Archive for the ‘Nerd Interest’ Category

Review of Bryan Caplan’s The Case Against Education

Thursday, April 26th, 2018

If ever a book existed that I’d judge harshly by its cover—and for which nothing inside could possibly make me reverse my harsh judgment—Bryan Caplan’s The Case Against Education would seem like it.  The title is not a gimmick; the book’s argument is exactly what it says on the tin.  Caplan—an economist at George Mason University, home of perhaps the most notoriously libertarian economics department on the planet—holds that most of the benefit of education to students (he estimates around 80%, but certainly more than half) is about signalling the students’ preexisting abilities, rather than teaching or improving the students in any way.  He includes the entire educational spectrum in his indictment, from elementary school all the way through college and graduate programs.  He does have a soft spot for education that can be shown empirically to improve worker productivity, such as technical and vocational training and apprenticeships.  In other words, precisely the kind of education that many readers of this blog may have spent their lives trying to avoid.

I’ve spent almost my whole conscious existence in academia, as a student and postdoc and then as a computer science professor.  CS is spared the full wrath that Caplan unleashes on majors like English and history: it does, after all, impart some undeniable real-world skills.  Alas, I’m not one of the CS professors who teaches anything obviously useful, like how to code or manage a project.  When I teach undergrads headed for industry, my only role is to help them understand concepts that they probably won’t need in their day jobs, such as which problems are impossible or intractable for today’s computers; among those, which might be efficiently solved by quantum computers decades in the future; and which parts of our understanding of all this can be mathematically proven.

Granted, my teaching evaluations have been [clears throat] consistently excellent.  And the courses I teach aren’t major requirements, so the students come—presumably?—because they actually want to know the stuff.  And my former students who went into industry have emailed me, or cornered me, to tell me how much my courses helped them with their careers.  OK, but how?  Often, it’s something about my class having helped them land their dream job, by impressing the recruiters with their depth of theoretical understanding.  As we’ll see, this is an “application” that would make Caplan smile knowingly.

If Caplan were to get his way, the world I love would be decimated.  Indeed, Caplan muses toward the end of the book that the world he loves would be decimated too: in a world where educational investment no longer exceeded what was economically rational, he might no longer get to sit around with other economics professors discussing what he finds interesting.  But he consoles himself with the thought that decisionmakers won’t listen to him anyway, so it won’t happen.

It’s tempting to reply to Caplan: “now now, your pessimism about anybody heeding your message seems unwarranted.  Have anti-intellectual zealots not just taken control of the United States, with an explicit platform of sticking it to the educated elites, and restoring the primacy of lower-education jobs like coal mining, no matter the long-term costs to the economy or the planet?  So cheer up, they might listen to you!”

Indeed, given the current stakes, one might simply say: Caplan has set himself against the values that are the incredibly fragile preconditions for all academic debate—even, ironically, debate about the value of academia, like the one we’re now having.  So if we want such debate to continue, then we have no choice but to treat Caplan as an enemy, and frame the discussion around how best to frustrate his goals.

In response to an excerpt of Caplan’s book in The Atlantic, my friend Sean Carroll tweeted:

It makes me deeply sad that a tenured university professor could write something like this about higher education.  There is more to learning than the labor market.

Why should anyone with my basic values, or Sean’s, give Caplan’s thesis any further consideration?  As far as I can tell, there are only two reasons: (1) common sense, and (2) the data.

In his book, Caplan presents dozens of tables and graphs, but he also repeatedly asks his readers to consult their own memories—exploiting the fact that we all have firsthand experience of school.  He asks: if education is about improving students’ “human capital,” then why are students so thrilled when class gets cancelled for a snowstorm?  Why aren’t students upset to be cheated out of some of the career-enhancing training that they, or their parents, are paying so much for?  Why, more generally, do most students do everything in their power—in some cases, outright cheating—to minimize the work they put in for the grade they receive?  Is there any product besides higher education, Caplan asks, that people pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for, and then try to consume as little of as they can get away with?  Also, why don’t more students save hundreds of thousands of dollars by simply showing up at a university and sitting in on classes without paying—something that universities make zero effort to stop?  (Many professors would be flattered, and would even add you to the course email list, entertain your questions, and give you access to the assignments—though they wouldn’t grade your assignments.)

And: if the value of education comes from what it teaches you, how do we explain the fact that students forget almost everything so soon after the final exam, as attested by both experience and the data?  Why are employers satisfied with a years-ago degree; why don’t they test applicants to see how much understanding they’ve retained?

Or if education isn’t about any of the specific facts being imparted, but about “learning how to learn” or “learning how to think creatively”—then how is it that studies find academic coursework has so little effect on students’ general learning and reasoning abilities either?  That, when there is an improvement in reasoning ability, it’s tightly concentrated on the subject matter of the course, and even then it quickly fades away after the course is over?

More broadly, if the value of mass education derives from making people more educated, how do we explain the fact that high-school and college graduates, most of them, remain so abysmally ignorant?  After 12-16 years in something called “school,” large percentages of Americans still don’t know that the earth orbits the sun; believe that heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones and that only genetically modified organisms contain genes; and can’t locate the US or China on a map.  Are we really to believe, asks Caplan, that these apparent dunces have nevertheless become “deeper thinkers” by virtue of their schooling, in some holistic, impossible-to-measure way?  Or that they would’ve been even more ignorant without school?  But how much more ignorant can you be?  They could be illiterate, yes: Caplan grants the utility of teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic.  But how much beyond the three R’s (if those) do typical students retain, let alone use?

Caplan also poses the usual questions: if you’re not a scientist, engineer, or academic (or even if you are), how much of your undergraduate education do you use in your day job?  How well did the course content match what, in retrospect, you feel someone starting your job really needs to know?  Could your professors do your job?  If not, then how were they able to teach you to do it better?

Caplan acknowledges the existence of inspiring teachers who transform their students’ lives, in ways that need not be reflected in their paychecks: he mentions Robin Williams’ character in The Dead Poets’ Society.  But he asks: how many such teachers did you have?  If the Robin Williamses are vastly outnumbered by the drudges, then wouldn’t it make more sense for students to stream the former directly into their homes via the Internet—as they can now do for free?

OK, but if school teaches so little, then how do we explain the fact that, at least for those students who are actually able to complete good degrees, research confirms that (on average) having gone to school really does pay, exactly as advertised?  Employers do pay more for a college graduate—yes, even an English or art history major—than for a dropout.  More generally, starting salary rises monotonically with level of education completed.  Employers aren’t known for a self-sacrificing eagerness to overpay.  Are they systematically mistaken about the value of school?

Synthesizing decades of work by other economists, Caplan defends the view that the main economic function of school is to give students a way to signal their preexisting qualities, ones that correlate with being competent workers in a modern economy.  I.e., that school is tacitly a huge system for winnowing and certifying young people, which also fulfills various subsidiary functions, like keeping said young people off the street, socializing them, maybe occasionally even teaching them something.  Caplan holds that, judged as a certification system, school actually works—well enough to justify graduates’ higher starting salaries, without needing to postulate any altruistic conspiracy on the part of employers.

For Caplan, a smoking gun for the signaling theory is the huge salary premium of an actual degree, compared to the relatively tiny premium for each additional year of schooling other than the degree year—even when we hold everything else constant, like the students’ academic performance.  In Caplan’s view, this “sheepskin effect” even lets us quantitatively estimate how much of the salary premium on education reflects actual student learning, as opposed to the students signaling their suitability to be hired in a socially approved way (namely, with a diploma or “sheepskin”).

