Archive for the ‘Rage Against Doofosity’ Category

Cargo Cult Quantum Factoring

Wednesday, January 4th, 2023

Just days after we celebrated my wife’s 40th birthday, she came down with COVID, meaning she’s been isolating and I’ve been spending almost all my time dealing with our kids.

But if experience has taught me anything, it’s that the quantum hype train never slows down. In the past 24 hours, at least four people have emailed to ask me about a new paper entitled “Factoring integers with sublinear resources on a superconducting quantum processor.” Even the security expert Bruce Schneier, while skeptical, took the paper surprisingly seriously.

The paper claims … well, it’s hard to pin down what it claims, but it’s certainly given many people the impression that there’s been a decisive advance on how to factor huge integers, and thereby break the RSA cryptosystem, using a near-term quantum computer. Not by using Shor’s Algorithm, mind you, but by using the deceptively similarly named Schnorr’s Algorithm. The latter is a classical algorithm based on lattices, which the authors then “enhance” using the heuristic quantum optimization method called QAOA.

For those who don’t care to read further, here is my 3-word review:

No. Just No.

And here’s my slightly longer review:

Schnorr ≠ Shor. Yes, even when Schnorr’s algorithm is dubiously “enhanced” using QAOA—a quantum algorithm that, incredibly, for all the hundreds of papers written about it, has not yet been convincingly argued to yield any speedup for any problem whatsoever (besides, as it were, the problem of reproducing its own pattern of errors) (one possible recent exception from Sami Boulebnane and Ashley Montanaro).

In the new paper, the authors spend page after page saying-without-saying that it might soon become possible to break RSA-2048, using a NISQ (i.e., non-fault-tolerant) quantum computer. They do so via two time-tested strategems:

  1. the detailed exploration of irrelevancies (mostly, optimization of the number of qubits, while ignoring the number of gates), and
  2. complete silence about the one crucial point.

Then, finally, they come clean about the one crucial point in a single sentence of the Conclusion section:

It should be pointed out that the quantum speedup of the algorithm is unclear due to the ambiguous convergence of QAOA.

“Unclear” is an understatement here. It seems to me that a miracle would be required for the approach here to yield any benefit at all, compared to just running the classical Schnorr’s algorithm on your laptop. And if the latter were able to break RSA, it would’ve already done so.

All told, this is one of the most actively misleading quantum computing papers I’ve seen in 25 years, and I’ve seen … many. Having said that, this actually isn’t the first time I’ve encountered the strange idea that the exponential quantum speedup for factoring integers, which we know about from Shor’s algorithm, should somehow “rub off” onto quantum optimization heuristics that embody none of the actual insights of Shor’s algorithm, as if by sympathetic magic. Since this idea needs a name, I’d hereby like to propose Cargo Cult Quantum Factoring.

And with that, I feel I’ve adequately discharged my duties here to sanity and truth. If I’m slow to answer comments, it’ll be because I’m dealing with two screaming kids.

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” 😃

The demise of Scientific American: Guest post by Ashutosh Jogalekar

Monday, January 3rd, 2022

Scott’s foreword

One week ago, E. O. Wilson—the legendary naturalist and conservationist, and man who was universally acknowledged to know more about ants than anyone else in human history—passed away at age 92. A mere three days later, Scientific American—or more precisely, the zombie clickbait rag that now flaunts that name—published a shameful hit-piece, smearing Wilson for his “racist ideas” without, incredibly, so much as a single quote from Wilson, or any other attempt to substantiate its libel (see also this response by Jerry Coyne). SciAm‘s Pravda-like attack included the following extraordinary sentence, which I thought worthy of Alan Sokal’s Social Text hoax:

The so-called normal distribution of statistics assumes that there are default humans who serve as the standard that the rest of us can be accurately measured against.

There are intellectually honest people who don’t know what the normal distribution is. There are no intellectually honest people who, not knowing what it is, figure that it must be something racist.

On Twitter, Laura Helmuth, the editor-in-chief now running SciAm into the ground, described her magazine’s calumny against Wilson as “insightful” (the replies, including from Richard Dawkins, are fun to read). I suppose it was as “insightful” as SciAm‘s disgraceful attack last year on Eric Lander, President Biden’s ultra-competent science advisor and a leader in the war on COVID, for … being a white male, which appears to have been E. O. Wilson’s crime as well. (Think I must be misrepresenting the “critique” of Lander? Read it!)

