Archive for March, 2009

Literature that skewers pompous fools

Monday, March 30th, 2009

Update (April 4): I just finished reading Postmodern Pooh by Frederick Crews—a hilarious spoof of modern literary criticism, by someone who was the chair of Berkeley’s English department and understands the theories he’s ridiculing as well as anyone. I actually found Crews’ fake Marxist, feminist, and deconstructionist exegeses of Winnie the Pooh far more persuasive than the “serious” scholarship he “reverently” quotes.  Crews seems to be breathing life into straw opponents here: making the obscurantist literary theories much more sensible and interesting than they really are, in order to give himself some challenge knocking them down. (The real fun comes when his intentionally goofy arguments start working on you—when you yourself can no longer read innocent passages about Eeyore, Piglet, and Tigger without seeing the simmering sexual innuendo and class struggle.)  For anyone who likes the sort of books I discuss in this post, I recommend Postmodern Pooh in the strongest terms.

Several commenters on my last post asked why I’d waste time with Atlas Shrugged, given its evident flaws.  The reason is simple: because when there’s so little literature that gets emotional about rationality, you’re tempted to take what you can.  Throughout history, the weapons of art—poetry, literature, movies—have been deployed mercilessly against scientists, engineers, and anyone else so naïve or simplistic as to think there are “right” and “wrong” answers.  Other times, a work of literature will praise “scientists,” but the science itself will be cringeworthy—and worse yet, the juvenile humor at the core of how science works will be absent, replaced by a wooden earnestness more in line with the writer’s preconceptions.  Occasionally, though, what you might call the “satiric rationalist impulse” (if you were writing a PhD thesis about it) has found superb expression in literature.  So in this post, I’d like to celebrate a few literary works that exemplify what appealed to me about Ayn Rand as a teenager—but do so without Rand’s shrill libertarianism, suspicion of modern science, or deification of Nietszchean quasi-rapist supermen.At the head of the list is the Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems by Galileo Galilei.  I submit that Galileo’s greatest contribution here was not his account of how it could be possible for the Earth to go around the Sun even though we don’t feel the Earth’s motion.  For that achievement was far surpassed by his creation of Simplicio: the amiable doofus (standing in for scholastic astronomers) who answers Salviati’s patient explanations with pompous Latin phrases and quotations from Aristotle.  Apparently the main reason Galileo was hauled before the Inquisition was not his scientific arguments, which the Church assumed most people wouldn’t understand or care about anyway.  Rather, Pope Urban VIII was outraged that Galileo put his (the Pope’s) own arguments about the limits of empirical thinking into the mouth of Simplicio.I find it interesting that Galileo’s dialogues are almost never assigned in high schools, despite being not merely among the most influential works of all time, but also uproariously funny.  Why is that?  After 400 years, is the parody still too barbed for some people’s taste?

Next on the list is Huckleberry Finn.  Unlike Galileo’s dialogues, this one is assigned in American high schools.  But the final chapters—the ones where Tom Sawyer proposes increasingly elaborate and fanciful schemes to rescue Jim, rejecting as insufferably naïve Huck’s idea of simply going to the shed and freeing him—tend to be downplayed or denigrated as comic fluff that detracts from the novel’s Deep Important Message.  (It’s fun to imagine critics scratching their heads in bewilderment: what could Twain have been trying to say in the final chapters?  Surely he wasn’t questioning the value of obfuscating the obvious?)

As far as I know, the only person ever to win a Nobel Prize in Literature for writing that was explicitly anti-obscurantist was Bertrand Russell.  (Orwell might have gotten one had he lived longer; maybe a case could also be made for Churchill.)  In retrospect, Russell’s clarity seems to have been a serious mistake: had he learned to write as cryptically as his student Wittgenstein, his reputation today would’ve been vastly greater.  Alas, more recent “public rationalists”—such as Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, Richard Feynman, Steven Pinker, and Richard Dawkins—have repeated Russell’s mistake of boringly saying what they mean, and for that reason, have failed to produce any serious literature.

