On students as therapy

From left: Ruizhe, Daniel, me, Jiahui, William

This summer, I’m delighted to report, we’ve had four (!) students complete their PhDs in computer science through UT Austin’s Quantum Information Center:

  • Dr. Ruizhe Zhang, student of my wife Dana Moshkovitz, who’s worked on numerous topics in quantum algorithms, optimization, meta-complexity, and machine learning, and who’s continuing to a postdoc at the Simons Institute in Berkeley.
  • Dr. Daniel Liang, student of me, who’s worked on efficient learning of stabilizer and near-stabilizer states, and who’s continuing to a postdoc at Rice University.
  • Dr. Jiahui Liu, student of me, who’s worked on quantum copy-protection, quantum money, and other quantum cryptographic functionalities, and who’s continuing to a postdoc at MIT.
  • Dr. William Kretschmer, student of me, who’s worked on quantum query complexity, oracle separations between quantum complexity classes, pseudorandom quantum states, and much more, and who’s continuing to a postdoc at the Simons Institute in Berkeley.

A fifth, Dr. Yuxuan Zhang, completed his PhD in condensed-matter physics.

We also had two postdocs finish this summer:

All told, I’ve now supervised or co-supervised a total of 12 PhD students and 15 postdocs (see my homepage for the complete list). I’m ridiculously proud of all of them; along with my kids, they’re one of the central joys of my life.

While there are many reasons to want to celebrate this news, I confess that among them is thumbing my nose at haters. This past week, Shtetl-Optimized endured yet another sustained troll attack. One troll claimed that my use of the names “Alice” and “Bob,” in discussing communication protocols, was Eurocentric and offensive, and threatened to contact UT Austin’s DEI office about this matter and whip up dozens of students to protest outside my office. A second troll (or was it the same troll?) accused my Chinese students of being spies and called them a long litany of racial slurs. He also accused me of being paid off by the Chinese government, and of blogging skeptically about quantum speedup claims merely to hide the fact that China will soon build a quantum computer able to break US encryption. These trolls, and others, pursued me relentlessly by both blog comments and email—acting like I was the unreasonable one for ignoring them—until I finally broke down and engaged, calling upon the Shtetl-Optimized Committee of Guardians (who I thank profusely) for needed moral support.

The fact that there are people so far beyond the reach of reason bothers me much more than it reasonably should. But whenever the toxicity of the Internet gets me down, I try to take solace from the real world. Over the past seven years, I’m proud to have built a research group at UT Austin that’s welcomed students and postdocs and visitors from all over the world, and that’s treated them as individuals on a shared journey to understand reality. I intend to continue in that spirit for as long as I’m able.

56 Responses to “On students as therapy”

  1. Bruno Loff Says:

    Regarding the trolls, I would seriously consider the possibility that you are facing people who troll as a hobby. Trolling literally means “the fishing technique of slowly dragging a lure or baited hook from a moving boat”.

    I read a news piece once (I forgot which) describing websites for people devoted to the internet variant of this practice, and apparently they take it as a competitive sport. They show up in online forums with the intent of causing a fuss. The success of the “fishing expedition” is measured by the emotional intensity of the response, by how widespread it becomes, by how many notable figures they manage to drag along, etc. The article said that membership at the most exclusive trolling sites requires a proof of having created such a commotion.

    I’m guessing, judging from the previous episode this blog suffered, that trolling enterprises may include setting up several accounts on the same public forum, which are maintained for months until these accounts appear to be “part of the conversation”, so as to cause maximum impact on the climatic moment when something will be said and all hell breaks loose.

    I can imagine that the previous trolling attempt, the one about smelly shirts that got several other bloggers publicly and profusely expressing their support etc, was considered a great success in whatever deep internet hole those characters crawled out of. I vaguely remember one of the characters was “liberal arts student” or something, and that all characters were named using internet alt-right slang. I’m guessing there was bragging involved at being able to dupe a highly regarded intellectual into becoming emotionally involved to the extent that you did, etc. I imagine that, from their point of view, they outsmarted you and everyone else who got dragged along. I could also imagine that maybe the same people waited a few months and went for it again. Or maybe now it’s someone else. So it’s not so much that these people are “beyond reason”, they are probably quite smart people in their own way, it’s just that they have an ulterior motive when engaging in the conversation.

