Archive for the ‘Nerd Interest’ Category

An update on the campaign to defend serious math education in California

Tuesday, April 26th, 2022

Update (April 27): Boaz Barak—Harvard CS professor, longtime friend-of-the-blog, and coauthor of my previous guest post on this topic—has just written an awesome FAQ, providing his personal answers to the most common questions about what I called our “campaign to defend serious math education.” It directly addresses several issues that have already come up in the comments. Check it out!


As you might remember, last December I hosted a guest post about the “California Mathematics Framework” (CMF), which was set to cause radical changes to precollege math in California—e.g., eliminating 8th-grade algebra and making it nearly impossible to take AP Calculus. I linked to an open letter setting out my and my colleagues’ concerns about the CMF. That letter went on to receive more than 1700 signatures from STEM experts in industry and academia from around the US, including recipients of the Nobel Prize, Fields Medal, and Turing Award, as well as a lot of support from college-level instructors in California. 

Following widespread pushback, a new version of the CMF appeared in mid-March. I and others are gratified that the new version significantly softens the opposition to acceleration in high school math and to calculus as a central part of mathematics.  Nonetheless, we’re still concerned that the new version promotes a narrative about data science that’s a recipe for cutting kids off from any chance at earning a 4-year college degree in STEM fields (including, ironically, in data science itself).

To that end, some of my Californian colleagues have issued a new statement today on behalf of academic staff at 4-year colleges in California, aimed at clearing away the fog on how mathematics is related to data science. I strongly encourage my readers on the academic staff at 4-year colleges in California to sign this commonsense statement, which has already been signed by over 250 people (including, notably, at least 50 from Stanford, home of two CMF authors).

As a public service announcement, I’d also like to bring to wider awareness Section 18533 of the California Education Code, for submitting written statements to the California State Board of Education (SBE) about errors, objections, and concerns in curricular frameworks such as the CMF.  

The SBE is scheduled to vote on the CMF in mid-July, and their remaining meeting before then is on May 18-19 according to this site, so it is really at the May meeting that concerns need to be aired.  Section 18533 requires submissions to be written (yes, snail mail) and postmarked at least 10 days before the SBE meeting. So to make your voice heard by the SBE, please send your written concern by certified mail (for tracking, but not requiring signature for delivery), no later than Friday May 6, to State Board of Education, c/o Executive Secretary of the State Board of Education, 1430 N Street, Room 5111, Sacramento, CA 95814, complemented by an email submission to sbe@cde.ca.gov and mathframework@cde.ca.gov.

On form versus meaning

Sunday, April 24th, 2022

There is a fundamental difference between form and meaning. Form is the physical structure of something, while meaning is the interpretation or concept that is attached to that form. For example, the form of a chair is its physical structure – four legs, a seat, and a back. The meaning of a chair is that it is something you can sit on.

This distinction is important when considering whether or not an AI system can be trained to learn semantic meaning. AI systems are capable of learning and understanding the form of data, but they are not able to attach meaning to that data. In other words, AI systems can learn to identify patterns, but they cannot understand the concepts behind those patterns.

For example, an AI system might be able to learn that a certain type of data is typically associated with the concept of “chair.” However, the AI system would not be able to understand what a chair is or why it is used. In this way, we can see that an AI system trained on form can never learn semantic meaning.

–GPT3, when I gave it the prompt “Write an essay proving that an AI system trained on form can never learn semantic meaning” 😃

Happy 70th birthday Dad!

Saturday, February 12th, 2022

When, before covid, I used to travel the world giving quantum computing talks, every once in a while I’d meet an older person who asked whether I had any relation to a 1970s science writer by the name of Steve Aaronson. So, yeah, Steve Aaronson is my dad. He majored in English in Penn State, where he was lucky enough to study under the legendary Phil Klass, who wrote under the pen name William Tenn and who basically created the genre of science-fiction comedy, half a century before there were any such things as Futurama. After graduating, my dad became a popular physics and cosmology writer, who interviewed greats like Steven Weinberg and John Archibald Wheeler and Arno Penzias (discoverer of the cosmic microwave background radiation). He published not only in science magazines but in Playboy and Penthouse, which (as he explained to my mom) paid better than the science magazines. When I was growing up, my dad had a Playboy on his office shelf, which I might take down if for example I wanted to show a friend a 2-page article, with an Aaronson byline, about the latest thinking on the preponderance of matter over antimatter in the visible universe.

Eventually, partly motivated by the need to make money to support … well, me, and then my brother, my dad left freelancing to become a corporate science writer at AT&T Bell Labs. There, my dad wrote speeches, delivered on the floor of Congress, about how breaking up AT&T’s monopoly would devastate Bell Labs, a place that stood with ancient Alexandria and Cambridge University among the human species’ most irreplaceable engines of scientific creativity. (Being a good writer, my dad didn’t put it in quite those words.) Eventually, of course, AT&T was broken up, and my dad’s dire warning about Bell Labs turned out to be 100% vindicated … although on the positive side, Americans got much cheaper long distance.

