Three updates

  1. For those who read my reply to Richard Borcherds on “teapot supremacy”: seeking better data, I ordered a dozen terra cotta flowerpots, and smashed eight of them on my driveway with my 4-year-old son, dropping each one from approximately 2 meters. For each flowerpot, we counted how many pieces it broke into, seeking insight about the distribution over that number. Unfortunately, it still proved nearly impossible to get good data, for a reason commenters had already warned me about: namely, there were typically 5-10 largeish shards, followed by “long tail” of smaller and smaller shards (eventually, just terra cotta specks), with no obvious place to draw the line and stop counting. Nevertheless, when I attempted to count only the shards that were “fingernail-length or larger,” here’s what I got: 1 pot with 9 shards, 1 with 11 shards, 2 with 13 shards, 2 with 15 shards, 1 with 17 shards, 1 with 19 shards. This is a beautiful (too beautiful?) symmetric distribution centered around a mean of 14 shards, although it’s anyone’s guess whether it approximates a Gaussian or something else. I have no idea why every pot broke into an odd number of shards, unless of course it was a 1-in-256-level fluke, or some cognitive bias that made me preferentially stop counting the shards at odd numbers.
  2. Thanks so much to everyone who congratulated me for the ACM Prize, and especially those who (per my request) suggested charities to which to give bits of the proceeds! Tonight, after going through the complete list of suggestions, I made my first, but far from last, round of donations: $1000 each to the Deworm the World Initiative, GiveDirectly, the World Wildlife Fund, the Nature Conservancy, and Canada/USA Mathcamp (which had a huge impact on me when I attended it as a 15-year-old). One constraint, which might never arise in a decade of moral philosophy seminars, ended up being especially important in practice: if the donation form was confusing or buggy, or if it wouldn’t accept my donation without some onerous confirmation step involving a no-longer-in-use cellphone, then I simply moved on to the next charity.
  3. Bobby Kleinberg asked me to advertise the call for nominations for the brand-new STOC Test of Time Award. The nomination deadline is coming up soon: May 24.

41 Responses to “Three updates”

  1. Jelmer Renema Says:

    It’s very interesting that flower pots always seem to break into odd number of shards. The same is true for spaghetti strands, where it has something to do with the way the tension profile builds up when you bend it, followed by the way the shockwave propagates through the two pieces when the first breakage occurs. If this is really true for flowerpots, I wonder what the mechanism is.

  2. TonyK Says:

    It’s only a 1-in-128-level fluke really, isn’t it? If all the numbers had been even instead of odd, it would have been just as surprising.

  3. Jr Says:

    Exciting to see where you donate. How do you feel about the argument that preserving nature is bad because wild animals probably have a miserable life on average?

  4. Amir Michail Says:

    What do you think of this discussion on the real reason for requiring LaTeX submissions in academia?

  5. Dmitri Says:

    You could also weigh the unbroken pot, then order the biggest-looking shards by weight and count the number of shards until you get to fraction p of the unbroken weight, or keep the top n shards and record their weights. p and n are as arbitrary as a length cutoff but let you use a scale instead of a ruler.

  6. Scott Says:

    TonyK #2: Yes, of course. But if I counted that, then I should’ve also tried to include every other “surprising” possibility (each pot breaking into a prime number of shards, etc etc) 🙂

  7. Scott Says:

    Amir Michail #4: You’re on to our secret.

    (I say “our” even though after 25 years, I still haven’t learned LaTeX very well, and continue to use Scientific Workplace as a front end…)

  8. Michael Fake Drosnin Says:

    TonyK #2, is it? Grand total is 111 shards: odd and prime and symetric. Why are you trying to hide that? Why??

  9. Boaz Barak Says:

    Hi Scott,
    In case you are still accepting suggestions, let me mention the arXiv. Was just shocked now when I looked at a paper and it said that only 880+ people donated to it this week. (It’s one more now 🙂 )Unlike Wikipedia etc., it is really just up to use the scientific community to help it.