Any list of the world’s great anti-pomposity literature has to include Sokal’s Social Text hoax.  But since the amount of ink already spilled about that illustrious hoax can only be explained using noncommutative (and hence nonlinear) chaos theory, let me address postmodernism using a more recent and less conventional choice: an interview with Priya Venkatesan conducted by The Dartmouth Review.  For those with better things to do than follow academic blogs, Venkatesan is a former instructor at Dartmouth College who’s announced that she’s suing the students in her freshman writing seminar for harassment because they (1) argued with her ideas, (2) asked too many impertinent questions about French critical theory and deconstructionism, (3) didn’t accord her sufficient respect as someone with both a Masters and a PhD, and (4) submitted poor teaching evaluations.  I know, it sounds like something some right-wing commentator would make up—which is why reading Venkatesan at length, in her own words, is so fascinating.  The reason I put this interview on my list is not Venkatesan herself (eloquent though she is), but her interviewer, Tyler Brace.  Brace seems acutely aware of his historical responsibility in interviewing this real-life Simplicio: the polite, faux-naïve questions give Venkatesan ample rope to hang not only herself, but (in my opinion) an entire academic subculture that made her possible.

My last entrant into the snarky rationalist canon is the recent poem Storm by Tim Minchin (see here for the YouTube version).  It far surpasses my own feeble attempt at this sort of poetry: When I Heard the Learn’d Poet, which I wrote in 11th-grade English.

Look, there’s an obvious paradox in the idea of “rationalist literature.”  Almost by definition, people who like rationality are going to want to write dry, methodical arguments, rather than novels or poems that bypass the neocortex and directly engage the emotions.  But the consequence is that they’ll tend to cede the emotional field without contest to the woo merchants.  If you want to defend yourself against obscurantist sharks, you need to enter the dark waters where the sharks live.  That’s why, in my view, the rare efforts to do that—to right the historical imbalance, to sing Modus Ponens from the rooftops—are actually worth something.  If you know of other good literature in this category, let me know in the comments section.

The complement of Atlas Shrugged

Monday, March 23rd, 2009

A few months ago I read Atlas Shrugged, the 1,069-page Ayn Rand opus that was recently praised by Stephen Colbert (for its newfound popularity with beleaguered CEOs).  As I mentioned in the comments of a previous post, like many other nerds I went through a brief Aynfatuation around the age of 14.  Rand’s portrayal of an anti-mind, anti-reason cabal of collectivist rulers, who spout oleaginous platitudes about love and self-sacrifice even as they mercilessly repress any spark of individuality, happens to be extremely relevant to at least two cases I’m aware of:

  1. Soviet Russia.
  2. The average American high school.

But it didn’t last long.  Even in the midst of it, I could see problems: I wrote a term paper analyzing the rape scene in The Fountainhead as immoral and irreconcilable with the rest of an otherwise supremely-rational novel.  And ironically, once I went to college and started doing more-or-less what Rand extols as life’s highest purposes—pursuing my ambitions, tackling math and science problems, trying to create something original—her philosophy itself seemed more and more quaint and irrelevant.  I snapped out of it before I reached Atlas.  (Or did I subconsciously fear that, if I did read Atlas, I’d be brainwashed forever?  Or did I just figure that, having read the 752-page Fountainhead and dozens of essays, I already got the basic idea?)

So, having now returned to Atlas out of curiosity, what can I say?  Numerous readers have already listed the reasons why, judged as a conventional novel, it’s pretty bad: wooden dialogue, over-the-top melodrama, characters barely recognizable as human.  But of course, Atlas doesn’t ask to be judged as a conventional novel.  Rand and her followers clearly saw it as a secular Bible: a Book of Books that lays out for all eternity, through parables and explicit exhortation, what you should value and how you should live your life.  This presents an obvious problem for me: how does one review a book that seeks, among other things, to define the standards by which all books should be reviewed?

Mulling over this question, I hit on an answer: I should look not at what’s in the book—whose every word is perfect by definition, to true believers who define ‘perfect’ as ‘that exemplified by Atlas Shrugged‘—but at what’s not in it.  In other words, I should review the complement of the book.  By approaching the donut through the hole, I will try to explain how, even considering it on its own terms, Atlas Shrugged fails to provide an account of human life that I found comprehensive or satisfying.

(Though on the positive side, it still makes much more sense than my 11th-grade English teacher.)

Without further ado, here are the ten most striking things I noticed in the complement of Atlas Shrugged.

