are readers who know more about these topics than I do.  And so, having thrown out a few seeds, I look forward to reaping a bounteous harvest of grain-related comments.

The complement of Atlas Shrugged

Monday, March 23rd, 2009

A few months ago I read Atlas Shrugged, the 1,069-page Ayn Rand opus that was recently praised by Stephen Colbert (for its newfound popularity with beleaguered CEOs).  As I mentioned in the comments of a previous post, like many other nerds I went through a brief Aynfatuation around the age of 14.  Rand’s portrayal of an anti-mind, anti-reason cabal of collectivist rulers, who spout oleaginous platitudes about love and self-sacrifice even as they mercilessly repress any spark of individuality, happens to be extremely relevant to at least two cases I’m aware of:

  1. Soviet Russia.
  2. The average American high school.

But it didn’t last long.  Even in the midst of it, I could see problems: I wrote a term paper analyzing the rape scene in The Fountainhead as immoral and irreconcilable with the rest of an otherwise supremely-rational novel.  And ironically, once I went to college and started doing more-or-less what Rand extols as life’s highest purposes—pursuing my ambitions, tackling math and science problems, trying to create something original—her philosophy itself seemed more and more quaint and irrelevant.  I snapped out of it before I reached Atlas.  (Or did I subconsciously fear that, if I did read Atlas, I’d be brainwashed forever?  Or did I just figure that, having read the 752-page Fountainhead and dozens of essays, I already got the basic idea?)

So, having now returned to Atlas out of curiosity, what can I say?  Numerous readers have already listed the reasons why, judged as a conventional novel, it’s pretty bad: wooden dialogue, over-the-top melodrama, characters barely recognizable as human.  But of course, Atlas doesn’t ask to be judged as a conventional novel.  Rand and her followers clearly saw it as a secular Bible: a Book of Books that lays out for all eternity, through parables and explicit exhortation, what you should value and how you should live your life.  This presents an obvious problem for me: how does one review a book that seeks, among other things, to define the standards by which all books should be reviewed?

Mulling over this question, I hit on an answer: I should look not at what’s in the book—whose every word is perfect by definition, to true believers who define ‘perfect’ as ‘that exemplified by Atlas Shrugged‘—but at what’s not in it.  In other words, I should review the complement of the book.  By approaching the donut through the hole, I will try to explain how, even considering it on its own terms, Atlas Shrugged fails to provide an account of human life that I found comprehensive or satisfying.

(Though on the positive side, it still makes much more sense than my 11th-grade English teacher.)

Without further ado, here are the ten most striking things I noticed in the complement of Atlas Shrugged.

