Archive for the ‘The Fate of Humanity’ Category

I was right: Congress’s attack on the NSF widens

Thursday, April 25th, 2013

Last month, I blogged about Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) passing an amendment blocking the National Science Foundation from funding most political science research.  I wrote:

This sort of political interference with the peer-review process, of course, sets a chilling precedent for all academic research, regardless of discipline.  (What’s next, an amendment banning computer science research, unless it has applications to scheduling baseball games or slicing apple pies?)

In the comments section of that post, I was pilloried by critics, who ridiculed my delusional fears about an anti-science witch hunt.  Obviously, they said, Congressional Republicans only wanted to slash dubious social science research: not computer science or the other hard sciences that people reading this blog really care about, and that everyone agrees are worthy.  Well, today I write to inform you that I was right, and my critics were wrong.  For the benefit of readers who might have missed it the first time, let me repeat that:

I was right, and my critics were wrong.

In this case, like in countless others, my “paranoid fears” about what could happen turned out to be preternaturally well-attuned to what would happen.

According to an article in Science, Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the new chair of the ironically-named House Science Committee, held two hearings in which he “floated the idea of having every NSF grant application [in every field] include a statement of how the research, if funded, ‘would directly benefit the American people.’ ”  Connoisseurs of NSF proposals will know that every proposal already includes a “Broader Impacts” section, and that that section often borders on comic farce.  (“We expect further progress on the μ-approximate shortest vector problem to enthrall middle-school students and other members of the local community, especially if they happen to belong to underrepresented groups.”)  Now progress on the μ-approximate shortest vector problem also has to directly—directly—”benefit the American people.”  It’s not enough for such research to benefit science—arguably the least bad, least wasteful enterprise our sorry species has ever managed—and for science, in turn, to be a principal engine of the country’s economic and military strength, something that generally can’t be privatized because of a tragedy-of-the-commons problem, and something that economists say has repaid public investments many, many times over.  No, the benefit now needs to be “direct.”

The truth is, I find myself strangely indifferent to whether Smith gets his way or not.  On the negative side, sure, a pessimist might worry that this could spell the beginning of the end for American science.  But on the positive side, I would have been proven so massively right that, even as I held up my “Will Prove Quantum Complexity Theorems For Food” sign on a street corner or whatever, I’d have something to crow about until the end of my life.

The $10 billion voter

Monday, November 5th, 2012

Update (Nov. 8): Slate’s pundit scoreboard.

Update (Nov. 6): In crucial election news, a Florida woman wearing an MIT T-shirt was barred from voting, because the election supervisor thought her shirt was advertising Mitt Romney.

At the time of writing, Nate Silver is giving Obama an 86.3% chance.  I accept his estimate, while vividly remembering various admittedly-cruder forecasts the night of November 5, 2000, which gave Gore an 80% chance.  (Of course, those forecasts need not have been “wrong”; an event with 20% probability really does happen 20% of the time.)  For me, the main uncertainties concern turnout and the effects of various voter-suppression tactics.

In the meantime, I wanted to call the attention of any American citizens reading this blog to the wonderful Election FAQ of Peter Norvig, director of research at Google and a person well-known for being right about pretty much everything.  The following passage in particular is worth quoting.

Is it rational to vote?

Yes. Voting for president is one of the most cost-effective actions any patriotic American can take.

Let me explain what the question means. For your vote to have an effect on the outcome of the election, you would have to live in a decisive state, meaning a state that would give one candidate or the other the required 270th electoral vote. More importantly, your vote would have to break an exact tie in your state (or, more likely, shift the way that the lawyers and judges will sort out how to count and recount the votes). With 100 million voters nationwide, what are the chances of that? If the chance is so small, why bother voting at all?

Historically, most voters either didn’t worry about this problem, or figured they would vote despite the fact that they weren’t likely to change the outcome, or vote because they want to register the degree of support for their candidate (even a vote that is not decisive is a vote that helps establish whether or not the winner has a “mandate”). But then the 2000 Florida election changed all that, with its slim 537 vote (0.009%) margin.

What is the probability that there will be a decisive state with a very close vote total, where a single vote could make a difference? Statistician Andrew Gelman of Columbia University says about one in 10 million.

