Nerds and theorists, our honor is at stake

Today Sean Carroll emailed various bloggers, defying us to participate in the DonorsChoose Blogger Challenge 2008.  Here’s how it works: we (the bloggers) pick projects that we like in underfunded public schools.  Then we beg our readers to donate small amounts of money to make those projects happen.  Any blogger whose readers can’t or won’t contribute is revealed as weak, pathetic, and inadequate—as are the readers themselves.

Now, do I seem like the sort of pusillanimous coward who would back down from such a direct challenge to his bloghood?  Who would cede the moral high ground to a physicist?

I do?

Then let the word echo from the mountaintops and RSS feeds.  I, Scott Aaronson, am now seeking to raise up to $7000 for public school teachers trying to:

  • Help “gifted” students, meaning those blessed with the gifts of awkwardness, alienation, and solitude.  (Note that in the US, less than 0.02% of the federal education budget goes to this lucky group.)
  • Teach evolution.
  • Buy Art Spiegelman’s Maus (the acclaimed graphic novel about the Holocaust, and an astonishingly un-P.C. work for the classroom).
  • Buy Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, the classic and oft-censored howl against doofosity.

Twain, incidentally, was the one who wrote that “in the first place, God made idiots. That was for practice. Then He made school boards.”  The genius of DonorsChoose is that it bypasses those pinnacles of God’s handiwork, letting you route money directly to deserving teachers.

So: if, in your time reading Shtetl-Optimized, you’ve enjoyed one entry, I ask you to go here and donate $10 to a featured project of your choice.  If you’ve enjoyed ten entries, I ask you to donate $25 (you get the bulk discount).  If you’ve enjoyed every entry (!), I ask you to donate $50 (that’s the Platinum Elite Package).

If you’re currently a student or Wall Street broker, you can of course scale down your donation appropriately.

And no, this won’t save the world or even swing the election.  But … sniff … maybe Sean Carroll will finally respect me.

Update (Oct. 6): Thanks so much, everyone!  So far we’ve raised $2,049 (counting my own small contribution).

39 Responses to “Nerds and theorists, our honor is at stake”

  1. Sean Carroll Says:


  2. asdf Says:

    Huckleberry Finn is of course online all over the place (Project Gutenberg, Open Library, etc.)

  3. Carl Shulman Says:

    Surely most of the aims you listed (teaching evolution, etc) would be better served by donations to the Obama campaign. You can help gifted children by supporting CTY, math camps, the Davidson Institute, etc. Poor children can be better helped by donating to the MIT Poverty Action Lab.

    Why don’t you defy Sean and raise money for something much better? And please, if you’re going to argue that DonorsChoose is really the best thing to use your audience’s goodwill on (perhaps because you think they will be willing to give more to it, competitive enthusiasm, or other reasons), remember this:

  4. Scott Says:

    Carl: Much like Sen. McCain, I value honor and victory far above either rationality or altruism. 🙂

    Having said that, I did invite readers to donate to Obama (as well as several independent GOTV operations) a few weeks ago, and I hope the message got out.

    How about this: anyone who, in the name of Shtetl-Optimized, would rather donate to Obama or CTY (or for that matter, any other cause I’d clearly approve of) than to DonorsChoose, please do so and let us know in the comments section. I’ll consider all worthy donations when considering whether or not I can hold my head high in Sean’s presence.

  5. Carl Shulman Says:

    That largely appeases me. Thanks!

  6. Scott Says:

    asdf: Good point! I changed the link to point to a free online version. As a practical matter, though, teachers might have many reasons to prefer bound books, and the number of schoolkids who look up copyright-expired etexts on their own initiative is probably limited (though I do care about those kids disproportionately…).

  7. harrison Says:

    If you’re currently a student or Wall Street broker, you can of course scale down your donation appropriately.

    This is a sufficiently great line to coerce me to donate. (Because it’s not like I’ve enjoyed the rest of the entries on this blog or anything… and DEFINITELY don’t support the listed causes… nosiree.)

  8. the paul Says:

    Shoot, even Shtetl-Optimized does funding drives now?

    I’m way over my give-to-worthy-causes budget already. If this wasn’t one of my favorite blogs in the whole virtual world (or world-equivalent?), or if the causes weren’t so awesome, it would be easy to say no.

    Curse you, Scott! You win again.

  9. Scott Says:

    Shoot, even Shtetl-Optimized does funding drives now?