  10. Mike Stay Says:

    I wonder if the fact that all of them gave an odd number of pieces is related to how spaghetti snaps?

  11. fred Says:

    An update on the origins of covid19

  12. Raoul Ohio Says:

    fred #11:

    Thanks for the lead.

    I want to encourage everyone to read this. It is a gamechanger.

    You can be sure we will be hearing more on this topic — now is a good time to get the facts.

  13. Raoul Ohio Says:

    Scott #7,

    I belatedly started doing everything in LaTex, and SURE WISH I had started doing so decades earlier (yes – many told me to do so, and I finally listened). As far as I know, my tons of stuff using things like Scientific Workplace are inaccessible because I haven’t upgraded in a decade or so.

    LaTeX is actually pretty easy to learn. It is very logical so you can guess everything – with a few exceptions. E.g., greek letters are only implemented for letters that are different from latin letters. This is dumb, because the font is different. Thus “big O” (Omicron) is there, but “little o” (omicron) is not, so you can either use a wimpy latin “o”, or do an end run with “mathrm{o}”.

    But the real problem is lack of a quality IDE for LaTeX. I might be behind the curve (currently using TeXworks, ver 0.6.3) which offers minimal support on trivial syntax errors. I would love something like “Intelli – J IDEA” for LaTeX, with instant “go to the error” and “offer to fix”.

    Anyone from JetBrains read this blog? How about a sweet LaTeX IDE as a public service? You could probably turn one out in no time just to show off!

  14. James Gallagher Says:

    Scott, I hope your son doesn’t get the idea that this is state-of-the-art experimentation methods in Science!

    fred #11

    strong stuff, getting more believable that it was a lab leak from Wuhan. (And the aggressive way BBC reporters were dealt with by Chinese security at a press event a few months back makes me even extra suspicious)

  15. Ajit R. Jadhav Says:

    Re.: The STOC Test of Time Award

    Someone should study the correlations between the usual measures of “impact factor” on the one hand and the papers chosen for this award on the other—how well go the correlations.

    I guess this is the first time I am seeing an award of this nature, and I like it the idea. Reason: Mainly because it involves natural intelligence, and not some mechanically computed indices / AI… Awards like these should provide better insight into the real impact, IMO.

    On another, related, point: I don’t know of any other field in engineering / physics which does something similar… May be they do, perhaps in some slightly different form(s), but I don’t know it. In case not, guess they could implement the same / similar ideas.


  16. gentzen Says:

    fred #11, Raoul Ohio #12:
    Even if the origins of covid19 could be determined without doubt, it might still not be the most fruitful question to focus on. Instead, covid19 might help to get some insight into the potential benefits of GOF research, and its limitations. Here is a quote from your link:

    Given various restrictions being placed on gain-of function (GOF) research, matters had arrived in their view at “a crossroads of GOF research concerns; the potential to prepare for and mitigate future outbreaks must be weighed against the risk of creating more dangerous pathogens. In developing policies moving forward, it is important to consider the value of the data generated by these studies and whether these types of chimeric virus studies warrant further investigation versus the inherent risks involved.”

    That statement was made in 2015. From the hindsight of 2021, one can say that the value of gain-of-function studies in preventing the SARS2 epidemic was zero.

    The PCR test was based on samples provided by the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Probably the GOF research did not help much in providing those samples, but they can still be counted on the positive side for the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The spike protein of the virus was identified as a crucial part of the danger of the virus. Not sure how helpful that was, and how GOF research contributed to that. With respect to understanding how the virus killed people, development of suitable therapies and vacines, the GOP research definitively didn’t help at all.

    Instead of asking whether the GOF research was responsible for the covid19 outbreak, it seems more fruitful to me to confront the researchers with the realities of diseases, and how little their research helped. Then ask them to realistically assess how their research can help, and what other research will be needed in addition to be really able to quickly react to current and future epidemics and pandemics related to the specific subject of their research (viruses from bats).

  17. Jeremy Says:

    To bypass the shard/not shard distinction, you could instead measure the weight of the N largest shards, and build a distribution off of that. Looking at each smash as a distribution of weights would give more information per smash, and potentially allow you to create a grand unified theory of teapot smashing with fewer experiments!