That’s a small chance, but what is the value of getting to break the tie? We can estimate the total monetary value by noting that President George W. Bush presided over a $3 trillion war and at least a $1 trillion economic melt-down. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) estimated the cost of the Bush presidency at $7.7 trillion. Let’s compromise and call it $6 trillion, and assume that the other candidate would have been revenue neutral, so the net difference of the presidential choice is $6 trillion.

The value of not voting is that you save, say, an hour of your time. If you’re an average American wage-earner, that’s about $20. In contrast, the value of voting is the probability that your vote will decide the election (1 in 10 million if you live in a swing state) times the cost difference (potentially $6 trillion). That means the expected value of your vote (in that election) was $600,000. What else have you ever done in your life with an expected value of $600,000 per hour? Not even Warren Buffett makes that much. (One caveat: you need to be certain that your contribution is positive, not negative. If you vote for a candidate who makes things worse, then you have a negative expected value. So do your homework before voting. If you haven’t already done that, then you’ll need to add maybe 100 hours to the cost of voting, and the expected value goes down to $6,000 per hour.)

I’d like to embellish Norvig’s analysis with one further thought experiment.  While I favor a higher figure, for argument’s sake let’s accept Norvig’s estimate that the cost George W. Bush inflicted on the country was something like $6 trillion.  Now, imagine that a delegation of concerned citizens from 2012 were able to go back in time to November 5, 2000, round up 538 lazy Gore supporters in Florida who otherwise would have stayed home, and bribe them to go to the polls.  Set aside the illegality of the time-travelers’ action: they’re already violating the laws of space, time, and causality, which are well-known to be considerably more reliable than Florida state election law!  Set aside all the other interventions that also would’ve swayed the 2000 election outcome, and the 20/20 nature of hindsight, and the insanity of Florida’s recount process.  Instead, let’s simply ask: how much should each of those 538 lazy Floridian Gore supporters have been paid, in order for the delegation from the future to have gotten its money’s worth?

The answer is a mind-boggling ~$10 billion per voter.  Think about that: just for peeling their backsides off the couch, heading to the local library or school gymnasium, and punching a few chads (all the way through, hopefully), each of those 538 voters would have instantly received the sort of wealth normally associated with Saudi princes or founders of Google or Facebook.  And the country and the world would have benefited from that bargain.

No, this isn’t really a decisive argument for anything (I’ll leave it to the commenters to point out the many possible objections).  All it is, is an image worth keeping in mind the next time someone knowingly explains to you why voting is a waste of time.

Silver lining

Monday, October 29th, 2012

Update (10/31): While I continue to engage in surreal arguments in the comments section—Scott, I’m profoundly disappointed that a scientist like you, who surely knows better, would be so sloppy as to assert without any real proof that just because it has tusks and a trunk, and looks and sounds like an elephant, and is the size of the elephant, that it therefore is an elephant, completely ignoring the blah blah blah blah blah—while I do that, there are a few glimmerings that the rest of the world is finally starting to get it.  A new story from The Onion, which I regard as almost the only real newspaper left:

Nation Suddenly Realizes This Just Going To Be A Thing That Happens From Now On

Update (11/1): OK, and this morning from Nicholas Kristof, who’s long been one of the rare non-Onion practitioners of journalism: Will Climate Get Some Respect Now?

I’m writing from the abstract, hypothetical future that climate-change alarmists talk about—the one where huge tropical storms batter the northeastern US, coastal cities are flooded, hundreds of thousands are evacuated from their homes, etc.  I always imagined that, when this future finally showed up, at least I’d have the satisfaction of seeing the deniers admit they were grievously wrong, and that I and those who think similarly were right.  Which, for an academic, is a satisfaction that has to be balanced carefully against the possible destruction of the world.  I don’t think I had the imagination to foresee that the prophesied future would actually arrive, and that climate change would simultaneously disappear as a political issue—with the forces of know-nothingism bolder than ever, pressing their advantage into questions like whether or not raped women can get pregnant, as the President weakly pleads that he too favors more oil drilling.  I should have known from years of blogging that, if you hope for the consolation of seeing those who are wrong admit to being wrong, you hope for a form of happiness all but unattainable in this world.

Yet, if the transformation of the eastern seaboard into something out of the Jurassic hasn’t brought me that satisfaction, it has brought a different, completely unanticipated benefit.  Trapped in my apartment, with the campus closed and all meetings cancelled, I’ve found, for the first time in months, that I actually have some time to write papers.  (And, well, blog posts.)  Because of this, part of me wishes that the hurricane would continue all week, even a month or two (minus, of course, the power outages, evacuations, and other nasty side effects).  I could learn to like this future.