  1. Recent technologies.  For a novel set in the future, whose whole point is to defend capitalism, technology, innovation, and industry, Atlas is startlingly uninterested in any technologies being developed at the time it was written (the fifties).  For Rand, the ultimate symbol of technological progress is the railroad—though she’s also impressed by steel mills, copper mines, skyscrapers, factories, and bridges.  Transistors, computers, space travel, and even plastic and interstate highways seem entirely absent from her universe, while nuclear energy (which no one could ignore at the time) enters only metaphorically, through the sinister “Project X.”  Airplanes, which were starting to overtake trains as a form of passenger travel even as Atlas was written, do play a tiny role, though it’s never explained where the busy protagonists learned to pilot.  Overall, I got the impression that Rand didn’t really care for technology as such—only for what certain specific, 19th-century technologies symbolized to her about Man’s dominance over Nature.
  2. Curiosity about the physical universe.  This, of course, is related to point 1.  For Rand, the physical world seems to be of interest only as a medium to be bent to human will.  When I read The Fountainhead as a teenager, I found myself wondering what Rand would’ve made of academic scientists: people who generally share her respect for reason, reality, and creative achievement, but not her metaphysical certainty or her hatred of all government planning.  (Also, while most male scientists resemble a cross between Howard Roark and John Galt, it must be admitted that a tiny minority of them are awkward nerds.)
    In Atlas, Rand finally supplies an answer to this question, in the form of Dr. Robert Stadler.  It turns out that in Rand’s eschatology, academic scientists are the worst evil imaginable: people smart enough to see the truth of her philosophy, but who nevertheless choose to reject it.  Science, as a whole, does not come off well in Atlas: the country starves while Stadler’s State Science Institute builds a new cyclotron; and Dr. Floyd Ferris, the author of obscurantist popular physics books, later turns into a cold-blooded torturer.  (That last bit, actually, has a ring of truth to it.)
    More important, in a book with hundreds of pages of philosophizing about human nature, there’s no mention of evolution; in a book obsessed with “physics,” there’s no evidence of any acquaintance with relativity, quantum mechanics, or pretty much anything else about physics.  (When Stadler starts talking about particles approaching the speed of light, Dagny impatiently changes the subject.)  It’s an interesting question whether Rand outright rejected the content of modern science; maybe we’ll pick up that debate in the comments section.  But another possibility—that Rand was simply indifferent to the sorts of things an Einstein, Darwin, or Robert Stadler might discover, that she didn’t care whether they were true or not—is, to my mind, hardly more defensible for a “philosopher of reason.”
  3. Family.  Whittaker Chambers (of pumpkin patch fame) pointed out this startling omission in his review of 1957.  The characters in Atlas mate often enough, but they never reproduce, or even discuss the possibility of reproduction (if only to take precautions against it).  Also, the only family relationships portrayed at length are entirely negative in character: Rearden’s mother, brother, and wife are all contemptible collectivists who mooch off the great man even as they despise him, while Dagny’s brother Jim is the wretched prince of looters.  Any Republicans seeking solace in Atlas should be warned: Ayn Rand is not your go-to philosopher for family values (much less “Judeo-Christian” ones).
  4. “Angular,” attractive people who also happen to be collectivists, or “shapeless” people who happen to be rational individualists.  In the universe of Atlas, physical appearance is destiny—always, without exception, from John Galt down to the last minor villain.  Whenever Rand introduces a new character, you learn immediately, after a one-paragraph physical description, everything she wants you to know about that character’s moral essence: “angular” equals good, “limp,” “petulant,” and so on equal bad.  Admittedly, most movies also save the audience from unwanted thought by making similar identifications.  But Rand’s harping on this theme is so insistent, so vitriolic, that it leaves little doubt she really did accept the eugenic notion that a person’s character is visible on his or her face.
  5. Personalities.  In Atlas, as in The Fountainhead, each character has (to put it mildly) a philosophy, but no personality independent of that philosophy, no Objectively-neutral character traits.  What, for example, do we know about Howard Roark?  Well, he has orange hair, likes to smoke cigarettes, and is a brilliant architect and defender of individualism.  What do we know about John Galt?  He has gold hair, likes to smoke cigarettes, and is a brilliant inventor and defender of individualism.  Besides occupation and hair color, they’re pretty much identical.  Neither is suffered to have any family, culture, backstory, weaknesses, quirks, or even hobbies or favorite foods (not counting cigarettes, of course).  Yes, I know this is by explicit authorial design.  But it also seems to undermine Rand’s basic thesis: that Galt and Roark are not gods or robots, but ordinary mortals.
  6. Positive portrayal of uncertainty.  In Atlas, “rationality” is equated over and over with being certain one is right.  The only topic the good guys, like Hank and Dagny, ever change their minds about is whether the collectivists are (a) evil or (b) really, really evil.  (Spoiler alert: after 800 pages, they opt for (b).)  The idea that rationality might have anything to do with being uncertain—with admitting you’re wrong, changing your mind, withholding judgment—simply does not exist in Rand’s universe.  For me, this is the single most troubling aspect of her thought.
  7. Honest disagreements.  Atlas might be the closest thing ever written to a novelization of Aumann’s Agreement Theorem.  In RandLand, whenever two rational people meet, they discover to their delight that they agree about everything—not merely the basics like capitalism and individualism, but also the usefulness of Rearden Metal, the beauty of Halley’s Fifth Concerto, and so on.  (Again, the one exception is the disagreement between those who’ve already accepted the full evil of the collectivists, and those still willing to give them a chance.)  In “Galt’s Gulch” (the book’s utopia), there’s one judge to resolve disputes, but he’s never had to do anything since no disputes have ever arisen.
  8. History.  When I read The Fountainhead as a teenager, there was one detail that kept bothering me: the fact that it was published in 1943.  At such a time, how could Rand possibly imagine the ultimate human evil to be a left-wing newspaper critic?  Atlas continues the willful obliviousness to real events, like (say) World War II or the Cold War.  And yet—just like when she removes family, personality, culture, evolution, and so on from the picture—Rand clearly wants us to apply the lessons from her pared-down, stylized world to this world.  Which raises an obvious question: if her philosophy is rich enough to deal with all these elephants in the room, then why does she have to avoid mentioning the elephants while writing thousands of pages about the room’s contents?
  9. Efficient evil people.  In Atlas, there’s not a single competent industrialist who isn’t also an exemplar of virtue.  The heroine, Dagny, is a railroad executive who makes trains run on time—who knows in her heart that reliable train service is its own justification, and that what the trains are transporting and why is morally irrelevant.  Granted, after 900 pages, Dagny finally admits to herself that she’s been serving an evil cause, and should probably stop.  But even then, her earlier “don’t ask why” policy is understood to have been entirely forgivable: a consequence of too much virtue rather than too little.  I found it odd that Rand, who (for all her faults) was normally a razor-sharp debater, could write this way so soon after the Holocaust without thinking through the obvious implications.
  10. Ethnicity.  Seriously: to write two sprawling novels set in the US, with hundreds of characters between them, and not a single non-Aryan?  Even in the 40s and 50s?  For me, the issue here is not political correctness, but something much more basic: for all Rand’s praise of “reality,” how much interest did she have in its contents?  On a related note, somehow Rand seems to have gotten the idea that “the East,” and India in particular, were entirely populated by mystical savages sitting cross-legged on mats, eating soybeans as they condemned reason and reality.  To which I can only reply: what did she have against soybeans?  Edamame is pretty tasty.