Caplan knows that the signaling story raises an immediate problem: namely, if employers just want the most capable workers, then knowing everything above, why don’t they eagerly recruit teenagers who score highly on the SAT or IQ tests?  (Or why don’t they make job offers to high-school seniors with Harvard acceptance letters, skipping the part where the seniors have to actually go to Harvard?)

Some people think the answer is that employers fear getting sued: in the 1971 Griggs vs. Duke Power case, the US Supreme Court placed restrictions on the use of intelligence tests in hiring, because of disparate impact on minorities.  Caplan, however, rejects this explanation, pointing out that it would be child’s-play for employers to design interview processes that functioned as proxy IQ tests, were that what the employers wanted.

Caplan’s theory is instead that employers don’t value only intelligence.  Instead, they care about the conjunction of intelligence with two other traits: conscientiousness and conformity.  They want smart workers who will also show up on time, reliably turn in the work they’re supposed to, and jump through whatever hoops authorities put in front of them.  The main purpose of school, over and above certifying intelligence, is to serve as a hugely costly and time-consuming—and therefore reliable—signal that the graduates are indeed conscientious conformists.  The sheer game-theoretic wastefulness of the whole enterprise rivals the peacock’s tail or the bowerbird’s ornate bower.

But if true, this raises yet another question.  In the signaling story, graduating students (and their parents) are happy that the students’ degrees land them good jobs.  Employers are happy that the education system supplies them with valuable workers, pre-screened for intelligence, conscientiousness, and conformity.  Even professors are happy that they get paid to do research and teach about topics that interest them, however irrelevant those topics might be to the workplace.  So if so many people are happy, who cares if, from an economic standpoint, it’s all a big signaling charade, with very little learning taking place?

For Caplan, the problem is this: because we’ve all labored under the mistaken theory that education imparts vital skills for a modern economy, there are trillions of dollars of government funding for every level of education—and that, in turn, removes the only obstacle to a credentialing arms race.  The equilbrium keeps moving over the decades, with more and more years of mostly-pointless schooling required to prove the same level of conscientiousness and conformity as before.  Jobs that used to require only a high-school diploma now require a bachelors; jobs that used to require only a bachelors now require a masters, and so on—despite the fact that the jobs themselves don’t seem to have changed appreciably.

For Caplan, a thoroughgoing libertarian, the solution is as obvious as it is radical: abolish government funding for education.  (Yes, he explicitly advocates a complete “separation of school and state.”)  Or if some state role in education must be retained, then let it concentrate on the three R’s and on practical job skills.  But what should teenagers do, if we’re no longer urging them to finish high school?  Apparently worried that he hasn’t yet outraged liberals enough, Caplan helpfully suggests that we relax the laws around child labor.  After all, he says, if we’ve decided anyway that teenagers who aren’t academically inclined should suffer through years of drudgery, then instead of warming a classroom seat, why shouldn’t they apprentice themselves to a carpenter or a roofer?  That way they could contribute to the economy, and gain the independence from their parents that most of them covet, and learn skills that they’d be much more likely to remember and use than the dissection of owl pellets.  Even if working a real job involved drudgery, at least it wouldn’t be as pointless as the drudgery of school.

Given his conclusions, and the way he arrives at them, Caplan realizes that he’ll come across to many as a cartoon stereotype of a narrow-minded economist, who “knows the price of everything but the value of nothing.”  So he includes some final chapters in which, setting aside the charts and graphs, he explains how he really feels about education.  This is the context for what I found to be the most striking passages in the book:

I am an economist and a cynic, but I’m not a typical cynical economist.  I’m a cynical idealist.  I embrace the ideal of transformative education.  I believe wholeheardedly in the life of the mind.  What I’m cynical about is people … I don’t hate education.  Rather I love education too much to accept our Orwellian substitute.  What’s Orwellian about the status quo?  Most fundamentally, the idea of compulsory enlightenment … Many idealists object that the Internet provides enlightenment only for those who seek it.  They’re right, but petulant to ask for more.  Enlightenment is a state of mind, not a skill—and state of mind, unlike skill, is easily faked.  When schools require enlightenment, students predictably respond by feigning interest in ideas and culture, giving educators a false sense of accomplishment. (p. 259-261)

OK, but if one embraces the ideal, then rather than dynamiting the education system, why not work to improve it?  According to Caplan, the answer is that we don’t know whether it’s even possible to build a mass education system that actually works (by his lights).  He says that, if we discover that we’re wasting trillions of dollars on some sector, the first order of business is simply to stop the waste.  Only later should we entertain arguments about whether we should restart the spending in some new, better way, and we shouldn’t presuppose that the sector in question will win out over others.


Above, I took pains to set out Caplan’s argument as faithfully as I could, before trying to pass judgment on it.  At some point in a review, though, the hour of judgment arrives.

I think Caplan gets many things right—even unpopular things that are difficult for academics to admit.  It’s true that a large fraction of what passes for education doesn’t deserve the name—even if, as a practical matter, it’s far from obvious how to cut that fraction without also destroying what’s precious and irreplaceable.  He’s right that there’s no sense in badgering weak students to go to college if those students are just going to struggle and drop out and then be saddled with debt.  He’s right that we should support vocational education and other non-traditional options to serve the needs of all students.  Nor am I scandalized by the thought of teenagers apprenticing themselves to craftspeople, learning skills that they’ll actually value while gaining independence and starting to contribute to society.  This, it seems to me, is a system that worked for most of human history, and it would have to fail pretty badly in order to do worse than, let’s say, the average American high school.  And in the wake of the disastrous political upheavals of the last few years, I guess the entire world now knows that, when people complain that the economy isn’t working well enough for non-college-graduates, we “technocratic elites” had better have a better answer ready than “well then go to college, like we did.”

Yes, probably the state has a compelling interest in trying to make sure nearly everyone is literate, and probably most 8-year-olds have no clue what’s best for themselves.  But at least from adolescence onward, I think that enormous deference ought to be given to students’ choices.  The idea that “free will” (in the practical rather than metaphysical sense) descends on us like a halo on our 18th birthdays, having been absent beforehand, is an obvious fiction.  And we all know it’s fiction—but it strikes me as often a destructive fiction, when law and tradition force us to pretend that we believe it.

Some of Caplan’s ideas dovetail with the thoughts I’ve had myself since childhood on how to make the school experience less horrible—though I never framed my own thoughts as “against education.”  Make middle and high schools more like universities, with freedom of movement and a wide range of offerings for students to choose from.  Abolish hall passes and detentions for lateness: just like in college, the teacher is offering a resource to students, not imprisoning them in a dungeon.  Don’t segregate by age; just offer a course or activity, and let kids of any age who are interested show up.  And let kids learn at their own pace.  Don’t force them to learn things they aren’t ready for: let them love Shakespeare because they came to him out of interest, rather than loathing him because he was forced down their throats.  Never, ever try to prevent kids from learning material they are ready for: instead of telling an 11-year-old teaching herself calculus to go back to long division until she’s the right age (does that happen? ask how I know…), say: “OK hotshot, so you can differentiate a few functions, but can you handle these here books on linear algebra and group theory, like Terry Tao could have when he was your age?”