At this point in the post, I was going to transition cleverly into an almost (but not completely) unrelated question about the nature of causality.  But I now realize that the mention of hurricanes and (especially) climate change will overshadow anything I have to say about more abstract matters.  So I’ll save the causality stuff for tomorrow or Wednesday.  Hopefully the hurricane will still be here, and I’ll have time to write.

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,

Al?xes in the news

Thursday, August 18th, 2011

Alex Halderman, University of Michigan computer security professor and my best friend from childhood (see previous Shtetl-Optimized coverage here and here), has been in the news again, with a new Internet anti-censorship system called Telex that he co-developed with Ian Goldberg, Eric Wustrow, and Scott Wolchok (see, e.g., here, here, here for more info).  Basically, Telex would let interested governments or ISPs help the citizens of (say) China or Iran access content that their governments are trying to block.  Having gotten hold of the Telex software (say, from a friend), the Chinese or Iranian websurfer would access an innocuous-looking website, but insert cryptographic tags into its HTTPS requests to alert an ISP along the way (not an ISP inside China or Iran) that it wanted to activate the anti-censorship service.

If you happen to be a high-level official at the State Department or a three-letter agency, or a wealthy philanthropist, I can think of few smarter things you could do than to support this kind of effort.  The system that Alex and his collaborators envision wouldn’t be trivial to deploy, but it’s certainly cheaper than aircraft carriers.

Meanwhile, in other Al?x news, my cousin Alix Genter was splashed across the cover of Philadelphia Daily News this morning (you can read the accompanying article here).  What happened is that the owner of a bridal store in New Jersey called “Here Comes the Bride” refused to sell Alix a wedding dress, after finding out that Alix plans to marry another woman in New York State.  So now supporters of gay rights are having a field day with Here Comes the Bride’s Yelp page.

I wish both of these Al?xes the best, as they work toward a better world in their different ways.

Point/Counterpoint: “speaking truth to power” vs. speaking power to idiocy

Tuesday, May 10th, 2011

Reflections on a Flamewar (May 14, 2011)

Spoiler: Actual change of opinion below!  You’ll need to read to the end, though.

I’ve learned that the only way to find out who reads this blog is to criticize famous people.  For example, when I criticized Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, legions of Objectivist readers appeared out of nowhere to hammer me in the comments section, while the left-wing readers were silent.  Now that I criticize Chomsky (or originally, mainly just quoted him), I’m getting firebombed in the comments section by Chomsky fans, with only a few brave souls showing up from the right flank to offer reinforcements.  One would imagine that, on at least one of these topics, more readers must agree with me than are making themselves heard in the comments—but maybe I just have the rare gift of writing in a way that enrages everyone!

Yesterday, I found myself trying to be extra-nice to people I met, as if to reassure myself that I wasn’t the monster some of the Chomskyan commenters portrayed me as.  I told myself that, if agreeing with President Obama’s decision to target bin Laden made me a barbarian unworthy of civilization, then at least I’d have the likes of Salman Rushdie, Christopher Hitchens, and Jon Stewart with me in hell—better company than Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh.

In my view, one of the reasons the discussion was so heated is that two extremely different questions got conflated (leaving aside the third question of whether al Qaeda was “really” responsible for 9/11, which I find unworthy of discussion).

The first question is whether, as Chomsky suggests, the US government is “uncontroversially” a “vastly” worse terrorist organization than al Qaeda, since it’s caused many more civilian deaths.  On this, my opinion is unchanged: the answer is a flat-out no.  There is a fundamental reason, having nothing to do with nationalist prejudices, why Osama bin Laden was much more evil than Henry Kissinger, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and George W. Bush combined.  The reason is one that Chomsky and his supporters find easy to elide, since—like many other facts about the actual world—it requires considering hypothetical scenarios.

