Archive for the ‘The Fate of Humanity’ Category

May reason trump the Trump in all of us

Wednesday, October 19th, 2016

Two years ago, when I was the target of an online shaming campaign, what helped me through it were hundreds of messages of support from friends, slight acquaintances, and strangers of every background.  I vowed then to return the favor, by standing up when I saw decent people unfairly shamed.  Today I have an opportunity to make good.

Some time ago I had the privilege of interacting a bit with Sam Altman, president of the famed startup incubator Y Combinator (and a guy who’s thanked in pretty much everything Paul Graham writes).  By way of our mutual friend, the renowned former quantum computing researcher Michael Nielsen, Sam got in touch with me to solicit suggestions for “outside-the-box” scientists and writers, for a new grant program that Y Combinator was starting. I found Sam eager to delve into the merits of any suggestion, however outlandish, and was delighted to be able to make a difference for a few talented people who needed support.

Sam has also been one of the Silicon Valley leaders who’s written most clearly and openly about the threat to America posed by Donald Trump and the need to stop him, and he’s donated tens of thousands of dollars to anti-Trump causes.  Needless to say, I supported Sam on that as well.

Now Sam is under attack on social media, and there are even calls for him to resign as the president of Y Combinator.  Like me two years ago, Sam has instantly become the corporeal embodiment of the “nerd privilege” that keeps the marginalized out of Silicon Valley.

Why? Because, despite his own emphatic anti-Trump views, Sam rejected demands to fire Peter Thiel (who has an advisory role at Y Combinator) because of Thiel’s support for Trump.  Sam explained his reasoning at some length:

[A]s repugnant as Trump is to many of us, we are not going to fire someone over his or her support of a political candidate.  As far as we know, that would be unprecedented for supporting a major party nominee, and a dangerous path to start down (of course, if Peter said some of the things Trump says himself, he would no longer be part of Y Combinator) … The way we got into a situation with Trump as a major party nominee in the first place was by not talking to people who are very different than we are … I don’t understand how 43% of the country supports Trump.  But I’d like to find out, because we have to include everyone in our path forward.  If our best ideas are to stop talking to or fire anyone who disagrees with us, we’ll be facing this whole situation again in 2020.

The usual criticism of nerds is that we might have narrow technical abilities, but we lack wisdom about human affairs.  It’s ironic, then, that it appears to have fallen to Silicon Valley nerds to guard some of the most important human wisdom our sorry species ever came across—namely, the liberal ideals of the Enlightenment.  Like Sam, I despise pretty much everything Trump stands for, and I’ve been far from silent about it: I’ve blogged, donated money, advocated vote swapping, endured anonymous comments like “kill yourself kike”—whatever seemed like it might help even infinitesimally to ensure the richly-deserved electoral thrashing that Trump mercifully seems to be headed for in a few weeks.

But I also, I confess, oppose the forces that apparently see Trump less as a global calamity to be averted, than as a golden opportunity to take down anything they don’t like that’s ever been spotted within a thousand-mile radius of Trump Tower.  (Where does this Kevin Bacon game end, anyway?  Do “six degrees of Trump” suffice to contaminate you?)

And not only do I not feel a shadow of a hint of a moral conflict here, but it seems to me that precisely the same liberal Enlightenment principles are behind both of these stances.

But I’d go yet further.  It sort of flabbergasts me when social-justice activists don’t understand that, if we condemn not only Trump, not only his supporters, but even vociferous Trump opponents who associate with Trump supporters (!), all we’ll do is to feed the narrative that got Trumpism as far as it has—namely, that of a smug, bubble-encased, virtue-signalling leftist elite subject to runaway political correctness spirals.  Like, a hundred million Americans’ worldviews revolve around the fear of liberal persecution, and we’re going to change their minds by firing those who refuse to fire them?  As a recent Washington Post story illustrates, the opposite approach is harder but can bear spectacular results.

Now, as for Peter Thiel: three years ago, he funded a small interdisciplinary workshop on the coast of France that I attended.  With me there were a bunch of honest-to-goodness conservative Christians, a Freudian psychoanalyst, a novelist, a right-wing radio host, some scientists and Silicon Valley executives, and of course Thiel himself.  Each, I found, offered tons to disagree about but also some morsels to learn.

Thiel’s worldview, focused on the technological and organizational greatness that (in his view) Western civilization used to have and has subsequently lost, was a bit too dark and pessimistic for me, and I’m a pretty dark and pessimistic person.  Thiel gave a complicated, meandering lecture that involved comparing modern narratives about Silicon Valley entrepreneurs against myths of gods, heroes, and martyrs throughout history, such as Romulus and Remus (the legendary founders of Rome).  The talk might have made more sense to Thiel than to his listeners.

At the same time, Thiel’s range of knowledge and curiosity was pretty awesome.  He avidly followed all the talks (including mine, on P vs. NP and quantum complexity theory) and asked pertinent questions. When the conversation turned to D-Wave, and Thiel’s own decision not to invest in it, he laid out the conclusions he’d come to from an extremely quick look at the question, then quizzed me as to whether he’d gotten anything wrong.  He hadn’t.

From that conversation among others, I formed the impression that Thiel’s success as an investor is, at least in part, down neither to luck nor to connections, but to a module in his brain that most people lack, which makes blazingly fast and accurate judgments about tech startups.  No wonder Y Combinator would want to keep him as an adviser.

But, OK, I’m so used to the same person being spectacularly right on some things and spectacularly wrong on others, that it no longer causes even slight cognitive dissonance.  You just take the issues one by one.

I was happy, on balance, when it came out that Thiel had financed the lawsuit that brought down Gawker Media.  Gawker really had used its power to bully the innocent, and it had broken the law to do it.  And if it’s an unaccountable, anti-egalitarian, billionaire Godzilla against a vicious, privacy-violating, nerd-baiting King Kong—well then, I guess I’m with Godzilla.

More recently, I was appalled when Thiel spoke at the Republican convention, pandering to the crowd with Fox-News-style attack lines that were unworthy of a mind of his caliber.  I lost a lot of respect for Thiel that day.  But that’s the thing: unlike with literally every other speaker at the GOP convention, my respect for Thiel had started from a point that made a decrease possible.

I reject huge parts of Thiel’s worldview.  I also reject any worldview that would threaten me with ostracism for talking to Thiel, attending a workshop he sponsors, or saying anything good about him.  This is not actually a difficult balance.

Today, when it sometimes seems like much of the world has united in salivating for a cataclysmic showdown between whites and non-whites, Christians and Muslims, “dudebros” and feminists, etc., and that the salivators differ mostly just in who they want to see victorious in the coming battle and who humiliated, it can feel lonely to stick up for naïve, outdated values like the free exchange of ideas, friendly disagreement, the presumption of innocence, and the primacy of the individual over the tribe.  But those are the values that took us all the way from a bronze spear through the enemy’s heart to a snarky rebuttal on the arXiv, and they’ll continue to build anything worth building.

And now to watch the third debate (I’ll check the comments afterward)…

Update (Oct. 20): See also this post from a blog called TheMoneyIllusion. My favorite excerpt:

So let’s see. Not only should Trump be shunned for his appalling political views, an otherwise highly respected Silicon Valley entrepreneur who just happens to support Trump (along with 80 million other Americans) should also be shunned. And a person who despises Trump and works against him but who defends Thiel’s right to his own political views should also resign. Does that mean I should be shunned too? After all, I’m a guy who hates Trump, writing a post that defends a guy who hates Trump, who wrote a post defending a guy’s freedom to support Trump, who in turn supports Trump. And suppose my mother sticks up for me? Should she also be shunned?

It’s almost enough to make me vote . . . no, just kidding.

Question … Which people on the left are beyond the pale? Suppose Thiel had supported Hugo Chavez? How about Castro? Mao? Pol Pot? Perhaps the degrees of separation could be calibrated to the awfulness of the left-winger:

Chavez: One degree of separation. (Corbyn, Sean Penn, etc.)

Castro: Two degrees of separation is still toxic.

Lenin: Three degrees of separation.

Mao: Four degrees of separation.

Pol Pot: Five degrees of separation.

Stuff That’s Happened

Sunday, October 9th, 2016

Hi from FOCS’2016 in scenic New Brunswick, NJ!  (I just got here from Avi Wigderson’s 60th birthday conference, to which I’ll devote another post.)

In the few weeks since I last overcame the activation barrier to blog, here are some things that happened.


Friday’s revelation, of Trump boasting on tape to George W. Bush’s cousin about his crotch-grabbing escapades, did not increase my opposition to Trump, for a very simple reason: because I’d already opposed Trump by the maximum amount that’s possible.  Nevertheless, I’ll be gratified if this news brings Trump down, and leads to the landslide defeat he’s deserved from the beginning for 101000 reasons.

Still, history (including the history of this election) teaches us not to take things for granted.  So if you’re still thinking of voting for Trump, let me recommend Scott Alexander’s endorsement of “anyone but Trump.”  I’d go even further than my fellow Scott A. in much of what he says, but his post is nevertheless a masterful document, demonstrating how someone who nobody could accuse of being a statist social-justice warrior, but who “merely” has a sense for science and history and Enlightenment ideals and the ironic and absurd, can reach the conclusion that Trump had better be stopped, and with huge argumentative margin to spare.

