Archive for the ‘Announcements’ Category

HTTPS / Kurtz / eclipse / Charlottesville / Blum / P vs. NP

Friday, August 25th, 2017

This post has a grab bag of topics, unified only by the fact that I can no longer put off blogging about them. So if something doesn’t interest you, just scroll down till you find something that does.


Great news, everyone: following a few reader complaints about the matter, the scottaaronson.com domain now supports https—and even automatically redirects to it! I’m so proud that Shtetl-Optimized has finally entered the technological universe of 1994. Thanks so much to heroic reader Martin Dehnel-Wild for setting this up for me.

Update 26/08/2017: Comments should now be working again; comments are now coming through to the moderated view in the blog’s control panel, so if they don’t show up immediately it might just be awaiting moderation. Thanks for your patience.


Last weekend, I was in Columbia, South Carolina, for a workshop to honor the 60th birthday of Stuart Kurtz, theoretical computer scientist at the University of Chicago.  I gave a talk about how work Kurtz was involved in from the 1990s—for example, on defining the complexity class GapP, and constructing oracles that satisfy conflicting requirements simultaneously—plays a major role in modern research on quantum computational supremacy: as an example, my recent paper with Lijie Chen.  (Except, what a terrible week to be discussing the paths to supremacy!  I promise there are no tiki torches involved, only much weaker photon sources.)

Coincidentally, I don’t know if you read anything about this on social media, but there was this total solar eclipse that passed right over Columbia at the end of the conference.

I’d always wondered why some people travel to remote corners of the earth to catch these.  So the sky gets dark for two minutes, and then it gets light again, in a way that’s been completely understood and predictable for centuries?

Having seen it, I can now tell you the deal, if you missed it and prefer to read about it here rather than 10500 other places online.  At risk of stating the obvious: it’s not the dark sky; it’s the sun’s corona visible around the moon.  Ironically, it’s only when the sun’s blotted out that you can actually look at the sun, at all the weird stuff going on around its disk.

OK, but totality is “only” to eclipses as orgasms are to sex.  There’s also the whole social experience of standing around outside with friends for an hour as the moon gradually takes a bigger bite out of the sun, staring up from time to time with eclipse-glasses to check its progress—and then everyone breaking into applause as the sky finally goes mostly dark, and you can look at the corona with the naked eye.  And then, if you like, standing around for another hour as the moon gradually exits the other way.  (If you’re outside the path of totality, this standing around and checking with eclipse-glasses is the whole experience.)

One cool thing is that, a little before and after totality, shadows on the ground have little crescents in them, as if the eclipse is imprinting its “logo” all over the earth.

For me, the biggest lesson the eclipse drove home was the logarithmic nature of perceived brightness (see also Scott Alexander’s story).  Like, the sun can be more than 90% occluded, and yet it’s barely a shade darker outside.  And you can still only look up with glasses so dark that they blot out everything except the sliver of sun, which still looks pretty much like the normal sun if you catch it out of the corner of your unaided eye.  Only during totality, and a few minutes before and after, is the darkening obvious.


Another topic at the workshop, unsurprisingly, was the ongoing darkening of the United States.  If it wasn’t obvious from my blog’s name, and if saying so explicitly will make any difference for anything, let the record state:

Shtetl-Optimized condemns Nazis, as well as anyone who knowingly marches with Nazis or defends them as “fine people.”

For a year, this blog has consistently described the now-president as a thug, liar, traitor, bully, sexual predator, madman, racist, and fraud, and has urged decent people everywhere to fight him by every peaceful and legal means available.  But if there’s some form of condemnation that I accidentally missed, then after Charlottesville, and Trump’s unhinged quasi-defenses of violent neo-Nazis, and defenses of his previous defenses, etc.—please consider Shtetl-Optimized to have condemned Trump that way also.

At least Charlottesville seems to have set local decisionmakers on an unstoppable course toward removing the country’s remaining Confederate statues—something I strongly supported back in May, before it had become the fully thermonuclear issue that it is now.  In an overnight operation, UT Austin has taken down its statues of Robert E. Lee, Albert Johnston, John Reagan, and Stephen Hogg.  (I confess, the postmaster general of the Confederacy wouldn’t have been my #1 priority for removal.  And, genuine question: what did Texas governor Stephen Hogg do that was so awful for his time, besides naming his daughter Ima Hogg?)


A final thing to talk about—yeah, we can’t avoid it—is Norbert Blum’s claimed proof of P≠NP.  I suppose I should be gratified that, after my last post, there were commenters who said, “OK, but enough about gender politics—what about P vs. NP?”  Here’s what I wrote on Tuesday the 15th:

To everyone who keeps asking me about the “new” P≠NP proof: I’d again bet $200,000 that the paper won’t stand, except that the last time I tried that, it didn’t achieve its purpose, which was to get people to stop asking me about it. So: please stop asking, and if the thing hasn’t been refuted by the end of the week, you can come back and tell me I was a closed-minded fool.

Many people misunderstood me to be saying that I’d again bet $200,000, even though the sentence said the exact opposite.  Maybe I should’ve said: I’m searching in vain for the right way to teach the nerd world to get less excited about these claims, to have the same reaction that the experts do, which is ‘oh boy, not another one’—which doesn’t mean that you know the error, or even that there is an error, but just means that you know the history.