Give Kissinger, Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Bush magic dials that let them adjust the number of civilian casualties they inflict, consistent with achieving their (partly-justified and largely-foolish) military goals.  As odious as those men are, who can deny that they turn the dial to zero?  By contrast, give bin Laden a dial that lets him adjust the number of Jews, Americans, and apostates he kills, and what do you think the chances are that he turns it from 3000 up to 300 million, or “infinity”?  But if, implausibly (in my view), one maintains that bin Laden would have preferred not to kill any civilians, provided that he could magically attain his goal of imposing Sharia law on the world, then the crux of the matter is simply that I don’t want to live under Sharia law: I even prefer living in George W. Bush’s America.  (One obvious reason these hypotheticals matter is that, once the Jihadists get access to nuclear weapons, the dial is no longer particularly hypothetical at all.)

So much for the first question.  The second, and to me much more worthwhile question, is whether the US should have made a more strenuous effort to capture bin Laden alive and try him, rather than executing him on the spot.  (Of course, part of the problem is that we don’t really understand how strenuous of an effort the SEAL team did make.  However, let’s suppose, for the sake of an interesting question, that it wasn’t very strenuous.)  It’s on this second question that my views have changed.

My original reasoning was as follows: the purpose of a trial is to bring facts to light, but this is an unusual case in which the entire world has known the facts for a decade (and the “defendant” agrees to the facts, having openly declared war on the West).  It’s almost impossible to conceive of a person who would be convinced after a trial of bin Laden’s guilt, who wasn’t already convinced of it now.  The people who need convincing—such as Jihadists and 9/11 conspiracy theorists—are people who can never be convinced, for fundamental reasons.  Therefore, while a trial would have been fine—if bin Laden had come out with his hands up, or (let’s suppose) turned himself in, at any point during the last decade—a bullet to the head was fine as well.

To put it differently: trials struck me as merely a means to the end of justice, just as college courses are merely a means to the end of learnin’.  Now personally, I always favor letting a student skip a course if it’s obvious that the student already knows the material—even if that means bending university rules.  It stands to reason, then, that I should similarly favor letting a government skip a trial if the verdict is already obvious to the entire sane world.

Many commenters made arguments against this viewpoint—often phrased in terms of bin Laden’s “rights”—that did nothing to persuade me.  The one argument that did ultimately persuade me was that, at least for some people, trials are not just a means to an end: they’re an end in themselves, a moving demonstration of the superiority of our system to the Nazis’ and the Jihadists’.  Here’s how a reader named Steve E put it, in a personal email that he’s kindly allowed me to quote:

I wonder what you think of the proposition that the Jews of Norwich [the victims of the first blood libel, in 1190] would have preferred a show trial to the mob justice they received. I’m not sure of this proposition, because I could also see a show trial being somehow worse, but on the other hand wouldn’t we all prefer a real trial to a show trial and a show trial to no trial when our lives hang in the balance? Trials perform a nontrivial service even if they don’t convince anyone who is not already convinced, just as human babies perform a nontrivial service even if they have no use, and particle colliders perform a nontrivial service even if they don’t defend our nation. Trials make our nation worth defending; they, like human babies, have intrinsic value not just for their potential. In this case, it may be true that giving bin Laden a trial would have been a bonus rather than a requirement, but wouldn’t you agree that it’d have been a bonus? Trying Osama bin Laden would have shown our moral high ground, maybe not to some who can’t be convinced of America’s goodness, but it would have done so for me! (I’m very proud that Israel tried Eichmann, not just because it showed the world about the Holocaust, but also because it showed me about Israel’s character. Let people react to the trial as they may. That trial had meaning to me.)

And so I’ve decided that, while assassinating bin Laden was vastly better than leaving him at large, and I applaud the success of the operation, it would’ve been even better if he’d been captured alive and tried—even if that’s not what bin Laden himself wanted.  For the sake of people like Steve E.

Noam Chomsky:

It’s increasingly clear that the operation was a planned assassination, multiply violating elementary norms of international law. There appears to have been no attempt to apprehend the unarmed victim, as presumably could have been done by 80 commandos facing virtually no opposition—except, they claim, from his wife, who lunged towards them. In societies that profess some respect for law, suspects are apprehended and brought to fair trial. I stress “suspects.” In April 2002, the head of the FBI, Robert Mueller, informed the press that after the most intensive investigation in history, the FBI could say no more than that it “believed” that the plot was hatched in Afghanistan, though implemented in the UAE and Germany. What they only believed in April 2002, they obviously didn’t know 8 months earlier, when Washington dismissed tentative offers by the Taliban (how serious, we do not know, because they were instantly dismissed) to extradite bin Laden if they were presented with evidence—which, as we soon learned, Washington didn’t have. Thus Obama was simply lying when he said, in his White House statement, that “we quickly learned that the 9/11 attacks were carried out by al Qaeda.”

