Archive for the ‘Rage Against Doofosity’ Category

Huck Finn and the gaslighting of America

Monday, November 23rd, 2020

For the past month, I’ve been reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to my 7-year-old daughter Lily. Is she too young for it? Is there a danger that she’ll slip up and say the n-word in school? I guess so, maybe. But I found it worthwhile just for the understanding that lit up her face when she realized what it meant that Huck would help Jim escape slavery even though Huck really, genuinely believed that he’d burn in hell for it.

Huck Finn has been one of my favorite books since I was just slightly older than Lily. It’s the greatest statement by one of history’s greatest writers about human stupidity and gullibility and evil and greed, but also about the power of seeing what’s right in front of your nose to counteract those forces. (It’s also a go-to source for details of 19th-century river navigation.) It rocks.

The other day, after we finished a chapter, I asked Lily whether she thought that injustice against Black people in America ended with the abolition of slavery. No, she replied. I asked: how much longer did it continue for? She said she didn’t know. So I said: if I told you that once, people in charge of an American election tried to throw away millions of votes that came from places where Black people lived—supposedly because some numbers didn’t exactly add up, except they didn’t care about similar numbers not adding up in places where White people lived—how long ago would she guess that happened? 100 years ago? 50 years? She didn’t know. So I showed her the news from the last hour.

These past few weeks, my comment queue has filled with missives, most of which I’ve declined to publish, about the giant conspiracy involving George Soros and Venezuela and dead people, which fabricated the overwhelmingly Democratic votes from overwhelmingly Democratic cities like Philadelphia and Milwaukee and Detroit (though for some reason, they weren’t quite as overwhelmingly Democratic as in other recent elections), while for some reason declining to help Democrats in downballot races. Always, these commenters confidently insist, I’m the Pravda-reading brainwashed dupe, I’m the unreasonable one, if I don’t accept this.

This is the literal meaning of “gaslighting”: the intentional construction of an alternate reality so insistently as to make the sane doubt their sanity. It occurred to me: Huck Finn could be read as an extended fable about gaslighting. The Grangerfords make their deadly feud with the Shepherdsons seem normal and natural. The fraudulent King and Duke make Huck salute them as royalty. Tom convinces Huck that the former’s harebrained schemes for freeing Jim are just the way it’s done, and Huck is an idiot for preferring the simplistic approach of just freeing him. And of course, the entire culture gaslights Huck that good is evil and evil is good. Huck doesn’t fight the gaslighting as hard as we’d like him to, but he develops as a character to the extent he does.

Today, the Confederacy—which, as we’ve learned the past five years, never died, and is as alive and angry now as it was in Twain’s time—is trying to win by gaslighting what it couldn’t win at Antietam and Gettysburg and Vicksburg. It’s betting that if it just insists, adamantly enough, that someone who lost an election by hundreds of thousands of votes spread across multiple states actually won the election, then it can bend the universe to its will.

Glued to the news, listening to Giuliani and McEnany and so on, reading the Trump campaign’s legal briefs, I keep asking myself one question: do they actually believe this shit? Some of the only insight I got about that question came from a long piece by Curtis Yarvin a.k.a. Mencius Moldbug, who’s been called one of the leading thinkers of neoreaction and who sometimes responds to this blog. Esoterically, Yarvin says that he actually prefers a Biden victory, but only because Trump has proven himself unworthy by submitting himself to nerdy electoral rules rather than simply seizing power. (If that’s not quite what Yarvin meant—well, I’m about as competent to render his irony-soaked meanings in plain language as I’d be to render Heidegger or Judith Butler!)

