Speaking Truth to Parallelism: The Book

A few months ago, I signed a contract with MIT Press to publish a new book: an edited anthology of selected posts from this blog, along with all-new updates and commentary.  The book’s tentative title (open to better suggestions) is Speaking Truth to Parallelism: Dispatches from the Frontier of Quantum Computing Theory.  The new book should be more broadly accessible than Quantum Computing Since Democritus, although still far from your typical pop-science book.  My goal is to have STTP out by next fall, to coincide with Shtetl-Optimized‘s tenth anniversary.

If you’ve been a regular reader, then this book is my way of thanking you for … oops, that doesn’t sound right.  If it were a gift, I should give it away for free, shouldn’t I?  So let me rephrase: buying this reasonably-priced book can be your way of thanking me, if you’ve enjoyed my blog all these years.  But it will also (I hope) be a value-added proposition: not only will you be able to put the book on your coffee table to impress an extremely nerdy subset of your friends, you’ll also get “exclusive content” unavailable on the blog.

To be clear, the posts that make it into the book will be ruthlessly selected: nothing that’s pure procrastination, politics, current events, venting, or travelogue, only the choice fillets that could plausibly be claimed to advance the public understanding of science.  Even for those, I’ll add additional background material, and take out digs unworthy of a book (making exceptions for anything that really cracks me up on a second reading).

If I had to pick a unifying theme for the book, I’d sigh and then say: it’s about a certain attitude toward the so-called “deepest questions,” like the nature of quantum mechanics or the ultimate limits of computation or the mind/body problem or the objectivity of mathematics or whether our universe is a computer simulation.  It’s an attitude that I wish more popular articles managed to get across, and at any rate, that people ought to adopt when reading those articles.  The attitude combines an openness to extraordinary claims, with an unceasing demand for clarity about the nature of those claims, and an impatience whenever that demand is met with evasion, obfuscation, or a “let’s not get into technicalities right now.”  It’s an attitude that constantly asks questions like:

“OK, so what can you actually do that’s different?”
“Why doesn’t that produce an absurd result when applied to simple cases?”
“Why isn’t that just a fancy way of saying what I could’ve said in simpler language?”
“Why couldn’t you have achieved the same thing without your ‘magic ingredient’?”
“So what’s your alternative account for how that happens?”
“Why isn’t that obvious?”
“What’s really at stake here?”
“What’s the catch?”

It’s an attitude that accepts the possibility that such questions might have satisfying answers—in which case, a change in worldview will be in order.  But not before answers are offered, openly debated, and understood by the community of interested people.

Of all the phrases I use on this blog, I felt “Speaking Truth to Parallelism” best captured the attitude in question.  I coined the phrase back in 2007, when D-Wave’s claims to be solving Sudoku puzzles with a quantum computer unleashed a tsunami of journalism about QCs—what they are, how they would work, what they could do—that (in my opinion) perfectly illustrated how not to approach a metaphysically-confusing new technology.  Having said that, the endless debate around D-Wave won’t by any means be the focus of this book: it will surface, of course, but only when it helps to illustrate some broader point.

In planning this book, the trickiest issue was what to do with comments.  Ultimately, I decided that the comments make Shtetl-Optimized what it is—so for each post I include, I’ll include a brief selection of the most interesting comments, together with my responses to them.  My policy will be this: by default, I’ll consider any comments on this blog to be fair game for quoting in the book, in whole or in part, and attributed to whatever handle the commenter used.  However, if you’d like to “opt out” of having your comments quoted, I now offer you a three-month window in which to do so: just email me, or leave a comment (!) on this thread.  You can also request that certain specific comments of yours not be quoted, or that your handle be removed from your comments, or your full name added to them—whatever you want.

Update (9/24): After hearing from several of you, I’ve decided on the following modified policy.  In all cases where I have an email address, I will contact the commenters about any of their comments that I’m thinking of using, to request explicit permission to use them.  In the hopefully-rare cases where I can’t reach a given commenter, but where their comment raised what seems like a crucial point requiring a response in the book, I might quote from the comment anyway—but in those cases, I’ll be careful not to reproduce very long passages, in a way that might run afoul of the fair use exception.

