Archive for the ‘The Fate of Humanity’ Category

Agent 3203.7: Guest post by Eliezer Yudkowsky

Sunday, September 20th, 2020

In his day, Agent 3203.7 had stopped people from trying to kill Adolf Hitler, Richard Nixon, and even, in the case of one unusually thoughtful assassin, Henry David Thoreau. But this was a new one on him.

“So…” drawled the seventh version of Agent 3203. His prosthetic hand crushed the simple 21st-century gun into fused metal and dropped it. “You traveled to the past in order to kill… of all people… Donald Trump. Care to explain why?”

The time-traveller’s eyes looked wild. Crazed. Nothing unusual. “How can you ask me that? You’re a time-traveler too! You know what he does!”

That was a surprising level of ignorance even for a 21st-century jumper. “Different timelines, kid. Some are pretty obscure. What the heck did Trump do in yours that’s worth taking your one shot at time travel to assassinate him of all people?”

“He’s destroying my world!”

Agent 3203.7 took a good look at where Donald Trump was pridefully addressing the unveiling of the Trump Taj Mahal in New Jersey, then took another good look at the errant time-traveler. “Destroying it how, exactly? Did Trump turn mad scientist in your timeline?”

“He’s President of the United States!”

Agent 3203.7 took another long stare at his new prisoner. He was apparently serious. “How did Trump become President in your timeline? Strangely advanced technology, subliminal messaging?”

“He was elected in the usual way,” the prisoner said bitterly.

Agent 3203.7 shook his head in amazement. Talk about shooting the messenger. “Kid, I doubt Trump was your timeline’s main problem.”

(thanks to Eliezer for giving me permission to reprint here)

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

Wednesday, September 16th, 2020

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

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

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

Alas, a commenter was unhappy with the latter:

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

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

For me it’s simple.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My new motto

Sunday, August 30th, 2020

Update (Sep 1): Thanks for the comments, everyone! As you can see, I further revised this blog’s header based on the feedback and on further reflection.

The Right could only kill me and everyone I know.
The Left is scarier; it could convince me that it was my fault

(In case you missed it on the blog’s revised header, right below “Quantum computers aren’t just nondeterministic Turing machines” and “Hold the November US election by mail.” I added an exclamation point at the end to suggest a slightly comic delivery.)

Update: A friend expressed concern that, because my new motto appears to “blame both sides,” it might generate confusion about my sympathies or what I want to happen in November. So to eliminate all ambiguity: I hereby announce that I will match all reader donations made in the next 72 hours to either the Biden-Harris campaign or the Lincoln Project, up to a limit of $2,000. Honor system; just tell me in the comments what you donated.

Seven announcements

Sunday, August 9th, 2020
  1. Good news, everyone! Following years of requests, this blog finally supports rich HTML and basic TeX in comments. Also, the German spam that used to plague the blog (when JavaScript was disabled) is gone. For all this, I owe deep gratitude to a reader and volunteer named Filip Dimitrovski.
  2. Filip refused to accept any payment for fixing this blog. Instead, he asked only one favor: namely, that I use my platform to raise public awareness about the plight of the MAOI antidepressant Nardil. Filip tells me that, while tens of thousands of people desperately need Nardil—no other antidepressant ever worked for them—it’s become increasingly unavailable because the pharma companies can no longer make money on it. He points me to a SlateStarCodex post from 2015 that explains the problem in more detail (anyone else miss SlateStarCodex?). More recent links about the worsening crisis here, here, and here.
  3. Here’s a fantastic interview of Bill Gates by Steven Levy, about the coronavirus debacle in the US. Gates, who’s always been notoriously and strategically nonpartisan, is more explicit than I’ve ever seen him before in explaining how the Trump administration’s world-historic incompetence led to where we are.
  4. Speaking of which, here’s another excellent article, this one in The American Interest, about the results of “wargames” trying to simulate what happens in the extremely likely event that Trump contests a loss of the November election. Notably, the article sets out six steps that could be taken over the next few months to decrease the chance of a crisis next to which all the previous crises of 2020 will pale.
  5. A reader asked me to share a link to an algorithm competition, related to cryptographic “proofs of time,” that ends on August 31. Apparently, my having shared a link to a predecessor of this competition—at the request of friend-of-the-blog Bram Cohen—played a big role in attracting good entries.
  6. Huge congratulations to my former PhD student Shalev Ben-David, as well as Eric Blais, for co-winning the FOCS’2020 Best Paper Award—along with two other papers—for highly unconventional work about a new minimax theorem for randomized algorithms. (Ben-David and Blais also have a second FOCS paper, which applies their award paper to get the first tight composition theorem for randomized query complexity. Here’s the full list of FOCS papers—lots of great stuff, for a conference that of course won’t physically convene!) Anyway, a central idea in Ben-David and Blais’s new work is to use proper scoring rules to measure the performance of randomized algorithms—algorithms that now make statements like “I’m 90% sure that this is a yes-input,” rather than just outputting a 1-bit guess. Notably, Shalev tells me that he learned about proper scoring rules by reading rationalist blogs. So next time you lament your untold hours sacrificed to that pastime, remind yourself of where it once led!
  7. What have I been up to lately? Besides Busy Beaver, hanging out with my kids, and just trying to survive? Mostly giving a lot of Zoom lectures! For those interested, here’s a Q&A that I recently did on the past and present of quantum computing, hosted by Andris Ambainis in Latvia. It did feel a bit surreal when my “interviewer” asked me to explain how I got into quantum computing research, and my answer was basically: “well, as you know, Andris, a lot of it started when I got hold of your seminal paper back in 1999…”

Is this blog obsolete?

