Archive for the ‘Self-Referential’ Category

Should I join Heterodox Academy?

Sunday, December 31st, 2017

Happy new year, everyone!

An anonymous commenter wrote:

Scott, you seem to admire Steven Pinker, you had problems with SJW attacks for your now famous comment 171 and, if I remember well, you said you have some “heterodox” ideas that you think it’s dangerous to make public.  [Actually, I’m not sure I ever said that—indeed, if it were true, why would I say it? 🙂 –SA ]  Why aren’t you in the Heterodox Academy? Didn’t you know about it?

Heterodox Academy is an organisation of professors, adjunct professors, post-docs and graduate students who are for freedom of speech, founded by Steven Pinker, Jonathan Haidt and a few other academics, and now has over 1000 members.

https://heterodoxacademy.org

(I’m not a member, because I’m not an academic or graduate student, but I sympathize very much with their fight to protect freedom of thought.)

By coincidence, just last week I was looking at the Heterodox Academy website, and thinking about joining.  But then I got put off by the “pledge” for new members:

“I believe that university life requires that people with diverse viewpoints and perspectives encounter each other in an environment where they feel free to speak up and challenge each other. I am concerned that many academic fields and universities currently lack sufficient viewpoint diversity—particularly political diversity. I will support viewpoint diversity in my academic field, my university, my department, and my classroom.”

For some reason, I’m allergic to joining any organization that involves a pledge, even if it’s a pledge that I completely agree with.  And in this case, maybe the issue goes a bit deeper.  My central concern, with university life, is that academics share a baseline commitment to Enlightenment norms and values: e.g., to freedom of speech, reason, empiricism, and judging arguments by their merits rather than by the speaker’s identity.  These are the norms that I’d say enabled the scientific revolution, and that are still the fundamental preconditions for intellectual inquiry.

A diversity of viewpoints is often a good diagnostic for Enlightenment norms, but it’s not the central issue, and is neither necessary nor sufficient.  For example, I don’t care if academia lacks “viewpoint diversity” in the UFO, creationism, or birther debates.  Nor do I care if the spectrum of ideas that gets debated in academia is radically different from the spectrum debated in the wider society.  Indeed, I don’t even know that it’s mathematically possible to satisfy everyone on that count: for example, a representative sampling of American political opinions might strike a European, or a Bay Area resident, as bizarrely clustered in one or two corners of idea-space, and the reverse might be equally true.

More pointedly—and bear with me as I invent a bizarre hypothetical—if some sort of delusional, autocratic thug managed to take control of the United States: someone who promoted unhinged conspiracy theories; whose whole worldview were based on the overwhelming of facts, reason, reality, and even linguistic coherence by raw strength and emotion; whose every word and deed were diametrically opposed to any conceivable vision of the mission of a university—in such an extreme case, I’d hope that American academia would speak with one voice against the enveloping darkness, just as I would’ve hoped German academia would speak with one voice in 1933 (it didn’t).  When Enlightenment norms themselves are under assault, those norms are consistent with a unified response.

Having said that, I’m certainly also worried about the erosion of Enlightenment norms within academia, or specific parts of academia: the speakers shouted down rather than debated, the classrooms taken over, the dogmatic postmodernism and blank-slatism, all the stuff Jonathan Haidt reviews in this article.  This is a development for which the left, not the right, bears primary responsibility.  I view it as a huge unearned gift that the “good guys” give the “bad guys.”  It provides them endless outrage-fodder.  It stokes their paranoid fantasies while also making us look foolish.  And it lets them call us hypocrites, whose prattle about science and reason and free inquiry has been conclusively unmasked.  So if Heterodox Academy is making headway against the illiberal wing of liberalism, that does seem like something I should support, regardless of any differences in emphasis.

Readers: what do you think?  In the comments, give me your best argument for why I should or shouldn’t join Heterodox Academy.  Feel free to call my attention to anything the organization has been up to; my research has been less than comprehensive.  I’ll credit the most convincing argument(s) when I make a decision.  Like, not that it’s especially consequential either way, but if commenters here are going to argue anyway, we might as well make something actually hinge on it…

 

Journalist moratorium

Sunday, December 17th, 2017

For over a decade, one of the main ways I’ve tried to advance the cause of Enlightenment has been talking to journalists writing popular articles on quantum computing (or P vs. NP, or the universe as a computer simulation, or whatever).  Because of my blog, journalists knew how to reach me, and because I’m a ham, I always agreed to be interviewed.  Well, I told myself I was doing it as my way of giving back to the field, so that my smarter colleagues would have more time for research.

Unfortunately, this task has sort of taken over my life.  It used to be once a month, then it became once a week, and by now it’s pretty much every day.  Comment on this claim by IBM, that press release by Rigetti, this embargoed Nature paper by a group in Australia.  And when you do, it would be great if you could address this itemized list of 12 questions, with more questions coming later depending on what the editor needs.

On Friday we were on a family outing, with Dana driving and me in the front passenger seat, typing out another reply to a journalist on my phone.  Because of my engrossment in my Enlightenment duties, I neglected to tell Dana where the exit was, which then made us a half hour late for a scheduled museum tour and nearly ruined the day.

So then and there, I swore an oath to my family: that from now until January 1, 2019, I will be on vacation from talking to journalists.  This is my New Years resolution, except that it starts slightly before New Years.  Exceptions can be made when and if there’s a serious claim to have achieved quantum computational supremacy, or in other special cases.  By and large, though, I’ll simply be pointing journalists to this post, as a public commitment device to help me keep my oath.