  18. fred Says:

    To bypass dealing with counting shards, just measure the time it takes to put the shattered pot back together using super glue.
    And then you can break the same pot all over again!

  19. Patrick Says:

    I’m glad you donated to the Deworm the World Initiative and impressed that you are using your award money in this way. I said in a comment on your previous post that if you donated up to $1400 to either the Deworm the World Initiative or the Against Malaria Foundation I would make a matching donation. I’m not sure whether my comment played a role in your decision, but since you donated $1000 to the Deworm the World Initiative, I have just donated $1000 to them as well. I’m still willing to match donations of up to $400 more to either Deworm the World or Against Malaria.

  20. UnreasonableEffectiveness Says:

    One constraint, which might never arise in a decade of moral philosophy seminars, ended up being especially important in practice: if the donation form was confusing or buggy, or if it wouldn’t accept my donation without some onerous confirmation step involving a no-longer-in-use cellphone, then I simply moved on to the next charity.

    Do 12-year-old LessWrong posts by the other Scott A count as “a decade of moral philosophy seminars”?

    Because rationalist/EA community folks talk about this quite a bit 🙂

    Beware Trivial Inconveniences

  21. Job Says:

    Presumably the teapot is taking all possible trajectories simultaneously, such that the outcomes with an even number of shards destructively interfere with each other.

    Any chance you were phase rotating the teapot while dropping?

    Alternatively, if the input is the momentum vector of the teapot and the output is the large shard count, then it’s like the input bit that maps to the output’s least-significant bit is being lost (and we get only even numbers).

    All of the other lost bits were on the most-significant end of the output, that’s why the number of large shards is so small.

    Otherwise the teapot would be breaking into millions of large shards.
    You’re lucky the universe wasn’t using little-endian at the time.

  22. JimV Says:

    As #8 has probably figured out by now, 111 is 3*37–not a prime. Decimal numbers divisible by 3 can be determined by adding up all the single digits and seeing if the sum is divisible by 3, e.g., 1+1+1=3. The same trick works for nine, for the same reason.

    (91 looks like a prime at first glance also, but is 7*13. In octal, it is 133 which is then easily seen to be divisible by seven. Between decimal and octal it is easy to see whether a number is divisible by the first four primes, with a combination of rules. Not an efficient algorithm overall, but the Windows calculator will translate decimal to octal.)

    (Sorry for the something-is-wrong-on-the-Internet response. It does feel like a duty though.)

  23. #8 Says:

    JimV, First, I love you. Second, here is another great trick: if you add exactly 8 odd numbers (not one more, not one less) and the result is still odd, then your calculator sucks.

    Of course the real point was: beware posthoc analysis (the pseudo was another hint). Yes 112 is 4 time 23 and yes the number 23 can be terrifying…
    …but not too terrifying 😉

  24. Siddharth Says:

    Scott, it is truly wonderful that you are donating so generously

    If you are still looking for places to make an effective donation, donating to India’s ongoing COVID fight might be very valuable.

    Two places you might consider: Project HOPE and AID India. They both have straightforward donation pages, accept USD, and are trustworthy as far as I know.

  25. arch1 Says:

    I’ll be extremely surprised if the odd-number pattern turns out to be even highly statistically significant. But if it does, I’ll be pretty surprised if it’s *not* the case that symmetrical terra cotta flower pots dropped onto a flat hard surface break (almost) symmetrically, such that shards above a certain size no bigger than Scott’s fingernail tend to come in pairs of near-twins plus a single oddball.

  26. Fnord Says:

    fred #11: After reading the entire article, I’m torn.

    On the one hand, to me as a non-expert on any of the biology or virology involved, but with a scientific background, several arguments given surely sound plausible.

    On the other hand, though, the main (seemingly) good arguments are tainted by what I can only call conspiracy theory. Distrust or at least skepticism of Chinese government or some US officials – sure, granted. But to claim that the entire world-wide scientific community of virologists is, in its big majority, silenced by some kind of diffuse combination of egoism and fear, that is the mark of typical conspiracy theories.

