Archive for the ‘Obviously I’m Not Defending Aaronson’ Category

Scott Aaronson, when reached for comment, said…

Tuesday, November 16th, 2021

About IBM’s new 127-qubit superconducting chip: As I told New Scientist, I look forward to seeing the actual details! As far as I could see, the marketing materials that IBM released yesterday take a lot of words to say absolutely nothing about what, to experts, is the single most important piece of information: namely, what are the gate fidelities? How deep of a quantum circuit can they apply? How have they benchmarked the chip? Right now, all I have to go on is a stats page for the new chip, which reports its average CNOT error as 0.9388—in other words, close to 1, or terrible! (But see also a tweet by James Wootton, which explains that such numbers are often highly misleading when a new chip is first rolled out.) Does anyone here have more information? Update (11/17): As of this morning, the average CNOT error has been updated to 2%. Thanks to multiple commenters for letting me know!

About the new simulation of Google’s 53-qubit Sycamore chip in 5 minutes on a Sunway supercomputer (see also here): This is an exciting step forward on the classical validation of quantum supremacy experiments, and—ironically, what currently amounts to almost the same thing—on the classical spoofing of those experiments. Congratulations to the team in China that achieved this! But there are two crucial things to understand. First, “5 minutes” refers to the time needed to calculate a single amplitude (or perhaps, several correlated amplitudes) using tensor network contraction. It doesn’t refer to the time needed to generate millions of independent noisy samples, which is what Google’s Sycamore chip does in 3 minutes. For the latter task, more like a week still seems to be needed on the supercomputer. (I’m grateful to Chu Guo, a coauthor of the new work who spoke in UT Austin’s weekly quantum Zoom meeting, for clarifying this point.) Second, the Sunway supercomputer has parallel processing power equivalent to approximately ten million of your laptop. Thus, even if we agreed that Google no longer had quantum supremacy as measured by time, it would still have quantum supremacy as measured by carbon footprint! (And this despite the fact that the quantum computer itself requires a noisy, closet-sized dilution fridge.) Even so, for me the new work underscores the point that quantum supremacy is not yet a done deal. Over the next few years, I hope that Google and USTC, as well as any new entrants to this race (IBM? IonQ? Harvard? Rigetti?), will push forward with more qubits and, even more importantly, better gate fidelities leading to higher Linear Cross-Entropy scores. Meanwhile, we theorists should try to do our part by inventing new and better protocols with which to demonstrate near-term quantum supremacy—especially protocols for which the classical verification is easier.

About the new anti-woke University of Austin (UATX): In general, I’m extremely happy for people to experiment with new and different institutions, and of course I’m happy for more intellectual activity in my adopted city of Austin. And, as Shtetl-Optimized readers will know, I’m probably more sympathetic than most to the reality of the problem that UATX is trying to solve—living, as we do, in an era when one academic after another has been cancelled for ideas that a mere decade ago would’ve been considered unexceptional, moderate, center-left. Having said all that, I wish I could feel more optimistic about UATX’s prospects. I found its website heavy on free-speech rhetoric but frustratingly light on what the new university is actually going to do: what courses it will offer, who will teach them, where the campus will be, etc. etc. Arguably this is all excusable for a university still in ramp-up mode, but had I been in their shoes, I might have held off on the public launch until I had at least some sample content to offer. Certainly, the fact that Steven Pinker has quit UATX’s advisory board is a discouraging sign. If UATX asks me to get involved—to lecture there, to give them advice about their CS program, etc.—I’ll consider it as I would any other request. So far, though, they haven’t.