Anyway, in response to Scientific American‘s libel of Wilson, I wrote on my Facebook that I’ll no longer agree to write for or be interviewed by them (you can read my old stuff free of charge here or here), unless and until there’s a complete change of editorial direction. I encourage all other scientists to commit likewise, thereby making it common knowledge that the entity that now calls itself “Scientific American” bears the same relation to the legendary home of Martin Gardner as does a corpse to a living being. Fortunately, there are high-quality online venues (e.g., Quanta) that partly fill the role that Scientific American abdicated.

After reading my Facebook post, my friend Ashutosh Jogalekar was inspired to post an essay of his own. Ashutosh used to write regularly for Scientific American, until he was fired seven years ago over a column in which he advocated acknowledging Richard Feynman’s flaws, including his arrogance and casual sexism, but also understanding those flaws within the context of Feynman’s whole life, including the tragic death of his first wife Arlene. (Yes, that was really it! Read the piece!) Below, I’m sharing Ashutosh’s moving essay about E. O. Wilson with Ashutosh’s very generous permission. —Scott Aaronson


Guest Post by Ashutosh Jogalekar

As some know, I was “fired” from Scientific American in 2014 for three “controversial” posts (among 200 that I had written for the magazine). When I parted from the magazine I chalked up my departure to an unfortunate misunderstanding more than anything else. I still respected some of the writers at the publication, and while I wore my separation as a badge of honor and in retrospect realized its liberating utility in enabling me to greatly expand my topical range, I occasionally still felt bad and wished things had gone differently.

No more. Now the magazine has done me a great favor by allowing me to wipe the slate of my conscience clean. What happened seven years ago was not just a misunderstanding but clearly one of many first warning signs of a calamitous slide into a decidedly unscientific, irrational and ideology-ridden universe of woke extremism. Its logical culmination two days ago was an absolutely shameless, confused, fact-free and purely ideological hit job on someone who wasn’t just a great childhood hero of mine but a leading light of science, literary achievement, humanism and biodiversity. While Ed (E. O.) Wilson’s memory was barely getting cemented only days after his death, the magazine published an op-ed calling him a racist, a hit job endorsed and cited by the editor-in-chief as “insightful”. One of the first things I did after reading the piece was buy a few Wilson books that weren’t part of my collection.

Ed Wilson was one of the gentlest, most eloquent, most brilliant and most determined advocates for both human and natural preservation you could find. Under Southern charm lay hidden unyielding doggedness and immense stamina combined with a missionary zeal to communicate the wonders of science to both his fellow biologists and the general public. His autobiography, “Naturalist”, is perhaps the finest, most literary statement of the scientific life I have read; it was one of a half dozen books that completely transported me when I read it in college. In book after book of wide-ranging intellectual treats threading through a stunning diversity of disciplines, he sent out clarion calls for saving the planet, for enabling dialogue between the natural and the social sciences, for understanding each other better. In the face of unprecedented challenges to our fragile environment and continued barriers to interdisciplinary communication, this is work that likely will make him go down in history as one of the most important human beings who ever lived, easily of the same caliber and achievement as John Muir or Thoreau. Even in terms of achievement strictly defined by accolades – the National Medal of Science, the Crafoord Prize which recognizes fields excluded by the Nobel Prize, and not just one but two Pulitzer Prizes – few scientists from any field in the 20th century can hold a candle to Ed Wilson. My friend Richard Rhodes who knew Wilson for decades as a close and much-admired friend said that there wasn’t a racist bone in his body; Dick should know since he just came out with a first-rate biography of Wilson weeks before his passing.

The writer who wrote that train wreck is a professor of nursing at UCSF named Monica McLemore. That itself is a frightening fact and should tell everyone how much ignorance has spread itself in our highest institutions. She not only maligned and completely misrepresented Wilson but did not say a word about his decades-long, heroic effort to preserve the planet and our relationship with it; it was clear that she had little acquaintance with Wilson’s words since she did not cite any. It’s also worth noting the gaping moral blindness in her article which completely misses the most moral thing Wilson did – spend decades advocating for saving our planet and averting a catastrophe of extinction, climate change and divisiveness – and instead focuses completely on his non-existent immorality. This is a pattern that is consistently found among those urging “social justice” or “equity” or whatever else: somehow they seem to spend all their time talking about fictional, imagined immorality while missing the real, flesh-and-bones morality that is often the basis of someone’s entire life’s work.