See also an interview with me on Huffington Post about TrumpTrading, conducted by Linchuan Zhang.  If you live in a swing state and support Johnson, or in a safe state and support Hillary, I still recommend signing up, since even a 13% probability of a Trump win is too high.  I’ve found a partner in Ohio, a libertarian-leaning professor.  The only way I can foresee not going through with the swap, is if the bus tape causes Trump’s popularity to drop so precipitously that Texas becomes competitive.

In the meantime, it’s also important that we remain vigilant about the integrity of the election—not about in-person voter fraud, which statistically doesn’t exist, but about intimidation at the polls and the purging of eligible voters and tampering with electronic voting machines.  As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, my childhood friend Alex Halderman, now a CS professor at the University of Michigan, has been at the forefront of demonstrating the security problems with electronic voting machines, and advocating for paper trails.  Alex and his colleagues have actually succeeded in influencing how elections are conducted in many states—but not in all of them.  If you want to learn more, check out an in-depth profile of Alex in the latest issue of Playboy.  (There’s no longer nudity in Playboy, so you can even read the thing at work…)


As some of you probably saw, Mohammad Bavarian, Giulio Gueltrini, and I put out a new paper about computability theory in a universe with closed timelike curves.  This complements my and John Watrous’s earlier work about complexity theory in a CTC universe, where we showed that finding a fixed-point of a bounded superoperator is a PSPACE-complete problem.  In the new work, we show that finding a fixed-point of an unbounded superoperator has the same difficulty as the halting problem.

Some of you will also have seen that folks from the Machine Intelligence Research Institute (MIRI)—Scott Garrabrant, Tsvi Benson-Tilsen, Andrew Critch, Nate Soares, and Jessica Taylor—recently put out a major 130-page paper entitled “Logical Induction”.  (See also their blog announcement.)  This paper takes direct aim at a question that’s come up repeatedly in the comments section of this blog: namely, how can we sensibly assign probabilities to mathematical statements, such as “the 1010^1000th decimal digit of π is a 3″?  The paper proposes an essentially economic framework for that question, involving a marketplace for “mathematical truth futures,” in which new mathematical truths get revealed one by one, and one doesn’t want any polynomial-time traders to be able to make an infinite amount of money by finding patterns in the truths that the prices haven’t already factored in.  I won’t be able to do justice to the work in this paragraph (or even come close), but I hope this sophisticated paper gets the attention it deserves from mathematicians, logicians, CS theorists, AI people, economists, and anyone else who’s ever wondered how a “Bayesian” could sleep at night after betting on (say) the truth or falsehood of Goldbach’s Conjecture.  Feel free to discuss in the comments section.

My PhD student Adam Bouland and former visiting student Lijie Chen, along with Dhiraj Holden, Justin Thaler, and Prashant Vasudevan, have put out a new paper that achieves an oracle separation between the complexity classes SZK and PP (among many other things)—thereby substantially generalizing my quantum lower bound for the collision problem, and solving an open problem that I’d thought about without success since 2002.  Huge relativized congratulations to them!

A new paper by my PhD student Shalev Ben-David and Or Sattath, about using ideas from quantum money to create signed quantum tokens, has been making the rounds on social media.  Why?  Read the abstract and see for yourself!  (My only “contribution” was to tell them not to change a word.)

Several people wrote in to tell me about a recent paper by Henry Lin and Max Tegmark, which tries to use physics analogies and intuitions to explain why deep learning works as well as it does.  To my inexpert eyes, the paper seemed to contain a lot of standard insights from computational learning theory (for example, the need to exploit symmetries and regularities in the world to get polynomial-size representations), but expressed in a different language.  What confused me most was the paper’s claim to prove “no-flattening theorems” showing the necessity of large-depth neural networks—since in the sense I would mean, such a theorem couldn’t possibly be proved without a major breakthrough in computational complexity (e.g., separating the levels of the class TC0). Again, anyone who understands what’s going on is welcome to share in the comments section.

Sevag Gharibian asked me to advertise that the Call for Papers for the 2017 Conference on Computational Complexity, to be held July 6-9 in Riga, Latvia, is now up.

The Ninth Circuit ruled that vote-swapping is legal. Let’s use it to stop Trump.

Saturday, September 10th, 2016

Updates: Commenter JT informs me that there’s already a vote-swapping site available:  (I particularly like their motto: “Everybody wins.  Except Trump.”)  I still think there’s a need for more sites, particularly ones that would interface with Facebook, but this is a great beginning.  I’ve signed up for it myself.

Also, Toby Ord, a philosopher I know at Oxford, points me to a neat academic paper he wrote that analyzes vote-swapping as an example of “moral trade,” and that mentions the Porter v. Bowen decision holding vote-swapping to be legal in the US.

Also, if we find two Gary Johnson supporters in swing states willing to trade, I’ve been contacted by a fellow Austinite who’d be happy to accept the second trade.

As regular readers might know, my first appearance in the public eye (for a loose definition of “public eye”) had nothing to do with D-Wave, Gödel’s Theorem, the computational complexity of quantum gravity, Australian printer ads, or—god forbid—social justice shaming campaigns.  Instead it centered on NaderTrading: the valiant but doomed effort, in the weeks leading up to the 2000 US Presidential election, to stop George W. Bush’s rise to power by encouraging Ralph Nader supporters in swing states (such as Florida) to vote for Al Gore, while pairing themselves off over the Internet with Gore supporters in safe states (such as Texas or California) who would vote for Nader on their behalf.  That way, Nader’s vote share (and his chance of reaching 5% of the popular vote, which would’ve qualified him for federal funds in 2004) wouldn’t be jeopardized, but neither would Gore’s chance of winning the election.

Here’s what I thought at the time:

  1. The election would be razor-close (though I never could’ve guessed how close).
  2. Bush was a malignant doofus who would be a disaster for the US and the world (though I certainly didn’t know how—recall that, at the time, Bush was running as an isolationist).
  3. Many Nader supporters, including the ones who I met at Berkeley, prioritized personal virtue so completely over real-world consequences that they might actually throw the election to Bush.

NaderTrading, as proposed by law professor Jamin Raskin and others, seemed like one of the clearest ways for nerds who knew these points, but who lacked political skills, to throw themselves onto the gears of history and do something good for the world.

So, as a 19-year-old grad student, I created a website called “In Defense of NaderTrading” (archived version), which didn’t arrange vote swaps themselves—other sites did that—but which explored some of the game theory behind the concept and answered some common objections to it.  (See also here.)  Within days of creating the site, I’d somehow become an “expert” on the topic, and was fielding hundreds of emails as well as requests for print, radio, and TV interviews.

Alas, the one question everyone wanted to ask me was the one that I, as a CS nerd, was the least qualified to answer: is NaderTrading legal? isn’t it kind of like … buying and selling votes?

I could only reply that, to my mind, NaderTrading obviously ought to be legal, because:

  1. Members of Congress and state legislatures trade votes all the time.
  2. A private agreement between two friends to each vote for the other’s preferred candidate seems self-evidently legal, so why should it be any different if a website is involved?
  3. The whole point of NaderTrading is to exercise your voting power more fully—pretty much the opposite of bartering it away for private gain.
  4. While the election laws vary by state, the ones I read very specifically banned trading votes for tangible goods—they never even mentioned trading votes for other votes, even though they easily could’ve done so had legislators intended to ban that.

But—and here was the fatal problem—I could only address principles and arguments, rather than politics and power.  I couldn’t honestly assure the people who wanted to vote-swap, or to set up vote-swapping sites, that they wouldn’t be prosecuted for it.

As it happened, the main vote-swapping site,, was shut down by California’s Republican attorney general, Bill Jones, only four days after it opened.  A second vote-swapping site,, was never directly threatened but also ceased operations because of what happened to voteswap2000.  Many legal scholars felt confident that these shutdowns wouldn’t hold up in court, but with just a few weeks until the election, there was no time to fight it.

Before it was shut down, voteswap2000 had brokered 5,041 vote-swaps, including hundreds in Florida.  Had that and similar sites been allowed to continue operating, it’s entirely plausible that they would’ve changed the outcome of the election.  No Iraq war, no 2008 financial meltdown: we would’ve been living in a different world.  Note that, of the 100,000 Floridians who ultimately voted for Nader, we would’ve needed to convince fewer than 1% of them.

Today, we face something I didn’t expect to face in my lifetime: namely, a serious prospect of a takeover of the United States by a nativist demagogue with open contempt for democratic norms and legendarily poor impulse control. Meanwhile, there are two third-party candidates—Gary Johnson and Jill Stein—who together command 10% of the vote.  A couple months ago, I’d expressed hopes that Johnson might help Hillary, by splitting the Republican vote. But it now looks clear that, on balance, not only Stein but also Johnson are helping Trump, by splitting up that part of the American vote that’s not driven by racial resentment.