60 Responses to “Speaking Truth to Parallelism: The Book”

  1. AdamT Says:

    Awesome! Can’t wait to read it 🙂

    Any chance you might blog the process of creation of this book and/or a sneak preview of some of the posts you’ve selected for inclusion?

  2. Scott Says:

    Adam: Err, the blog itself isn’t enough of a “sneak preview”? 🙂

  3. Michael P Says:

    One thing will remain though to complete coherence between the printed and the web: to make your Democritus book available on the web. 🙂

  4. Jay Says:

    >buying this reasonably-priced book can be your way of thanking me, if you’ve enjoyed my blog all these years.

    With pleasure. 😉 Kindle edition?

    > if you’d like to “opt out” of having your comments quoted, I now offer you a three-month window in which to do so

    Hard to do so without seeing the selected comments…

  5. Scott Says:

    Michael #3: But a draft of it is available!

  6. AdamT Says:

    Yeah, I suppose you could have unbounded recursion problem if you blog about creating a book filled with your blogs. Still, for selfish reasons the book creation process is interesting to me right now.

  7. vzn Says:

    lol ok dude congratulations & sounds like fun. continuing the vein of popular science, turning into a modern day Sagan eh? from CS, and that field needs more Sagan(s). in juxtaposition to those wanting to “opt out” what would also be cool is if you made a tentative list of posts & give everyone a chance to comment on any that one missed the 1st time around. 🙂

  8. rrtucci Says:

    Sept 2, 2014
    Google dangled a $50M? carrot in front of John Martinis
    Sept 22, 2014
    MIT press dangled a $50? carrot in front of Scott Aaronson

  9. Shmi Nux Says:

    I hope you checked with your publisher re potential copyright issues when using blog comments “for profit” and whether your opt-out notice is good enough for them.

  10. Scott Says:

    Shmi #9: I’m pretty sure it would fall under fair use. But as an additional line of defense, I will try to check with commenters to get their permission if I want to quote something, in all cases where I have an email address.

  11. Vadim Says:

    If I’d only known, I would have made my comments waaay more brilliant.

  12. Amir Says:

    Congratulations! I recently bought QCSD and it’s splendid, your writing is funny and lively, and the topics are presented right at my level (graduate math student). I’ll be sure to at least recommend the new book all around when it gets published.

  13. Moshe Says:

    This looks like it will be a lot of fun to read, good time to thank you for the effort to produce such an interesting blog. I will even suppress my reaction to listing the “universe as a simulation” as a deep question :-)(“What’s really at stake here?” seems like an appropriate question to ask).

  14. Michael Dixon Says:

    The list of questions you included appear to “test” the author to see if they understand their result and how it fits into context. This is definitely good.
    I personally like to also challenge authors to hypotheticals that force them to consider and engineer alternative perspectives. It tests their epistemic humility, reveals how thoroughly they checked their work, and if they understand the limitations of their findings.

    – “Assume you made a mistake AND that the claim is false. Where, in your reasoning, are the most likely problem areas?”

    – “In what ways can I erroneously over-generalize your approach/result and show something false? When does it not work or when can I not extrapolate it?”

    – “Assume that the claim is correct AND that your current reasoning is completely wrong. With the knowledge that it is wrong, is there another approach to your claim that is independent of the validity of the original approach?”

    – “What would the critics/doubters say if I asked them? What objections or rebuttals should I expect? Right or wrong, what should their best objections be?”

    I hope the theme of the above is apparent through these examples. Are there elements to the above questions that would contradict what you think is the proper attitude?

  15. Adam M Says:

    This will be a book worth reading! But, I’m filled with preemptive dissatisfaction that there won’t be a place to ‘Leave a Reply’ at the bottom of each page. What the bleep are we supposed to do with all the brilliant arguments and ideas we will have while reading your book???

  16. I am everyone (including Scott) Says:

    Please do not quote me in your book.

  17. Raoul Ohio Says:

    Excellent idea!

    I hope to see some of John Sidles comments. Even if he is wrong, the elegance and style set a high standard.

    Naturally, my favorite topic is Raoul Ohio’s yearly rant about physicists blindly accepting unlikely theories such as String theory, MWI, and cosmic inflation. Scott once replied that RO should get over it and accept conventional wisdom about inflation, dark matter, etc.

