Archive for the ‘Rage Against Doofosity’ Category

Because you asked: the Simulation Hypothesis has not been falsified; remains unfalsifiable

Tuesday, October 3rd, 2017

By email, by Twitter, even as the world was convulsed by tragedy, the inquiries poured in yesterday about a different topic entirely: Scott, did physicists really just prove that the universe is not a computer simulation—that we can’t be living in the Matrix?

What prompted this was a rash of popular articles like this one (“Researchers claim to have found proof we are NOT living in a simulation”).  The articles were all spurred by a recent paper in Science Advances: Quantized gravitational responses, the sign problem, and quantum complexity, by Zohar Ringel of Hebrew University and Dmitry L. Kovrizhin of Oxford.

I’ll tell you what: before I comment, why don’t I just paste the paper’s abstract here.  I invite you to read it—not the whole paper, just the abstract, but paying special attention to the sentences—and then make up your own mind about whether it supports the interpretation that all the popular articles put on it.

Ready?  Set?

Abstract: It is believed that not all quantum systems can be simulated efficiently using classical computational resources.  This notion is supported by the fact that it is not known how to express the partition function in a sign-free manner in quantum Monte Carlo (QMC) simulations for a large number of important problems.  The answer to the question—whether there is a fundamental obstruction to such a sign-free representation in generic quantum systems—remains unclear.  Focusing on systems with bosonic degrees of freedom, we show that quantized gravitational responses appear as obstructions to local sign-free QMC.  In condensed matter physics settings, these responses, such as thermal Hall conductance, are associated with fractional quantum Hall effects.  We show that similar arguments also hold in the case of spontaneously broken time-reversal (TR) symmetry such as in the chiral phase of a perturbed quantum Kagome antiferromagnet.  The connection between quantized gravitational responses and the sign problem is also manifested in certain vertex models, where TR symmetry is preserved.

For those tuning in from home, the “sign problem” is an issue that arises when, for example, you’re trying to use the clever trick known as Quantum Monte Carlo (QMC) to learn about the ground state of a quantum system using a classical computer—but where you needed probabilities, which are real numbers from 0 to 1, your procedure instead spits out numbers some of which are negative, and which you can therefore no longer use to define a sensible sampling process.  (In some sense, it’s no surprise that this would happen when you’re trying to simulate quantum mechanics, which of course is all about generalizing the rules of probability in a way that involves negative and even complex numbers!  The surprise, rather, is that QMC lets you avoid the sign problem as often as it does.)

Anyway, this is all somewhat far from my expertise, but insofar as I understand the paper, it looks like a serious contribution to our understanding of the sign problem, and why local changes of basis can fail to get rid of it when QMC is used to simulate certain bosonic systems.  It will surely interest QMC experts.

OK, but does any of this prove that the universe isn’t a computer simulation, as the popular articles claim (and as the original paper does not)?

It seems to me that, to get from here to there, you’d need to overcome four huge difficulties, any one of which would be fatal by itself, and which are logically independent of each other.

  1. As a computer scientist, one thing that leapt out at me, is that Ringel and Kovrizhin’s paper is fundamentally about computational complexity—specifically, about which quantum systems can and can’t be simulated in polynomial time on a classical computer—yet it’s entirely innocent of the language and tools of complexity theory.  There’s no BQP, no QMA, no reduction-based hardness argument anywhere in sight, and no clearly-formulated request for one either.  Instead, everything is phrased in terms of the failure of one specific algorithmic framework (namely QMC)—and within that framework, only “local” transformations of the physical degrees of freedom are considered, not nonlocal ones that could still be accessible to polynomial-time algorithms.  Of course, one does whatever one needs to do to get a result.
    To their credit, the authors do seem aware that a language for discussing all possible efficient algorithms exists.  They write, for example, of a “common understanding related to computational complexity classes” that some quantum systems are hard to simulate, and specifically of the existence of systems that support universal quantum computation.  So rather than criticize the authors for this limitation of their work, I view their paper as a welcome invitation for closer collaboration between the quantum complexity theory and quantum Monte Carlo communities, which approach many of the same questions from extremely different angles.  As official ambassador between the two communities, I nominate Matt Hastings.
  2. OK, but even if the paper did address computational complexity head-on, about the most it could’ve said is that computer scientists generally believe that BPP≠BQP (i.e., that quantum computers can solve more decision problems in polynomial time than classical probabilistic ones); and that such separations are provable in the query complexity and communication complexity worlds; and that at any rate, quantum computers can solve exact sampling problems that are classically hard unless the polynomial hierarchy collapses (as pointed out in the BosonSampling paper, and independently by Bremner, Jozsa, Shepherd).  Alas, until someone proves P≠PSPACE, there’s no hope for an unconditional proof that quantum computers can’t be efficiently simulated by classical ones.
    (Incidentally, the paper comments, “Establishing an obstruction to a classical simulation is a rather ill-defined task.”  I beg to differ: it’s not ill-defined; it’s just ridiculously hard!)
  3. OK, but suppose it were proved that BPP≠BQP—and for good measure, suppose it were also experimentally demonstrated that scalable quantum computing is possible in our universe.  Even then, one still wouldn’t by any stretch have ruled out that the universe was a computer simulation!  For as many of the people who emailed me asked themselves (but as the popular articles did not), why not just imagine that the universe is being simulated on a quantum computer?  Like, duh?
  4. Finally: even if, for some reason, we disallowed using a quantum computer to simulate the universe, that still wouldn’t rule out the simulation hypothesis.  For why couldn’t God, using Her classical computer, spend a trillion years to simulate one second as subjectively perceived by us?  After all, what is exponential time to She for whom all eternity is but an eyeblink?

Anyway, if it weren’t for all four separate points above, then sure, physicists would have now proved that we don’t live in the Matrix.

I do have a few questions of my own, for anyone who came here looking for my reaction to the ‘news’: did you really need me to tell you all this?  How much of it would you have figured out on your own, just by comparing the headlines of the popular articles to the descriptions (however garbled) of what was actually done?  How obvious does something need to be, before it no longer requires an ‘expert’ to certify it as such?  If I write 500 posts like this one, will the 501st post basically just write itself?