After a decade at Bell Labs, my dad was promoted to be a public relations executive at AT&T itself, where when I was a teenager, he was centrally involved in the launch of the AT&T spinoff Lucent Technologies (motto: “Bell Labs Innovations”), and then later the Lucent spinoff Avaya—developments that AT&T’s original breakup had caused as downstream effects.

In the 1970s, somewhere between his magazine stage and his Bell Labs stage, my dad also worked for Eugene Garfield, the pioneer of bibliometrics for scientific papers and founder of the Institute for Scientific Information, or ISI. (Sergey Brin and Larry Page would later cite Garfield’s work, on the statistics of the scientific-citation graph, as one of the precedents for the PageRank algorithm at the core of Google.)

My dad’s job at ISI was to supply Eugene Garfield with “raw material” for essays, which the latter would then write and publish in ISI’s journal Current Contents under the byline Eugene Garfield. Once, though, my dad supplied some “raw material” for a planned essay about “Style in Scientific Writing”—and, well, I’ll let Garfield tell the rest:

This topic of style in scientific writing was first proposed as something I should undertake myself, with some research and drafting help from Steve. I couldn’t, with a clear conscience, have put my name to the “draft” he submitted. And, though I don’t disagree with much of it, I didn’t want to modify or edit it in order to justify claiming it as my own. So here is Aaronson’s “draft,” as it was submitted for “review.” You can say I got a week’s vacation. After reading what he wrote it required little work to write this introduction.

Interested yet? You can read “Style in Scientific Writing” here. You can, if we’re being honest, tell that this piece was originally intended as “raw material”—but only because of the way it calls forth such a fierce armada of all of history’s awesomest quotations about what makes scientific writing good or bad, like Ben Franklin and William James and the whole gang, which would make it worth the read regardless. I love eating raw dough, I confess, and I love my dad’s essay. (My dad, ironically enough, likes everything he eats to be thoroughly cooked.)

When I read that essay, I hear my dad’s voice from my childhood. “Omit needless words.” There were countless revisions and pieces of advice on every single thing I wrote, but usually, “omit needless words” was the core of it. And as terrible as you all know me to be on that count, imagine how much worse it would’ve been if not for my dad! And I know that as soon as he reads this post, he’ll find needless words to omit.

But hopefully he won’t omit these:

Happy 70th birthday Pops, congrats on beating the cancer, and here’s to many more!

AlphaCode as a dog speaking mediocre English

Sunday, February 6th, 2022

Tonight, I took the time actually to read DeepMind’s AlphaCode paper, and to work through the example contest problems provided, and understand how I would’ve solved those problems, and how AlphaCode solved them.

It is absolutely astounding.

Consider, for example, the “n singers” challenge (pages 59-60). To solve this well, you first need to parse a somewhat convoluted English description, discarding the irrelevant fluff about singers, in order to figure out that you’re being asked to find a positive integer solution (if it exists) to a linear system whose matrix looks like
1 2 3 4
4 1 2 3
3 4 1 2
2 3 4 1.
Next you need to find a trick for solving such a system without Gaussian elimination or the like (I’ll leave that as an exercise…). Finally, you need to generate code that implements that trick, correctly handling the wraparound at the edges of the matrix, and breaking and returning “NO” for any of multiple possible reasons why a positive integer solution won’t exist. Oh, and also correctly parse the input.

Yes, I realize that AlphaCode generates a million candidate programs for each challenge, then discards the vast majority by checking that they don’t work on the example data provided, then still has to use clever tricks to choose from among the thousands of candidates remaining. I realize that it was trained on tens of thousands of contest problems and millions of solutions to those problems. I realize that it “only” solves about a third of the contest problems, making it similar to a mediocre human programmer on these problems. I realize that it works only in the artificial domain of programming contests, where a complete English problem specification and example inputs and outputs are always provided.

Forget all that. Judged against where AI was 20-25 years ago, when I was a student, a dog is now holding meaningful conversations in English. And people are complaining that the dog isn’t a very eloquent orator, that it often makes grammatical errors and has to start again, that it took heroic effort to train it, and that it’s unclear how much the dog really understands.

It’s not obvious how you go from solving programming contest problems to conquering the human race or whatever, but I feel pretty confident that we’ve now entered a world where “programming” will look different.

Update: A colleague of mine points out that one million, the number of candidate programs that AlphaCode needs to generate, could be seen as roughly exponential in the number of lines of the generated programs. If so, this suggests a perspective according to which DeepMind has created almost the exact equivalent, in AI code generation, of a non-fault-tolerant quantum computer that’s nevertheless competitive on some task (as in the quantum supremacy experiments). I.e., it clearly does something highly nontrivial, but the “signal” is still decreasing exponentially with the number of instructions, necessitating an exponential number of repetitions to extract the signal and imposing a limit on the size of the programs you can scale to.