  1. Recent technologies.  For a novel set in the future, whose whole point is to defend capitalism, technology, innovation, and industry, Atlas is startlingly uninterested in any technologies being developed at the time it was written (the fifties).  For Rand, the ultimate symbol of technological progress is the railroad—though she’s also impressed by steel mills, copper mines, skyscrapers, factories, and bridges.  Transistors, computers, space travel, and even plastic and interstate highways seem entirely absent from her universe, while nuclear energy (which no one could ignore at the time) enters only metaphorically, through the sinister “Project X.”  Airplanes, which were starting to overtake trains as a form of passenger travel even as Atlas was written, do play a tiny role, though it’s never explained where the busy protagonists learned to pilot.  Overall, I got the impression that Rand didn’t really care for technology as such—only for what certain specific, 19th-century technologies symbolized to her about Man’s dominance over Nature.
  2. Curiosity about the physical universe.  This, of course, is related to point 1.  For Rand, the physical world seems to be of interest only as a medium to be bent to human will.  When I read The Fountainhead as a teenager, I found myself wondering what Rand would’ve made of academic scientists: people who generally share her respect for reason, reality, and creative achievement, but not her metaphysical certainty or her hatred of all government planning.  (Also, while most male scientists resemble a cross between Howard Roark and John Galt, it must be admitted that a tiny minority of them are awkward nerds.)
    In Atlas, Rand finally supplies an answer to this question, in the form of Dr. Robert Stadler.  It turns out that in Rand’s eschatology, academic scientists are the worst evil imaginable: people smart enough to see the truth of her philosophy, but who nevertheless choose to reject it.  Science, as a whole, does not come off well in Atlas: the country starves while Stadler’s State Science Institute builds a new cyclotron; and Dr. Floyd Ferris, the author of obscurantist popular physics books, later turns into a cold-blooded torturer.  (That last bit, actually, has a ring of truth to it.)
    More important, in a book with hundreds of pages of philosophizing about human nature, there’s no mention of evolution; in a book obsessed with “physics,” there’s no evidence of any acquaintance with relativity, quantum mechanics, or pretty much anything else about physics.  (When Stadler starts talking about particles approaching the speed of light, Dagny impatiently changes the subject.)  It’s an interesting question whether Rand outright rejected the content of modern science; maybe we’ll pick up that debate in the comments section.  But another possibility—that Rand was simply indifferent to the sorts of things an Einstein, Darwin, or Robert Stadler might discover, that she didn’t care whether they were true or not—is, to my mind, hardly more defensible for a “philosopher of reason.”
  3. Family.  Whittaker Chambers (of pumpkin patch fame) pointed out this startling omission in his review of 1957.  The characters in Atlas mate often enough, but they never reproduce, or even discuss the possibility of reproduction (if only to take precautions against it).  Also, the only family relationships portrayed at length are entirely negative in character: Rearden’s mother, brother, and wife are all contemptible collectivists who mooch off the great man even as they despise him, while Dagny’s brother Jim is the wretched prince of looters.  Any Republicans seeking solace in Atlas should be warned: Ayn Rand is not your go-to philosopher for family values (much less “Judeo-Christian” ones).
  4. “Angular,” attractive people who also happen to be collectivists, or “shapeless” people who happen to be rational individualists.  In the universe of Atlas, physical appearance is destiny—always, without exception, from John Galt down to the last minor villain.  Whenever Rand introduces a new character, you learn immediately, after a one-paragraph physical description, everything she wants you to know about that character’s moral essence: “angular” equals good, “limp,” “petulant,” and so on equal bad.  Admittedly, most movies also save the audience from unwanted thought by making similar identifications.  But Rand’s harping on this theme is so insistent, so vitriolic, that it leaves little doubt she really did accept the eugenic notion that a person’s character is visible on his or her face.
