Archive for the ‘Nerd Self-Help’ Category

Review of “Inadequate Equilibria,” by Eliezer Yudkowsky

Thursday, November 16th, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In more detail, Yudkowsky writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not the critic who counts

Wednesday, October 11th, 2017

There’s a website called Stop Timothy Gowers! !!! —yes, that’s the precise name, including the exclamation points.  The site is run by a mathematician who for years went under the pseudonym “owl / sowa,” but who’s since outed himself as Nikolai Ivanov.

For those who don’t know, Sir Timothy Gowers is a Fields Medalist, known for seminal contributions including the construction of Banach spaces with strange properties, the introduction of the Gowers norm, explicit bounds for the regularity lemma, and more—but who’s known at least as well for explaining math, in his blog, books, essays, MathOverflow, and elsewhere, in a remarkably clear, friendly, and accessible way.  He’s also been a leader in the fight to free academia from predatory publishers.

So why on earth would a person like that need to be stopped?  According to sowa, because Gowers, along with other disreputable characters like Terry Tao and Endre Szemerédi and the late Paul Erdös, represents a dangerous style of doing mathematics: a style that’s just as enamored of concrete problems as it is of abstract theory-building, and that doesn’t even mind connections to other fields like theoretical computer science.  If that style becomes popular with young people, it will prevent faculty positions and prestigious prizes from going to the only deserving kind of mathematics: the kind exemplified by Bourbaki and by Alexander Grothendieck, which builds up theoretical frameworks with principled disdain for the solving of simple-to-state problems.  Mathematical prizes going to the wrong people—or even going to the right people but presented by the wrong people—are constant preoccupations of sowa’s.  Read his blog and let me know if I’ve unfairly characterized it.


Now for something totally unrelated.  I recently discovered a forum on Reddit called SneerClub, which, as its name suggests, is devoted to sneering.  At whom?  Basically, at anyone who writes anything nice about nerds or Silicon Valley, or who’s associated with the “rationalist community,” or the Effective Altruist movement, or futurism or AI risk.  Typical targets include Scott Alexander, Eliezer Yudkowsky, Robin Hanson, Michael Vassar, Julia Galef, Paul Graham, Ray Kurzweil, Elon Musk … and with a list like that, I guess I should be honored to be a regular target too.

The basic SneerClub M.O. is to seize on a sentence that, when ripped from context and reflected through enough hermeneutic funhouse mirrors, can make nerds out to look like right-wing villains, oppressing the downtrodden with rays of disgusting white maleness (even, it seems, ones who aren’t actually white or male).  So even if the nerd under discussion turns out to be, say, a leftist or a major donor to anti-Trump causes or malaria prevention or whatever, readers can feel reassured that their preexisting contempt was morally justified after all.

Thus: Eliezer Yudkowsky once wrote a piece of fiction in which a character, breaking the fourth wall, comments that another character seems to have no reason to be in the story.  This shows that Eliezer is a fascist who sees people unlike himself as having no reason to exist, and who’d probably exterminate them if he could.  Or: many rationalist nerds spend a lot of effort arguing against Trumpists, alt-righters, and neoreactionaries.  The fact that they interact with those people, in order to rebut them, shows that they’re probably closet neoreactionaries themselves.


When I browse sites like “Stop Timothy Gowers! !!!” or SneerClub, I tend to get depressed about the world—and yet I keep browsing, out of a fascination that I don’t fully understand.  I ask myself: how can a person read Gowers’s blog, or Slate Star Codex, without seeing what I see, which is basically luminous beacons of intellectual honesty and curiosity and clear thought and sparkling prose and charity to dissenting views, shining out far across the darkness of online discourse?

(Incidentally, Gowers lists “Stop Timothy Gowers! !!!” in his blogroll, and I likewise learned of SneerClub only because Scott Alexander linked to it.)

I’m well aware that this very question will only prompt more sneers.  From the sneerers’ perspective, they and their friends are the beacons, while Gowers or Scott Alexander are the darkness.  How could a neutral observer possibly decide who was right?

But then I reflect that there’s at least one glaring asymmetry between the sides.

If you read Timothy Gowers’s blog, one thing you’ll constantly notice is mathematics.  When he’s not weighing in on current events—for example, writing against Brexit, Elsevier, or the destruction of a math department by cost-cutting bureaucrats—Gowers is usually found delighting in exploring a new problem, or finding a new way to explain a known result.  Often, as with his dialogue with John Baez and others about the recent “p=t” breakthrough, Gowers is struggling to understand an unfamiliar piece of mathematics—and, completely unafraid of looking like an undergrad rather than a Fields Medalist, he simply shares each step of his journey, mistakes and all, inviting you to follow for as long as you can keep up.  Personally, I find it electrifying: why can’t all mathematicians write like that?

