Archive for the ‘Rage Against Doofosity’ Category

My Enlightenment fanaticism

Tuesday, July 7th, 2020

If there were ever a time for liberals and progressives to put aside their internal squabbles, you’d think it was now. The President of the United States is a racist gangster, who might not leave if he loses the coming election—all the more reason to ensure he loses in a landslide. Due in part to that gangster’s breathtaking incompetence, 130,000 Americans are now dead, and the economy tanked, from a pandemic that the rest of the world has under much better control. The gangster’s latest “response” to the pandemic has been to disrupt the lives of thousands of foreign scientists—including several of my students—by threatening to cancel their visas. (American universities will, of course, do whatever they legally can to work around this act of pure spite.)

So how is the left responding to this historic moment?

This weekend, 536 people did so by … trying to cancel Steven Pinker, stripping him of “distinguished fellow” and “media expert” status (whatever those are) in the Linguistics Society of America for ideological reasons.

Yes, Steven Pinker: the celebrated linguist and cognitive scientist, author of The Language Instinct and How the Mind Works (which had a massive impact on me as a teenager) and many other books, and academic torch-bearer for the Enlightenment in our time. For years, I’d dreaded the day they’d finally come for Steve, even while friends assured me my fears must be inflated since, after all, they hadn’t come for him yet.

I concede that the cancelers’ logic is impeccable. If they can get Pinker, everyone will quickly realize that there’s no longer any limit to who they can get—including me, including any writer or scientist who crosses them. If you’ve ever taken, or aspire to take, any public stand riskier than “waffles are tasty,” then don’t delude yourself that you’ll be magically spared—certainly not by your own progressive credentials.

I don’t know if the “charges” against Pinker merit a considered response (Pinker writes that some people wondered if they were satire). For those who care, though, here’s a detailed and excellent takedown by the biologist and blogger Jerry Coyne, and here’s another by Barbara Partee.

So, it seems Pinker once used the term “urban crime,” which can be a racist dogwhistle—except that in this case, it literally meant “urban crime.” Pinker once referred to Bernie Goetz, whose 1984 shooting of four robbers in the NYC subway polarized the US at the time, as a “mild-mannered engineer,” in a sentence whose purpose was to contrast that description with the ferocity of Goetz’s act. Pinker “appropriated” the work of a Black scholar, Harvard Dean Lawrence Bobo, which apparently meant approvingly citing him in a tweet. Etc. Ironically, it occurred to me that the would-be Red Guards could’ve built a much stronger case against Pinker had they seriously engaged with his decades of writing—writing that really does take direct aim at their whole worldview, they aren’t wrong about that—rather than superficially collecting a few tweets.

What Coyne calls the “Purity Posse” sleazily gaslights its readers as follows:

We want to note here that we have no desire to judge Dr. Pinker’s actions in moral terms, or claim to know what his aims are. Nor do we seek to “cancel” Dr. Pinker, or to bar him from participating in the linguistics and LSA communities (though many of our signatories may well believe that doing so would be the right course of action).

In other words: many of us “may well believe” that Pinker’s scientific career should be ended entirely. But magnanimously, for now, we’ll settle for a display of our power that leaves the condemned heretic still kicking. So don’t accuse us of wanting to “cancel” anyone!

In that same generous spirit:

Though no doubt related, we set aside questions of Dr. Pinker’s tendency to move in the proximity of what The Guardian called a revival of “scientific racism”, his public support for David Brooks (who has been argued to be a proponent of “gender essentialism”), his expert testimonial in favor of Jeffrey Epstein (which Dr. Pinker now regrets), or his dubious past stances on rape and feminism.

See, even while we make these charges, we disclaim all moral responsibility for making them. (For the record, Alan Dershowitz asked Pinker for a linguist’s opinion of a statute, so Pinker provided it; Pinker didn’t know at the time that the request had anything to do with Epstein.)

Again and again, spineless institutions have responded to these sorts of ultimatums by capitulating to them. So I confess that the news about Pinker depressed me all weekend. The more time passed, though, the more it looked like the Purity Posse might have actually overplayed its hand this time. Steven Pinker is not weak prey.

Let’s start with what’s missing from the petition: Noam Chomsky pointedly refused to sign. How that must’ve stung his comrades! For that matter, virtually all of the world’s well-known linguists refused to sign. Ray Jackendoff and Michel DeGraff were originally on the petition, but their names turned out to have been forged (were others?).

But despite the flimsiness of the petition, suppose the Linguistics Society of America caved. OK, I mused, how many people have even heard of the Linguistics Society of America, compared to the number who’ve heard of Pinker or read his books? If the LSA expelled Pinker, wouldn’t they be forever known to the world only as the organization that had done that?

I’m tired of the believers in the Enlightenment being constantly on the defensive. “No, I’m not a racist or a misogynist … on the contrary, I’ve spent decades advocating for … yes, I did say that, but you completely misunderstood my meaning, which in context was … please, I’m begging you, can’t we sit and discuss this like human beings?”

