## Vote in person if you can

October 13th, 2020

[If you’re not American, or you’re American but a masochist who enjoys the current nightmare, this post won’t be relevant to you—sorry!]

Until recently, this blog had a tagline that included “HOLD THE NOVEMBER US ELECTION BY MAIL.” So I thought I should warn readers that circumstances have changed in ways that have important practical implications over the next few weeks. It’s no longer that we don’t know whether Trump and Pence will acknowledge a likely loss—rather, it’s that we know they won’t. They were repeatedly asked; we all heard their answers.

That means that the best case, the ideal scenario, is already without precedent in the country’s 240-year history. It’s a president who never congratulates the winner, who refuses to meet him or coordinate a transfer of power, who skips the inauguration, and who’s basically dragged from the White House on January 20, screaming to his supporters (and continuing to scream until his dying breath) that the election was faked.

As I said, that banana-republic outcome is now the best case. But it’s also plausible that Trump simply declares himself the winner on election night, because the mail-in votes, urban votes, yet-to-be-counted votes, or any other votes that trend the wrong way are fake; social media and the Murdoch press amplify this fantasy; Trump calls on Republican-controlled state legislatures to set aside the “rigged” results and appoint their own slates of electors; the legislatures dutifully comply; and the Supreme Court A-OKs it all. If you think none of that could happen, read this Atlantic article from a few weeks ago, carefully to the end, and be more terrified than you’ve ever been in your life. And don’t pretend that you know what would happen next.

I know, I know, I’m mentally ill, it’s Trump Derangement Syndrome, I see Nazis behind every corner just because they killed most of my relatives, a little global pandemic here and economic collapse there and riots and apocalyptic fires and resurgent fascism and I act as though it’s the whole world coming to an end. A few months from now, after everything has gone swimmingly, this post will still be here and you can come back and tell me how crazy I was. I accept that risk.

For now, though, the best chance to avert a catastrophe is for Trump not merely to lose, but lose in a landslide that’s already clear by election night. Which means: as Michelle Obama advised already in August, put on your mask, brave the virus, and vote in person if you can—especially if you live in a state that’s in play, and that won’t start tallying mail-in ballots till after election day. If your state allows it, and if early votes will be counted by election night (check this!), vote early, when the lines are shorter. That’s what Dana and I did this morning; Texas going blue on election night would be one dramatic way to foreclose shenanigans. If you can’t vote in person, or if your state counts mail-in ballots earlier, then vote by mail or drop-box, but do it now, so you have a chance to fix any problems well before Election Day. (Note that, even in normal circumstances—which these aren’t—a substantial fraction of all mail-in ballots get rejected because of trivial errors.) I welcome other tips in the comments, from the many readers more immersed in this stuff than I am.

And if this post helped spur you in any way, please say so in the comments. It will improve my mood, thereby helping me finish my next post, which will be on the Continuum Hypothesis.

Update: It’s always fascinating to check my comments and see the missives from parallel universes, where Trump is a normal candidate who one might decide to vote for based on normal criteria, rather than what he himself has announced he is: a knife to the entire system that underlies such decisions. For a view from this universe, see (e.g.) today’s Nature editorial.

Another Update: If it allays anyone’s fears, I was pleasantly surprised by the level of pandemic preparedness when Dana and I went to vote. It was in a huge, cavernous gym on the UT campus, the lines were very short, masks and 6ft distancing were strictly enforced, and finger-coverings and hand sanitizer were offered to everyone.

Unrelated Update (10/16): For those who are interested, here’s a new podcast with me and Matt Asher, where we talk about the use of quantum mechanics (especially Bell inequality violations) to generate certified random numbers.

## My second podcast with Lex Fridman

October 12th, 2020

Here it is—enjoy! (I strongly recommend listening at 2x speed.)

We recorded it a month ago—outdoors (for obvious covid reasons), on a covered balcony in Austin, as it drizzled all around us. Topics included:

• Whether the universe is a simulation
• Eugene Goostman, GPT-3, the Turing Test, and consciousness
• Why I disagree with Integrated Information Theory
• Why I disagree with Penrose’s ideas about physics and the mind
• Intro to complexity theory, including P, NP, PSPACE, BQP, and SZK
• The US’s catastrophic failure on covid
• The importance of the election
• My objections to cancel culture
• The role of love in my life (!)