I should add that I really like almost all of the journalists I talk to, I genuinely want to help them, and I appreciate the extreme difficulty that they’re up against: of writing a quantum computing article that avoids the Exponential Parallelism Fallacy and the “n qubits = 2n bits” fallacy and passes the Minus Sign Test, yet also satisfies an editor for whom even the so-dumbed-down-you-rip-your-hair-out version was already too technical.  And things have gotten both more exciting and more confusing in the last few years, with even the experts disagreeing about what should count as a “real quantum speedup,” or how much we should expect quantum computers to help with optimization or machine learning problems.  And of course, if journalists are trying to sort this out, then they should talk to someone who knows a bit about it, and I lack the strategic false modesty to deny being such a person.  Like, someone who calls me to fact-check a quantum computing piece should be rewarded for having done something right!  Alas, these considerations are how I let talking to journalists take over my life, so I can no longer treat them as dispositive.

For journalists looking for what to do, my suggestion is to talk to literally anyone else in the field.  E.g., look at the speakers from the past 20 years of QIP conferences—pretty much any of them could answer quantum computing questions as well as I can!  I’m tempted to name one or two specific colleagues to whom everyone should direct all their inquiries for the next year, but I can’t think of anyone I hate enough.


Unrelated Update: There’s at least one striking respect in which a human baby is like a dog, cat, or other domesticated animal. Namely, these are entities for which you can look into their eyes, and wonder whether they have any awareness whatsoever of the most basic facts of their situation. E.g., do they “know” which individual person is looking at them? Whether it’s morning or night? Which room they’re currently in? And yet, as soon as it comes to the entity’s food sources, all these doubts vanish. Yes, the baby / dog / cat clearly does understand exactly which person is supposed to feed it, and at what time of day, and often even where the food is stored. Implications for the mind/body problem (mind/stomach problem?) are left as exercises for the reader.


Unrelated Update #2: As many of you have probably seen, the cruel and monstrous tax bill awaits only Twitler’s signature, but at least the PhD student tuition tax was taken out, so American higher education lives another day. So, does this mean academics’ apoplectic fears were overblown? No, because public opposition, based on widely disseminated information about what the new tax would do to higher education, probably played an important role in causing the provision to be removed. Keep up the fight.

Googatory

Thursday, December 7th, 2017

When I awoke with glowing, translucent hands, and hundreds of five-pointed yellow stars lined up along the left of my visual field, my first thought was that a dream must have made itself self-defeatingly obvious. I was a 63-year-old computer science professor. I might’ve been dying of brain cancer, but my mind was lucid enough that I’d refused hospice care, lived at home, still even met sometimes with my students, and most importantly: still answered my email, more or less. I could still easily distinguish dreams from waking reality. Couldn’t I?

I stared at the digital clock beside my bed: 6:47am. After half a minute it changed to 6:48. No leaping around haphazardly. I picked up the two-column conference paper by my nightstand. “Hash-and-Reduce: A New Approach to Distributed Proximity Queries in the Cloud.” I scanned the abstract and first few paragraphs. It wasn’t nonsense—at least, no more so than the other papers that I still sometimes reviewed. The external world still ticked with clockwork regularity. This was no dream.

Nervously, I got up. I saw that my whole body was glowing and translucent. My pajamas, too. A second instance of my body, inert and not translucent, remained in the bed. I looked into the mirror: I had no reflection. The mirror showed a bedroom unoccupied but for the corpse on the bed.

OK, so I was a ghost.

Just then I heard my nurse enter through the front door. “Bob, how you feeling this morning?” I met her in the foyer. “Linda, look what happened! I’m a ghost now, but interestingly enough, I can still..”

Linda walked right through me and into the bedroom. She let out a small gasp when she saw the corpse, then started making phone calls.

Over the following days, I accompanied my body to the morgue. I attended my little memorial session at the university, made note of which of my former colleagues didn’t bother to show up. I went to my funeral. At the wake, I stood with my estranged wife and grown children, who mostly remained none the wiser—except when they talked about how eerie it was, how it felt like I was still there with them. Or maybe I’d say something, and get no response from my family, but then five minutes later their conversation would mysteriously veer toward the topic I’d broached. It seemed that I still had full input from the world of the living, but that my only output channel was doing spooky haunted things that still maintained plausible deniability about my existence.

Questions flooded my mind: were there other ghosts? Why was I in this purgatory … or whatever it was? Would I be here forever? And: what was that column of yellow stars in the left of my visual field, the stars that followed me everywhere?

Once it seemed clear that I was here to stay, for some definition of “here,” I figured I might as well do the same stuff that filled my waking hours when I was alive. I pulled up a chair and sat at my laptop. I hit up The Washington Post, The Onion, xkcd, SMBC Comics, Slate Star Codex. They all worked fine.

Then I switched to the Gmail tab. Hundreds of new messages. Former students asking for recommendation letters, prospective students wanting to work with me, grant managers howling about overdue progress reports, none of them bothering to check if I was dead.

I replied to one randomly-chosen email:

Dear Ashish,
Thanks for your interest in joining our group. Alas, I’m currently dead and walking the earth as a translucent wraith. For that reason, I’m unable to take on new PhD students at this time.
Best of luck!
–Bob

I clicked “Send” and—part of me was expecting this—got an error. Message not sent. Email couldn’t cross the barrier from the dead to the living: too obvious.

Next I opened my “Starred” folder. I was greeted by 779 starred messages: each one a pressing matter that I’d promised myself I’d get to while alive but didn’t.

Dear Bob,
Hope you’re well. I think I’ve found another error in your 2002 paper ‘Cache-Oblivious Approximation Algorithms for Sparse Linear Algebra on Big Data.’ Specifically, in the proof of Lemma 4.2, you assume a spectral bound [har har, spectral], even though your earlier definition of the matrix A_i seems to allow arbitrary norm…

I chuckled. Well, I did spend most of my life on this stuff, didn’t I? Shouldn’t I sort this out, just for the sake of my intellectual conscience?