Speaking of which, some friends and I recently had an awesome idea.  Just today, I registered the domain name haspvsnpbeensolved.com.  I’d like to set this up with a form that lets you type in the URL of a paper claiming to resolve the P vs. NP problem.  The site will then take 30 seconds or so to process the paper—with a status bar, progress updates, etc.—before finally rendering a verdict about the paper’s correctness.  Do any readers volunteer to help me create this?  Don’t worry, I’ll supply the secret algorithm to decide correctness, and will personally vouch for that algorithm for as long as the site remains live.

I have nothing bad to say about Norbert Blum, who made important contributions including the 3n circuit size lower bound for an explicit Boolean function—something that stood until very recently as the world record—and whose P≠NP paper was lucidly written, passing many of the most obvious checks.  And I received a bit of criticism for my “dismissive” stance.  Apparently, some right-wing former string theorist who I no longer read, whose name rhymes with Mubos Lotl, even accused me of being a conformist left-wing ideologue, driven to ignore Blum’s proof by an irrational conviction that any P≠NP proof will necessarily be so difficult that it will need to “await the Second Coming of Christ.”  Luca Trevisan’s reaction to that is worth quoting:

I agree with [Mubos Lotl] that the second coming of Jesus Christ is not a necessary condition for a correct proof that P is different from NP. I am keeping an open mind as to whether it is a sufficient condition.

On reflection, though, Mubos has a point: all of us, including me, should keep an open mind.  Maybe P≠NP (or P=NP!) is vastly easier to prove than most experts think, and is susceptible to a “fool’s mate.”

That being the case, it’s only intellectual honesty that compels me to report that, by about Friday of last week—i.e., exactly on my predicted schedule—a clear consensus had developed among experts that Blum’s P≠NP proof was irreparably flawed, and the consensus has stood since that time.

I’ve often wished that, even just for an hour or two, I could be free from this terrifying burden that I’ve carried around since childhood: the burden of having the right instincts about virtually everything.  Trust me, this “gift” is a lot less useful than it sounds, especially when reality so often contradicts what’s popular or expedient to say.

The background to Blum’s attempt, the counterexample that shows the proof has to fail somewhere, and the specifics of what appears to go wrong have already been covered at length elsewhere: see especially Luca’s post, Dick Lipton’s post, John Baez’s post, and the CS Theory StackExchange thread.

Very briefly, though: Blum claims to generalize some of the most celebrated complexity results of the 1980s—namely, superpolynomial lower bounds on the sizes of monotone circuits, which consist entirely of Boolean AND and OR gates—so that they also work for general (non-monotone) circuits, consisting of AND, OR, and NOT gates.  Everyone agrees that, if this succeeded, it would imply P≠NP.

Alas, another big discovery from the 1980s was that there are monotone Boolean functions (like Perfect Matching) that require superpolynomial-size monotone circuits, even though they have polynomial-size non-monotone circuits.  Why is that such a bummer?  Because it means our techniques for proving monotone circuit lower bounds can’t possibly work in as much generality as one might’ve naïvely hoped: if they did, they’d imply not merely that P doesn’t contain NP, but also that P doesn’t contain itself.

Blum was aware of all this, and gave arguments as to why his approach evades the Matching counterexample.  The trouble is, there’s another counterexample, which Blum doesn’t address, called Tardos’s function.  This is a weird creature: it’s obtained by starting with a graph invariant called the Lovász theta function, then looking at a polynomial-time approximation scheme for the theta function, and finally rounding the output of that PTAS to get a monotone function.  But whatever: in constructing this function, Tardos achieved her goal, which was to produce a monotone function that all known lower bound techniques for monotone circuits work perfectly fine for, but which is nevertheless in P (i.e., has polynomial-size non-monotone circuits).  In particular, if Blum’s proof worked, then it would also work for Tardos’s function, and that gives us a contradiction.

Of course, this merely tells us that Blum’s proof must have one or more mistakes; it doesn’t pinpoint where they are.  But the latter question has now been addressed as well.  On CS StackExchange, an anonymous commenter who goes variously by “idolvon” and “vloodin” provides a detailed analysis of the proof of Blum’s crucial Theorem 6.  I haven’t gone through every step myself, and there might be more to say about the matter than “vloodin” has, but several experts who are at once smarter, more knowledgeable, more cautious, and more publicity-shy than me have confirmed for me that vloodin correctly identified the erroneous region.

To those who wonder what gave me the confidence to call this immediately, without working through the details: besides the Cassandra-like burden that I was born with, I can explain something that might be helpful.  When Razborov achieved his superpolynomial monotone lower bounds in the 1980s, there was a brief surge of excitement: how far away could a P≠NP proof possibly be?  But then people, including Razborov himself, understood much more deeply what was going on—an understanding that was reflected in the theorems they proved, but also wasn’t completely captured by those theorems.

What was going on was this: monotone circuits are an interesting and nontrivial computational model.  Indeed for certain Boolean functions, such as the “slice functions,” they’re every bit as powerful as general circuits.  However, insofar as it’s possible to prove superpolynomial lower bounds on monotone circuit size, it’s possible only because monotone circuits are ridiculously less expressive than general Boolean circuits for the problems in question.  E.g., it’s possible only because monotone circuits aren’t expressing pseudorandom functions, and therefore aren’t engaging the natural proofs barrier or most of the other terrifying beasts that we’re up against.