    Recall the hoopla last March, when a team announced the “discovery of the century” — proving inflation was true. It must be right, the’re from Harvard! Engrave the Nobel Prizes; why wait? RO did not miss the opportunity to ridicule this in SO.

    BTW, check this out:


  18. wolfgang Says:

    It is very unlikely that you would use any of my comments,
    but just to be sure: Please do not use any of my comments for your book.

    But I am looking forward to read it …

  19. Woett Says:

    Awesome Scott! Really looking forward to it. Small remark though: I agree with including comments just as much as I disagree with ‘taking out digs’ ;). The latter make Shtetl-Optimized what it is, at least as much as the former.

  20. Scott Says:

    Moshe #13:

      I will even suppress my reaction to listing the “universe as a simulation” as a deep question 🙂

    Well, I did surround “deep question” with scare quotes, and (if that weren’t enough) prefaced it with the adjective “so-called.”

  21. Scott Says:

    Adam M #15:

      But, I’m filled with preemptive dissatisfaction that there won’t be a place to ‘Leave a Reply’ at the bottom of each page. What the bleep are we supposed to do with all the brilliant arguments and ideas we will have while reading your book???

    What do you do while reading any book that fills you with arguments and ideas? Leave notes in the margins? Tell your real-life friends? OK, I guess you could also come back to SO, and leave comments on those old posts for which I didn’t yet get around to closing the comments. 😉

  22. Scott Says:

    Raoul #17:

      Naturally, my favorite topic is Raoul Ohio’s yearly rant about physicists blindly accepting unlikely theories such as String theory, MWI, and cosmic inflation. Scott once replied that RO should get over it and accept conventional wisdom about inflation, dark matter, etc.

      Recall the hoopla last March, when a team announced the “discovery of the century” — proving inflation was true. It must be right, the’re from Harvard! Engrave the Nobel Prizes; why wait? RO did not miss the opportunity to ridicule this in SO.

    Yes, the “smoking gun” for inflation claimed in March (the B-modes) now appears to be dead or on life-support, although astronomers will naturally continue for the next decade to look for a B-mode signal hiding in the galactic dust.

    I’m feeling lucky right now never to have had a dog in this particular fight. (Though, I confess, I enjoyed reading Lubos’s post about how the B-mode signal must still be there—you can just see it by eyeballing the picture!—and Planck is probably just badmouthing BICEP2 because they’re jealous about getting scooped.)

    I remember that when I met with Max Tegmark, he asked me what I thought about the BICEP2 results (which were then just a week or two old). I said something about how exciting it was, if it were to be confirmed by Planck—a caveat he impatiently acknowledged. 😉

    But let’s be clear about the situation. The case for inflation is now back to what it was before March. Most (though not all) cosmologists will continue to believe that inflation happened in some form, for the same reasons why they believed that before. (And, yes, unfortunately, inflation is very hard to falsify, because it comes in so many variations. While B-modes indeed would’ve been a smoking gun of inflation, inflation is also totally 100% compatible with having no B-modes.)

    And dark matter is a completely separate issue. The case for the reality of dark matter seems to me to be very strong, because of (e.g.) the Bullet Cluster. (And in any case, there’s not the slightest theoretical difficulty in postulating a new weakly-interacting particle that could serve as dark matter—the problem has never been a lack of candidates, but a surfeit of them.)

  23. v Says:

    If they are not locked, a lot of comment threads will get necroed by this for sure…

    I’ve just recently found this blog and I’m finding all sorts of gems, too much to wrap my head around actually. I’m really looking forward to the selection that you would make.

  24. Dave R Says:

    Other title suggestions:

    “Parallel to the Truth: Musings on Quantum Computing and the Void”

    “Answers from Interference: on QC and Everything Else”

    “Right in another dimension: from the blog of SA”

    + permutations.

  25. luca turin Says:


  26. fred Says:

    jeez, all that blogging mambo-jumbo is so dated and such a non-optimal use of your brilliant mind, man!

    You should instead launch a 2M$ KickStarter for “Proving P=NP”, with top rewards such as “Reimann hypothesis proof, signed by Scott”, “Quantum Computer ready-to-assemble prototype kit”, and “Lubos’ brain, in a jar”.