Caplan mentions preschool as the one part of the educational system that strikes him as least broken.  Not because it has any long-term effects on kids’ mental development (it might not), just because the tots enjoy it at the time.  They get introduced to a wide range of fun activities.  They’re given ample free time, whether for playing with friends or for building or drawing by themselves.  They’re usually happy to be dropped off.  And we could add: no one normally minds if parents drop their kids off late, or pick them up early, or take them out for a few days.  The preschool is just a resource for the kids’ benefit, not a never-ending conformity test.  As a father who’s now seen his daughter in three preschools, this matches my experience.

Having said all this, I’m not sure I want to live in the world of Caplan’s “complete separation of school and state.”  And I’m not using “I’m not sure” only as a euphemism for “I don’t.”  Caplan is proposing a radical change that would take civilization into uncharted territory: as he himself notes, there’s not a single advanced country on earth that’s done what he advocates.  The trend has everywhere been in the opposite direction, to invest more in education as countries get richer and more technology-based.  Where there have been massive cutbacks to education, the causes have usually been things like famine or war.

So I have the same skepticism of Caplan’s project that I’d have (ironically) of Bolshevism or any other revolutionary project.  I say to him: don’t just persuade me, show me.  Show me a case where this has worked.  In the social world, unlike the mathematical world, I put little stock in long chains of reasoning unchecked by experience.

Caplan explicitly invites his readers to test his assertions against their own lives.  When I do so, I come back with a mixed verdict.  Before college, as you may have gathered, I find much to be said for Caplan’s thesis that the majority of school is makework, the main purposes of which are to keep the students out of trouble and on the premises, and to certify their conscientiousness and conformity.  There are inspiring teachers here and there, but they’re usually swimming against the tide.  I still feel lucky that I was able to finagle my way out by age 15, and enter Clarkson University and then Cornell with only a G.E.D.

In undergrad, on the other hand, and later in grad school at Berkeley, my experience was nothing like what Caplan describes.  The professors were actual experts: people who I looked up to or even idolized.  I wanted to learn what they wanted to teach.  (And if that ever wasn’t the case, I could switch to a different class, excepting some major requirements.)  But was it useful?

As I look back, many of my math and CS classes were grueling bootcamps on how to prove theorems, how to design algorithms, how to code.  Most of the learning took place not in the classroom but alone, in my dorm, as I struggled with the assignments—having signed up for the most advanced classes that would allow me in, and thereby left myself no escape except to prove to the professor that I belonged there.  In principle, perhaps, I could have learned the material on my own, but in reality I wouldn’t have.  I don’t still use all of the specific tools I acquired, though I do still use a great many of them, from the Gram-Schmidt procedure to Gaussian integrals to finding my way around a finite group or field.  Even if I didn’t use any of the tools, though, this gauntlet is what upgraded me from another math-competition punk to someone who could actually write research papers with long proofs.  For better or worse, it made me what I am.

Just as useful as the math and CS courses were the writing seminars—places where I had to write, and where my every word got critiqued by the professor and my fellow students, so I had to do a passable job.  Again: intensive forced practice in what I now do every day.  And the fact that it was forced was now fine, because, like some leather-bound masochist, I’d asked to be forced.

On hearing my story, Caplan would be unfazed.  Of course college is immensely useful, he’d say … for those who go on to become professors, like me or him.  He “merely” questions the value of higher education for almost everyone else.

OK, but if professors are at least good at producing more people like themselves, able to teach and do research, isn’t that something, a base we can build on that isn’t all about signaling?  And more pointedly: if this system is how the basic research enterprise perpetuates itself, then shouldn’t we be really damned careful with it, lest we slaughter the golden goose?

Except that Caplan is skeptical of the entire enterprise of basic research.  He writes:

Researchers who specifically test whether education accelerates progress have little to show for their efforts.  One could reply that, given all the flaws of long-run macroeconomic data, we should ignore academic research in favor of common sense.  But what does common sense really say? … True, ivory tower self-indulgence occasionally revolutionizes an industry.  Yet common sense insists the best way to discover useful ideas is to search for useful ideas—not to search for whatever fascinates you and pray it turns out to be useful (p. 175).

I don’t know if common sense insists that, but if it does, then I feel on firm ground to say that common sense is woefully inadequate.  It’s easy to look at most basic research, and say: this will probably never be useful for anything.  But then if you survey the inventions that did change the world over the past century—the transistor, the laser, the Web, Google—you find that almost none would have happened without what Caplan calls “ivory tower self-indulgence.”  What didn’t come directly from universities came from entities (Bell Labs, DARPA, CERN) that wouldn’t have been thinkable without universities, and that themselves were largely freed from short-term market pressures by governments, like universities are.

Caplan’s skepticism of basic research reminded me of a comment in Nick Bostrom’s book Superintelligence:

A colleague of mine likes to point out that a Fields Medal (the highest honor in mathematics) indicates two things about the recipient: that he was capable of accomplishing something important, and that he didn’t.  Though harsh, the remark hints at a truth. (p. 314)

I work in theoretical computer science: a field that doesn’t itself win Fields Medals (at least not yet), but that has occasions to use parts of math that have won Fields Medals.  Of course, the stuff we use cutting-edge math for might itself be dismissed as “ivory tower self-indulgence.”  Except then the cryptographers building the successors to Bitcoin, or the big-data or machine-learning people, turn out to want the stuff we were talking about at conferences 15 years ago—and we discover to our surprise that, just as the mathematicians gave us a higher platform to stand on, so we seem to have built a higher platform for the practitioners.  The long road from Hilbert to Gödel to Turing and von Neumann to Eckert and Mauchly to Gates and Jobs is still open for traffic today.

Yes, there’s plenty of math that strikes even me as boutique scholasticism: a way to signal the brilliance of the people doing it, by solving problems that require years just to understand their statements, and whose “motivations” are about 5,000 steps removed from anything Caplan or Bostrom would recognize as motivation.  But where I part ways is that there’s also math that looked to me like boutique scholasticism, until Greg Kuperberg or Ketan Mulmuley or someone else finally managed to explain it to me, and I said: “ah, so that’s why Mumford or Connes or Witten cared so much about this.  It seems … almost like an ordinary applied engineering question, albeit one from the year 2130 or something, being impatiently studied by people a few moves ahead of everyone else in humanity’s chess game against reality.  It will be pretty sweet once the rest of the world catches up to this.”


I have a more prosaic worry about Caplan’s program.  If the world he advocates were actually brought into being, I suspect the people responsible wouldn’t be nerdy economics professors like himself, who have principled objections to “forced enlightenment” and to signalling charades, yet still maintain warm fuzzies for the ideals of learning.  Rather, the “reformers” would be more on the model of, say, Steve Bannon or Scott Pruitt or Alex Jones: people who’d gleefully take a torch to the universities, fortresses of the despised intellectual elite, not in the conviction that this wouldn’t plunge humanity back into the Dark Ages, but in the hope that it would.

When the US Congress was debating whether to cancel the Superconducting Supercollider, a few condensed-matter physicists famously testified against the project.  They thought that $10-$20 billion for a single experiment was excessive, and that they could provide way more societal value with that kind of money were it reallocated to them.  We all know what happened: the SSC was cancelled, and of the money that was freed up, 0%—absolutely none of it—went to any of the other research favored by the SSC’s opponents.