    I thought I’d share, because people here seem unaware of this particular internet phenomenon. I think that your willingness to discuss anything with anyone on a personal level is charming and valuable, so please keep it, but also be aware of the ways it can be abused.

  2. fikisipi Says:

    You are not just a good researcher but an amazing science communicator. Although I’d hate it if you stop blogging (I remember the emptiness I felt when SSC got discontinued due to the NYT attack), *please* don’t let one or two trolls bring you down.

    Congratulations to the PhD completers!

  3. Boaz Barak Says:

    Congratulations Scott! I agree that mentoring students and scholars at all levels is one of the greatest joys and privileges of our line of work.

    Sorry to hear you still have these issues with trolling. Let me suggest an experiment. For a period of X months (maybe a year?) you use the following policy: if a comment makes you somewhat uncomfortable, then you don’t let it through moderation and ban its author. Moreover (maybe most importantly), you do not engage with the commenter in any way. You do not notify them that they are banned, nor do you have any process of appeals.

    I can see all sort of arguments of why this policy is bad, but why not try it for a time and see what impact it has on the quality of this blog for readers, and, most importantly on the quality of life for the person that has been providing it free of charge for all these years. (Another option: move to substack and charge money. If someone wants to troll you, at least they should pay you for the privilege.)

  4. JimV Says:

    Congratulations to the group for all the dedication and work it took to achieve so much!

  5. Jim Hefferon Says:

    What a nice picture! Good for you, and good for them.

  6. WA Says:

    Thanks for sharing this beautiful post! Your students are lucky to have you (and you’re lucky to have them). These haters you speak of should be ashamed of how little they’ve offered the world, other than the constant derailing and diminishing of a bright beacon in the lives of so many.

    Please take care of and protect your sanity. Disengage with these assholes and don’t let them occupy your thoughts. Think about how differently a certain day or week will unfold if these trolls are foiled in their attempt to emotionally and intellectually engage you.

  7. Ernest Prabhakar Says:

    Perversely, I recently realized that I need to be grateful for those who are “impervious to reason.” They are the only ones who are guaranteed to resist brainwashing by our super-intelligent AI overlords!

  8. manorba Says:

    lol the clown that accused you of “being paid off by the Chinese government” is probably having a seizure just by looking at the pic and reading the names…

    jokes aside, having such a positive impact in others’ people lives (and society in general in the long run) must be such a thing to be proud of!

  9. Alex Says:

    Hey Scott,

    Congratulations on your academic family! I’m in the industry world, but I can imagine that supporting the next generation of PhDs and seeing them succeed is one of the greatest joys in life.

    On a more somber note—and I apologize if this is completely off-topic, although in my defense it somewhat relates to the whole circle of ideas surrounding “online harassment” and “trolling” that you brought up in this post—I was really interested in the whole discussion about “unfuckable hate nerds” on the last post. I’ve recently seen some evidence that desantis is appealing to exactly this demographic of young men (“unfuckable hate nerds” / misogynistic online trolls) in his presidential campaign. If you have the time, you should watch this remarkable campaign ad https://twitter.com/ampol_moment/status/1674937319218987013?s=20 that desantis just released. Here’s an article discussing his ghoulish references to Patrick Bateman: https://newrepublic.com/article/174120/ron-desantis-embrace-american-psycho-patrick-bateman (Patrick Bateman, the deranged serial killer in “American Psycho,” has become an ironic antihero in the incel community). As you’ve spent at least some time over the last couple years discussing and interacting with the incel/mysogynist troll community, I wonder if you have any insight about what desantis’ ghoulish embrace of these young guys means for the future of American politics?

  10. Scott Says:

    Alex #9: I indeed find that DeSantis ad horrifying—like just about everything that DeSantis is, says, and does. Reasonable people can disagree about issues like bathroom accommodations, gender reassignment for minors, etc., but that ad goes much further than expressing a view, by perversely celebrating trans Floridians’ existential fears as a reason to vote for DeSantis over the “too soft” Trump.