  27. John Says:

    Is this really legal? Don’t the commenters own the copyrights to their comments? A 3-month notice doesn’t change that. Personally, I don’t care, but…

  28. Scott Says:

    John #27: I just did some extremely cursory research, but couldn’t find any legal resources on the web addressing this specific question. Can anyone else?

    I guess the key question is whether quoting comments in a book counts as “fair use” under copyright law. Because the comments are short, and because I’ll only be quoting them for the purpose of responding to them, my guess is yes, but I’ll of course seek better legal advice (including from MIT Press) going forward.

    (Of course, even assuming I’m within the law, I’d also like to do my best not to piss anyone off, hence the opt-out policy.)

  29. Joshua Zelinsky Says:

    I doubt you will have reason to include any of my comments, but if you do wish to do so, feel free.

  30. Diego Mesa Says:


    Congratulations! I thoroughly enjoyed QCSD for not just its content, but its presentation, exposition, and the clarity with which the *way* you think shines through.

    You can certainly count me in!

  31. Jr Says:

    I was also curious about the legal question. I imagine that this precise issue has never been raised before and that it may be unclear how the courts would rule.

  32. jonas Says:

    As for the title, this blog already has a title, “Shtetl-Optimized”, so shouldn’t the title of the book re-use that? You could add a subtitle like “Shtetl-Optimized, Speaking Truth to Parallelism”.

  33. Scott Says:

    jonas #32: Thought about it, of course—but that title’s no good for selling books to anyone who doesn’t already know this blog (except, perhaps, for a tiny number of Yiddishists who will then demand refunds 🙂 ). And besides, I’d like to differentiate the blog, which is about whatever I feel like blogging about on a given day, from the book, which is only about the “meatiest” subset of topics that I ended up addressing.

  34. jonas Says:

    Just in case some other reader wants to find all the comments they have posted to decide which ones Scott can use, here’s a handy list sorted by poster: http://www.math.bme.hu/~ambrus/pu/aaronson-commentlist

  35. gasarch Says:

    a few notes
    1) I have reviewed Lipton’s blog book, Lipton-Regan blog book, and am in the middle of reading Tao’s first blog book. In all three cases I find it much easier to read these columns in book form. I think the computer screen has so much else going on and also the notion of I can read the blog later— but don’t– is bad. So Kudos for the blog book which I look forward to reading and reviewing!

    2) I”m tempted to say `taking the blog posts and making them into a book will be harder than you think’ – but I suspect you already know that. Is that a paradox- Scott knows that it will be harder than Scott thinks it will be.

    3) Speaking truth to parallelism— your posts aren’t really on parallelism, so it seems odd. But it has a nice ring to it, and it captures your spirit mod details.

  36. AdamT Says:

    Scott, a content creator need not explicitly post a copyright notice for internet content. The work is still covered under copyright law. This has been the case in the US and in many other countries for quite some time.

    The issue of blog comments doesn’t seem well addressed by any court cases I’m aware of. This is what I’ve found:

    A spat in 2008 between a blog owner and a commenter that seems related to this issue.

    A report on the spat above which included solicited comment from a law professor specializing on internet copyright issues.

    Here is the relevant part about the Professor’s views: “From Ochoa’s viewpoint, a commenter owns his comments for copyright purposes. This means that if a blogger wanted to publish a best-of collection of comments, as Winer suggested, the blogger would likely need permission from the commenter.”

    Another report from Business Insider about the spat and its aftermath.

    Here is another blog author talking about writing a book who decided against including comments precisely because of this uncertainty.

    Of course, none of this gets into precisely how original a comment has to be in order for it to be eligible for copyright. Nor does it touch on the fair use rights and how much you are allowed to quote from these comments. I would think paraphrasing, provided it is substantially different text, would be the best bet from a risk reduction perspective.

    Anyway, it sounds like you should probably consult a good lawyer to find out what is the real current state of this question. Perhaps there are court cases…

  37. anon Says:

    Great project but horrible title. It will sound decent only in the US(UK?).
    Unfortunately I do not have a better suggestion..
    Good luck!