So what can we say about the prospect that a minor tweak to the monotone circuit lower bound techniques from the 1980s would yield P≠NP?  If, like Mubos Lotl, you took the view that discrete math and theory of computation are just a mess of disconnected, random statements, then such a prospect would seem as likely to you as not.  But if you’re armed with the understanding above, then this possibility is a lot like the possibility that the OPERA experiment discovered superluminal neutrinos: no, not a logical impossibility, but something that’s safe to bet against at 10,000:1 odds.

During the discussion of Deolalikar’s earlier P≠NP claim, I once compared betting against a proof that all sorts of people are calling “formidable,” “solid,” etc., to standing in front of a huge pendulum—behind the furthest point that it reached the last time—even as it swings toward your face.  Just as certain physics teachers stake their lives on the conservation of energy, so I’m willing to stake my academic reputation, again and again, on the conservation of circuit-lower-bound difficulty.  And here I am, alive to tell the tale.

Three things

Monday, July 17th, 2017

I was shocked and horrified to learn of the loss of Maryam Mirzakhani at age 40, after a battle with cancer (see here or here).  Mirzakhani was a renowned mathematician at Stanford and the world’s first and so far only female Fields Medalist.  I never had the privilege of meeting her, but everything I’ve read about her fills me with admiration.  I wish to offer condolences to her friends and family, including her husband Jan Vondrák, also a professor at Stanford and a member of the CS theory community.


In other depressing news, discussion continues to rage on social media about “The Uninhabitable Earth,” the New York magazine article by David Wallace-Wells arguing that the dangers of climate change have been systematically understated even by climate scientists; that sea level rise is the least of the problems; and that if we stay the current course, much of the earth’s landmass has a good chance of being uninhabitable by the year 2100.  In an unusual turn of events, the Wallace-Wells piece has been getting slammed by climate scientists, including Michael Mann (see here and also this interview)—people who are usually in the news to refute the claims of deniers.

Some of the critics’ arguments seem cogent to me: for example, that Wallace-Wells misunderstood some satellite data, and more broadly, that the piece misleadingly presents its scenario as overwhelmingly probable by 2100 if we do nothing, rather than as “only” 10% likely or whatever—i.e., a mere Trump-becoming-president level of risk.  Other objections to the article impressed me less: for example, that doom-and-gloom is a bad way to motivate people about climate change; that the masses need a more optimistic takeaway.  That obviously has no bearing on the truth of what’s going to happen—but even if we did agree to entertain such arguments, well, it’s not as if mainstream messaging on climate change has been an unmitigated success.  What if everyone should be sweating-in-the-night terrified?

As far as I understand it, the question of the plausibility of Wallace-Wells’s catastrophe scenario mostly just comes down to a single scientific unknown: namely, will the melting permafrost belch huge amounts of methane into the atmosphere?  If it does, then “Armageddon” is probably a fair description of what awaits us in the next century, and if not, not.  Alas, our understanding of permafrost doesn’t seem especially reliable, and it strikes me that models of such feedbacks have a long history of erring on the side of conservatism (for example, researchers were astonished by how quickly glaciers and ice shelves fell apart).

So, while I wish the article was written with more caveats, I submit that runaway warming scenarios deserve more attention rather than less.  And we should be putting discussion of those scenarios in exactly the broader context that Wallace-Wells does: namely, that of the Permian-Triassic extinction event, the Fermi paradox, and the conditions for a technological civilization to survive past its infancy.

Certainly we spend much more time on risks to civilization (e.g., nuclear terrorism, bioengineered pandemics) that strike me as less probable than this one.  And certainly this tail, in the distribution of possible outcomes, deserves at least as much attention as its more popular opposite, the tail where climate change turns out not to be much of a problem at all.  For the grim truth about climate change is that history won’t end in 2100: only the projections do.  And the mere addition of 50 more years could easily suffice to turn a tail risk into a body risk.

Of course, that the worst will happen is a clear prediction of reverse Hollywoodism theory—besides being the “natural, default” prediction for a computer scientist used to worst-case analysis.  This is one prediction that I hope turns out to be as wrong as possible.


OK, now for something to cheer us all up.  Yesterday the group of Misha Lukin, at Harvard, put a paper on the arXiv reporting the creation of a 51-qubit quantum simulator using cold atoms.  The paper doesn’t directly address the question of quantum supremacy, or indeed of performance comparisons between the new device and classical simulations at all.  But this is clearly a big step forward, while the world waits for the fully-programmable 50-qubit superconducting QCs that have been promised by the groups at Google and IBM.

Indeed, this strikes me as the most exciting news in experimental quantum information since last month, when Jian-Wei Pan’s group in Shanghai reported the first transmission of entangled photons from a satellite to earth—thereby allowing violations of the Bell inequality over 1200 kilometers, teleportation of a qubit from earth to space, and other major firsts.  These are breakthroughs that we knew were in the works ever since the Chinese government launched the QUESS satellite devoted to quantum communications.  I should’ve blogged about them in June.  Then again, regular readers of Shtetl-Optimized, familiar as they already are with the universal reach of quantum mechanics and with the general state of quantum information technology, shouldn’t find anything here that fundamentally surprises them, should they?