So recently a friend—the philanthropist and rationalist Holden Karnofsky—posed a question to me: should we revive the vote-swapping idea from 2000? And presumably this time around, enhance the idea with 21st-century bells and whistles like mobile apps and Facebook, to make it all the easier for Johnson/Stein supporters in swing states and Hillary supporters in safe states to find each other and trade votes?

Just like so many well-meaning people back in 2000, Holden was worried about one thing: is vote-swapping against the law? If someone created a mobile vote-swapping app, could that person be thrown in jail?

At first, I had no idea: I assumed that vote-swapping simply remained in the legal Twilight Zone where it was last spotted in 2000.  But then I did something radical: I looked it up.  And when I did, I discovered a decade-old piece of news that changes everything.

On August 6, 2007, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals finally ruled on a case, Porter v. Bowen, stemming from the California attorney general’s shutdown of  Their ruling, which is worth reading in full, was unequivocal.

Vote-swapping, it said, is protected by the First Amendment, which state election laws can’t supersede.  It is fundamentally different from buying or selling votes.

Yes, the decision also granted the California attorney general immunity from prosecution, on the ground that vote-swapping’s legality hadn’t yet been established in 2000—indeed it wouldn’t be, until the Ninth Circuit’s decision itself!  Nevertheless, the ruling made clear that the appellants (the creators of voteswap2000 and some others) were granted the relief they sought: namely, an assurance that vote-swapping websites would be protected from state interference in the future.

Admittedly, if vote-swapping takes off again, it’s possible that the question will be re-litigated and will end up in the Supreme Court, where the Ninth Circuit’s ruling could be reversed.  For now, though, let the message be shouted from the rooftops: a court has ruled. You cannot be punished for cooperating with your fellow citizens to vote strategically, or for helping others do the same.

For those of you who oppose Donald Trump and who are good at web and app development: with just two months until the election, I think the time to set up some serious vote-swapping infrastructure is right now.  Let your name be etched in history, alongside those who stood up to all the vicious demagogues of the past.  And let that happen without your even needing to get up from your computer chair.

I’m not, I confess, a huge fan of either Gary Johnson or Jill Stein (especially not Stein).  Nevertheless, here’s my promise: on November 8, I will cast my vote in the State of Texas for Gary Johnson, if I can find at least one Johnson supporter who lives in a swing state, who I feel I can trust, and who agrees to vote for Hillary Clinton on my behalf.

If you think you’ve got what it takes to be my vote-mate, send me an email, tell me about yourself, and let’s talk!  I’m not averse to some electoral polyamory—i.e., lots of Johnson supporters in swing states casting their votes for Clinton, in exchange for the world’s most famous quantum complexity blogger voting for Johnson—but I’m willing to settle for a monogamous relationship if need be.

And as for Stein? I’d probably rather subsist on tofu than vote for her, because of her support for seemingly every pseudoscience she comes across, and especially because of her endorsement of the vile campaign to boycott Israel.  Even so: if Stein supporters in swing states whose sincerity I trusted offered to trade votes with me, and Johnson supporters didn’t, I would bury my scruples and vote for Stein.  Right now, the need to stop the madman takes precedence over everything else.

One last thing to get out of the way.  When they learn of my history with NaderTrading, people keep pointing me a website called, and exclaiming “look! isn’t this exactly that vote-trading thing you were talking about?”

On examination, Balanced Rebellion turns out to be the following proposal:

  1. A Trump supporter in a swing state pairs off with a Hillary supporter in a swing state.
  2. Both of them vote for Gary Johnson, thereby helping Johnson without giving an advantage to either Hillary or Trump.

So, exercise for the reader: see if you can spot the difference between this idea and the kind of vote-swapping I’m talking about.  (Here’s a hint: my version helps prevent a racist lunatic from taking command of the most powerful military on earth, rather than being neutral about that outcome.)

Not surprisingly, the “balanced rebellion” is advocated by Johnson fans.

Leonard Susskind’s Open Letter on “The Lunatic”

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2016

In my own anti-Trump post two weeks ago, I started out by mentioning that Terry Tao and Stephen Hawking had recently denounced Trump, and jokingly wondered when we’d hear from Ed Witten.  Well, will Leonard Susskind of Stanford University—a creator of string theory, and one of the most legendarily original physicists and physics expositors of our time—do instead?

Over the last decade, it’s been a privilege for me to get to know Lenny, to learn from him, and recently, to collaborate with him on quantum circuit complexity and AdS/CFT.  Today, Lenny wrote to ask whether I’d share his open letter about the US election on this blog.  Of course I said yes.  Better yet, Lenny has agreed to my request to be available here to answer questions and comments.  Lenny’s views, even when close to mine (as they certainly are in this case), are still his, and I’d never want to speak on his behalf.  Better that you should hear it straight from the horse’s mouth—as you now will, without further ado.  –Scott A.

Letter to My Friends, by Leonard Susskind

I’m watching this thing that’s happening with disbelief, dismay, and disgust. There is a lunatic loose—I’m sure we all agree about that—but I keep hearing people say that they can’t vote for Hillary. I heard it at my daughter’s birthday party Sunday. Boy oh boy, will these people be sorry if the lunatic gets his way. Personally I do not find it an excuse that “I live in California, which will go Democrat whatever I do.”

I strongly believe in all things Bernie, but Hillary is not the Anti-Bernie. There is much less difference between Clinton and Sanders than the distortions of the nominating process might lead people to think. She’s for health care, he’s for health care; he’s for increased minimum wage, she’s for increased minimum wage; she’s for immigrant rights, he’s for immigrant rights; and on and on it goes.

The lunatic may be just that—a lunatic—but he is also a master of smear and innuendo.  He is a gigantic liar, and he knows that if you keep saying something over and over, it sticks in people’s minds. It’s called the Big Lie, and it works. Say it enough and it sows confusion and distrust, not only among the know-nothings, but even among those who know better.

The lunatic and his supporters are exceedingly dangerous. Tell your friends: don’t be fooled. The only thing between us and the lunatic is Hillary. Get off your ass and vote in Nov.

Leonard Susskind

Director, Stanford Institute for Theoretical Physics,

Stanford University


Daddy, why didn’t you blog about Trump?

Tuesday, June 7th, 2016

A few days ago, Terry Tao, whose superb blog typically focuses on things like gaps in the primes and finite-time blowup in PDEs, wrote an unusual post, arguing that virtually everyone knows Donald Trump is unqualified to be President, so the challenge is “just” to make that fact common knowledge (i.e., to ensure everyone knows everyone knows it, everyone knows everyone knows everyone knows it, etc).  Tao’s post even included the pseudo-mathematical

Proposition 1: The presumptive nominee of the Republican Party, Donald Trump, is not even remotely qualified to carry out the duties of the presidency of the United States of America

together with some suggestions for how this proposition might be “proven” (e.g., using Hillary’s recent San Diego speech).

In thus speaking out, Tao joins Stephen Hawking, who recently called Trump “a demagogue, who seems to appeal to the lowest common denominator.”  Now Ed Witten just needs to issue his statement, and we’ll have a trifecta of “the three greatest geniuses.”  This shouldn’t be a stretch: Witten started his career by campaigning for George McGovern, and has supported liberal causes for decades.  I’m not expecting him to be seen around Princeton sporting a “Make America Great Again” baseball cap.

Notwithstanding this site, I don’t belong on any list with Tao, Hawking, or Witten.  Nevertheless, friends have expressed surprise that I’ve had almost nothing to say on Shtetl-Optimized about what’s already—regardless of what happens next—the most shocking US political development of my life.  Of course, I’ve mined the subject for humor.  When I gave the Strachey Lecture on “Quantum Supremacy” on a recent visit to Oxford, I started out by asking whether I should disavow support from quantum supremacists, before averring that I needed to research the subject more.  (Get it?  I need to research it more?)

I didn’t say more because … well, what could I possibly say that wasn’t being said 1010000 other places on the Internet?  Shouldn’t some little corner of human discourse remain Trump-free, so that civilization has a base from which to rebuild after this is all behind us?

Against those considerations, I recently realized that there’s an argument for speaking out, which goes as follows.  Suppose Trump actually wins (as of this writing, Predictwise still gives him a frighteningly-high 27% probability).  Suppose my family somehow survives whatever comes next, and one day my daughter Lily comes to me across the rubble of the post-thermonuclear hellscape and says, “daddy, in the Good Days, the days before the War of the Small-Hands Insult, the days when there was plentiful food and water and Internet, didn’t you have what used to be called a ‘blog’?  Then why didn’t you speak out on this blog, why didn’t you do whatever tiny amount you could to prevent this?”  So, alright, this post is my answer to her.

Trump, famously, doesn’t even try to refute the ubiquitous Hitler comparisons; instead he sneeringly invites them, for example with the faux Nazi salutes at his rallies.  Certainly with Trump, there’s the eerily familiar sense of how could this possibly happen in a modern country; and of a candidate winning not despite but because of his open contempt for Enlightenment norms, his explicit promises to elevate his will over the law.