Asking for a friend.


Comment Policy: I welcome discussion about the Ringel-Dovrizhin paper; what might’ve gone wrong with its popularization; QMC; the sign problem; the computational complexity of condensed-matter problems more generally; and the relevance or irrelevance of work on these topics to broader questions about the simulability of the universe.  But as a little experiment in blog moderation, I won’t allow comments that just philosophize in general about whether or not the universe is a simulation, without making further contact with the actual content of this post.  We’ve already had the latter conversation here—probably, like, every week for the last decade—and I’m ready for something new.

Alex Halderman testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee

Wednesday, June 21st, 2017

This morning, my childhood best friend Alex Halderman testified before the US Senate about the proven ease of hacking electronic voting machines without leaving any record, the certainty that Russia has the technical capability to hack American elections, and the urgency of three commonsense (and cheap) countermeasures:

  1. a paper trail for every vote cast in every state,
  2. routine statistical sampling of the paper trail—enough to determine whether large-scale tampering occurred, and
  3. cybersecurity audits to instill general best practices (such as firewalling election systems).

You can watch Alex on C-SPAN here—his testimony begins at 2:16:13, and is followed by the Q&A period.  You can also read Alex’s prepared testimony here, as well as his accompanying Washington Post editorial (joint with Justin Talbot-Zorn).

Alex’s testimony—its civic, nonpartisan nature, right down to Alex’s flourish of approvingly quoting President Trump in support of paper ballots—reflects a moving optimism that, even in these dark times for democracy, Congress can be prodded into doing the right thing merely because it’s clearly, overwhelmingly in the national interest.  I wish I could say I shared that optimism.  Nevertheless, when called to testify, what can one do but act on the assumption that such optimism is justified?  Here’s hoping that Alex’s urgent message is heard and acted on.

Me at the Science March today, in front of the Texas Capitol in Austin

Saturday, April 22nd, 2017

I will not log in to your website

Sunday, March 19th, 2017

Two or three times a day, I get an email whose basic structure is as follows:

Prof. Aaronson, given your expertise, we’d be incredibly grateful for your feedback on a paper / report / grant proposal about quantum computing.  To access the document in question, all you’ll need to do is create an account on our proprietary DigiScholar Portal system, a process that takes no more than 3 hours.  If, at the end of that process, you’re told that the account setup failed, it might be because your browser’s certificates are outdated, or because you already have an account with us, or simply because our server is acting up, or some other reason.  If you already have an account, you’ll of course need to remember your DigiScholar Portal ID and password, and not confuse them with the 500 other usernames and passwords you’ve created for similar reasons—ours required their own distinctive combination of upper and lowercase letters, numerals, and symbols.  After navigating through our site to access the document, you’ll then be able to enter your DigiScholar Review, strictly adhering to our 15-part format, and keeping in mind that our system will log you out and delete all your work after 30 seconds of inactivity.  If you have trouble, just call our helpline during normal business hours (excluding Wednesdays and Thursdays) and stay on the line until someone assists you.  Most importantly, please understand that we can neither email you the document we want you to read, nor accept any comments about it by email.  In fact, all emails to this address will be automatically ignored.

Every day, I seem to grow crustier than the last.

More than a decade ago, I resolved that I would no longer submit to or review for most for-profit journals, as a protest against the exorbitant fees that those journals charge academics in order to buy back access to our own work—work that we turn over to the publishers (copyright and all) and even review for them completely for free, with the publishers typically adding zero or even negative value.  I’m happy that I’ve been able to keep that pledge.

Today, I’m proud to announce a new boycott, less politically important but equally consequential for my quality of life, and to recommend it to all of my friends.  Namely: as long as the world gives me any choice in the matter, I will never again struggle to log in to any organization’s website.  I’ll continue to devote a huge fraction of my waking hours to fielding questions from all sorts of people on the Internet, and I’ll do it cheerfully and free of charge.  All I ask is that, if you have a question, or a document you want me to read, you email it!  Or leave a blog comment, or stop by in person, or whatever—but in any case, don’t make me log in to anything other than Gmail or Facebook or WordPress or a few other sites that remain navigable by a senile 35-year-old who’s increasingly fixed in his ways.  Even Google Docs and Dropbox are pushing it: I’ll give up (on principle) at the first sight of any login issue, and ask for just a regular URL or an attachment.

Oh, Skype no longer lets me log in either.  Could I get to the bottom of that?  Probably.  But life is too short, and too precious.  So if we must, we’ll use the phone, or Google Hangouts.

In related news, I will no longer patronize any haircut place that turns away walk-in customers.

Back when we were discussing the boycott of Elsevier and the other predatory publishers, I wrote that this was a rare case “when laziness and idealism coincide.”  But the truth is more general: whenever my deepest beliefs and my desire to get out of work both point in the same direction, from here till the grave there’s not a force in the world that can turn me the opposite way.

First they came for the Iranians

Wednesday, January 25th, 2017

Action Item: If you’re an American academic, please sign the petition against the Immigration Executive Order. (There are already more than eighteen thousand signatories, including Nobel Laureates, Fields Medalists, you name it, but it could use more!)

I don’t expect this petition to have the slightest effect on the regime, but at least we should demonstrate to the world and to history that American academia didn’t take this silently.


I’m sure there were weeks, in February or March 1933, when the educated, liberal Germans commiserated with each other over the latest outrages of their new Chancellor, but consoled themselves that at least none of it was going to affect them personally.

This time, it’s taken just five days, since the hostile takeover of the US by its worst elements, for edicts from above to have actually hurt my life and (much more directly) the lives of my students, friends, and colleagues.

Today, we learned that Trump is suspending the issuance of US visas to people from seven majority-Islamic countries, including Iran (but strangely not Saudi Arabia, the cradle of Wahhabist terrorism—not that that would be morally justified either).  This suspension might last just 30 days, but might also continue indefinitely—particularly if, as seems likely, the Iranian government thumbs its nose at whatever Trump demands that it do to get the suspension rescinded.

