## Archive for the ‘Rage Against Doofosity’ Category

### Was Scientific American Sokal’d?

Friday, September 24th, 2021

Here’s yesterday’s clickbait offering from Scientific American, the once-legendary home of Martin Gardner’s Mathematical Games column:

Why the Term ‘JEDI’ Is Problematic for Describing Programs That Promote Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

The sad thing is, I see few signs that this essay was meant as a Sokal-style parody, although in many ways it’s written as one. The essay actually develops a 100% cogent, reasoned argument: namely, that the ideology of the Star Wars films doesn’t easily fit with the new ideology of militant egalitarianism at the expense of all other human values, including irony, humor, joy, and the nurturing of unusual talents. The authors are merely oblivious to the conclusion that most people would draw from their argument: namely, so much the worse for the militant egalitarianism then!

I predict that this proposal—to send the acronym “JEDI” the way of “mankind,” “blacklist,” and, err, “quantum supremacy”—will meet with opposition even from the wokeists themselves, a huge fraction of whom (in my experience) have soft spots for the Star Wars franchise. Recall for example that in 2014, Laurie Penny used Star Wars metaphors in her interesting response to my comment-171, telling male nerds like me that we need to learn to accept that “[we’re] not the Rebel Alliance, [we’re] actually part of the Empire and have been all along.” Admittedly, I’ve never felt like part of an Empire, although I’ll confess to some labored breathing lately when ascending flights of stairs.

As for me, I spent much of my life opposed in principle to Star Wars—I hated how the most successful “science fiction” franchise of all time became that way precisely by ditching any pretense of science and fully embracing mystical woo—but sure, when the chips are down, I’m crazy and radical enough to take the side of Luke Skywalker, even if a team of woke theorists is earnestly, unironically explaining to me that lightsabers are phallocentric and that Vader ranks higher on the intersectional oppression axis because of his breathing problem.

Meantime, of course, the US continues to careen toward its worst Constitutional crisis since the Civil War, as Trump prepares to run again in 2024, and as this time around, the Republicans are systematically purging state governments of their last Brad Raffenspergers, of anyone who might stand in the way of them simply setting aside the vote totals and declaring Trump the winner regardless of the actual outcome. It’s good to know that my fellow progressives have their eyes on the ball—so that when that happens, at least universities will no longer be using offensive acronyms like “JEDI”!

Friday, August 27th, 2021

Update: Come to think of it, let’s circle back to the thing about kids under 13 getting banned from taking the SAT, as a ridiculous unintended consequence of some federal regulation. I wonder whether this is a campaign this blog could spearhead that would have an actual chance of making a positive difference in the world (!!), rather than just giving me space to express myself, to vent my impotent rage at the tragic failures of our civilization and the blankfaces who sleep soundly despite knowing that they caused those failures.  What if, like, a whole bunch of us wrote to the College Board, or whatever federal agency enforces the regulation that the College Board is worried about, and we asked them whether a solution might be found in which parents gave permission on the web form for their under-13s to take the SAT, given how memorable this opportunity was for many of us, how it was a nerd rite of passage, and how surely none of us have any wish to deny that opportunity to the next generation, so let’s work together to solve this?

I’m depressed that, all over the world, the values of the Enlightenment are humiliated and in retreat, while the values of the Taliban are triumphant. The literal Taliban of course, but also a thousand mini-Talibans of every flavor, united in their ideological certainty.

I’m depressed that now and for the future, the image of the United States before the world—deservedly so—is one of desperate Afghans plunging to their deaths from the last airplanes out of Kabul. I’m depressed that, while this historic calamity was set in motion by Donald Trump, the president who bears direct, immediate moral responsibility for it is the one I voted for. And knowing what I know now, I’d still have voted for him—but with an ashen face.