At the same time, I think there’s a deep reason why Trump is not Hitler.  Namely, Hitler believed in something, had a purity of conviction.  Late in the war, when every available resource was desperately needed at the front, Hitler and his deputies still insisted that scarce trains be used to transport Jews to the death camps.  To me, that shows some real dedication.  I’m not convinced that an examination of Trump’s long career in bullshit artistry, or of his unhinged statements today, shows a similar dedication to any cause beyond his own self-aggrandizement.

Yet as many others have pointed out, “not being Hitler” is sort of a low bar for a President of the United States.  If Trump were “merely” a Pinochet or Putin level of badness, I’d still see his election as a calamity for the US and the world—like, maybe an order of magnitude worse than the in-retrospect-mini-calamity of Bush’s election in 2000.

Since Tao was criticized for not explicitly listing his reasons why Trump is unqualified, let me now give my own top ten—any one of which, in a sane world, I think would immediately disqualify Trump from presidential consideration.  To maximize the list’s appeal, I’ll restrict myself entirely to reasons that are about global security and the future of democratic norms, and not about which people or groups Trump hurled disgustingly unpresidential insults at (though obviously there’s also that).

  1. He’s shown contempt for the First Amendment, by saying “libel laws should be opened up” to let him sue journalists who criticize him.
  2. He’s shown contempt for an independent judiciary, and even lack of comprehension of the judiciary’s role in the US legal system.
  3. He’s proposed a “temporary ban” on Muslims entering the US.  Even setting aside the moral and utilitarian costs, such a plan couldn’t possibly be implemented without giving religion an explicit role in the US legal system that the Constitution was largely written to prevent it from having.
  4. He’s advocated ordering the military to murder the families of terrorists—the sort of thing that could precipitate a coup d’état if the military followed its own rules and refused.
  5. He’s refused to rule out the tactical first use of nuclear weapons against ISIS.
  6. He’s proposed walking away from the US’s defense alliances, which would probably force Japan, South Korea, and other countries to develop their own nuclear arsenals and set off a new round of nuclear proliferation.
  7. He says that the national debt could be “paid back at a discount”—implicitly treating the US government like a failed casino project, and reneging on Alexander Hamilton’s principle (which has stood since the Revolutionary War, and helps maintain the world’s economic stability) that US credit is ironclad.
  8. He’s repeatedly expressed admiration for autocrats, including Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un, as well as for the Chinese government’s decision to suppress the Tiananmen Square protests by arresting and killing thousands of people.
  9. He’s expressed the desire to see people who protest his rallies “roughed up.”
  10. He said that, not only would he walk away from the Paris accords, but the entire concept of global warming is a hoax invented by the Chinese.

Would Trump moderate his insane “policies” once elected?  I don’t know, but I’d say that electing someone who promises to ignore the rule of law, in the hope that they don’t really mean it, has one of the worst track records of any idea in human history.  Like, I acknowledge that a Trump presidency has a wide distribution over possible badnesses: whereas a Ted Cruz presidency would be pretty much a point distribution concentrated on “very bad,” a Trump presidency would have appreciable probability mass on “less bad than Cruz,” but also appreciable mass on “doesn’t even fit on the badness chart.”

Anyway, for these reasons and others, Shtetl-Optimized unhesitatingly endorses Hillary Clinton for president—and indeed, would continue to endorse Hillary if her next policy position was “eliminate all quantum computing research, except for that aiming to prove NP⊆BQP using D-Wave machines.”

Even so, there’s one crucial point on which I dissent from the consensus of my liberal friends.  Namely, my friends and colleagues constantly describe the rise of Trump as “incomprehensible”—or at best, as comprehensible only in terms of the US being full of racist, xenophobic redneck scumbags who were driven to shrieking rage by a black guy being elected president.  Which—OK, that’s one aspect of it, but it’s as if any attempt to dig deeper, to understand the roots of Trump’s appeal, if only to figure out how to defeat him, risks “someone mistaking you for the enemy.”

I remember watching the now-famous debate in August, where Megyn Kelly confronted Trump with his long history of derogatory comments about women, and Trump replied with a smirk, falsely claiming that his comments were “only [about] Rosie O’Donnell”—bringing down the house (both men and women) in laughter.  At that point, something clicked; I got it.  From then on, Trump’s continuing rise often scared or depressed me, but much less about it surprised me.

I think people support Trump for the same reason why second-graders support the class clown who calls the teacher a fart-brain to her face.  It’s not that the class literally agrees that the teacher’s cranium is filled with intestinal gases, or considers that an important question to raise.  It’s simply that the clown had the guts to stand up to this scolding authority figure who presumes to tell the class every day what they are and aren’t allowed to think.  (As far as I can tell, this has also been the central operating principle of right-wing shock artists over the decades, from Rush Limbaugh to Ann Coulter to Milo Yiannopoulos.)

Support for this thesis comes from r/The_Donald, the main online clearinghouse for Trump supporters.  Spend some time there, and many of the themes will be instantly recognizable if you’ve followed the interminable controversies about campus political correctness over the last few decades.  Perhaps the most popular theme is the self-referential one, of “refusing to be silenced” by the censorious Social Justice Warriors.  Trump supporters, for example, gleefully share articles about the university administrators and students who’ve treated “Trump 2016” and “Make America Great Again” chalked on campus sidewalks as hate crimes to be investigated and punished.

(Every time I read such a thing, I want to yell at the administrators and students involved: how can you not see that you’re playing directly into the other side’s narrative, giving them the PR bonanza of their dreams?  Actually, I’ve felt the same way about many left-wing campus antics since I was a teenager.)

I explained earlier how abysmally I think Trump comes across under the cold light of reason.  But how does he look to my inner five-year-old, or my inner self-serving orangutan?  Well, Trump’s campaign has attracted some noxious anti-Semites, who surely want me dead for that reason, but I see little indication that Trump himself, or most of his supporters, feel similarly.  I can’t say that they’ve said or done anything to threaten me personally.

Meanwhile, many of the social-justice types who are Trump’s ideological opposites did try to destroy my life—and not because I hurt anyone, tried to hurt anyone, or said anything false, but just because I went slightly outside their Overton Window while trying to foster empathy and dialogue and articulate something true.  And having spent a year and a half reading their shaming attacks, on Twitter, Tumblr, Metafilter, etc., I’m well-aware that many of them will try again to destroy me if they ever see an opportunity.

So on the purely personal level, you might say, I have a hundred times more reason to fear Amanda Marcotte than to fear Donald Trump, even though Trump might become the next Commander-in-Chief (!?), while Marcotte will never become more than a clickbait writer.  And you might add: if even a nerdy academic in Cambridge, MA, who’s supported gay rights and environmentalism and Democrats his whole life, is capable of feeling a twinge of vicarious satisfaction when Trump thumbs his nose at the social-justice bullies, then how much the more might a “middle American” feel that way?  Say, someone who worked his whole life to support a family, then lost his job at the plant, and who’s never experienced anything but derision, contempt, and accusations of unexamined white male privilege from university-educated coastal elites?

The truth is, there’s a movement that’s very effectively wielded social media to remake the public face of progressive activism—to the point where today, progressivism could strike an outside observer as being less about stopping climate change, raising the minimum wage, or investing in public transit than simply about ruining the lives of Brendan Eich and Matt Taylor and Tim Hunt and Erika Christakis and Dongle Guy and Elevator Guy and anyone else who tells the wrong joke, wears the wrong shirt, or sends the wrong email.  It strikes me that this movement never understood the extent to which progressive social values were already winning, with no need for this sort of vindictiveness.  It’s insisted instead on treating its vanquished culture-war enemies as shortsightedly as the Allies treated the Germans at Versailles.

So yes, I do think (as Bill Maher also said, before summarily reversing himself) that the bullying wing of the social-justice left bears at least some minor, indirect responsibility for the rise of Trump.  If you demonstrate enough times that even people who are trying to be decent will still get fired, jeered at, and publicly shamed over the tiniest ideological misstep, then eventually some of those who you’ve frightened might turn toward a demagogue who’s incapable of shame.

But OK, even if true, this is water under the bridge.  The question now is: how do we make sure that the ~30% probability of a Trump takeover of American democracy goes toward 0%?  I feel like, in understanding the emotional legitimacy of some of the Trump supporters’ anger, I’ve cleared a nontrivial Step One in figuring out how to counter him—but I’m still missing Steps Two and Three!

In the weeks leading to the 2000 election, I ran a website called “In Defense of NaderTrading.”  The purpose of the site was to encourage Ralph Nader supporters who lived in swing states, like Florida, to vote for Al Gore, and to arrange for Gore supporters who lived in “safe” states, like Massachusetts or Texas, to vote for Nader on their behalf.  I saw correctly that this election would be razor-close (though of course I didn’t know how close), that a Bush victory would be a disaster for the world (though I didn’t know exactly how), and that almost any novel idea—NaderTrading would do—was worth a try.  My site probably played a role in a few hundred vote swaps, including some in Florida.  I think constantly about the fact that we only needed 538 more, out of ~100,000 Floridian Nader voters, to change history.