Murray Rothbard and Eliezer Yudkowsky take different routes to some of the same conclusions.

The Email Event Horizon

Wednesday, March 4th, 2009

I know I’ve been gone from the shtetl too long—I even stood by as a P=NP goon performed a drive-by shooting through my comments section.  Part of the explanation, I’m ashamed to admit, is that I’ve been procrastinating by proving theorems and writing papers, rather than building up the massive corpus of blog entries on which my tenure case will undoubtedly rest.

But most of my absence has an unhappier source.  At an unknown time about three weeks ago, I crossed the Email Event Horizon—defined in General Unproductivity as the point beyond which you could literally spend your entire day answering emails, yet still have more emails at the end of the day demanding immediate attention than you had at the beginning.  Not spam or crank mail, but worthy missives from students, prospective students, high-school students, secretaries, TAs, fellow committee members, conference organizers, visit hosts, speakers, editors, co-editors, grant officers, referees, colleagues … everything, always, requiring you to do something, commit to some decision, send a title and abstract, pick dates for the trip, exercise Genuine Conscious Thought.  No one ever writes:

Please respond to the situation described above by cracking a joke, the less tasteful the better.  You will never need to deal with this matter again.

I don’t know the precise moment when I crossed the EEH—there was nothing to herald it, it felt like any other moment—but it’s obvious now that I’m in a new, unfamiliar causal region (and that, while I might have thought I’d crossed years ago, I hadn’t).  Communication from inside the EEH to the external universe is theoretically possible, but like Hawking radiation, it tends to be excruciatingly slow—and when it finally arrives, might simply regurgitate the incoming information in garbled form.

When I was a student, I used to wonder constantly about the professors who’d ignore my long, meticulously-crafted emails or fire off one-word replies, yet who might suddenly have an hour for me if I walked into their offices.  Were they senile?  Rude?  Did they secretly despise me?  Now I get it, now I understand—yet I doubt I could explain the warped spacetime Gmailometry I now inhabit to my own past self.  On the other hand, the recognition of what’s happened is itself a sort of liberation.  I’m starting to grasp what’s long been obvious to many of you, those who crossed the EEH before I got my first AOL account in seventh grade: that it’s useless to struggle.  By definition, the speed required to escape the EEH exceeds that of typing, while the mental energy required to accelerate a massive, resting theorist to such a speed is infinite.  So there’s nothing to do but blog, goof off, prove theorems, let the starred-but-unanswered inquiries pile higher and higher, and await the Email Singularity in my causal future.

The LEGO Turing machine

Sunday, March 1st, 2009

Just to get back into blogging mode, here it is.  They do a good job of hamming it up, too.  Courtesy of Mikkel Vester, Anders Nissen, Martin Have, and Sean Geggie at the University of Aarhus (which is hereby forgiven for coming before me alphabetically).

Stayin’ alive

Thursday, January 29th, 2009

Within the last week and a half, I saw two movies that rank among the best I’ve ever seen: Slumdog Millionaire and DefianceSlumdog, as you probably know by now, is about an orphan from Mumbai who, in the process of fleeing starvation, murder, and the gouging out of his eyes, picks up enough trivia to go on the Indian version of “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire” and answer almost every question correctly.  (It’s about 100 times better than the premise makes it sound.)  Defiance tells the true story of the Bielski brothers in Belorussia (where most of my family is from), who fled to the forest when the Jews were rounded up in December 1941, and eventually organized the largest Jewish resistance operation of the war.