I’m depressed that, on social media, the same people who seven years ago floridly denounced me, because, while explaining how as a young person I overcame the urge to suicide and finally achieved some semblance of a normal life, I made a passing reference to a vanished culture of arranged marriages, to which I seemed better-adapted than to the world of today—these very same people are the ones sagely resigned to millions of Afghan women and girls actually forced into unwanted marriages, tortured, and raped, who explain that there’s nothing the US can or should do about this, even that it was folly to imagine we could impose parochial Western values, like women’s rights, on a culture that doesn’t want them. These are the people who saw fit to lecture me on my feminist failings.

I’m depressed that there’s an exceedingly good chance that both of my kids will get covid, as they’ve returned to school and preschool in Austin, TX, where the Delta variant is raging out of control, new reports of cases among the kids’ schoolmates come almost every day, Daniel has been quarantined at home for the past week because of one such case, there’s no vaccination mandate (and a looming battle over mask mandates), and—crucially, tragically, incredibly—the FDA has not only slow-walked approval of covid vaccines for children under 12, but has pushed back the approval even further than it previously planned, ignoring unprecedented public objections from the American Academy of Pediatrics. The FDA blankfaces have done this in spite of the reality, obvious to anyone with eyes and a brain, that they’re thereby consigning thousands of children to their deaths, that whatever ultra-rare risks the vaccine poses to children are infinitesimal compared to the overwhelming benefit.

Since I worry that I wasn’t clear enough, how about this: in a just world, the FDA in its current form would be dismantled, and all those who needlessly delayed the delivery of covid vaccines to children would be tried for manslaughter [while I still think the case for authorizing covid vaccines for kids right now is overwhelmingly clear, I hereby retract this particular remark, which was based on a factor 5-10 overestimate of the covid mortality risk for kids—for more, see this comment]. The blankfaces have already killed more people through pointlessly delaying the approval of covid vaccines than their agency could plausibly have saved through its entire history: do they need to take the children as well? As far as I’m concerned, those who defend the status quo—those who meet the on-the-ground reality of overflowing pediatric hospitals with obfuscatory words about procedures and best practices and the need for yet more data—are no better either morally or intellectually than the anti-vaxx conspiracy theorists, their rightly-reviled cousins.

As icing on the cake, I’m depressed that the College Board is no longer administering the SAT to children under 13, apparently because of federal regulations—-which means that Johns Hopkins CTY’s famed Study of Exceptional Talent, a program that made a big difference in my life three decades ago, has been suspended indefinitely. Imagine being a nerdy 11-year-old in 2021: no more tracking, no more gifted programs, no more magnet schools, no more acceleration, no getting vaccinated against deadly disease (!!), … oh, and if perchance you felt the urge to take the SAT, just to prove that you could outscore the grownups who decided to impose all this on you, then no, you’re no longer allowed to do that either.

The one bright spot in the endlessly bleak picture is that Daniel, my 4-year-old son, now plays a pretty mean chess game, if not quite at the level of Beth Harmon. Having just learned the rules a few months ago, Daniel now gives me and Dana (admittedly, no one would mistake either of us for Magnus Carlsen) extremely competitive matches; just yesterday he beat several adults in a park. Daniel has come to spend much of his free time (and now that he’s quarantined, he has a lot) playing chess against his iPad and watching chess videos. To be clear, he has very little emotional maturity even for a 4-year-old, and unlike me at the same age, he has no overwhelming passion for numbers or counting, but with chess I’ve finally found a winner. Now I just need to hope that they don’t ban chess-playing for children under 13.

So that’s it, it’s off my chest. Commenters: what else have you got that might cheer me up?

### On blankfaces

Monday, August 2nd, 2021

For years, I’ve had a private term I’ve used with my family. To give a few examples of its use:

No, I never applied for that grant. I spent two hours struggling to log in to a web portal designed by the world’s top blankfaces until I finally gave up in despair.

No, I paid for that whole lecture trip out of pocket; I never got the reimbursement they promised. Their blankface administrator just kept sending me back the form, demanding more and more convoluted bank details, until I finally got the hint and dropped it.