Monday, July 20th, 2020

Longtime friend-of-the-blog Michael Nielsen, formerly a quantum computing theorist and now an independent thinker about science and AI and learning, posted the following exchange with the astounding GPT-3 text generator / chatbot:

Q: Is it possible to use quantum computers to solve NP-complete problems in polynomial time?
A: It is not possible to use quantum computers to solve NP-complete problems in polynomial time.

Q: Why not?
A: Because NP-complete problems are not in BQP.

Q: You’ve just restated your earlier assertion! What I’d like is to understand the underlying reason why not!
A: I’m sorry, but I don’t have time to explain the underlying reason why not.

Q: No offence, but this seems really bogus. I don’t believe you understand the reason why!
A: I’m sorry, but I don’t have time to explain the underlying reason why not.

(And then there are a few more rounds of the AI not having time to “explain the underlying reason why not.”)

This is, like, 80% of the way to replacing Shtetl-Optimized!

For much more discussion of GPT-3 and its implications, and samples of its output, see for example the SSC subreddit. At the moment, as far as I can tell, the closest a person off the street can easily come to experimenting with GPT-3 themselves is using a website called AI Dungeon.

And yes, as many have already remarked, this is clearly the MITS Altair of text-generating AI, an amusing toy that’s also the start of something that will change the world.

My Enlightenment fanaticism

Tuesday, July 7th, 2020

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

If there were ever a time for liberals and progressives to put aside their internal squabbles, you’d think it was now. The President of the United States is a racist gangster, who might not leave if he loses the coming election—all the more reason to ensure he loses in a landslide. Due in part to that gangster’s breathtaking incompetence, 130,000 Americans are now dead, and the economy tanked, from a pandemic that the rest of the world has under much better control. The gangster’s latest “response” to the pandemic has been to disrupt the lives of thousands of foreign scientists—including several of my students—by threatening to cancel their visas. (American universities will, of course, do whatever they legally can to work around this act of pure spite.)

So how is the left responding to this historic moment?

This weekend, 536 people did so by … trying to cancel Steven Pinker, stripping him of “distinguished fellow” and “media expert” status (whatever those are) in the Linguistics Society of America for ideological reasons.

Yes, Steven Pinker: the celebrated linguist and cognitive scientist, author of The Language Instinct and How the Mind Works (which had a massive impact on me as a teenager) and many other books, and academic torch-bearer for the Enlightenment in our time. For years, I’d dreaded the day they’d finally come for Steve, even while friends assured me my fears must be inflated since, after all, they hadn’t come for him yet.

I concede that the cancelers’ logic is impeccable. If they can get Pinker, everyone will quickly realize that there’s no longer any limit to who they can get—including me, including any writer or scientist who crosses them. If you’ve ever taken, or aspire to take, any public stand riskier than “waffles are tasty,” then don’t delude yourself that you’ll be magically spared—certainly not by your own progressive credentials.

I don’t know if the “charges” against Pinker merit a considered response (Pinker writes that some people wondered if they were satire). For those who care, though, here’s a detailed and excellent takedown by the biologist and blogger Jerry Coyne, and here’s another by Barbara Partee.

So, it seems Pinker once used the term “urban crime,” which can be a racist dogwhistle—except that in this case, it literally meant “urban crime.” Pinker once referred to Bernie Goetz, whose 1984 shooting of four robbers in the NYC subway polarized the US at the time, as a “mild-mannered engineer,” in a sentence whose purpose was to contrast that description with the ferocity of Goetz’s act. Pinker “appropriated” the work of a Black scholar, Harvard Dean Lawrence Bobo, which apparently meant approvingly citing him in a tweet. Etc. Ironically, it occurred to me that the would-be Red Guards could’ve built a much stronger case against Pinker had they seriously engaged with his decades of writing—writing that really does take direct aim at their whole worldview, they aren’t wrong about that—rather than superficially collecting a few tweets.

What Coyne calls the “Purity Posse” sleazily gaslights its readers as follows:

We want to note here that we have no desire to judge Dr. Pinker’s actions in moral terms, or claim to know what his aims are. Nor do we seek to “cancel” Dr. Pinker, or to bar him from participating in the linguistics and LSA communities (though many of our signatories may well believe that doing so would be the right course of action).

In other words: many of us “may well believe” that Pinker’s scientific career should be ended entirely. But magnanimously, for now, we’ll settle for a display of our power that leaves the condemned heretic still kicking. So don’t accuse us of wanting to “cancel” anyone!