In the end, the simple fact is that McLemore didn’t care about any of this. She didn’t care because she had a political agenda and the facts did not matter to her, even facts as basic as the definition of the normal distribution in statistics. For her, Wilson was some obscure white male scientist who was venerated, and that was reason enough for a supposed “takedown”. And the editor of Scientific American supported and lauded this ignorant, ideology-driven tirade.

Ironically, Wilson would have found this ideological hit job all too familiar. After he wrote his famous book Sociobiology in the 1970s, a volume in which, in a single chapter about human beings, he had the temerity to suggest that maybe, just maybe, human beings operate with the same mix of genes that other creatures do, the book was met by a disgraceful, below-the-belt, ideological response from Wilson’s far left colleagues Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould who hysterically compared his arguments to thinking that was well on its way down the slippery slope to that dark world where lay the Nazi gas chambers. The gas chamber analogy is about the only thing that’s missing from the recent hit job, but the depressing thing is that we are fighting the same battles in 2021 that Wilson fought forty years before, although turbocharged this time by armies of faithful zombies on social media. The sad thing is that Wilson is no longer around to defend himself, although I am not sure he would have bothered with a piece as shoddy as this one.

The complete intellectual destruction of a once-great science magazine is now clear as day. No more should Scientific American be regarded as a vehicle for sober scientific views and liberal causes but as a political magazine with clearly stated ideological biases and an aversion to facts, an instrument of a blinkered woke political worldview that brooks no dissent. Scott Aaronson has taken a principled stand and said that after this proverbial last straw on the camel’s back, he will no longer write for the magazine or do interviews for them. I applaud Scott’s decision, and with his expertise it’s a decision that actually matters. As far as I am concerned, I now mix smoldering fury at the article with immense relief: the last seven years have clearly shown that leaving Scientific American in 2014 was akin to leaving the Soviet Union in the 1930s just before Stalin appointed Lysenko head biologist. I could not have asked for a happier expulsion and now feel completely vindicated and free of any modicum of regret I might have felt.

To my few friends and colleagues who still write for the magazine and whose opinions I continue to respect, I really wish to ask: Why? Is writing for a magazine which has sacrificed facts and the liberal voice of real science at the altar of political ideology and make believe still worth it? What would it take for you to say no more? As Oscar Wilde would say, one mistake like this is a mistake, two seems more like carelessness; in the roster of the last few years, this is “mistake” 100+, signaling that it’s now officially approved policy. Do you think that being an insider will allow you to salvage the reputation of the magazine? If you think that way, you are no different from the one or two moderate Republicans who think they can still salvage the once-great party of Lincoln and Eisenhower. Both the GOP and Scientific American are beyond redemption from where I stand. Get out, start your own magazine or join another, one which actually respects liberal, diverse voices and scientific facts; let us applaud you for it. You deserve better, the world deserves better. And Ed Wilson’s memory sure as hell deserves better.


Update (from Scott): See here for the Hacker News thread about this post. I was amused by the conjunction of two themes: (1) people who were uncomfortable with my and Ashutosh’s expression of strong emotions, and (2) people who actually clicked through to the SciAm hit-piece, and then reported back to the others that the strong emotions were completely, 100% justified in this case.

My values, howled into the wind

Sunday, December 19th, 2021

I’m about to leave for a family vacation—our first such since before the pandemic, one planned and paid for literally the day before the news of Omicron broke. On the negative side, staring at the case-count graphs that are just now going vertical, I estimate a ~25% chance that at least one of us will get Omicron on this trip. On the positive side, I estimate a ~60% chance that in the next 6 months, at least one of us would’ve gotten Omicron or some other variant even without this trip—so maybe it’s just as well if we get it now, when we’re vaxxed to the maxx and ready and school and university are out.

If, however, I do end this trip dead in an ICU, I wouldn’t want to do so without having clearly set out my values for posterity. So with that in mind: in the comments of my previous post, someone asked me why I identify as a liberal or a progressive, if I passionately support educational practices like tracking, ability grouping, acceleration, and (especially) encouraging kids to learn advanced math whenever they’re ready for it. (Indeed, that might be my single stablest political view, having been held, for recognizably similar reasons, since I was about 5.)