No, my daughter Lily isn’t allowed in the swimming pool there. She easily passed their swim test last year, but this year the blankface lifeguard made up a new rule on the spot that she needs to retake the test, so Lily took it again and passed even more easily, but then the lifeguard said she didn’t like the stroke Lily used, so she failed her and didn’t let her retake it. I complained to their blankface athletic director, who launched an ‘investigation.’ The outcome of the ‘investigation’ was that, regardless of the ground truth about how well Lily can swim, their blankface lifeguard said she’s not allowed in the pool, so being blankfaces themselves, they’re going to stand with the lifeguard.

Yeah, the kids spend the entire day indoors, breathing each other’s stale, unventilated air, then they finally go outside and they aren’t allowed on the playground equipment, because of the covid risk from them touching it. Even though we’ve known for more than a year that covid is an airborne disease. Everyone I’ve talked there agrees that I have a point, but they say their hands are tied. I haven’t yet located the blankface who actually made this decision and stands by it.

What exactly is a blankface? He or she is often a mid-level bureaucrat, but not every bureaucrat is a blankface, and not every blankface is a bureaucrat. A blankface is anyone who enjoys wielding the power entrusted in them to make others miserable by acting like a cog in a broken machine, rather than like a human being with courage, judgment, and responsibility for their actions. A blankface meets every appeal to facts, logic, and plain compassion with the same repetition of rules and regulations and the same blank stare—a blank stare that, more often than not, conceals a contemptuous smile.

The longer I live, the more I see blankfacedness as one of the fundamental evils of the human condition. Yes, it contains large elements of stupidity, incuriosity, malevolence, and bureaucratic indifference, but it’s not reducible to any of those. After enough experience, the first two questions you ask about any organization are:

1. Who are the blankfaces here?
2. Who are the people I can talk with to get around the blankfaces?

As far as I can tell, blankfacedness cuts straight across conventional political ideology, gender, and race. (Age, too, except that I’ve never once encountered a blankfaced child.) Brilliance and creativity do seem to offer some protection against blankfacedness—possibly because the smarter you are, the harder it is to justify idiotic rules to yourself—but even there, the protection is far from complete.

Twenty years ago, all the conformists in my age cohort were obsessed with the Harry Potter books and movies—holding parties where they wore wizard costumes, etc. I decided that the Harry Potter phenomenon was a sort of collective insanity: from what I could tell, the stories seemed like startlingly puerile and unoriginal mass-marketed wish-fulfillment fantasies.

Today, those same conformists in my age cohort are more likely to condemn the Harry Potter series as Problematically white, male, and cisnormative, and J. K. Rowling herself as a monstrous bigot whose acquaintances’ acquaintances should be shunned. Naturally, then, there was nothing for me to do but finally read the series! My 8-year-old daughter Lily and I have been partner-reading it for half a year; we’re just finishing book 5. (After we’ve finished the series, we might start on Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality … which, I confess, I’ve also never read.)

From book 5, I learned something extremely interesting. The most despicable villain in the Harry Potter universe is not Lord Voldemort, who’s mostly just a faraway cipher and abstract embodiment of pure evil, no more hateable than an earthquake. Rather, it’s Dolores Jane Umbridge, the toadlike Ministry of Magic bureaucrat who takes over Hogwarts school, forces out Dumbledore as headmaster, and terrorizes the students with increasingly draconian “Educational Decrees.” Umbridge’s decrees are mostly aimed at punishing Harry Potter and his friends, who’ve embarrassed the Ministry by telling everyone the truth that Voldemort has returned and by readying themselves to fight him, thereby defying the Ministry’s head-in-the-sand policy.

Anyway, I’ll say this for Harry Potter: Rowling’s portrayal of Umbridge is so spot-on and merciless that, for anyone who knows the series, I could simply define a blankface to be anyone sufficiently Umbridge-like.