In that same generous spirit:

Though no doubt related, we set aside questions of Dr. Pinker’s tendency to move in the proximity of what The Guardian called a revival of “scientific racism”, his public support for David Brooks (who has been argued to be a proponent of “gender essentialism”), his expert testimonial in favor of Jeffrey Epstein (which Dr. Pinker now regrets), or his dubious past stances on rape and feminism.

See, even while we make these charges, we disclaim all moral responsibility for making them. (For the record, Alan Dershowitz asked Pinker for a linguist’s opinion of a statute, so Pinker provided it; Pinker didn’t know at the time that the request had anything to do with Epstein.)

Again and again, spineless institutions have responded to these sorts of ultimatums by capitulating to them. So I confess that the news about Pinker depressed me all weekend. The more time passed, though, the more it looked like the Purity Posse might have actually overplayed its hand this time. Steven Pinker is not weak prey.

Let’s start with what’s missing from the petition: Noam Chomsky pointedly refused to sign. How that must’ve stung his comrades! For that matter, virtually all of the world’s well-known linguists refused to sign. Ray Jackendoff and Michel DeGraff were originally on the petition, but their names turned out to have been forged (were others?).

But despite the flimsiness of the petition, suppose the Linguistics Society of America caved. OK, I mused, how many people have even heard of the Linguistics Society of America, compared to the number who’ve heard of Pinker or read his books? If the LSA expelled Pinker, wouldn’t they be forever known to the world only as the organization that had done that?

I’m tired of the believers in the Enlightenment being constantly on the defensive. “No, I’m not a racist or a misogynist … on the contrary, I’ve spent decades advocating for … yes, I did say that, but you completely misunderstood my meaning, which in context was … please, I’m begging you, can’t we sit and discuss this like human beings?”

It’s time for more of us to stand up and say: yes, I am a center-left extremist. Yes, I’m an Enlightenment fanatic, a radical for liberal moderation and reason. If liberalism is the vanilla of worldviews, then I aspire to be the most intense vanilla anyone has ever tasted. I’m not a closeted fascist. I’m not a watered-down leftist. I’m something else. I consider myself ferociously anti-racist and anti-sexist and anti-homophobic and pro-downtrodden, but I don’t cede to any ideological faction the right to dictate what those terms mean. The world is too complicated, too full of ironies and surprises, for me to outsource my conscience in that way.

Enlightenment liberalism at least has the virtue that it’s not some utopian dream: on the contrary, it’s already led to most of the peace and prosperity that this sorry world has ever known, wherever and whenever it’s been allowed to operate. And while “the death of the Enlightenment” gets proclaimed every other day, liberal ideals have by now endured for centuries. They’ve outlasted kings and dictators, the Holocaust and the gulag. They certainly have it within them to outlast some online sneerers.

Yes, sometimes martyrdom (or at least career martyrdom) is the only honorable course, and yes, the childhood bullies did gift me with a sizeable persecution complex—I’ll grant the sneerers that. But on reflection, no, I don’t want to be a martyr for Enlightenment values. I want Enlightenment values to win, and not by vanquishing their opponents but by persuading them. As Pinker writes:

A final comment: I feel sorry for the signatories. Moralistic dudgeon is a shallow and corrosive indulgence, & policing the norms of your peer group a stunting of the intellect. Learning new ideas & rethinking conventional wisdom are deeper pleasures … and ultimately better for the world. Our natural state is ignorance, fallibility, & self-deception. Progress comes only from broaching & evaluating ideas, including those that feel unfamiliar and uncomfortable.

Spend a lot of time on Twitter and Reddit and news sites, and it feels like the believers in the above sentiment are wildly outnumbered by the self-certain ideologues of all sides. But just like the vanilla in a cake can be hard to taste, so there are more Enlightenment liberals than it seems, even in academia—especially if we include all those who never explicitly identified that way, because they were too busy building or fixing or discovering or teaching, and because they mistakenly imagined that if they just left the Purity Posse alone then the Posse would do likewise. If that’s you, then please ask yourself now: what is my personal break-point for speaking up?

Justice has no faction

Thursday, June 18th, 2020

(1) To start with some rare good news: I was delighted that the US Supreme Court, in a 5-4 holding led by Chief Justice Roberts (!), struck down the Trump administration’s plan to end DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). Dismantling DACA would’ve been a first step toward deporting 700,000 overwhelmingly blameless and peaceful people from, in many cases, the only homes they remember, for no particular reason other than to slake the resentment of Trump’s base. Better still was the majority’s argument: that when, by law, a federal agency has to supply a reason for a policy change (in this case, ending DACA), its reason can’t just be blatantly invented post facto.

To connect to my last post: I hope this gives some evidence that, if Trump refuses to accept an electoral loss in November, and if it ends up in the Supreme Court as Bush v. Gore did, then Roberts might once again break from the Court’s other four rightists, in favor of the continued survival of the Republic.