  38. Sniffnoy Says:

    Just in case, I think I would like to be asked if any of my comments are to be used. But, if you do end up quoting me in a real-life book, I would probably prefer to be quoted by my real-life name… (see email address there)

  39. wrf3 Says:

    Please consider Robert Cringley’s The Decline and Fall of IBM as an example of how not to include blog comments in a book.

    While you plan on responding to the comments you select, which Cringley did not do, I wonder if you wouldn’t be better off just working the ideas into your narrative and keeping the text in one voice? A voice that some of us have come to really enjoy. Some really very, very smart people comment here — but they aren’t you. Let them write their own books.

  40. EE-John Says:

    It’s a great title for readers of the blog, but the word “parallelism” is not so accessible. As a long time lurker, I realize that it refers to wild claims in popular science writing about parallell universes, trying all possible cases at once, solving Sudoku with a Dwave machine, etc.

    This type of thing is probably best left to the marketing folks who know what plays with the focus groups. Anyway, my offering is “I Want to Believe”. OK, so it’s also an X-file movie I haven’t seen, but there’s an implied “…BUT” that captures both the openness to new ideas and the high threshold of proof.

    Good luck with the venture!

  41. JG Says:

    Berne convention of 1984 assigns defacto copyright to creator of the content. Case closed.

  42. Scott Says:

    JG #41: There is such a thing as “fair use” in copyright law, which allows for the quoting of short passages. Case reopened.

  43. TonyK Says:

    That has got to be the worst title in the history of publishing! “Speaking Truth to Parallelism”? It doesn’t even make sense! I count myself as one of your fans, Scott, but you’re going to have to do better than that if you want anybody else to buy your book. I know you can do better — witness “Quantum Computing Since Democritus”.

  44. Raoul Ohio Says:

    Maybe the copyright issue could be dealt with by putting a checkbox next to the “submit comment” button, with a brief description such as “may use comment for any purposes”, or something better.

    Maybe two submit buttons would be better; one for “go ahead and use” and one for “do not use”.

    For the record, all Raoul Ohio comments are “go ahead and use”.

  45. Raoul Ohio Says:

    Scott #23.

    BTW, while I think MWI and String theory are pretty wacky, I do not think Inflation and Dark Matter are obviously wrong, BUT they are certainly not obviously right. My issue is that most of physics has these theories on par with SR + Maxwell’s equations.

    As for DM, I agree the Bullet Cluster sure looks like DM (we are better at eyeballing than Lubos!). Here is a recent update on the status of various DM theories:


    Conclusion: Zero evidence for any being right.

    I disagree that “B-modes indeed would’ve been a smoking gun of inflation”. The fact is that we do not know anything about any singularity. Any model of the big bang can be tweaked to provide agreement with any signal measured.

    Here is a famous part of Inflation: “It explains why the universe is so uniform”. While someone’s guess is that without inflation, the universe would be less uniform might be an appealing idea, it is a total bogon.

    Here is the RO critique of the uniform argument:
    1. Who says the universe is uniform?
    2. Compared to what?
    3. What is the right measure of uniformity?
    4. Is there a natural unit of uniformity (some combination of e, h, c, etc.) with dimension of uniformity?
    5. If not, what is measured uniformity compared to?, Somebody’s guess?

  46. James Gallagher Says:

    Only crazy people post comments on internet blogs – that’s a well known cultural fact. Better title would be “Talking to Crazies about Parallelism” – then publish 90% of the blog comments

    Should be a Christmas best-seller

  47. asdf Says:

    Scott, feel free to use any of my comments. Well, a few of them are pretty lame in retrospect, so be kind in making selections, ok?

  48. Brian Rom Says:

    Love your stuff, or at least that which I can understand.

    However, I do have a not-so-pedantic grammatical nit to pick with your writing, one that is pervasive throughout all of your prose: it is incorrect to hyphenate after an adverb. ‘metaphysically-confusing’, ‘hopefully-rare’, in the present context.

    What’s interesting is that your writing is otherwise a model of correct English grammar and style, so I admit to being curious as to how this error has found its way into so much of your writing.

  49. Scott Says:

    Brian #48: Thanks!! Your correction is gratefully-accepted, and will be scrupulously-followed.

  50. Brian Rom Says:

    Scott, you’re a gentleman and a scholar (but you already knew that!)

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