By contrast, when you read sowa’s blog, for all the anger about the sullying of mathematics by unworthy practitioners, there’s a striking absence of mathematical exposition.  Not once does sowa ever say: “OK, forget about the controversy.  Since you’re here, instead of just telling you about the epochal greatness of Grothendieck, let me walk you through an example.  Let me share a beautiful little insight that came out of his approach, in so self-contained a way that even a physicist or computer scientist will understand it.”  In other words, sowa never uses his blog to do what Gowers does every day.  Sowa might respond that that’s what papers are for—but the thing about a blog is that it gives you the chance to reach a much wider readership than your papers do.  If someone is already blogging anyway, why wouldn’t they seize that chance to share something they love?

Similar comments apply to Slate Star Codex versus r/SneerClub.  When I read an SSC post, even if I vehemently disagree with the central thesis (which, yes, happens sometimes), I always leave the diner intellectually sated.  For the rest of the day, my brain is bloated with new historical tidbits, or a deep-dive into the effects of a psychiatric drug I’d never heard of, or a jaw-dropping firsthand account of life as a medical resident, or a different way to think about a philosophical problem—or, if nothing else, some wicked puns and turns of phrase.

But when I visit r/SneerClub—well, I get exactly what’s advertised on the tin.  Once you’ve read a few, the sneers become pretty predictable.  I thought that for sure, I’d occasionally find something like: “look, we all agree that Eliezer Yudkowsky and Elon Musk and Nick Bostrom are talking out their asses about AI, and are coddled white male emotional toddlers to boot.  But even granting that, what do we think about AI?  Are intelligences vastly smarter than humans possible?  If not, then what principle rules them out?  What, if anything, can be said about what a superintelligent being would do, or want?  Just for fun, let’s explore this a little: I mean the actual questions themselves, not the psychological reasons why others explore them.”

That never happens.  Why not?


There’s another fascinating Reddit forum called “RoastMe”, where people submit a photo of themselves holding a sign expressing their desire to be “roasted”—and then hundreds of Redditors duly oblige, savagely mocking the person’s appearance and anything else they can learn about the person from their profile.  Many of the roasts are so merciless that one winces vicariously for the poor schmucks who signed up for this, hopes that they won’t be driven to self-harm or suicide.  But browse enough roasts, and a realization starts to sink in: there’s no person, however beautiful or interesting they might’ve seemed a priori, for whom this roasting can’t be accomplished.  And that very generality makes the roasting lose much of its power—which maybe, optimistically, was the point of the whole exercise?

In the same way, spend a few days browsing SneerClub, and the truth hits you: once you’ve made their enemies list, there’s nothing you could possibly say or do that they wouldn’t sneer at.  Like, say it’s a nice day outside, and someone will reply:

“holy crap how much of an entitled nerdbro do you have to be, to erase all the marginalized people for whom the day is anything but ‘nice’—or who might be unable to go outside at all, because of limited mobility or other factors never even considered in these little rich white boys’ geek utopia?”

For me, this realization is liberating.  If appeasement of those who hate you is doomed to fail, why bother even embarking on it?


I’ve spent a lot of time on this blog criticizing D-Wave, and cringeworthy popular articles about quantum computing, and touted arXiv preprints that say wrong things.  But I hope regular readers feel like I’ve also tried to offer something positive: y’know, actual progress in quantum computing that actually excites me, or a talk about big numbers, or an explanation of the Bekenstein bound, whatever.  My experience with sites like “Stop Timothy Gowers! !!!” and SneerClub makes me feel like I ought to be doing less criticizing and more positive stuff.

Why, because I fear turning into a sneerer myself?  No, it’s subtler than that: because reading the sneerers drives home for me that it’s a fool’s quest to try to become what Scott Alexander once called an “apex predator of the signalling world.”

At the risk of stating the obvious: if you write, for example, that Richard Feynman was a self-aggrandizing chauvinist showboater, then even if your remarks have a nonzero inner product with the truth, you don’t thereby “transcend” Feynman and stand above him, in the same way that set theory transcends and stands above arithmetic by constructing a model for it.  Feynman’s achievements don’t thereby become your achievements.