It’s time for more of us to stand up and say: yes, I am a center-left extremist. Yes, I’m an Enlightenment fanatic, a radical for liberal moderation and reason. If liberalism is the vanilla of worldviews, then I aspire to be the most intense vanilla anyone has ever tasted. I’m not a closeted fascist. I’m not a watered-down leftist. I’m something else. I consider myself ferociously anti-racist and anti-sexist and anti-homophobic and pro-downtrodden, but I don’t cede to any ideological faction the right to dictate what those terms mean. The world is too complicated, too full of ironies and surprises, for me to outsource my conscience in that way.

Enlightenment liberalism at least has the virtue that it’s not some utopian dream: on the contrary, it’s already led to most of the peace and prosperity that this sorry world has ever known, wherever and whenever it’s been allowed to operate. And while “the death of the Enlightenment” gets proclaimed every other day, liberal ideals have by now endured for centuries. They’ve outlasted kings and dictators, the Holocaust and the gulag. They certainly have it within them to outlast some online sneerers.

Yes, sometimes martyrdom (or at least career martyrdom) is the only honorable course, and yes, the childhood bullies did gift me with a sizeable persecution complex—I’ll grant the sneerers that. But on reflection, no, I don’t want to be a martyr for Enlightenment values. I want Enlightenment values to win, and not by vanquishing their opponents but by persuading them. As Pinker writes:

A final comment: I feel sorry for the signatories. Moralistic dudgeon is a shallow and corrosive indulgence, & policing the norms of your peer group a stunting of the intellect. Learning new ideas & rethinking conventional wisdom are deeper pleasures … and ultimately better for the world. Our natural state is ignorance, fallibility, & self-deception. Progress comes only from broaching & evaluating ideas, including those that feel unfamiliar and uncomfortable.

Spend a lot of time on Twitter and Reddit and news sites, and it feels like the believers in the above sentiment are wildly outnumbered by the self-certain ideologues of all sides. But just like the vanilla in a cake can be hard to taste, so there are more Enlightenment liberals than it seems, even in academia—especially if we include all those who never explicitly identified that way, because they were too busy building or fixing or discovering or teaching, and because they mistakenly imagined that if they just left the Purity Posse alone then the Posse would do likewise. If that’s you, then please ask yourself now: what is my personal break-point for speaking up?

The Collapsing Leviathan

Tuesday, May 26th, 2020

I was seriously depressed for the last week, by noticeably more than my baseline amount for the new pandemic-ravaged world. The depression seems to have been triggered by two pieces of news:

  1. The US Food and Drug Administration—yes, the same FDA whose failure to approve covid tests in February infamously set the stage for the deaths of 100,000 Americans—has now also banned the Gates Foundation’s program for at-home covid testing. This, it seems to me, is not the sort of thing that could happen in a still-functioning society, one where people valued their own and their neighbors’ physical survival, and viewed rules and regulations as merely instruments to that end. It’s the sort of thing that one imagines in the waning years of a doomed empire, when no one pretends anymore that they can fix or improve the Leviathan; they’re all just scurrying to flee the Leviathan as it collapses with a thud. More broadly, I still don’t think that the depth of America’s humiliation and downfall has sunk in to most Americans. For me, it starts and ends with a single observation: where fifty years ago we landed humans on the moon, today we can no longer make or distribute paper masks, even when hundreds of thousands of lives depend on it. Look, there are many countries, like Taiwan and New Zealand, that managed to protect both their economies and their vulnerable citizens’ lives, by crushing the virus early. Then there are countries that waited, until they faced an excruciating choice between the two. But here in the US, we’ve somehow achieved the worst of both worlds—triggering a second Great Depression while also utterly failing to control the virus. Can we abandon the charade of treating this as a legible “policy choice,” to be debated in earnest thinkpieces? To me, it just feels like the death-spasm of a collapsing Leviathan.
  2. Something that, at first glance, might seem trivial by comparison, but isn’t: the University of California system—ignoring the advice of its own Academic Senate, and at the apparent insistence of its chancellor Janet Napolitano—will now permanently end the use of the SAT and ACT in undergraduate admissions. This is widely expected, probably correctly, to trigger a chain reaction, whereby one US university after the next will abandon standardized tests. As a result, admissions to the top US universities—and hence, most chances for social advancement in the US—will henceforth be based entirely on shifting and nebulous criteria that rich, well-connected kids and their parents spend most of their lives figuring out, rather than merely mostly based on such criteria. The last side door for smart noncomformist kids is now being slammed shut. From now on, in the US, the only paths to success that clearly delineate their rules will be sports, gambling, reality TV, and the like. In case it matters to anyone reading this, I feel certain that a 15-year-old me wouldn’t stand a chance in the emerging regime—any more than nerdy Jewish kids did in the USSR of the 1970s, or the US of the 1920s. (As I’ve previously recounted on this blog, the US’s “holistic” college admissions system, with its baffling-to-foreigners emphasis on “character,” “leadership,” “well-roundedness,” etc. rather than test scores, originated in a successful push a century ago by the presidents of Harvard, Princeton, and Yale to keep Jewish enrollments down. Today the system fulfills precisely the same function, except against Asian-Americans rather than Jews.) Ironically but predictably, the death of the SAT—i.e., of one of the most fearsome weapons against entrenched wealth and power ever devised—is being celebrated by the self-described champions of the underdog. I have one question for those champions: do you not understand what your system will actually do to society’s underdogs? Or do you understand perfectly well, and approve?