So the upshot is that, until further notice, science departments at American universities can no longer recruit PhD students from Iran—a country that, along with China, India, and a few others, has long been the source of some of our best talent.  This will directly affect this year’s recruiting season, which is just now getting underway.  (If Canada and Australia have any brains, they’ll snatch these students, and make the loss America’s.)

But what about the thousands of Iranian students who are already here?  So far, no one’s rounding them up and deporting them.  But their futures have suddenly been thrown into jeopardy.

Right now, I have an Iranian PhD student who came to MIT on a student visa in 2013.  He started working with me two years ago, on the power of a rudimentary quantum computing model inspired by (1+1)-dimensional integrable quantum field theory.  You can read our paper about it, with Adam Bouland and Greg Kuperberg, here.  It so happens that this week, my student is visiting us in Austin and staying at our home.  He’s spent the whole day pacing around, terrified about his future.  His original plan, to do a postdoc in the US after he finishes his PhD, now seems impossible (since it would require a visa renewal).

Look: in the 11-year history of this blog, there have been only a few occasions when I felt so strongly about something that I stood my ground, even in the face of widespread attacks from people who I otherwise respected.  One, of course, was when I spoke out for shy nerdy males, and for a vision of feminism broad enough to recognize their suffering as a problem.  A second was when I was more blunt about D-Wave, and about its and its supporters’ quantum speedup claims, than some of my colleagues were comfortable with.  But the remaining occasions almost all involved my defending the values of the United States, Israel, Zionism, or “the West,” or condemning Islamic fundamentalism, radical leftism, or the worldviews of such individuals as Noam Chomsky or my “good friend” Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Which is simply to say: I don’t think anyone on earth can accuse me of secret sympathies for the Iranian government.

But when it comes to student visas, I can’t see that my feelings about the mullahs have anything to do with the matter.  We’re talking about people who happen to have been born in Iran, who came to the US to do math and science.  Would we rather have these young scientists here, filled with gratitude for the opportunities we’ve given them, or back in Iran filled with justified anger over our having expelled them?

To the Trump regime, I make one request: if you ever decide that it’s the policy of the US government to deport my PhD students, then deport me first.  I’m practically begging you: come to my house, arrest me, revoke my citizenship, and tear up the awards I’ve accepted at the White House and the State Department.  I’d consider that to be the greatest honor of my career.

And to those who cheered Trump’s campaign in the comments of this blog: go ahead, let me hear you defend this.


Update (Jan. 27, 2017): To everyone who’s praised the “courage” that it took me to say this, thank you so much—but to be perfectly honest, it takes orders of magnitude less courage to say this, than to say something that any of your friends or colleagues might actually disagree with! The support has been totally overwhelming, and has reaffirmed my sense that the United States is now effectively two countries, an open and a closed one, locked in a cold Civil War.

Some people have expressed surprise that I’d come out so strongly for Iranian students and researchers, “given that they don’t always agree with my politics,” or given my unapologetic support for the founding principles (if not always the actions) of the United States and of Israel. For my part, I’m surprised that they’re surprised! So let me say something that might be clarifying.

I care about the happiness, freedom, and welfare of all the men and women who are actually working to understand the universe and build the technologies of the future, and of all the bright young people who want to join these quests, whatever their backgrounds and wherever they might be found—whether it’s in Iran or Israel, in India or China or right here in the US.  The system of science is far from perfect, and we often discuss ways to improve it on this blog.  But I have not the slightest interest in tearing down what we have now, or destroying the world’s current pool of scientific talent in some cleansing fire, in order to pursue someone’s mental model of what the scientific community used to look like in Periclean Athens—or for that matter, their fantasy of what it would look like in a post-gender post-racial communist utopia.  I’m interested in the actual human beings doing actual science who I actually meet, or hope to meet.

Understand that, and a large fraction of all the political views that I’ve ever expressed on this blog, even ones that might seem to be in tension with each other, fall out as immediate corollaries.

(Related to that, some readers might be interested in a further explanation of my views about Zionism. See also my thoughts about liberal democracy, in response to numerous comments here by Curtis Yarvin a.k.a. Mencius Moldbug a.k.a. “Boldmug.”)


Update (Jan. 29) Here’s a moving statement from my student Saeed himself, which he asked me to share here.

This is not of my best interest to talk about politics. Not because I am scared but because I know little politics. I am emotionally affected like many other fellow human beings on this planet. But I am still in the US and hopefully I can pursue my degree at MIT. But many other talented friends of mine can’t. Simply because they came back to their hometowns to visit their parents. On this matter, I must say that like many of my friends in Iran I did not have a chance to see my parents in four years, my basic human right, just because I am from a particular nationality; something that I didn’t have any decision on, and that I decided to study in my favorite school, something that I decided when I was 15. When, like many other talented friends of mine, I was teaching myself mathematics and physics hoping to make big impacts in positive ways in the future. And I must say I am proud of my nationality – home is home wherever it is. I came to America to do science in the first place. I still don’t have any other intention, I am a free man, I can do science even in desert, if I have to. If you read history you’ll see scientists even from old ages have always been traveling.

As I said I know little about many things, so I just phrase my own standpoint. You should also talk to the ones who are really affected. A good friend of mine, Ahmad, who studies Mechanical engineering in UC Berkeley, came back to visit his parents in August. He is one of the most talented students I have ever seen in my life. He has been waiting for his student visa since then and now he is ultimately depressed because he cannot finish his degree. The very least the academic society can do is to help students like Ahmad finish their degrees even if it is from abroad. I can’t emphasize enough I know little about many things. But, from a business standpoint, this is a terrible deal for America. Just think about it. All international students in this country have been getting free education untill 22, in the American point of reference, and now they are using their knowledge to build technology in the USA. Just do a simple calculation and see how much money this would amount to. In any case my fellow international students should rethink this deal, and don’t take it unless at the least they are treated with respect. Having said all of this I must say I love the people of America, I have had many great friends here, great advisors specially Scott Aaronson and Aram Harrow, with whom I have been talking about life, religion, freedom and my favorite topic the foundations of the universe. I am grateful for the education I received at MIT and I think I have something I didn’t have before. I don’t even hate Mr Trump. I think he would feel different if we have a cup of coffee sometime.