Nothing serious has been provided since. There is much talk of bin Laden’s “confession,” but that is rather like my confession that I won the Boston Marathon. He boasted of what he regarded as a great achievement.

There is also much media discussion of Washington’s anger that Pakistan didn’t turn over bin Laden, though surely elements of the military and security forces were aware of his presence in Abbottabad. Less is said about Pakistani anger that the U.S. invaded their territory to carry out a political assassination…

We might ask ourselves how we would be reacting if Iraqi commandos landed at George W. Bush’s compound, assassinated him, and dumped his body in the Atlantic. Uncontroversially, his crimes vastly exceed bin Laden’s, and he is not a “suspect” but uncontroversially the “decider” who gave the orders to commit the “supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole” (quoting the Nuremberg Tribunal) for which Nazi criminals were hanged…

There is much more to say, but even the most obvious and elementary facts should provide us with a good deal to think about.

President Obama:

Shortly after I got into office, I brought [CIA director] Leon Panetta privately into the Oval Office and I said to him, “We need to redouble our efforts in hunting bin Laden down. And I want us to start putting more resources, more focus, and more urgency into that mission” …

We had multiple meetings in the Situation Room in which we would map out — and we would actually have a model of the compound and discuss how this operation might proceed, and what various options there were because there was more than one way in which we might go about this.

And in some ways sending in choppers and actually puttin’ our guys on the ground entailed some greater risks than some other options. I thought it was important, though, for us to be able to say that we’d definitely got the guy. We thought that it was important for us to be able to exploit potential information that was on the ground in the compound if it did turn out to be him.

We thought that it was important for us not only to protect the lives of our guys, but also to try to minimize collateral damage in the region because this was in a residential neighborhood …

You know one of the things that we’ve done here is to build a team that is collegial and where everybody speaks their mind … And so the fact that there were some who voiced doubts about this approach was invaluable, because it meant the plan was sharper, it meant that we had thought through all of our options, it meant that when I finally did make the decision, I was making it based on the very best information …
As nervous as I was about this whole process, the one thing I didn’t lose sleep over was the possibility of taking bin Laden out. Justice was done. And I think that anyone who would question that the perpetrator of mass murder on American soil didn’t deserve what he got needs to have their head examined.

Update (May 11):
Commenter “B” makes a wonderful point.  If Osama’s statements aren’t enough to convince Chomsky that al Qaeda was behind the 9/11 attacks, then why are Obama’s statements enough to convince Chomsky that the US was behind the raid in Abbottabad?
Update (May 12): Many of you have asked me to get back to quantum complexity theory, or some other topic that we know more about (or rather: that other people know less about).  Don’t worry, BQP’s a-comin’!  But in the meantime, I wanted to thank all of you (especially the ones who disagreed with me) for a genuinely interesting discussion.  I haven’t been forced to think so much about the philosophical underpinnings of vigilante justice since watching the Batman and Spiderman movies…

The students and the TAs are one hand

Sunday, February 13th, 2011

Last night, the MIT Egyptian Club hosted a “What’s Going On In Egypt?” event, which included a lecture, a Q&A session with Egyptian students, Egyptian music, and free falafel and baklava.  I went, not least because of the falafel.

The announcement that Mubarak was leaving came just a few hours before the event, which was planned as a somber discussion but hastily reconfigured as a celebration.  As you’d imagine, the mood was ecstatic: some people came draped in Egyptian flags, and there was shouting, embracing, and even blowing of vuvuzelas.  Building E51 wasn’t quite Tahrir Square, but it was as close as I was going to get.

About 300 people showed up.  I’d expected an even bigger turnout—but then again, this was MIT, where the democratic awakening of the Arab world might have to wait if there’s a pset due next week.  Many of the people who came were speaking Arabic, greeting each other with “salaam aleykum.”  But only a minority were Egyptians: I met jubilant Syrians and Saudi Arabians, and pan-Arab pride was a major theme of the evening.