  5. Personalities.  In Atlas, as in The Fountainhead, each character has (to put it mildly) a philosophy, but no personality independent of that philosophy, no Objectively-neutral character traits.  What, for example, do we know about Howard Roark?  Well, he has orange hair, likes to smoke cigarettes, and is a brilliant architect and defender of individualism.  What do we know about John Galt?  He has gold hair, likes to smoke cigarettes, and is a brilliant inventor and defender of individualism.  Besides occupation and hair color, they’re pretty much identical.  Neither is suffered to have any family, culture, backstory, weaknesses, quirks, or even hobbies or favorite foods (not counting cigarettes, of course).  Yes, I know this is by explicit authorial design.  But it also seems to undermine Rand’s basic thesis: that Galt and Roark are not gods or robots, but ordinary mortals.
  6. Positive portrayal of uncertainty.  In Atlas, “rationality” is equated over and over with being certain one is right.  The only topic the good guys, like Hank and Dagny, ever change their minds about is whether the collectivists are (a) evil or (b) really, really evil.  (Spoiler alert: after 800 pages, they opt for (b).)  The idea that rationality might have anything to do with being uncertain—with admitting you’re wrong, changing your mind, withholding judgment—simply does not exist in Rand’s universe.  For me, this is the single most troubling aspect of her thought.
  7. Honest disagreements.  Atlas might be the closest thing ever written to a novelization of Aumann’s Agreement Theorem.  In RandLand, whenever two rational people meet, they discover to their delight that they agree about everything—not merely the basics like capitalism and individualism, but also the usefulness of Rearden Metal, the beauty of Halley’s Fifth Concerto, and so on.  (Again, the one exception is the disagreement between those who’ve already accepted the full evil of the collectivists, and those still willing to give them a chance.)  In “Galt’s Gulch” (the book’s utopia), there’s one judge to resolve disputes, but he’s never had to do anything since no disputes have ever arisen.
  8. History.  When I read The Fountainhead as a teenager, there was one detail that kept bothering me: the fact that it was published in 1943.  At such a time, how could Rand possibly imagine the ultimate human evil to be a left-wing newspaper critic?  Atlas continues the willful obliviousness to real events, like (say) World War II or the Cold War.  And yet—just like when she removes family, personality, culture, evolution, and so on from the picture—Rand clearly wants us to apply the lessons from her pared-down, stylized world to this world.  Which raises an obvious question: if her philosophy is rich enough to deal with all these elephants in the room, then why does she have to avoid mentioning the elephants while writing thousands of pages about the room’s contents?
  9. Efficient evil people.  In Atlas, there’s not a single competent industrialist who isn’t also an exemplar of virtue.  The heroine, Dagny, is a railroad executive who makes trains run on time—who knows in her heart that reliable train service is its own justification, and that what the trains are transporting and why is morally irrelevant.  Granted, after 900 pages, Dagny finally admits to herself that she’s been serving an evil cause, and should probably stop.  But even then, her earlier “don’t ask why” policy is understood to have been entirely forgivable: a consequence of too much virtue rather than too little.  I found it odd that Rand, who (for all her faults) was normally a razor-sharp debater, could write this way so soon after the Holocaust without thinking through the obvious implications.
  10. Ethnicity.  Seriously: to write two sprawling novels set in the US, with hundreds of characters between them, and not a single non-Aryan?  Even in the 40s and 50s?  For me, the issue here is not political correctness, but something much more basic: for all Rand’s praise of “reality,” how much interest did she have in its contents?  On a related note, somehow Rand seems to have gotten the idea that “the East,” and India in particular, were entirely populated by mystical savages sitting cross-legged on mats, eating soybeans as they condemned reason and reality.  To which I can only reply: what did she have against soybeans?  Edamame is pretty tasty.