To put it bluntly—since events like these leave no room for euphemism—a hundred thousand Americans are now dead from covid, and hundreds of thousands more are poised to die, because smart people are no longer in charge. And the death of the SAT will help ensure that smart people will never be back in charge. Obama might be remembered by history as America’s last smart-person-in-charge, its last competent technocrat—but one man couldn’t stop a tidal wave of stupid.

I know from experience what many will readers will say to all this: “instead of wallowing in gloom, Scott, why don’t you just make falsifiable predictions about the bad outcomes you expect from these developments, and then score yourself later?”

So here’s the thing about that.

Shortly after Trump was elected, I changed this blog’s background to black, as a small way to mourn the United States that I’d grown up thinking that I lived in, the one that had at least some ideals. Today, with four years of hindsight, my thinking then feels overly optimistic: why plain black? Why not, like, images of rotting corpses in a pit?

And yet, were I foolish enough to register predictions in 2016, I would’ve said that within one year, Trump’s staggering incompetence would surely cause some catastrophe or other to grip the country—a really obvious one, with mass death and even Trump’s beloved stock market cratering.

And then after a year, commenters would ridicule me, because none of that had happened. After two years, they’d ridicule me again because it still hadn’t happened, and after three years they’d ridicule me a third time.

Now it’s happened.

America, we now know, is like the cartoon character who runs off a cliff: it dangled in midair for three years, defying physics, before it finally looked down.

Look, I’m a theoretical computer scientist. By training, I deal in asymptotics, not in constant factors. I don’t often make predictions with deadlines; when I do, I often regret it. It’s a good thing that I became an academic rather than an investor! For I’ve learned that the only “oracular power” I have is to make statements like:

My eyes, my brain, and the pit of my stomach are all blaring at me that the asymptotics of this situation just took a sharp turn for the worse. Sure, for an unknown length of time, noise and constant factors could mask the effects. But eventually, either (1) society will need to reverse what it just did, or else (2) terrible effects will spring from it, or else (3) the entire universe no longer makes sense.

When I’ve felt this way in the past, option (3) rarely turned out to be the right answer.

So, what can anyone say that will make me less depressed? Thanks in advance!

Update (May 30): Woohoo!! Avoiding yet another tragedy, after years of setbacks and struggles, it looks like today the US has finally launched humans into orbit, thereby recapitulating a technological achievement from 1961 that the US had already vastly surpassed by 1969. I hereby retract the pessimism of this post.

Vaccine challenge trials NOW!

Friday, May 1st, 2020

Update (May 5): Here’s a Quillette article making the case for human challenge trials. I think there’s an actual non-negligible chance that this cause will win—but every wasted day means thousands more dead.

I’ve asked myself again and again over the last few months: why are human challenge trials for covid vaccines not an ethical no-brainer? What am I missing that all the serious medical experts see? And what are we waiting for: for 10 million more to die? 20 million? So it made me feel a little less crazy that the world’s most famous living ethicist agrees.

I loved the way James Miller put it on my Facebook:

This is the trolley problem where the fat man wants to jump knowing his chance of death is below 1% and our decision is whether to stop him.

Like, suppose someone willingly sacrificed themselves so that doctors could use their body parts to save 10 million people. We might say: we would’ve lacked the strength to do the same in their place. We might say: we hope they weren’t pressured or coerced into it. But after the deed is done, is there anything to call this person but a hero, or even a martyr? Whatever we feel about the fireman who sacrifices his life in the course of saving 10 kids from a burning building, shouldn’t we feel it about this person a million times over? And of course, I deliberately made this vastly more extreme than the actual situation faced by young, healthy volunteers in a covid challenge trial, who in all likelihood would recover and be fine.

Regarding the obvious question: so would I volunteer to take an unproved vaccine, followed by a deliberate covid injection? Sure! Unfortunately, I might no longer be a candidate: I’m now nearing middle age and pre-diabetic, I help watch two young kids, and I live with two immunocompromised parents. But on the principle of walking the walk: if it were a vaccine candidate that I considered promising (and there are now several), and if it were practical to isolate me away from home for the requisite time, and if I could actually be of use, then absolutely, jab me.