Thanks so much to Lex for his characteristically probing questions, apologies as always for my verbal tics, and here’s our first podcast for those who missed that one.

## On the destruction of America’s best high school

October 4th, 2020

[C]hildren with special abilities and skills need to be nourished and encouraged. They are a national treasure. Challenging programs for the “gifted” are sometimes decried as “elitism.” Why aren’t intensive practice sessions for varsity football, baseball, and basketball players and interschool competition deemed elitism? After all, only the most gifted athletes participate. There is a self-defeating double standard at work here, nationwide.
—Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World (1996)

I’d like you to feel about the impending destruction of Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, the same way you might’ve felt when the Taliban threatened to blow up the Bamyan Buddhas, and then days later actually did blow them up. Or the way you felt when human negligence caused wildfires that incinerated half the koalas in Australia, or turned the San Francisco skyline into an orange hellscape. For that matter, the same way most of us felt the day Trump was elected. I’d like you to feel in the bottom of your stomach the avoidability, and yet the finality, of the loss.

For thousands of kids in the DC area, especially first- or second-generation immigrants, TJHS represented a lifeline. Score high enough on an entrance exam—something hard but totally within your control—and you could attend a school where, instead of the other kids either tormenting or ignoring you, they might teach you Lisp or the surreal number system. Where you could learn humility instead of humiliation.

When I visited TJHS back in 2012 to give a quantum computing talk, I toured the campus, chatted with students, fielded their questions, and thought: so this is the teenagerhood—the ironically normal teenagerhood—that I was denied by living someplace else. I found myself wishing that a hundred more TJHS’s, large and small, would sprout up across the country. I felt like if I could further that goal then, though the universe return to rubble, my life would’ve had a purpose.

Instead, of course, our sorry country is destroying the few such schools that exist. Stuyvesant and Bronx Science in New York, and the Liberal Arts and Science Academy here in Austin, are also under mortal threat right now. The numerous parents who moved, who arranged their lives, specifically so that these schools might later be available for “high-risk” kids were suckered.

Assuming you haven’t just emerged from 30 years in a Tibetan cave, you presumably know why this is happening. As the Washington Post‘s Jay Matthews explains, the Fairfax County School Board is “embarrassed” to have a school that, despite all its outreach attempts, remains only 5% Black and Latino—even though, crucially, the school also happens to be only 19% White (it’s now ~75% Asian).

You might ask: so then why doesn’t TJHS just institute affirmative action, like almost every university does? It seems there’s an extremely interesting answer: they did in the 1990s, and Black and Hispanic enrollment surged. But then the verdicts of court cases, brought by right-wing groups, made the school district fear that they’d be open to lawsuits if they continued with affirmative action, so they dropped it. Now the boomerang has returned, and the School Board has decided on a more drastic remedy: namely, to eliminate the TJHS entrance exam entirely, and replace it by a lottery for anyone whose GPA exceeds 3.5.

The trouble is, TJHS without an entrance exam is no longer TJHS. More likely than not, such a place would simply converge to become another of the thousands of schools across the US where success is based on sports, networking, and popularity. And if by some miracle it avoided that fate, still it would no longer be available to most of the kids who‘d most need it.

So yes, the district is embarrassed—note that the Washington Post writer explains it as if that’s the most obvious, natural reaction in the world—to host a school that’s regularly ranked #1 in the US, with the highest average SATs and a distinguished list of alumni. To avoid this embarrassment, the solution is (in effect) to burn the school to the ground.

In a world-historic irony, the main effect of this “solution” will be to drastically limit the number of Asian students, while drastically increasing (!!!) the number of White students. The proportion of Black and Hispanic students is projected to increase a bit but remain small. Let me say that one more time: in practice, TJHS’s move from a standardized test to a lottery will be overwhelmingly pro-White, anti-Asian, and anti-immigrant; only as a much smaller effect will it be pro-underrepresented-minority.