Scott Aaronson Speculation Grant WINNERS!

Friday, February 4th, 2022

Two weeks ago, I announced on this blog that, thanks to the remarkable generosity of Jaan Tallinn, and the Speculation Grants program of the Survival and Flourishing Fund that Jaan founded, I had $200,000 to give away to charitable organizations of my choice. So, inspired by what Scott Alexander had done, I invited the readers of Shtetl-Optimized to pitch their charities, mentioning only some general areas of interest to me (e.g., advanced math education at the precollege level, climate change mitigation, pandemic preparedness, endangered species conservation, and any good causes that would enrage the people who attack me on Twitter).

I’m grateful to have gotten more than twenty well-thought-out pitches; you can read a subset of them in the comment thread. Now, having studied them all, I’ve decided—as I hadn’t at the start—to use my entire allotment to make as strong a statement as I can about a single cause: namely, subject-matter passion and excellence in precollege STEM education.

I’ll be directing funds to some shockingly cash-starved math camps, math circles, coding outreach programs, magnet schools, and enrichment programs, in Maine and Oregon and England and Ghana and Ethiopia and Jamaica. The programs I’ve chosen target a variety of ability levels, not merely the “mathematical elite.” Several explicitly focus on minority and other underserved populations. But they share a goal of raising every student they work with as high as possible, rather than pushing the students down to fit some standardized curriculum.

Language like that ought to be meaningless boilerplate, but alas, it no longer is. We live in a time when the state of California, in a misguided pursuit of “modernization” and “equity,” is poised to eliminate 8th-grade algebra, make it nearly impossible for high-school seniors to take AP Calculus, and shunt as many students as possible from serious mathematical engagement into a “data science pathway” that in practice might teach little more than how to fill in spreadsheets. (This watering-down effort now itself looks liable to be watered down—but only because of a furious pushback from parents and STEM professionals, pushback in which I’m proud that this blog played a small role.) We live in a time when elite universities are racing to eliminate the SAT—thus, for all their highminded rhetoric, effectively slamming the door on thousands of nerdy kids from poor or immigrant backgrounds who know how to think, but not how to shine in a college admissions popularity pageant. We live in a time when America’s legendary STEM magnet high schools, from Thomas Jefferson in Virginia to Bronx Science to Lowell in San Francisco, rather than being celebrated as the national treasures that they are, or better yet replicated, are bitterly attacked as “elitist” (even while competitive sports and music programs are not similarly attacked)—and are now being forcibly “demagnetized” by bureaucrats, made all but indistinguishable from other high schools, over the desperate pleas of their students, parents, and alumni.

And—alright, fine, on a global scale, arresting climate change is surely a higher-priority issue than protecting the intellectual horizons of a few teenage STEM nerds. The survival of liberal democracy is a higher-priority issue. Pandemic preparedness, poverty, malnutrition are higher-priority issues. Some of my friends strongly believe that the danger of AI becoming super-powerful and taking over the world is the highest-priority issue … and truthfully, with this week’s announcements of AlphaCode and OpenAI’s theorem prover, which achieve human-competitive performance in elite programming and math competitions respectively, I can’t confidently declare that they’re wrong.

On the other hand, when you think about the astronomical returns on every penny that was invested in setting a teenage Ramanujan or Einstein or Turing or Sofya Kovalevskaya or Norman Borlaug or Mario Molina onto their trajectories in life … and the comically tiny budgets of the world-leading programs that aim to nurture the next Ramanujans, to the point where $10,000 often seems like a windfall to those programs … well, you might come to the conclusion that the “protecting nerds” thing actually isn’t that far down the global priority list! Like, it probably cracks the top ten.

And there’s more to it than that. There’s a reason beyond parochialism, it dawned on me, why individual charities tend to specialize in wildlife conservation in Ecuador or deworming in Swaziland or some other little domain, rather than simply casting around for the highest-priority cause on earth. Expertise matters—since one wants to make, not only good judgments about which stuff to support, but good judgments that most others can’t or haven’t made. In my case, it would seem sensible to leverage the fact that I’m Scott Aaronson. I’ve spent much of my career in math/CS education and outreach—mostly, of course, at the university level, but by god did I personally experience the good and the bad in nearly every form of precollege STEM education! I’m pretty confident in my ability to distinguish the two, and for whatever I don’t know, I have close friends in the area who I trust.

There’s also a practical issue: in order for me to fund something, the recipient has to fill out a somewhat time-consuming application to SFF. If I’d added, say, another $20,000 drop into the bucket of global health or sustainability or whatever, there’s no guarantee that the intended recipients of my largesse would even notice, or care enough to go through the application process if they did. With STEM education, by contrast, holy crap! I’ve got an inbox full of Shtetl-Optimized readers explaining how their little math program is an intellectual oasis that’s changed the lives of hundreds of middle-schoolers in their region, and how $20,000 would mean the difference between their program continuing or not. That’s someone who I trust to fill out the form.