Incidentally, that previous post was guest-written by my colleagues Edith Cohen and Boaz Barak, and linked to an open letter that now has almost 1500 signatories. Our goal was, and is, to fight the imminent dumbing-down of precollege math education in the United States, spearheaded by the so-called “California Mathematics Framework.” In our joint efforts, we’ve been careful with every word—making sure to maintain the assent of our entire list of signatories, to attract broad support, to stay narrowly focused on the issue at hand, and to bend over backwards to concede much as we could. Perhaps because of those cautions, we—amazingly—got some actual traction, reaching people in government (such as Rep. Ro Khanna, D – Silicon Valley) and technology leaders, and forcing the “no one’s allowed to take Algebra in 8th grade” faction to respond to us.

This was disorienting to me. On this blog, I’m used just to howling into the wind, having some agree, some disagree, some take to Twitter to denounce me, but in any case, having no effect of any kind on the real world.

So let me return to howling into the wind. And return to the question of what I “am” in ideology-space, which doesn’t have an obvious answer.

It’s like, what do you call someone who’s absolutely terrified about global warming, and who thinks the best response would’ve been (and actually, still is) a historic surge in nuclear energy, possibly with geoengineering to tide us over?

… who wants to end world hunger … and do it using GMO crops?

… who wants to smash systems of entrenched privilege in college admissions … and believes that the SAT and other standardized tests are the best tools ever invented for that purpose?

… who feels a personal distaste for free markets, for the triviality of what they so often elevate and the depth of what they let languish, but tolerates them because they’ve done more than anything else to lift up the world’s poor?

… who’s happiest when telling the truth for the cause of social justice … but who, if told to lie for the cause of social justice, will probably choose silence or even, if pushed hard enough, truth?

… who wants to legalize marijuana and psychedelics, and also legalize all the promising treatments currently languishing in FDA approval hell?

… who feels little attraction to the truth-claims of the world’s ancient religions, except insofar as they sometimes serve as prophylactics against newer and now even more virulent religions?

… who thinks the covid response of the CDC, FDA, and other authorities was a historic disgrace—not because it infringed on the personal liberties of antivaxxers or anything like that, but on the contrary, because it was weak, timid, bureaucratic, and slow, where it should’ve been like that of a general at war?

… who thinks the Nazi Holocaust was even worse than the mainstream holds it to be, because in addition to the staggering, one-lifetime-isn’t-enough-to-internalize-it human tragedy, the Holocaust also sent up into smoke whatever cultural process had just produced Einstein, von Neumann, Bohr, Szilard, Born, Meitner, Wigner, Haber, Pauli, Cantor, Hausdorff, Ulam, Tarski, Erdös, and Noether, and with it, one of the wellsprings of our technological civilization?

… who supports free speech, to the point of proudly tolerating views that really, actually disgust them at their workplace, university, or online forum?

… who believes in patriotism, the police, the rule of law, to the extent that they don’t understand why all the enablers of the January 6 insurrection, up to and including Trump, aren’t currently facing trial for treason against the United States?

… who’s (of course) disgusted to the core by Trump and everything he represents, but who’s also disgusted by the elite virtue-signalling hypocrisy that made the rise of a Trump-like backlash figure predictable?

… who not only supports abortion rights, but also looks forward to a near future when parents, if they choose, are free to use embryo selection to make their children happier, smarter, healthier, and free of life-crippling diseases (unless the “bioethicists” destroy that future, as a previous generation of Deep Thinkers destroyed our nuclear future)?

… who, when reading about the 1960s Sexual Revolution, instinctively sides with free-loving hippies and against the scolds … even if today’s scolds are themselves former hippies, or intellectual descendants thereof, who now clothe their denunciations of other people’s gross, creepy sexual desires in the garb of feminism and social justice?

What, finally, do you call someone whose image of an ideal world might include a young Black woman wearing a hijab, an old Orthodox man with black hat and sidecurls, a broad-shouldered white guy from the backwoods of Alabama, and a trans woman with purple hair, face tattoos and a nose ring … all of them standing in front of a blackboard and arguing about what would happen if Alice and Bob jumped into opposite ends of a wormhole?

Do you call such a person “liberal,” “progressive,” “center-left,” “centrist,” “Pinkerite,” “technocratic,” “neoliberal,” “libertarian-ish,” “classical liberal”? Why not simply call them “correct”? 🙂

Was Scientific American Sokal’d?

