I know I’ve been gone from the shtetl too long—I even stood by as a P=NP goon performed a drive-by shooting through my comments section. Part of the explanation, I’m ashamed to admit, is that I’ve been procrastinating by proving theorems and writing papers, rather than building up the massive corpus of blog entries on which my tenure case will undoubtedly rest.
But most of my absence has an unhappier source. At an unknown time about three weeks ago, I crossed the Email Event Horizon—defined in General Unproductivity as the point beyond which you could literally spend your entire day answering emails, yet still have more emails at the end of the day demanding immediate attention than you had at the beginning. Not spam or crank mail, but worthy missives from students, prospective students, high-school students, secretaries, TAs, fellow committee members, conference organizers, visit hosts, speakers, editors, co-editors, grant officers, referees, colleagues … everything, always, requiring you to do something, commit to some decision, send a title and abstract, pick dates for the trip, exercise Genuine Conscious Thought. No one ever writes:
Please respond to the situation described above by cracking a joke, the less tasteful the better. You will never need to deal with this matter again.
I don’t know the precise moment when I crossed the EEH—there was nothing to herald it, it felt like any other moment—but it’s obvious now that I’m in a new, unfamiliar causal region (and that, while I might have thought I’d crossed years ago, I hadn’t). Communication from inside the EEH to the external universe is theoretically possible, but like Hawking radiation, it tends to be excruciatingly slow—and when it finally arrives, might simply regurgitate the incoming information in garbled form.
When I was a student, I used to wonder constantly about the professors who’d ignore my long, meticulously-crafted emails or fire off one-word replies, yet who might suddenly have an hour for me if I walked into their offices. Were they senile? Rude? Did they secretly despise me? Now I get it, now I understand—yet I doubt I could explain the warped spacetime Gmailometry I now inhabit to my own past self. On the other hand, the recognition of what’s happened is itself a sort of liberation. I’m starting to grasp what’s long been obvious to many of you, those who crossed the EEH before I got my first AOL account in seventh grade: that it’s useless to struggle. By definition, the speed required to escape the EEH exceeds that of typing, while the mental energy required to accelerate a massive, resting theorist to such a speed is infinite. So there’s nothing to do but blog, goof off, prove theorems, let the starred-but-unanswered inquiries pile higher and higher, and await the Email Singularity in my causal future.