As for whether the election was “fraudulent,” here’s Yarvin’s key passage:

The fundamental purpose of a democratic election is to test the strength of the sides in a civil conflict, without anyone actually getting hurt. The majority wins because the strongest side would win … But this guess is much better if it actually measures humans who are both willing and able to walk down the street and show up. Anyone who cannot show up at the booth is unlikely to show up for the civil war. This is one of many reasons that an in-person election is a more accurate election. (If voters could be qualified by physique, it would be even more accurate) … My sense is that in many urban communities, voting by proxy in some sense is the norm. The people whose names are on the ballots really exist; and almost all of them actually did support China Joe. Or at least, preferred him. The extent to which they perform any tangible political action, including physically going to the booth, is very low; so is their engagement with the political system. They do not watch much CNN. The demand for records of their engagement is very high, because each such datum cancels out some huge, heavily-armed redneck with a bass boat. This is why, in the data, these cities look politics-obsessed, but photos of the polling places look empty. Most votes from these communities are in some sense “organized” … Whether or not such a design constitutes “fraud” is the judge’s de gustibus.

Did you catch that? Somehow, Yarvin manages to insinuate that votes for Biden are plausibly fraudulent and plausibly shouldn’t count—at least if they were cast by mail, in “many urban communities” (which ones?), during a pandemic—even as Yarvin glaincingly acknowledges that the votes in question actually exist and are actually associated with Biden-preferring legal voters. This is gaslighting in pure, abstract form, unalloyed with the laughable claims about Hugo Chávez or Dominion Voting Systems.

What I find terrifying about gaslighting is that it’s so effective. In response to this post, I’ll again get long, erudite comments making the case that up is down, turkeys are mammals, and Trump won in a landslide. And simply to read and understand those comments, some part of me will need to entertain the idea that they might be right. Much like with Bigfoot theories, this will be purely a function of the effort the writers put in, not of any merit to the thesis.

And there’s a second thing I find terrifying about gaslighting. Namely: it turns me into an ally of the SneerClubbers. Like them, I feel barely any space left for rational discussion or argument. Like them, I find it difficult to think of an appropriate response to Trumpian conspiracy theorists except to ridicule them, shame them as racists, and try to mute their influence. Notably, public shaming (“[t]he Trump stain, the stain of racism that you, William Hartmann and Monica Palmer, have covered yourself in, is going to follow you throughout history”) seems to have actually worked last week to get the Wayne County Board of Canvassers to back down and certify the votes from Detroit. So why not try more of it?

Of course, even if I agree with the wokeists that there’s a line beyond which rational discussion can’t reach, I radically disagree with them about the line’s whereabouts. Here, for example, I try to draw mine generously enough to include any Republicans willing to stand up, however feebly, against the Trump cult, whereas the wokeists draw their line so narrowly as to exclude most Democrats (!).

There’s a more fundamental difference as well: the wokeists define their worldview in opposition to the patriarchy, the white male power structure, or whatever else is preventing utopia. I, taking inspiration from Huck, define my moral worldview in opposition to gaslighting itself, whatever its source, and in favor of acknowledging obvious realities (especially realities about any harm we might be causing others). Thus, it’s not just that I see no tension between opposing the excesses of the woke and opposing Trump’s attempted putsch—rather, it’s that my opposition to both comes from exactly the same source. It’s a source that, at least in me, often runs dry of courage, but I’ve found Huck Finn to be helpful in replenishing it, and for that I’m grateful.

Endnote: There are, of course, many actual security problems with the way we vote in the US, and there are computer scientists who’ve studied those problems for decades, rather than suddenly getting selectively interested in November 2020. If you’re interested, see this letter (“Scientists say no credible evidence of computer fraud in the 2020 election outcome, but policymakers must work with experts to improve confidence”), which was signed by 59 of the leading figures in computer security, including Ron Rivest, Bruce Schneier, Hovav Shacham, Dan Wallach, Ed Felten, David Dill, and my childhood best friend Alex Halderman.

Update: I just noticed this Twitter thread by friend-of-the-blog Sean Carroll, which says a lot of what I was trying to say here.