If Caplan were to get his way, I fear that the story would be similar.  Caplan talks about all the other priorities—from feeding the world’s poor to curing diseases to fixing crumbling infrastructure—that could be funded using the trillions currently wasted on runaway credential signaling.  But in any future I can plausibly imagine where the government actually axes education, the savings go to things like enriching the leaders’ cronies and launching vanity wars.

My preferences for American politics have two tiers.  In the first tier, I simply want the Democrats to vanquish the Republicans, in every office from president down to dogcatcher, in order to prevent further spiraling into nihilistic quasi-fascism, and to restore the baseline non-horribleness that we know is possible for rich liberal democracies.  Then, in the second tier, I want the libertarians and rationalists and nerdy economists and Slate Star Codex readers to be able to experiment—that’s a key word here—with whether they can use futarchy and prediction markets and pricing-in-lieu-of-regulation and other nifty ideas to improve dramatically over the baseline liberal order.  I don’t expect that I’ll ever get what I want; I’ll be extremely lucky even to get the first half of it.  But I find that my desires regarding Caplan’s program fit into the same mold.  First and foremost, save education from those who’d destroy it because they hate the life of the mind.  Then and only then, let people experiment with taking a surgical scalpel to education, removing from it the tumor of forced enlightenment, because they love the life of the mind.

Amazing progress on longstanding open problems

Wednesday, April 11th, 2018

For those who haven’t seen it:

  1. Aubrey de Grey, better known to the world as a radical life extension researcher, on Sunday posted a preprint on the arXiv claiming to prove that the chromatic number of the plane is at least 5—the first significant progress on the Hadwiger-Nelson problem since 1950.  If you’re tuning in from home, the Hadwiger-Nelson problem asks: what’s the minimum number of colors that you need to color the Euclidean plane, in order to ensure that every two points at distance exactly 1 from each other are colored differently?  It’s not hard to show that at least 4 colors are necessary, or that 7 colors suffice: try convincing yourself by staring at the figure below.  Until a few days ago, nothing better was known.
    This is a problem that’s intrigued me ever since I learned about it at a math camp in 1996, and that I spent at least a day of my teenagerhood trying to solve.
    De Grey constructs an explicit graph with unit distances—originally with 1567 vertices, now with 1585 vertices after after a bug was fixed—and then verifies by computer search (which takes a few hours) that 5 colors are needed for it.  Update: My good friend Marijn Heule, at UT Austin, has now apparently found a smaller such graph, with “only” 874 vertices.  See here.
    So, can we be confident that the proof will stand—i.e., that there are no further bugs?  See the comments of Gil Kalai’s post for discussion.  Briefly, though, it’s now been independently verified, using different SAT-solvers, that the chromatic number of de Grey’s corrected graph is indeed 5.  Paul Phillips emailed to tell me that he’s now independently verified that the graph is unit distance as well.  So I think it’s time to declare the result correct.
    Question for experts: is there a general principle by which we can show that, if the chromatic number of the plane is at least 6, or is 7, then there exists a finite subgraph that witnesses it?  (This is closely related to asking, what’s the logical complexity of the Hadwiger-Nelson problem: is it Π1?)  Update: As de Grey and a commenter pointed out to me, this is the de Bruijn-Erdös Theorem from 1951.  But the proofs inherently require the Axiom of Choice.  Assuming AC, this also gives you that Hadwiger-Nslson is a Π1 statement, since the coordinates of the points in any finite counterexample can be assumed to be algebraic. However, this also raises the strange possibility that the chromatic number of the plane could be smaller assuming AC than not assuming it.
  2. Last week, Urmila Mahadev, a student (as was I, oh so many years ago) of Umesh Vazirani at Berkeley, posted a preprint on the arXiv giving a protocol for a quantum computer to prove the results of any computation it performs to a classical skeptic—assuming a relatively standard cryptographic assumption, namely the quantum hardness of the Learning With Errors (LWE) problem, and requiring only classical communication between the skeptic and the QC.  I don’t know how many readers remember, but way back in 2006, inspired by a $25,000 prize offered by Stephen Wolfram, I decided to offer a $25 prize to anyone who could solve the problem of proving the results of an arbitrary quantum computation to a classical skeptic, or who could give oracle evidence that a solution was impossible.  I had first learned this fundamental problem from Daniel Gottesman.
    Just a year or two later, independent work of Aharonov, Ben-Or, and Eban, and of Broadbent, Fitzsimons, and Kashefi made a major advance on the problem, by giving protocols that were information-theoretically secure.  The downside was that, in contrast to Mahadev’s new protocol, these earlier protocols required the verifier to be a little bit quantum: in particular, to exchange individual unentangled qubits with the QC.  Or, as shown by later work, the verifier could be completely classical, but only if it could send challenges to two or more quantum computers that were entangled but unable to communicate with each other.  In light of these achievements, I decided to award both groups their own checks for half the prize amount ($12.50), to be split among themselves however they chose.
    Neither with Broadbent et al.’s or Aharonov et al.’s earlier work, nor with Mahadev’s new work, is it immediately clear whether the protocols relativize (that is, whether they work relative to an arbitrary oracle), but it’s plausible that they don’t.
    Anyway, assuming that her breakthrough result stands, I look forward to awarding Urmila the full $25 prize when I see her at the Simons Institute in Berkeley this June.

Huge congratulations to Aubrey and Urmila for their achievements!


Update (April 12): My friend Virgi Vassilevska Williams asked me to announce a theoretical computer science women event, which will take during the upcoming STOC in LA.


Another Update: Another friend, Holden Karnofsky of the Open Philanthropy Project, asked me to advertise that OpenPhil is looking to hire a Research Analyst and Senior Research Analyst. See also this Medium piece (“Hiring Analytical Thinkers to Help Give Away Billions”) to learn more about what the job would involve.

Two announcements

Saturday, April 7th, 2018

Before my next main course comes out of the oven, I bring you two palate-cleansing appetizers:

  1. My childhood best friend Alex Halderman, whose heroic exploits helping to secure the world’s voting systems have often been featured on this blog, now has a beautifully produced video for the New York Times, entitled “I Hacked An Election.  So Can The Russians.”  Here Alex lays out the case for an audited paper trail—i.e., for what the world’s cybersecurity experts have been unanimously flailing their arms about for two decades—in terms so simple and vivid that even Congresspeople should be able to understand them.  Please consider sharing the video if you support this important cause.
  2. Jakob Nordstrom asked me to advertise the 5th Swedish Summer School in Computer Science, to be held August 5-11, 2018, in the beautiful Stockholm archipelago at Djuronaset.  This year the focus is on quantum computing, and the lecturers are two of my favorite people in the entire field: Ronald de Wolf (giving a broad intro to QC) and Oded Regev (lecturing on post-quantum cryptography).  The school is mainly for PhD students, but is also open to masters students, postdocs, and faculty.  If you wanted to spend one week getting up to speed on quantum, it’s hard for me to imagine that you’d find any opportunity more excellent.  The application deadline is April 20, so apply now if you’re interested!

30 of my favorite books

Wednesday, March 28th, 2018

A reader named Shozab writes:

Scott, if you had to make a list of your favourite books, which ones would you include?
And yes, you can put in quantum computing since Democritus!