Is there any idea that shows similar promise for defeating Trump, as NaderTrading did for defeating Bush in 2000?  Here are the four main things I’ve come across:

  1. Terry Tao’s proposal: All the respected people who think Trump is gobsmackingly unqualified (even, or especially, “normally apolitical” people) should come out and say so publicly.  My response: absolutely, they should, but I’m unsure if it will help much, given that it hasn’t yet.
  2. Paul Graham’s proposal: Democrats need to turn Trump’s name-calling and other childish antics against him.  E.g., if voters love Trump’s referring to Rubio as “Little Marco,” Elizabeth Warren as “Pocahontas,” etc., then why doesn’t Hillary start referring to “Baby Donald” or “Toddler Trump,” having another temper tantrum for which he needs a pacifier?  My response: again I’m skeptical, since Trump has already shown an uncanny ability to absorb all ridicule and shaming without injury, like the giant saucers in Independence Day.
  3. Trump needs to be baited into more social-media wars that make him look petty and unpresidential.  My response: while it’s obvious by now that he can be so baited, it’s unfortunately far from obvious whether this sort of thing hurts him.
  4. Hillary should hold debates against the libertarian candidate, Gary Johnson, thereby helping to shift conservative votes from Trump to Johnson, and also making an implicit statement that Johnson, not Trump, is her legitimate conservative opposition.  My response: this is maybe the most interesting idea I’ve heard (besides the obvious one, of the so-called “NeverTrump” Republicans bolting to start a new party—which, alas, it looks less and less likely that they’re going to do).

If you have additional ideas, feel free to share them in the comments!  As you work it out, here’s my promise to you.  Just like I dropped my research in 2000 to work on NaderTrading, so too over the next five months, I’ll do anything legal if I become convinced that it draws on my comparative advantage, and has a non-negligible probability of helping to ensure Hillary’s victory and Trump’s defeat.  Even if it involved, like, working with Amanda Marcotte or something.

Edging in: the biggest science news of 2015

Sunday, January 3rd, 2016

For years, I was forced to endure life with my nose up against the glass of the Annual Edge Question.  What are you optimistic about?  Ooh! ooh! Call on me!  I’m optimistic about someday being able to prove my pessimistic beliefs (like P≠NP).  How is the Internet changing the way you think?  Ooh, ooh! I know! Google and MathOverflow are saving me from having to think at all!  So then why are they only asking Steven Pinker, Freeman Dyson, Richard Dawkins, David Deutsch, some random other people like that?

But all that has changed.  This year, I was invited to participate in Edge for the first time.  So, OK, here’s the question:

What do you consider the most interesting recent [scientific] news?  What makes it important?

My response is here.  I wasn’t in love with the question, because of what I saw as an inherent ambiguity in it: the news that’s most interesting to me, that I have a comparative advantage in talking about, and that people probably want to hear me talk about (e.g., progress in quantum computing), is not necessarily what I’d regard as the most important in any objective sense (e.g., climate change).  So, I decided to write my answer precisely about my internal tension in what I should consider most interesting: should it be the recent progress by John Martinis and others toward building a quantum computer?  Or should it be the melting glaciers, or something else that I’m confident will affect the future of the world?  Or possibly the mainstream attention now being paid to the AI-risk movement?  But if I really want to nerd out, then why not Babai’s graph isomorphism algorithm?  Or if I actually want to be honest about what excited me, then why not the superquadratic separations between classical and quantum query complexities for a total Boolean function, by Ambainis et al. and my student Shalev Ben-David?  On the other hand, how can I justify even caring about such things while the glaciers are melting?

So, yeah, my response tries to meditate on all those things.  My original title was “How nerdy do you want it?,” but John Brockman of Edge had me change it to something blander (“How widely should we draw the circle?”), and made a bunch of other changes from my usual style.  Initially I chafed at having an editor for what basically amounted to a blog post; on the other hand, I’m sure I would’ve gotten in trouble much less often on this blog had I had someone to filter my words for me.

Anyway, of course I wasn’t the only person to write about the climate crisis.  Robert Trivers, Laurence Smith, and Milford Wolpoff all wrote about it as well (Trivers most chillingly and concisely), while Max Tegmark wrote about the mainstreaming of AI risk.  John Naughton even wrote about Babai’s graph isomorphism breakthrough (though he seems unaware that the existing GI algorithms were already extremely fast in practice, and therefore makes misleading claims about the new algorithm’s practical applications).  Unsurprisingly, no one else wrote about breakthroughs in quantum query complexity: you’ll need to go to my essay for that!  A bit more surprisingly, no one besides me wrote about progress in quantum computing at all (if we don’t count the loophole-free Bell test).

Anyway, on reflection, 2015 actually was a pretty awesome year for science, no matter how nerdy you want it or how widely you draw the circle.  Here are other advances that I easily could’ve written about but didn’t:

I’ve now read all (more or less) of this year’s Edge responses.  Even though some of the respondents pushed personal hobbyhorses like I’d feared, I was impressed by how easy it was to discern themes: advances that kept cropping up in one answer after another and that one might therefore guess are actually important (or at least, are currently perceived to be important).

Probably at the top of the list was a new gene-editing technique called CRISPR: Randolph Neese, Paul Dolan, Eric Topol, Mark Pagel, and Stuart Firestein among others all wrote about this, and about its implications for creating designer humans.

Also widely-discussed was the discovery that most psychology studies fail to replicate (I’d long assumed as much, but apparently this was big news in psychology!): Nicholas Humphrey, Stephen Kosslyn, Jonathan Schooler, Ellen Winner, Judith Rich Harris, and Philip Tetlock all wrote about that.

Then there was the Pluto flyby, which Juan Enriquez, Roger Highfield, and Nicholas Christakis all wrote about.  (As Christakis, Master of Silliman College at Yale, was so recently a victim of a social-justice mob, I found it moving how he simply ignored those baying for his head and turned his attention heavenward in his Edge answer.)

Then there was progress in deep learning, including Google’s Deep Dream (those images of dogs in nebulae that filled your Facebook wall) and DeepMind (the program that taught itself how to play dozens of classic video games).  Steve Omohundro, Andy Clark, Jamshed Bharucha, Kevin Kelly, David Dalrymple, and Alexander Wissner-Gross all wrote about different aspects of this story.

And recent progress in SETI, which Yuri Milner (who’s given $100 million for it) and Mario Livio wrote about.

Unsurprisingly, a bunch of high-energy physicists wrote about high-energy physics at the LHC: how the Higgs boson was found (still news?), how nothing other than the Higgs boson was found (the biggest news?), but how there’s now the slightest hint of a new particle at 750 GeV.  See Lee Smolin, Garrett Lisi, Sean Carroll, and Sarah Demers.

Finally, way out on the Pareto frontier of importance and disgustingness was the recently-discovered therapeutic value of transplanting one person’s poop into another person’s intestines, which Joichi Ito, Pamela Rosenkranz, and Alan Alda all wrote about (it also, predictably, featured in a recent South Park episode).

Without further ado, here are 27 other answers that struck me in one way or another:

  • Steven Pinker on happy happy things are getting better (and we can measure it)
  • Freeman Dyson on the Dragonfly astronomical observatory
  • Jonathan Haidt on how prejudice against people of differing political opinions was discovered to have surpassed racial, gender, and religious prejudice
  • S. Abbas Raza on Piketty’s r>g
  • Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, thoughtful as usual, on the recent study that said it’s too simple to say female participation is lower in STEM fields—rather, female participation is lower in all and only those fields, STEM or non-STEM, whose participants believe (rightly or wrongly) that “genius” is required rather than just conscientious effort
  • Bill Joy on recent advances on reducing CO2 emissions
  • Paul Steinhardt on recent observations saying that, not only were the previous “B-modes from inflation” just galactic dust, but there are no real B-modes to within the current detection limits, and this poses a problem for inflation (I hadn’t heard about this last part)
  • Aubrey de Grey on new antibiotics that are grown in the soil rather than in lab cultures
  • John Tooby on the evolutionary rationale for germline engineering
  • W. Tecumseh Fitch on the coming reality of the “Jurassic Park program” (bringing back extinct species through DNA splicing—though probably not dinosaurs, whose DNA is too degraded)
  • Keith Devlin on the new prospect of using massive datasets (from MOOCs, for example) to actually figure out how students learn
  • Richard Muller on how air pollution in China has become one of the world’s worst problems (imagine every child in Beijing being force-fed two packs of cigarettes per day)
  • Ara Norenzayan on the demographic trends in religious belief
  • James Croak on amazing advances in battery technology (which were news to me)
  • Buddhini Samarasinghe on (among other things) the power of aspirin to possibly prevent cancer
  • Todd Sacktor on a new treatment for Parkinson’s
  • Charles Seife on the imminent availability of data about pretty much everything in our lives
  • Susan Blackmore on “that dress” and what it revealed about the human visual system
  • Brian Keating on experiments that should soon tell us the neutrinos’ masses (again, I hadn’t heard about these)
  • Michael McCullough on something called “reproductive religiosity theory,” which posits that the central purpose of religions is to enforce social norms around mating and reproduction (for what it’s worth, I’d always regarded that as obvious; it’s even expounded in the last chapter of Quantum Computing Since Democritus)
  • Greg Cochran on the origin of Europeans
  • David Buss on the “mating crisis among educated women”
  • Ed Regis on how high-fat diets are better (except, isn’t this the principle behind Atkins, and isn’t this pretty old news by now?)
  • Melanie Swan on blockchain-based cryptography, such as Bitcoin (though it wasn’t entirely clear to me what point Swan was making about it)
  • Paul Davies on LIGO getting ready to detect its first gravitational waves
  • Samuel Arbesman on how weather prediction has gotten steadily better (rendering our culture’s jokes about the perpetually-wrong weatherman outdated, with hardly anyone noticing)
  • Alison Gopnik on how the ubiquity of touchscreen devices like the iPad means that toddlers can now master computers, and this is something genuinely new under the sun (I can testify from personal experience that she’s onto something)