Friday, September 24th, 2021

Here’s yesterday’s clickbait offering from Scientific American, the once-legendary home of Martin Gardner’s Mathematical Games column:

Why the Term ‘JEDI’ Is Problematic for Describing Programs That Promote Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

The sad thing is, I see few signs that this essay was meant as a Sokal-style parody, although in many ways it’s written as one. The essay actually develops a 100% cogent, reasoned argument: namely, that the ideology of the Star Wars films doesn’t easily fit with the new ideology of militant egalitarianism at the expense of all other human values, including irony, humor, joy, and the nurturing of unusual talents. The authors are merely oblivious to the conclusion that most people would draw from their argument: namely, so much the worse for the militant egalitarianism then!

I predict that this proposal—to send the acronym “JEDI” the way of “mankind,” “blacklist,” and, err, “quantum supremacy”—will meet with opposition even from the wokeists themselves, a huge fraction of whom (in my experience) have soft spots for the Star Wars franchise. Recall for example that in 2014, Laurie Penny used Star Wars metaphors in her interesting response to my comment-171, telling male nerds like me that we need to learn to accept that “[we’re] not the Rebel Alliance, [we’re] actually part of the Empire and have been all along.” Admittedly, I’ve never felt like part of an Empire, although I’ll confess to some labored breathing lately when ascending flights of stairs.

As for me, I spent much of my life opposed in principle to Star Wars—I hated how the most successful “science fiction” franchise of all time became that way precisely by ditching any pretense of science and fully embracing mystical woo—but sure, when the chips are down, I’m crazy and radical enough to take the side of Luke Skywalker, even if a team of woke theorists is earnestly, unironically explaining to me that lightsabers are phallocentric and that Vader ranks higher on the intersectional oppression axis because of his breathing problem.

Meantime, of course, the US continues to careen toward its worst Constitutional crisis since the Civil War, as Trump prepares to run again in 2024, and as this time around, the Republicans are systematically purging state governments of their last Brad Raffenspergers, of anyone who might stand in the way of them simply setting aside the vote totals and declaring Trump the winner regardless of the actual outcome. It’s good to know that my fellow progressives have their eyes on the ball—so that when that happens, at least universities will no longer be using offensive acronyms like “JEDI”!

Please cheer me up

Friday, August 27th, 2021


Update: Come to think of it, let’s circle back to the thing about kids under 13 getting banned from taking the SAT, as a ridiculous unintended consequence of some federal regulation. I wonder whether this is a campaign this blog could spearhead that would have an actual chance of making a positive difference in the world (!!), rather than just giving me space to express myself, to vent my impotent rage at the tragic failures of our civilization and the blankfaces who sleep soundly despite knowing that they caused those failures.  What if, like, a whole bunch of us wrote to the College Board, or whatever federal agency enforces the regulation that the College Board is worried about, and we asked them whether a solution might be found in which parents gave permission on the web form for their under-13s to take the SAT, given how memorable this opportunity was for many of us, how it was a nerd rite of passage, and how surely none of us have any wish to deny that opportunity to the next generation, so let’s work together to solve this?


I’m depressed that, all over the world, the values of the Enlightenment are humiliated and in retreat, while the values of the Taliban are triumphant. The literal Taliban of course, but also a thousand mini-Talibans of every flavor, united in their ideological certainty.

I’m depressed that now and for the future, the image of the United States before the world—deservedly so—is one of desperate Afghans plunging to their deaths from the last airplanes out of Kabul. I’m depressed that, while this historic calamity was set in motion by Donald Trump, the president who bears direct, immediate moral responsibility for it is the one I voted for. And knowing what I know now, I’d still have voted for him—but with an ashen face.

I’m depressed that, on social media, the same people who seven years ago floridly denounced me, because, while explaining how as a young person I overcame the urge to suicide and finally achieved some semblance of a normal life, I made a passing reference to a vanished culture of arranged marriages, to which I seemed better-adapted than to the world of today—these very same people are the ones sagely resigned to millions of Afghan women and girls actually forced into unwanted marriages, tortured, and raped, who explain that there’s nothing the US can or should do about this, even that it was folly to imagine we could impose parochial Western values, like women’s rights, on a culture that doesn’t want them. These are the people who saw fit to lecture me on my feminist failings.