Since I’ve gotten the same request before, I guess this is as good a time as any.  My ground rules:

  • I’ll only include works because I actually read them and they had a big impact on me at some point in my life—not because I feel abstractly like they’re important or others should read them, or because I want to be seen as the kind of person who recommends them.
  • But not works that impacted me before the age of about 10, since my memory of childhood reading habits is too hazy.
  • To keep things manageable, I’ll include at most one work per author.  My choices will often be idiosyncratic—i.e., not that author’s “best” work.  However, it’s usually fair to assume that if I include something by X, then I’ve also read and enjoyed other works by X, and that I might be including this work partly just as an entry point into X’s oeuvre.
  • In any case where the same author has both “deeper” and more “accessible” works, both of which I loved, I’ll choose the more accessible.  But rest assured that I also read the deeper work. 🙂
  • This shouldn’t need to be said, but since I know it does: listing a work by author X does not imply my agreement with everything X has ever said about every topic.
  • The Bible, the Homeric epics, Plato, and Shakespeare are excluded by fiat.  They’re all pretty important (or so one hears…), and you should probably read them all, but I don’t want the responsibility of picking and choosing from among them.
  • No books about the Holocaust, or other unremittingly depressing works like 1984.  Those are a special category to themselves: I’m glad that I read them, but would never read them twice.
  • The works are in order of publication date, with a single exception (see if you can spot it!).

Without further ado:

Quantum Computing Since Democritus by Scott Aaronson

Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems by Galileo Galilei

Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion by David Hume

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by himself

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

The Subjection of Women by John Stuart Mill

The Autobiography of Charles Darwin by himself

Altneuland by Theodor Herzl

The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism by Bertrand Russell

What Is Life?: With Mind and Matter and Autobiographical Sketches by Erwin Schrödinger

Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science by Martin Gardner

How Children Fail by John Holt

Set Theory and the Continuum Hypothesis by Paul Cohen

The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov (specifically, the middle third)

A History of Pi by Petr Beckmann

The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins

The Mind-Body Problem by Rebecca Goldstein

Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges

Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman by Richard Feynman

The Book of Numbers by John Conway and Richard Guy

The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan

Gems of Theoretical Computer Science by Uwe Schöning and Randall Pruim

Fashionable Nonsense by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont

Our Dumb Century by The Onion

Quantum Computation and Quantum Information by Michael Nielsen and Isaac Chuang

The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker

Field Notes from a Catastrophe by Elizabeth Kolbert

Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Logicomix by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos Papadimitriou

The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch

You’re welcome to argue with me in the comments, e.g., by presenting evidence that I didn’t actually like these books. 🙂  More seriously: list your own favorites, discuss your reactions to these books, be a “human recommendation engine” by listing books that “those who liked the above would also enjoy,” whatever.

Addendum: Here’s another bonus twenty books, as I remember more and as commenters remind me of more that I liked quite as much as the thirty above.

The Man Who Knew Infinity by Robert Kanigel

A Mathematician’s Apology by G. H. Hardy

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

The First Three Minutes by Steven Weinberg

Breaking the Code by Hugh Whitemore

Arcadia by Tom Stoppard

Adventures of a Mathematician by Stanislaw Ulam

The Man Who Loved Only Numbers by Paul Hoffman

Mathematical Writing by Donald Knuth, Tracy Larabee, and Paul Roberts

A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar

An Introduction to Computational Learning Theory by Michael Kearns and Umesh Vazirani

The Road to Reality by Roger Penrose

The Nili Spies by Anita Engle (about the real-life heroic exploits of the Aaronsohn family)

Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach by Stuart Russell and Peter Norvig

The Princeton Companion to Mathematics edited by Timothy Gowers

The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes

Fear No Evil by Natan Sharansky

The Mind’s I by Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel Dennett

Disturbing the Universe by Freeman Dyson

Unsong by Scott Alexander

Hawking

Friday, March 16th, 2018

A long post is brewing (breaking my month-long silence), but as I was working on it, the sad news arrived that Stephen Hawking passed away. There’s little I can add to the tributes that poured in from around the world: like chocolate or pizza, Hawking was beloved everywhere and actually deserved to be. Like, probably, millions of other nerds of my generation, I read A Brief History of Time as a kid and was inspired by it (though I remember being confused back then about the operational meaning of imaginary time, and am still confused about it almost 30 years later).  In terms of a scientist capturing the public imagination, through a combination of genuine conceptual breakthroughs, an enthralling personal story, an instantly recognizable countenance, and oracular pronouncements on issues of the day, the only one in the same league was Einstein. I didn’t agree with all of Hawking’s pronouncements, but the quibbles paled beside the enormous areas of agreement.  Hawking was a force for good in the world, and for the values of science, reason, and Enlightenment (to anticipate the subject of my next post).

I’m sorry that I never really met Hawking, though I did participate in two conferences that he also attended, and got to watch him slowly form sentences on his computer. At one conference in 2011, he attended my talk—this one—and I was told by mutual acquaintances that he liked it.  That meant more to me than it probably should have: who cares if some random commenters on YouTube dissed your talk, if the Hawk-Man himself approved?

As for Hawking’s talks—well, there’s a reason why they filled giant auditoriums all over the world.  Any of us in the business of science popularization would do well to study them and take lessons.

If you want a real obituary of Hawking, by someone who knew him well—one that, moreover, actually explains his main scientific contributions (including the singularity theorems, Hawking radiation, and the no-boundary proposal)—you won’t do any better than this by Roger Penrose. Also don’t miss this remembrance in Time by Hawking’s friend and betting partner, and friend-of-the-blog, John Preskill. (Added: and this by Sean Carroll.)

Practicing the modus ponens of Twitter

Monday, January 29th, 2018

I saw today that Ryan Lackey generously praised my and Zach Weinersmith’s quantum computing SMBC comic on Twitter:

Somehow this SMBC comic is the best explanation of quantum computing for non-professionals that I’ve ever found

To which the venture capitalist Matthew Ocko replied, in another tweet:

Except Scott Aaronson is a surly little troll who has literally never built anything at all of meaning. He’s a professional critic of braver people.  So, no, this is not a good explanation – anymore than Jeremy Rifkin on CRISPR would be… 🙄

Now, I don’t mind if Ocko hates me, and also hates my and Zach’s comic.  What’s been bothering me is just the logic of his tweet.  Like: what did he have in his head when he wrote the word “So”?  Let’s suppose for the sake of argument that I’m a “surly little troll,” and an ax murderer besides.  How does it follow that my explanation of quantum computing wasn’t good?  To reach that stop in proposition-space, wouldn’t one still need to point to something wrong with the explanation?

But I’m certain that my inability to understand this is just another of my many failings.  In a world where Trump is president, bitcoin is valued at $11,000 when I last checked, and the attack-tweet has fully replaced the argument, it’s obvious that those of us who see a word like “so” or “because,” and start looking for the inferential step, are merely insufficiently brave.  For godsakes, I’m not even on Twitter!  I’m a sclerotic dinosaur who needs to get with the times.

But maybe I, too, could learn the art of the naked ad-hominem.  Let me try: from a Google search, we learn that Ocko is an enthusiastic investor in D-Wave.  Is it possible he’s simply upset that there’s so much excitement right now in experimental quantum computing—including “things of meaning” being built by brave people, at Google and IBM and Rigetti and IonQ and elsewhere—but that virtually none of this involves D-Wave, whose devices remain interesting from various physics and engineering standpoints, but still fail to achieve any clear quantum speedups, just as the professional critics predicted?  Is he upset that the brave system-builders who are racing finally to achieve quantum computational supremacy over the next year, are the ones who actually interacted with academic researchers (sorry: surly little trolls), and listened to what they said?  Who understood, for example, why scaling up to 50+ qubits only made a lot of sense once you had one or two qubits that at least behaved well enough in isolation—which, after years of heroic effort, many of these system-builders now do?