Then there were three answers for which the “progress” being celebrated, seemed to me to be progress racing faster into WrongVille:

  • Frank Tipler on how one can conclude a priori that there must be a Big Crunch to our future (and hence, the arena for Tiplerian theology) in order to prevent the black hole information paradox from arising, all recent cosmological evidence to the contrary be damned.
  • Ross Anderson on an exciting conference whose participants aim to replace quantum mechanics with local realistic theories.  (Anderson, in particular, is totally wrong that you can get Bell inequality violation from “a combination of local action and global correlation,” unless the global correlation goes as far as a ‘t-Hooft-like superdeterministic conspiracy.)
  • Gordon Kane on how the big news is that the LHC should soon see superparticles.  (This would actually be fine except that Kane omits the crucial context, that he’s been predicting superparticles just around the corner again and again for the past twenty years and they’ve never shown up)

Finally, two responses by old friends that amused me.  The science-fiction writer Rudy Rucker just became aware of the discovery of the dark energy back in 1998, and considers that to be exciting scientific news (yes, Rudy, so it was!).  And Michael Vassar —the Kevin Bacon or Paul Erdös of the rationalist world, the guy who everyone‘s connected to somehow—writes something about a global breakdown of economic rationality, $20 bills on the sidewalk getting ignored, that I had trouble understanding (though the fault is probably mine).

97% environmentalist

Sunday, June 7th, 2015

I decided to add my name to a petition by, as of this writing, 81 MIT faculty, calling on MIT to divest its endowment from fossil fuel companies.  (My co-signatories include Noam Chomsky, so I guess there’s something we agree about!)  There’s also a wider petition signed by nearly 3500 MIT students, faculty, and staff, mirroring similar petitions all over the world.

When the organizers asked me for a brief statement about why I signed, I sent them the following:

Signing this petition wasn’t an obvious choice for me, since I’m sensitive to the charge that divestment petitions are just meaningless sanctimony, a way for activists to feel morally pure without either making serious sacrifices or engaging the real complexities of an issue.  In the end, though, that kind of meta-level judgment can’t absolve us of the need to consider each petition on its merits: if we think of a previous crisis for civilization (say, in the late 1930s), then it seems obvious that even symbolic divestment gestures were better than nothing.  What made up my mind was reading the arguments pro and con, and seeing that the organizers of this petition had a clear-eyed understanding of what they were trying to accomplish and why: they know that divestment can’t directly drive down oil companies’ stock prices, but it can powerfully signal to the world a scientific consensus that, if global catastrophe is to be averted, most of the known fossil-fuel reserves need to be left in the ground, and that current valuations of oil, gas, and coal companies fail to reflect that reality.

For some recent prognoses of the climate situation, see (for example) this or this from Vox.  My own sense is that the threat has been systematically understated even by environmentalists, because of the human impulse to shoehorn all news into a hopeful narrative (“but there’s still time!  if we just buy locally-grown produce, everything can be OK!”).  Logically, there’s an obvious tension between the statements:

(a) there was already an urgent need to act decades ago, and

(b) having failed to act then, we can still feasibly avert a disaster now.

And indeed, (b) appears false to me.  We’re probably well into the era where, regardless of what we do or don’t do, some of us will live to see a climate dramatically different from the one in which human civilization developed for the past 10,000 years, at least as different as the last Ice Ages were.

And yet that fact still doesn’t relieve us of moral responsibility.  We can buy more time to prepare, hoping for technological advances in the interim; we can try to bend the curve of CO2 concentration away from the worst futures and toward the merely terrible ones.  Alas, even those steps will require political will that’s unprecedented outside of major wars.  For the capitalist free market (which I’m a big fan of) to work its magic, actual costs first need to get reflected in prices—which probably means massively taxing fossil fuels, to the point where it’s generally cheaper to leave them in the ground and switch to alternatives.  (Lest anyone call me a doctrinaire treehugger, I also support way less regulation of the nuclear industry, to drive down the cost of building the hundreds of new nuclear plants that we’ll probably need.)

These realities have a counterintuitive practical implication that I wish both sides understood better.  Namely, if you share my desperation and terror about this crisis, the urgent desire to do something, then limiting your personal carbon footprint should be very far from your main concern.  Like, it’s great if you can bike to work, and you should keep it up (fresh air and exercise and all).  But I’d say the anti-environmentalists are right that such voluntary steps are luxuries of the privileged, and will accordingly never add up to a hill of beans.  Let me go further: even to conceptualize this problem in terms of personal virtue and blame seems to me like a tragic mistake, one on which the environmentalists and their opponents colluded.  Given the choice, I’d much rather that the readers of this blog flew to all the faraway conferences they wanted, drove gas-guzzling minivans, ate steaks every night, and had ten kids, but then also took some steps that made serious political action to leave most remaining fossil fuels in the ground even ε more likely, ε closer to the middle of our Overton window.  I signed the MIT divestment petition because it seemed to me like such a step, admittedly with an emphasis on the ε.

The End of Suffering?

Monday, June 1st, 2015

A computer science undergrad who reads this blog recently emailed me about an anxiety he’s been feeling connected to the Singularity—not that it will destroy all human life, but rather that it will make life suffering-free and therefore no longer worth living (more Brave New World than Terminator, one might say).

As he puts it:

This probably sounds silly, but I’ve been existentially troubled by certain science fiction predictions for about a year or two, most of them coming from the Ray Kurzweil/Singularity Institute types … What really bothers me is the idea of the “abolition of suffering” as some put it. I just don’t see the point. Getting rid of cancer, premature death, etc., that all sounds great. But death itself? All suffering? At what point do we just sit down and ask ourselves, why not put our brains in a jar, and just activate our pleasure receptors for all eternity? That seems to be the logical conclusion of that line of thinking. If we want to reduce the conscious feeling of pleasure to the release of dopamine in the brain, well, why not?

I guess what I think I’m worried about is having to make the choice to become a cyborg, or to upload my mind to a computer, to live forever, or to never suffer again. I don’t know how I’d answer, given the choice. I enjoy being human, and that includes my suffering. I really don’t want to live forever. I see that as a hedonic treadmill more than anything else. Crazy bioethicists like David Pearce, who want to genetically re-engineer all species on planet Earth to be herbivores, and literally abolish all suffering, just add fuel to my anxiety.

… Do you think we’re any closer to what Kurzweil (or Pearce) predicted (and by that I mean, will we see it in our lifetimes)? I want to stop worrying about these things, but something is preventing me from doing so. Thoughts about the far flung (or near) future are just intrusive for me. And it seems like everywhere I go I’m reminded of my impending fate. Ernst Jünger would encourage me to take up an attitude of amor fati, but I can’t see myself doing that. My father says I’m too young to worry about these things, and that the answer will be clear when I’ve actually lived my life. But I just don’t know. I want to stop caring, more than anything else. It’s gotten to a point where the thoughts keep me up at night.

I don’t know how many readers might have had similar anxieties, but in any case, I thought my reply might be of some interest to others, so with the questioner’s kind permission, I’m reproducing it below.

1. An end to suffering removing the meaning from life? As my grandmother might say, “we should only have such problems”! I believe, alas, that suffering will always be with us, even after a hypothetical technological singularity, because of basic Malthusian logic. I.e., no matter how many resources there are, population will expand exponentially to exploit them and make the resources scarce again, thereby causing fighting, deprivation, and suffering. What’s terrifying about Malthus’s logic is how fully general it is: it applies equally to tenure-track faculty positions, to any extraterrestrial life that might exist in our universe or in any other bounded universe, and to the distant post-Singularity future.

But if, by some miracle, we were able to overcome Malthus and eliminate all suffering, my own inclination would be to say “go for it”! I can easily imagine a life that was well worth living—filled with beauty, humor, play, love, sex, and mathematical and scientific discovery—even though it was devoid of any serious suffering. (We could debate whether the “ideal life” would include occasional setbacks, frustrations, etc., even while agreeing that at any rate, it should certainly be devoid of cancer, poverty, bullying, suicidal depression, and one’s Internet connection going down.)

2. If you want to worry about something, then rather than an end to suffering, I might humbly suggest worrying about a large increase in human suffering within our lifetimes. A few possible culprits: climate change, resurgent religious fundamentalism, large parts of the world running out of fresh water.