In spite of covid and everything else going on, hundreds of students and parents have been protesting in front of TJHS to try to prevent the school’s tragic and pointless destruction. But it sounds like TJHS’s fate might be sealed. The school board tolerated excellence for 35 more years than it wanted to; now its patience is at an end.

Some will say: sure, the end of TJHS is unfortunate, Scott, but why do you let this stuff weigh on you so heavily? This is merely another instance of friendly fire, of good people fighting the just war against racism, and in one case hitting a target that, yeah, OK, probably should’ve been spared. On reflection, though, I can accept that only insofar as I accept that it was “friendly fire” when Bolsheviks targeted the kulaks, or (much more comically, less importantly, and less successfully) when Arthur Chu, Amanda Marcotte, and a thousand other woke-ists targeted me. With friendly fire like that, who needs enemy fire?

If you care about the gifted Black and Hispanic kids of Fairfax County, then like me, you should demand a change in the law to allow the reinstatement of affirmative action for them. You should acknowledge that the issue lies there and not with TJHS itself.

I don’t see how you reach the point of understanding all the facts and still wanting to dismantle TJHS, over the desperate pleas of the students and parents, without a decent helping of resentment toward the kind of student who flourishes there—without a wish to see those uppity, “fresh off the boat” Chinese and Indian grinds get dragged down to where they belong. And if you tell me that such magnet programs need to end even though you yourself once benefitted from them—well, isn’t that more contemptible still? Aren’t you knowingly burning a bridge you crossed so that a younger generation can’t follow you, basically reassuring the popular crowd that if they’ll only accept you, then there won’t be a hundred more greasy nerds in your tow? And if, on some level, you already know these things about yourself, then the only purpose of this post has been to remind you of them.

As for the news that dominates the wires and inevitably preempts what I’ve written: I wish for his successful recovery, followed by his losing the election and spending the rest of his life in New York State prison. (And I look forward to seeing how woke Twitter summarizes the preceding statement—e.g., “Aaronson, his mask finally off, conveys well-wishes to Donald Trump”…)

See further discussion of this post on Hacker News.

## Agent 3203.7: Guest post by Eliezer Yudkowsky

September 20th, 2020

In his day, Agent 3203.7 had stopped people from trying to kill Adolf Hitler, Richard Nixon, and even, in the case of one unusually thoughtful assassin, Henry David Thoreau. But this was a new one on him.

“So…” drawled the seventh version of Agent 3203. His prosthetic hand crushed the simple 21st-century gun into fused metal and dropped it. “You traveled to the past in order to kill… of all people… Donald Trump. Care to explain why?”

The time-traveller’s eyes looked wild. Crazed. Nothing unusual. “How can you ask me that? You’re a time-traveler too! You know what he does!”

That was a surprising level of ignorance even for a 21st-century jumper. “Different timelines, kid. Some are pretty obscure. What the heck did Trump do in yours that’s worth taking your one shot at time travel to assassinate him of all people?”

“He’s destroying my world!”

Agent 3203.7 took a good look at where Donald Trump was pridefully addressing the unveiling of the Trump Taj Mahal in New Jersey, then took another good look at the errant time-traveler. “Destroying it how, exactly? Did Trump turn mad scientist in your timeline?”

“He’s President of the United States!”

Agent 3203.7 took another long stare at his new prisoner. He was apparently serious. “How did Trump become President in your timeline? Strangely advanced technology, subliminal messaging?”

“He was elected in the usual way,” the prisoner said bitterly.

Agent 3203.7 shook his head in amazement. Talk about shooting the messenger. “Kid, I doubt Trump was your timeline’s main problem.”

(thanks to Eliezer for giving me permission to reprint here)