I’m depressed that there’s an exceedingly good chance that both of my kids will get covid, as they’ve returned to school and preschool in Austin, TX, where the Delta variant is raging out of control, new reports of cases among the kids’ schoolmates come almost every day, Daniel has been quarantined at home for the past week because of one such case, there’s no vaccination mandate (and a looming battle over mask mandates), and—crucially, tragically, incredibly—the FDA has not only slow-walked approval of covid vaccines for children under 12, but has pushed back the approval even further than it previously planned, ignoring unprecedented public objections from the American Academy of Pediatrics. The FDA blankfaces have done this in spite of the reality, obvious to anyone with eyes and a brain, that they’re thereby consigning thousands of children to their deaths, that whatever ultra-rare risks the vaccine poses to children are infinitesimal compared to the overwhelming benefit.

Since I worry that I wasn’t clear enough, how about this: in a just world, the FDA in its current form would be dismantled, and all those who needlessly delayed the delivery of covid vaccines to children would be tried for manslaughter [while I still think the case for authorizing covid vaccines for kids right now is overwhelmingly clear, I hereby retract this particular remark, which was based on a factor 5-10 overestimate of the covid mortality risk for kids—for more, see this comment]. The blankfaces have already killed more people through pointlessly delaying the approval of covid vaccines than their agency could plausibly have saved through its entire history: do they need to take the children as well? As far as I’m concerned, those who defend the status quo—those who meet the on-the-ground reality of overflowing pediatric hospitals with obfuscatory words about procedures and best practices and the need for yet more data—are no better either morally or intellectually than the anti-vaxx conspiracy theorists, their rightly-reviled cousins.

As icing on the cake, I’m depressed that the College Board is no longer administering the SAT to children under 13, apparently because of federal regulations—-which means that Johns Hopkins CTY’s famed Study of Exceptional Talent, a program that made a big difference in my life three decades ago, has been suspended indefinitely. Imagine being a nerdy 11-year-old in 2021: no more tracking, no more gifted programs, no more magnet schools, no more acceleration, no getting vaccinated against deadly disease (!!), … oh, and if perchance you felt the urge to take the SAT, just to prove that you could outscore the grownups who decided to impose all this on you, then no, you’re no longer allowed to do that either.

The one bright spot in the endlessly bleak picture is that Daniel, my 4-year-old son, now plays a pretty mean chess game, if not quite at the level of Beth Harmon. Having just learned the rules a few months ago, Daniel now gives me and Dana (admittedly, no one would mistake either of us for Magnus Carlsen) extremely competitive matches; just yesterday he beat several adults in a park. Daniel has come to spend much of his free time (and now that he’s quarantined, he has a lot) playing chess against his iPad and watching chess videos. To be clear, he has very little emotional maturity even for a 4-year-old, and unlike me at the same age, he has no overwhelming passion for numbers or counting, but with chess I’ve finally found a winner. Now I just need to hope that they don’t ban chess-playing for children under 13.

So that’s it, it’s off my chest. Commenters: what else have you got that might cheer me up?

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.

The easiest exercise in the moral philosophy book

Sunday, April 25th, 2021

Peter Singer, in the parable that came to represent his whole worldview and that of the effective altruism movement more generally, asked us to imagine that we could save a drowning child at the cost of jumping into a lake and ruining an expensive new suit. Assuming we’d do that, he argued that we do in fact face an ethically equivalent choice; if we don’t donate most of our income to save children in the Third World, then we need to answer for why, as surely as the person who walked past the kid thrashing in the water.

In this post, I don’t want to take a position on Singer’s difficult but important hypothetical. I merely want to say: suppose that to save the child, you didn’t even have to jump in the water. Suppose you just had to toss a life preserver, one you weren’t using. Or suppose you just had to assure the child that it was OK to grab your life raft that was already in the water.

That, it seems, is the situation that the US and other rich countries will increasingly face with covid vaccines. What’s happening in India right now looks on track to become a humanitarian tragedy, if it isn’t already. Even if, as Indian friends tell me, this was a staggering failure of the Modi government, people shouldn’t pay for it with their lives. And we in the US now have tens of millions of vaccine doses sitting in warehouses unused, for regulatory and vaccine hesitancy reasons—stupidly, but we do. We’re past the time, in my opinion, when it’s morally obligatory either to use the doses or to give them away. Anyone in a position to manufacture more vaccines for distribution to poor countries, should also immediately get the intellectual property rights to do so.