This week I also finished reading The Premonition, the thrilling account of the runup to covid by Michael Lewis (who also wrote The Big Short, Moneyball, etc). Lewis tells the stories of a few individuals scattered across US health and government bureaucracies who figured out over the past 20 years that the US was breathtakingly unprepared for a pandemic, and who struggled against official indifference, mostly unsuccessfully, to try to fix that. As covid hit the US in early 2020, these same individuals frantically tried to pull the fire alarms, even as the Trump White House, the CDC, and state bureaucrats all did everything in their power to block and sideline them. We all know the results.

It’s no surprise that, in Lewis’s telling, Trump and his goons come in for world-historic blame: however terrible you thought they were, they were worse. It seems that John Bolton, in particular, gleefully took an ax to everything the two previous administrations had done to try to prepare the federal government for pandemics—after Tom Bossert, the one guy in Trump’s inner circle who’d actually taken pandemic preparation seriously, was forced out for contradicting Trump about Russia and Ukraine.

But the left isn’t spared either. The most compelling character in The Premonition is Charity Dean, who escaped from the Christian fundamentalist sect in which she was raised to put herself through medical school and become a crusading public-health officer for Santa Barbara County. Lewis relates with relish how, again and again, Dean startled the bureaucrats around her by taking matters into her own hands in her war against pathogens—e.g., slicing into a cadaver herself to take samples when the people whose job it was wouldn’t do it.

In 2019, Dean moved to Sacramento to become California’s next chief public health officer, but then Governor Gavin Newsom blocked her expected promotion, instead recruiting someone from the outside named Sonia Angell, who had no infectious disease experience but to whom Dean would have to report. Lewis reports the following as the reason:

“It was an optics problem,” says a senior official in the Department of Health and Human Services. “Charity was too young, too blond, too Barbie. They wanted a person of color.” Sonia Angell identified as Latina.

After it became obvious that the White House and the CDC were both asleep at the wheel, the competent experts’ Plan B was to get California to set a national standard, one that would shame all the other states into acting, by telling the truth about covid and by aggressively testing, tracing, and isolating. And here comes the tragedy: Charity Dean spent from mid-January till mid-March trying to do exactly that, and Sonia Angell blocked her. Angell—who comes across as a real-life Dolores Umbridge—banned Dean from using the word “pandemic,” screamed at her for her insubordination, and systematically shut her out of meetings. Angell’s stated view was that, until and unless the CDC said that there was a pandemic, there was no pandemic—regardless of what hospitals across California might be reporting to the contrary.

As it happens, California was the first state to move aggressively against covid, on March 19—basically because as the bodies started piling up, Dean and her allies finally managed to maneuver around Angell and get the ear of Governor Newsom directly. Had the response started earlier, the US might have had an outcome more in line with most industrialized countries. Half of the 630,000 dead Americans might now be alive.

Sonia Angell fully deserves to have her name immortalized by history as one of the blankest of blankfaces. But of course, Angell was far from alone. Robert Redfield, Trump’s CDC director, was a blankface extraordinaire. Nancy Messonnier, who lied to stay in Trump’s good graces, was a blankface too. The entire CDC and FDA seem to have teemed with blankfaces. As for Anthony Fauci, he became a national hero, maybe even deservedly so, merely by not being 100% a blankface, when basically every other “expert” in the US with visible power was. Fauci cleared a depressingly low bar, one that the people profiled by Lewis cleared at Simone-Biles-like heights.

In March 2020, the fundamental question I had was: where are the supercompetent rule-breaking American heroes from the disaster movies? What’s taking them so long? The Premonition satisfyingly answers that question. It turns out that the heroes did exist, scattered across the American health bureaucracy. They were screaming at the top of their lungs. But they were outvoted by the critical mass of blankfaces that’s become one of my country’s defining features.

Some people will object that the term “blankface” is dehumanizing. The reason I disagree is that a blankface is someone who freely chose to dehumanize themselves: to abdicate their human responsibility to see what’s right in front of them, to act like malfunctioning pieces of electronics even though they, like all of us, were born with the capacity for empathy and reason.

