## Archive for January, 2009

### Stayin’ alive

Thursday, January 29th, 2009

Within the last week and a half, I saw two movies that rank among the best I’ve ever seen: Slumdog Millionaire and DefianceSlumdog, as you probably know by now, is about an orphan from Mumbai who, in the process of fleeing starvation, murder, and the gouging out of his eyes, picks up enough trivia to go on the Indian version of “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire” and answer almost every question correctly.  (It’s about 100 times better than the premise makes it sound.)  Defiance tells the true story of the Bielski brothers in Belorussia (where most of my family is from), who fled to the forest when the Jews were rounded up in December 1941, and eventually organized the largest Jewish resistance operation of the war.

On thinking it over, I was surprised to realize I liked these two seemingly-unrelated movies for the same reasons.  Let me try to break down what made them good:

• Both draw their emotional punch from reality.  Almost everything in Defiance happened.  Slumdog, while fictional, is (amazingly) the first Western blockbuster I can think of about modern India—a place where 21st-century communication, entertainment, and industry coexist with 16th-century squalor, and everyone acts as if that’s normal.  (If you haven’t been there, the anarchic street scenes might strike you as obviously exaggerated for effect.  They aren’t.)
• Both tell wildly-improbable tales of bare physical survival.  Survival stories aren’t just the best for keeping you in your seat: they also provide a useful reminder that your beliefs about politics and human nature might be badly distorted by the contingent facts that you have enough to eat and that armed thugs aren’t trying to kill you.  (I tried to think of a phrase to summarize my political philosophy, and came up with “liberal pessimist pragmatist rationalist of an unsentimental kind.”  Slumdog and Defiance both explain this concept better than I could.)
• Even as they starve, sleep in the rain, and flee their would-be killers, the protagonists in both movies pursue goals beyond just staying alive—which is what lets us identify with them so strongly.  Jamal Malik appears on a game show to win the beautiful Latika.  Tuvia Bielski risks his life to exact revenge on the police officer who killed his parents.  Days after losing their families to the Nazis, the young women who arrive at the Bielski settlement are weighing which of the men to offer themselves to as “forest wives.”
• Both movies use visuals in the service of a story rather than vice versa.  When Spielberg filmed Schindler’s List in black and white (save for the famous girl in red), reviewers were full of praise: what a profound artistic statement he must’ve been making!  The result, though, was that people saw the Holocaust the same way they’d seen it everywhere else: as something from some remote, incomprehensible black-and-white past.  But Defiance, like The Pianist, denies you the luxury of a visual remove—as if to say, “this is how it was.  It’s part of the same universe you live in right now.  It’s not even particularly incomprehensible, if you choose to comprehend it.”
• Both movies indulge the audience in what it already knows about the respective cultures.  Slumdog features hilarious scenes at the Taj Mahal and a call center, and ends with a tongue-in-cheek Bollywood dance number.  Defiance portrays the “malbushim” (the Bielskis’ derisive term for intellectuals) arguing and quoting Talmud as they starve in the woods.  It’s as if, instead of telling you that the stereotypes you came in with are false, these movies say “and so what if they’re true?”
• Both movies have been criticized as “simplistic”—a word that seems to mean “too clear or comprehensible for polite company,” and that I’ve found to be an almost-perfect marker for things that I’m going to like or agree with.  Even as the plots add on layers of complexity—sibling rivalries, uneasy alliances, unconsummated love—the dialogue is always straightforward enough that even a borderline Aspberger’s case like myself could follow what was going on without difficulty.

### At least there’s fresh running water and a Start button

Wednesday, January 21st, 2009

In response to my (justified) kvetching about Vista in my last post, a commenter named Matt wrote in:

I hear there’s some free operating system written by a guy from Finland. Sounds pretty crazy to me, but I hear you can just download it for free. Maybe you could have used that if you didn’t like Vista?

Yes, I’ve heard of the OS by the guy from Finland, and even tried it. On introspection, though, my feelings about Windows are pretty much identical to my feelings about America: sure, it’s big and bloated and crass and flawed and overcommercialized and buggy and insecure, and at least 95% of the insults that the sophisticates hurl at it are true. And other countries and OSes have a great deal to be said for them, and indeed I do spend much of my time visiting them. But this is home, dammit, it’s where I was brought up, and things would have to get a lot worse before I’d consider moving away for good.

All I need, then, is the Windows analogue of Obama. Would that be the Windows 7 beta? (Vista, of course, being the Windows analogue of Bush?)