## In a world like this one, take every ally you can get

September 16th, 2020

## Seven announcements

August 9th, 2020
1. Good news, everyone! Following years of requests, this blog finally supports rich HTML and basic TeX in comments. Also, the German spam that used to plague the blog (when JavaScript was disabled) is gone. For all this, I owe deep gratitude to a reader and volunteer named Filip Dimitrovski.
2. Filip refused to accept any payment for fixing this blog. Instead, he asked only one favor: namely, that I use my platform to raise public awareness about the plight of the MAOI antidepressant Nardil. Filip tells me that, while tens of thousands of people desperately need Nardil—no other antidepressant ever worked for them—it’s become increasingly unavailable because the pharma companies can no longer make money on it. He points me to a SlateStarCodex post from 2015 that explains the problem in more detail (anyone else miss SlateStarCodex?). More recent links about the worsening crisis here, here, and here.
3. Here’s a fantastic interview of Bill Gates by Steven Levy, about the coronavirus debacle in the US. Gates, who’s always been notoriously and strategically nonpartisan, is more explicit than I’ve ever seen him before in explaining how the Trump administration’s world-historic incompetence led to where we are.
4. Speaking of which, here’s another excellent article, this one in The American Interest, about the results of “wargames” trying to simulate what happens in the extremely likely event that Trump contests a loss of the November election. Notably, the article sets out six steps that could be taken over the next few months to decrease the chance of a crisis next to which all the previous crises of 2020 will pale.
5. A reader asked me to share a link to an algorithm competition, related to cryptographic “proofs of time,” that ends on August 31. Apparently, my having shared a link to a predecessor of this competition—at the request of friend-of-the-blog Bram Cohen—played a big role in attracting good entries.
6. Huge congratulations to my former PhD student Shalev Ben-David, as well as Eric Blais, for co-winning the FOCS’2020 Best Paper Award—along with two other papers—for highly unconventional work about a new minimax theorem for randomized algorithms. (Ben-David and Blais also have a second FOCS paper, which applies their award paper to get the first tight composition theorem for randomized query complexity. Here’s the full list of FOCS papers—lots of great stuff, for a conference that of course won’t physically convene!) Anyway, a central idea in Ben-David and Blais’s new work is to use proper scoring rules to measure the performance of randomized algorithms—algorithms that now make statements like “I’m 90% sure that this is a yes-input,” rather than just outputting a 1-bit guess. Notably, Shalev tells me that he learned about proper scoring rules by reading rationalist blogs. So next time you lament your untold hours sacrificed to that pastime, remind yourself of where it once led!
7. What have I been up to lately? Besides Busy Beaver, hanging out with my kids, and just trying to survive? Mostly giving a lot of Zoom lectures! For those interested, here’s a Q&A that I recently did on the past and present of quantum computing, hosted by Andris Ambainis in Latvia. It did feel a bit surreal when my “interviewer” asked me to explain how I got into quantum computing research, and my answer was basically: “well, as you know, Andris, a lot of it started when I got hold of your seminal paper back in 1999…”

## The Busy Beaver Frontier

July 23rd, 2020

Update (July 27): I now have a substantially revised and expanded version (now revised and expanded even a second time), which incorporates (among other things) the extensive feedback that I got from this blog post. There are new philosophical remarks, some lovely new open problems, and an even-faster-growing (!) integer sequence. Check it out!

Another Update (August 13): Nick Drozd now has a really nice blog post about his investigations of my Beeping Busy Beaver (BBB) function.

A life that was all covid, cancellations, and Trump, all desperate rearguard defense of the beleaguered ideals of the Enlightenment, would hardly be worth living. So it was an exquisite delight, these past two weeks, to forget current events and write an 18-page survey article about the Busy Beaver function: the staggeringly quickly-growing function that probably encodes a huge portion of all interesting mathematical truth in its first hundred values, if only we could know those values or exploit them if we did.

The Busy Beaver Frontier
by Scott Aaronson

The Busy Beaver function, with its incomprehensibly rapid growth, has captivated generations of computer scientists, mathematicians, and hobbyists. In this survey, I offer a personal view of the BB function 58 years after its introduction, emphasizing lesser-known insights, recent progress, and especially favorite open problems. Examples of such problems include: when does the BB function first exceed the Ackermann function? Is the value of BB(20) independent of set theory? Can we prove that BB(n+1)>2BB(n) for large enough n? Given BB(n), how many advice bits are needed to compute BB(n+1)? Do all Busy Beavers halt on all inputs, not just the 0 input? Is it decidable whether BB(n) is even or odd?

The article is slated to appear soon in SIGACT News. I’m grateful to Bill Gasarch for suggesting it—even with everything else going on, this was a commission I felt I couldn’t turn down!