ITCS’2018

Wednesday, July 5th, 2017

My friend Anna Karlin, who chairs the ITCS program committee this year, asked me to post the following announcement, and I’m happy to oblige her.  I’ve enjoyed ITCS every time I’ve attended, and was even involved in the statement that led to ITCS’s creation, although I don’t take direct responsibility for the content of this ad. –SA


The ITCS 2018 Call For Papers is now available!

ITCS is a conference that stands apart from all others. For a decade now, it has been celebrating the vibrancy and unity of our field of Theoretical Computer Science. See this blog post for a detailed discussion of what makes ITCS so cool and the brief description of ITCS’17 at the end of this post.

ITCS seeks to promote research that carries a strong conceptual message  (e.g., introducing a new concept, model or understanding, opening a new line of inquiry within traditional or interdisciplinary areas, introducing new mathematical techniques and methodologies, or new applications of known techniques). ITCS welcomes both conceptual and technical contributions whose contents will advance and inspire the greater theory community.

This year, ITCS will be held at MIT in Cambridge, MA from January 11-14, 2018.

The submission deadline is September 8, 2017, with notification of decisions by October 30, 2017.

 Authors should strive to make their papers accessible not only to experts in their subarea, but also to the theory community at large. The committee will place a premium on writing that conveys clearly and in the simplest possible way what the paper is accomplishing.

Ten-page versions of accepted papers will be published in an electronic proceedings of the conference. However, the alternative of publishing a one page abstract with a link to a full PDF will also be available (to accommodate subsequent publication in journals that would not consider results that have been published in preliminary form in a conference proceedings).

You can find all the details in the official Call For Papers.

 On last year’s ITCS (by the PC Chair Christos Papadimitriou)

 This past ITCS (2017) was by all accounts the most successful ever.  We had 170+ submissions and 61 papers, including 5 “invited papers”, and 90+ registrants, all new records.  There was a voluntary poster session for authors to get a chance to go through more detail, and the famous Graduating Bits event, where the younger ones get their 5 minutes to show off their accomplishment and personality.

The spirit of the conference was invigorating, heartwarming, and great fun.  I believe none of the twelve sessions had fewer than 70 attendees — no parallelism, of course — while the now famous last session was among the best attended and went one hour overtime due to the excitement of discussion (compare with the last large conference that you attended).

Yet more errors in papers

Wednesday, May 24th, 2017

Following up on my posts PostBQP Postscripts and More Wrong Things I Said In Papers, it felt like time for another post in which I publicly flog myself for mistakes in my research papers.  [Warning: The rest of this post is kinda, sorta technical.  Read at your own risk.]


(1) In my 2006 paper “Oracles are subtle but not malicious,” I claimed to show that if PP is contained in BQP/qpoly, then the counting hierarchy collapses to QMA (Theorem 5).  But on further reflection, I only know how to show a collapse of the counting hierarchy under the stronger assumption that PP is in BQP/poly.  If PP is in BQP/qpoly, then certainly P#P=PP=QMA, but I don’t know how to collapse any further levels of the counting hierarchy.  The issue is this: in QMA, we can indeed nondeterministically guess an (amplified) quantum advice state for a BQP/qpoly algorithm.  We can then verify that the advice state works to solve PP problems, by using (for example) the interactive protocol for the permanent, or some other #P-complete problem.  But having done that, how do we then unravel the higher levels of the counting hierarchy?  For example, how do we simulate PPPP in PPBQP=PP?  We don’t have any mechanism to pass the quantum advice up to the oracle PP machine, since queries to a PP oracle are by definition classical strings.  We could try to use tools from my later paper with Andy Drucker, passing a classical description of the quantum advice up to the oracle and then using the description to reconstruct the advice for ourselves.  But doing so just doesn’t seem to give us a complexity class that’s low for PP, which is what would be needed to unravel the counting hierarchy.  I still think this result might be recoverable, but a new idea is needed.


(2) In my 2008 algebrization paper with Avi Wigderson, one of the most surprising things we showed was a general connection between communication complexity lower bounds and algebraic query complexity lower bounds.  Specifically, given a Boolean oracle A:{0,1}n→{0,1}, let ~A be a low-degree extension of A over a finite field F (that is, ~A(x)=A(x) whenever x∈{0,1}n).  Then suppose we have an algorithm that’s able to learn some property of A, by making k black-box queries to ~A.  We observed that, in such a case, if Alice is given the top half of the truth table of A, and Bob is given the bottom half of the truth table, then there’s necessarily a communication protocol by which Alice and Bob can learn the same property of A, by exchanging at most O(kn log|F|) bits.  This connection is extremely model-independent: a randomized query algorithm gives rise to a randomized communication protocol, a quantum query algorithm gives rise to a quantum communication protocol, etc. etc.  The upshot is that, if you want to lower-bound the number of queries that an algorithm needs to make to the algebraic extension oracle ~A, in order to learn something about A, then it suffices to prove a suitable communication complexity lower bound.  And the latter, unlike algebraic query complexity, is a well-studied subject with countless results that one can take off the shelf.  We illustrated how one could use this connection to prove, for example, that there exists an oracle A such that NPA ⊄ BQP~A, for any low-degree extension ~A of A—a separation that we didn’t and don’t know how to prove any other way. Likewise, there exists an oracle B such that BQPB ⊄ BPP~B for any low-degree extension ~B of B.