### Perspective

Tuesday, January 20th, 2009

I’ve been suffering from terrible bronchitis for two weeks.  I can barely talk.  I had to cancel a planned colloquium.  I’m not even gonna try to describe what I’ve been coughing up.  The doctor couldn’t figure out if it was viral or bacterial, but gave me antibiotics anyway.

My laptop broke, the day before I had to give my time travel talk at QIP’2009 in Santa Fe (if you want to know what actually happened at the conference, see Dave’s blog or ask in the comments section).  First the fan started acting up—causing the machine to overheat and shut itself off whenever the computations got too complex; then the ‘G’ and ‘H’ keys became unreliable; and finally the hard disk went, taking much of my data along with it (though I recovered the most important stuff).  So I ran out and bought a new Toshiba laptop, which of course came preinstalled with Vista, which is not just said by everyone to suck but truly does suck.   (Though if you spend a day disabling all the new features, you can make it almost like XP.)

On the flight back to Boston from Santa Fe, the pressure drop during the descent, combined with my bronchitis, sent my ears into pain for days.

The shitty economy is no longer just an abstraction, as friends and close family members have lost their jobs.  I, the starving quantum complexity theorist, now feel like one of the last people I know with an income.  (Though MIT, like other universities, has lost much of its endowment and now faces serious hardships as well.)

But it’s all OK, because the competent guy is president now—even if he flubbed his Oath of Office (update: it seems most of the fault lies with Roberts (another update: Steven Pinker theorizes that the problem was Roberts’s reluctance to split an infinitive)).  He’s gonna fix everything.  Just give him a day or two.

Happy Barackday, everyone!

### The T vs. HT (Truth vs. Higher Truth) problem

Friday, January 9th, 2009

From a predictably-interesting article by Freeman Dyson in Notices of the AMS (hat tip to Peter Woit):

The mathematicians discovered the central mystery of computability, the conjecture represented by the statement P is not equal to NP. The conjecture asserts that there exist mathematical problems which can be quickly solved in individual cases but cannot be solved by a quick algorithm applicable to all cases. The most famous example of such a problem is the traveling salesman problem, which is to find the shortest route for a salesman visiting a set of cities, knowing the distance between each pair. All the experts believe that the conjecture is true, and that the traveling salesman problem is an example of a problem that is P but not NP. But nobody has even a glimmer of an idea how to prove it. This is a mystery that could not even have been formulated within the nineteenth-century mathematical universe of Hermann Weyl.

At a literal level, the above passage contains several howlers (I’ll leave it to commenters to point them out), but at a “deeper” “poetic” level, Dyson happens to be absolutely right: P versus NP is the example par excellence of a mathematical mystery that human beings lacked the language even to express until very recently in our history.

Speaking of P versus NP, I’m currently visiting Sasha Razborov at his new home, the University of Chicago.  (Yesterday we had lunch at “Barack’s favorite pizza place”, and walked past “Barack’s favorite bookstore.”  Were they really his favorites?  At a deeper poetic level, sure.)

One of the highlights of my trip was meeting Ketan Mulmuley for the first time, and talking with him about his geometric approach to the P vs. NP problem.  Ketan comes across in person as an almost mythological figure, like a man who flew too close to the sun and was driven nearly to ecstatic obsession by what he saw.  This is someone who’ll explain to anyone in earshot, for as long as he or she cares to listen, that he’s glimpsed the outlines of a solution of the P vs. NP problem in the far frontiers of mathematics, and it is beautiful, and it is elegant—someone who leaps from Ramanujan graphs to quantum groups to the Riemann Hypothesis over finite fields to circuit lower bounds in the space of a single sentence, as his hapless listener struggles to hold on by a fingernail—someone whose ideas seem to remain obstinately in limbo between incoherence and profundity, making just enough sense that you keep listening to them.

Now, I get emails every few months from people claiming to have proved P≠NP (not even counting the P=NP claimants).  Without exception, they turn out to be hunting polar bears in the Sahara: they don’t even grapple with natural proofs, or relativization, or algebrization, or the lower bounds/derandomization connection, or any the other stuff we know already about why the problem is hard.  Ketan, by contrast, might be searching for polar bears with a kaleidoscope and trying to hunt them with a feather, but he’s in the Arctic all right.  I have no idea whether his program will succeed within my lifetime at uncovering any of the truth about the P vs. NP problem, but it at least clears the lower hurdle of reflecting some of the higher truth.