I was glad to read, just this weekend, that the US is finally starting to move in the right direction. I hope it moves faster.

And I’m sorry that this brief post doesn’t contain any information or insight that you can’t find elsewhere. It just made me feel better to write it, is all.

Stop emailing my utexas address

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2021

A month ago, UT Austin changed its email policies—banning auto-forwarding from university accounts to Gmail accounts, apparently as a way to force the faculty and other employees to separate their work email from their personal email, and thereby comply with various government regulations. Ever since that change, the email part of my life has been a total, unmitigated disaster. I’ve missed (or been late to see) dozens of important work emails, with the only silver lining being that that’s arguably UT’s problem more than it is mine!

And yes, I’ve already gone to technical support; the only answer I’ve gotten is that (in so many words) there is no answer. Other UT faculty are somehow able to deal with this because they are them; I am unable to deal with it because I am me. As a mere PhD in computer science, I’m utterly unqualified to set up a technical fix for this sort of problem.

So the bottom line is: from now on, if you want me to see an email, send it to scott@scottaaronson.com. Really. If you try sending it to aaronson@cs.utexas.edu, it will land in a separate inbox that I can access only with great inconvenience. And if, God forbid, you try sending it to aaronson@utexas.edu, the email will bounce and I’ll never see it at all. Indeed, a central purpose of this post is just to have a place to point the people who contact me every day, shocked that their emails to me bounced.

This whole episode has given me immense sympathy for Hillary Clinton, and for the factors that led her to set up clintonemail.com from her house. It’s not merely that her private email server was a laughably trivial reason to end the United States’ 240-year run of democratic government. Rather it’s that, even on the narrow question of emails, I now feel certain that Hillary was 100% right. Bureaucracy that impedes communication is a cancer on human civilization.

Update: Thanks so much to commenter Avraham and to my colleague Etienne Vouga, who quickly gave me the crucial information that tech support would not, and thereby let me solve this problem. I can once again easily read emails sent to aaronson@cs.utexas.edu … well, at least for now! I’m now checking about aaronson@utexas.edu. Again, though, scott@scottaaronson.com to be safe.

Brief thoughts on the Texas catastrophe

Thursday, February 18th, 2021

This past week, I spent so much mental energy worrying about the fate of Scott Alexander that I almost forgot that right here in Texas, I’m surrounded by historic scenes of Third-World-style devastation: snowstorms and sub-freezing temperatures for which our infrastructure was completely unprepared; impassable roads; burst gas and water pipes; millions without electricity or heat or clean water; the UT campus a short walk from me converted into a giant refugee camp.

For all those who asked: my family and I are fine. While many we know were without power for days (or are still without power), we lucked out by living close to a hospital, which means that they can’t shut off the electricity to our block. We are now on a boil-water notice, like all of Austin, and we can’t take deliveries or easily go anywhere, and the university and schools and daycares are all closed (even for remote learning). Which means: we’re simply holed up in our house, eating through our stockpiled food, the kids running around being crazy, Dana and I watching them with one eye and our laptops with the other. Could be worse.

In some sense, it’s not surprising that the Texas infrastructure would buckle under weather stresses outside the envelope of anything it was designed for or saw for decades. The central problem is that our elected leaders have shown zero indication of understanding the urgent need, for Texas’ economic viability, to do whatever it takes to make sure nothing like this ever happens again. Ted Cruz, as everyone now knows, left for Cancun; the mayor of Colorado City angrily told everyone to fend for themselves (and then resigned); and Governor Abbott has been blaming frozen wind turbines, a tiny percentage of the problem (frozen gas pipes are a much bigger issue) but one that plays with the base. The bare minimum of a sane response might be, I dunno,

  • acknowledging the reality that climate change means that “once-per-century” weather events will be every couple years from now on,
  • building spare capacity (nuclear would be ideal … well, I can dream),
  • winterizing what we have now, and
  • connecting the Texas grid to the rest of the US.

If I were a Texas Democrat, I’d consider making Republican incompetence on infrastructure, utilities, and public health my only campaign issues.

Alright, now back to watching the Mars lander, which is apparently easier to build and deploy than a reliable electric grid.