Murray Rothbard and Eliezer Yudkowsky take different routes to some of the same conclusions.

Time for another contest

Tuesday, March 17th, 2009

Come up with the best mnemonic device for remembering which is injective and which is surjective.

Discuss: Should children have the right to vote?

Tuesday, March 10th, 2009

The above is a question that’s interested me for as long as I can remember, though I avoided blogging about it until now.  See, unlike many libertarian economist Ayn-Rand types, I don’t actually like asking social or political questions the very asking of which marks you as eccentric and Aspergerish.  I’d rather apply myself to proving lower bounds, popularizing quantum mechanics, or other tasks that are (somewhat) more respected by the society I depend on for my dinner.  And I’d rather pick battles, like evolution or climate change, where truth and justice have well-connected allies on their side and a non-negligible chance of winning.  For years, I’ve been studying the delicate art of keeping my mouth shut when what I have to say will be deeply unpopular—and despite lapses, I’ve actually made a great deal of progress since (let’s say) the age of 14.

There are times, though, when a question strikes such an emotional chord with me that I break down and ask it in spite of everything.  Such a case was provoked by this story in the New York Times a few weeks ago (registration required), about a 17-year-old girl who was jailed for creating a MySpace page.

At worst, Hillary Transue thought she might get a stern lecture when she appeared before a judge for building a spoof MySpace page mocking the assistant principal at her high school in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. She was a stellar student who had never been in trouble, and the page stated clearly at the bottom that it was just a joke.

Instead, the judge sentenced her to three months at a juvenile detention center on a charge of harassment.

She was handcuffed and taken away as her stunned parents stood by.

“I felt like I had been thrown into some surreal sort of nightmare,” said Hillary, 17, who was sentenced in 2007. “All I wanted to know was how this could be fair and why the judge would do such a thing.”

The answers became a bit clearer on Thursday as the judge, Mark A. Ciavarella Jr., and a colleague, Michael T. Conahan, appeared in federal court in Scranton, Pa., to plead guilty to wire fraud and income tax fraud for taking more than $2.6 million in kickbacks to send teenagers to two privately run youth detention centers run by PA Child Care and a sister company, Western PA Child Care.

The article expresses disapproval about the corruption of the judge and the severity of the sentence, but seems completely unfazed by the idea of an American citizen standing before a judge to answer for a satirical website.  And this is actually understandable given the context.  While children’s rights law is a notoriously murky area, it seems fair to say that children’s “individual rights” (free speech, due process, etc.) are generally thin to nonexistent, certainly in the US and probably elsewhere too.  So for example, if Ms. Transue had been punished by her school rather than a court for setting up her website, it probably wouldn’t even have been news.

The law strikes me as inconsistent in its attitude toward minors: first it denies them individual rights, on the ground that they’re not yet capable of exercising moral judgment.  But then it punishes them harshly for all sorts of offenses (in many cases more harshly than adults), thereby presupposing the moral responsibility they’re not yet supposed to have.

Now, if I had political capital to spend, I would not want to spend it on children’s rights, just as I wouldn’t want to spend it on legalizing marijuana.  In both cases, I’m guessing that lions will embrace vegetarianism and the polynomial hierarchy will collapse to the 23rd level before American law changes significantly.  But I’ve also noticed an interesting difference between the two issues.  In the case of marijuana, almost every brainful person I’ve met (whether “liberal” or “conservative”) has agreed that the current American laws are an absurdity; that all the power is on one side of the issue while all the evidence and arguments are on the other side; and that eventually, one imagines this will all be as obvious to everyone as it’s obvious today (say) that contraceptives should be legal.  It’s just a question of time, of the regrettable generations-long delay between the inarguable and the acted-upon.

By contrast, when it comes to granting legal rights to children, people whose intelligence I respect seem compelled to give really bad arguments for the status quo—arguments that (so to speak) a 12-year-old could demolish.   (I know of only two famous intellectuals who’ve publicly advocated changing things: the educator John Holt and the quantum computing pioneer David Deutsch.  Anyone know of others?)

For simplicity, let’s restrict attention to the question of whether suffrage should be extended to a large class of people under 18: either by lowering the voting age (say, to 12 or 14), or better yet (in my view), by giving any citizen the vote once he or she reaches a certain age or passes a test of basic civics knowledge analogous to a driver’s-ed or citizenship test.  (Just like with the plurality voting system, showing that the current rule is terrible is the easy part; figuring out the best among many possible better rules to replace it is the harder and more interesting problem.)

I’ll also restrict attention to the US, even though most of the discussion applies more broadly.  Finally, I’ll use the word “children” to mean “children and teenagers”; I like it more than legal terms like “minors” or “people under 18.”

As John Stuart Mill pointed out in The Subjection of Women, it’s not clear how you make an affirmative case against a form of discrimination: pretty much all you can do is stand around, wait for people to suggest pro-discrimination arguments, and then answer them.