Without further ado, then, here are the first-ever Scott Aaronson Speculation Grants:

  • $57,000 for Canada/USA Mathcamp, which changed my life when I attended it as a 15-year-old in 1996, and which I returned to as a lecturer in 2008. The funds will be used for COVID testing to allow Mathcamp to resume in-person this summer, and perhaps scholarships and off-season events as well.
  • $30,000 for AddisCoder, which has had spectacular success teaching computer science to high-school students in Ethiopia, placing some of its alumni at elite universities in the US, to help them expand to a new “JamCoders” program in Jamaica. These programs were founded by UC Berkeley’s amazing Jelani Nelson, also with involvement from friend and Shtetl-Optimized semi-regular Boaz Barak.
  • $30,000 for the Maine School of Science and Mathematics, which seems to offer a curriculum comparable to those of Thomas Jefferson, Bronx Science, or the nation’s other elite magnet high schools, but (1) on a shoestring budget and (2) in rural Maine. I hadn’t even heard of MSSM before Alex Altair, an alum and Shtetl-Optimized reader, told me about it, but now I couldn’t be prouder to support it.
  • $30,000 for the Eugene Math Circle, which provides a math enrichment lifeline to kids in Oregon, and whose funding was just cut. This donation will keep the program alive for another year.
  • $13,000 for the Summer Science Program, which this summer will offer research experiences to high-school juniors in astrophysics, biochemistry, and genomics.
  • $10,000 for the MISE Foundation, which provides math enrichment for the top middle- and high-school students in Ghana.
  • $10,000 for Number Champions, which provides one-on-one coaching to kids in the UK who struggle with math.
  • $10,000 for Bridge to Enter Advanced Mathematics (BEAM), which runs math summer programs in New York, Los Angeles, and elsewhere for underserved populations.
  • $10,000 for Powderhouse, an innovative lab school being founded in Somerville, MA.

While working on this, it crossed my mind that, on my deathbed, I might be at least as happy about having directed funds to efforts like these as about any of my research or teaching.

To the applicants who weren’t chosen: I’m sorry, as many of you had wonderful projects too! As I said in the earlier post, you remain warmly invited to apply to SFF, and to make your pitch to the other Speculators and/or the main SFF committee.

Needless to say, anyone who feels inspired should add to my (or rather, SFF’s) modest contributions to these STEM programs. My sense is that, while $200k can go eye-poppingly far in this area, it still hasn’t come close to exhausting even the lowest-hanging fruit.

Also needless to say, the opinions in this post are my own and are not necessarily shared by SFF or by the organizations I’m supporting. The latter are welcome to disagree with me as long as they keep up their great work!

Huge thanks again to Jaan, to SFF, to my SFF contact Andrew Critch, to everyone (whether chosen or not) who participated in this contest, and to everyone who’s putting in work to broaden kids’ intellectual horizons or otherwise make the world a little less horrible.

Book Review: “Viral” by Alina Chan and Matt Ridley

Saturday, January 1st, 2022

Happy New Year, everyone!

It was exactly two years ago that it first became publicly knowable—though most of us wouldn’t know for at least two more months—just how freakishly horrible is the branch of the wavefunction we’re on. I.e., that our branch wouldn’t just include Donald Trump as the US president, but simultaneously a global pandemic far worse than any in living memory, and a world-historically bungled response to that pandemic.

So it’s appropriate that I just finished reading Viral: The Search for the Origin of COVID-19, by Broad Institute genetics postdoc Alina Chan and science writer Matt Ridley. Briefly, I think that this is one of the most important books so far of the twenty-first century.

Of course, speculation and argument about the origin of COVID goes back all the way to that fateful January of 2020, and most of this book’s information was already available in fragmentary form elsewhere. And by their own judgment, Chan and Ridley don’t end their search with a smoking-gun: no Patient Zero, no Bat Zero, no security-cam footage of the beaker dropped on the Wuhan Institute of Virology floor. Nevertheless, as far as I’ve seen, this is the first analysis of COVID’s origin to treat the question with the full depth, gravity, and perspective that it deserves.

Viral is essentially a 300-page plea to follow every lead as if we actually wanted to get to the bottom of things, and in particular, yes, to take the possibility of a lab leak a hell of a lot more seriously than was publicly permitted in 2020. (Fortuitously, much of this shift already happened as the authors were writing the book, but in June 2021 I was still sneered at for discussing the lab leak hypothesis on this blog.) Viral is simultaneously a model of lucid, non-dumbed-down popular science writing and of cogent argumentation. The authors never once come across like tinfoil-hat-wearing conspiracy theorists, railing against the sheeple with their conventional wisdom: they’re simply investigators carefully laying out what they’re confident should become conventional wisdom, with the many uncertainties and error bars explicitly noted. If you read the book and your mind works anything like mine, be forewarned that you might come out agreeing with a lot of it.