Besides Bill, I’m grateful to the various Busy Beaver experts who answered my inquiries, to Marijn Heule and Andy Drucker for suggesting some of the open problems, to Marijn for creating a figure, and to Lily, my 7-year-old daughter, for raising the question about the first value of n at which the Busy Beaver function exceeds the Ackermann function. (Yes, Lily’s covid homeschooling has included multiple lessons on very large positive integers.)

There are still a few days until I have to deliver the final version. So if you spot anything wrong or in need of improvement, don’t hesitate to leave a comment or send an email. Thanks in advance!

Of course Busy Beaver has been an obsession that I’ve returned to many times in my life: for example, in that Who Can Name the Bigger Number? essay that I wrote way back when I was 18, in Quantum Computing Since Democritus, in my public lecture at Festivaletteratura, and in my 2016 paper with Adam Yedidia that showed that the values of all Busy Beaver numbers beyond the 7910th are independent of the axioms of set theory (Stefan O’Rear has since shown that independence starts at the 748th value or sooner). This survey, however, represents the first time I’ve tried to take stock of BusyBeaverology as a research topic—collecting in one place all the lesser-known theorems and empirical observations and open problems that I found the most striking, in the hope of inspiring not just contemplation or wonderment but actual progress.

Within the last few months, the world of deep mathematics that you can actually explain to a child lost two of its greatest giants: John Conway (who died of covid, and who I eulogized here) and Ron Graham. One thing I found poignant, and that I didn’t know before I started writing, is that Conway and Graham both play significant roles in the story of the Busy Beaver function. Conway, because most of the best known candidates for Busy Beaver Turing machines turn out, when you analyze them, to be testing variants of the notorious Collatz Conjecture—and Conway is the one who proved, in 1972, that the set of “Collatz-like questions” is Turing-undecidable. And Graham because of Graham’s number from Ramsey theory—a candidate for the biggest number that’s ever played a role in mathematical research—and because of the discovery, four years ago, that the 18th Busy Beaver number exceeds Graham’s number.

(“Just how big is Graham’s number? So big that the 17th Busy Beaver number is not yet known to exceed it!”)

Anyway, I tried to make the survey pretty accessible, while still providing enough technical content to sink one’s two overgrown front teeth into (don’t worry, there are no such puns in the piece itself). I hope you like reading it at least 1/BB(10) as much as I liked writing it.

Update (July 24): Longtime commenter Joshua Zelinsky gently reminded me that one of the main questions discussed in the survey—namely, whether we can prove BB(n+1)>2BB(n) for all large enough n—was first brought to my attention by him, Joshua, in a 2013 Ask-Me-Anything session on this blog! I apologize to Joshua for the major oversight, which has now been corrected. On the positive side, we just got a powerful demonstration both of the intellectual benefits of blogging, and of the benefits of sharing paper drafts on one’s blog before sending them to the editor!

## Is this blog obsolete?

July 20th, 2020

Longtime friend-of-the-blog Michael Nielsen, formerly a quantum computing theorist and now an independent thinker about science and AI and learning, posted the following exchange with the astounding GPT-3 text generator / chatbot:

Q: Is it possible to use quantum computers to solve NP-complete problems in polynomial time?
A: It is not possible to use quantum computers to solve NP-complete problems in polynomial time.

Q: Why not?
A: Because NP-complete problems are not in BQP.

Q: You’ve just restated your earlier assertion! What I’d like is to understand the underlying reason why not!
A: I’m sorry, but I don’t have time to explain the underlying reason why not.

Q: No offence, but this seems really bogus. I don’t believe you understand the reason why!
A: I’m sorry, but I don’t have time to explain the underlying reason why not.

(And then there are a few more rounds of the AI not having time to “explain the underlying reason why not.”)

This is, like, 80% of the way to replacing Shtetl-Optimized!

For much more discussion of GPT-3 and its implications, and samples of its output, see for example the SSC subreddit. At the moment, as far as I can tell, the closest a person off the street can easily come to experimenting with GPT-3 themselves is using a website called AI Dungeon.

And yes, as many have already remarked, this is clearly the MITS Altair of text-generating AI, an amusing toy that’s also the start of something that will change the world.