3. It’s fun to think about these questions from time to time, to use them to hone our moral intuitions—and I even agree with Scott Alexander that it’s worthwhile to have a small number of smart people think about them full-time for a living.  But I should tell you that, as I wrote in my post The Singularity Is Far, I don’t expect a Singularity in my lifetime or my grandchildrens’ lifetimes. Yes, technically, if there’s ever going to be a Singularity, then we’re 10 years closer to it now than we were 10 years ago, but it could still be one hell of a long way away! And yes, I expect that technology will continue to change in my lifetime in amazing ways—not as much as it changed in my grandparents’ lifetimes, probably, but still by a lot—but how to put this? I’m willing to bet any amount of money that when I die, people’s shit will still stink.

Kuperberg’s parable

Sunday, November 23rd, 2014

Recently, longtime friend-of-the-blog Greg Kuperberg wrote a Facebook post that, with Greg’s kind permission, I’m sharing here.

A parable about pseudo-skepticism in response to climate science, and science in general.

Doctor: You ought to stop smoking, among other reasons because smoking causes lung cancer.
Patient: Are you sure? I like to smoke. It also creates jobs.
D: Yes, the science is settled.
P: All right, if the science is settled, can you tell me when I will get lung cancer if I continue to smoke?
D: No, of course not, it’s not that precise.
P: Okay, how many cigarettes can I safely smoke?
D: I can’t tell you that, although I wouldn’t recommend smoking at all.
P: Do you know that I will get lung cancer at all no matter how much I smoke?
D: No, it’s a statistical risk. But smoking also causes heart disease.
P: I certainly know smokers with heart disease, but I also know non-smokers with heart disease. Even if I do get heart disease, would you really know that it’s because I smoke?
D: No, not necessarily; it’s a statistical effect.
P: If it’s statistical, then you do know that correlation is not causation, right?
D: Yes, but you can also see the direct effect of smoking on lungs of smokers in autopsies.
P: Some of whom lived a long time, you already admitted.
D: Yes, but there is a lot of research to back this up.
P: Look, I’m not a research scientist, I’m interested in my case. You have an extended medical record for me with X-rays, CAT scans, blood tests, you name it. You can gather more data about me if you like. Yet you’re hedging everything you have to say.
D: Of course, there’s always more to learn about the human body. But it’s a settled recommendation that smoking is bad for you.
P: It sounds like the science is anything but settled. I’m not interested in hypothetical recommendations. Why don’t you get back to me when you actually know what you’re talking about. In the meantime, I will continue to smoke, because as I said, I enjoy it. And by the way, since you’re so concerned about my health, I believe in healthy skepticism.

Interstellar’s dangling wormholes

Monday, November 10th, 2014

Update (Nov. 15): A third of my confusions addressed by reading Kip Thorne’s book! Details at the bottom of this post.

On Saturday Dana and I saw Interstellar, the sci-fi blockbuster co-produced by the famous theoretical physicist Kip Thorne (who told me about his work on this movie when I met him eight years ago).  We had the rare privilege of seeing the movie on the same day that we got to hang out with a real astronaut, Dan Barry, who flew three shuttle missions and did four spacewalks in the 1990s.  (As the end result of a project that Dan’s roboticist daughter, Jenny Barry, did for my graduate course on quantum complexity theory, I’m now the coauthor with both Barrys on a paper in Physical Review A, about uncomputability in quantum partially-observable Markov decision processes.)

Before talking about the movie, let me say a little about the astronaut.  Besides being an inspirational example of someone who’s achieved more dreams in life than most of us—seeing the curvature of the earth while floating in orbit around it, appearing on Survivor, and publishing a Phys. Rev. A paper—Dan is also a passionate advocate of humanity’s colonizing other worlds.  When I asked him whether there was any future for humans in space, he answered firmly that the only future for humans was in space, and then proceeded to tell me about the technical viability of getting humans to Mars with limited radiation exposure, the abundant water there, the romantic appeal that would inspire people to sign up for the one-way trip, and the extinction risk for any species confined to a single planet.  Hearing all this from someone who’d actually been to space gave Interstellar, with its theme of humans needing to leave Earth to survive (and its subsidiary theme of the death of NASA’s manned space program meaning the death of humanity), a special vividness for me.  Granted, I remain skeptical about several points: the feasibility of a human colony on Mars in the foreseeable future (a self-sufficient human colony on Antarctica, or under the ocean, strike me as plenty hard enough for the next few centuries); whether a space colony, even if feasible, cracks the list of the top twenty things we ought to be doing to mitigate the risk of human extinction; and whether there’s anything more to be learned, at this point in history, by sending humans to space that couldn’t be learned a hundred times more cheaply by sending robots.  On the other hand, if there is a case for continuing to send humans to space, then I’d say it’s certainly the case that Dan Barry makes.

OK, but enough about the real-life space traveler: what did I think about the movie?  Interstellar is a work of staggering ambition, grappling with some of the grandest themes of which sci-fi is capable: the deterioration of the earth’s climate; the future of life in the universe; the emotional consequences of extreme relativistic time dilation; whether “our” survival would be ensured by hatching human embryos in a faraway world, while sacrificing almost all the humans currently alive; to what extent humans can place the good of the species above family and self; the malleability of space and time; the paradoxes of time travel.  It’s also an imperfect movie, one with many “dangling wormholes” and unbalanced parentheses that are still generating compile-time errors in my brain.  And it’s full of stilted dialogue that made me giggle—particularly when the characters discussed jumping into a black hole to retrieve its “quantum data.”  Also, despite Kip Thorne’s involvement, I didn’t find the movie’s science spectacularly plausible or coherent (more about that below).  On the other hand, if you just wanted a movie that scrupulously obeyed the laws of physics, rather than intelligently probing their implications and limits, you could watch any romantic comedy.  So sure, Interstellar might make you cringe, but if you like science fiction at all, then it will also make you ponder, stare awestruck, and argue with friends for days afterward—and enough of the latter to make it more than worth your while.  Just one tip: if you’re prone to headaches, do not sit near the front of the theater, especially if you’re seeing it in IMAX.

For other science bloggers’ takes, see John Preskill (who was at a meeting with Steven Spielberg to brainstorm the movie in 2006), Sean Carroll, Clifford Johnson, and Peter Woit.

In the rest of this post, I’m going to list the questions about Interstellar that I still don’t understand the answers to (yes, the ones still not answered by the Interstellar FAQ).  No doubt some of these are answered by Thorne’s book The Science of Interstellar, which I’ve ordered (it hasn’t arrived yet), but since my confusions are more about plot than science, I’m guessing that others are not.

SPOILER ALERT: My questions give away basically the entire plot—so if you’re planning to see the movie, please don’t read any further.  After you’ve seen it, though, come back and see if you can help with any of my questions.

1. What’s causing the blight, and the poisoning of the earth’s atmosphere?  The movie is never clear about this.  Is it a freak occurrence, or is it human-caused climate change?  If the latter, then wouldn’t it be worth some effort to try to reverse the damage and salvage the earth, rather than escaping through a wormhole to another galaxy?

2. What’s with the drone?  Who sent it?  Why are Cooper and Murph able to control it with their laptop?  Most important of all, what does it have to do with the rest of the movie?

3. If NASA wanted Cooper that badly—if he was the best pilot they’d ever had and NASA knew it—then why couldn’t they just call him up?  Why did they have to wait for beings from the fifth dimension to send a coded message to his daughter revealing their coordinates?  Once he did show up, did they just kind of decide opportunistically that it would be a good idea to recruit him?

4. What was with Cooper’s crash in his previous NASA career?  If he was their best pilot, how and why did the crash happen?  If this was such a defining, traumatic incident in his life, why is it never brought up for the rest of the movie?

5. How is NASA funded in this dystopian future?  If official ideology holds that the Apollo missions were faked, and that growing crops is the only thing that matters, then why have the craven politicians been secretly funneling what must be trillions of dollars to a shadow-NASA, over a period of fifty years?

6. Why couldn’t NASA have reconnoitered the planets using robots—especially since this is a future where very impressive robots exist?  Yes, yes, I know, Matt Damon explains in the movie that humans remain more versatile than robots, because of their “survival instinct.”  But the crew arrives at the planets missing extremely basic information about them, like whether they’re inhospitable to human life because of freezing temperatures or mile-high tidal waves.  This is information that robotic probes, even of the sort we have today, could have easily provided.

7. Why are the people who scouted out the 12 planets so limited in the data they can send back?  If they can send anything, then why not data that would make Cooper’s mission completely redundant (excepting, of course, the case of the lying Dr. Mann)?  Does the wormhole limit their transmissions to 1 bit per decade or something?

8. Rather than wasting precious decades waiting for Cooper’s mission to return, while (presumably) billions of people die of starvation on a fading earth, wouldn’t it make more sense for NASA to start colonizing the planets now?  They could simply start trial colonies on all the planets, even if they think most of the colonies will fail.  Yes, this plan involves sacrificing individuals for the greater good of humanity, but NASA is already doing that anyway, with its slower, riskier, stupider reconnaissance plan.  The point becomes even stronger when we remember that, in Professor Brand’s mind, the only feasible plan is “Plan B” (the one involving the frozen human embryos).  Frozen embryos are (relatively) cheap: why not just spray them all over the place?  And why wait for “Plan A” to fail before starting that?