The trouble is, our “proof sketches” for these separations (in Theorem 5.11) are inadequate, even for “sketches.”  They can often be fixed, but only by appealing to special properties of the communication complexity separations in question, properties that don’t necessarily hold for an arbitrary communication separation between two arbitrary models.

The issue is this: while it’s true, as we claimed, that a communication complexity lower bound implies an algebraic query complexity lower bound, it’s not true in general that a communication complexity upper bound implies an algebraic query complexity upper bound!  So, from a communication separation between models C and D, we certainly obtain a query complexity problem that’s not in D~A, but then the problem might not be in CA.  What tripped us up was that, in the cases we had in mind (e.g. Disjointness), it’s obvious that the query problem is in CA.  In other cases, however, such as Raz’s separation between quantum and randomized communication complexity, it probably isn’t even true.  In the latter case, to recover the desired conclusion about algebraic query complexity (namely, the existence of an oracle B such that BQPB ⊄ BPP~B), what seems to be needed is to start from a later quantum vs. classical communication complexity separation due to Klartag and Regev, and then convert their communication problem into a query problem using a recent approach by myself and Shalev Ben-David (see Section 4).  Unfortunately, my and Shalev’s approach only tells us nonconstructively that there exists a query problem with the desired separation, with no upper bound on the gate complexity of the quantum algorithm.  So strictly speaking, I still don’t know how to get a separation between the relativized complexity classes BQPB and BPP~B defined in terms of Turing machines.

In any case, I of course should have realized this issue with the algebrization paper the moment Shalev and I encountered the same issue when writing our later paper.  Let me acknowledge Shalev, as well as Robin Kothari, for helping to spur my realization of the issue.


In case it wasn’t clear, the mistakes I’ve detailed here have no effect on the main results of the papers in question (e.g., the existence of an oracle relative to which PP has linear-sized circuits; the existence and pervasiveness of the algebrization barrier).  The effect is entirely on various “bonus” results—results that, because they’re bonus, were gone over much less carefully by authors and reviewers alike.

Nevertheless, I’ve always felt like in science, the louder you are about your own mistakes, the better.  Hence this post.

Unsong of unsongs

Saturday, May 20th, 2017

On Wednesday, Scott Alexander finally completed his sprawling serial novel Unsong, after a year and a half of weekly updates—incredibly, in his spare time while also working as a full-term resident in psychiatry, and also regularly updating Slate Star Codex, which I consider to be the world’s best blog.  I was honored to attend a party in Austin (mirroring parties in San Francisco, Boston, Tel Aviv, and elsewhere) to celebrate Alexander’s release of the last chapter—depending on your definition, possibly the first “fan event” I’ve ever attended.

Like many other nerds I’ve met, I’d been following Unsong almost since the beginning—with its mix of Talmudic erudition, CS humor, puns, and even a shout-out to Quantum Computing Since Democritus (which shows up as Ben Aharon’s Gematria Since Adam), how could I not be?  I now count Unsong as one of my favorite works of fiction, and Scott Alexander alongside Rebecca Newberger Goldstein among my favorite contemporary novelists.  The goal of this post is simply to prod readers of my blog who don’t yet know Unsong: if you’ve ever liked anything here on Shtetl-Optimized, then I predict you’ll like Unsong, and probably more.

[WARNING: SPOILERS FOLLOW]

Though not trivial to summarize, Unsong is about a world where the ideas of religion and mysticism—all of them, more or less, although with a special focus on kabbalistic Judaism—turn out to be true.  In 1968, the Apollo 8 mission leads not to an orbit of the Moon, as planned, but instead to cracking an invisible crystal sphere that had surrounded the Earth for millennia.  Down through the crack rush angels, devils, and other supernatural forces.  Life on Earth becomes increasingly strange: on the one hand, many technologies stop working; on the other, people can now gain magical powers by speaking various names of God.  A worldwide industry arises to discover new names of God by brute-force search through sequences of syllables.  And a powerful agency, the eponymous UNSONG (United Nations Subcommittee on Names of God), is formed to enforce kabbalistic copyright law, hunting down and punishing anyone who speaks divine names without paying licensing fees to the theonomic corporations.

As the story progresses, we learn that eons ago, there was an epic battle in Heaven between Good and Evil, and Evil had the upper hand.  But just as all seemed lost, an autistic angel named Uriel reprogrammed the universe to run on math and science rather than on God’s love, as a last-ditch strategy to prevent Satan’s forces from invading the sublunary realm.  Molecular biology, the clockwork regularity of physical laws, false evidence for a huge and mindless cosmos—all these were retconned into the world’s underpinnings.  Uriel did still need to be occasionally involved, but less as a loving god than as an overworked sysadmin: for example, he descended to Mount Sinai to warn humans never to boil goats in their mothers’ milk, because he discovered that doing so (like the other proscribed activities in the Torah, Uriel’s readme file) triggered bugs in the patchwork of code that was holding the universe together.  Now that the sky has cracked, Uriel is forced to issue increasingly desperate patches, and even those will only buy a few decades until his math-and-science-based world stops working entirely, with Satan again triumphant.