With many other human evils and failings, I have a strong inclination toward mercy, because I understand how someone could’ve succumbed to the temptation—indeed, I worry that I myself might’ve succumbed to it “but for the grace of God.” But here’s the thing about blankfaces: in all my thousands of dealings with them, not once was I ever given cause to wonder whether I might have done the same in their shoes. It’s like, of course I wouldn’t have! Even if I were forced (by my own higher-ups, an intransigent computer system, or whatever else) to foist some bureaucratic horribleness on an innocent victim, I’d be sheepish and apologetic about it. I’d acknowledge the farcical absurdity of what I was making the other person do, or declaring that they couldn’t do. Likewise, even if I were useless in a crisis, at least I’d get out of the way of the people trying to solve it. How could I live with myself otherwise?

The fundamental mystery of the blankfaces, then, is how they can be so alien and yet so common.

Update (Aug. 3): Surprisingly many people seem to have read this post, and come away with the notion that a “blankface” is simply anyone who’s a stickler for rules and formalized procedures. They’ve then tried to refute me with examples of where it’s good to be a stickler, or where I in particular would believe that it’s good.

But no, that’s not it at all.

Rules can be either good or bad. All things considered, I’d probably rather be on a plane piloted by a robotic stickler for safety rules, than by someone who ignored the rules at his or her discretion. And as I said in the post, in the first months of covid, it was ironically the anti-blankfaces who were screaming for rules, regulations, and lockdowns; the blankfaces wanted to continue as though nothing had changed!

Also, “blankface” (just like “homophobe” or “antisemite”) is a serious accusation. I’d never call anyone a blankface merely for sticking with a defensible rule when it turned out, in hindsight, that the rule could’ve been relaxed.

Here’s how to tell a blankface: suppose you see someone enforcing or interpreting a rule in a way that strikes you as obviously absurd. And suppose you point it out to them.

Do they say “I disagree, here’s why it actually does make sense”? They might be mistaken but they’re not a blankface.

Do they say “tell me about it, it makes zero sense, but it’s above my pay grade to change”? You might wish they were more dogged or courageous but again they’re not a blankface.

Or do they ignore all your arguments and just restate the original rule—seemingly angered by what they understood as a challenge to their authority, and delighted to reassert it? That’s the blankface.

### The easiest exercise in the moral philosophy book

Sunday, April 25th, 2021

Peter Singer, in the parable that came to represent his whole worldview and that of the effective altruism movement more generally, asked us to imagine that we could save a drowning child at the cost of jumping into a lake and ruining an expensive new suit. Assuming we’d do that, he argued that we do in fact face an ethically equivalent choice; if we don’t donate most of our income to save children in the Third World, then we need to answer for why, as surely as the person who walked past the kid thrashing in the water.

In this post, I don’t want to take a position on Singer’s difficult but important hypothetical. I merely want to say: suppose that to save the child, you didn’t even have to jump in the water. Suppose you just had to toss a life preserver, one you weren’t using. Or suppose you just had to assure the child that it was OK to grab your life raft that was already in the water.

That, it seems, is the situation that the US and other rich countries will increasingly face with covid vaccines. What’s happening in India right now looks on track to become a humanitarian tragedy, if it isn’t already. Even if, as Indian friends tell me, this was a staggering failure of the Modi government, people shouldn’t pay for it with their lives. And we in the US now have tens of millions of vaccine doses sitting in warehouses unused, for regulatory and vaccine hesitancy reasons—stupidly, but we do. We’re past the time, in my opinion, when it’s morally obligatory either to use the doses or to give them away. Anyone in a position to manufacture more vaccines for distribution to poor countries, should also immediately get the intellectual property rights to do so.

I was glad to read, just this weekend, that the US is finally starting to move in the right direction. I hope it moves faster.

And I’m sorry that this brief post doesn’t contain any information or insight that you can’t find elsewhere. It just made me feel better to write it, is all.

