Halloween Special: My Inbox

Most Respected Profeser Sir Dr. Scot Andersen: I wish to join your esteemed research group. I have taken two courses in Signal Processing at the Technical College of Freedonia; thus, it is clear that I would be a perfect fit for your laboratory at MIT. Please respond immediately with a specific date for the commencement of my studies.

Scott, did you hear the news yet?? There's a link on Slashdot about how to solve NP-complete problems in linear time using Peanut M&M's! There's also an interview with Dr. Doofus McRoofus in New Scientist, where he says quantum computing proves the reality of time travel! Plus, a mathematician at the University of Trivialshire has apparently announced a new number system where you can take not only square roots, but also the square roots of square roots! What do you think about all these developments? Please blog your reaction ASAP!

Dr. Aaronson, while your writings are of some interest, you have nevertheless a great deal to learn from my more refined insight and sagacity. In particular, your references to the so-called "theory of evolution" are surprisingly naïve and simplistic. You seem wholly unaware of the profound conundrum of how a system with a low degree of order can obtain progressively higher degrees of order, in direct contradistinction to the Second Law of Thermodynamics... [17 pages omitted] Please let me know when you will be available to enter into a sustained dialogue about the flawed presuppositions underlying empirical positivism.

Hello, I am interested in leaning about computer science !! Please give me some links to get started.

Brief responses here. Back in the day, I prided myself on answering emails individually, and vowed I’d never become the sort of academic who puts an FAQ on his home page and tells people to read it before emailing him. And I kept that vow — three whole months into starting a faculty job.

16 Responses to “Halloween Special: My Inbox”

  1. Job Says:

    Everyone, if you can find an algorithm for solving NP-Complete problems in linear (or polynomial) time you can count on me to encode the algorithm with peanut M&Ms using as basic operations “the eating of M&Ms” and the like, and publish it in a paper.

  2. Mark Says:

    What, no FAQ entry on biting vaginas?

  3. Scott Says:

    Mark: I haven’t gotten many questions on that, no doubt because my views on the topic have long been a matter of public record.

  4. nic Says:

    I am now in the process of printing “University of Trivialshire” merchandise…

  5. Jonathan Vos Post Says:

    Better to be at the University of Trivialshire than the University of Travailshire.

    The first doofus may be merely unworldly, or may be turning into a campus-stalker, showing up at your talks, sleeping in the departmental library, and muttering to himself and passersby.

    The second doofus is just silly. M&Ms are not square. Although some chocolate bars approximate the Golden Rectangle.

    The third doofus is an instantiation of entropy in action. Are we not men? We are Evo-Devo.

    Boy, there were some weird and good questions at the 2-hour debate I did yesterday (24 Oct 2007) at Cal State L.A. with noted militant Atheist Dan Barker, on axiomatic proofs and disproofs of the existence of God. Godel’s restatement of the Ontological Proof. Phlogiston versus Dark Energy in inflationary models and the multiverse. Good thing someone recorded the audio (albeit badly) on a cameraphone, so that Barker and I have a chance to eventually edit and footnote a transcript into something weirdly publishable, put it in our web domains at FAQs, and go on the road for geekish debates between atheism and agnosticism in a Humanist and logical positivist context. I did SO enjoyed quoting Euler to Diderot before the Empress of Russia:

    “Monsieur, (a^n+b^n)/n = x, therefore God exists!”

  6. Bart Says:

    Actually, an interesting question/answer pair could be a followup of the last question:
    Q: What does one do when google (or the acm search engine) fails to find the fulltext version of papers that might or might not be interesting to your current interests or research in computer science?
    A: ?

    I mainly ask because I’ve experienced it myself a couple of times before: some article I’m reading references some ancient FOCS or STOC as relevant reading material, which google cannot find, and ACM claims not to have fulltext either. Another time, the university library’s website helpfully told me its paper version of a journal had been ‘lost’.

    I realize I could’ve just mailed the authors of the papers, but I always feel somewhat reluctant to do this every time I find an interesting sounding reference. It’s not only the problem of tracking down the author (maybe the author died in the meantime, or he doesn’t have a publicly released e-mail address), but also the question of after how long a wait I’d receive a reply (if at all, I can easily imagine a lot of people not having time to answer each mail they get).

  7. anonymous Says:

    Bart: Interlibrary loan.

  8. Anonymous Says:

    Scott, do I detect just the slightest hint of elitism in the choice of the phrase “University of Trivialshire” to paint a picture of the mathematician?

  9. Bram Cohen Says:

    You might want to know that there really is a university of fredonia.

  10. Greg Egan Says:

    Scott, speaking of New Scientist, a while back you said that you were writing an article for them on the major developments in theoretical computing science of the last 30 years. Is that still in the pipeline?

    Their latest issue informs us that Dr McDoofus has discovered a quantum-mechanical model of consciousness!

    Anonymous (#8): don’t you think “Trivialshire” might have more to do with the trivial result than the trivial amount of ivy on the walls?

  11. Scott Says:

    do I detect just the slightest hint of elitism in the choice of the phrase “University of Trivialshire” to paint a picture of the mathematician?

    Sounds like you do!

  12. Scott Says:

    Greg: It’s a-comin’! (My procrastination habit, while always severe, reaches Slackenernian heights when I try to write popular articles.)

  13. Scott Says:

    Bram: I had in mind the country Groucho Marx became dictator of in Duck Soup.

  14. Anonymous Says:

    My feeling is that this will not discourage the wackos in the least, but will possibly discourage more honest emails. Don’t take this too far, or it will make you seem unfriendly and inaccessible (to people who don’t know you but just see your web page). But if it does seem to work without adverse consequences, let us know.

  15. chris Says:

    Their latest issue informs us that Dr McDoofus has discovered a quantum-mechanical model of consciousness!

    I’m yet to flip to the branch where I pay £2.95 for this.

  16. wolfgang Says:


    your FAQ is quite short. I would have thought (one of) the most frequent questions would be something like “I read somewhere that you appeared recently in an Australian beer commercial with two other models. How can I find such a job?”