On a somewhat related note: Last night I watched the Ender’s Game movie with my 7-year-old daughter Lily (neither of us had seen it; I’d read the book but only as a kid). Not surprisingly, the movie was a huge hit with Lily; she’s already begging to see it again. As for me, my first thought was: what a hackneyed sci-fi premise, that the entire human race is under attack from some alien species, and that all human children grow up in the shadow of that knowledge. Nothing whatsoever like the real world of 2020! My second thought was: what a quaint concept, that faced with a threat to humanity, the earth-authorities would immediately respond “quick, we need to find and train and cultivate super-geniuses willing to break the rules, and put them in command!” Only in the movies, never in real life! Except in, y’know, WWII, where that mindset was pretty crucial to the Allied victory? But 75 years later, yes, it reads to us as science fiction.

To inject a tiny note of optimism, I’m hopeful that we will eventually see some fruits of genius commensurate with the threat, whether in the realm of treatments or vaccines or contact-tracing apps or PPE or something else that no one’s thought of yet. Right now, though, the sad fact is this: as far as I know, the only indisputable work of genius to have arisen in response to the covid crisis has been the Twitter account for steak-umms.

Martinis, The Plot Against America, Kill Chain

Thursday, April 23rd, 2020

Update (May 1): Check out this Forbes interview, where Martinis explains his reasons for leaving Google in much more detail.

As if we didn’t have enough to worry us, this week brought the sad news that John Martinis, who for five years was the leader and public face of Google’s experimental quantum computing effort, has quit Google and returned to his earlier post at UC Santa Barbara. I’ve spoken about what happened both with John and with Hartmut Neven, the head of Google’s Quantum AI Lab. Without betraying confidences, or asserting anything that either side would disagree with, I think I can say that it came down to a difference in management philosophies. Google tends to be consensus-driven, whereas John is of the view that building a million-qubit, error-corrected quantum computer will take more decisive leadership. I can add: I’d often wondered how John had time to travel the world, giving talks about quantum supremacy, while also managing the lab’s decisions on a day-to-day basis. It looks now like I was right to wonder! Potential analogies flood the mind: is this like a rock band that breaks up right after its breakout hit? Is it like Steve Jobs leaving Apple? Anyway, I wish the Google team the best in John’s absence, and I also wish John the best with whatever he does next.

I was never big on HBO (e.g., I still haven’t seen a single minute of Game of Thrones), but in the last couple of weeks, Dana and I found ourselves watching two absolutely compelling HBO shows—one a fictional miniseries and the other a documentary, but both on the theme of the fragility of American democracy.

The Plot Against America, based on the 2004 Philip Roth novel of the same name (which Dana read and which I now plan to read), is about an alternate history where the aviator Charles Lindbergh defeats FDR in the 1940 presidential election, on a fascist and isolationist platform, in events that—as countless people have pointed out—are eerily, terrifyingly prescient of what would actualy befall the US in 2016. The series follows a Jewish insurance salesman and his family in Newark, NJ—isn’t that what it always is with Philip Roth?—as they try to cope with the country’s gradual, all-too-plausible slide downward, from the genteel antisemitism that already existed in our timeline’s 1940 all the way to riots, assassinations, and pogroms (although never to an American Holocaust). One of the series’ final images is of paper ballots, in a rematch presidential election, being carted away and burned, underscoring just how much depends here on the mundane machinery of democracy.

Which brings me to Kill Chain: The Cyber War on America’s Elections, a documentary about the jaw-droppingly hackable electronic voting machines used in US elections and the fight to do something about them. The show mostly follows the journey of Harri Hursti, a Finnish-born programmer who’s made this issue his life’s work, but it also extensively features my childhood best friend Alex Halderman. OK, but isn’t this a theoretical issue, one that (perhaps rightly) exercises security nerds like Alex, but surely hasn’t changed the outcomes of actual elections?

Yeah, so about that. You know Brian Kemp, the doofus governor of Georgia, who’s infamously announced plans to reopen the state right away, ignoring the pleading of public health experts—a act that will fill Georgia’s ICUs and morgues as surely as night follows day? And you know how Kemp defeated the Democrat, Stacey Abrams, by a razor-thin margin, in a 2018 election of which Kemp himself was the overseer? It turns out that Kemp’s office distributed defective memory cards to African-American and Democratic precincts, though not to white and Republican ones. There’s also striking statistical evidence that at least some voting machines were hacked, although because there was no paper trail it can never be proved.

In short, what The Plot Against America and Kill Chain have in common is that they would be desperately needed warnings about the ease with which democracy could collapse in the US, except for the detail that much of what they warn about has already happened, and now it’s not clear how we get back.