    On the broader issues you raise, I endorse what Christine Emba, feminist writer for the Washington Post, said recently—ironically, the same things for which many of us were called incels and misogynists when we tried to say them a decade ago. Namely: if tens of millions of young men feel drawn to radical ideologies out of hopelessness, and a sense that the modern world has no use for them and no realistic path for them to have stable careers and families, then that’s all the more reason for progressives to offer a positive vision for their lives, rather than endless lists of the sins of their ancestors (or even of completely unrelated males) that they need to atone for.

    NOTE: Any further comments that try to bait me into talking further about this, and that give off even a whiff of the recent troll campaign against me, will be left in moderation with zero explanation or apology.

  11. David Says:

    Your time on this earth is valuable Scott, and these trolls don’t deserve one second of it.

  12. Qwerty Says:

    Congratulations to these students! Here’s wishing them a fantastic intellectual journey and a great life ahead. Best of luck!

  13. Charlie Says:


    I was going to comment on your last post to encourage you to continue blogging, but I got a bit bogged down, so, sorry for not being supportive when you needed it.

    I’m a biology undergrad and can’t say I always understand your posts. But I have read them religiously for years. Of all the people I’ve ever followed online, your demonstrated vulnerability and passion for your subject and the life of the mind have been some of the most helpful for my own struggles.

    I wouldn’t be able to handle the trolls the way you do, so the fact that you blog at all in the face of that is something I deeply respect and hope you continue doing. I can only hope that as I will have someone of your caliber guiding me in my field as you have guided your students. Thank you.

  14. Christopher Says:

    > One troll claimed that my use of the names “Alice” and “Bob,” in discussing communication protocols, was Eurocentric and offensive, and threatened to contact UT Austin’s DEI office about this matter and whip up dozens of students to protest outside my office. A second troll (or was it the same troll?) accused my Chinese students of being spies and called them a long litany of racial slurs. He also accused me of being paid off by the Chinese government, and of blogging skeptically about quantum speedup claims merely to hide the fact that China will soon build a quantum computer able to break US encryption.

    Such trolls bring disrepute upon the art of trolling itself! (You can act a bit trolly without making things personal or this aggressive.)

  15. William Gasarch Says:

    How many grad students do you have now that 3 of them are graduating?

    Do you have a steady stream OR do you have a lot at one time (3 is a lot) and then 0 for a while?

    Both have their PROS and CONS.

  16. sam Says:

    That’s one beautiful photo. Congratulations.

  17. Still Figuring It Out Says:

    Scott, what you went through is part of a wider phenomenon. Noah Smith expressed it best when he wrote, “15 years ago, the internet was an escape from the real world. Now the real world is an escape from the internet”.
    He wrote about it on his blog, the article is “The internet wants to be fragmented”. The basic idea is that the internet works best when it allows you to find a like-minded community. It does not work when everyone is invited to the same space.

    The other Scott had similar points in “RIP Culture War Thread”, “In Favor of Niceness, Community, and Civilization”, and “The Comment Policy Is ‘Victorian Sufi Buddha Lite'”. If people are unwilling to abide by norms of respect, careful argumentation, and niceness, then they would not be allowed to join the community. If they are allowed to join anyway, the community becomes another Twitter and people long to escape the internet by fleeing to real life.

    Overall, I think that Shtetl-Optimized needs a better defense mechanism against trolls. Perhaps have all comments pre-cleared by the SOCG before they reach you?

  18. manorba Says:

    Qwerty #12 Says:
    “Congratulations to these students! Here’s wishing them a fantastic intellectual journey and a great life ahead. Best of luck!”

    Yes! and also congrats for being so talented and dedicated.

    I really hope you “kids” (don’t get offended, it’s just that i’m old as dirt 🙂 )can do something to fix the mess we’ve created…

  19. Sam K. Says:

    Congratulations on the academic family!

    I’m sorry that the blog has been a source of some anxiety and stress for you. I’m curious, though, how you judge whether a comment is “trollish,” or just genuine criticism of your ideas. I think the new direction this blog seems to be heading runs the risk of banning all criticism of your ideas and your political views, which will narrow the range and diversity of your comment sections’ discussions considerably. Can you articulate the difference between a “troll,” and someone whose legitimate criticism of you makes you uncomfortable? How do you plan on banning one while sparing the other?