I opened up my old paper in Ghostview (what else?) and found the offending lemma. Then I took out pen and paper—they worked, luckily, although presumably my scribblings remained invisible to the living—and set to work. After an hour, I’d satisfied myself that the alleged error was nothing too serious, just a gap requiring a few sentences of clarification. I sadly had no direct way to tell my years-ago correspondent that, assuming the correspondent was still even alive and research-active and at the same email address. But still: good for my peace of mind, right?

Then something happened: the first intimation of what my life, or rather undeath, was to consist of from then on. Faintly but unmistakably, one of the tiny yellow stars in the left of my visual field became a blue-gray outline. It was no longer filled with yellow.

Excitedly, I clicked through more starred emails. Some I saw no easy way to deal with. But every time I could satisfy myself that an email was no longer relevant—whether it was an invitation to a long-ago workshop, a grant that I never applied for, a proposed research collaboration rendered moot by subsequent work—one of those yellow stars in my visual field lost its yellow filling. Before long there were ten blue-gray outline stars, then twenty.

One day, while I invisibly attended an old haunt (har har)—the weekly faculty lunch in my former department—I encountered a fellow ghost: a former senior colleague of mine, who’d died twenty years prior. He and I got to talking.

For the most part, my fellow specter confirmed what I’d already guessed. Yes, in some long-ago past, purgatory no doubt had a different character. Yes, it’s no doubt different for others, who lived different lives and faced different psychic burdens. For us, though, for the faculty, purgatory is neither more nor less than the place where you must reply to every last email that was still starred “important” when you died.

In the afterlife, it turns out, it doesn’t matter how “virtuous” you were, unless altruism happens to have been your obsession while alive. What matters is just that you free yourself from whatever burdened you every night when you went to sleep, that you finish what you started. Those unable to do so remain ghosts forever.

“So,” I asked the other polter-guest at the faculty lunch, “how long does it take a professor to finish answering a lifetime’s worth of emails?”

“Depends. I’ve been doing it for twenty years.  Hoping to finish in twenty more.”

“I see. And when you’ve dealt with the last email, what then?”

“You pass to another place. None of us know exactly where. But”—and here his voice dropped to a whisper, as if anyone else present could hear ghosts—“it’s said to be a place of breathtaking tranquility. Where researchers like us wear flowing robes, and sit under olive trees, and contemplate truth and beauty with Plato and Euclid, and then go out for lunch buffet. Where there’s no email, no deadlines, no journals, no grant applications, no responsibilities but one: to explore whatever has captured your curiosity in the present moment. Some call it the Paradise of Productivity.”

“Does everyone have to pass through purgatory first, before they go there?”

“It’s said that, among all the computer scientists who’ve lived, only Alan Turing went straight to Paradise. And he died before email was even invented. When his time comes, Donald Knuth might also escape purgatory, since he forswore email in 1990. But Knuth, alas, might spend tens of thousands of years in a different purgatory, finishing Volume 4 of The Art of Computer Programming.

“As for the rest of us, we all spend more or less time here with our wretched emails—for most of us, more. For one computer scientist—an Umesh Vazi-something, I believe, from Berkeley—it’s rumored that when he enters this place, even a trillion years won’t suffice to leave it. It’s said that the Sun will swallow the Earth, the night sky will go dark, and yet there Umesh will be, still clearing his inbox.”

After a few years, I’d knocked off all the easy stuff in my Starred folder. Then, alas, I was left with missives like this:

Hey, earth to Bob!
The rest of us have done our part in writing up the paper. We’re all waiting on you to integrate the TeX files, and to craft an introduction explaining why anyone cared about the problem in the first place. Also, would you mind making a detailed pass through Sections 4.3 and 5.2?

Ugh. There were so many slightly different TeX files. Which were the most recent? This could take a while.

Nevertheless, after weeks of … ghosting on the project, I got to work revising the paper. There was, of course, the practical difficulty that I couldn’t directly communicate my edits back to the world of the living. Fortunately, I could still do haunted stuff. One day, for example, one of my former coauthors opened her old TeX file, and “discovered” that I’d actually done way more work on the paper while I was alive than anyone remembered I had. The mysteries of when exactly I did that work, and why no one knew about it at the time, were never satisfactorily resolved.

Finally, after fourteen years, I’d succeeded in putting to rest 731 of my 779 starred emails. In the corner of my visual field was a vast array of blue-gray stars—but still, ominously, 48 yellow stars scattered among them.

“God in Heaven!” I cried. “Whoever you are! I can’t handle any of the remaining starred emails, and thereby pass to the Paradise of Productivity, without sending replies back into the world of the living. Please, I beg you: let me breach this metaphysical wall.”

A booming voice came down from on high. “YEA, BOB, WHAT THOU REQUESTETH IS POSSIBLE.  THOU WOULDST NOT EVEN BE THE FIRST GHOUL FOR WHOM I WOULDST GRANTETH THIS REQUEST: FAR FROM IT.  BUT I MUST WARN THEE: BREACHING THE WALL BETWEEN LIVING AND DEAD WILL BRINGETH FRUITS THAT THOU MAYST NOT LIKE.”

“I think I’ll take my chances with those fruits.”

“VERY WELL,” said God.

And that’s how it is that, half a century after my death, I remain in purgatory still, my days now filled with missives like the following:

Dear Bob,
Thanks for the reply! I’m sorry to hear that you’re now a ghost condemned to answer emails before he can pass to the next world. My sympathies. Having said that, I have to confess that I still don’t understand Section 4.2 of your paper. When you get a chance, could you please clarify? I’ve cc’ed my coauthors, who might have additional followup questions.


Note: To anyone who emailed me lately, I apologize for the delay in replying. I was writing this story. –SA

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…

From Boston to Austin

Sunday, February 28th, 2016

I have some big news—well, not for the world, but for me personally.  Starting this summer, I’ll be leaving MIT, and starting a new phase of my life, as David J. Bruton Jr. Centennial Professor of Computer Science at the University of Texas at Austin.  I’ll also be the founding director of UT Austin’s new quantum computing center, whose motto will be “Hook ’em Hadamards“, and whose logo will depict a fierce longhorn bull, whose horns are bra and ket signs enclosing an inner product between two quantum states.  My brilliant and talented wife, Dana Moshkovitz Aaronson, will also be joining UT Austin, as a tenured Associate Professor of Computer Science.  Our current PhD students will remain enrolled at MIT, while also spending as much time as they like in Austin.