    The article certainly doesn’t seem like a full scale nutcase’s work. But even considering the attempts to bring in other voices (such as the “third theory” explored towards the end), the above, to me, severely impacts the credibility of what I’d otherwise call a rather interesting collection of information.

  27. James Gallagher Says:

    Fnord #26

    Isn’t this the crucial argument though:

    The intermediary host species of SARS1 was identified within four months of the epidemic’s outbreak, and the host of MERS within nine months. Yet some 15 months after the SARS2 pandemic began, and after a presumably intensive search, Chinese researchers had failed to find either the original bat population, or the intermediate species to which SARS2 might have jumped, or any serological evidence that any Chinese population, including that of Wuhan, had ever been exposed to the virus prior to December 2019. Natural emergence remained a conjecture which, however plausible to begin with, had gained not a shred of supporting evidence in over a year.

    Surely this needs to be clarified by world scientists…

  28. Jay Says:

    James Gallagher #17,
    Personnaly this is the last drop that made me stop reading and trash the whole thing. Finding biological reservoir has always been difficult, to pretend otherwise feels like a deliberate attempt to abuse reader’s trust. Try this one:

    « P!=NP remained a conjecture which, however plausible, had gained not a shred of supporting evidence in the last year » …true, and completly misleading.

  29. fred Says:

    Fnord #26

    “But to claim that the entire world-wide scientific community of virologists is, in its big majority, silenced by some kind of diffuse combination of egoism and fear, that is the mark of typical conspiracy theories.”

    But I think it’s often the case that the majority of communities involved in high reward/high risk research and technology just always prefer to look ahead and move forward.
    The idea is that any screw up can be fixed with more investment and faster progress.
    Ironically, it seems that the more severe the screw up, the more it’s being used as an opportunity to keep pressing forward. Just like for covid, there’s now a huge push to invest even more in gain-of-function research, before we even get to the bottom of what caused covid in the first place.

    The way risky research/tech gets regulated is often from external pressure.

    We’ve seen this over and over with nuclear technology, where the amount of screw-ups is actually quite astonishing (imo):

  30. fred Says:

    PS: I didn’t mean to use that one video in the post above, but link to the entire playlist on nuclear accidents.

  31. Fnord Says:

    fred #29:

    So, just to be certain, your claim is the following?

    In the face of the catastrophic results of the pandemic that really no one remotely sane can deny (even if you ignore the at least 3 Million dead, millions of victims of longer term issues etc, the world wide economic and social damages combined with secondary effects probably ranging in the (US-) trillions of dollars and whatever else you want to add), you believe that (tens of) thousands of scientists in virology choose to ignore evidence that is really as clear as the cited article makes it out to be just because they fear not to get $100k funding for their next research project?

    Almost all of them? Even the majority of them with competence who do not work in the field that would be affected? Even including fields like epidemiology with contrary interests? So many of all these scientists that there is not a really really loud shout about the culprit, but instead just a couple whose voices are drowned by scientific main stream?

    Even considering that virology will have a much much easier time of getting research funded in general due to the drastically renewed/reinforced demonstration of its importance, just – perhaps – not the specific field of research dealing with “gain of function” type experiments, which was already controversial among virologists before the pandemic precisely because of its dangers?

    I’m sorry, but to me the only conclusion from the above is that the situation is not remotely as clear as the article makes it sound. If it was as clear, we’d see far more claims about that from the scientific community.

    Comparing to nuclear technology is really not reasonable at all: Despite their severity, the worst accidents involving civil use have victim numbers and damages that are, depending on the estimate, at least a magnitude, more like 2+ lower, with really proven and totally undisputed numbers being once again even lower.

    This is all not to say the theory is not true – it still sounds rather plausible that a lab with low safety level experimenting with exactly the type of virus modifications that we see in SARS-CoV2 at the apparently first location it was seen could be involved, and facts like the lab data being sealed, the treatment of the WHO expert group was more than suspicious etc etc all sound condemning to me.