### Stop emailing my utexas address

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2021

A month ago, UT Austin changed its email policies—banning auto-forwarding from university accounts to Gmail accounts, apparently as a way to force the faculty and other employees to separate their work email from their personal email, and thereby comply with various government regulations. Ever since that change, the email part of my life has been a total, unmitigated disaster. I’ve missed (or been late to see) dozens of important work emails, with the only silver lining being that that’s arguably UT’s problem more than it is mine!

And yes, I’ve already gone to technical support; the only answer I’ve gotten is that (in so many words) there is no answer. Other UT faculty are somehow able to deal with this because they are them; I am unable to deal with it because I am me. As a mere PhD in computer science, I’m utterly unqualified to set up a technical fix for this sort of problem.

So the bottom line is: from now on, if you want me to see an email, send it to scott@scottaaronson.com. Really. If you try sending it to aaronson@cs.utexas.edu, it will land in a separate inbox that I can access only with great inconvenience. And if, God forbid, you try sending it to aaronson@utexas.edu, the email will bounce and I’ll never see it at all. Indeed, a central purpose of this post is just to have a place to point the people who contact me every day, shocked that their emails to me bounced.

This whole episode has given me immense sympathy for Hillary Clinton, and for the factors that led her to set up clintonemail.com from her house. It’s not merely that her private email server was a laughably trivial reason to end the United States’ 240-year run of democratic government. Rather it’s that, even on the narrow question of emails, I now feel certain that Hillary was 100% right. Bureaucracy that impedes communication is a cancer on human civilization.

Update: Thanks so much to commenter Avraham and to my colleague Etienne Vouga, who quickly gave me the crucial information that tech support would not, and thereby let me solve this problem. I can once again easily read emails sent to aaronson@cs.utexas.edu … well, at least for now! I’m now checking about aaronson@utexas.edu. Again, though, scott@scottaaronson.com to be safe.

### Brief thoughts on the Texas catastrophe

Thursday, February 18th, 2021

This past week, I spent so much mental energy worrying about the fate of Scott Alexander that I almost forgot that right here in Texas, I’m surrounded by historic scenes of Third-World-style devastation: snowstorms and sub-freezing temperatures for which our infrastructure was completely unprepared; impassable roads; burst gas and water pipes; millions without electricity or heat or clean water; the UT campus a short walk from me converted into a giant refugee camp.

For all those who asked: my family and I are fine. While many we know were without power for days (or are still without power), we lucked out by living close to a hospital, which means that they can’t shut off the electricity to our block. We are now on a boil-water notice, like all of Austin, and we can’t take deliveries or easily go anywhere, and the university and schools and daycares are all closed (even for remote learning). Which means: we’re simply holed up in our house, eating through our stockpiled food, the kids running around being crazy, Dana and I watching them with one eye and our laptops with the other. Could be worse.

In some sense, it’s not surprising that the Texas infrastructure would buckle under weather stresses outside the envelope of anything it was designed for or saw for decades. The central problem is that our elected leaders have shown zero indication of understanding the urgent need, for Texas’ economic viability, to do whatever it takes to make sure nothing like this ever happens again. Ted Cruz, as everyone now knows, left for Cancun; the mayor of Colorado City angrily told everyone to fend for themselves (and then resigned); and Governor Abbott has been blaming frozen wind turbines, a tiny percentage of the problem (frozen gas pipes are a much bigger issue) but one that plays with the base. The bare minimum of a sane response might be, I dunno,

• acknowledging the reality that climate change means that “once-per-century” weather events will be every couple years from now on,
• building spare capacity (nuclear would be ideal … well, I can dream),
• winterizing what we have now, and
• connecting the Texas grid to the rest of the US.

If I were a Texas Democrat, I’d consider making Republican incompetence on infrastructure, utilities, and public health my only campaign issues.

Alright, now back to watching the Mars lander, which is apparently easier to build and deploy than a reliable electric grid.

### 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

[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.