When events make craziness sane

Tuesday, April 7th, 2020

This post is simply to say the following (and thereby to make it common knowledge that I said it, and that I no longer give a shit who thinks less of me for saying it):

If the pandemic has radicalized you, I won’t think that makes you crazy. It’s radicalized me, noticeably shifted my worldview. And in some sense, I no more apologize for that, than I apologize for my worldview presumably differing from what it would’ve been in some parallel universe with no WWII.

If you suspect that all those earnest, well-intentioned plans and slogans about “flattening the curve” are wonderful and essential, but still, “flattening” is only a desperate gambit to buy some time and nothing more; still, flattening or no flattening, the fundamentals of the situation are that either

(1) a vaccine or cure gets discovered and deployed, or else

(2) we continue in quasi-lockdown mode for the rest of our lives, or else

(3) the virus spreads to the point where it definitely kills some people you know,

—if you suspect this, then at least in my book you’re not crazy. I suspect the same.

If you still don’t understand, no matter how patiently it’s explained to you, why ~18 months is the absolute bare minimum needed to get a vaccine out; if all the talk of Phase 1, 2, and 3 trials and the need to learn more about rare side effects and so forth seems hard to square with the desperate world war that this is; if you wonder whether the Allied commanders and Allied medical authorities in WWII, transported to the present, would agree that 18 months is the bare minimum, or whether they’d already be distributing vaccines a month ago that probably work well enough and do bounded damage if they don’t—I hereby confess that I don’t understand it either.

If you wonder how the US will possibly hold an election in November that the world won’t rightly consider a sham—given that the only safe way will be universal vote-by-mail, but Trump and his five Vichy justices will never allow it—know that I wonder this too.

If you think that all those psychiatrists now doing tele-psychiatry should tell their patients, “listen, I’ve been noticing an unhealthy absence of panic attacks, obsessions about the government trying to kill your family, or compulsive disinfecting of doorknobs, so I think we’d better up your dose of pro-anxiety medication”—I’m with you.

If you see any US state that wants to avoid >2% deaths, being pushed to the brink of openly defying the FDA, smuggling in medical supplies to escape federal confiscation, using illegal tests and illegal masks and illegal ventilators and illegal everything else, and you also see military commanders getting fired for going outside the chain of command to protect their soldiers’ lives, and you wonder whether this is the start of some broader dissolution of the Union—well, I don’t intend to repeat the mistake of underestimating this crisis.

If you think that the feds who literally confiscate medical supplies before they can reach the hospitals, might as well just shoot the patients as they’re wheeled into the ICU and say “we’re sorry, but this action was obligatory under directive 48c(7)”—I won’t judge you for feeling that way.

If you feel like, while there are still pockets of brilliance and kindness and inspiration and even heroism all over US territory, still, as a federal entity the United States effectively no longer exists or functions, at least not if you treat “try to stop the mass death of the population” as a nonnegotiable component of the “life, liberty, and happiness” foundation for the nation’s existence—if you think this, I won’t call you crazy. I feel more like a citizen of nowhere every day.

If you’d jump, should the opportunity arise (as it won’t), to appoint Bill Gates as temporary sovereign for as long as this crisis lasts, and thereafter hold a new Constitutional Convention to design a stronger democracy, attempting the first-ever Version 2.0 (as opposed to 1.3, 1.4, etc.) of the American founders’ vision, this time with even more safeguards against destruction by know-nothings and demagogues—if you’re in for that, I don’t think you’re crazy. I’m wondering where to sign up.

Finally, if you’re one of the people who constantly emails me wrong P=NP proofs or local hidden-variable explanations of quantum mechanics … sorry, I still think you’re crazy. That stuff hasn’t been affected.

Happy Passover and Easter!

If I used Twitter…

Saturday, April 4th, 2020

I’m thinking of writing a novel where human civilization is threatened by a global pandemic, and is then almost singlehandedly rescued by one man … a man who reigned for decades as the world’s prototypical ruthless and arrogant tech billionaire, but who was then transformed by the love of his wife. That is, if the billionaire can make it past government regulators as evil as they are stupid. I need some advice: how can I make my storyline a bit subtler, so critics don’t laugh it off as some immature nerd fantasy?

Updates (April 5): Thanks to several commenters for emphasizing that the wife needs to be a central character here: I agree! The other thing is, I don’t want Fox News cheering my novel for its Atlas Shrugged vibe. So maybe the pandemic is only surging out of control in the US because of the incompetence of a Republican president? I don’t want to go ridiculously overboard, but like, maybe the president is some thuggish conman with the diction of a 5-year-old, who the deluded Republicans cheer anyway? And maybe he’s also a Bible-thumping fundamentalist? OK, that’s too much, so maybe the fundamentalist is like the vice president or something, and he gets put in charge of the pandemic response and then sets about muzzling the scientists? As I said, I really need advice on making the messages subtler.