About the Association for Mathematical Research: Last month, some colleagues invited me to join a brand-new society called the Association for Mathematical Research. Many of the other founders (Joel Hass, Abigail Thompson, Colin Adams, Richard Borcherds, Jeff Cheeger, Pavel Etingof, Tom Hales, Jeff Lagarias, Mark Lackenby, Cliff Taubes, …) were brilliant mathematicians who I admired, they seemed like they could use a bit of theoretical computer science representation, there was no time commitment, maybe they’d eventually do something good, so I figured why not? Alas, to say that AMR has proved unpopular on Twitter would be an understatement: it’s received the same contemptuous reception that UATX has. The argument seems to be: starting a new mathematical society, even an avowedly diverse and apolitical one, is really just an implicit claim that the existing societies, like the Mathematical Association of America (MAA) and the American Mathematical Society (AMS), have been co-opted by woke true-believers. But that’s paranoid and insane! I mean, it’s not as if an AMS blog has called for the mass resignation of white male mathematicians to make room for the marginalized, or the boycott of Israeli universities, or the abolition of the criminal justice system (what to do about Kyle Rittenhouse though?). Still, even though claims of that sort of co-option are obviously far-out, rabid fantasies, yeah, I did decide to give a new organization the benefit of the doubt. AMR might well fail or languish in obscurity, just like UATX might. On the other hand, the barriers to making a positive difference for the intellectual world, the world I love, the world under constant threat from the self-certain ideologues of every side, do strike me as orders of magnitude smaller for a new professional society than they do for a new university.

The Physics Nobel, Gaussian BosonSampling, and Dorian Abbot

Tuesday, October 5th, 2021

1. Huge congratulations to the winners of this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics: Syukuro Manabe and Klaus Hasselmann for climate modelling, and separately, Giorgio Parisi for statistical physics. While I don’t know the others, I had the great honor to get to know Parisi three years ago, when he was chair of the committee that awarded me the Tomassoni-Chisesi Prize in Physics, and when I visited Parisi’s department at Sapienza University of Rome to give the prize lecture and collect the award. I remember Parisi’s kindness, a lot of good food, and a lot of discussion of the interplay between theoretical computer science and physics. Note that, while much of Parisi’s work is beyond my competence to comment on, in computer science he’s very well-known for applying statistical physics methods to the analysis of survey propagation—an algorithm that revolutionized the study of random 3SAT when it was introduced two decades ago.


2. Two weeks ago, a group at Google put out a paper with a new efficient classical algorithm to simulate the recent Gaussian BosonSampling experiments from USTC in China. They argued that this algorithm called into question USTC’s claim of BosonSampling-based quantum supremacy. Since then, I’ve been in contact with Sergio Boixo from Google, Chaoyang Lu from USTC, and Jelmer Renema, a Dutch BosonSampling expert and friend of the blog, to try to get to the bottom of this. Very briefly, the situation seems to be that Google’s new algorithm outperforms the USTC experiment on one particular metric: namely, total variation distance from the ideal marginal distribution, if (crucially) you look at only a subset of the optical modes, say 14 modes out of 144 total. Meanwhile, though, if you look at the kth-order correlations for large values of k, then the USTC experiment continues to win. With the experiment, the correlations fall off exponentially with k but still have a meaningful, detectable signal even for (say) k=19, whereas with Google’s spoofing algorithm, you choose the k that you want to spoof (say, 2 or 3), and then the correlations become nonsense for larger k.

Now, given that you were only ever supposed to see a quantum advantage from BosonSampling if you looked at the kth-order correlations for large values of k, and given that we already knew, from the work of Leonid Gurvits, that very small marginals in BosonSampling experiments would be easy to reproduce on a classical computer, my inclination is to say that USTC’s claim of BosonSampling-based quantum supremacy still stands. On the other hand, it’s true that, with BosonSampling especially, more so than with qubit-based random circuit sampling, we currently lack an adequate theoretical understanding of what the target should be. That is, which numerical metric should an experiment aim to maximize, and how well does it have to score on that metric before it’s plausibly outperforming any fast classical algorithm? One thing I feel confident about is that, whichever metric is chosen—Linear Cross-Entropy or whatever else—it needs to capture the kth-order correlations for large values of k. No metric that’s insensitive to those correlations is good enough.