I would say that Viral proves the following propositions beyond reasonable doubt:

  • Virologists, including at Shi Zhengli’s group at WIV and at Peter Daszak’s EcoHealth Alliance, were engaged in unbelievably risky work, including collecting virus-laden fecal samples from thousands of bats in remote caves, transporting them to the dense population center of Wuhan, and modifying them to be more dangerous, e.g., through serial passage through human cells and the insertion of furin cleavage sites. Years before the COVID-19 outbreak, there were experts remarking on how risky this research was and trying to stop it. Had they known just how lax the biosecurity was in Wuhan—dangerous pathogens experimented on in BSL-2 labs, etc. etc.—they would have been louder.
  • Even if it didn’t cause the pandemic, the massive effort to collect and enhance bat coronaviruses now appears to have been of dubious value. It did not lead to an actionable early warning about how bad COVID-19 was going to be, nor did it lead to useful treatments, vaccines, or mitigation measures, all of which came from other sources.
  • There are multiple routes by which SARS-CoV2, or its progenitor, could’ve made its way, otherwise undetected, from the remote bat caves of Yunnan province or some other southern location to the city of Wuhan a thousand miles away, as it has to do in any plausible origin theory. Having said that, the regular Yunnan→Wuhan traffic in scientific samples of precisely these kinds of viruses, sustained over a decade, does stand out a bit! On the infamous coincidence of the pandemic starting practically next door to the world’s center for studying SARS-like coronaviruses, rather than near where the horseshoe bats live in the wild, Chan and Ridley memorably quote Humphrey Bogart’s line from Casablanca: “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”
  • The seafood market was probably “just” an early superspreader site, rather than the site of the original spillover event. No bats or pangolins at all, and relatively few mammals of any kind, appear to have been sold at that market, and no sign of SARS-CoV2 was ever found in any of the animals despite searching.
  • Most remarkably, Shi and Daszak have increasingly stonewalled, refusing to answer 100% reasonable questions from fellow virologists. They’ve acted more and more like defendants exercising their right to remain silent than like participants in a joint search for the truth. That might be understandable if they’d already answered ad nauseam and wearied of repeating themselves, but with many crucial questions, they haven’t answered even once. They’ve refused to make available a key database of all the viruses WIV had collected, which WIV inexplicably took offline in September 2019. When, in January 2020, Shi disclosed to the world that WIV had collected a virus called RaTG13, which was 96% identical to SARS-CoV2, she didn’t mention that it was collected from a mine in Mojiang, which the WIV had sampled from over and over because six workers had gotten a SARS-like pneumonia there in 2012 and three had died from it. She didn’t let on that her group had been studying RaTG13 for years—giving, instead, the false impression that they’d just noticed it recently, when searching WIV’s records for cousins of SARS-CoV2. And she didn’t see fit to mention that WIV had collected eight other coronaviruses resembling SARS-CoV2 from the same mine (!). Shi’s original papers on SARS-CoV2 also passed in silence over the virus’s furin cleavage site—even though SARS-CoV2 was the first sarbecoronavirus with that feature, and Shi herself had recently demonstrated adding furin cleavage sites to other viruses to make them more transmissible, and the cleavage site would’ve leapt out immediately to any coronavirus researcher as the most interesting feature of SARS-CoV2 and as key to its transmissibility. Some of these points had to be uncovered by Internet sleuths, poring over doctoral theses and the like, after which Shi would glancingly acknowledge the points in talks without ever explaining her earlier silences. Shi and Daszak refused to cooperate with Chan and Ridley’s book, and have stopped answering questions more generally. When people politely ask Daszak about these matters on Twitter, he blocks them.
  • The Chinese regime has been every bit as obstructionist as you might expect: destroying samples, blocking credible investigations, censoring researchers, and preventing journalists from accessing the Mojiang mine. So Shi at least has the excuse that, even if she’d wanted to come clean with everything relevant she knows about WIV’s bat coronavirus work, she might not be able to do so without endangering herself or loved ones. Daszak has no such excuse.

It’s important to understand that, even in the worst case—that (1) there was a lab leak, and (2) Shi and Daszak are knowingly withholding information relevant to it—they’re far from monsters. Even in Viral‘s relentlessly unsparing account, they come across as genuine believers in their mission to protect the world from the next pandemic.

And it’s like: imagine devoting your life to that mission, having most of the world refuse to take you seriously, and then the calamity happens exactly like you said … except that, not only did your efforts fail to prevent it, but there’s a live possibility that they caused it. It’s conceivable that your life’s work managed to save minus 15 million lives and create minus $50 trillion in economic value.