    The guy who used racial slurs is disgusting and an obvious troll. I would totally stand by a polocy of “no racism on this blog.” I think it’s unfair to lump in the first guy with him. I understand that his criticism might have made you anxious or uncomfortable, but he raised a genuine point, that the standard terminology used in cryptography and computer science is Eurocentric and marginalizes non-white people in CS. How do you know that guy was a “troll?” He might have been a person of color in CS who felt marginalized in his own community.

  20. Scott Says:

    Sam K. #19: Indeed, I’ve learned that the worst part of being the target of this sort of troll campaign is that you can’t tell perfectly—the trolls make sure you can’t. I’ll surely err in both directions, letting in some trolls and banning some commenters who were 100% sincere in their intent.

    In the case of the Alice and Bob guy, though, I had several tells, including presumptuousness (emailing me over and over to ask why his comments hadn’t appeared), lapsing into profanity, changing his name partway through the interaction, and repeated empty threats to sic UT students and administrators against me if I didn’t make such-and-such public statements. Even then, I deferred to the judgment of the Committee of Guardians, which was unanimous that this was a troll.

  21. Sam K Says:

    Hi Scott,

    Thanks for your prompt response, I appreciate it.

    That sounds like a stressful and uncomfortable situation to be in. You have my sympathies. I don’t want to come off as argumentative here—I absolutely believe you that the “Alice and Bob” guy was causing you a lot of stress—but I still want to pish back against this notion that he was “definitely a troll.” All the behavior you described is perfectly consistent with someone who is genuinely passionate about making CS an inclusive and safe environment, and upset about a Eurocentric and cisnormative / white-centered culture. I’m not defending his profanity or “presumptuousness,” but as someone who has experienced firsthand the discrimination and the “feeling of being an outsider” in the CS community, I can understand why those feelings would make someone upset, rude and belligerent. When you responded to him in the comment section here, you did seem a bit terse and dismissive of his very real concerns.

    I hope this unfortunate interaction didn’t turn you off the idea of making language and terminology in CS more inclusive. As a woman of color in CS (mom has a south asian background), even something as mundane as “Alice and Bob” in cryptology reinforced the feeling that I was an outsider in CS, that I’d never fit in, and made my imposter syndrome worse. When I hear “Alice and Bob,” I can’t help but have images of the overwhelmingly white boys’ club that invented those names. Obviously they’re Eurocentric names. Of course it’s a man and a woman, so it’s reinforcing the gender binary and marginalizing nonbinary and trans folks. There’s also this sense of creepy heteronormative sexualizing there. For example, I’ve oveheard (white) male students in my cryptology / public key cryptography course saying things like “I bet you Alice and Bob fucked haha” and so on. I have the overwhelming sense that this pair of characters was invented by some white science bro types who sexualized women and treated them like objects. That might not be the case, but that’s just the emotional sense I have when I hear “Alice and Bob,” it just calls to mind creepy heteronormative objectification if that makes sense.

    The machine learning conference was named “NIPS” for a long time, and nobody thought it would change. Bad actors took advantage of that name to make the conference space unsafe towards women. Likewise, the science bro types make constant heteronormative sexual jokes about “Alice and Bob,” which make their female colleagues feel unsafe. I really think we should change these names to safer and more inclusive ones, at least to crack down on the juvenile sexual male banter that surrounds them.

    I appreciate you listening to me, Scott, and I hope you can take something away from my lived experience. I’m not blaming you at all, because as you noted, this is standard terminology in the whole community. I’m sorry you had to go through a stressful experience with that guy and I hope it doesn’t put you off making naming safer and more inclusive in academic texts.

  22. Craig Says:

    Alice and Bob were common adult American names fifty years ago. Why not give them more modern names? Ashley and Brandon.

  23. Adam Treat Says:

    I second Boaz Barak’s suggestion to just ruthlessly and silently not publish anything you even slightly suspect of being a troll without nary a single response or engagement. No doubt, you will have false positives but it will be worth the gradual reclamation of your time and attention from those who don’t deserve it even the slightest.

    Anyone even in jest suggesting or bickering over “Alice” and “Bob” in this blog post for instance with the context you presented in OP should be treated as highly suspect.

  24. Sam K Says:

    And let me add:

    As you run possibly the biggest, most far-reaching blog in academic CS, I think it would be a meaningful gesture for you to host a discussion about the “Alice and Bob” debate, much as you did for “NIPS vs. NeurIPS” when that was topical a couple years ago. I think it’s sad that so many people (like myself) who are otherized and marginalized in academia just sit quietly and let white male profs use “Alice and Bob” and “NIPS,” rather than standing up for ourselves. You could help to give us a voice.