3. Like many others, I was outraged and depressed that MIT uninvited Dorian Abbot (see also here), a geophysicist at the University of Chicago, who was slated to give the Carlson Lecture in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences about the atmospheres of extrasolar planets. The reason for the cancellation was that, totally unrelatedly to his scheduled lecture, Abbot had argued in Newsweek and elsewhere that Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiatives should aim for equality for opportunity rather than equality of outcomes, a Twitter-mob decided to go after him in retaliation, and they succeeded. It should go without saying that it’s perfectly reasonable to disagree with Abbot’s stance, to counterargue—if those very concepts haven’t gone the way of floppy disks. It should also go without saying that the MIT EAPS department chair is free to bow to social-media pressure, as he did, rather than standing on principle … just like I’m free to criticize him for it. To my mind, though, cancelling a scientific talk because of the speaker’s centrist (!) political views completely, 100% validates the right’s narrative about academia, that it’s become a fanatically intolerant echo chamber. To my fellow progressive academics, I beseech thee in the bowels of Bertrand Russell: why would you commit such an unforced error?

Yes, one can imagine views (e.g., open Nazism) so hateful that they might justify the cancellation of unrelated scientific lectures by people who hold those views, as many physicists after WWII refused to speak to Werner Heisenberg. But it seems obvious to me—as it would’ve been obvious to everyone else not long ago—that no matter where a reasonable person draws the line, Abbot’s views as he expressed them in Newsweek don’t come within a hundred miles of it. To be more explicit still: if Abbot’s views justify deplatforming him as a planetary scientist, then all my quantum computing and theoretical computer science lectures deserve to be cancelled too, for the many attempts I’ve made on this blog over the past 16 years to share my honest thoughts and life experiences, to write like a vulnerable human being rather than like a university press office. While I’m sure some sneerers gleefully embrace that implication, I ask everyone else to consider how deeply they believe in the idea of academic freedom at all—keeping in mind that such a commitment only ever gets tested when there’s a chance someone might denounce you for it.

Update: Princeton’s James Madison Program has volunteered to host Abbot’s Zoom talk in place of MIT. The talk is entitled “Climate and the Potential for Life on Other Planets.” Like probably hundreds of others who heard about this only because of the attempted cancellation, I plan to attend!

Unrelated Bonus Update: Here’s a neat YouTube video put together by the ACM about me as well as David Silver of AlphaGo and AlphaZero, on the occasion of our ACM Prizes in Computing.

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”!

“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.

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 standing up sans backbone

Monday, February 15th, 2021

Note: To get myself into the spirit of writing this post, tonight I watched the 2019 movie Mr. Jones, about the true story of the coverup of Stalin’s 1932-3 mass famine by New York Times journalist Walter Duranty. Recommended!

In my last post, I wrote that despite all my problems with Cade Metz’s New York Times hit piece on Scott Alexander, I’d continue talking to journalists—even Metz himself, I added, assuming he’d still talk to me after my public disparagement of his work. Over the past few days, though, the many counterarguments in my comments section and elsewhere gradually caused me to change my mind. I now feel like to work with Metz again, even just on some quantum computing piece, would be to reward—and to be seen as rewarding—journalistic practices that are making the world worse, and that this consideration overrides even my extreme commitment to openness.

At the least, before I could talk to Metz again, I’d need a better understanding of how the hit piece happened. What was the role of the editors? How did the original hook—namely, the rationalist community’s early rightness about covid-19—disappear entirely from the article? How did the piece manage to evince so little curiosity about such an unusual subculture and such a widely-admired writer? How did it fail so completely to engage with the rationalists’ ideas, instead jumping immediately to “six degrees of Peter Thiel” and other reductive games? How did an angry SneerClubber, David Gerard, end up (according to his own boast) basically dictating the NYT piece’s content?

It’s always ripping-off-a-bandage painful to admit when trust in another person was wildly misplaced—for then who else can we not trust? But sometimes that’s the truth of it.

I continue to believe passionately in the centrality of good journalism to a free society. I’ll continue to talk to journalists often, about quantum computing or whatever else. I also recognize that the NYT is a large, heterogeneous institution (I myself published in it twice); it’s not hard to imagine that many of its own staff take issue with the SSC piece.

But let’s be clear about the stakes here. In the discussion of my last post, I described the NYT as “still the main vessel of consensus reality in human civilization” [alright, alright, American civilization!]. What’s really at issue, beyond the treatment of a single blogger, is whether the NYT can continue serving that central role in a world reshaped by social media, resurgent fascism, and entitled wokery.