Update (Jan. 31): See also this post by Terry Tao.


Update (Feb. 2): If you haven’t been checking the comments on this post, come have a look if you’d like to watch me and others doing our best to defend the foundations of Enlightenment and liberal democracy against a regiment of monarchists and neoreactionaries, including the notorious Mencius Moldbug, as well as a guy named Jim who explicitly advocates abolishing democracy and appointing Trump as “God-Emperor” with his sons to succeed him. (Incidentally, which son? Is Ivanka out of contention?)

I find these people to be simply articulating, more clearly and logically than most, the worldview that put Trump into office and where it inevitably leads. And any of us who are horrified by it had better get over our incredulity, fast, and pick up the case for modernity and Enlightenment where Spinoza and Paine and Mill and all the others left it off—because that’s what’s actually at stake here, and if we don’t understand that then we’ll continue to be blindsided.

“THE TALK”: My quantum computing cartoon with Zach Weinersmith

Wednesday, December 14th, 2016

OK, here’s the big entrée that I promised you yesterday:

“THE TALK”: My joint cartoon about quantum comgputing with Zach Weinersmith of SMBC Comics.

Just to whet your appetite:

In case you’re wondering how this came about: after our mutual friend Sean Carroll introduced me and Zach for a different reason, the idea of a joint quantum computing comic just seemed too good to pass up.  The basic premise—“The Talk”—was all Zach.  I dutifully drafted some dialogue for him, which he then improved and illustrated.  I.e., he did almost all the work (despite having a newborn competing for his attention!).  Still, it was an honor for me to collaborate with one of the great visual artists of our time, and I hope you like the result.  Beyond that, I’ll let the work speak for itself.

A paper trail that’s never checked might as well not exist

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2016

Update and Action Item: Just since late this afternoon, the Jill Stein campaign has already raised more than $1 million toward requesting hand recounts in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin.  Their target is $6-7 million.  I just donated what I could; if you agree with this post, then please do the same.  It doesn’t matter at this point if you disagree with Stein, or even (like me) think she shouldn’t have run: the goal is just to get a recount to happen before the deadline expires.

Another Update (11/24): In an amazing demonstration of the power of online fundraising, the Stein campaign has already, in less than 24 hours, raised the $2.5 million needed to fund a recount in Wisconsin.  Now they’re working on Pennsylvania and Michigan.  Amusing that Stein seems finally to have found a winning cause: Hillary!  (“Fighting for Hillary even when Hillary won’t fight for herself.”)  Again: please donate here.

Third Update (11/25):  The recount is on is Wisconsin!  The Stein campaign hasn’t yet filed in Pennsylvania or Michigan, but will do so next.  So, all the commenters who came here to explain to me that this was a scam, no judge would it allow it to go forward, etc.: please update your priors.  And next time, if you won’t listen to me, at least listen to Alex Halderman…


This will probably be my last election-related post.  After this (assuming, of course, that the effort I’m writing about fails…), I plan to encase myself in a bubble, stop reading news, and go back to thinking about quantum lower bounds, as if we still lived in a world where it made sense to do so.  But this is important.

As many of you have probably seen, several of the US’s top computer security experts, including my former MIT colleague Ron Rivest and my childhood friend Alex Halderman, have publicly urged that an audit of the US election take place.  But time is quickly running out.  If, for example, the Clinton campaign were to request a hand recount, the deadlines would be this Friday in Wisconsin, Monday in Pennsylvania, and next Wednesday in Michigan.  So far, alas, the Clinton campaign seems to have shown little interest, which would leave it to one of the third-party candidates to request a recount (they have the legal right too, if they can come up with the money for it).  In the meantime, I urge everyone to sign a petition demanding an audit.

For me, the key point is this: given the proven insecurity of electronic voting machines, an audit of paper ballots ought to be completely routine, even if there weren’t the slightest grounds for suspicion.  In this particular case, of course, we know for a fact (!!) that Russian intelligence was engaging in cyber-warfare to influence the US election.  We also know that Russia has both the will and the technological ability to tamper with foreign elections using vote-stealing malware—indeed, it nearly succeeded in doing so in Ukraine’s 2014 election.  Finally, we know that Trump, despite losing the popular vote, surprised just about everyone by outperforming his polls in three crucial swing states—and that within those states, Trump did systematically better in counties that relied on electronic voting machines than in counties that used scanners and paper ballots.

Nate Silver has tweeted that he sees no evidence of foul play, since the discrepancy disappears once you control for the education level of the counties (for more, see this FiveThirtyEight article).

But that’s the thing.  In a sane world, skeptics wouldn’t need to present statistical proof of foul play in order to trigger a hand count.  For if enemy actors know that, in practice, hand counts are never going to happen, then they’re free to be completely brazen in tampering with the childishly-insecure electronic voting machines themselves.  If no one ever looks at them, then the paper records might as well not exist.

Would anyone in the 1950s or 60s have believed that, a half-century hence, Russia actually would acquire the terrifying power over the US that the right-wing Cold Warriors once hyperventilated about—sometimes choosing to exercise that power, sometimes not—and that 2016’s conservatives would either shrug or welcome the development, while the only people who wanted to take reasonable precautions were a few rabble-rousing professors and activists?

Fate has decided that we should live in a branch of the wavefunction where the worst triumph by flaunting their terribleness and where nothing makes sense.  But however infinitesimal the chances anyone will listen, we should still insist that the sensible things be done—if nothing else, then simply as a way to maintain our own mental connection to the world of sense.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Never, never, never normalize this

Friday, November 11th, 2016

It’s become depressingly clear the last few days that even many American liberals don’t understand the magnitude of what’s happened.  Maybe those well-meaning liberals simply have more faith than I do in our nation’s institutions, despite the recent overwhelming evidence to the contrary (if the institutions couldn’t stop a Trump presidency, then what can they stop?).  Maybe they think all Republicans are as bad as Trump, or even that Trump is preferable to a generic Republican.  Or maybe my liberal friends are so obsessed by the comparatively petty rivalries between the far left and the center left—between Sanders and Clinton, or between social-justice types and Silicon Valley nerds—that they’ve lost sight of the only part of this story that anyone will care about a hundred years from now: namely, the delivering of the United States into the hands of a vengeful lunatic and his sycophants.