Anyway, that’s a tiny part of the setup.  Through 72 chapters and 22 interludes, there’s world-building and philosophical debates and long kabbalistic digressions.  There are battle sequences (the most striking involves the Lubavitcher Rebbe riding atop a divinely-animated Statue of Liberty like a golem).  There’s wordplay and inside jokes—holy of holies are there those—including, notoriously, a sequence of cringe-inducing puns involving whales.  But in this story, wordplay isn’t just there for the hell of it: Scott Alexander has built an entire fictional universe that runs on wordplay—one where battles between the great masters, the equivalent of the light-saber fights in Star Wars, are conducted by rearranging letters in the sky to give them new meanings.  Scott A. famously claims he’s bad at math (though if you read anything he’s written on statistics or logic puzzles, it’s clear he undersells himself).  One could read Unsong as Alexander’s book-length answer to the question: what could it mean for the world to be law-governed but not mathematical?  What if the Book of Nature were written in English, or Hebrew, or other human languages, and if the Newtons and Einsteins were those who were most adept with words?

I should confess that for me, the experience of reading Unsong was colored by the knowledge that, in his years of brilliant and prolific writing, lighting up the blogosphere like a comet, the greatest risk Scott Alexander ever took (by his own account) was to defend me.  It’s like, imagine that in Elizabethan England, you were placed in the stocks and jeered at by thousands for advocating some unpopular loser cause—like, I dunno, anti-cat-burning or something.  And imagine that, when it counted, your most eloquent supporter was a then-obscure poet from Stratford-upon-Avon.  You’d be grateful to the poet, of course; you might even become a regular reader of his work, even if it wasn’t good.  But if the same poet went on to write Hamlet or Macbeth?  It might almost be enough for you to volunteer to be scorned and pilloried all over again, just for the honor of having the Bard divert a rivulet of his creative rapids to protesting on your behalf.

Yes, a tiny part of me had a self-absorbed child’s reaction to Unsong: “could Amanda Marcotte have written this?  could Arthur Chu?  who better to have in your camp: the ideologues du jour of Twitter and Metafilter, Salon.com and RationalWiki?  Or a lone creative genius, someone who can conjure whole worlds into being, as though graced himself with the Shem haMephorash of which he writes?”  Then of course I’d catch myself, and think: no, if you want to be in Scott Alexander’s camp, then the only way to do it is to be in nobody’s camp.  If two years ago it was morally justified to defend me, then the reasons why have nothing to do with the literary gifts of any of my defenders.  And conversely, the least we can do for Unsong is to judge it by what’s on the page, rather than as a soldier in some army fielded by the Gray Tribe.

So in that spirit, let me explain some of what’s wrong with Unsong.  That it’s a first novel sometimes shows.  It’s brilliant on world-building and arguments and historical tidbits and jokes, epic on puns, and uneven on character and narrative flow.  The story jumps around spasmodically in time, so much so that I needed a timeline to keep track of what was happening.  Subplots that are still open beget additional subplots ad headacheum, like a string of unmatched left-parentheses.  Even more disorienting, the novel changes its mind partway through about its narrative core.  Initially, the reader is given a clear sense that this is going to be a story about a young Bay Area kabbalist named Aaron Smith-Teller, his not-quite-girlfriend Ana, and their struggle for supernatural fair-use rights.  Soon, though, Aaron and Ana become almost side characters, their battle against UNSONG just one subplot among many, as the focus shifts to the decades-long war between the Comet King, a messianic figure come to rescue humanity, and Thamiel, the Prince of Hell.  For the Comet King, even saving the earth from impending doom is too paltry a goal to hold his interest much.  As a strict utilitarian and fan of Peter Singer, the Comet King’s singleminded passion is destroying Hell itself, and thereby rescuing the billions of souls who are trapped there for eternity.

Anyway, unlike the Comet King, and unlike a certain other Scott A., I have merely human powers to marshal my time.  I also have two kids and a stack of unwritten papers.  So let me end this post now.  If the post causes just one person to read Unsong who otherwise wouldn’t have, it will be as if I’ve nerdified the entire world.

My broken blog

Monday, May 8th, 2017

I wanted to let people know I’m well-aware that Shtetl-Optimized has been suffering from the following problems lately:

  • Commenters are presented with the logins (handle, email address, and URL) of random other commenters, rather than with their own default login data.  In particular, this means that email addresses are leaking, and that when you comment, you should not (for the time being) enter your real email address if that’s information that you’d wanted to share only with me.  Another thing it means is that, when I try to comment, I’m not logged in as “Scott,” so even I have to enter my login data manually every time I comment.
  • Comments (including my own comments!) take about an hour to show up after I’ve approved them.
  • New blog posts also take a while to show up.

Since all three of these problems started happening around the same time, I assume they’re related.  But I don’t even know where to start in trying to solve them (Googling for “WordPress” plus descriptions of these bugs was unhelpful).  Would anyone like to help out?  If you earn my trust, I’ll even temporarily give you administrative privileges on this blog so you can poke around yourself.

Thanks so much, and hope to return to your regularly scheduled programming shortly…

This Week’s BS

Friday, May 5th, 2017

There are two pieces of BosonSampling-related news that people have asked me about this week.