9. The movie involves a planet, Miller, that’s so close to the black hole Gargantua, that every hour spent there corresponds to seven years on earth.  There was an amusing exchange on Slate, where Phil Plait made the commonsense point that a planet that deep in a black hole’s gravity well would presumably get ripped apart by tidal forces.  Plait later had to issue an apology, since, in conceiving this movie, Kip Thorne had made sure that Gargantua was a rapidly rotating black hole—and it turns out that the physics of rotating black holes are sufficiently different from those of non-rotating ones to allow such a planet in principle.  Alas, this clever explanation still leaves me unsatisfied.  Physicists, please help: even if such a planet existed, wouldn’t safely landing a spacecraft on it, and getting it out again, require a staggering amount of energy—well beyond what the humans shown in the movie can produce?  (If they could produce that much acceleration and deceleration, then why couldn’t they have traveled from Earth to Saturn in days rather than years?)  If one could land on Miller and then get off of it using the relatively conventional spacecraft shown in the movie, then the amusing thought suggests itself that one could get factor-of-60,000 computational speedups, “free of charge,” by simply leaving one’s computer in space while one spent some time on the planet.  (And indeed, something like that happens in the movie: after Cooper and Anne Hathaway return from Miller, Romilly—the character who stayed behind—has had 23 years to think about physics.)

10. Why does Cooper decide to go into the black hole?  Surely he could jettison enough weight to escape the black hole’s gravity by sending his capsule into the hole, while he himself shared Anne Hathaway’s capsule?

11. Speaking of which, does Cooper go into the black hole?  I.e., is the “tesseract” something he encounters before or after he crosses the event horizon?  (Or maybe it should be thought of as at the event horizon—like a friendlier version of the AMPS firewall?)

12. Why is Cooper able to send messages back in time—but only by jostling books around, moving the hands of a watch, and creating patterns of dust in one particular room of one particular house?  (Does this have something to do with love and gravity being the only two forces in the universe that transcend space and time?)

13. Why does Cooper desperately send the message “STAY” to his former self?  By this point in the movie, isn’t it clear that staying on Earth means the death of all humans, including Murph?  If Cooper thought that a message could get through at all, then why not a message like: “go, and go directly to Edmunds’ planet, since that’s the best one”?  Also, given that Cooper now exists outside of time, why does he feel such desperate urgency?  Doesn’t he get, like, infinitely many chances?

14. Why is Cooper only able to send “quantum data” that saves the world to the older Murph—the one who lives when (presumably) billions of people are already dying of starvation?  Why can’t he send the “quantum data” back to the 10-year-old Murph, for example?  Even if she can’t yet understand it, surely she could hand it over to Professor Brand.  And even if this plan would be unlikely to succeed: again, Cooper now exists outside of time.  So can’t he just keep going back to the 10-year-old Murph, rattling those books over and over until the message gets through?

15. What exactly is the “quantum data” needed for, anyway?  I gather it has something to do with building a propulsion system that can get the entire human population out of the earth’s gravity well at a reasonable cost?  (Incidentally, what about all the animals?  If the writers of the Old Testament noticed that issue, surely the writers of Interstellar could.)

16. How does Cooper ever make it out of the black hole?  (Maybe it was explained and I missed it: once he entered the black hole, things got extremely confusing.)  Do the fifth-dimensional beings create a new copy of Cooper outside the black hole?  Do they postselect on a branch of the wavefunction where he never entered the black hole in the first place?  Does Murph use the “quantum data” to get him out?

17. At his tearful reunion with the elderly Murph, why is Cooper totally uninterested in meeting his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, who are in the same room?  And why are they uninterested in meeting him?  I mean, seeing Murph again has been Cooper’s overriding motivation during his journey across the universe, and has repeatedly been weighed against the survival of the entire human race, including Murph herself.  But seeing Murph’s kids—his grandkids—isn’t even worth five minutes?

18. Speaking of which, when did Murph ever find time to get married and have kids?  Since she’s such a major character, why don’t we learn anything about this?

19. Also, why is Murph an old woman by the time Cooper gets back?  Yes, Cooper lost a few decades because of the time dilation on Miller’s planet.  I guess he lost the additional decades while entering and leaving Gargantua?  If the five-dimensional beings were able to use their time-travel / causality-warping powers to get Cooper out of the black hole, couldn’t they have re-synced his clock with Murph’s while they were at it?

20. Why does Cooper need to steal a spaceship to get to Anne Hathaway’s planet?  Isn’t Murph, like, the one in charge?  Can’t she order that a spaceship be provided for Cooper?

21. Astute readers will note that I haven’t yet said anything about the movie’s central paradox, the one that dwarfs all the others.  Namely, if humans were going to go extinct without a “wormhole assist” from the humans of the far future, then how were there any humans in the far future to provide the wormhole assist?  And conversely, if the humans of the far future find themselves already existing, then why do they go to the trouble to put the wormhole in their past (which now seems superfluous, except maybe for tidying up the story of their own origins)?  The reason I didn’t ask about this is that I realize it’s supposed to be paradoxical; we’re supposed to feel vertigo thinking about it.  (And also, it’s not entirely unrelated to how PSPACE-complete problems get solved with polynomial resources, in my and John Watrous’s paper on computation with closed timelike curves.)  My problem is a different one: if the fifth-dimensional, far-future humans have the power to mold their own past to make sure everything turned out OK, then what they actually do seems pathetic compared to what they could do.  For example, why don’t they send a coded message to the 21st-century humans (similar to the coded messages that Cooper sends to Murph), telling them how to avoid the blight that destroys their crops?  Or just telling them that Edmunds’ planet is the right one to colonize?  Like the God of theodicy arguments, do the future humans want to use their superpowers only to give us a little boost here and there, while still leaving us a character-forming struggle?  Even if this reticence means that billions of innocent people—ones who had nothing to do with the character-forming struggle—will die horrible deaths?  If so, then I don’t understand these supposedly transcendently-evolved humans any better than I understand the theodical God.

Anyway, rather than ending on that note of cosmic pessimism, I guess I could rejoice that we’re living through what must be the single biggest month in the history of nerd cinema—what with a sci-fi film co-produced by a great theoretical physicist, a Stephen Hawking biopic, and the Alan Turing movie coming out in a few weeks.  I haven’t yet seen the latter two.  But it looks like the time might be ripe to pitch my own decades-old film ideas, like “Radical: The Story of Évariste Galois.”

Update (Nov. 15): I just finished reading Kip Thorne’s interesting book The Science of Interstellar.  I’d say that it addresses (doesn’t always clear up, but at least addresses) 7 of my 21 confusions: 1, 4, 9, 10, 11, 15, and 19.  Briefly:

1. Thorne correctly notes that the movie is vague about what’s causing the blight and the change to the earth’s atmosphere, but he discusses a bunch of possibilities, which are more in the “freak disaster” than the “manmade” category.

4. Cooper’s crash was supposed to have been caused by a gravitational anomaly, as the bulk beings of the far future were figuring out how to communicate with 21st-century humans.  It was another foreshadowing of those bulk beings.

9. Thorne notices the problem of the astronomical amount of energy needed to safely land on Miller’s planet and then get off of it—given that this planet is deep inside the gravity well of the black hole Gargantua, and orbiting Gargantua at a large fraction of the speed of light.  Thorne offers a solution that can only be called creative: namely, while nothing about this was said in the movie (since Christopher Nolan thought it would confuse people), it turns out that the crew accelerated to relativistic speed and then decelerated using a gravitational slingshot around a second, intermediate-mass black hole, which just happened to be in the vicinity of Gargantua at precisely the right times for this.  Thorne again appeals to slingshots around unmentioned but strategically-placed intermediate-mass black holes several more times in the book, to explain other implausible accelerations and decelerations that I hadn’t even noticed.

10. Thorne acknowledges that Cooper didn’t really need to jump into Gargantua in order to jettison the mass of his body (which is trivial compared to the mass of the spacecraft).  Cooper’s real reason for jumping, he says, was the desperate hope that he could somehow find the quantum data there needed to save the humans on Earth, and then somehow get it out of the black hole and back to the humans.  (This being a movie, it of course turns out that Cooper was right.)

11. Yes, Cooper encounters the tesseract while inside the black hole.  Indeed, he hits it while flying into a singularity that’s behind the event horizon, but that isn’t the black hole’s “main” singularity—it’s a different, milder singularity.

15. While this wasn’t made clear in the movie, the purpose of the quantum data was indeed to learn how to manipulate the gravitational anomalies in order to decrease Newton’s constant G in the vicinity of the earth—destroying the earth but also allowing all the humans to escape its gravity with the rocket fuel that’s available.  (Again, nothing said about the poor animals.)

19. Yes, Cooper lost the additional decades while entering Gargantua.  (Furthermore, while Thorne doesn’t discuss this, I guess he must have lost them only when he was still with Anne Hathaway, not after he separates from her.  For otherwise, Anne Hathaway would also be an old woman by the time Cooper reaches her on Edmunds’ planet, contrary to what’s shown in the movie.)