I’ll deeply miss MIT and Boston.  More than anything else, I’ll miss the phenomenal students at MIT, who I’ve had the immense privilege to teach and learn from for nine years.  Go Beavers!  I’m grateful as well to my many friends and colleagues who made my years at MIT so rewarding: a time of personal growth, in which I developed from a skinny, insecure 26-year-old nerd, blogging and trying to prove oracle separations, into a pot-bellied, tenured, 34-year-old married-father nerd, still blogging and trying to prove the same oracle separations (but no longer as diligently).

To nip an otherwise-inevitable rumor: I wasn’t forced to leave MIT over anything here on Shtetl-Optimized.  I feel the need to say this because, within the last year, I’ve spent hundreds of miserable hours scrolling through social media threads wherein stranger after stranger proclaimed me basically the world’s worst scum (tied, perhaps, with the other Scott A.), and even called on MIT to fire me.  Given that experience, it was repeatedly jarring for me to reenter reality and discover how irrelevant this all was, either to MIT or to any of the universities that recruited me and Dana.  Bizarre as it sounds, CS departments mostly cared about what actual research we were doing and could bring to them!  So students and faculty afraid to debate anything controversial online under their real names, however politely, should know that even in 2016, the banner of academic freedom yet waves.

Without further ado, let me list ten things that are awesome about Austin and that helped attract me and Dana there.

  1. One of the strongest CS departments and theory groups in the world.  From 1984 until his death in 2002, UT Austin was home to Edsger Dijkstra, who not only discovered Dijkstra’s algorithm but also penned the immortal words that might as well be tattooed on my stomach: computer science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes.  Today, Austin’s CS department is rapidly expanding, and just within theory, is home to David Zuckerman, Anna Gal, Vijaya Ramachandran, Brent Waters, Eric Price, and Greg Plaxton.  With me and Dana there as well, I can say with all due modesty that we intend to compete against any CS theory program anywhere in the world.
  2. Adam Klivans.  The closest I’ve had to a mentor in the exceedingly narrow field of theoretical computer science humor.
  3. An outstanding recent track record with CS theory PhD students.  Since the turn of the century, UT Austin has produced Sasha Sherstov, Anup Rao, Allison Bishop LewkoSeth Pettie, Vladimir Trifonov, Raghu Meka, and other stars of the CS theory world.  That record lets me without the slightest hesitation tell hotshot undergrads who want to do classical and/or quantum complexity theory to apply to Austin for grad school.
  4. The opportunity to build—or rather, rebuild—a UT presence in quantum computing.  While I’m excited to help build a new group—and I feel like it’s the right time in my career to do that—I can’t say that this is the first time UT Austin will have a significant presence in quantum computing.  Way back in the late 70s and early 80s, UT was home to most of the (proto) “quantum computing research” that existed on earth.  It’s there that John Archibald Wheeler philosophized about “It from Bit,” that Bryce deWitt popularized the Many-Worlds Interpretation and Hugh Everett gave his only public lecture on the subject, that David Deutsch did a four-year postdoc in which he formed the seeds of the idea of quantum computing, and that Wojciech Zurek, William Wootters, and Benjamin Schumacher (who between them, founded decoherence theory, proved the No-Cloning Theorem, and coined the term “qubit”) did their PhDs.  I’m honored to tread in their footsteps.
  5. Money.  Texas, as it turns out, has a lot of it.  Now, the conventional wisdom would be that Texas’ wealth is mostly irrelevant to academic scientists, because it’s controlled by reactionary oilmen for whom curiosity-driven research is not exactly the top priority.  That might have been true about the administrations of George W. Bush or Rick Perry.  But Texas’ current governor, Greg Abbott, while still a right-wing Republican, also pushed through an aggressive $4-billion measure called the Governor’s University Research Initiative, one of whose central goals is to recruit leading scientists to Texas.
  6. Weather.  To a first approximation, Austin is lovely and pleasant during the academic year (even as the planet warms, this should remain true for at least a few more decades)—and while I’d sort of vaguely imagined all of Texas as a giant desert, Austin turns out to be lush and green and full of swimming holes.  The summers, of course, are hot enough to fuse hydrogen.  But for academics like me and Dana, it turns out that there’s an elegant solution to that, one unavailable for dealing with New England winters.  That solution is to leave town, to use June, July, and August for miscellaneous academic travel.
  7. Quality of life.  If we’re being honest, I’m not someone likely to spend much time at indie-rock festivals, or whatever quirky cultural stuff it is that’s made Austin the fastest-growing city in the US.  But here’s something I do care about: even though highway traffic in Austin is bad and getting worse, that need not affect my life too much.  Research indicates that, for roughly the price of our current 2-bedroom condo in Cambridge, we could get a lovely 4-bedroom with a yard that’s in walking distance to the UT campus, as well as to stores, restaurants, good schools, and parks.
  8. Schools.  I had a pretty miserable experience growing up.  I don’t know if Lily (or any future children Dana and I have) will be anything like I was, but given that she’s in an “at-risk population” for nerdiness, I’d love to live in a place with nerd education options that don’t stink.  Austin, happily, has two renowned math/science magnet schools—Kealing Middle School and LASA High School—which admit based on test scores.  (By contrast, in most parts in the US, such programs either don’t exist or admit purely by lottery.)  Austin also has the only elementary school, anywhere, whose admissions director told me that sure, they’d let a student skip a grade if it made sense academically.
  9. Steven Weinberg.  I confess: it probably affected me more than it should that arguably the greatest scientist now walking the earth, a legend of physics who could go wherever the hell he wanted, has chosen to spend the past thirty-plus years at UT Austin.  On our last visit there, Dana, my parents, and I had the honor of having dinner with Weinberg.  After we’d exchanged stories about Telluride House at Cornell, where Weinberg and I both lived as undergrads (and which apparently changed little between the 1950s and the 1990s), Weinberg sung the praises of Austin for hours.  (Admittedly, part of why Weinberg enjoys Austin so much is that there it’s easy to be on a first-name basis with the mayor, tech billionaires, and all the other leaders of the city—an advantage that might be Nobel-laureate-specific!)
  10. Adventure.  By background and temperament, I’m probably one of the “least Texan” Americans imaginable: a nerdy east-coast Jewish intellectual who enjoys snow, can’t much tolerate spicy food, is bored by cowboy movies and fears physical confrontation.  Indeed, until I actually visited the place, my only real associations with Texas were tumbleweeds blowing across a parched desert hellscape, oilmen with giant belt buckles guffawing about so-called global warming, crazed football hooligans filling city-sized stadiums, shotguns, rattlesnakes, and George W. Bush.  But then, the contrast between the over-the-top image and the pleasant reality of Austin had the paradoxical effect of making moving to Texas feel like an adventure—an adventure with an acceptable risk profile.  Like, if I’m going to uproot at all, why not to a place that’s strange and different and interesting?

