Archive for the ‘Procrastination’ Category

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,, and 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,

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?

Ask me (almost) anything

Thursday, July 30th, 2009

Update (8/19): I’ve answered most of the remaining questions and closed this thread.  If your question wasn’t answered earlier, please check now—sorry for the delay!  And thanks to everyone who asked.

This blog was born, in part, out of existential anguish.  My starting axioms, reflected in the blog’s title, were that

  1. nerds like me are hothouse plants, requiring a bizarre, historically-improbable social environment to thrive in life;
  2. if such an environment ever existed, then it didn’t survive one or more major upheavals of the twentieth century, such as the sexual revolution, the Holocaust, or the end of the Cold War;
  3. I and other nerds were therefore essentially walking fossils, absurdly maladapted for the civilization in which we found ourselves (even, ironically, as that civilization relied more than ever on nerdly skills); and
  4. all that being the case, I might as well kill some time by proving quantum complexity theorems and writing a blog full of crass jokes.

And therein lies the problem: this summer, I’ve simply been enjoying life too much to want to take time out to blog about it.  Happiness, it seems, is terrible for my literary productivity.

Still, enough people now rely on this blog for their procrastination needs that I feel a moral obligation to continue serving them.  So to overcome my own procrastination barrier, from now on I’m going to try writing entries that are basically just “requests for comment”: stones in a stone soup, with the intellectual barley, discursive salt, argumentative carrots, and dialectical beef chunks to be supplied by you, my readers.

(To a few commenters: thanks so much for the plywood, rotting raccoon carcasses, and used syringes, but the soup should be fine without them…)

To start things off, today we’re going to have another open thread.  You can ask pretty much anything; my one request is that you don’t ask for grad school or job application advice, since we already covered those things ad nauseum in two previous open threads.

Here are a few examples of things to ask me about:

1. My recent trip to the Azores for the FQXi Conference on Foundational Questions in Physics and Cosmology

2. My recent trip to Paris for the Complexity’2009 conference

3. My recent trip to Lexington, Kentucky for the Quantum Theory and Symmetries conference

4. The recent breakthrough paper by Jain, Ji, Upadhyay, and Watrous, finally proving what many in the quantum complexity world long suspected: that QIP=IP=PSPACE.  That is, quantum interactive proof systems provide no more computational power than classical ones.  (For more see this post from Lance and Steve Fenner, or this one from the Pontiff.)

5. The exciting new Polymath Project, to find (under some number-theoretic assumption) a deterministic polynomial-time algorithm for generating n-bit primes.  (Hat tip to Ryan O’Donnell.)

Oh, one other thing: while you’re welcome to ask personal questions, they’ll most likely be answered not by me but by Pablo the PSPACE Pirate.

Update (7/31): One question per person, please!

The Limits of Irany

Tuesday, June 16th, 2009

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

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

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


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

An unexpected application of the P vs. NP problem

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2009

Read to the end — hat tip to Michael Nielsen.  And this post is just to get into blogging stride again.  More coming “soon.”

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.