I was sickened to read Hillary’s concession speech—a speech that can only possibly mean she never meant what she said before, about how “a man you can bait with a tweet must never be trusted with nuclear weapons”—and then to watch President Obama holding a lovey-dovey press conference with Trump in the White House.  President Obama is a wiser man than I am, and I’m sure he had excellent utilitarian reasons to do what he did (like trying to salvage parts of the Affordable Care Act).  But still, I couldn’t help but imagine the speech I would’ve given, had I been in Obama’s shoes:

Trump, and the movement he represents, never accepted me as a legitimate president, even though I won two elections by a much greater margin than he did.  Now, like the petulant child he is, he demands that we accept him as a legitimate president.  To which I say: very well.  I urge my supporters to obey the law, and to eschew violence.  But for God’s sake: protest this puny autocrat in the streets, refuse any cooperation with his administration, block his judicial appointments, and try every legal avenue to get him impeached.  Demonstrate to the rest of the world and to history that there’s a large part of the United States that remained loyal to the nation’s founding principles, and that never accepted this vindictive charlatan.  You can have the White House, Mr. Trump, but you will never have the sanction or support of the Union—only of the Confederacy.

Given the refusal of so many people I respect to say anything like the above, it came as a relief to read a brilliant New York Review of Books piece by Masha Gessen, a Russian journalist who I’d previously known for her fine biography of Grisha Perelman (the recluse who proved the Poincaré Conjecture), and who’s repeatedly risked her life to criticize Vladimir Putin.  Gessen takes Clinton and Obama to task for their (no doubt well-intentioned) appeasement of a monstrous thug.  She then clearly explains why the United States is now headed for the kind of society Russians are intimately familiar with, and she shares the following rules for surviving an autocracy:

  1. Believe the autocrat.
  2. Do not be taken in by small signs of normality.
  3. Institutions will not save you.
  4. Be outraged.
  5. Don’t make compromises.
  6. Remember the future.

Her important essay is well worth reading in full.


In the comments of my last post, an international student posted a heartbreaking question:

Should I think about Canada now before [it’s] too late?

As I said before, I have no doubt that many talented students will respond to America’s self-inflicted catastrophe by choosing to study in Canada, the EU, or elsewhere.  I wish they wouldn’t, but I don’t blame them.  At the same time, even in the darkest hour, human affairs are never completely exempt from the laws of supply and demand.  So for example, if Trump caused enough other foreign researchers to leave the US, then it’s possible that a spot at Harvard, Princeton, or MIT could become yours for the taking.

I can’t tell you what to do, but as you ponder your decision, please remember that slightly more than half of Americans—including the overwhelming majority of residents of the major cities and college towns—despise Trump, will always despise Trump, and will try to continue to build a society that upholds the values of the Enlightenment, one that welcomes people of every background.  Granted, the Union side of America has problems of its own, and I know some of those problems as well as anyone.  But at least it’s not the Confederacy, and it’s what you’d mostly be dealing with if you came here.


Finally, I wanted to share some Facebook postings about the election by my friend (and recent interviewer) Julia Galef.  In these posts, Julia sets out some of the same thoughts that I’ve had, but with an eloquence that I haven’t been able to muster.  It’s important to understand that these posts by Julia—whose day job is to run rationality seminars—are far and away the most emotional things I’ve ever seen her write, but they’re also less emotional than anything I could write at this time!

Naturally, my sharing of Julia’s posts shouldn’t be taken to imply that she agrees with everything I’ve said on this blog about the election, or conversely, that I agree with everything she says.  I simply wanted to give her an additional platform to speak for herself.

The rest of this post is Julia:

I’m seeing some well-intentioned posts insisting “See, this is proof we need to be listening to and empathizing with Trump supporters, not just calling them stupid.”

Generally I’m a fan of that kind of thing, but now… Jesus fucking Christ, we TRIED that. Did you not see how many journalists went to small towns and respectfully listened to people say stupid shit like “I can’t vote for Hillary because she’s the antichrist,” and then tried to figure out how that stupid shit was actually, maybe a reasonable argument about trade policy?

Sometimes the answer is not “People are astutely seeing things that I, inside my bubble, have missed.” Sometimes the answer is just “People are fucking morons whose brains are not built to see through bullshit.”

(To be clear, I think this applies to people in general, including Hillary voters. We just happen to have been a bit less moronic in this particular context.)

And fine, if you want to argue that it’s strategically *wise* for us to understand what makes Trump fans tick, so that we can prevent this from happening again — assuming we get the chance — then fine.