First it came for Wuhan

Thursday, March 12th, 2020

Update (March 13): One day after I put up this post—a post that many commenters criticized as too alarmist—the first covid cases were detected in Austin. As a result, UT Austin closed its campus (including my son’s daycare), and at 3:30am, the Austin Independent School District announced its decision to suspend all schools until further notice. All my remaining plans for the semester (including visits to Berkeley, Stanford, Harvard, CU Boulder, Fermilab, Yale, and CMU) are obviously cancelled. My family is now on lockdown, in our house, probably at least until the summer. The war on the virus has reached us. The “1939” analogy that I mentioned in the post turned out to be more precise than I thought: then, as now, there were intense debates about how just serious the crisis would be, but those debates never even had a chance to get settled by argument; events on the ground simply rendered them irrelevant.

Scott’s foreword: This week Steve Ebin, a longtime Shtetl-Optimized reader (and occasional commenter) from the San Francisco tech world, sent me the essay below. Steve’s essay fit too well with my own recent thoughts, and indeed with this blog’s title, for me not to offer to share it here—and to my surprise and gratitude, Steve agreed.

I guess there are only two things I’d add to what Steve wrote. First, some commenters took me to task for a misplaced emphasis in my last coronavirus post, and on further reflection, I now concede that they were right. When a preventable catastrophe strikes the world, what’s always terrified me most are not the ranting lunatics and conspiracy theorists, even if some of those lunatics actually managed to attain the height of power, from where they played a central role in the catastrophe. No, what’s terrified me more are the blank-faced bureaucrats who’ve signed the paperwork that amounted to death warrants. Like, for example, the state regulators who ordered the Seattle infectious disease expert to stop, after she’d had enough of the government’s failure to allow corona tests, took it upon herself to start testing anyway, and found lots of positive results. Notably, only some countries have empowered lunatics, but the blank-faced bureaucrats rule everywhere unless something stronger overrides them.

Second, I’ll forever ask myself what went wrong with me, that it took me until metaphorical 1939 to acknowledge the scale of an unfolding catastrophe (on more than a purely intellectual level)—even while others were trying to tell me way back in metaphorical 1933. Even so, better metaphorical 1939 than metaphorical 1946.

Without further ado, Steve’s essay:

The most expensive meal I ever ate was in San Francisco at a restaurant called Eight Tables. As the name implies, the restaurant has only eight tables. The meal cost $1,000 and featured 12 courses, prepared by award-winning chefs.

The most expensive meal a person ever ate was in late 2019, in China, and consisted of under-cooked bat meat. It cost trillions of dollars. The person who ate it, possibly a peasant, changed the course of the 21st century. The bat he ate contained a virus, and the virus threatened to spread from this man to the rest of humanity.

I’m making up some details, of course. Maybe the man wasn’t a peasant. Or he could have been a woman. Or the bat could have been a pangolin. Or maybe, through a lucky accident (the guy was a loner perhaps), it could have not spread. That could have happened, but it didn’t. Or maybe sometimes that does happen and we don’t know it. These are just accidents of history.

I’m writing this on March 9, 2020. The good news is that the virus, in its current form, doesn’t kill children. I am so thankful for that. The bad news is that the virus does kill adults. The virus is like a grim reaper, culling the sick, the debilitated, and the elderly from the population. It attacks the pulmonary system. I heard a 25-year-old survivor describing how he became unable to control his breathing and could not fall asleep or he would die. Even for healthy young people, the prognosis is often poor. 

There were Jews in Europe in the 1930s who sat around tables with the elders of their families and villages and debated whether to leave for America, or Palestine, or South America. Most of them, including my grandmother’s family, didn’t leave, and were largely exterminated. The virus of the time was Nazism, and it too attacked the pulmonary systems of the old and the debilitated, in that case with poisonous gasses.

When you grow up as I did, you are taught to have a paranoia in the back of your mind that there is a major disaster about to happen. That a holocaust, or something of that magnitude, might occur in your lifetime. And so you are never complacent. For your whole life, you’re looking and waiting for a history changing event. You try to ensure that you are willing to follow your thoughts to their logical conclusion and take the necessary actions as a result, unlike many of the Jews of 1930s Europe, who refused to confront the obstacle in front of them until it was too late, and unlike many politicians and world leaders today, who are doing the same.

And the conclusion we must now confront is clear. We are watching a once-in-a-century event unfold. Coronavirus–its mutations, its spawn–will change the course of human history. It will overwhelm our defense system and may kill millions. It may continue to mutate and kill millions more. We will develop painful social measures to slow its spread. We will produce vaccines and better treatment protocols. Some of this will help, but none of this will work perfectly. What will happen to society as this unfolds?

My favorite biblical verse comes from Ecclesiastes: To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven. A time to be born, and a time to die. A time to plant and a time to pluck that which is planted. And so on.

The season has changed, and the seven years of famine have begun.

