Archive for September, 2022

I had a dream

Wednesday, September 14th, 2022

As I slept fitfully, still recovering from COVID, I had one of the more interesting dreams of my life:

I was desperately trying to finish some PowerPoint slides in time to give a talk. Uncharacteristically for me, one of the slides displayed actual code. This was a dream, so nothing was as clear as I’d like, but the code did something vaguely reminiscent of Rosser’s Theorem—e.g., enumerating all proofs in ZFC until it finds the lexicographically first proof or disproof of a certain statement, then branching into cases depending on whether it’s a proof or a disproof. In any case, it was simple enough to fit on one slide.

Suddenly, though, my whole presentation was deleted. Everything was ruined!

One of the developers of PowerPoint happened to be right there in the lecture hall (of course!), so I confronted him with my laptop and angrily demanded an explanation. He said that I must have triggered the section of Microsoft Office that tries to detect and prevent any discussion of logical paradoxes that are too dangerous for humankind—the ones that would cause people to realize that our entire universe is just an illusion, a sandbox being run inside an AI, a glitch-prone Matrix. He said it patronizingly, as if it should’ve been obvious: “you and I both know that the Paradoxes are not to be talked about, so why would you be so stupid as to put one in your presentation?”

My reaction was to jab my finger in the guy’s face, shove him, scream, and curse him out. At that moment, I wasn’t concerned in the slightest about the universe being an illusion, or about glitches in the Matrix. I was concerned about my embarrassment when I’d be called in 10 minutes to give my talk and would have nothing to show.

My last thought, before I woke with a start, was to wonder whether Greg Kuperberg was right and I should give my presentations in Beamer, or some other open-source software, and then I wouldn’t have had this problem.

A coda: I woke a bit after 7AM Central and started to write this down. But then—this is now real life (!)—I saw an email saying that a dozen people were waiting for me in a conference room in Europe for an important Zoom meeting. We’d gotten the time zones wrong; I’d thought that it wasn’t until 8AM my time. If not for this dream causing me to wake up, I would’ve missed the meeting entirely.

What I’ve learned from having COVID

Sunday, September 4th, 2022
  1. The same thing Salman Rushdie learned: either you spend your entire life in hiding, or eventually it’ll come for you. Years might pass. You might emerge from hiding once, ten times, a hundred times, be fine, and conclude (emotionally if not intellectually) that the danger must now be over, that if it were going to come at all then it already would have, that maybe you’re even magically safe. But this is just the nature of a Poisson process: 0, 0, 0, followed by 1.
  2. First comes the foreboding (in my case, on the flight back home from the wonderful CQIQC meeting in Toronto)—“could this be COVID?”—the urge to reassure yourself that it isn’t, the premature relief when the test is negative. Only then, up to a day later, comes the second vertical line on the plastic cartridge.
  3. I’m grateful for the vaccines, which have up to a 1% probability of having saved my life. My body was as ready for this virus as my brain would’ve been for someone pointing a gun at my head and demanding to know a proof of the Karp-Lipton Theorem. All the same, I wish I also could’ve taken a nasal vaccine, to neutralize the intruder at the gate. Through inaction, through delays, through safetyism that’s ironically caused millions of additional deaths, the regulatory bureaucracies of the US and other nations have a staggering amount to answer for.
  4. Likewise, Paxlovid should’ve been distributed like candy, so that everyone would have a supply and could start the instant they tested positive. By the time you’re able to book an online appointment and send a loved one to a pharmacy, a night has likely passed and the Paxlovid is less effective.
  5. By the usual standards of a cold, this is mild. But the headaches, the weakness, the tiredness … holy crap the tiredness. I now know what it’s like to be a male lion or a hundred-year-old man, to sleep for 20 hours per day and have that feel perfectly appropriate and normal. I can only hope I won’t be one of the long-haulers; if I were, this could be the end of my scientific career. Fortunately the probability seems small.
  6. You can quarantine in your bedroom, speak to your family only through the door, have meals passed to you, but your illness will still cast a penumbra on everyone around you. Your spouse will be stuck watching the kids alone. Other parents won’t let their kids play with your kids … and you can’t blame them; you’d do the same in their situation.
  7. It’s hard to generalize from a sample size of 1 (or 2 if you count my son Daniel, who recovered from a thankfully mild case half a year ago). Readers: what are your COVID stories?

Win a $250,000 Scott Aaronson Grant for Advanced Precollege STEM Education!

Thursday, September 1st, 2022

Back in January, you might recall, Skype cofounder Jaan Tallinn’s Survival and Flourishing Fund (SFF) was kind enough to earmark $200,000 for me to donate to any charitable organizations of my choice. So I posted a call for proposals on this blog. You “applied” to my “foundation” by simply sending me an email, or leaving a comment on this blog, with a link to your organization’s website and a 1-paragraph explanation of what you wanted the grant for, and then answering any followup questions that I had.

After receiving about 20 awesome proposals in diverse areas, in the end I decided to split the allotment among organizations around the world doing fantastic, badly-needed work in math and science enrichment at the precollege level. These included Canada/USA Mathcamp, AddisCoder, a magnet school in Maine, a math circle in Oregon, a math enrichment program in Ghana, and four others. I chose to focus on advanced precollege STEM education both because I have some actual knowledge and experience there, and because I wanted to make a strong statement about an underfunded cause close to my heart that’s recently suffered unjust attacks.

To quote the immortal Carl Sagan, from shortly before his death:

[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.

Anyway, the thank-you notes from the programs I selected were some of the most gratifying emails I’ve ever received.

But wait, it gets better! After reading about the Scott Aaronson Speculation Grants on this blog, representatives from a large, reputable family foundation contacted me to say that they wanted to be involved too. This foundation, which wishes to remain anonymous at this stage although not to the potential grant recipient, intends to make a single US$250,000 grant in the area of advanced precollege STEM education. They wanted my advice on where their grant should go.

Of course, I could’ve simply picked one of the same wonderful organizations that SFF and I helped in the first round. On reflection, though, I decided that it would be more on the up-and-up to issue a fresh call for proposals.

So: do you run a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to advanced precollege STEM education? If so, email me or leave a comment here by Friday, September 9, telling me a bit about what your organization does and what more it could do with an extra $250K. Include a rough budget, if that will help convince me that you can actually make productive use of that amount, that it won’t just sit in your bank account. Organizations that received a Scott Aaronson Speculation Grant the last time are welcome to reapply; newcomers are also welcome.

I’ll pass up to three finalists along to the funder, which will then make a final decision as to the recipient. The funder will be directly in touch with the potential grantee(s) and will proceed with its intake, review and due diligence process.

We expect to be able to announce a recipient on or around October 24. Can’t wait to see what people come up with!