Even given the above, some people will ask about things they’d consider obvious dealbreakers for moving to Texas.  In particular, what about the infamous new law that essentially forces UT Austin to let students carry concealed firearms to class?  Well, I oppose that law.  Indeed, when I haven’t been angering the social-justice left, I’ve been angering the right by (for example) blogging about my strong support for gun control.  To me, it seems like a terrible idea for the Texas state legislature, which provides only 14% of the UT system’s budget, to force on UT a gun policy that its faculty and students overwhelmingly hate.  And I admired Steven Weinberg’s announcement that he intends to defy the law in his classroom, and fight it out in court if necessary.  (Weinberg also gave, as one reason to oppose the law, how much harder it will make it for UT to recruit faculty.)

But at the same time … Dana is Israeli.  For her, it’s perfectly normal to go outside and see 18-year-old girls chatting and laughing with huge-ass machine guns slung over their shoulders.  Having spent a month of each year in Tel Aviv, seeing passersby with guns has become, if not exactly normal to me, then not something I fear 2% as much as I fear crashing my car.  And indeed, if one takes a statistical approach to risk, Austin has a much lower per-capita violent crime rate than Boston does.

And yes, I know, the US and Israel have completely different gun cultures: in Israel, for example, the only people carrying around semiautomatics are trained and monitored conscripts; there’s no concept of a private “right” to such a weapon.  And yes, the principle matters.  But if one is unwilling to move to any place that has any laws one disagrees with, one should probably look into faculty positions on offshore barges or Jupiter.

Austin itself, of course, is only slightly less liberal than Portland, the blueberry in the tomato soup as Rick Perry so memorably put it.  Even so, the maps insist that Austin is in Texas, which means that while there one will probably encounter Texans.  (A friend, on hearing that Dana took a quick liking to Austin when she visited, quipped that it was probably because Austin reminded her of Israel: “hot and surrounded by hostile territory.”)

Now, the actual Texans who I’ve met so far have been frighteningly warm and hospitable.  But the question stands: what will I do if, while living there, I meet (let’s suppose) some sun-calloused cattle ranchers who consider me an arrogant, effete coastal liberal who patronizes them in blog posts like this one?  What if they tell me to scram, head back east, and never mess with Texas again?

Well, I’ve already decided what I’d like to do in this hypothetical situation.  I’d like to invite the ranchers over to my place for some barbecued beers and ice-cold steaks, or whatever it is you eat in Texas, and tell them all about quantum query algorithms, and ask them about cattle feed, and try to find common ground, just like I tried to find common ground with the other end of the political spectrum—with the folks who called me a clueless, patriarchal, entitled white male douchebro who silenced their already-marginalized voices by not agreeing with everything they said.  For I’ve increasingly come to the conviction that, while you might fail to find common ground with someone, you’ve got to try, you’ve got to steelman their argument and learn whatever you can from it.  I once, for example, thought about the Religious Right as purely contemptible, deserving only unthinking snark, and I was completely wrong.  Even when I was right on the underlying issues, I was wrong on the epistemology.  In Texas, hopefully I’ll have a chance to do better.

In summary:

  1. Wherever you’re at in your career, if you’d like to do quantum information and/or theoretical computer science research on the wild frontier—if QMA, QCMA, and BQP/qpoly strike you as little more than wayward calves to be lassoed in—then please consider joining us at UT Austin.  To be concrete: we’ll be looking for distinguished senior faculty to hire under the Governor’s University Research Initiative, we’ll be looking for tenure-track junior faculty in both CS and ECE, we’ll be looking for postdocs, we’ll be looking for grad students, and finally we’ll be looking for undergrads who’d like to join the innovative Turing Scholars honors program.
  2. If you’d just like to come for a week and give a seminar, we’ll have money for that too.
  3. Hook ’em Hadamards!

Totally Unrelated Update (Feb. 29): Michael Mitzenmacher has asked me to announce that nominations are open for the SIGACT Distinguished Service Prize. More information is available here.

If I can’t do math, I don’t want to be part of your revolution

Thursday, December 3rd, 2015

1. Emma Goldman, the fiery early-20th-century anarchist, is credited for giving the world the immortal refrain “if I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution” (actually it’s not clear that she ever said it so pithily, but she did express such a thought).  Admittedly, no one would mistake me for either a dancer or an anarchist, but I’ve always felt a kinship with Goldman over her terpsichorean line in the sand.  The other day, it occurred to me that there’s a parallel sentence that sums up my entire political philosophy—on the one hand, my default instinct to side with the downtrodden and with the progressive left, but on the other, my dissent from any even vaguely anti-STEM, anti-rationality, or anti-nerd undercurrents, and my refusal to join any popular uprising that seems liable (for example) to delay the discovery of a P≠NP proof, by inconveniencing the people working on one.