National disgrace

Tuesday, March 10th, 2020

In this blog’s now 15-year-history, at Waterloo and then MIT and now UT Austin, I’ve tried to make it clear that I blog always as Scott, never as Dr. Aaronson of Such-and-Such Institution. (God knows I’ve written a few things that a prudent dean might prefer that I hadn’t—though if I couldn’t honestly say that, in what sense would I even enjoy “academic freedom”?) Today, though, for only about the second time, I’m also writing as a professor motivated by a duty of care toward his students.

A week ago, most of my grad students were in the Bay Area for a workshop; they then returned and spent a week hanging around the CS building like normal. Yesterday I learned that at least one of those students developed symptoms consistent with covid19. Of course, it’s much more likely to be a boring cold or flu—but still, in any sane regime, just to be certain, such a person would promptly get tested.

After quarantining himself, my student called the “24/7 covid19 hotline” listed in an email from the university’s president, but found no one answering the phone over the weekend. Yesterday he finally got through—only to be told, flatly, that he couldn’t be tested due to insufficient capacity. When I heard this, I asked my department chair and dean to look into the matter, and received confirmation that yeah, it sucks, but this is the situation.

If it’s true that, as I’ve read, the same story is currently playing itself out all over the country, then this presumably isn’t the fault of anyone in UT’s health service or the city of Austin. Rather, as they say in the movies, it goes all the way to the top, to the CDC director and ultimately the president—or rather, to the festering wound that now sits where the top used to be.

Speaking of movies, over the weekend Dana and I watched Contagion, as apparently many people are now doing.  I confess that I’d missed it when it came out in 2011.  I think it’s a cinematic masterpiece.  It freely violates many of the rules of movie narrative: characters are neither done in by their own hubris, nor saved by their faith or by being A-list stars.  But Contagion is also more than a glorified public service announcement about the importance of washing your hands.  It wants to show you the reality of the human world of its characters, and also the reality of a virus, and how the two realities affect each other despite obeying utterly different logic.  It will show a scene that’s important to the charaters for human reasons, and then it will show you the same scene again, except this time making you focus on whose hand touched which surface in which order.

But for all its excellence and now-obvious prescience, there are two respects in which Contagion failed to predict the reality of 2020.  The first is just a lucky throw of the RNA dice: namely, that the real coronavirus is perhaps an order of magnitude less fatal than the movie virus, and for some unknown reason it spares children.  But the second difference is terrifying.  All the public health authorities in the movie are ultra-empowered and competent.  They do badass things like injecting themselves with experimental vaccines.  If they stumble, it’s only in deeply understandable ways that any of us might (e.g., warning their own loved ones to evacuate a city before warning the public).

In other words, when the scriptwriters, writing their disaster movie, tried to imagine the worst, they failed to imagine a US government that would essentially abandon the public, by

(1) botching a simple test that dozens of other countries performed without issue,
(2) preventing anyone else from performing their own tests, and then
(3) turning around and using the lack of positive test results to justify its own inaction.

They failed to imagine a CDC that might as well not exist for all it would do in its hour of need: one that didn’t even bother to update its website on weekends, and stopped publishing data once the data became too embarrassing.  The scriptwriters did imagine a troll gleefully spreading lies about the virus online, endangering anyone who listened to him.  They failed to imagine a universe where that troll was the president.

“I mean, don’t get me wrong,” they told me. “Trump is a racist con artist, a demagogue, the precise thing that Adams and Hamilton and Franklin tried to engineer our republic to avoid. Just, don’t get so depressed about it all the time! Moaning about how we’re trapped in a freakishly horrible branch of the wavefunction, blah blah. I mean look on the bright side! What an incredible run of luck we’ve had, that we elected a president with the mental horizons of a sadistic toddler, and yet in three years he hasn’t caused even one apocalypse. You’re alive and healthy, your loved ones are alive and healthy. It could be a lot worse!”

The above, I suspect, is a sentiment that will now forever date any writing containing it to January 2020 or earlier.

From quantum supremacy to classical fallacy

Wednesday, October 2nd, 2019

Retrospective Comment (Dec. 26, 2019): While I basically stand by what I wrote in this post, I wanted to call attention to the fact that, in its aftermath, one of the authors of the p-bit paper—Kerem Camsari—displayed a striking degree of intellectual courage and honesty. He showed up in the comments section to defend the motivation for the p-bit model, but also to concede the points I’d raised about scaling. Notably, on some matters, he explicitly broke with his own coauthors. He treated having his paper harshly criticized on Shtetl-Optimized not as a personal attack, but as an opportunity to learn and grow. I’m not sure that I would’ve been able to do the same in his shoes, and I regard it as one of the happier outcomes in this blog’s history. –SA

Maybe I should hope that people never learn to distinguish for themselves which claimed breakthroughs in building new forms of computation are obviously serious, and which ones are obviously silly. For as long as they don’t, this blog will always serve at least one purpose. People will cite it, tweet it, invoke its “authority,” even while from my point of view, I’m offering nothing more intellectually special than my toddler does when he calls out “moo-moo cow! baa-baa sheep!” as we pass them on the road.