    Yet, without a majority of experts in the field stating the same, the assumption that I’m simply unaware of arguments for the other possible explanations and against the lab one is, to me, the best position to take. And thus, if asked, I’d still say “we don’t really know yet.”

  32. Hasan Says:


    I have been following your blog for over two years. I saw that you are concerned about vaccine distribution. Why don’t you donate to the COVAX? I am not sure about the integrity of their initiative but you can also suggest and donate to a vaccine-related charity too. Just an idea.

  33. Gerard Says:

    Fnord #26

    > But to claim that the entire world-wide scientific community of virologists is, in its big majority, silenced by some kind of diffuse combination of egoism and fear, that is the mark of typical conspiracy theories.

    That’s not a conspiracy theory. A conspiracy implies that there is conscious collaboration toward some common goal. A community reacting to ambient incentives to further the goals of its individual members isn’t a conspiracy, it’s just the way human society works. In fact it’s the failure to understand that basic fact that leads to most conspiracy theories.

  34. Gerard Says:

    Jay #28

    > Finding biological reservoir has always been difficult, to pretend otherwise feels like a deliberate attempt to abuse reader’s trust.

    How do you counter the specific claims made in the article that such reservoirs were quickly found in the cases of SARS1 and MERS ?

  35. Fnord Says:

    Gerard #33:

    Reread what I wrote.

    The conspiracy theory here is, of course, US and China together covering up the lab origin of the virus. A mark (or sign) of a conspiracy theory is that a lack of consent about the theory in related expert groups, which would be expected if the theory was as clearly true as claimed, is swiped aside without a good explanation.

  36. gentzen Says:

    Gerard #34:
    > How do you counter the specific claims made in the article that such reservoirs were quickly found in the cases of SARS1 and MERS ?

    In Forty Years of Marburg Virus (2007) by W. Slenczka and H.D. Klenk the last words are: “Ironically, the natural reservoir of the virus, the identification of which appeared to be a relatively easy task 40 years ago, is still a mystery.”

    The english wikipedia writes: “In 2009, the successful isolation of infectious MARV was reported from caught healthy Egyptian fruit bats (Rousettus aegyptiacus).[22]” (MARV is the Marburg virus).

    So 42 years after the outbreak, the reservoir of the Marburg virus was finally discovered. (Which was a huge surprise, since everybody involved assumed it would be impossible to satisfactorily clarify where the virus came from.) Since the original hosts turned out to be bats in this case, I argue that this time duration is one valid point of reference for covid19. SARS1 and MERS are valid points of reference too, but by far not the only ones.

  37. Devdatt Says:

    Scott, the two state solution has been sabotaged by the Israeli occupation on the West Bank – 700 000 settlers, completely illegal by international law, has rendered a Palestinian state totally unviable. This bitter truth is brought out by Gideon Levy one of the few brave snd sane voices in Israel today.

    You can make all the counterfactuals you want about how much more terrible Hamas would be if they had Israel’s power, but the fact is that Israel has that power and commits war crimes – e.g. attacking and destroying press buildings and civilian buildings.

  38. fred Says:

    Call from major scientists (including the expert who trained the lady in charge of the Wuhan lab) to investigate the origins of covid19 in detail.

  39. fred Says:

    For those who understand french, a very interesting discussion on the origins of the virus

  40. Fnord Says:

    fred #38

    See, that letter is, in my opinion, very reasonably written. It points out what is the biggest issue that supports the lab theory, namely the lack of data release from the suspect lab, and demands action on that. In addition, it is supported by several renowned experts in the subject. That’s the sort of thing that’s needed.

    Do note that contrary to the article we previously discussed here, this does not draw conclusions in any direction and assigns no blame.

    Now, what I would really like to see is a discussion by that caliber of scientists about the previous article you linked, on a similar level of accessibility, so I could have a look at the real scientific arguments in favor of the natural origin theory.

  41. Jan Says:

    Many thanks for donating to The Nature Conservacy!

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