When I was in college, I devoured Ray Monk’s two-volume biography of Bertrand Russell.  This is a superb work of scholarship, which I warmly recommend to everyone.  But there’s one problem with it: Monk is constantly harping on his subject’s failures, and he has no sense of humor, and Russell does.  The result is that, whenever Monk quotes Russell’s personal letters at length to prove what a jerk Russell was, the quoted passages just leap off the page—as if old Bertie has come back from the dead to share a laugh with you, the reader, while his biographer looks on sternly and says, “you two think this is funny?”

For a writer, I can think of no higher aspiration than that: to write like Bertrand Russell or like Scott Alexander—in such a way that, even when people quote you to stand above you, your words break free of the imprisoning quotation marks, wiggle past the critics, and enter the minds of readers of your generation and of generations not yet born.


Update (Nov. 13): Since apparently some people didn’t know (?!), the title of this post comes from the famous Teddy Roosevelt quote:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Teaching your students not to need a teacher

Friday, August 27th, 2010

Yesterday, after coming across my teaching statement, a reader named Arber Borici sent me the following questions:

In your opinion and based on your experience at various institutions, what would you recommend to me (a young, inexperienced scholar) regarding on how to best remove students’ attention from the mediocrity of grading to the eagerness for knowledge or, at least, high culture? … I would also appreciate it if you could provide me with one or two guidelines in approaching students to appreciate what they are being taught and to teach them on how to seek knowledge for themselves.

It seemed like good fodder for a blog entry, so with Arber’s kind permission, I’ve decided to post my response to him here (with only light editing).


Dear Arber,Thanks for your thoughtful email!  I’m always delighted to hear from people who share my views about the inherent problems in combining teaching with evaluation.

Alas, your question of how to get students to focus on intellectual exploration rather than on their midterm grade is an incredibly difficult one, since it depends not only on you but also on your academic context (for example, you’ll probably be required to give grades by department policy).  I’ve been struggling with that question myself for the past three years, and still haven’t answered it to my satisfaction, but here are a few small tips I can offer.

(1) Some students didn’t come to college to learn, but for any number of other reasons: to party, get a high-paying job, satisfy their parents, etc.  Or they’re only taking your course because it’s required for the major, while their real interests lie elsewhere.  Treat these students fairly and with respect, but don’t kill yourself trying to awaken an intellectual curiosity that isn’t present.  Instead, identify the students who are in your class to learn, memorize their names and faces, and make special efforts to reach out to them—for example, by sticking around after class to chat with them about the lecture and answer their questions.  (In my experience, many intellectually curious students prefer sticking around after class to coming to office hours.  In many cases, students who come to office hours are there because they want you to do their homework for them!)

(2) Grade generously.  I usually give at least a B- to anyone who makes a serious effort in the course.  (In practice, that policy turns out to be compatible with giving a fair number of Cs, Ds, and even Fs.)

(3) Most importantly, if you don’t want the students to focus only on low-level boring stuff, don’t lecture only about low-level boring stuff!  Tell stories about Alan Turing and his codebreaking work.  Talk about the philosophy behind the Church-Turing Thesis, or the arguments for and against identifying “feasible” with “polynomial time,” or the implications for AI if it turned out that P=NP.  If a student asks a really good question, don’t be afraid to take a 10-minute digression to answer the question.  You’ll constantly feel pressure in the opposite direction—there’s so much “real material” that needs to be “covered”!  But think about what your students will remember from your course twenty years from now, long after the details of implementing red/black trees have been forgotten, and the right course of action will become clear to you.

I should point out that there’s a paradox at the heart of teaching, which your second question (which is actually a variation on your first question) makes clear:

I would also appreciate it if you could provide me with one or two guidelines in approaching students to appreciate what they are being taught and to teach them on how to seek knowledge for themselves.

To see the difficulty with what you ask, picture a classroom full of glazed-eyed students, dutifully taking notes on “how to seek knowledge for themselves,” so they can repeat back your tips on intellectual initiative for the test!

In my experience, probably the best (only?) way to teach people how to seek knowledge for themselves is to illustrate by example.  Let your students watch you in action doing all of the following:

  1. happily admitting when you don’t know something.
  2. looking something up and getting back to the asker during the next class meeting, rather than simply letting the matter drop.
  3. thinking a difficult/novel question through on your feet.
  4. eliciting help from the students in a “Socratic” manner.

Seeing a positive example will embolden the students who have a spark of any of these tendencies in themselves.

Anyway, I hope that helps!