Sure, we all know that the NYT has been disastrously wrong before: it ridiculed Goddard’s dream of spaceflight, denied the Holodomor, relegated the Holocaust to the back pages while it was happening, published the fabricated justifications for the Iraq War. But the NYT and a few other publications were still the blockchain of reality, the engine of the consensus of all that is, the last bulwark against the conspiracists and the anti-vaxxers and the empowered fabulists and the horned insurrectionists storming the Capitol, because there was no ability to coordinate around any serious alternative. I’m still skeptical that there’s a serious alternative, but I now look more positively than I did just a few days ago on attempts to create one.

To all those who called me naïve or a coward for having cooperated with the NYT: believe me, I’m well aware that I wasn’t born with much backbone. (I am, after all, that guy on the Internet who famously once planned on a life of celibate asceticism, or more likely suicide, rather than asking women out and thereby risking eternal condemnation as a misogynistic sexual harasser by the normal, the popular, the socially adept, the … humanities grads and the journalists.) But whenever I need a pick-me-up, I tell myself that rather than being ashamed about my lack of a backbone, I can take pride in having occasionally managed to stand even without one.

On the destruction of America’s best high school

Sunday, October 4th, 2020

[C]hildren with special abilities and skills need to be nourished and encouraged. They are a national treasure. Challenging programs for the “gifted” are sometimes decried as “elitism.” Why aren’t intensive practice sessions for varsity football, baseball, and basketball players and interschool competition deemed elitism? After all, only the most gifted athletes participate. There is a self-defeating double standard at work here, nationwide.
—Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World (1996)

I’d like you to feel about the impending destruction of Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, the same way you might’ve felt when the Taliban threatened to blow up the Bamyan Buddhas, and then days later actually did blow them up. Or the way you felt when human negligence caused wildfires that incinerated half the koalas in Australia, or turned the San Francisco skyline into an orange hellscape. For that matter, the same way most of us felt the day Trump was elected. I’d like you to feel in the bottom of your stomach the avoidability, and yet the finality, of the loss.

For thousands of kids in the DC area, especially first- or second-generation immigrants, TJHS represented a lifeline. Score high enough on an entrance exam—something hard but totally within your control—and you could attend a school where, instead of the other kids either tormenting or ignoring you, they might teach you Lisp or the surreal number system. Where you could learn humility instead of humiliation.

When I visited TJHS back in 2012 to give a quantum computing talk, I toured the campus, chatted with students, fielded their questions, and thought: so this is the teenagerhood—the ironically normal teenagerhood—that I was denied by living someplace else. I found myself wishing that a hundred more TJHS’s, large and small, would sprout up across the country. I felt like if I could further that goal then, though the universe return to rubble, my life would’ve had a purpose.

Instead, of course, our sorry country is destroying the few such schools that exist. Stuyvesant and Bronx Science in New York, and the Liberal Arts and Science Academy here in Austin, are also under mortal threat right now. The numerous parents who moved, who arranged their lives, specifically so that these schools might later be available for “high-risk” kids were suckered.

Assuming you haven’t just emerged from 30 years in a Tibetan cave, you presumably know why this is happening. As the Washington Post‘s Jay Matthews explains, the Fairfax County School Board is “embarrassed” to have a school that, despite all its outreach attempts, remains only 5% Black and Latino—even though, crucially, the school also happens to be only 19% White (it’s now ~75% Asian).

You might ask: so then why doesn’t TJHS just institute affirmative action, like almost every university does? It seems there’s an extremely interesting answer: they did in the 1990s, and Black and Hispanic enrollment surged. But then the verdicts of court cases, brought by right-wing groups, made the school district fear that they’d be open to lawsuits if they continued with affirmative action, so they dropped it. Now the boomerang has returned, and the School Board has decided on a more drastic remedy: namely, to eliminate the TJHS entrance exam entirely, and replace it by a lottery for anyone whose GPA exceeds 3.5.

The trouble is, TJHS without an entrance exam is no longer TJHS. More likely than not, such a place would simply converge to become another of the thousands of schools across the US where success is based on sports, networking, and popularity. And if by some miracle it avoided that fate, still it would no longer be available to most of the kids who‘d most need it.