(2) Along with Steven Pinker, Scott Alexander, Sam Altman, Jonathan Haidt, Robert Solovay, and others who might be known to this blog’s readership, I decided after reflection to sign a petition in support of Steve Hsu, a theoretical physicist turned genomics researcher, and the Senior Vice President for Research and Innovation at Michigan State University.

Information Processing: Hail to the Chief
Hsu is the one on the right.

Hsu now faces possible firing, because of a social media campaign apparently started by an MSU grad student and SneerClub poster named Kevin Bird. What are the charges? Hsu appeared in 2017 on an alt-right podcast (albeit, one that Noam Chomsky has also appeared on). On Hsu’s own podcast, he interviewed Ron Unz, who despite Jewish birth has become a nutcase Holocaust denier—yet somehow that topic never came up on the podcast. Hsu said that, as a scientist, he doesn’t know whether group differences in average IQ have a genetic component, but our commitment to anti-racism should never hinge on questions of biology (a view also espoused by Peter Singer, perhaps the leading liberal moral philosopher of our time). Hsu has championed genomics research that, in addition to medical uses, might someday help enable embryo screening for traits like IQ. Finally, Hsu supports the continued use of standardized tests in university admissions (yes, that’s one of the listed charges).

Crucially, it doesn’t matter for present purposes if you disagree with many of Hsu’s views. The question is more like: is agreement with Steven Pinker, Jonathan Haidt, and other mild-mannered, Obama-supporting thinkers featured in your local airport bookstore now a firing offense in academia? And will those who affirm that it is, claim in the next breath to be oppressed, marginalized, the Rebel Alliance?

To be fair to the cancelers, I think they have two reasonable arguments in their favor.

The first that they’re “merely” asking for Hsu to step down as vice president, not for him to lose his tenured professorship in physics. Only professors, say the activists, enjoy academic freedom; administrators need to uphold the values and public image of their university, as Larry Summers learned fifteen years ago. (And besides, we might add, what intellectual iconoclast in their right mind would ever become a university VP, or want to stay one??) I’d actually be fine with this if I had any confidence that it was going to end here. But I don’t. Given the now-enshrined standards—e.g., that professors hold positions of power, and that the powerful can oppress the powerless, or even do violence to them, just by expressing or entertaining thoughts outside an ever-shrinking range—why should Hsu trust any assurances that he’ll be left alone, if he does go back to being a physics professor? If the SneerClubbers can cancel him, then how long until they cancel Pinker, or Haidt, or me? (I hope the SneerClubbers enthusiastically embrace those ideas! If they do, then no one ever again gets to call me paranoid about Red Guards behind every bush.)

The second reasonable argument is that, as far as I can tell, Hsu really did grant undeserved legitimacy to a Holocaust denier, via a friendly interview about other topics on his podcast. I think it would help if, without ceding a word that he doesn’t believe, Hsu were now to denounce racism, Holocaust denial, and specifically Ron Unz’s flirtation with Holocaust denial in the strongest possible terms, and explain why he didn’t bring the topic up with his guest (e.g., did he not know Unz’s views?).

Book Review: “Will He Go?”

Thursday, June 11th, 2020

Will He Go?, by legal scholar Lawrence Douglas, is, at 120 pages, a slim volume focused on a single question: what happens if the 2020 US election delivers a narrow or disputed result favoring Biden, and Trump refuses to concede? This question will, of course, either be answered or rendered irrelevant in half a year. And yet, in my estimation, there’s at least a 15% probability that Will He Go? will enter the ranks of the most important and prescient books ever written. You should read it right now (or at least read this Vox interview), if you want to think through the contours of a civilizational Singularity that seems at least as plausible to me as the AI Singularity, but whose fixed date of November 3, 2020 we’re now hurtling toward.

In one of the defining memes of the past few years, a sign in a bookstore reads “Dear customers: post-apocalyptic fiction has been moved to the Current Affairs section.” I was reminded of that as Douglas dryly lays out his horror scenario: imagine, hypothetically, that a President of the United States gets elected on a platform of racism and lies, with welcomed assistance from a foreign adversary. Suppose that his every outrage only endears him further to his millions of followers. Suppose that, as this president’s deepest (and perhaps only) principle, he never backs down, never apologizes, never acknowledges any inconvenient fact, and never accepts the legitimacy of any contest that he loses—and this is perfectly rational for him, as he’s been richly rewarded for this strategy his entire life. Suppose that, during the final presidential debate, he pointedly refuses to promise to respect the election outcome if he loses—a first in American history. And suppose that, after eking out a narrow win in the Electoral College, he then turns around and disputes the election anyway (!)—claiming, ludicrously, that he would’ve won the popular vote too, if not for millions of fraudulent voters. Suppose that, for their own sordid reasons, Republican majorities in the Senate and Supreme Court enable this president’s chaotic rule, block his impeachment, and acquiesce to his daily cruelties and lies.

Then what happens in the next election?

Taking the existing catastrophe as given, Douglas asks: is America’s Constitutional machinery up to a challenge that it’s never yet faced, of a president who accepts democracy itself as legitimate only when he wins? Douglas concludes that it isn’t—and this is the book’s terrifying and non-obvious part. There are no checks or balances in the Constitution that will magically ensure a smooth transition of power. On the contrary, the design flaws of our antiquated system make a meltdown more likely.