How’d I do?  Was there still too much argument there for the world of 2018?

Should I join Heterodox Academy?

Sunday, December 31st, 2017

Happy new year, everyone!

An anonymous commenter wrote:

Scott, you seem to admire Steven Pinker, you had problems with SJW attacks for your now famous comment 171 and, if I remember well, you said you have some “heterodox” ideas that you think it’s dangerous to make public.  [Actually, I’m not sure I ever said that—indeed, if it were true, why would I say it? 🙂 –SA ]  Why aren’t you in the Heterodox Academy? Didn’t you know about it?

Heterodox Academy is an organisation of professors, adjunct professors, post-docs and graduate students who are for freedom of speech, founded by Steven Pinker, Jonathan Haidt and a few other academics, and now has over 1000 members.

https://heterodoxacademy.org

(I’m not a member, because I’m not an academic or graduate student, but I sympathize very much with their fight to protect freedom of thought.)

By coincidence, just last week I was looking at the Heterodox Academy website, and thinking about joining.  But then I got put off by the “pledge” for new members:

“I believe that university life requires that people with diverse viewpoints and perspectives encounter each other in an environment where they feel free to speak up and challenge each other. I am concerned that many academic fields and universities currently lack sufficient viewpoint diversity—particularly political diversity. I will support viewpoint diversity in my academic field, my university, my department, and my classroom.”

For some reason, I’m allergic to joining any organization that involves a pledge, even if it’s a pledge that I completely agree with.  And in this case, maybe the issue goes a bit deeper.  My central concern, with university life, is that academics share a baseline commitment to Enlightenment norms and values: e.g., to freedom of speech, reason, empiricism, and judging arguments by their merits rather than by the speaker’s identity.  These are the norms that I’d say enabled the scientific revolution, and that are still the fundamental preconditions for intellectual inquiry.

A diversity of viewpoints is often a good diagnostic for Enlightenment norms, but it’s not the central issue, and is neither necessary nor sufficient.  For example, I don’t care if academia lacks “viewpoint diversity” in the UFO, creationism, or birther debates.  Nor do I care if the spectrum of ideas that gets debated in academia is radically different from the spectrum debated in the wider society.  Indeed, I don’t even know that it’s mathematically possible to satisfy everyone on that count: for example, a representative sampling of American political opinions might strike a European, or a Bay Area resident, as bizarrely clustered in one or two corners of idea-space, and the reverse might be equally true.

More pointedly—and bear with me as I invent a bizarre hypothetical—if some sort of delusional, autocratic thug managed to take control of the United States: someone who promoted unhinged conspiracy theories; whose whole worldview were based on the overwhelming of facts, reason, reality, and even linguistic coherence by raw strength and emotion; whose every word and deed were diametrically opposed to any conceivable vision of the mission of a university—in such an extreme case, I’d hope that American academia would speak with one voice against the enveloping darkness, just as I would’ve hoped German academia would speak with one voice in 1933 (it didn’t).  When Enlightenment norms themselves are under assault, those norms are consistent with a unified response.

Having said that, I’m certainly also worried about the erosion of Enlightenment norms within academia, or specific parts of academia: the speakers shouted down rather than debated, the classrooms taken over, the dogmatic postmodernism and blank-slatism, all the stuff Jonathan Haidt reviews in this article.  This is a development for which the left, not the right, bears primary responsibility.  I view it as a huge unearned gift that the “good guys” give the “bad guys.”  It provides them endless outrage-fodder.  It stokes their paranoid fantasies while also making us look foolish.  And it lets them call us hypocrites, whose prattle about science and reason and free inquiry has been conclusively unmasked.  So if Heterodox Academy is making headway against the illiberal wing of liberalism, that does seem like something I should support, regardless of any differences in emphasis.

Readers: what do you think?  In the comments, give me your best argument for why I should or shouldn’t join Heterodox Academy.  Feel free to call my attention to anything the organization has been up to; my research has been less than comprehensive.  I’ll credit the most convincing argument(s) when I make a decision.  Like, not that it’s especially consequential either way, but if commenters here are going to argue anyway, we might as well make something actually hinge on it…

 

Classifieds thread

Sunday, December 24th, 2017

In addition to the emails from journalists, I also get a large number of emails seeking interactions with me—a discussion of cryptocurrencies, help in planning a political campaign, whatever—that could probably be had just as well, or better, with some other reader of this blog.  So inspired by Slate Star Codex, my lodestar of blog-greatness, I’ve decided to host Shtetl-Optimized‘s first ever classifieds thread.  This is your place to post any announcement, ad, offer, proposal, etc. that you think would be of particular interest to fellow Shtetl-Optimized readers.  As usual, I reserve the right to remove anything too spammy or otherwise unsuitable (“C@$H 4 G0LD!!!”), but will generally be pretty permissive.

Oh yes: Merry Christmas to those who celebrate it, from a spot roughly equal driving distance (about an hour 20 minutes) from Nazareth and Bethlehem!


Update: OK, let me start the ball rolling, or rather the photon propagating. Reader Piotr Migdal wrote to tell me about a quantum optics puzzle game that he created. I tried it and it’s excellent, and best of all clear: unlike virtually every other “quantum game” I’ve tried, it took me only a minute to figure this one out. (Admittedly, it’s less of a quantum game than an “optics game,” in the sense that the effects it teaches about also appear with laser beams and other many-photon coherent states, which you don’t really need QM for, even though QM provides their ultimate explanation. But whatever: it’s fun!) Piotr has lots of other great stuff on his website.

Googatory

Thursday, December 7th, 2017

When I awoke with glowing, translucent hands, and hundreds of five-pointed yellow stars lined up along the left of my visual field, my first thought was that a dream must have made itself self-defeatingly obvious. I was a 63-year-old computer science professor. I might’ve been dying of brain cancer, but my mind was lucid enough that I’d refused hospice care, lived at home, still even met sometimes with my students, and most importantly: still answered my email, more or less. I could still easily distinguish dreams from waking reality. Couldn’t I?

I stared at the digital clock beside my bed: 6:47am. After half a minute it changed to 6:48. No leaping around haphazardly. I picked up the two-column conference paper by my nightstand. “Hash-and-Reduce: A New Approach to Distributed Proximity Queries in the Cloud.” I scanned the abstract and first few paragraphs. It wasn’t nonsense—at least, no more so than the other papers that I still sometimes reviewed. The external world still ticked with clockwork regularity. This was no dream.

Nervously, I got up. I saw that my whole body was glowing and translucent. My pajamas, too. A second instance of my body, inert and not translucent, remained in the bed. I looked into the mirror: I had no reflection. The mirror showed a bedroom unoccupied but for the corpse on the bed.

OK, so I was a ghost.

Just then I heard my nurse enter through the front door. “Bob, how you feeling this morning?” I met her in the foyer. “Linda, look what happened! I’m a ghost now, but interestingly enough, I can still..”

Linda walked right through me and into the bedroom. She let out a small gasp when she saw the corpse, then started making phone calls.