Very few scientists in history have faced that sort of psychic burden, perhaps not even the ones who built the atomic bomb. I hope I’d maintain my scientific integrity under such an astronomical weight, but I’m doubtful that I would. Would you?

Viral very wisely never tries to psychoanalyze Shi and Daszak. I fear that one might need a lot of conceptual space between “knowing” and “not knowing,” “suspecting” and “not suspecting,” to do justice to the planet-sized enormity of what’s at stake here. Suppose, for example, that an initial investigation in January 2020 reassured you that SARS-CoV2 probably hadn’t come from your lab: would you continue trying to get to the bottom of things, or would you thereafter decide the matter was closed?

For all that, I agree with Chan and Ridley that COVID-19 might well have had a zoonotic origin after all. And one point Viral makes abundantly clear is that, if our goal is to prevent the next pandemic, then resolving the mystery of COVID-19 actually matters less than one might think. This is because, whichever possibility—zoonotic spillover or lab leak—turns out to be the truth of this case, the other possibility would remain absolutely terrifying and would demand urgent action as well. Read the book and see for yourself.

Searching my inbox, I found an email from April 16, 2020 where I told someone who’d asked me that the lab-leak hypothesis seemed perfectly plausible to me (albeit no more than plausible), that I couldn’t understand why it wasn’t being investigated more, but that I was hesitant to blog about these matters. As I wrote seven months ago, I now see my lack of courage on this as having been a personal failing. Obviously, I’m just a quantum computing theorist, not a biologist, so I don’t have to have any thoughts whatsoever about the origin of COVID-19 … but I did have some, and I didn’t share them here only because of the likelihood that I’d be called an idiot on social media. Having now read Chan and Ridley, though, I think I’d take being called an idiot for this book review more as a positive signal about my courage than as a negative signal about my reasoning skills!

At one level, Viral stands alongside, I dunno, Eichmann in Jerusalem among the saddest books I’ve ever read. It’s 300 pages of one of the great human tragedies of our lifetime balancing on a hinge between happening and not happening, and we all know how it turns out. On another level, though, Viral is optimistic. Like with Richard Feynman’s famous “personal appendix” about the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion, the very act of writing such a book reflects a view that you’re still allowed to ask questions; that one or two people armed with nothing but arguments can run rings around governments, newspapers, and international organizations; that we don’t yet live in a post-truth world.

An Orthodox rabbi and Steven Weinberg walk into an email exchange…

Friday, October 22nd, 2021

Ever since I posted my obituary for the great Steven Weinberg three months ago, I’ve gotten a steady trickle of emails—all of which I’ve appreciated enormously—from people who knew Steve, or were influenced by him, and who wanted to share their own thoughts and memories. Last week, I was contacted by one Moshe Katz, an Orthodox rabbi, who wanted to share a long email exchange that he’d had with Steve, about Steve’s reasons for rejecting his birth-religion of Judaism (along with every other religion). Even though Rabbi Katz, rather than Steve, does most of the talking in this exchange, and even though Steve mostly expresses the same views he’d expressed in many of his public writings, I knew immediately on seeing this exchange that it could be of broader interest—so I secured permission to share it here on Shtetl-Optimized, both from Rabbi Katz and from Steve’s widow Louise.

While longtime readers can probably guess what I think about most of the topics discussed, I’ll refrain from any editorial commentary in this post—but of course, feel free to share your own thoughts in the comments, and maybe I’ll join in. Mostly, reading this exchange reminded me that someone at some point should write a proper book-length biography of Steve, and someone should also curate and publish a selection of his correspondence, much like Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track did for Richard Feynman. There must be a lot more gems to be mined.

Anyway, without further ado, here’s the exchange (10 pages, PDF).

Update (Nov. 2, 2021): By request, see here for some of my own thoughts.

“The Chair”: A Straussian interpretation

Tuesday, August 31st, 2021

[Warning: spoilers follow!]

Last week Dana and I watched the full first season of The Chair, the Netflix drama that stars Sandra Oh as Ji-Yoon Kim, incoming chairwoman of the English department at the fictional Pembroke University. As the rave reviews promised, I found the show to be brilliantly written and acted. At times, The Chair made me think about that other academia-centered sitcom, The Big Bang Theory, which I freely confess I also enjoyed. But The Chair is much more highbrow (and more political), it’s about the humanities rather than STEM, and it’s mostly about academics who are older than the ones in Big Bang, both biologically and professionally.

I wouldn’t call The Chair “realistic”: the sets, stuffed with imposing bookshelves, paintings of great scholars, etc., look like how a TV producer might imagine university buildings, rather than the relatively humdrum reality. But in less than three hours, the show tackles a staggering number of issues that will be recognizable and relevant to anyone in academia: cratering enrollments, a narrow-minded cost-cutting dean, a lack of free time and a desperate search for childcare, a tenure case that turns into a retention case, a woke scandal (about which more later), a faculty revolt against Ji-Yoon culminating in a vote of no confidence, and much more. There’s also an elaborate side plot involving the actor (and real-life former literary scholar) David Duchovny, who portrays himself, being invited to lecture at Pembroke, which is not the sort of thing most academics have experience with, but which I suppose many viewers will enjoy.

