Archive for the ‘Procrastination’ Category

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.

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…


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
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.