OK, but then why hasn’t America’s Reactor of Democracy exploded yet (or at least, not since the Civil War)? Douglas spends a lot of time on historical parallels, including the Tilden-Hayes election of 1876 and the Bush-Gore election of 2000. In each case, he finds, collapse was averted not because of mythical safeguards in our rickety, Rube-Goldberg system, but only because the relevant people (e.g., Samuel Tilden, Al Gore) stood down, having internalized the norm that the national good required them to. But that’s precisely what Trump has telegraphed that he’ll never do.

The class of scenario that most worries Douglas runs as follows: just like last time, the election comes down to a few swing states, such as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan. Crucially, right now all three of those states have Democratic governors and Republican-controlled legislatures … and there’s no clear law about which of the two (the governor or the legislature) gets to certify election results and send them to Congress! So suppose Trump has a slight edge on election night, Fox News calls the race for him, but then an avalanche of absentee or provisional ballots shift things in Biden’s favor over the following week. Can you imagine Trump or his supporters accepting the latter?

Or suppose that, on election day, Russian hackers cut off electricity or voter registration databases in Philadelphia or Detroit, via computer systems that we know they already broke into and that remain exposed (!). Hundreds of thousands are unable to vote; the Democratic governor orders a revote; the Republican legislature tries to preempt that by sending the original tally to Congress.

The final authority over election results rests with Congress. The trouble is, the Senate is currently under Republican control and the House under Democratic control—and once again, the Constitution and federal law provide no clear guidance on how to resolve a deadlock between the two on presidential succession (!!). So what if Michigan or Pennsylvania or Wisconsin sends two separate sets of election results, and (predictably) the House accepts one and the Senate accepts the other? And what if there’s no resolution by noon EST on January 20, 2021? Then by law, the Speaker of the House, currently Nancy Pelosi, becomes acting president. Can you imagine Trump willingly vacating the Oval Office if that comes to pass?

Douglas seems to have finished writing Will He Go? just as the coronavirus shut down the planet; he includes some comments about how that will massively exacerbate the above problems. Election officials expect a historic number of absentee ballots, from people—disproportionately urban—who will (reasonably) consider it unsafe to wait in line for hours in a room packed with hundreds of strangers. Alas, Trump has already told his followers that voting by mail is a scam to be fiercely opposed, never mind that he uses it himself. Worse yet, the laws governing mail-in ballots—the signature, the postmark, the deadline for receipt—are byzantine, open to interpretation, and wildly different from county to county. So again: imagine if mail-in ballots overturn what looked like a Trump win on election night. The 2000 Florida recount battle was tea and cookies by comparison.

Douglas doesn’t mention, because it happened too recently, the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests (and in rarer cases, vandalism and looting) set off by the horrific murder of George Floyd, and the often shockingly militarized response. But assuming the protests continue through the fall, they’ll of course give the Trumpists even more pretexts to meddle with the election, in the name of imposing “order.”

This is not a sound statistical methodology, but if I imagine a gong every time the US inches perceptibly closer to collapse—gong when Trump got elected, gong when covid made landfall and the states were abandoned to fight each other over medical supplies, gong when George Floyd was murdered and staid, conformist liberals suddenly became anarchists demanding the complete abolition of all police—well, the gongs seem to be getting more frequent! Almost as if they were building toward a gongularity that was, I dunno, sometime around November!

Douglas never mentions the prospect of a second Civil War until literally the book’s last sentence, but it’s the undercurrent of everything he writes—particularly given Trump’s frequent glorifications of violence, and his heavily armed base. Having spent his career studying American jurisprudence, Douglas is willing to guide our imaginations all the way to the precipice but not over it. Part of me still finds the possibility of going over unthinkable—although wasn’t the first Civil War similarly unthinkable until shortly before it happened?

If there is to be a Chernobyl-like meltdown of the Founding Fathers’ machine, at least it would retrospectively make sense of a lot that’s confused me in the past few years. As I’m far from the only one to notice, “my” side, the left, has seemed less and less interested in debate and discussion, and more and more eager to denounce, ban, shame, and no-platform. As just one example, out of hundreds that would serve, last week a 28-year-old analyst named David Shor was fired from his job for politely tweeting about an academic paper offering evidence that peaceful protests are effective at winning public support for progressive, antiracist causes, while violence is ineffective. Hopefully I won’t now be fired for mentioning this!

Of course every cause has its extremists, but the puzzle is that I know plenty of people who will eagerly join whatever is the shaming or firing campaign du jour. And many of those people strike me as friendly, insightful, honest, balanced, wise—at least when the topic is apolitical, as (alas) less and less seems to be these days.

Thought experiment: two protesters meet on a street, carrying huge signs that say “BLACK LIVES MATTER” and “ALL LIVES MATTER” respectively. Can you imagine the following conversation ensuing: “Ah, my good fellow, it looks like you and I are allies, sharing deeply compatible moral messages with the world … one of us merely focused more on a special case, and the other on its generalization! Shall we sit in the park to discuss our joint strategy?”