So, here’s my sentence, which you should feel free to reprint on t-shirts and coffee mugs as desired:

If I can’t do math, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.

2. Over at Scientific American‘s website, John Horgan posted an account of a workshop on Integrated Information Theory, which I attended a couple weeks ago at NYU (along with David Chalmers, Giulio Tononi, Christof Koch, Max Tegmark, and a dozen or so others).  I was the “official skeptic” of the workshop, and gave a talk based on my blog post The Unconscious Expander.  I don’t really agree with what Horgan says about physics and information in general, but I do (of course) join him in his skepticism of IIT, and he gives a pretty accurate summary of what people said at the workshop.  (Alas, my joke about my lunch not being poisoned completely bombed with the IIT crowd … as I should’ve predicted!)  The workshop itself was lots of fun; thanks so much to David, Giulio, and Hedda Hassel Morch for organizing it.

3. As you might have noticed, I’ve created a new category on this blog: “Obviously I’m Not Defending Aaronson.”  This category—reserved for posts that caused at least a hundred people to hate me—refers to a peculiar phrase I encountered over and over, in the social media threads denouncing me as a horrible person.  The phrase tends to occur in passages like: “look, obviously I’m not defending Aaronson, but it’s worth pointing out that, if you carefully reread everything he wrote, he never actually said that war orphans should be roasted alive and then eaten for fun.  That’s just something we all know that a clueless, arrogant nerd like him would think.”

4. Right now I’m at the “ThinkQ” conference at IBM in Yorktown Heights.  Here are the PowerPoint slides from my talk yesterday, entitled “The Largest Possible Quantum Speedups.”  Regular readers of this blog will find a lot that’s old and a little that’s new.

Speaking Truth to Parallelism: The Book

Monday, September 22nd, 2014

A few months ago, I signed a contract with MIT Press to publish a new book: an edited anthology of selected posts from this blog, along with all-new updates and commentary.  The book’s tentative title (open to better suggestions) is Speaking Truth to Parallelism: Dispatches from the Frontier of Quantum Computing Theory.  The new book should be more broadly accessible than Quantum Computing Since Democritus, although still far from your typical pop-science book.  My goal is to have STTP out by next fall, to coincide with Shtetl-Optimized‘s tenth anniversary.

If you’ve been a regular reader, then this book is my way of thanking you for … oops, that doesn’t sound right.  If it were a gift, I should give it away for free, shouldn’t I?  So let me rephrase: buying this reasonably-priced book can be your way of thanking me, if you’ve enjoyed my blog all these years.  But it will also (I hope) be a value-added proposition: not only will you be able to put the book on your coffee table to impress an extremely nerdy subset of your friends, you’ll also get “exclusive content” unavailable on the blog.

To be clear, the posts that make it into the book will be ruthlessly selected: nothing that’s pure procrastination, politics, current events, venting, or travelogue, only the choice fillets that could plausibly be claimed to advance the public understanding of science.  Even for those, I’ll add additional background material, and take out digs unworthy of a book (making exceptions for anything that really cracks me up on a second reading).

If I had to pick a unifying theme for the book, I’d sigh and then say: it’s about a certain attitude toward the so-called “deepest questions,” like the nature of quantum mechanics or the ultimate limits of computation or the mind/body problem or the objectivity of mathematics or whether our universe is a computer simulation.  It’s an attitude that I wish more popular articles managed to get across, and at any rate, that people ought to adopt when reading those articles.  The attitude combines an openness to extraordinary claims, with an unceasing demand for clarity about the nature of those claims, and an impatience whenever that demand is met with evasion, obfuscation, or a “let’s not get into technicalities right now.”  It’s an attitude that constantly asks questions like:

“OK, so what can you actually do that’s different?”
“Why doesn’t that produce an absurd result when applied to simple cases?”
“Why isn’t that just a fancy way of saying what I could’ve said in simpler language?”
“Why couldn’t you have achieved the same thing without your ‘magic ingredient’?”
“So what’s your alternative account for how that happens?”
“Why isn’t that obvious?”
“What’s really at stake here?”
“What’s the catch?”

It’s an attitude that accepts the possibility that such questions might have satisfying answers—in which case, a change in worldview will be in order.  But not before answers are offered, openly debated, and understood by the community of interested people.

Of all the phrases I use on this blog, I felt “Speaking Truth to Parallelism” best captured the attitude in question.  I coined the phrase back in 2007, when D-Wave’s claims to be solving Sudoku puzzles with a quantum computer unleashed a tsunami of journalism about QCs—what they are, how they would work, what they could do—that (in my opinion) perfectly illustrated how not to approach a metaphysically-confusing new technology.  Having said that, the endless debate around D-Wave won’t by any means be the focus of this book: it will surface, of course, but only when it helps to illustrate some broader point.

In planning this book, the trickiest issue was what to do with comments.  Ultimately, I decided that the comments make Shtetl-Optimized what it is—so for each post I include, I’ll include a brief selection of the most interesting comments, together with my responses to them.  My policy will be this: by default, I’ll consider any comments on this blog to be fair game for quoting in the book, in whole or in part, and attributed to whatever handle the commenter used.  However, if you’d like to “opt out” of having your comments quoted, I now offer you a three-month window in which to do so: just email me, or leave a comment (!) on this thread.  You can also request that certain specific comments of yours not be quoted, or that your handle be removed from your comments, or your full name added to them—whatever you want.