On thinking it over, I was surprised to realize I liked these two seemingly-unrelated movies for the same reasons.  Let me try to break down what made them good:

  • Both draw their emotional punch from reality.  Almost everything in Defiance happened.  Slumdog, while fictional, is (amazingly) the first Western blockbuster I can think of about modern India—a place where 21st-century communication, entertainment, and industry coexist with 16th-century squalor, and everyone acts as if that’s normal.  (If you haven’t been there, the anarchic street scenes might strike you as obviously exaggerated for effect.  They aren’t.)
  • Both tell wildly-improbable tales of bare physical survival.  Survival stories aren’t just the best for keeping you in your seat: they also provide a useful reminder that your beliefs about politics and human nature might be badly distorted by the contingent facts that you have enough to eat and that armed thugs aren’t trying to kill you.  (I tried to think of a phrase to summarize my political philosophy, and came up with “liberal pessimist pragmatist rationalist of an unsentimental kind.”  Slumdog and Defiance both explain this concept better than I could.)
  • Even as they starve, sleep in the rain, and flee their would-be killers, the protagonists in both movies pursue goals beyond just staying alive—which is what lets us identify with them so strongly.  Jamal Malik appears on a game show to win the beautiful Latika.  Tuvia Bielski risks his life to exact revenge on the police officer who killed his parents.  Days after losing their families to the Nazis, the young women who arrive at the Bielski settlement are weighing which of the men to offer themselves to as “forest wives.”
  • Both movies use visuals in the service of a story rather than vice versa.  When Spielberg filmed Schindler’s List in black and white (save for the famous girl in red), reviewers were full of praise: what a profound artistic statement he must’ve been making!  The result, though, was that people saw the Holocaust the same way they’d seen it everywhere else: as something from some remote, incomprehensible black-and-white past.  But Defiance, like The Pianist, denies you the luxury of a visual remove—as if to say, “this is how it was.  It’s part of the same universe you live in right now.  It’s not even particularly incomprehensible, if you choose to comprehend it.”
  • Both movies indulge the audience in what it already knows about the respective cultures.  Slumdog features hilarious scenes at the Taj Mahal and a call center, and ends with a tongue-in-cheek Bollywood dance number.  Defiance portrays the “malbushim” (the Bielskis’ derisive term for intellectuals) arguing and quoting Talmud as they starve in the woods.  It’s as if, instead of telling you that the stereotypes you came in with are false, these movies say “and so what if they’re true?”
  • Both movies have been criticized as “simplistic”—a word that seems to mean “too clear or comprehensible for polite company,” and that I’ve found to be an almost-perfect marker for things that I’m going to like or agree with.  Even as the plots add on layers of complexity—sibling rivalries, uneasy alliances, unconsummated love—the dialogue is always straightforward enough that even a borderline Aspberger’s case like myself could follow what was going on without difficulty.
  • Despite a backdrop of blood and tears on a continent-wide scale—which the audience knows full well is real, not fictional—both movies end up joyous and uplifting.  Lots of bad guys get blown to pieces, while the good guys you most care about live.  Is such uplift “glib,” “problematic,” or even “simplistic”?  Well, what’s the point of going to a movie in the first place?  I want to walk away feeling that the inherent injustice of the universe can be successfully defied, that I need not apologize for taking comparatively benign steps to solve the comparatively trivial problems in my own life.  I want my $10′s worth.

Sundry and Various

Friday, November 21st, 2008

1. There’s now a popular article by Lisa Zyga at physorg.com, about my paper with John Watrous on quantum computing with closed timelike curves. On the whole, I think Zyga did an excellent job at getting the facts (such as they are) correct.

2. Challenged ballots in the Coleman vs. Franken race: you be the judge!

3. One of the unfortunate things about not updating your blog often, I find, is that people assume you’re still obsessed with the last thing you blogged about, weeks after you’ve all but forgotten about it.  As it happens, I’ve now fully recovered from the joy of the election, and am back to my normal angst-ridden equilibrium.  On the other hand, I’ve not yet recovered from the STOC deadline.

4. My quest to become more obamalike in temperament is now officially a failure.   I should try it again sometime.

Keeping cool

Sunday, October 26th, 2008

Update (10/27): Peter Norvig at Google points me to his Election FAQ, for those who feel they haven’t yet spent enough time reading about the election.  I’ve just been perusing it, and it’s an unbelievably good source of information—reaching the same conclusions as I did on just about every particular, yet also calm, reasoned, and professional.

1. That’s my mom at an Obama office in Sarasota, FL.  For once, I find myself kvelling to strangers about her.

2. I’m at FOCS’2008 in Philadelphia right now.  Yesterday morning I gave a tutorial on The Polynomial Method in Quantum and Classical Computing, and was delighted by how many people showed up — I wouldn’t have woken up for my talk.  (And before you ask: yes, the PowerPoint slides for this talk include photographs of both Bill Ayers and Joe the Plumber.)