People say: should toddlers have the vote?  Should embryos?  You have to draw a line somewhere!  But the real question is: granting that one has to draw a line, granting that any line will be arbitrary and unfair, can’t one at least make it vastly, manifestly less unfair than the current line?  To give two examples: if you can be imprisoned for a crime, shouldn’t you be able to vote?  If you can demonstrate knowledge of American politics and history well beyond that of the average voter, shouldn’t you be able to vote?  (In 1971, the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age from 21 to 18, on the ground that anyone who can be drafted into the military should be able to vote.  It seems to me that one can take that same logic much further.)

People say: if you want to grant the vote to sufficiently knowledgeable children, then shouldn’t you also take it away from sufficiently ignorant adults?  Well, it’s going to be quite a while before the glorious age of the intellectual meritocracy, when all shall submit willingly to Plato’s philosopher-kings.  And before that happens, we’ll have probably all upgraded ourselves to post-Einsteinian superintelligences anyway, by downloading the requisite applet from the iBrain store—so the question of what to do with the ignoramuses will be moot.  Until that day, I’m content to imagine something that’s merely politically impossible (like giving the vote to anyone over 18 and to all knowledgeable minors), rather than 2 to the politically impossible power.
(Notice also that slippery-slope arguments get invoked every time any new step away from medieval morality is on the table: if we legalize gay marriage, then don’t we also need to legalize polygamy, etc. etc.  Again, the fact that any rule we can think of is imperfect, doesn’t imply that some rules we can think of wouldn’t be much better than the current ones.)

People say: if you’re going to grant votes to some children and not others on the basis of a test, isn’t that elitist?  But why isn’t the driver’s-ed test or the citizenship test given to immigrants similarly elitist?

People say: even supposing they can pass some test, doesn’t everyone know that children are too immature and unwise to be entrusted with awesome burden of democracy?  Ah, and who are the mature, wise elders, those paragons of Enlightenment rationality, who twice elected George W. Bush?  If minors could vote, wouldn’t Bush have almost certainly lost both times—thereby averting (or at least mitigating) the global disaster from which we’re now struggling to recover?  Or was that a fluke: a case of the young disproportionately getting the right answer by accident, while the older and wiser made one of their rare mistakes?  Or am I being ‘reductive’ and ‘simplistic’?  Does our belief in the political immaturity of the young belong to that special category of truths, the ones too profound to be confronted by data or experience?

People say: but children only care about the present; they lack foresight.  But isn’t it children pressuring their parents to worry about climate change and the Amazon rainforest, more often than the other way around?  And isn’t that just what you’d expect, if children formed a self-interested bloc much like any other; if they grasped (some clearly, others less so) that they’d eventually run the planet, and if they consequently cared more rather than less about the distant future? So if—like me and many others—you see excessive short-term focus as the central tragedy of politics, then shouldn’t you be chomping at the bit to let more young people vote?

People say: but children will just vote however their parents tell them to.  But to whatever extent this is true, doesn’t it undercut the previous fears, of immature brats voting in Mickey Mouse for president?  And if millions of wives in conservative parts of the country still vote however their husbands tell them to, is that an argument for denying those wives the vote?  And don’t most people of every age simply vote their demographics?

People say: but only a tiny minority of precocious, high-IQ children could possibly care about voting—and while you might have a point in their case, you ignore the 99% of children who only care about the latest Hannah Montana accessory.  But if less than 1% of Americans want to run for Congress, or file a Freedom of Information Act request, or do computer security research that’s outlawed by the DMCA, does that make those rights unimportant?  At the risk of the usual charge—elitism—doesn’t the tiny minority that cares about such things tend to have a disproportionate impact on everyone else?

Also, suppose that in Victorian England, only a tiny percentage of women cared about politics rather than the latest in corsets and garden mazes: should that have carried much weight as an argument against women’s suffrage?  What if the denial of rights to a whole class of people is a reason why many in that class focus on trivialities, rather than the other way around?

People say: but it’s obvious that children shouldn’t vote, because they’re not economically self-sufficient.  Again, wouldn’t it save time to pass these arguments through the “Victorian England / women’s suffrage” filter before making them, rather than after?

People say: ah, but there’s no comparison between the two cases, since unlike Victorian women, children will be able to vote once they’re old enough.  Right, and what about the children who die before they’re 18?  Even ignoring those cases, is it obvious that it’s okay to deny people their fundamental rights, provided that those people, in turn, will someday get to deny fundamental rights to others?