I guess it takes an Aspbergery STEM nerd even to ask why that never happens. To spell it out: both sides are deploying English words, not for what they explicitly assert, but as markers of tribal affiliation, of which side they’re on.

It’s much the same with “Believe Women.” “Believe all women, always?” asks our hapless STEM nerd. “Women are goddesses who never lie? Feminism is no longer the radical notion that women are people?” “No, you sexist asshat,” replies the normie. “It means listen to women, empathize with women, believe women, be on their side, be on our side. What about that is so f-ing hard to understand?”

Or consider the slogans now conquering the world: “abolish the police” and “defund the police.” “You mean fundamentally reform the police, right?” asks the STEM nerd. “Eliminate qualified immunity, bust the unions that protect abusive cops, get rid of military gear, provide de-escalation training, stop treating homelessness and drug abuse as law enforcement problems, and all those other no-brainers? But not, like, literally end all law enforcement, leave the 911 calls unanswered as machete-wielding rapists run free, and let gangsters and warlords fill the vacuum?”

“No, abolish the police means abolish the police,” reply the activists sternly. “You refuse to listen. You’re not our ally.”

Imagine a ragtag guerilla army encamped in the jungle, surrounded by a brutal occupying force and facing impossible odds, constantly on the alert for turncoats and spies and fair-weather friends in its midst. Would it surprise you if these guerillas had a macabre initiation ritual for new recruits: say, slicing off the tips of recruits’ fingers?

Now suppose you reckoned that truth and justice were at least 3/4 on the guerillas’ side, and so decided to join them. At your initiation, would you ask the guerillas if they’d analyzed whether finger-slicing actually leads to greater effectiveness in battle? Or, as you swore the oath of eternal allegiance to the cause, with one hand on your heart and the other on your Kalashnikov, would you add: “… assuming that we continue to represent Enlightenment values like science, free speech, and intellectual charity”?

When the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, it suddenly became reasonable to take the side of the bloodthirsty Stalin. And it would’ve been praiseworthy for a Russian to say: “I now pledge my life to fighting for the Soviet government—even if, likely as not, that government will thank me afterward by sending me to the gulag for an invented crime.”

Five years ago, thousands of woke activists shamed me for writing about my teenage experiences on this blog, a few even calling for an end to my career. Especially if those activists emerge victorious from a turbulent 2020—as I hope they will—I expect that they’ll come for me again. (Well, if they get around to it. I’m nowhere near the top of their list.)

And yet, if Lawrence Douglas’s scenario comes to pass—if, for example, the 2020 election leaves Trump barricaded in the White House with his loyalists, while a duly elected government waits in limbo—then I pledge to render whatever assistance I can, and even risk my life if needed, for the same side that the woke activists will be on.

I’d rather not, though. As Douglas points out, the more overwhelming we can make Trump’s electoral defeat, the less chance that it ever comes to this.

Pooled testing for covid: Guest post by Zeph Landau

Thursday, June 4th, 2020

Scott’s foreword: Zeph Landau, a noted quantum computing theorist at UC Berkeley who’s worked closely with my adviser Umesh Vazirani, recently asked me if he could write a guest post about pooled testing for covid—an old idea that, Zeph argues, could play a crucial role in letting universities safely reopen this fall. Seeing a small chance to do a great good, I readily agreed.

I should confess that I’m more … fatalistic than Zeph. Not that I’m proud of it: I think that Zeph’s attitude is superior to mine. But, like, I’m a theoretical computer scientist with zero expertise in medical testing or statistics, and I knew about pooled testing and its WWII origins—so imagine how thoroughly the actual experts must know the idea. Just like they know all about variolation, and challenge trials, and copper fixtures, and UV light, and vitamin D supplements, and a dozen other possible tools against covid that future historians might ask why we didn’t try more.

As I’ve written before, I think our fundamental problem is not a lack of good ideas. It’s that, outside of some isolated pockets of progress, our entire civilization no longer has the will (or ability? is there a difference?) to implement good ideas, or even really to try them. For anything new that requires coordination, today there are just too many stakeholders who need to be brought on board, too many risks that need further study. So I see Zeph, and anyone like him, as occupying a tragic position, a bit like that of an Aztec advocating the use of the wheel. “Sure,” the Aztec elders might calmly reply, “wheeled transport is obvious enough that we’ve all considered it, but a moment’s thought reveals why, in our actually existing empire, it would be reckless, costly, and of at most marginal benefit…”

But I hope I’m wrong! Better, I hope this post is the one that proves me wrong! So without further ado, here’s…

Zeph Landau’s Guest Post

This post describes how every university could efficiently use modest testing resources to sensibly and extensively reduce the number of COVID-19 cases on their campus this fall.  It is meant as a call to action to the reader—because without a concerted effort to get the right people the necessary information and take immediate consequential action, a far worse alternative will be implemented almost everywhere. It is my sincere hope, that immediately after reading this post, you will take the following steps:

1) Figure out who is part of the reopening committee at your institution.