Update (9/24): After hearing from several of you, I’ve decided on the following modified policy.  In all cases where I have an email address, I will contact the commenters about any of their comments that I’m thinking of using, to request explicit permission to use them.  In the hopefully-rare cases where I can’t reach a given commenter, but where their comment raised what seems like a crucial point requiring a response in the book, I might quote from the comment anyway—but in those cases, I’ll be careful not to reproduce very long passages, in a way that might run afoul of the fair use exception.

Three things that I should’ve gotten around to years ago

Tuesday, October 15th, 2013

Updates (11/8): Alas, video of Eliezer’s talk will not be available after all. The nincompoops who we paid to record the talk wrote down November instead of October for the date, didn’t show up, then stalled for a month before finally admitting what had happened. So my written summary will have to suffice (and maybe Eliezer can put his slides up as well).

In other news, Shachar Lovett has asked me to announce a workshop on complexity and coding theory, which will be held at UC San Diego, January 8-10, 2014.


Update (10/21): Some readers might be interested in my defense of LessWrongism against a surprisingly-common type of ad-hominem attack (i.e., “the LW ideas must be wrong because so many of their advocates are economically-privileged but socially-awkward white male nerds, the same sorts of people who might also be drawn to Ayn Rand or other stuff I dislike”). By all means debate the ideas—I’ve been doing it for years—but please give beyond-kindergarten arguments when you do so!


Update (10/18): I just posted a long summary and review of Eliezer Yudkowsky’s talk at MIT yesterday.


Update (10/15): Leonard Schulman sent me the news that, according to an article by Victoria Woollaston in the Daily Mail, Google hopes to use its D-Wave quantum computer to “solve global warming,” “develop sophisticated artificial life,” and “find aliens.”  (No, I’m not making any of this up: just quoting stuff other people made up.)  The article also repeats the debunked canard that the D-Wave machine is “3600 times faster,” and soberly explains that D-Wave’s 512 qubits compare favorably to the mere 32 or 64 bits found in home PCs (exercise for those of you who aren’t already rolling on the floor: think about that until you are).  It contains not a shadow of a hint of skepticism anywhere, not one token sentence.  I would say that, even in an extremely crowded field, Woollaston’s piece takes the cake as the single most irresponsible article about D-Wave I’ve seen.  And I’d feel terrible for my many friends at Google, whose company comes out of this looking like a laughingstock.  But that’s assuming that this isn’t some sort of elaborate, Sokal-style prank, designed simply to prove that media outlets will publish anything whatsoever, no matter how forehead-bangingly absurd, as long as it contains the words “D-Wave,” “Google,” “NASA,” and “quantum”—and thereby, to prove the truth of what I’ve been saying on this blog since 2007.


1. I’ve added MathJax support to the comments section!  If you want to insert an inline LaTeX equation, surround it with\( \backslash(  \backslash) \), while if you want to insert a displayed equation, surround it with \(\text{\$\$ \$\$}\).  Thanks very much to Michael Dixon for prodding me to do this and telling me how.

2. I’ve also added upvoting and downvoting to the comments section!  OK, in the first significant use of comment voting, the readers have voted overwhelmingly, by 41 – 13, that they want the comment voting to disappear.  So disappear it has!

3. Most importantly, I’ve invited Eliezer Yudkowsky to MIT to give a talk!  He’s here all week, and will be speaking on “Recursion in Rational Agents: Foundations for Self-Modifying AI” this Thursday at 4PM in 32-123 in the MIT Stata Center.  Refreshments at 3:45.  See here for the abstract.  Anyone in the area who’s interested in AI, rationalism, or other such nerdy things is strongly encouraged to attend; it should be interesting.  Just don’t call Eliezer a “Singularitarian”: I’m woefully out of the loop, but I learned yesterday that they’ve dropped that term entirely, and now prefer to be known as machine intelligence researchers talk about the intelligence explosion.

(In addition, Paul Christiano—former MIT undergrad, and my collaborator on quantum money—will be speaking today at 4:30 at the Harvard Science Center, on “Probabilistic metamathematics and the definability of truth.”  His talk will be related to Eliezer’s but somewhat more technical.  See here for details.)


Update (10/15): Alistair Sinclair asked me to post the following announcement.

The Simons Institute for the Theory of Computing at UC Berkeley invites applications for Research Fellowships for academic year 2014-15.

Simons-Berkeley Research Fellowships are an opportunity for outstanding junior scientists (up to 6 years from PhD by Fall 2014) to spend one or two semesters at the Institute in connection with one or more of its programs. The programs for 2014-15 are as follows:

* Algorithmic Spectral Graph Theory (Fall 2014)
* Algorithms and Complexity in Algebraic Geometry (Fall 2014)
* Information Theory (Spring 2015)

Applicants who already hold junior faculty or postdoctoral positions are welcome to apply. In particular, applicants who hold, or expect to hold, postdoctoral appointments at other institutions are encouraged to apply to spend one semester as a Simons-Berkeley Fellow subject to the approval of the postdoctoral institution.

Further details and application instructions can be found at http://simons.berkeley.edu/fellows2014. Information about the Institute and the above programs can be found at http://simons.berkeley.edu.

Deadline for applications: 15 December, 2013.

The tightrope of truth and courtesy

Thursday, June 6th, 2013

A reader calling him- or herself “A Merry Clown” left a comment on my previous post which was so wise, I decided it had to be promoted to a post of its own.

Scientific discourse is the art of juggling decorum, truth and humor. A high-wire feat, attempted under imposing shadows cast by giants and above the distraction of merry dancing clowns.

The “appropriate” tone for scientific discourse seems to be:
(a) Cordial. Always credit others for their hard work and good intentions (allow or at least pretend that others are basically well-intentioned, except in rare situations where there is proof of egregious misconduct).
(b) Biting, merciless and hard-nosed on the substantive issues. The truth deserves no less.

Perhaps the harsher (b) is, the gentler and more thorough (a) should be. After-all, human beings are what they are.