Best of luck,
Scott

Malthusianisms

Saturday, August 15th, 2009

(See also: Umeshisms, Anthropicisms)

Why, in real life, do we ever encounter hard instances of NP-complete problems?  Because if it’s too easy to find a 10,000-mile TSP tour, we ask for a 9,000-mile one.

Why are even some affluent parts of the world running out of fresh water?  Because if they weren’t, they’d keep watering their lawns until they were.

Why don’t we live in the utopia dreamed of by sixties pacifists and their many predecessors?  Because if we did, the first renegade to pick up a rock would become a Genghis Khan.

Why can’t everyone just agree to a family-friendly, 40-hour workweek?  Because then anyone who chose to work a 90-hour week would clean our clocks.

Why do native speakers of the language you’re studying talk too fast for you to understand them?  Because otherwise, they could talk faster and still understand each other.

Why is science hard?   Because so many of the easy problems have been solved already.

Why do the people you want to date seem so cruel, or aloof, or insensitive?  Maybe because, when they aren’t, you conclude you must be out of their league and lose your attraction for them.

Why does it cost so much to buy something to wear to a wedding?  Because if it didn’t, the fashion industry would invent more extravagant ‘requirements’ until it reached the limit of what people could afford.

Why do you cut yourself while shaving?  Because when you don’t, you conclude that you’re not shaving close enough.


These Malthusianisms share the properties that (1) they seem so obvious, once stated, as not to be worth stating, yet (2) whole ideologies, personal philosophies, and lifelong habits have been founded on the refusal to understand them.

Again and again, I’ve undergone the humbling experience of first lamenting how badly something sucks, then only much later having the crucial insight that its not sucking wouldn’t have been a Nash equilibrium.  Clearly, then, I haven’t yet gotten good enough at Malthusianizing my daily life—have you?

One might even go further, and speculate that human beings’ blind spot for this sort of explanation is why it took so long for Malthus himself (and his most famous disciple, Darwin) to come along.

Feel free to suggest your own Mathusianisms in the comments section.

Essentials of complexity-theoretic stand-up comedy

Monday, July 13th, 2009

Recently someone asked me how to give funnier talks.  My first response was to recoil at such an insolent question: doesn’t everyone know that at the core of my shtick lies a unique and ineffable je ne sais quoi that can’t be packaged, bottled, or resold?  But the truth was not that I couldn’t give advice; it’s that I didn’t want to.  For if everyone knew how easy it was to keep an audience at least half-awake, how would people like me maintain their edge?  By proving better theorems?  Having something new and relevant and say?  These questions answer themselves.

But because I love you, my readers, so deeply, and because I feel guilty about abandoning you for so long, I shall now publicly deconstruct the main ingredients of seminar humor, insofar as I’ve been able to find them.  (A few ingredients are specific to theoretical computer science, but most are more general.)