2) Find the right people and engage with them either as a fellow faculty member or, better yet, through a connection to get them good information about the information posted here.

3) Then stay engaged and keep pushing. (See below for links to sample documents.)

OK, here we go.

The Problem

How can we safely open a university or college campus such that we ensure that the number of cases does not drastically increase through the newfound interactions between the population?

One obvious, albeit impractical, solution to opening universities is to test everyone, everyday and isolate those that test positive quickly. Unfortunately, we can’t do that due to costs ($100 per student per day) and availability of tests (on the order of 1000 tests per day at university testing labs).

Turns out there is a solution that uses drastically fewer tests and is commensurate in detecting an outbreak. It is called pooled screening which is a variant of pooled testing.

The missing piece: early detection surveillance

So how do we detect most contagious people quickly if we don’t have the resources to test everyone regularly?  The answer is by pooled testing—or to be more accurate (I’ll be clear about why this distinction is important later) pooled screening. The idea of pooling is old (attributed to Dorfman in the 40’s), simple, and has been used over and over in all kinds of scenarios. Pooled testing works by mixing samples together from a group and then administering a single test to the mixture. The test is designed to be sensitive enough to come up positive whenever at least one underlying sample is positive. Instead of testing each sample individually, you test the mixture, and then only those groups that test positive undergo a second round of testing of each individual sample. The individuals do not need to deliver a second sample; there is more than enough biological material for multiple tests per sample. When prevalence of a disease is low, most pools come up negative and you save a large amount of testing resources and time.  (For those more visually inclined, here is a one minute video on pooled testing.)

So what would a good early detection surveillance system look like?  Here is a reasonable and doable framework:

  • Divide the campus population into three groups (call them A, B, and C).
  • Collect samples from each group twice a week, (e.g. Group A: M/Th, Group B: Tu/Fri, Group C Wed/Sat).
  • Pool test the samples in groups of 16.

What kinds of resources would this use?

  • For a 10,000 person campus, you’d need about 200 tests per day, 6 days a week.  The universities that have implemented testing labs typically have the capacity to do on the order of 1000 tests a day.
  • Assuming a rough cost of $100 a test (which should be an overestimate if they are using their own lab), it would amount to a $12 a student/ per week.  

What would it accomplish?  It would quickly find outbreaks and new cases.  Under a few different assumptions of the time-course of the viral load in a person, the expected time for detecting an infectious person in this scheme is under 3 days. Those cases would then need to be fed into an existing contact tracing and quarantine protocol.  The result: an outbreak suppressed before it had a chance to get going.

So why aren’t we already doing this?  Read on…

The fear of false negatives in pooling

The general concern to implementing pooling  for Covid-19 in the US is two-fold. 

  1. Without the creation of a better test the dilution effect will make the test less sensitive and in turn produce more false negatives.  
  2. Even if you could solve the scientific sensitivity issue, navigating the process of getting government approval is a big barrier.

Let’s take each of these concerns in turn.  The first is definitely a concern if the goal is 1:1 medical testing.  If a sample can be barely seen as positive in an individual test, then the risk is that the dilution effect when pooled with others will cause the group test to come out negative—giving a wrong result to the positive individual.  The word for this is “sensitivity”, i.e. if a test has 95% sensitivity it means that it’ll be accurate 95% of the time and produce a false negative 5% of the time.  So how sensitive would a pooled test be where you combined 16 individual samples into 1 and just ran it through an existing 1:1 test?  Lab data suggests it would have at least 70% sensitivity.  For 1:1 testing this is a non-starter, however, the goal is early detection of an outbreak, which is different and as we shall see, a 70% sensitivity does fine for this purpose.

Suppose you are doing early detection surveillance and imagine that an outbreak starts.  Imagine 3 people are infected.  Because you are sampling every 3 days, you’ll be getting at least 6 positive samples, and the chances that your 70% screen misses all 6 is tiny.  As soon as it catches one, a contact tracing protocol is initiated and the others will be found.

Another way to formulate what is going on is that you are trading sensitivity for speed (in the form of capacity and cost)—and that is a huge win.  The pooling and more frequent testing gives you that speed versus sensitivity tradeoff.  Sure, Lebron James (a 70% free-throw shooter) won’t make every free throw, but the chance that he misses 6 in a row is tiny.

For some, the above thinking is straightforward.  However, for the medical testing paradigm—where the goal is the most accurate test for an individual using the one sample you have—this point of view is foreign and in many ways almost out of reach.   

OK.  So with the concern of sensitivity laid to rest, what about the second concern?  That the regulations will get in the way.  It turns out that this isn’t an issue though again, it is slightly counterintuitive for those who work in medical testing.  The task is surveillance, and therefore the pooling test is being used as a screen (not a medical test): negative group tests are not reported to the individual as a negative test result.   Positive groups are deconvoluted for individual testing and results returned to the person who is positive individually.  HHS/CLIA has indicated there aren’t regulatory restrictions as long as you don’t return test results due to the pooled test.