Over the following days, I accompanied my body to the morgue. I attended my little memorial session at the university, made note of which of my former colleagues didn’t bother to show up. I went to my funeral. At the wake, I stood with my estranged wife and grown children, who mostly remained none the wiser—except when they talked about how eerie it was, how it felt like I was still there with them. Or maybe I’d say something, and get no response from my family, but then five minutes later their conversation would mysteriously veer toward the topic I’d broached. It seemed that I still had full input from the world of the living, but that my only output channel was doing spooky haunted things that still maintained plausible deniability about my existence.

Questions flooded my mind: were there other ghosts? Why was I in this purgatory … or whatever it was? Would I be here forever? And: what was that column of yellow stars in the left of my visual field, the stars that followed me everywhere?

Once it seemed clear that I was here to stay, for some definition of “here,” I figured I might as well do the same stuff that filled my waking hours when I was alive. I pulled up a chair and sat at my laptop. I hit up The Washington Post, The Onion, xkcd, SMBC Comics, Slate Star Codex. They all worked fine.

Then I switched to the Gmail tab. Hundreds of new messages. Former students asking for recommendation letters, prospective students wanting to work with me, grant managers howling about overdue progress reports, none of them bothering to check if I was dead.

I replied to one randomly-chosen email:

Dear Ashish,
Thanks for your interest in joining our group. Alas, I’m currently dead and walking the earth as a translucent wraith. For that reason, I’m unable to take on new PhD students at this time.
Best of luck!
–Bob

I clicked “Send” and—part of me was expecting this—got an error. Message not sent. Email couldn’t cross the barrier from the dead to the living: too obvious.

Next I opened my “Starred” folder. I was greeted by 779 starred messages: each one a pressing matter that I’d promised myself I’d get to while alive but didn’t.

Dear Bob,
Hope you’re well. I think I’ve found another error in your 2002 paper ‘Cache-Oblivious Approximation Algorithms for Sparse Linear Algebra on Big Data.’ Specifically, in the proof of Lemma 4.2, you assume a spectral bound [har har, spectral], even though your earlier definition of the matrix A_i seems to allow arbitrary norm…

I chuckled. Well, I did spend most of my life on this stuff, didn’t I? Shouldn’t I sort this out, just for the sake of my intellectual conscience?

I opened up my old paper in Ghostview (what else?) and found the offending lemma. Then I took out pen and paper—they worked, luckily, although presumably my scribblings remained invisible to the living—and set to work. After an hour, I’d satisfied myself that the alleged error was nothing too serious, just a gap requiring a few sentences of clarification. I sadly had no direct way to tell my years-ago correspondent that, assuming the correspondent was still even alive and research-active and at the same email address. But still: good for my peace of mind, right?

Then something happened: the first intimation of what my life, or rather undeath, was to consist of from then on. Faintly but unmistakably, one of the tiny yellow stars in the left of my visual field became a blue-gray outline. It was no longer filled with yellow.

Excitedly, I clicked through more starred emails. Some I saw no easy way to deal with. But every time I could satisfy myself that an email was no longer relevant—whether it was an invitation to a long-ago workshop, a grant that I never applied for, a proposed research collaboration rendered moot by subsequent work—one of those yellow stars in my visual field lost its yellow filling. Before long there were ten blue-gray outline stars, then twenty.

One day, while I invisibly attended an old haunt (har har)—the weekly faculty lunch in my former department—I encountered a fellow ghost: a former senior colleague of mine, who’d died twenty years prior. He and I got to talking.

For the most part, my fellow specter confirmed what I’d already guessed. Yes, in some long-ago past, purgatory no doubt had a different character. Yes, it’s no doubt different for others, who lived different lives and faced different psychic burdens. For us, though, for the faculty, purgatory is neither more nor less than the place where you must reply to every last email that was still starred “important” when you died.

In the afterlife, it turns out, it doesn’t matter how “virtuous” you were, unless altruism happens to have been your obsession while alive. What matters is just that you free yourself from whatever burdened you every night when you went to sleep, that you finish what you started. Those unable to do so remain ghosts forever.

“So,” I asked the other polter-guest at the faculty lunch, “how long does it take a professor to finish answering a lifetime’s worth of emails?”

“Depends. I’ve been doing it for twenty years.  Hoping to finish in twenty more.”

“I see. And when you’ve dealt with the last email, what then?”

“You pass to another place. None of us know exactly where. But”—and here his voice dropped to a whisper, as if anyone else present could hear ghosts—“it’s said to be a place of breathtaking tranquility. Where researchers like us wear flowing robes, and sit under olive trees, and contemplate truth and beauty with Plato and Euclid, and then go out for lunch buffet. Where there’s no email, no deadlines, no journals, no grant applications, no responsibilities but one: to explore whatever has captured your curiosity in the present moment. Some call it the Paradise of Productivity.”

“Does everyone have to pass through purgatory first, before they go there?”

“It’s said that, among all the computer scientists who’ve lived, only Alan Turing went straight to Paradise. And he died before email was even invented. When his time comes, Donald Knuth might also escape purgatory, since he forswore email in 1990. But Knuth, alas, might spend tens of thousands of years in a different purgatory, finishing Volume 4 of The Art of Computer Programming.

“As for the rest of us, we all spend more or less time here with our wretched emails—for most of us, more. For one computer scientist—an Umesh Vazi-something, I believe, from Berkeley—it’s rumored that when he enters this place, even a trillion years won’t suffice to leave it. It’s said that the Sun will swallow the Earth, the night sky will go dark, and yet there Umesh will be, still clearing his inbox.”

After a few years, I’d knocked off all the easy stuff in my Starred folder. Then, alas, I was left with missives like this:

Hey, earth to Bob!
The rest of us have done our part in writing up the paper. We’re all waiting on you to integrate the TeX files, and to craft an introduction explaining why anyone cared about the problem in the first place. Also, would you mind making a detailed pass through Sections 4.3 and 5.2?

Ugh. There were so many slightly different TeX files. Which were the most recent? This could take a while.

Nevertheless, after weeks of … ghosting on the project, I got to work revising the paper. There was, of course, the practical difficulty that I couldn’t directly communicate my edits back to the world of the living. Fortunately, I could still do haunted stuff. One day, for example, one of my former coauthors opened her old TeX file, and “discovered” that I’d actually done way more work on the paper while I was alive than anyone remembered I had. The mysteries of when exactly I did that work, and why no one knew about it at the time, were never satisfactorily resolved.

Finally, after fourteen years, I’d succeeded in putting to rest 731 of my 779 starred emails. In the corner of my visual field was a vast array of blue-gray stars—but still, ominously, 48 yellow stars scattered among them.

“God in Heaven!” I cried. “Whoever you are! I can’t handle any of the remaining starred emails, and thereby pass to the Paradise of Productivity, without sending replies back into the world of the living. Please, I beg you: let me breach this metaphysical wall.”

A booming voice came down from on high. “YEA, BOB, WHAT THOU REQUESTETH IS POSSIBLE.  THOU WOULDST NOT EVEN BE THE FIRST GHOUL FOR WHOM I WOULDST GRANTETH THIS REQUEST: FAR FROM IT.  BUT I MUST WARN THEE: BREACHING THE WALL BETWEEN LIVING AND DEAD WILL BRINGETH FRUITS THAT THOU MAYST NOT LIKE.”

“I think I’ll take my chances with those fruits.”

“VERY WELL,” said God.

And that’s how it is that, half a century after my death, I remain in purgatory still, my days now filled with missives like the following:

Dear Bob,
Thanks for the reply! I’m sorry to hear that you’re now a ghost condemned to answer emails before he can pass to the next world. My sympathies. Having said that, I have to confess that I still don’t understand Section 4.2 of your paper. When you get a chance, could you please clarify? I’ve cc’ed my coauthors, who might have additional followup questions.


