Archive for the ‘Ask Me Anything’ Category

My Quora session

Thursday, May 19th, 2016

Here it is.  Enjoy!  (But sorry, no new questions right now.)

Ask Me Anything: Diversity Edition

Saturday, September 5th, 2015

With the fall semester imminent, and by popular request, I figured I’d do another Ask Me Anything (see here for the previous editions).  This one has a special focus: I’m looking for questions from readers who consider themselves members of groups that have historically been underrepresented in the Shtetl-Optimized comments section.  Besides the “obvious”—e.g., women and underrepresented ethnic groups—other examples might include children, traditionally religious people, jocks, liberal-arts majors… (but any group that includes John Sidles is probably not an example).  If I left out your group, please go ahead and bring it to my and your fellow readers’ attention!

My overriding ideal in life—what is to me as Communism was to Lenin, as Frosted Flakes are to Tony the Tiger—is people of every background coming together to discover and debate universal truths that transcend their backgrounds.  So few things have ever stung me more than accusations of being a closed-minded ivory-tower elitist white male nerd etc. etc.  Anyway, to anyone who’s ever felt excluded here for whatever reason, I hope this AMA will be taken as a small token of goodwill.

Similar rules apply as to my previous AMAs:

  • Only one question per person.
  • No multi-part questions, or questions that require me to read a document or watch a video and then comment on it.
  • Questions need not have anything to do with your underrepresented group (though they could). Math, science, futurology, academic career advice, etc. are all fine.  But please be courteous; anything gratuitously nosy or hostile will be left in the moderation queue.
  • I’ll stop taking further questions most likely after 24 hours (I’ll post a warning before closing the thread).

Update (Sep. 6): For anyone from the Boston area, or planning to visit it, I have an important piece of advice.  Do not ever, under any circumstances, attempt to visit Walden Pond, and tell everyone you know to stay away.  After we spent 40 minutes driving there with a toddler, the warden literally screamed at us to go away, that the park was at capacity. It wasn’t an issue of parking: even if we’d parked elsewhere, we just couldn’t go.  Exceptions were made for the people in front of us, but not for us, the ones with the 2-year-old who’d been promised her weekend outing would be to meet her best friend at Walden Pond.  It’s strangely fitting that what for Thoreau was a place of quiet contemplation, is today purely a site of overcrowding and frustration.

Another Update: OK, no new questions please, only comments on existing questions! I’ll deal with the backlog later today. Thanks to everyone who contributed.

Ask Me Anything! Tenure Edition

Monday, May 6th, 2013

Update (5/7): Enough!  Thanks, everyone, for asking so many imaginative questions, and please accept my apologies if yours remains unaddressed.  (It’s nothing personal: they simply came fast and furious, way faster than I could handle in an online fashion—so I gave up on chronological order and simply wrote answers in whatever order they popped into my head.)  At this point, I’m no longer accepting any new questions.  I’ll try to answer all the remaining questions by tomorrow night.

By popular request, for the next 36 hours—so, from now until ~11PM on Tuesday—I’ll have a long-overdue edition of “Ask Me Anything.”  (For the previous editions, see here, here, here, and here.)  Today’s edition is partly to celebrate my new, tenured “freedom to do whatever the hell I want” (as well as the publication after 7 years of Quantum Computing Since Democritus), but is mostly just to have an excuse to get out of changing diapers (“I’d love to, honey, but the world is demanding answers!”).  Here are the ground rules:

  1. One question per person, total.
  2. Please check to see whether your question was already asked in one of the previous editions—if it was, then I’ll probably just refer you there.
  3. No questions with complicated backstories, or that require me to watch a video, read a paper, etc. and comment on it.
  4. No questions about D-Wave.  (As it happens, Matthias Troyer will be giving a talk at MIT this Wednesday about his group’s experiments on the D-Wave machine, and I’m planning a blog post about it—so just hold your horses for a few more days!)
  5. If your question is offensive, patronizing, nosy, or annoying, I reserve the right to give a flippant non-answer or even delete the question.
  6. Keep in mind that, in past editions, the best questions have almost always been the most goofball ones (“What’s up with those painting elephants?”).

That’s it: ask away!

Update (5/12): I’ve finally answered all ~90 questions, a mere 4 days after the official end of the “Ask Me Anything” session!  Thanks so much to everyone for all the great questions.  For your reading convenience, here’s a guide to my answers (personal favorites are in bold):


Ask Me Anything

Saturday, August 13th, 2011

Update (8/16): Phew! By my count, I’ve answered 139 questions over the past few days. Thanks so much to everyone for submitting them, and please don’t submit any more!

Incidentally, to those of you who complain (correctly) that I no longer update this blog enough, there’s a simple solution that should carry you through at least the next year.  Namely, just read a few “Ask Me Anything” answers every week!  To help you with that, I’ve compiled the following abridged table of contents to my uninformed spoutings:


Update: Thanks for the many, many, many great questions!  To keep things slightly under control, I’ll be fielding questions that are asked before 9PM EST tonight.

Also, sorry my blog went down for an hour!  I always count on Bluehost to not be there when I need it.

Alright, I put it off for most of the summer, but I guess it’s as good a time as any, now that (a) I’m finally done philosophizing for a while and (b) my wife Dana is away at a workshop, her civilizing and nerdiness-moderating influences temporarily absent.

So, by popular demand, and as promised a couple months ago, for the next 24 hours (with intermittent sleep breaks), I’ll once again be fielding any and all questions in the comments section.  Four simple ground rules:

  1. No multi-part questions: one question per comment and three total per person.
  2. While you can ask anything, if it’s too hostile, nosy, or irritating I might not answer it…
  3. I’ll only answer the first three questions about academic career advice (since in previous Ask Me Anything posts, that topic tended to drown out everything else).
  4. No questions that require me to read an article, watch a video, etc.

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!

Open thread #2

Friday, September 12th, 2008

Alright, no more politics for a while.  I’m sick of it.

Given the relative success of Open thread #1, I thought I’d give you the readers a second opportunity to ask about whatever’s on your minds, except politics.  Quantum complexity classes and painting elephants are definitely fair game.

(Update: One question at a time, please!)

(Update: Thanks for the questions, everyone!  The open thread is now closed.  We’ll do this again!)

Open thread

Friday, April 11th, 2008

I’ve had a miserable week (only partly because of the headaches and coughing fits that have been keeping me up all night), and feel a need to be of use to some other human being without leaving my apartment. So this thread is for you to ask about whatever’s on your mind — complexity classes, philosophy, grad school advice, anteaters … anything asked in earnest will be responded to, in considerably less than the two years it took me for Lev R.

Update (4/13): Having spent a good part of the weekend answering 57 questions about everything from quantum computing to painting elephants, I think it’s time to call it quits. Thanks to everyone who submitted; it really cheered me up! We’ll do this again sometime.