It is important to re-emphasize that the above is for pooled screening (where negative results are not returned), which is in contrast to pooled testing (where negative pools are reported as negative test results for each individual).  For pooled testing, which has received a jump of coverage due to its use recently in Wuhan, there are large regulatory hurdles—the CDC is just formulating criteria for clearing those hurdles and the science looks like, for now, that most labs wouldn’t be able to get above pools of size 5 or so.

How do you safely collect so many samples?

A different direction of concern for early detection surveillance is the logistics and feasibility around collecting samples.  To date, the gold standard for sampling is a deep nasal swab that requires a professional to do it, requires PPE equipment, and is not a pleasant experience.  Using this method wouldn’t work logistically on campus.

However, there are other sampling techniques that allow people to self-sample, both in the form of a shallow nasal swab and saliva based techniques.  The stated concern is obvious: there is a worry that these sampling techniques are less sensitive.  There is some evidence that this is not the case (and even the opposite) but regardless, as has been discussed— in early detection surveillance it is OK to take a hit on sensitivity.  The system remains robust because of the frequent testing and the goal of detecting an outbreak, not every individual.

Being able to self-sample removes a huge bottleneck.  The picture is very much simplified.  Students/faculty/staff self-sample on their prescribed days (either in the presence of a medical professional or not depending on the approved protocol) and then drop off their sample at any of various drop-off stations on campus.  Those stations deliver the samples to the testing facility for pooling and testing.

You can help to get this done

Is what I’m describing a new idea?  As far as I can tell, the answer is both no and yes.  Pooled testing is in the news both as a theoretical idea and now as being implemented at some scale—in Israel, in a lab in Nebraska, and most recently in Wuhan.   But using pooling as a screen (not a medical test) within an early detection surveillance system that repeatedly screens everyone is, as far as I know, not in the discussion.

What seems clear is that right now—reopening committees and labs are perhaps aware of the idea of pooling but only as a theoretical idea of a technology that might be coming at some vague time in the future.  They are unaware that in the form of early detection surveillance, it is right in front of them ready to go.  They’d need a matter of weeks to convert a 1:1 lab into a lab that could handle both pooled screening and 1:1 testing (this lab did it, here is a brief outline of the steps).  In the same timeline, they could develop a system for handling the logistics of sampling large numbers of people.

And that is where each of you come in…   you can help get these ideas to the right people.  It needs to be done quickly because decisions are being made now as to what to do.  The right people are your colleagues—you just have to find out who they are and reach out to them personally.  You can find out who is on the reopening committee, you can track down faculty members in public health and microbiology. They are often busy and might be skeptical of what an outsider can offer, but keep trying because my experience has been that if you keep at it and follow up, they will listen and be grateful for the information.

Here is a sample letter you could use.

Here is a crowdsourced spreadsheet for potential contact people at various universities.  If your university isn’t yet there, we ask that you enter the info that you find for your university in this form which is linked to the above spreadsheet (or enter it directly into the spreadsheet).

If you want to know more or would like to craft your own letter, here are some relevant links:

Covid-19 early detection surveillance on a 240 person facility using 5 tests a day

Covid-19 early detection surveillance for a campus of 24,000 using 500 tests a day

And here is a simple analysis of the mean time between contagion and detection that an early detection scheme could accomplish.

If anyone wants to follow up with me, I’m happy to do so.  You can reach me at:  zeph dot landau at gmail dot com 


Zeph Landau
Dept. of Computer Science
University of California, Berkeley

The US might die, but P and PSPACE are forever

Monday, June 1st, 2020

Today, I interrupt the news of the rapid disintegration of the United States of America, on every possible front at once (medical, economic, social…), to bring you something far more important: a long-planned two-hour podcast, where theoretical physicist and longtime friend-of-the-blog Sean Carroll interviews yours truly about complexity theory! Here’s Sean’s description of this historic event:

There are some problems for which it’s very hard to find the answer, but very easy to check the answer if someone gives it to you. At least, we think there are such problems; whether or not they really exist is the famous P vs NP problem, and actually proving it will win you a million dollars. This kind of question falls under the rubric of “computational complexity theory,” which formalizes how hard it is to computationally attack a well-posed problem. Scott Aaronson is one of the world’s leading thinkers in computational complexity, especially the wrinkles that enter once we consider quantum computers as well as classical ones. We talk about how we quantify complexity, and how that relates to ideas as disparate as creativity, knowledge vs. proof, and what all this has to do with black holes and quantum gravity.

So, OK, I guess I should also comment on the national disintegration thing. As someone who was once himself the victim of a crazy police overreaction (albeit, trivial compared to what African-Americans regularly deal with), I was moved by the scenes of police chiefs in several American towns taking off their helmets and joining protesters to cheers. Not only is that a deeply moral thing to do, but it serves a practical purpose of quickly defusing the protests. Right now, of course, is an even worse time than usual for chaos in the streets, with a lethal virus still spreading that doesn’t care whether people are congregating for good or for ill. If rational discussion of policy still matters, I support the current push to end the “qualified immunity” doctrine, end the provision of military training and equipment to police, and generally spur the nation’s police to rein in their psychopath minority.