Archive for the ‘Ask Me Anything’ Category

Ask Me Anything: Apocalypse Edition

Wednesday, March 18th, 2020

So far, I confess, this pandemic is not shaping up for me like for Isaac Newton. It’s not just that I haven’t invented calculus or mechanics: I feel little motivation to think about research at all. Or to catch up on classic literature or films … or even to shower, shave, or brush my teeth. I’m quarantined in the house with my wife, our two kids, and my parents, so certainly there’s been plenty of family time, although my 7-year-daughter would inexplicably rather play fashion games on her iPad than get personalized math lessons from the author of Quantum Computing Since Democritus.

Mostly, it seems, I’ve been spending the time sleeping. Or curled up in bed, phone to face, transfixed by the disaster movie that’s the world’s new reality. Have you ever had one of those nightmares where you know the catastrophe is approaching—whether that means a missed flight, a botched presentation at your old high school, or (perhaps) more people dying than in any event since WWII—but you don’t know exactly when, and you can do nothing to avert it? Yeah, that feeling is what I now close my eyes to escape. And then I wake up, and I’m back in bizarro-nightmare-land, where the US is in no rush whatsoever to test people or to build ventilators or hospitals to cope with the coming deluge, and where ideas that could save millions have no chance against rotting institutions.

If nothing else, I guess we now have a decisive answer to the question of why humanity can’t get its act together on climate change. Namely, if we can’t wrap our heads around a catastrophe that explodes exponentially over a few weeks—if those who denied or minimized it face no consequences even when they’re dramatically refuted before everyone’s eyes—then what chance could we possibly have against a catastrophe that explodes exponentially over a century? (Note that I reject the view that the virus was sent by some guardian angel as the only possible solution to climate change, one crisis cancelling another one. For one thing, I expect emissions to roar back as soon as this new Black Death is over; for another, the virus punishes public transportation but not cars.)

Anyway, I realized I needed something, not necessarily to take my mind off the crisis, but to break me out of an unproductive spiral. Also, what better time than the present for things that I wouldn’t normally have time for? So, continuing a tradition from 2008, 2009, 2011, 2013, 2015, and 2018, we’re going to do an Ask Me Anything session. Questions directly or tangentially related to the crisis (continuing the discussion from the previous thread) are okay, questions totally unrelated to the crisis are even okayer, goofball questions are great, and questions that I can involve my two kids in answering are greatest of all. Here are this year’s ground rules:

  • 24 hours or until I get bored
  • One question per person total
  • Absolutely no multi-part questions
  • Self-contained questions only—nothing that requires me to read a paper, watch a video, etc.
  • Scan the previous AMAs to see if your question is already there
  • Any sufficiently patronizing, hostile, or annoying questions might be left in the moderation queue, 100% at my discretion

So ask away! And always look on the bright side of life.

Update (March 19): No more questions, please. Thanks, everyone! It will take me a few days just to work through all the great questions that are already in the queue.

Update (March 24): Thanks again for the 90-odd questions! For your reading convenience, here are links to all my answers, with some answers that I’m happy with bolded.

Ask me anything: moral judgments edition

Sunday, June 17th, 2018

Reader Lewikee asked when I’d do another “Ask Me Anything.”  So fine, let’s do one now (and for the next 24 hours or so, or until I get too fatigued).  The rules:

  • This time around, only questions that ask me to render a moral judgment on some issue, which could be personal, political, or both (I answer plenty of quantum and complexity questions in the comments sections of other posts…)
  • One question per person total; no multipart questions or questions that require me to watch a video or read a linked document
  • Anything nasty, sneering, or non-genuine will be left in the moderation queue at my discretion

Let me get things started with the following judgment:

It is morally wrong to lie to parents that you’re taking their children away from them for 20 minutes to give them a bath, but then instead separate the children from their parents indefinitely, imprison the parents, and confine the children in giant holding facilities where they can no longer be contacted, as United States border agents are apparently now doing.  And yes, I know that people sometimes make such proclamations not out of genuine moral concern, but simply to virtue-signal for their chosen tribe and attack a rival tribe.  However, as someone who’s angered and offended nearly every tribe on his blog, I hope I might be taken at face value if I simply say: this is wrong.

Update (June 18): OK, thanks to everyone who participated! I’ll circle back to the few questions I haven’t yet gotten to, but no new questions please.

My Quora session

Thursday, May 19th, 2016

Here it is.  Enjoy!  (But sorry, no new questions right now.)