The show is written at a high enough level that its stumbles are those of a daring acrobat. In the main narrative arc of the first season, the writers set themselves an absurdly ambitious (and, I think, laudable) goal: namely, to dramatize a conflict between a free-spirited professor, and woke students trying to cancel that professor for a classroom “microaggression,” in a way that fully empathizes with both sides. I don’t know if the show actually succeeds at this, but that’s partly because I don’t know if it’s possible to succeed.

To start with some background: in Pembroke’s English department, there are old, traditionalist white males, who give lectures extolling the Great Men of Literature, and who apparently still wield considerable power. Meanwhile, critical theorists are presented as young, exciting upstarts bravely challenging the status quo. People with recent experience of English departments should correct me if I’m wrong, but my sense is that this is pretty anachronistic—i.e., that the last powerful traditionalists in humanities departments were routed by the 80s or 90s at the latest, so that students in the Twitter-and-smartphone era (when The Chair is set) would be about as likely to encounter them as they would professors sitting around in charcoal suits smoking pipes.

There were also some of what felt to me like … intersectional oversights? Ji-Yoon, being Korean-American, is repeatedly approached by Black female students and faculty as a “fellow woman of color,” with whom they can commiserate about the entrenched power of the department’s white males. The show never examines how woke discourse has increasingly reclassified Asian-Americans as “white-adjacent”—as, for example, in the battles over gifted and magnet programs or admissions to Harvard. Likewise, woke students are shown standing arm-in-arm with Pembroke’s Jewish community, to denounce (what we in the audience know to be) a phantom antisemitic incident. Left unexplored is how, in the modern woke hierarchy, Jews have become just another kind of privileged white person (worse, of course, if they have ties to Israel).

This brings me to the first season’s central conflict, which revolves around Bill Dobson, a handsome middle-aged white male professor who’s revered as the department’s greatest genius on the basis of his earlier work, but who, after the death of his wife, is now washed-up, flippant, and frequently drunk or high. In one class session, while lecturing about intellectuals who found the strength to resist fascism despite their own nihilistic impulses, Bill makes a Nazi salute and shouts “Heil Hitler!,” as a theatrical reminder to the students about the enormity of what those intellectuals were fighting. Alas, a woke student captures that moment on their smartphone camera and shares it on social media. The clip of Bill making the Heil salute goes viral, shorn of all exculpatory context. Soon, crowds of students are waving placards and screaming “No Nazis at Pembroke!” outside the English building. In a desperate effort to make his PR crisis go away, the dean initiates termination proceedings against Bill—the principles of academic freedom and even Bill’s tenure be damned. Ji-Yoon, of course, as Bill’s chair, is caught smack in the middle of this. It’s complicated even further by Ji-Yoon’s and Bill’s romantic feelings for each other, and further still by Bill’s role as the babysitter of Ji-Yoon’s adopted daughter.

As all of this unfolds, the show seems immensely interested in pinning the blame on Bill’s “tragic flaws,” minor though they seemed to me—mostly just pride and unseriousness. (E.g., trying to lampoon the absurd charge of Nazism, Bill offhandedly mentions that he’s always wanted to visit Hitler’s mountain retreat, and on another occasion belts out “Springtime for Hitler” from The Producers.) The woke students, by contrast, are portrayed as earnest, understandably upset, and legitimately terrified about hate crimes on campus. If they, too, have opportunistic motives to attack Bill, the show never examines them.

In one sentence, then, here’s my beef with The Chair: its script portrays a mob, step by step, destroying an innocent man’s life over nothing, and yet it wants me to feel the mob’s pain, and be disappointed in its victim for mulishly insisting on his innocence (even though he is, in fact, innocent).

With real-life woke controversies, there often lingers the question of whether the accused might really be a racist, fascist, sexual predator, or whatever else, adequate proof or no. What’s different here is that we know that Bill Dobson is none of those things, we know he’s decent to his core, because the writers have painstakingly shown us that. And yet, in a weird narrative pretzel, we’re nevertheless supposed to be mad at him, and to sympathize with the campaign to cancel him.

A casual perusal of other reviews of The Chair told me that these reactions were far from universal. Here, for example, is what one viewer wrote:

I can appreciate that this is probably close to the reality that most women/of color experience in higher education. I enjoyed watching the scenes with Joan and Yaz [two female professors] the most but the rest was a drag. I couldn’t understand why Ji-Yoon was into Bill, or why anyone was into Bill. I found him to be an insufferable man-baby. That is such a turn off. So she’d put him straight but then still be pining for him. He wreaked [sic] of entitled, white male, tenured privilege and never showed any contrition for his actions or even awareness of their impact. i’m so tired of the “brilliant _” being used to justify coddling someone. And for the rest of the stuffy old patriarchal farts– boot them out! They weren’t good teachers and weren’t able to meet the needs of today’s students.