Note: To anyone who emailed me lately, I apologize for the delay in replying. I was writing this story. –SA

Review of “Inadequate Equilibria,” by Eliezer Yudkowsky

Thursday, November 16th, 2017

Inadequate Equilibria: Where and How Civilizations Get Stuck is a little gem of a book: wise, funny, and best of all useful (and just made available for free on the web).  Eliezer Yudkowsky and I haven’t always agreed about everything, but on the subject of bureaucracies and how they fail, his insights are gold.  This book is one of the finest things he’s written.  It helped me reflect on my own choices in life, and it will help you reflect on yours.

The book is a 120-page meditation on a question that’s obsessed me as much as it’s obsessed Yudkowsky.  Namely: when, if ever, is it rationally justifiable to act as if you know better than our civilization’s “leading experts”?  And if you go that route, then how do you answer the voices—not least, the voices in your own head—that call you arrogant, hubristic, even a potential crackpot?

Yudkowsky gives a nuanced answer.  To summarize, he argues that contrarianism usually won’t work if your goal is to outcompete many other actors in a free market for a scarce resource that they all want too, like money or status or fame.  In those situations, you really should ask yourself why, if your idea is so wonderful, it’s not already being implemented.  On the other hand, contrarianism can make sense when the “authoritative institutions” of a given field have screwed-up incentives that prevent them from adopting sensible policies—when even many of the actual experts might know that you’re right, but something prevents them from acting on their knowledge.  So for example, if a random blogger offers a detailed argument for why the Bank of Japan is pursuing an insane fiscal policy, it’s a-priori plausible that the random blogger could be right and the Bank of Japan could be wrong (as actually happened in a case Yudkowsky recounts), since even insiders who knew the blogger was right would find it difficult to act on their knowledge.  The same wouldn’t be true if the random blogger said that IBM stock was mispriced or that P≠NP is easy to prove.

The high point of the book is a 50-page dialogue between two humans and an extraterrestrial visitor.  The extraterrestrial is confused about a single point: why are thousands of babies in the United States dying every year, or suffering permanent brain damage, because (this seems actually to be true…) the FDA won’t approve an intravenous baby food with the right mix of fats in it?  Just to answer that one question, the humans end up having to take the alien on a horror tour through what’s broken all across the modern world, from politicians to voters to journalists to granting agencies, explaining Nash equilibrium after Nash equilibrium that leaves everybody worse off but that no one can unilaterally break out of.

I do have two criticisms of the book, both relatively minor compared to what I loved about it.

First, Yudkowsky is brilliant in explaining how institutions can produce terrible outcomes even when all the individuals in them are smart and well-intentioned—but he doesn’t address the question of whether we even need to invoke those mechanisms for more than a small minority of cases.  In my own experience struggling against bureaucracies that made life hellish for no reason, I’d say that about 2/3 of the time my quest for answers really did terminate at an identifiable “empty skull”: i.e., a single individual who could unilaterally solve the problem at no cost to anyone, but chose not to.  It simply wasn’t the case, I don’t think, that I would’ve been equally obstinate in the bureaucrat’s place, or that any of my friends or colleagues would’ve been.  I simply had to accept that I was now face-to-face with an alien sub-intelligence—i.e., with a mind that fetishized rules made up by not-very-thoughtful humans over demonstrable realities of the external world.

Second, I think the quality of the book noticeably declines in the last third.  Here Yudkowsky recounts conversations in which he tried to give people advice, but he redacts all the object-level details of the conversations—so the reader is left thinking that this advice would be good for some possible values of the missing details, and terrible for other possible values!  So then it’s hard to take away much of value.

In more detail, Yudkowsky writes:

“If you want to use experiment to show that a certain theory or methodology fails, you need to give advocates of the theory/methodology a chance to say beforehand what they think they predict, so the prediction is on the record and neither side can move the goalposts.”

I only partly agree with this statement (which might be my first substantive disagreement in the book…).

Yes, the advocates should be given a chance to say what they think the theory predicts, but then their answer need not be taken as dispositive.  For if the advocates are taken to have ultimate say over what their theory predicts, then they have almost unlimited room to twist themselves in pretzels to explain why, yes, we all know this particular experiment will probably yield such-and-such result, but contrary to appearances it won’t affect the theory at all.  For science to work, theories need to have a certain autonomy from their creators and advocates—to be “rigid,” as David Deutsch puts it—so that anyone can see what they predict, and the advocates don’t need to be continually consulted about it.  Of course this needs to be balanced, in practice, against the fact that the advocates probably understand how to use the theory better than anyone else, but it’s a real consideration as well.

In one conversation, Yudkowsky presents himself as telling startup founders not to bother putting their prototype in front of users, until they have a testable hypothesis that can be confirmed or ruled out by the users’ reactions.  I confess to more sympathy here with the startup founders than with Yudkowsky.  It does seem like an excellent idea to get a product in front of users as early as possible, and to observe their reactions to it: crucially, not just a binary answer (do they like the product or not), confirming or refuting a prediction, but more importantly, reactions that you hadn’t even thought to ask about.  (E.g., that the cool features of your website never even enter into the assessment of it, because people can’t figure out how to create an account, or some such.)

More broadly, I’d stress the value of the exploratory phase in science—the phase where you just play around with your system and see what happens, without necessarily knowing yet what hypothesis you want to test.  Indeed, this phase is often what leads to formulating a testable hypothesis.

But let me step back from these quibbles, to address something more interesting: what can I, personally, take from Inadequate Equilibria?  Is academic theoretical computer science broken/inadequate in the same way a lot of other institutions are?  Well, it seems to me that we have some built-in advantages that keep us from being as broken as we might otherwise be.  For one thing, we’re overflowing with well-defined problems, which anyone, including a total outsider, can get credit for solving.  (Of course, the “outsider” might not retain that status for long.)  For another, we have no Institutional Review Boards and don’t need any expensive equipment, so the cost to enter the field is close to zero.  Still, we could clearly be doing better: why didn’t we invent Bitcoin?  Why didn’t we invent quantum computing?  (We did lay some of the intellectual foundations for both of them, but why did it take people outside TCS to go the distance?)  Do we value mathematical pyrotechnics too highly compared to simple but revolutionary insights?  It’s worth noting that a whole conference, Innovations in Theoretical Computer Science, was explicitly founded to try to address that problem—but while ITCS is a lovely conference that I’ve happily participated in, it doesn’t seem to have succeeded at changing community norms much.  Instead, ITCS itself converged to look a lot like the rest of the field.

Now for a still more pointed question: am I, personally, too conformist or status-conscious?  I think even “conformist” choices I’ve made, like staying in academia, can be defended as the right ones for what I wanted to do with my life, just as Eliezer’s non-conformist choices (e.g., dropping out of high school) can be defended as the right ones for what he wanted to do with his.  On the other hand, my acute awareness of social status, and when I lacked any—in contrast to what Eliezer calls his “status blindness,” something that I see as a tremendous gift—did indeed make my life unnecessarily miserable in all sorts of ways.

Anyway, go read Inadequate Equilibria, then venture into the world and look for some $20 bills laying on the street.  And if you find any, come back and leave a comment on this post explaining where they are, so a conformist herd can follow you.