Ask Me Anything: Diversity Edition

Saturday, September 5th, 2015

With the fall semester imminent, and by popular request, I figured I’d do another Ask Me Anything (see here for the previous editions).  This one has a special focus: I’m looking for questions from readers who consider themselves members of groups that have historically been underrepresented in the Shtetl-Optimized comments section.  Besides the “obvious”—e.g., women and underrepresented ethnic groups—other examples might include children, traditionally religious people, jocks, liberal-arts majors… (but any group that includes John Sidles is probably not an example).  If I left out your group, please go ahead and bring it to my and your fellow readers’ attention!

My overriding ideal in life—what is to me as Communism was to Lenin, as Frosted Flakes are to Tony the Tiger—is people of every background coming together to discover and debate universal truths that transcend their backgrounds.  So few things have ever stung me more than accusations of being a closed-minded ivory-tower elitist white male nerd etc. etc.  Anyway, to anyone who’s ever felt excluded here for whatever reason, I hope this AMA will be taken as a small token of goodwill.

Similar rules apply as to my previous AMAs:

  • Only one question per person.
  • No multi-part questions, or questions that require me to read a document or watch a video and then comment on it.
  • Questions need not have anything to do with your underrepresented group (though they could). Math, science, futurology, academic career advice, etc. are all fine.  But please be courteous; anything gratuitously nosy or hostile will be left in the moderation queue.
  • I’ll stop taking further questions most likely after 24 hours (I’ll post a warning before closing the thread).

Update (Sep. 6): For anyone from the Boston area, or planning to visit it, I have an important piece of advice.  Do not ever, under any circumstances, attempt to visit Walden Pond, and tell everyone you know to stay away.  After we spent 40 minutes driving there with a toddler, the warden literally screamed at us to go away, that the park was at capacity. It wasn’t an issue of parking: even if we’d parked elsewhere, we just couldn’t go.  Exceptions were made for the people in front of us, but not for us, the ones with the 2-year-old who’d been promised her weekend outing would be to meet her best friend at Walden Pond.  It’s strangely fitting that what for Thoreau was a place of quiet contemplation, is today purely a site of overcrowding and frustration.

Another Update: OK, no new questions please, only comments on existing questions! I’ll deal with the backlog later today. Thanks to everyone who contributed.

Ask Me Anything! Tenure Edition

Monday, May 6th, 2013

Update (5/7): Enough!  Thanks, everyone, for asking so many imaginative questions, and please accept my apologies if yours remains unaddressed.  (It’s nothing personal: they simply came fast and furious, way faster than I could handle in an online fashion—so I gave up on chronological order and simply wrote answers in whatever order they popped into my head.)  At this point, I’m no longer accepting any new questions.  I’ll try to answer all the remaining questions by tomorrow night.

By popular request, for the next 36 hours—so, from now until ~11PM on Tuesday—I’ll have a long-overdue edition of “Ask Me Anything.”  (For the previous editions, see here, here, here, and here.)  Today’s edition is partly to celebrate my new, tenured “freedom to do whatever the hell I want” (as well as the publication after 7 years of Quantum Computing Since Democritus), but is mostly just to have an excuse to get out of changing diapers (“I’d love to, honey, but the world is demanding answers!”).  Here are the ground rules:

  1. One question per person, total.
  2. Please check to see whether your question was already asked in one of the previous editions—if it was, then I’ll probably just refer you there.
  3. No questions with complicated backstories, or that require me to watch a video, read a paper, etc. and comment on it.
  4. No questions about D-Wave.  (As it happens, Matthias Troyer will be giving a talk at MIT this Wednesday about his group’s experiments on the D-Wave machine, and I’m planning a blog post about it—so just hold your horses for a few more days!)
  5. If your question is offensive, patronizing, nosy, or annoying, I reserve the right to give a flippant non-answer or even delete the question.
  6. Keep in mind that, in past editions, the best questions have almost always been the most goofball ones (“What’s up with those painting elephants?”).

That’s it: ask away!

Update (5/12): I’ve finally answered all ~90 questions, a mere 4 days after the official end of the “Ask Me Anything” session!  Thanks so much to everyone for all the great questions.  For your reading convenience, here’s a guide to my answers (personal favorites are in bold):


Ask Me Anything

Saturday, August 13th, 2011

Update (8/16): Phew! By my count, I’ve answered 139 questions over the past few days. Thanks so much to everyone for submitting them, and please don’t submit any more!

Incidentally, to those of you who complain (correctly) that I no longer update this blog enough, there’s a simple solution that should carry you through at least the next year.  Namely, just read a few “Ask Me Anything” answers every week!  To help you with that, I’ve compiled the following abridged table of contents to my uninformed spoutings:


Update: Thanks for the many, many, many great questions!  To keep things slightly under control, I’ll be fielding questions that are asked before 9PM EST tonight.