    Only when its honor is on the line.

  10. F Says:

    Why is Huckleberry Finn being censored? (I’m not from the USA)

  11. Graham Says:

    I donated $50 for a class set of Maus, i hope it does some good.

  12. Bram Cohen Says:

    F: mostly because it uses the word ‘nigger’ a lot.

  13. Scott Says:

    Thanks to everyone who’s donated!

  14. Louis Says:

    Donated $15 to gifted & talented — I’m a student, and I’ve enjoyed the hell out of _all_ of it.

  15. lylebot Says:

    I have enjoyed 1-1/epsilon of the entries; since that is asymptotically all of them I donated $50. However, I expect you to make an infinite number of posts. It can be countably infinite if that helps.

  16. John Sidles Says:

    Scott, I was *very* happy to donate to your fine cause … which I will use as an excuse for the following three-part comment! 🙂

    (1) Just to mention, Joann Sfar’s The Rabbi’s Cat is a terrific graphic novel too … which is deeper than Maus in some very important respects … specifically in the sense that love, wisdom, and fulfillment are not less mysterious than hatred, stupidity, and death.

    (2) And then of course, there’s Scott McCloud’s indespensible graphics book Understanding Comics … which is full of terrific advice … illustrated by wonderful drawings … for people of *any* age who are embarking upon *any* creative career. Yes, Scott’s advice definitely applies to scientists, mathematicians, and engineers!

    (3) And a concluding prophecy: God will someday chastise Scott Aaronson by making him (or his spouse) a school board member.

    Here I am speaking from my family’s personal experience: my wife has served on the Seattle School Board. This turns out to be a job that is all about harshly contested elections … unpaid forty-hour work-weeks … grave responsibilities for solving unsolvable problems … daily criticism in the newspapers … and oh yeah, your family gets personally sued, like clockwork every year, for the full amount of the school budget (four hundred million dollars). Yikes!

    Years ago, before Ed Witten became Ed Witten, he and I discovered at lunch together that both our wives were serving on school boards. The rest of our lunch was spent discussing, not quantum physics, but the genuinely hard problems of public education. 🙂

  17. Scott Says:

    John: Based on the news as well as my own experience attending school board meetings, I stand by my belief that school boards are some of the rifest hotbeds of doofosity in America, right next to the House of Representatives. (In the case of school boards, the problem seems to me like a structural one: I don’t think major decisions about curriculum content, etc. should be made locally in the first place.)

    On the other hand, the only way things can ever improve with either institution is if competent and well-meaning people run for them. So good for them! 🙂

  18. Mouser Says:

    Hrm… I tried to go and donate but can’t reach the website. Perhaps they are paralyzed from the deluge of donations from your blog?

  19. Scott Says:

    Mouser: It was up just now … try again.

  20. Vishal Says:

    There, I did my part!

  21. Cody Says:

    For a moment I considered donating as Charles Darwin, or some equally inspiring scientist, because I don’t particularly like attention. But I decided that might look confusing or somehow distasteful and so refrained.

  22. Johan Richter Says:

    I give money to Amnesty. You can consider my next donation as being in your name Scott if it makes you feel happier.

    I would have given anyway but you don’t have to tell Sean that.

  23. Gerard Says:

    Scott, I just wanted to take a moment and thank you for posting one of my classroom’s Donorschoose proposals, “Evolution Right Here in the Classroom”, on your site. Because of you, it is almost fully funded (only $77 more needed at this time). It is inspiring to my students and I to know that there are so many people like you out there who care about creating quality education for ALL kids. Thanks to you and all of those that responded with donations my students’ futures are that much brighter!


  24. Steven Says:

    Thank you for posting my class project, “Nazi Cats, Jewish Mice, and American Dogs.” I look forward to implementing the project in my classroom with the help of people like you. THANKS!!!

  25. Geoffrey Says:

    Thank you very much for listing one of my projects! The bump in funding is awesome! I realize Maus is not your average bland classroom reading, but I try very hard to bring complex ideas and issues to the classroom to keep student interest high. Thank you very much for helping!

  26. harrison Says:

    I don’t think major decisions about curriculum content, etc. should be made locally in the first place.

    The problem, of course, is that it basically comes down to either the school boards or the House of Representatives, both of which, to paraphrase you/quote Star Wars, are wretched hives of scum and doofosity. (Not always of course, but certainly in many cases).