But if you keep insisting that we “just don’t understand” that Trump voters aren’t stupid, then I’m going to take a break from the blank look of horror I’ll be wearing all day, and flash you a look of withering incredulity. Maybe Trump voters aren’t stupid in other contexts, but this sure was a fucking stupid, destructive thing they did.

~~~~
EDIT: Predictably, some people are interpreting my point as: Trump supporters are stupid and/or evil, Clinton supporters are not.

That’s not my point. My point is that humans IN GENERAL are bad at reasoning and seeing through bullshit, which caused particularly bad consequences this time via Trump fans, who made a choice that (if the human brain were better at reasoning) they would have realized was net bad for their overall goals, which presumably include avoiding nuclear war.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I realized it’s not clear to many people exactly why I’m so upset about Trump winning, so let me elaborate.

What upsets me the most about Trump’s victory is not his policies (to the extent that he has coherent policy positions). It’s not even his racism or sexism, though those do upset me. It’s what his victory reveals about the fragility of our democracy.

Trump incites violence at rallies. He spreads lies and conspiracy theories (birtherism, rigged elections) that damage the long-term credibility of the political process, just for his own short-sighted gain. He’s ruined [EDIT: tried to ruin] journalists’ careers for criticizing him, and bragged about it. He’s talked explicitly about his intent to pursue “revenge” on people who crossed him, once he becomes president. He said he would try to jail Hillary. He clearly has little knowledge of, or respect for, the Constitution or international treaties.

And half of our country looked at all that, and either said “Awesome!” or simply shrugged.

Maybe you assume Congress or the courts won’t let Trump get away with anything undemocratic. But did you see the way the Republican leadership swallowed their objections to Trump once he became the nominee, in the name of party unity? Why should we expect them to stand up to him once he’s actually the most powerful man in the world, if they didn’t before (and see earlier points about his love of revenge)?

I really do hope the Trump presidency turns out, somehow, to be not as bad as it seems. But even if that’s the case… we’ve already learned that America cares so little about democratic norms and institutions that it’s happy to elect someone like Trump.

How can you NOT be worried and depressed by that?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

OK, first off, this is a pretty sneering article for someone who’s condemning sneering.

Secondly… this is the kind of article I was responding to, in my angry post a couple of days ago.

(The point of that post got misinterpreted by a lot of people — which is understandable, because I was simultaneously trying to convey #1: a nuanced point AND #2: a lot of strong emotion at the same time. I still endorse both the point and the emotion, it’s just tricky to do both well at once. This post is an attempt to just focus on #1.)

What I was trying to say is that I think electing Trump was a very destructive and stupid thing to do. And that I reject the implication, from people like this columnist, that we have to pretend that Trump voters had sensible, well-thought out reasons for their choice, because I do not think that is the case.

I ALSO think that most voters in general, not just Trump voters, do not have sensible, well-thought out reasons for their voting choices, and there is plenty of evidence to back that up. I think humans simply aren’t the kinds of creatures who are good at making sensible choices about complicated, ideologically-charged topics.

None of this means that we should give up on democracy, just that there are some serious risks that come with democracy. And I disagree with this columnist’s scorn for Andrew Sullivan’s suggestion that we should think about ways to mitigate those risks. Plenty of people over the centuries, including the Founders of the USA, have worried about the tyranny of the majority. That worry isn’t just an invention of the modern-day snotty liberal elites, as this columnist seems to think.

Finally, I just want to ask this guy: is there ANY candidate about whom he would allow us to say “Shit, the American voters really screwed this one up”, or is that not possible by definition?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Yesterday I argued that the worst thing about Trump was the harm he does to democratic norms and institutions.

From some of the responses, I don’t think I successfully conveyed why that kind of harm is *uniquely* bad — some people seem to think “harms democratic institutions” is just one item in the overall pro-con list, and it just gets tallied up with the other pros and cons, on equal footing.

Let me try to explain why I think that’s the wrong way to look at it.

There’s this scene in the movie 300, where the Spartan king, Leonidas, feels insulted by the demands relayed by the Persian messenger, so he draws a sword on the man.

MESSENGER (shocked): “This is blasphemy, this is madness! No man threatens a messenger!”
LEONIDAS: “Madness? This is Sparta!!!”
… and he shoves the messenger off a cliff.

I think Leonidas is meant to come off as some kind of heroic, rule-breaking badass. But I watched that and thought, “Jesus, what a shitty thing to do.”

Not just because murder is shitty in general, or because murder is a disproportionate punishment for a perceived slight.

No, it’s because the “don’t harm a messenger” norm is what makes it possible for armies to send messengers to negotiate with each other, to avert or end wars. Defecting on that norm is so much worse than harming a particular person, or army, or country. It’s harming our *ability to limit harm to each other* — a meta-harm.

Our species has worked SO. DAMN. HARD. to build up enough collective trust to be able to have working institutions like constitutions, and treaties, and elections, and a free press, and peaceful transitions. And basically everything good in our lives depends on us collectively agreeing to treat those institutions seriously. I don’t care what party you’re in, or what policies you support — that should all come second to warding off meta-harms that undermine our ability to cooperate with each other enough to have a working society.

I’m not going to claim that politicians were perfect at respecting norms before Trump came along. But Trump is unprecedented. Partly in how blatant he is about his lack of respect for norms in general.

But also in how *discrete* his defections are — he’s not just incrementally bending norms that lots of other people before him have already bent.

We used to be able to say “In America, presidents don’t threaten to jail their political rivals.” Now we can’t.

We used to be able to say, “In America, presidents don’t sow doubts about the legitimacy of elections.” Now we can’t.

We used to be able to say, “In America, presidents don’t encourage violence against protesters.” Now we can’t.

Even joking about those norms, from someone in a position of power, undermines them. If Trump was actually joking about jailing Hillary, I suppose that’s better than if he was serious, but it still deals a blow to the norm. The health of the norm depends on us showing each other that we understand it’s important.

And I just feel despairing that so many Americans don’t seem to feel the same. Like, I don’t expect everyone to have thought through the game theory, but I just assumed people at least had an intuitive sense of these norms being sacred.