Vote in person if you can

Tuesday, October 13th, 2020
Image may contain: 1 person, eyeglasses and closeup

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the destruction of America’s best high school

Sunday, October 4th, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


See further discussion of this post on Hacker News.

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

Wednesday, September 16th, 2020

Update (Sep. 17): Several people, here and elsewhere, wrote to tell me that while they completely agreed with my strategic and moral stance in this post, they think that it’s the ads of Republican Voters Against Trump, rather than the Lincoln Project, that have been most effective in changing Trump supporters’ minds. So please consider donating to RVAT instead or in addition! In fact, what the hell, I’ll match donations to RVAT up to $1000.


For the past few months, I’ve alternated between periods of debilitating depression and (thankfully) longer stretches when I’m more-or-less able to work. Triggers for my depressive episodes include reading social media, watching my 7-year daughter struggle with prolonged isolation, and (especially) contemplating the ongoing apocalypse in the American West, the hundreds of thousands of pointless covid deaths, and an election in 48 days that if I didn’t know such things were impossible in America would seem likely to produce a terrifying standoff as a despot and millions of his armed loyalists refuse to cede control. Meanwhile, catalysts for my relatively functional periods have included teaching my undergrad quantum information class, Zoom calls with my students, life on Venus?!? (my guess is no, but almost entirely due to priors), learning new math (fulfilling a decades-old goal, I’m finally working my way through Paul Cohen’s celebrated proof of the independence of the Continuum Hypothesis—more about that later!).

Of course, when you feel crushed by the weight of the world’s horribleness, it improves your mood to be able even just to prick the horribleness with a pin. So I was gratified that, in response to a previous post, Shtetl-Optimized readers contributed at least $3,000, the first $2,000 of which I matched, mostly to the Biden-Harris campaign but a little to the Lincoln Project.

Alas, a commenter was unhappy with the latter:

Lincoln Project? Really? … Pushing the Overton window rightward during a worldwide fascist dawn isn’t good. I have trouble understanding why even extremely smart people have trouble with this sort of thing.

Since this is actually important, I’d like to spend the rest of this post responding to it.

For me it’s simple.

What’s the goal right now? To defeat Trump. In the US right now, that’s the prerequisite to every other sane political goal.

What will it take to achieve that goal? Turnout, energizing the base, defending the election process … but also, if possible, persuading a sliver of Trump supporters in swing states to switch sides, or at least vote third party or abstain.

Who is actually effective at that goal? Well, no one knows for sure. But while I thought the Biden campaign had some semi-decent ads, the Lincoln Project’s best stuff seems better to me, just savagely good.

Why are they effective? The answer seems obvious: for the same reason why a jilted ex is a more dangerous foe than a stranger. If anyone understood how to deprogram a Republican from the Trump cult, who would it be: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, or a fellow Republican who successfully broke from the cult?

Do I agree with the Lincoln Republicans about most of the “normal” issues that Americans once argued about? Not at all. Do I hold them, in part, morally responsible for creating the preconditions to the current nightmare? Certainly.

And should any of that cause me to boycott them? Not in my moral universe. If Churchill and FDR could team up with Stalin, then surely we in the Resistance can temporarily ally ourselves with the rare Republicans who chose their stated principles over power when tested—their very rarity attesting to the nontriviality of their choice.

To my mind, turning one’s back on would-be allies, in a conflict whose stakes obviously overshadow what’s bad about those allies, is simultaneously one of the dumbest and the ugliest things that human beings can do. It abandons reason for moral purity and ends up achieving neither.

My Enlightenment fanaticism

Tuesday, July 7th, 2020

Update (July 17): Friend-of-the-blog Karen Morenz points me to a piece by Bonny Brooks, articulating a left-wing case against cancel culture. I read it and found much to agree with. Mostly, though, I was really happy to spend this week doing some actual research (nearly the first since the pandemic started) rather than blogging culture-war stuff! Speaking of which, please get in any last comments within the next day or so; then I’ll close down the thread.


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.