  1. Make fun of people in the audience.  (Of course, you have to do it in such a way that they’re flattered you’re ripping them and not someone else.)
  2. Ridicule bogus claims related to your topic, particularly claims that received wide currency in the popular press.  (To be honest, I do this not so much because it gets laughs—though it does—but as a small service to humanity.  If I can make one budding crackpot think twice before hitting “Submit” on a disproof of Bell’s Theorem, I will not have lived in vain.  Of course, the ridicule should always focus more on ideas than people; and even then, a few in the audience will frown on it, considering it unscientific or unprofessional.  Forty or fifty crackpots ago, I agreed with them.  It’s only experience that hardened me into a vigilante.)
  3. Incorporate the audience’s shared experiences into your talk (without making a big deal of it, as if it’s the most natural thing in the world).  For example, when it comes time to trot out an Alice/Bob scenario, have yours wryly comment on a previous talk, an excursion everyone went on, a current event (like an election) that everyone actually cares about more than the talk…
  4. Self-deprecate.  (“My first conjecture was falsified.  The following conjecture hasn’t yet been falsified, and is obviously true…”)
  5. Say things that recognize and comment on how neurotic the thought-process of theoretical computer scientists really is, by taking that thought-process to extremes.  (“That’s off by a factor of 1010^120, which is only O(1) and is therefore irrelevant.” “For years, people tried unsuccessfully to prove this sort of impossibility result was impossible.  Our result shows the impossibility of their goal.”)
  6. If your field is interdisciplinary, the humor potential is almost limitless.  Are you a physicist?  Ridicule the computer scientists.  A computer scientist?  Ridicule the mathematicians.  A mathematician?  Ridicule the economists.  Chances are, enough differences in notation, terminology, assumptions, and underlying goals will arise in the talk to give you a never-ending supply of material.  “Disciplinary humor” is a more refined, intellectual variant of ethnic humor, and is effective for the same reasons.
  7. Explain your results in an unusually vivid or graphic way.  (“If, at the moment of your death, your whole life flashed before you in an instant, and if while you were alive you’d performed suitable quantum computations on your own brain, then you could solve Graph Isomorphism in polynomial time.”)  This type of humor is my absolute favorite: on a plot with laughter volume on one axis and scientific content on the other, it’s way out on the upper-right-hand corner.
  8. If you’re using PowerPoint, take full advantage of its comic potential: wild animations, text that pops up on the screen to question or even flat-out contradict what you’re saying, a punchline at the bottom of the slide that only gets revealed when you press a key, etc.  I love doing this because I have as much time as I need to “precompute” jokes (though I’ll then often elaborate on them extemporaneously).
  9. Banter with the crowd: if someone makes a crack at your expense, always respond, and even escalate the interaction into a “staged fight” (the rest of the audience will love it).  If someone catches you in a mistake, or you don’t know the answer to a question, make a self-deprecating joke that acknowledges the situation even as it wins you sympathy points.
  10. Have high energy!  Loud, lots of moving around, emotion in your voice … like you can’t wait to invite everyone along to the most exciting journey in the history of the universe.  Not only is that good practice in general (at the least, it keeps the audience from falling asleep), it also creates a general atmosphere in which it’s okay to laugh at jokes.
  11. Pause a few beats before the punchline.  (You can get better at this by watching professional comics.)
  12. Experiment!  If a particular joke bombs, drop it from your rotation; if it brings the house down, recycle it in future talks.  Of course, you should drop a joke once it reaches its saturation point, where much of the audience has already heard it in previous talks.  On the other hand, if this particular audience hasn’t yet heard the joke, disregard your own internal sense of its being “tired”: it could go over just as well as the first time, or better.
  13. Steal ideas shamelessly from other speakers.  (I mean their humor techniques, not their results.)  Just as importantly, study the lame jokes other speakers use, so as to avoid them.  (For example, I estimate that 94% of quantum computing talks include a heavy-handed comment about someone or something being “in superposition”; this has not yet gotten a laugh.  Or the talks repeat stories about Feynman, Bohr, etc. that everyone in the audience has already heard a thousand times.)
  14. Tailor your jokes to the audience’s background.  For instance, I have some jokes that work great in the US, but sink in other countries.  Or work on physicists but not computer scientists, or vice versa.
  15. Make jokes about the country you’re visiting.  Of course, this is subject to common sense: I’ve been known to resort to “zed” / “aboot” jokes in Canada, scone / royalty / powdered wig jokes in England, and neutrality / yodeling jokes in Switzerland, but I usually don’t make the first joke that pops into my head when visiting Germany or Austria.
  16. Take risks!  Here’s an Umeshism: if some of your jokes don’t flop, then you’re not being bold enough.  Do things that people can’t believe anyone would actually do in a talk.  Most people seem to operate under the assumption that when they’re giving a talk, they have to be less funny than in regular conversation, when the truth is the opposite.  If something comes into your head that’s funny to you, and it passes the most flimsy and cursory of offensiveness checks … out with it, and worry later about the consequences!

Three final remarks.

First, reading over the list, I can’t help but feel sheepish about how much one can do with such a crude and obvious bag of tricks.

Second, I only wish I applied this crude bag more consistently!  Particularly when I have a new result and I’m excited about the proof, I all too often ignore my own advice and lapse into boringness.  But at least I notice I’m doing it, get annoyed at myself, and resolve to be crasser, less mature, and less professional the next time around.

Third, you might feel that adding shtick to your talks makes you “shallow,” that all that should matter is the content of your results.  In the relatively rare case where you’re addressing experts in your own sub-sub-subfield, that’s probably true: you can drop the funny business and get straight to the point.  In all other cases, I’m almost certain the audience will understand your results better if you incorporate some shtick than if you don’t.  But hey—it’s up to you whether you want to address an ideal Platonic audience (“more lemmas! no irrelevant distractions! yes! harder! faster!”) or the actual flesh-and-blood hairless apes who are dozing off in the seminar room while you speak.

The Email Event Horizon

Wednesday, March 4th, 2009

I know I’ve been gone from the shtetl too long—I even stood by as a P=NP goon performed a drive-by shooting through my comments section.  Part of the explanation, I’m ashamed to admit, is that I’ve been procrastinating by proving theorems and writing papers, rather than building up the massive corpus of blog entries on which my tenure case will undoubtedly rest.