At one point, I overheard two guys speaking something that sounded like Arabic but wasn’t: “yesh khasa?  eyn?”  It was Hebrew, which I’m proud to say I now speak at almost the level of a 3-year-old.  The Israelis were debating whether there was lettuce in the falafel (there wasn’t).  Joining their conversation, I confirmed that we had come for basically the same reasons: first, to “witness” (insofar as one could without leaving campus) one of the great revolutions of our time; secondly, the falafel.

Two socialist organizations were selling newspapers, with headlines trumpeting the events in Egypt as the dawn of a long-awaited global workers’ revolt against capitalism.  Buying a $1 newspaper (and politely turning down a subscription), I thought to myself that one has to admire these folks’ persistence, if not their powers of analysis.

Finally the main event started.  An Egyptian student from Harvard presented a slideshow, which summarized both the events of the last three weeks and the outrages of the last 30 years that led to them (poverty, torture, suppression of opposition parties, indefinite detention without charges, arrests for things like having long hair).  He said that this uprising wasn’t anything like Iran’s 30 years ago, that it was non-Islamic and led by the pro-democracy Facebook generation.  Then there was half an hour for Q&A.

Someone asked about the protesters’ economic goals.  One student panelist started to answer, but then another interjected: “Look, the people in Tahrir Square just overthrew the government.  I don’t think they’ve had much time yet to think through their economic plan.”

Someone else asked about the role of the US.  A student answered that it was “complicated, to say the least,” and that the Obama administration seemed internally divided.

Perhaps the most interesting question was whether the students themselves planned to return to Egypt, to help build the new democratic society.  After a long silence, two students said yes.

No one asked about the future of Egypt/Israel relations, and the subject never came up.  But it seemed obvious that, if the students I saw were running Egypt, they’d be too busy modernizing their country’s economy to spend much time denouncing Zionist iniquities.

In general, I agree with Natan Sharansky that, for the US and Israel, it would be incredibly shortsighted to see only danger and “instability” in the Great Egyptian Twitter Revolt of 2011.  The variance is enormous, which makes it almost impossible to estimate the expectation, but there’s certainly large support on the positive half of the spectrum.

So, to my Egyptian readers: congratulations, best wishes, mazel tov, and mabrouk from the entire executive staff of Shtetl-Optimized.  May your revolution be remembered with those of 1776 and 1989 and not with those of 1917 and 1979.

Alex Halderman, and India’s assault on academic freedom

Friday, December 17th, 2010

Five years ago, not long after the founding of Shtetl-Optimized, I blogged about Alex Halderman: my best friend since seventh grade at Newtown Junior High School, now a famous security researcher and a computer science professor at the University of Michigan, and someone whose exploits seem to be worrying at least one government as much as Julian Assange’s.

In the past, Alex has demonstrated the futility of copy-protection schemes for music CDs, helped force the state of California to change its standards for electronic voting machines, and led a spectacular attack against an Internet voting pilot in Washington DC.  But Alex’s latest project is probably his most important and politically-riskiest yet.  Alex, Hari Prasad of India, and Rop Gonggrijp of the Netherlands demonstrated massive security problems with electronic voting machines in India (which are used by about 400 million people in each election, making them the most widely-used voting system on earth).  As a result of this work, Hari was arrested in his home and jailed by the Indian authorities, who threatened not to release him until he revealed the source of the voting machine that he, Alex, and Rop had analyzed.  After finally being released by a sympathetic judge, Hari flew to the United States, where he received the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s 2010 Pioneer Award.  I had the honor of meeting Hari at MIT during his and Alex’s subsequent US lecture tour.

But the story continues.  Earlier this week, after flying into India to give a talk at the International Conference on Information Systems Security (ICISS’2010) in Gandhinagar, Alex and Rop were detained at the New Delhi airport and threatened with deportation from India.  No explanation was given, even though the story became front-page news in India.  Finally, after refusing to board planes out of New Delhi without being given a reason in writing for their deportation, Alex and Rop were allowed to enter India, but only on the condition that they did so as “tourists.”  In particular, they were banned from presenting their research on electronic voting machines, and the relevant conference session was cancelled.

To those in the Indian government responsible for the harassment of Alex Halderman and Rop Gonggrijp and (more seriously) the imprisonment of Hari Prasad: shame on you!  And to Alex, Hari, and Rop: let the well-wishes of this blog be like a small, nerdy wind beneath your wings.

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?

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.