First, a group in Shanghai, led by Chaoyang Lu and Jianwei Pan, has reported in Nature Photonics that they can do BosonSampling with a coincidence rate that’s higher than in previous experiments by a factor of several thousand.  This, in particular, lets them do BosonSampling with 5 photons.  Now, 5 might not sound like that much, especially since the group in Bristol previously did 6-photon BosonSampling.  But to make their experiment work, the Bristol group needed to start its photons in the initial state |3,3〉: that is, two modes with 3 photons each.  This gives rise to matrices with repeated rows, whose permanents are much easier to calculate than the permanents of arbitrary matrices.  By contrast, the Shangai group starts its photons in the “true BosonSampling initial state” |1,1,1,1,1〉: that is, five modes with 1 photon each.  That’s the kind of initial state we ultimately want.

The second piece of news is that on Monday, a group at Bristol—overlapping with the group we mentioned before—submitted a preprint to the arXiv with the provocative title “No imminent quantum supremacy by boson sampling.”  In this paper, they give numerical evidence that BosonSampling, with n photons and m modes, can be approximately simulated by a classical computer in “merely” about n2n time (that is, the time needed to calculate a single n×n permanent), as opposed to the roughly mn time that one would need if one had to calculate permanents corresponding to all the possible outcomes of the experiment.  As a consequence of that, they argue that achieving quantum supremacy via BosonSampling would probably require at least ~50 photons—which would in turn require a “step change” in technology, as they put it.

I completely agree with the Bristol group’s view of the asymptotics.  In fact, Alex Arkhipov and I ourselves repeatedly told experimentalists, in our papers and talks about BosonSampling (the question came up often…), that the classical complexity of the problem should only be taken to scale like 2n, rather than like mn.  Despite not having a general proof that the problem could actually be solved in ~2n time in the worst case, we said that for two main reasons:

  1. Even under the most optimistic assumptions, our hardness reductions, from Gaussian permanent estimation and so forth, only yielded ~2n hardness, not ~mn hardness.  (Hardness reductions giving us important clues about the real world?  Whuda thunk??)
  2. If our BosonSampling matrix is Haar-random—or otherwise not too skewed to produce outcomes with huge probabilities—then it’s not hard to see that we can do approximate BosonSampling in O(n2n) time classically, by using rejection sampling.

Indeed, Alex and I insisted on these points despite some pushback from experimentalists, who were understandably hoping that they could get to quantum supremacy just by upping m, the number of modes, without needing to do anything heroic with n, the number of photons!  So I’m happy to see that a more careful analysis supports the guess that Alex and I made.

On the other hand, what does this mean for the number of photons needed for “quantum supremacy”: is it 20? 30? 50?  I confess that that sort of question interests me much less, since it all depends on the details of how you define the comparison (are we comparing against ENIAC? a laptop? a server farm? how many cores? etc etc).  As I’ve often said, my real hope with quantum supremacy is to see a quantum advantage that’s so overwhelming—so duh-obvious to the naked eye—that we don’t have to squint or argue about the definitions.

Daniel Moshe Aaronson

Saturday, March 25th, 2017

Born Wednesday March 22, 2017, exactly at noon.  19.5 inches, 7 pounds.

I learned that Dana had gone into labor—unexpectedly early, at 37 weeks—just as I was waiting to board a redeye flight back to Austin from the It from Qubit complexity workshop at Stanford.  I made it in time for the birth with a few hours to spare.  Mother and baby appear to be in excellent health.  So far, Daniel seems to be a relatively easy baby.  Lily, his sister, is extremely excited to have a new playmate (though not one who does much yet).

I apologize that I haven’t been answering comments on the is-the-universe-a-simulation thread as promptly as I normally do.  This is why.

State

Sunday, January 1st, 2017

Happy New Year, everyone!  I tripped over a well-concealed hole and sprained my ankle while carrying my daughter across the grass at Austin’s New Years festival, so am now ringing in 2017 lying in bed immobilized, which somehow seems appropriate.  At least Lily is fine, and at least being bedridden gives me ample opportunity to blog.


Another year, another annual Edge question, with its opportunity for hundreds of scientists and intellectuals (including yours truly) to pontificate, often about why their own field of study is the source of the most important insights and challenges facing humanity.  This year’s question was:

What scientific term or concept ought to be more widely known?

With the example given of Richard Dawkins’s “meme,” which jumped into the general vernacular, becoming a meme itself.

My entry, about the notion of “state” (yeah, I tried to focus on the basics), is here.

This year’s question presented a particular challenge, which scientists writing for a broad audience might not have faced for generations.  Namely: to what extent, if any, should your writing acknowledge the dark shadow of recent events?  Does the Putinization of the United States render your little pet debates and hobbyhorses irrelevant?  Or is the most defiant thing you can do to ignore the unfolding catastrophe, to continue building your intellectual sandcastle even as the tidal wave of populist hatred nears?

In any case, the instructions from Edge were clear: ignore politics.  Focus on the eternal.  But people interpreted that injunction differently.