People say: at any rate, denying the vote to children doesn’t seem to have any particularly bad consequences.  I wish I agreed; the reasons why I don’t are really a topic for another post.  Briefly, though, I think our culture’s insistence on treating children as children even after those children are ready to be treated as adults is

  1. weird from the standpoint of anthropology and evolutionary psychology,
  2. an excellent prescription for turning out adults who still think the way children are supposed to,
  3. a useful tool for cracking down on unwanted precocity of all kinds, and
  4. a terrific way to make up for the unfortunate encroachments these past few centuries of justice, civilized behavior, and protections for the nerdy and weak, by keeping human beings in such a savage environment for the first years of their lives that by the time they’re let out, the new Enlightenment nonsense has difficulty gaining a foothold.

(For more on similar themes, see Paul Graham’s justly-celebrated essay Why Nerds Are Unpopular, or my Return to the Beehive.)  The denial of suffrage is just a small part of the story—nowhere near the most important part—but it works as an example.

Finally people say: that’s just the way things are.  This argument—also useful for justifying chattel slavery if you happen to live in 1845—is, at last, a sound one. I agree with it and accept it.  Because of this argument, I’ll now admit that this entire post has been nothing more than an intellectual exercise, a way for me to procrastinate from answering email.  I don’t actually believe any of what I wrote—nor, for that matter, do I believe anything.  Still, purely out of academic curiosity, I’d be interested to know: are there any other arguments for the legal status of Hillary Transue, besides its being the way things are?

The Email Event Horizon

Wednesday, March 4th, 2009

I know I’ve been gone from the shtetl too long—I even stood by as a P=NP goon performed a drive-by shooting through my comments section.  Part of the explanation, I’m ashamed to admit, is that I’ve been procrastinating by proving theorems and writing papers, rather than building up the massive corpus of blog entries on which my tenure case will undoubtedly rest.

But most of my absence has an unhappier source.  At an unknown time about three weeks ago, I crossed the Email Event Horizon—defined in General Unproductivity as the point beyond which you could literally spend your entire day answering emails, yet still have more emails at the end of the day demanding immediate attention than you had at the beginning.  Not spam or crank mail, but worthy missives from students, prospective students, high-school students, secretaries, TAs, fellow committee members, conference organizers, visit hosts, speakers, editors, co-editors, grant officers, referees, colleagues … everything, always, requiring you to do something, commit to some decision, send a title and abstract, pick dates for the trip, exercise Genuine Conscious Thought.  No one ever writes:

Please respond to the situation described above by cracking a joke, the less tasteful the better.  You will never need to deal with this matter again.

I don’t know the precise moment when I crossed the EEH—there was nothing to herald it, it felt like any other moment—but it’s obvious now that I’m in a new, unfamiliar causal region (and that, while I might have thought I’d crossed years ago, I hadn’t).  Communication from inside the EEH to the external universe is theoretically possible, but like Hawking radiation, it tends to be excruciatingly slow—and when it finally arrives, might simply regurgitate the incoming information in garbled form.

When I was a student, I used to wonder constantly about the professors who’d ignore my long, meticulously-crafted emails or fire off one-word replies, yet who might suddenly have an hour for me if I walked into their offices.  Were they senile?  Rude?  Did they secretly despise me?  Now I get it, now I understand—yet I doubt I could explain the warped spacetime Gmailometry I now inhabit to my own past self.  On the other hand, the recognition of what’s happened is itself a sort of liberation.  I’m starting to grasp what’s long been obvious to many of you, those who crossed the EEH before I got my first AOL account in seventh grade: that it’s useless to struggle.  By definition, the speed required to escape the EEH exceeds that of typing, while the mental energy required to accelerate a massive, resting theorist to such a speed is infinite.  So there’s nothing to do but blog, goof off, prove theorems, let the starred-but-unanswered inquiries pile higher and higher, and await the Email Singularity in my causal future.

The LEGO Turing machine

Sunday, March 1st, 2009

Just to get back into blogging mode, here it is.  They do a good job of hamming it up, too.  Courtesy of Mikkel Vester, Anders Nissen, Martin Have, and Sean Geggie at the University of Aarhus (which is hereby forgiven for coming before me alphabetically).