Also, sorry my blog went down for an hour!  I always count on Bluehost to not be there when I need it.

Alright, I put it off for most of the summer, but I guess it’s as good a time as any, now that (a) I’m finally done philosophizing for a while and (b) my wife Dana is away at a workshop, her civilizing and nerdiness-moderating influences temporarily absent.

So, by popular demand, and as promised a couple months ago, for the next 24 hours (with intermittent sleep breaks), I’ll once again be fielding any and all questions in the comments section.  Four simple ground rules:

  1. No multi-part questions: one question per comment and three total per person.
  2. While you can ask anything, if it’s too hostile, nosy, or irritating I might not answer it…
  3. I’ll only answer the first three questions about academic career advice (since in previous Ask Me Anything posts, that topic tended to drown out everything else).
  4. No questions that require me to read an article, watch a video, etc.

Ask me (almost) anything

Thursday, July 30th, 2009

Update (8/19): I’ve answered most of the remaining questions and closed this thread.  If your question wasn’t answered earlier, please check now—sorry for the delay!  And thanks to everyone who asked.

This blog was born, in part, out of existential anguish.  My starting axioms, reflected in the blog’s title, were that

  1. nerds like me are hothouse plants, requiring a bizarre, historically-improbable social environment to thrive in life;
  2. if such an environment ever existed, then it didn’t survive one or more major upheavals of the twentieth century, such as the sexual revolution, the Holocaust, or the end of the Cold War;
  3. I and other nerds were therefore essentially walking fossils, absurdly maladapted for the civilization in which we found ourselves (even, ironically, as that civilization relied more than ever on nerdly skills); and
  4. all that being the case, I might as well kill some time by proving quantum complexity theorems and writing a blog full of crass jokes.

And therein lies the problem: this summer, I’ve simply been enjoying life too much to want to take time out to blog about it.  Happiness, it seems, is terrible for my literary productivity.

Still, enough people now rely on this blog for their procrastination needs that I feel a moral obligation to continue serving them.  So to overcome my own procrastination barrier, from now on I’m going to try writing entries that are basically just “requests for comment”: stones in a stone soup, with the intellectual barley, discursive salt, argumentative carrots, and dialectical beef chunks to be supplied by you, my readers.

(To a few commenters: thanks so much for the plywood, rotting raccoon carcasses, and used syringes, but the soup should be fine without them…)

To start things off, today we’re going to have another open thread.  You can ask pretty much anything; my one request is that you don’t ask for grad school or job application advice, since we already covered those things ad nauseum in two previous open threads.

Here are a few examples of things to ask me about:

1. My recent trip to the Azores for the FQXi Conference on Foundational Questions in Physics and Cosmology

2. My recent trip to Paris for the Complexity’2009 conference

3. My recent trip to Lexington, Kentucky for the Quantum Theory and Symmetries conference

4. The recent breakthrough paper by Jain, Ji, Upadhyay, and Watrous, finally proving what many in the quantum complexity world long suspected: that QIP=IP=PSPACE.  That is, quantum interactive proof systems provide no more computational power than classical ones.  (For more see this post from Lance and Steve Fenner, or this one from the Pontiff.)

5. The exciting new Polymath Project, to find (under some number-theoretic assumption) a deterministic polynomial-time algorithm for generating n-bit primes.  (Hat tip to Ryan O’Donnell.)

Oh, one other thing: while you’re welcome to ask personal questions, they’ll most likely be answered not by me but by Pablo the PSPACE Pirate.

Update (7/31): One question per person, please!

Open thread #2

Friday, September 12th, 2008

Alright, no more politics for a while.  I’m sick of it.

Given the relative success of Open thread #1, I thought I’d give you the readers a second opportunity to ask about whatever’s on your minds, except politics.  Quantum complexity classes and painting elephants are definitely fair game.

(Update: One question at a time, please!)

(Update: Thanks for the questions, everyone!  The open thread is now closed.  We’ll do this again!)

Open thread

Friday, April 11th, 2008

I’ve had a miserable week (only partly because of the headaches and coughing fits that have been keeping me up all night), and feel a need to be of use to some other human being without leaving my apartment. So this thread is for you to ask about whatever’s on your mind — complexity classes, philosophy, grad school advice, anteaters … anything asked in earnest will be responded to, in considerably less than the two years it took me for Lev R.

Update (4/13): Having spent a good part of the weekend answering 57 questions about everything from quantum computing to painting elephants, I think it’s time to call it quits. Thanks to everyone who submitted; it really cheered me up! We’ll do this again sometime.