But that’s too pessimistic. Sure, most readers must more-or-less already know what I’ll say about each thing: that Google’s quantum supremacy claim is serious, that memcomputing to solve NP-complete problems is not, etc. Even so, I’ve heard from many readers that this blog was at least helpful for double-checking their initial impressions, and for making common knowledge what before had merely been known to many. I’m fine for it to continue serving those roles.

Last week, even as I dealt with fallout from Google’s quantum supremacy leak, I also got several people asking me to comment on a Nature paper entitled Integer factorization using stochastic magnetic tunnel junctions (warning: paywalled). See also here for a university press release.

The authors report building a new kind of computer based on asynchronously updated “p-bits” (probabilistic bits). A p-bit is “a robust, classical entity fluctuating in time between 0 and 1, which interacts with other p-bits … using principles inspired by neural networks.” They build a device with 8 p-bits, and use it to factor integers up to 945. They present this as another “unconventional computation scheme” alongside quantum computing, and as a “potentially scalable hardware approach to the difficult problems of optimization and sampling.”

A commentary accompanying the Nature paper goes much further still—claiming that the new factoring approach, “if improved, could threaten data encryption,” and that resources should now be diverted from quantum computing to this promising new idea, one with the advantages of requiring no refrigeration or maintenance of delicate entangled states. (It should’ve added: and how big a number has Shor’s algorithm factored anyway, 21? Compared to 945, that’s peanuts!)

Since I couldn’t figure out a gentler way to say this, here goes: it’s astounding that this paper and commentary made it into Nature in the form that they did. Juxtaposing Google’s sampling achievement with p-bits, as several of my Facebook friends did last week, is juxtaposing the Wright brothers with some guy bouncing around on a pogo stick.

If you were looking forward to watching me dismantle the p-bit claims, I’m afraid you might be disappointed: the task is over almost the moment it begins. “p-bit” devices can’t scalably outperform classical computers, for the simple reason that they are classical computers. A little unusual in their architecture, but still well-covered by the classical Extended Church-Turing Thesis. Just like with the quantum adiabatic algorithm, an energy penalty is applied to coax the p-bits into running a local optimization algorithm: that is, making random local moves that preferentially decrease the number of violated constraints. Except here, because the whole evolution is classical, there doesn’t seem to be even the pretense that anything is happening that a laptop with a random-number generator couldn’t straightforwardly simulate.

Even so, I wouldn’t be writing this post if you opened the paper and it immediately said, in effect, “look, we know. You’re thinking that this is just yet another stochastic local optimization method, which could clearly be simulated efficiently on a conventional computer, thereby putting it into a different conceptual universe from quantum computing. You’re thinking that factoring an n-bit integer will self-evidently take exp(n) time by this method, as compared to exp(n1/3) for the Number Field Sieve, and that no crypto is in even remote danger from this. But here’s why you should still be interested in our p-bit model: because of other advantages X, Y, and Z.” Alas, in vain one searches the whole paper, and the lengthy supplementary material, and the commentary, for any acknowledgment of the pachyderm in the pagoda. Not an asymptotic runtime scaling in sight. Quantum computing is there, but stripped of the theoretical framework that gives it its purpose.

That silence, in the pages of Naturethat’s the part that convinced me that, while on the negative side this blog seems to have accomplished nothing for the world in 14 years of existence, on the positive side it will likely have a role for decades to come.

Update: See a response in the comments, which I appreciated, from Kerem Cansari (one of the authors of the paper), and my response to the response.

(Partly) Unrelated Announcement #1: My new postdoc, Andrea Rocchetto, had the neat idea of compiling a Quantum Computing Fact Sheet: a quick “Cliffs Notes” for journalists, policymakers, and others looking to get the basics right. The fact sheet might grow in the future, but in the meantime, check it out! Or at a more popular level, try the Quantum Atlas made by folks at the University of Maryland.

Unrelated Announcement #2: Daniel Wichs asked me to give a shout-out to a new Conference on Information-Theoretic Cryptography, to be held June 17-19 in Boston.

Third Announcement: Several friends asked me to share that Prof. Peter Wittek, quantum computing researcher at the University of Toronto, has gone missing in the Himalayas. Needless to say we hope for his safe return.

Just says in P

Wednesday, April 17th, 2019

Recently a Twitter account started called justsaysinmice. The only thing this account does, is to repost breathless news articles about medical research breakthroughs that fail to mention that the effect in question was only observed in mice, and then add the words “IN MICE” to them. Simple concept, but it already seems to be changing the conversation about science reporting.

It occurred to me that we could do something analogous for quantum computing. While my own deep-seated aversion to Twitter prevents me from doing it myself, which of my readers is up for starting an account that just reposts one overhyped QC article after another, while appending the words “A CLASSICAL COMPUTER COULD ALSO DO THIS” to each one?