One of my first ideas was to write about the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and to muse about how one of humanity’s tragic flaws is to take for granted the gargantuan effort needed to create and maintain even little temporary pockets of order.  Again and again, people imagine that, if their local pocket of order isn’t working how they want, then they should smash it to pieces, since while admittedly that might make things even worse, there’s also at least 50/50 odds that they’ll magically improve.  In reasoning thus, people fail to appreciate just how exponentially more numerous are the paths downhill, into barbarism and chaos, than are the few paths further up.  So thrashing about randomly, with no knowledge or understanding, is statistically certain to make things worse: on this point thermodynamics, common sense, and human history are all in total agreement.  The implications of these musings for the present would be left as exercises for the reader.

Anyway, I was then pleased when, in a case of convergent evolution, my friend and hero Steven Pinker wrote exactly that essay, so I didn’t need to.

There are many other essays that are worth a read, some of which allude to recent events but the majority of which don’t.  Let me mention a few.

Let me now discuss some disagreements I had with a few of the essays.

  • Donald Hoffman on the holographic principle.  For the point he wanted to make, about the mismatch between our intuitions and the physical world, it seems to me that Hoffman could’ve picked pretty much anything in physics, from Galileo and Newton onward.  What’s new about holography?
  • Jerry Coyne on determinism.  Coyne, who’s written many things I admire, here offers his version of an old argument that I tear my hair out every time I read.  There’s no free will, Coyne says, and therefore we should treat criminals more lightly, e.g. by eschewing harsh punishments in favor of rehabilitation.  Following tradition, Coyne never engages the obvious reply, which is: “sorry, to whom were you addressing that argument?  To me, the jailer?  To the judge?  The jury?  Voters?  Were you addressing us as moral agents, for whom the concept of ‘should’ is relevant?  Then why shouldn’t we address the criminals the same way?”
  • Michael Gazzaniga on “The Schnitt.”  Yes, it’s possible that things like the hard problem of consciousness, or the measurement problem in quantum mechanics, will never have a satisfactory resolution.  But even if so, building a complicated verbal edifice whose sole purpose is to tell people not even to look for a solution, to be satisfied with two “non-overlapping magisteria” and a lack of any explanation for how to reconcile them, never struck me as a substantive contribution to knowledge.  It wasn’t when Niels Bohr did it, and it’s not when someone today does it either.
  • I had a related quibble with Amanda Gefter’s piece on “enactivism”: the view she takes as her starting point, that “physics proves there’s no third-person view of the world,” is controversial to put it mildly among those who know the relevant physics.  (And even if we granted that view, surely a third-person perspective exists for the quasi-Newtonian world in which we evolved, and that’s relevant for the cognitive science questions Gefter then discusses.)
  • Thomas Bass on information pathology.  Bass obliquely discusses the propaganda, conspiracy theories, social-media echo chambers, and unchallenged lies that helped fuel Trump’s rise.  He then locates the source of the problem in Shannon’s information theory (!), which told us how to quantify information, but failed to address questions about the information’s meaning or relevance.  To me, this is almost exactly like blaming arithmetic because it only tells you how to add numbers, without caring whether they’re numbers of rescued orphans or numbers of bombs.  Arithmetic is fine; the problem is with us.
  • In his piece on “number sense,” Keith Devlin argues that the teaching of “rigid, rule-based” math has been rendered obsolete by computers, leaving only the need to teach high-level conceptual understanding.  I partly agree and partly disagree, with the disagreement coming from firsthand knowledge of just how badly that lofty idea gets beaten to mush once it filters down to the grade-school level.  I would say that the basic function of math education is to teach clarity of thought: does this statement hold for all positive integers, or not?  Not how do you feel about it, but does it hold?  If it holds, can you prove it?  What other statements would it follow from?  If it doesn’t hold, can you give a counterexample?  (Incidentally, there are plenty of questions of this type for which humans still outperform the best available software!)  Admittedly, pencil-and-paper arithmetic is both boring and useless—but if you never mastered anything like it, then you certainly wouldn’t be ready for the concept of an algorithm, or for asking higher-level questions about algorithms.
  • Daniel Hook on PT-symmetric quantum mechanics.  As far as I understand, PT-symmetric Hamiltonians are equivalent to ordinary Hermitian ones under similarity transformations.  So this is a mathematical trick, perhaps a useful one—but it’s extremely misleading to talk about it as if it were a new physical theory that differed from quantum mechanics.
  • Jared Diamond extols the virtues of common sense, of which there are indeed many—but alas, his example is that if a mathematical proof leads to a conclusion that your common sense tells you is wrong, then you shouldn’t waste time looking for the exact mistake.  Sometimes that’s good advice, but it’s pretty terrible applied to Goodstein’s Theorem, the muddy children puzzle, the strategy-stealing argument for Go, or anything else that genuinely is shocking until your common sense expands to accommodate it.  Math, like science in general, is a constant dialogue between formal methods and common sense, where sometimes it’s one that needs to get with the program and sometimes it’s the other.
  • Hans Halvorson on matter.  I take issue with Halvorson’s claim that quantum mechanics had to be discarded in favor of quantum field theory, because QM was inconsistent with special relativity.  It seems much better to say: the thing that conflicts with special relativity, and that quantum field theory superseded, was a particular application of quantum mechanics, involving wavefunctions of N particles moving around in a non-relativistic space.  The general principles of QM—unit vectors in complex Hilbert space, unitary evolution, the Born rule, etc.—survived the transition to QFT without the slightest change.

 

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

Wednesday, December 14th, 2016

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

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

Just to whet your appetite:

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