… And most of all, I’m worried that those of us who *do* feel shock at those norms being violated will gradually lose our sense of shock, as the post-Trump era wears on.


Update (Nov. 12) Since I apparently wasn’t, let me be perfectly clear. The fact that Trump’s voters unleashed a monster on the world does not make them evil or idiots. It “merely” makes them catastrophically mistaken. Just as I did (and took a lot flak for doing!) before the election, I will continue to oppose any efforts to harass individual Trump supporters, get them fired from their jobs, punish other people for associating with them, etc. To do that, while also militantly refusing to normalize Trump’s autocratic rule over the US, is admittedly to walk an incredibly narrow tightrope—and yet I don’t see anything on either side of the tightrope that’s consistent with my beliefs.

Some readers might also be interested in my reflections on being on the “same side” as Amanda Marcotte.

What is there to say?

Wednesday, November 9th, 2016

Update (Nov. 10): In the wake of the US’s authoritarian takeover, I will sadly understand if foreign students and postdocs no longer wish to study in the US, or if foreign researchers no longer wish to enter the US even for conferences and visits. After all, I wouldn’t feel safe in Erdogan’s Turkey or the Mullahs’ Iran. In any case, I predict that the US’s scientific influence will now start to wane, as top researchers from elsewhere find ways to route around us.

I make just one request: if you do come to the US (as I selfishly hope you will), please don’t avoid places like Austin just because they look on the map like they’re in a sea of red. To understand what’s going on, you need to look at the detailed county-by-county results, which show that even in “red” states, most cities went overwhelmingly for Clinton, while even in “blue” states like New York, most rural areas went for Trump. Here’s Texas, for example (Austin was 66% Clinton, 27% Trump).


I’m ashamed of my country and terrified about the future.  When Bush took power in 2000, I was depressed for weeks, but I didn’t feel like I do now, like a fourth-generation refugee in the United States—like someone who happens to have been born here and will presumably continue to live here, unless and until it starts to become unsafe for academics, or Jews, or people who publicly criticize Trump, at which time I guess we’ll pack up and go somewhere else (assuming there still is a somewhere else).

If I ever missed the danger and excitement that so many European scientists and mathematicians felt in the 1930s, that sense of trying to pursue the truth even in the shadow of an aggressive and unironic evil—OK, I can cross that off the list.  Since I was seven years old or so, I’ve been obsessed by the realization that there are no guardrails that prevent human beings from choosing the worst, that all the adults who soothingly reassure you that “everything always works out okay in the end” are full of it.  Now I get to live through it instead of just reading about it in history books and having nightmares.

If James Comey hadn’t cast what turned out to be utterly unfounded suspicion over Hillary during the height of early voting, maybe the outcome would’ve been different.  If young and poor and minority voters in Wisconsin and North Carolina and elsewhere hadn’t been effectively disenfranchised through huge lines and strategic voter ID laws and closures of polling places, maybe the outcome would’ve been different.  If Russia and WikiLeaks hadn’t interfered by hacking one side and not the other, maybe the outcome would’ve been different.  For that matter, if Russia or some other power hacked the trivially-hackable electronic voting machines that lack paper trails—machines that something like a third of American voters still used this election—there’s an excellent chance we’d never find out.

But in some sense, all of that is beside the point.  For take all of it away, and Trump still would’ve at least come within a few terrifying points of winning—and as Scott Alexander rightly stresses, whatever horrible things are true about the American electorate today, would still have been true had Hillary eked out a narrow win.  It’s just that now we all get to enjoy the consequences of ½±ε of the country’s horrible values.

There is no silver lining.  There’s nothing good about this.

My immediate problem is that, this afternoon, I’m supposed to give a major physics colloquium at UT.  The title?  “Quantum Supremacy.”  That term, which had given me so much comedic mileage through the long campaign season (“will I disavow support from quantum supremacists?  I’ll keep you in suspense about it…” ), now just seems dark and horrible, a weight around my neck.  Yet, distracted and sleep-deprived and humor-deprived though I am, I’ve decided to power through and give the talk.  Why?  Because Steven Weinberg says he still wants to hear it.

I see no particular reason to revise anything I’ve said on this blog about the election, except perhaps for my uncritical quoting of all the analyses and prediction markets that gave Trump a small (but still, I stressed, much too high) probability of winning.

I stand by my contempt for the Electoral College, and my advocacy for vote-swapping.  The fact that vote-swapping once again failed doesn’t mean it was a bad idea; on the contrary, it means that we didn’t do enough.

I stand by my criticism of some of the excesses of the social justice movement, which seem to me to have played some role in spawning the predictable backlash whose horrific results the world now sees.

Lastly, I stand by what I said about the centrality of Enlightenment norms and values, and of civil discourse even with those with whom we disagree, to my own rejection of Trumpism.

On the other hand, the Trump supporters who are leaving me anonymous taunting comments can go elsewhere.  On this day, I think a wholly appropriate Enlightenment response to them is “fuck you.”

May reason trump the Trump in all of us

Wednesday, October 19th, 2016

Two years ago, when I was the target of an online shaming campaign, what helped me through it were hundreds of messages of support from friends, slight acquaintances, and strangers of every background.  I vowed then to return the favor, by standing up when I saw decent people unfairly shamed.  Today I have an opportunity to make good.

Some time ago I had the privilege of interacting a bit with Sam Altman, president of the famed startup incubator Y Combinator (and a guy who’s thanked in pretty much everything Paul Graham writes).  By way of our mutual friend, the renowned former quantum computing researcher Michael Nielsen, Sam got in touch with me to solicit suggestions for “outside-the-box” scientists and writers, for a new grant program that Y Combinator was starting. I found Sam eager to delve into the merits of any suggestion, however outlandish, and was delighted to be able to make a difference for a few talented people who needed support.

Sam has also been one of the Silicon Valley leaders who’s written most clearly and openly about the threat to America posed by Donald Trump and the need to stop him, and he’s donated tens of thousands of dollars to anti-Trump causes.  Needless to say, I supported Sam on that as well.

Now Sam is under attack on social media, and there are even calls for him to resign as the president of Y Combinator.  Like me two years ago, Sam has instantly become the corporeal embodiment of the “nerd privilege” that keeps the marginalized out of Silicon Valley.

Why? Because, despite his own emphatic anti-Trump views, Sam rejected demands to fire Peter Thiel (who has an advisory role at Y Combinator) because of Thiel’s support for Trump.  Sam explained his reasoning at some length:

[A]s repugnant as Trump is to many of us, we are not going to fire someone over his or her support of a political candidate.  As far as we know, that would be unprecedented for supporting a major party nominee, and a dangerous path to start down (of course, if Peter said some of the things Trump says himself, he would no longer be part of Y Combinator) … The way we got into a situation with Trump as a major party nominee in the first place was by not talking to people who are very different than we are … I don’t understand how 43% of the country supports Trump.  But I’d like to find out, because we have to include everyone in our path forward.  If our best ideas are to stop talking to or fire anyone who disagrees with us, we’ll be facing this whole situation again in 2020.

The usual criticism of nerds is that we might have narrow technical abilities, but we lack wisdom about human affairs.  It’s ironic, then, that it appears to have fallen to Silicon Valley nerds to guard some of the most important human wisdom our sorry species ever came across—namely, the liberal ideals of the Enlightenment.  Like Sam, I despise pretty much everything Trump stands for, and I’ve been far from silent about it: I’ve blogged, donated money, advocated vote swapping, endured anonymous comments like “kill yourself kike”—whatever seemed like it might help even infinitesimally to ensure the richly-deserved electoral thrashing that Trump mercifully seems to be headed for in a few weeks.

But I also, I confess, oppose the forces that apparently see Trump less as a global calamity to be averted, than as a golden opportunity to take down anything they don’t like that’s ever been spotted within a thousand-mile radius of Trump Tower.  (Where does this Kevin Bacon game end, anyway?  Do “six degrees of Trump” suffice to contaminate you?)

And not only do I not feel a shadow of a hint of a moral conflict here, but it seems to me that precisely the same liberal Enlightenment principles are behind both of these stances.

But I’d go yet further.  It sort of flabbergasts me when social-justice activists don’t understand that, if we condemn not only Trump, not only his supporters, but even vociferous Trump opponents who associate with Trump supporters (!), all we’ll do is feed the narrative that got Trumpism as far as it has—namely, that of a smug, bubble-encased, virtue-signalling leftist elite subject to runaway political correctness spirals.  Like, a hundred million Americans’ worldviews revolve around the fear of liberal persecution, and we’re going to change their minds by firing anyone who refuses to fire them?  As a recent Washington Post story illustrates, the opposite approach is harder but can bear spectacular results.

Now, as for Peter Thiel: three years ago, he funded a small interdisciplinary workshop on the coast of France that I attended.  With me there were a bunch of honest-to-goodness conservative Christians, a Freudian psychoanalyst, a novelist, a right-wing radio host, some scientists and Silicon Valley executives, and of course Thiel himself.  Each, I found, offered tons to disagree about but also some morsels to learn.

Thiel’s worldview, focused on the technological and organizational greatness that (in his view) Western civilization used to have and has subsequently lost, was a bit too dark and pessimistic for me, and I’m a pretty dark and pessimistic person.  Thiel gave a complicated, meandering lecture that involved comparing modern narratives about Silicon Valley entrepreneurs against myths of gods, heroes, and martyrs throughout history, such as Romulus and Remus (the legendary founders of Rome).  The talk might have made more sense to Thiel than to his listeners.

At the same time, Thiel’s range of knowledge and curiosity was pretty awesome.  He avidly followed all the talks (including mine, on P vs. NP and quantum complexity theory) and asked pertinent questions. When the conversation turned to D-Wave, and Thiel’s own decision not to invest in it, he laid out the conclusions he’d come to from an extremely quick look at the question, then quizzed me as to whether he’d gotten anything wrong.  He hadn’t.

From that conversation among others, I formed the impression that Thiel’s success as an investor is, at least in part, down neither to luck nor to connections, but to a module in his brain that most people lack, which makes blazingly fast and accurate judgments about tech startups.  No wonder Y Combinator would want to keep him as an adviser.

But, OK, I’m so used to the same person being spectacularly right on some things and spectacularly wrong on others, that it no longer causes even slight cognitive dissonance.  You just take the issues one by one.

I was happy, on balance, when it came out that Thiel had financed the lawsuit that brought down Gawker Media.  Gawker really had used its power to bully the innocent, and it had broken the law to do it.  And if it’s an unaccountable, anti-egalitarian, billionaire Godzilla against a vicious, privacy-violating, nerd-baiting King Kong—well then, I guess I’m with Godzilla.

More recently, I was appalled when Thiel spoke at the Republican convention, pandering to the crowd with Fox-News-style attack lines that were unworthy of a mind of his caliber.  I lost a lot of respect for Thiel that day.  But that’s the thing: unlike with literally every other speaker at the GOP convention, my respect for Thiel had started from a point that made a decrease possible.

I reject huge parts of Thiel’s worldview.  I also reject any worldview that would threaten me with ostracism for talking to Thiel, attending a workshop he sponsors, or saying anything good about him.  This is not actually a difficult balance.

Today, when it sometimes seems like much of the world has united in salivating for a cataclysmic showdown between whites and non-whites, Christians and Muslims, “dudebros” and feminists, etc., and that the salivators differ mostly just in who they want to see victorious in the coming battle and who humiliated, it can feel lonely to stick up for naïve, outdated values like the free exchange of ideas, friendly disagreement, the presumption of innocence, and the primacy of the individual over the tribe.  But those are the values that took us all the way from a bronze spear through the enemy’s heart to a snarky rebuttal on the arXiv, and they’ll continue to build anything worth building.

And now to watch the third debate (I’ll check the comments afterward)…


Update (Oct. 20): See also this post from a blog called TheMoneyIllusion. My favorite excerpt:

So let’s see. Not only should Trump be shunned for his appalling political views, an otherwise highly respected Silicon Valley entrepreneur who just happens to support Trump (along with 80 million other Americans) should also be shunned. And a person who despises Trump and works against him but who defends Thiel’s right to his own political views should also resign. Does that mean I should be shunned too? After all, I’m a guy who hates Trump, writing a post that defends a guy who hates Trump, who wrote a post defending a guy’s freedom to support Trump, who in turn supports Trump. And suppose my mother sticks up for me? Should she also be shunned?

It’s almost enough to make me vote . . . no, just kidding.

Question … Which people on the left are beyond the pale? Suppose Thiel had supported Hugo Chavez? How about Castro? Mao? Pol Pot? Perhaps the degrees of separation could be calibrated to the awfulness of the left-winger:

Chavez: One degree of separation. (Corbyn, Sean Penn, etc.)

Castro: Two degrees of separation is still toxic.

Lenin: Three degrees of separation.

Mao: Four degrees of separation.

Pol Pot: Five degrees of separation.