    I’d argue for making it even more local — i.e., apart from a general framework, giving the decisions to the teachers. Which is, of course, what this is (in part) doing.

  27. Katrina Says:

    Thanks so much for promoting my project. With any luck, we’ll be reading Huck Finn very soon!

  28. Kerry Says:

    Thank you so much for promoting my proposal (L.E.A.P. Into Learning Centers) on the Donors Choose website. My students are extremely intelligent and in great need of the listed materials in order to increase their knowledge through hands-on experiences. Thanks again for your support! It’s people like YOU who help teachers truly create great leaders in our countries today! 🙂

  29. Mrs. M Says:

    Thank you so much for posting my proposal on your giving page and your website. My students are so excited about the possibility of getting some technology. The computers in our room now are 10 years old! There is no other technology for us. They love using computers and other multimedia products. By just having these things available for these unique and extraordinary students, they will be so excited about coming to class. The sky is the limit for their technology potential. We truly appreciate you for recognizing our classroom in tiny town Mississippi!

  30. vHF Says:

    Just gave $10 (student) to “Huck Finn”.

    Now back to my comfy and secure lurking position…

  31. Becky Says:

    Love your site!
    My collegue was just helped by some of your donors, we are thrilled. I thought I would shamelessly try and plug my two grants that are up too. Anything to offer more challenging learning experiences for my kids! I need for these to be funded so I can apply for desperately needed technology grants. Our gifted budget has been drastically cut this year almost 75%. I spend so much of my own money and need help. Barksdale Institute ( Netscape ‘s founder) has pledged half if I can get other donors. Well here goes..

    World Icon – Born And Inspired In Mississippi

    I am planning a unit of study about creative genius, Jim Henson, for my gifted students. He was born in MS and MS is where he spent his early years….MORE

    High Poverty ? | West Point, MS
    Double Your Impact, thanks to:
    $520 needed
    Any amount welcome.

    It’s TIME For Kids!

    The students need classroom sets of 12-14 TIME For Kids Magazine- News Scoop Edition w/ TFK Around the World, and TIME For Kids World Atlas, so we can travel all around the wo…MORE

    High Poverty ? | West Point, MS
    Double Your Impact, thanks to:
    $166 needed
    Any amount welcome.

    au revoir!

  32. Michele Ferrel Says:

    Thank you so much for promoting my proposal. Gifted students often get overlooked when it comes to funding. Your generous support is greatly appreciated!! Thank you!! Thank you!! Thank you!! Thank you!!

  33. Bilal Shaw Says:

    Scott, do I get a tax write-off for this donation? 🙂 I will be very happy to contribute. Yay for edumacation.

  34. Scott Says:

    Scott, do I get a tax write-off for this donation? 🙂

    Yes, you do, at least if you’re American. It’s a 501(c)(3) — look at their website.

  35. Stas Says:

    I just gave $100 to “9th Graders Study Evolution: Did We Really Evolve From Apes?” Though I work in financial industry, I find it not appropriate to use the discount that Scott offered as our company is doing well :). In Scott’s blog I enjoyed all technical posts, and the exposure of D-Wave handwaving most of all, though I know Scott doesn’t enjoy it that much :). It would be nice to have more informal presentations of famous algorithms similar to what Scott did with Shor’s factoring algorithm once. Even when I’m familar with an algorithm, it’s funny to view it in unusual informal terms, which may actually help to see unexpected connections with other problems. And, of course, Fable of Chessmaster and What Google Won’t Find are best presentations on the importance of complexity theory I’ve ever seen. Thank you, Scott!

  36. Andy D Says:

    Gave $25 towards ‘Maus’ purchases.

    Not just because it’s great, but because I worry that these days, if children don’t read comic books in schools, they might not read them anywhere.

  37. Becky Says:

    Come on fellow nerds ,help us out so we can get some LCD action. We have to get the grants that are up now funded before I can apply for some technology grants. I thought everybody loved Kermit! Part of that grant is to make a film, write a play, power point presentations-that’s technology…..right?

  38. Ian Durham Says:


    Good work for very worthy causes, all of which are very near and dear to my heart for a variety of personal reasons. Thanks for taking up Sean’s challenge. I’ll do my best to add a little something.

  39. Anonymous Says:

    I’m a little late to the game here, but I gave $50 to Obama’s campaign.