Certainly, provided one adequately treads through the niceties in (a), there’s no reason to worry about hurting anyone’s feelings in (b). Anyone who makes scientific claims in a professional or public arena should be prepared to put on their big boy pants or their big girl pants and have their claims face the brutal gauntlet of scientific scrutiny. All attempts should be made to avoid even the appearance that any part of (b) contains personal barbs or insults (unless these barbs happen to be to be hilarious.)

Outside of science the rule is: whoever flings the horseshit the hardest wins.

Essentially, what Shtetl-Optimized readers got to see this past week was me falling off the high wire (with tenure the safety net below? :-) ).  I failed at a purely human level—though admittedly, while attempting a particularly difficult tightrope walk, and while heavily distracted by the taunts of both giants and clowns.  I’ve already apologized to Cathy McGeoch for insulting her, but I reiterate my apology now, and I extend the apology to any colleagues at MIT who might have been offended by anything I said.  I’ll strive, in future posts, to live up to a higher standard of cordiality, composure, and self-control.

At the scientific level—i.e., at level (b)—I stand by everything I wrote in the previous post and the comments therein.

Keeping cool

Sunday, October 26th, 2008

Update (10/27): Peter Norvig at Google points me to his Election FAQ, for those who feel they haven’t yet spent enough time reading about the election.  I’ve just been perusing it, and it’s an unbelievably good source of information—reaching the same conclusions as I did on just about every particular, yet also calm, reasoned, and professional.

1. That’s my mom at an Obama office in Sarasota, FL.  For once, I find myself kvelling to strangers about her.

2. I’m at FOCS’2008 in Philadelphia right now.  Yesterday morning I gave a tutorial on The Polynomial Method in Quantum and Classical Computing, and was delighted by how many people showed up — I wouldn’t have woken up for my talk.  (And before you ask: yes, the PowerPoint slides for this talk include photographs of both Bill Ayers and Joe the Plumber.)

3. Here’s the FOCS conference program — tons of good stuff, as you can see for yourself.  If there’s a talk you want to know more about, say so in the comments section and I’ll try to find someone who attended it.

Note: I was a program committee member, and therefore know much more than usual about the talks—but my objectivity and license as a “journalist” are also severely compromised.  If unvarnished opinion is what you seek, ask my friend and roommate Rahul Santhanam, who’s also reporting live from the conference over at Lance’s blog.  (As you can see, we CS theorists manage our conflicts of interest roughly as well as the Alaska governor’s office…)

4. I apologize that I haven’t had much to say recently.  Against my better judgment, I find myself transfixed by the same topic everyone else is transfixed by, and it’s hard to find anything to say about it that hasn’t been said better by others.  If you want to enter my world, don’t read Shtetl-Optimized; read Andrew Sullivan or FiveThirtyEight.com.  Following the election is, of course, not all that different from following a football game, except for the added dash of excitement that the future of civilization might hinge on the outcome.

(Years congruent to 0 mod 4 are pretty much the only times when I understand what it’s like to be a sports fan.  Speaking of which, I heard there was some sort of “World’s Series” in Philadelphia last night—probably in basketball—and something called the “Phillies” won?  I might be wrong, though.  Maybe it was the “Flyers” … or is that a volleyball team?  Keep in mind, I only lived in this area for the first 15 years of my life.)

5. For a congenital pessimist like me, I confess it’s been difficult to deal with the fact that my team (I mean the Democrats, not the Eagles or whatever they’re called) is winning.  I simply don’t know how to react; it’s so far outside my emotional range.  Since when has the universe worked this way?  When did reason and levelheadedness start reaping earthly rewards, or incompetence start carrying a cost?  I’m sure Nov. 4 will bring something to console me, though: maybe Al Franken will lose the Senate race in Minnesota, or the homophobe proposition will pass in California…

6. Writing blog posts in numbered lists is easier; I should do it more often.  I don’t have to pretend all the little things I want to say are part of an overarching narrative, rather than standing in the relation “and that reminds me of … which in turn reminds me of…”

7. There’s another psychological question inspired by the election that’s fascinated me lately: how does one become more obamalike in temperament?

I’ve written before about Obama’s penchant for introspection and respect for expertise, which of course are qualities with which I strongly identify.  But Obama also has a crucial quality I lack: as the whole world has marveled, nothing rattles him.  Placed for two years under the brightest glare on earth, besieged by unexpected events, he simply sticks to a script, Buddha-like in his emotional control (although not in his quest for power in the temporal world).  His nerves are of carbon nanotube fiber.

When he briefly slipped behind after the Republican convention, I panicked: I felt sure he’d lose if he didn’t completely change his approach.  Sean Carroll recommended chilling out.  I now face the indignity of admitting that I was wrong while a physicist was right.

What struck me most, during the debates, was how again and again Obama would pass up the chance to score points—choosing instead to let his opponent impale himself with his own words, and use his time to hammer home his message for the benefit of any voters just emerging from their caves.  (As an example, consider his pointed refusal in the third debate to say anything bad about Palin—the subtext being, “isn’t it obvious?”)  It’s almost as if he thought his goal was winning the election, not proving the other guy wrong.

I have (to put it mildly) not always exhibited the same prudent restraint, least of all on this blog.  So for example, whenever there’s been bait dangling in front of me in the comments section, I’ve tended to bite, often ending up with a hook through my cheek.

But no more.  As the first exercise in my newfound quest for the Zen-like equanimity and balance of our soon-to-be-president, I now present to you two excerpts from the comments on my previous post, with no reaction whatsoever from me.

Have you considered the possibility that, in the same way a logical deduction is being equated with truth, understanding a thing is just an illusion? If a thing is logical, that only means that it appeals to the reasoning facility of the brain, not that it’s the truth.

Mathematics is just a place where it becomes clear how a human may think. Computers only go for the calculable. And the mathematical truths a computer can produce are at most countable infinite. But there are uncountable infinite truths.