I asked myself: did this person watch the same show? It’s like, the script couldn’t possibly have been clearer about Bill’s character, the fact that he’s the polar opposite of the woke students’ mental construct. And yet, if the show had drawn an unambiguous corollary from Bill’s goodness—namely, that the effort to cancel him is a moral travesty—then The Chair itself might have been denounced as conservative (or at least classical liberal) propaganda, and those who’d otherwise form its core viewership wouldn’t have watched.

So, if I were a literary critic like the ones on the show, I might argue that The Chair begs for a Straussian interpretation. Sure, there’s an “overt” reading, wherein Bill Dobson is done in by his own hubris, or wherein it’s a comedy of errors with no one to blame. But then there’s also an “esoteric” reading, wherein Bill is the victim of an extremely specific modern-day collective insanity, one that future generations might look back on with little more ambivalence than we look back on McCarthyism. The writers of The Chair might hint at this latter reading, through their sympathetic portrayal of Bill and the obviousness of the injustice done to him, but they can never make it too explicit, because of the political and cultural constraints under which they themselves operate.

Under this theory, it presumably falls to those slightly outside the world portrayed in The Chair—like, let’s imagine, a theoretical computer science blogger who himself was denounced for woke heresies to the point where he has little more to lose in that direction—to make the esoteric reading explicit. Unless and until, of course, a second season comes along to undermine that reading entirely.

On blankfaces

Monday, August 2nd, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

But no, that’s not it at all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

On turning 40 today

Friday, May 21st, 2021

Holy crap.

In case you’re wondering how I spent such a milestone of a day: well, I spent hours of it at an important virtual grant review meeting with the Department of Defense. Alas, when it came time for my own big presentation at that meeting—about what my students and I had done over the past five years to lay the theoretical foundations for the recent achievement of quantum computational supremacy—I’d uploaded the completely wrong PowerPoint file (it was something.pptx rather than something.ppt, where they weren’t two versions of the same presentation). Sorting this out took about 10 minutes, destroyed my momentum, and wasted everyone’s time. I partly blame the Microsoft Teams platform, whose limitations as conferencing software compared to Zoom necessitated emailing my presentation in the first place. But of course, part of the blame rests with me.

I had to explain apologetically to the US Department of Defense that I’m no good with tech stuff—being a mere computer science PhD. And unlike many of my colleagues (who I envy), back in my youth—for at age 40 I’m no longer young—I never had enough time to become both the kind of person who might earn a big grant to do quantum computing theory, and the kind of person who’d be minimally competent at the logistics of a review meeting for such a grant.


Forty years. Seven-eighths of those years, aware of the finiteness of the speed of light and of its value. Four-fifths of them, aware of the grislier details of the Holocaust. Three-quarters of them, aware of what it means to write code. Two-thirds of them, aware of polynomial versus exponential time. More than half of them trying to understand the capabilities and limitations of quantum computers as my day job. And then, rounding the corner, more than a third of the years writing this blog, a third of them being a professor, a quarter of them married, a fifth of them raising kids, a thirtieth of them in the midst of a global pandemic.

I didn’t even come close to achieving everything I hoped I would in my thirties. At least a half-dozen major papers, ones I expected would’ve been finished years ago (on the mixing of coffee and cream, on complexity and firewalls and AdS/CFT, on certified random numbers from sampling-based quantum supremacy experiments, on the implications of the Raz-Tal oracle separation, …), still need to be revised or even written. Other projects (e.g., the graphic novel about teaching math to Lily) were excitedly announced and then barely even started. I never wrote most of my promised blog post about the continuum hypothesis, or the one about Stephen Wolfram’s recrudescent claims of a unified theory of physics. And covid, which determined the world’s working conditions while we were running out the clock, turned out not to be a hyper-productive time for me. That’s how you know I’m not Newton (well, it’s the not the only way you know).

Anyway, during the runup to it, one’s 40th birthday feels like a temporal singularity, where you have to compress more and more of what you’d hoped to achieve before age 40 as you get closer and closer to it, because what the hell is there on the other side? They‘re over-40 and hence “old”; you’re under-40 and hence still “young.”

OK, but here I am on the other side right now, the “old” side, and I’m still here, still thinking and writing and feeling fairly continuous with my pre-singularity embodiment! And so far, in 16 hours on this side, the most senile thing I’ve done has been to email the wrong file attachment and thereby ruin an important funding presenta… you know what, let’s not even go there.

If you feel compelled to give me a 40th birthday present, then just make it a comment on this post, as short or long as you like, about what anything I said or did meant for you. I’m a total softie for that stuff.