So yes, the district is embarrassed—note that the Washington Post writer explains it as if that’s the most obvious, natural reaction in the world—to host a school that’s regularly ranked #1 in the US, with the highest average SATs and a distinguished list of alumni. To avoid this embarrassment, the solution is (in effect) to burn the school to the ground.

In a world-historic irony, the main effect of this “solution” will be to drastically limit the number of Asian students, while drastically increasing (!!!) the number of White students. The proportion of Black and Hispanic students is projected to increase a bit but remain small. Let me say that one more time: in practice, TJHS’s move from a standardized test to a lottery will be overwhelmingly pro-White, anti-Asian, and anti-immigrant; only as a much smaller effect will it be pro-underrepresented-minority.

In spite of covid and everything else going on, hundreds of students and parents have been protesting in front of TJHS to try to prevent the school’s tragic and pointless destruction. But it sounds like TJHS’s fate might be sealed. The school board tolerated excellence for 35 more years than it wanted to; now its patience is at an end.

Some will say: sure, the end of TJHS is unfortunate, Scott, but why do you let this stuff weigh on you so heavily? This is merely another instance of friendly fire, of good people fighting the just war against racism, and in one case hitting a target that, yeah, OK, probably should’ve been spared. On reflection, though, I can accept that only insofar as I accept that it was “friendly fire” when Bolsheviks targeted the kulaks, or (much more comically, less importantly, and less successfully) when Arthur Chu, Amanda Marcotte, and a thousand other woke-ists targeted me. With friendly fire like that, who needs enemy fire?

If you care about the gifted Black and Hispanic kids of Fairfax County, then like me, you should demand a change in the law to allow the reinstatement of affirmative action for them. You should acknowledge that the issue lies there and not with TJHS itself.

I don’t see how you reach the point of understanding all the facts and still wanting to dismantle TJHS, over the desperate pleas of the students and parents, without a decent helping of resentment toward the kind of student who flourishes there—without a wish to see those uppity, “fresh off the boat” Chinese and Indian grinds get dragged down to where they belong. And if you tell me that such magnet programs need to end even though you yourself once benefitted from them—well, isn’t that more contemptible still? Aren’t you knowingly burning a bridge you crossed so that a younger generation can’t follow you, basically reassuring the popular crowd that if they’ll only accept you, then there won’t be a hundred more greasy nerds in your tow? And if, on some level, you already know these things about yourself, then the only purpose of this post has been to remind you of them.


As for the news that dominates the wires and inevitably preempts what I’ve written: I wish for his successful recovery, followed by his losing the election and spending the rest of his life in New York State prison. (And I look forward to seeing how woke Twitter summarizes the preceding statement—e.g., “Aaronson, his mask finally off, conveys well-wishes to Donald Trump”…)


See further discussion of this post on Hacker News.

My new motto

Sunday, August 30th, 2020

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

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

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

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

Justice has no faction

Thursday, June 18th, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If I used Twitter…

Saturday, April 4th, 2020

I’m thinking of writing a novel where human civilization is threatened by a global pandemic, and is then almost singlehandedly rescued by one man … a man who reigned for decades as the world’s prototypical ruthless and arrogant tech billionaire, but who was then transformed by the love of his wife. That is, if the billionaire can make it past government regulators as evil as they are stupid. I need some advice: how can I make my storyline a bit subtler, so critics don’t laugh it off as some immature nerd fantasy?

Updates (April 5): Thanks to several commenters for emphasizing that the wife needs to be a central character here: I agree! The other thing is, I don’t want Fox News cheering my novel for its Atlas Shrugged vibe. So maybe the pandemic is only surging out of control in the US because of the incompetence of a Republican president? I don’t want to go ridiculously overboard, but like, maybe the president is some thuggish conman with the diction of a 5-year-old, who the deluded Republicans cheer anyway? And maybe he’s also a Bible-thumping fundamentalist? OK, that’s too much, so maybe the fundamentalist is like the vice president or something, and he gets put in charge of the pandemic response and then sets about muzzling the scientists? As I said, I really need advice on making the messages subtler.