3. Here’s the FOCS conference program — tons of good stuff, as you can see for yourself.  If there’s a talk you want to know more about, say so in the comments section and I’ll try to find someone who attended it.

Note: I was a program committee member, and therefore know much more than usual about the talks—but my objectivity and license as a “journalist” are also severely compromised.  If unvarnished opinion is what you seek, ask my friend and roommate Rahul Santhanam, who’s also reporting live from the conference over at Lance’s blog.  (As you can see, we CS theorists manage our conflicts of interest roughly as well as the Alaska governor’s office…)

4. I apologize that I haven’t had much to say recently.  Against my better judgment, I find myself transfixed by the same topic everyone else is transfixed by, and it’s hard to find anything to say about it that hasn’t been said better by others.  If you want to enter my world, don’t read Shtetl-Optimized; read Andrew Sullivan or FiveThirtyEight.com.  Following the election is, of course, not all that different from following a football game, except for the added dash of excitement that the future of civilization might hinge on the outcome.

(Years congruent to 0 mod 4 are pretty much the only times when I understand what it’s like to be a sports fan.  Speaking of which, I heard there was some sort of “World’s Series” in Philadelphia last night—probably in basketball—and something called the “Phillies” won?  I might be wrong, though.  Maybe it was the “Flyers” … or is that a volleyball team?  Keep in mind, I only lived in this area for the first 15 years of my life.)

5. For a congenital pessimist like me, I confess it’s been difficult to deal with the fact that my team (I mean the Democrats, not the Eagles or whatever they’re called) is winning.  I simply don’t know how to react; it’s so far outside my emotional range.  Since when has the universe worked this way?  When did reason and levelheadedness start reaping earthly rewards, or incompetence start carrying a cost?  I’m sure Nov. 4 will bring something to console me, though: maybe Al Franken will lose the Senate race in Minnesota, or the homophobe proposition will pass in California…

6. Writing blog posts in numbered lists is easier; I should do it more often.  I don’t have to pretend all the little things I want to say are part of an overarching narrative, rather than standing in the relation “and that reminds me of … which in turn reminds me of…”

7. There’s another psychological question inspired by the election that’s fascinated me lately: how does one become more obamalike in temperament?

I’ve written before about Obama’s penchant for introspection and respect for expertise, which of course are qualities with which I strongly identify.  But Obama also has a crucial quality I lack: as the whole world has marveled, nothing rattles him.  Placed for two years under the brightest glare on earth, besieged by unexpected events, he simply sticks to a script, Buddha-like in his emotional control (although not in his quest for power in the temporal world).  His nerves are of carbon nanotube fiber.

When he briefly slipped behind after the Republican convention, I panicked: I felt sure he’d lose if he didn’t completely change his approach.  Sean Carroll recommended chilling out.  I now face the indignity of admitting that I was wrong while a physicist was right.

What struck me most, during the debates, was how again and again Obama would pass up the chance to score points—choosing instead to let his opponent impale himself with his own words, and use his time to hammer home his message for the benefit of any voters just emerging from their caves.  (As an example, consider his pointed refusal in the third debate to say anything bad about Palin—the subtext being, “isn’t it obvious?”)  It’s almost as if he thought his goal was winning the election, not proving the other guy wrong.

I have (to put it mildly) not always exhibited the same prudent restraint, least of all on this blog.  So for example, whenever there’s been bait dangling in front of me in the comments section, I’ve tended to bite, often ending up with a hook through my cheek.

But no more.  As the first exercise in my newfound quest for the Zen-like equanimity and balance of our soon-to-be-president, I now present to you two excerpts from the comments on my previous post, with no reaction whatsoever from me.

Have you considered the possibility that, in the same way a logical deduction is being equated with truth, understanding a thing is just an illusion? If a thing is logical, that only means that it appeals to the reasoning facility of the brain, not that it’s the truth.

Mathematics is just a place where it becomes clear how a human may think. Computers only go for the calculable. And the mathematical truths a computer can produce are at most countable infinite. But there are uncountable infinite truths.

With electronic voting machines, it’s entirely plausible

Friday, September 19th, 2008

Here’s what I saw the last time I went to Intrade (yes, I’ve been checking about 200,000 times per day):

I understand that in this situation, the Constitution dictates that the selection of a President goes to the IEEE 754R Technical Committee.

Joke-Killing Explanation for Non-Nerds: NaN is “Not a Number,” an error code in floating-point arithmetic for expressions like 0/0.  Evidently there’s a bug in Intrade’s script to add the expected electoral college votes.