But most of my absence has an unhappier source.  At an unknown time about three weeks ago, I crossed the Email Event Horizon—defined in General Unproductivity as the point beyond which you could literally spend your entire day answering emails, yet still have more emails at the end of the day demanding immediate attention than you had at the beginning.  Not spam or crank mail, but worthy missives from students, prospective students, high-school students, secretaries, TAs, fellow committee members, conference organizers, visit hosts, speakers, editors, co-editors, grant officers, referees, colleagues … everything, always, requiring you to do something, commit to some decision, send a title and abstract, pick dates for the trip, exercise Genuine Conscious Thought.  No one ever writes:

Please respond to the situation described above by cracking a joke, the less tasteful the better.  You will never need to deal with this matter again.

I don’t know the precise moment when I crossed the EEH—there was nothing to herald it, it felt like any other moment—but it’s obvious now that I’m in a new, unfamiliar causal region (and that, while I might have thought I’d crossed years ago, I hadn’t).  Communication from inside the EEH to the external universe is theoretically possible, but like Hawking radiation, it tends to be excruciatingly slow—and when it finally arrives, might simply regurgitate the incoming information in garbled form.

When I was a student, I used to wonder constantly about the professors who’d ignore my long, meticulously-crafted emails or fire off one-word replies, yet who might suddenly have an hour for me if I walked into their offices.  Were they senile?  Rude?  Did they secretly despise me?  Now I get it, now I understand—yet I doubt I could explain the warped spacetime Gmailometry I now inhabit to my own past self.  On the other hand, the recognition of what’s happened is itself a sort of liberation.  I’m starting to grasp what’s long been obvious to many of you, those who crossed the EEH before I got my first AOL account in seventh grade: that it’s useless to struggle.  By definition, the speed required to escape the EEH exceeds that of typing, while the mental energy required to accelerate a massive, resting theorist to such a speed is infinite.  So there’s nothing to do but blog, goof off, prove theorems, let the starred-but-unanswered inquiries pile higher and higher, and await the Email Singularity in my causal future.

What can first-order logic do for your self-esteem?

Wednesday, December 24th, 2008

Whereas nerds stand to benefit, even more than normal people, from becoming more assertive, outgoing, optimistic, obamalike in temperament, and all those other good things,

Whereas the fundamental problem with nerds is that they’re constantly overthinking everything,

Whereas this means nerds are regularly beaten in life by people who think less than they do,

Whereas it also means that nerds can’t read self-help books without coming up with dozens of (generally sound) reasons why everything they’re reading is a load of crap,

Whereas there’s therefore a large unmet need for self-esteem-boosting, personality-improving materials that would somehow fly under nerds’ radar, disarming the rational skeptical parts of their brains,

This holiday season, as my present to all my nerd readers, I’ve decided to start an occasional series entitled Nerd Self-Help.

Today’s installment: What should you do when you find yourself asking whether you have any “right to exist”?

Pondering the problem this morning, I hit upon a solution: Ask yourself whether the integer 8 has any right to exist.

In first-order logic, existence is not even a property that can be predicated of objects.  Given a universe of objects, you can ask about properties of those objects: for example, is there a perfect cube which is one less than a perfect square?  But it’s simply assumed that when you use a phrase like “is there,” you’re quantifying over everything that exists.  (As many of you know, this was the basic insight behind Kant’s refutation of Anselm’s ontological proof of the existence of God: the notion of “a being that wouldn’t be perfect without the added perfection of existence,” said Kant, is gobbledygook.)

Similarly, I claim that if you were to formulate a theory of human rights in first-order logic in any “natural” way, then whether you have a right to exist is not even a question that would arise within that theory.  Such a theory might include your right to not be murdered, to get a fair trial, to engage in consensual sexual activities, to own property, etc., but not your “right to exist”: that “right,” to the extent it even made sense, would simply be presupposed by your being part of the universe of persons that the theory of rights was quantifying over.  In other words, the sequence of words “do I have the right to exist?” seems to me to dissolve on analysis, an ill-formed non-question.

Now, I don’t doubt that there are plenty of logical, metaphysical, and legal objections that might be raised against the above argument.  But here’s the key: don’t think about it too much!  Just trust that there’s a rational-sounding argument for why you shouldn’t doubt your right to exist, and be happy.

Merry Christmas, everyone!