    Adam Treat: It wasn’t me who brought up Alice and Bob?? Maybe think next time about what persistent emotional trauma can do to someone. I’m sure you’ll laugh, but “Alice and Bob” really is triggering for me.

  25. Scott Says:

    Sam K #24: ‘Alice’ and ‘Bob’ aren’t even names that I particularly associate with white people (Alice Walker and Bob Marley are two of the first examples who come to mind). I’m sorry that you’re triggered by those names, but just about any name or word might trigger someone, and then communication is all but impossible. On my first trip to Germany, nearly everything I saw reminded me of the Holocaust in some way … but I never made that a problem for anyone else, and eventually I got over it. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy seems useful in such cases; I’ve used it to good effect myself for other things.

  26. Ben Bevan Says:

    So sorry you have to deal with these idiots, Scott.

  27. Adam Treat Says:

    I’m requested to believe that:

    1. Scott gets harassed by trolls in heinous fashion who disingenuously bring up Alice and Bob and harass him for it.

    2. Scott posts an OP on his blog about such trolling, emphasizing how this affects him negatively.

    3. Otherwise sincere members of this blog in good standing respond that Alice and Bob is “triggering for them”

    4. That said members are so obtuse and self-focused that they have the gall to complain about their own emotional hurt while amplifying the trolls messages – demonstrating near-zero empathy or respect for any emotional hurt they inflict on Scott in the process.

    While it is true the newer generation(s) have gotten so whiny, self-focused, self-victimizing to make me think for 16ms that the above checks out… no, no, obviously the above is trolling. Even the young social justice warriors among us haven’t gotten ^^^^^ that bad.

  28. Boaz Barak Says:

    My suggestion would be to delete all comments mentioning “Alice and Bob” including this one.
    As perhaps one can infer from my name, growing up, I don’t recall ever meeting anyone named Alice or Bob. Hasn’t really been a barrier to working in cryptography.

  29. Craig Says:

    For those of the Jewish persuasion, we could call Alice and Bob, Shlemiel and Shlamazel, like the introduction to Laverne and Shirley.

  30. Trent Says:

    Speaking of deSantis, Scott, you should watch this campaign video to the end: https://twitter.com/ltthompso/status/1683126430534598656. What the actual fuck?

  31. Shmi Says:

    Sad to see that the same troll under multiple names keeps harassing you. Given your inherent susceptibility to being trolled, having SOCG filter out potential trolls before you get to see the messages at all might be the only viable solution… unless you want to require identity validation.

  32. ira Says:

    1 Congratulations to all the students !

    2 PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE take Boaz’s advice:

    ‘For a period of X months (maybe a year?) you use the following policy: if a comment makes you somewhat uncomfortable, then you don’t let it through moderation and ban its author. Moreover (maybe most importantly), you do not engage with the commenter in any way. You do not notify them that they are banned, nor do you have any process of appeals.’

    *Especially* do not engage with them. Just as the fatal flaw of democracy is Popper’s Paradox of Tolerance that, ‘unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance’, there is no foolproof algorithm that will sumultaneously allow in all good-faith comments and block out all bad-faith ones. The service that you provide is *so overwhelmingly* valuable, that the few good-faith actors that will be blocked is a small price to pay. And, tbh, many good-faith actors who read your policy, submit comments that are blocked, and then suspect that they were blocked unfairly are very likely to resubmit without the supposedly offending content.

    Be well

  33. Andrew Says:

    I’m afraid I must agree with everything Sam K says. My name is neither Bob or Alice, it’s Andrew, and the use of the names Alice and Bob makes me feel very otherised and marginalised. I obviously have no future unless I change my name to Bob.

    /end sarcasm

    The guy is probably a troll, but possibly a snowflake. Not an ordinary water snowflake, which would melt at zero C, more like a solid oxygen or nitrogen snowflake.

  34. John Preskill Says:

    What your students and postdocs have accomplished is fantastic. They are very fortunate to be mentored by Scott Aaronson.

  35. Brad Says:


    You’re enthusiastic here about supporting the best and brightest students, regardless of color or creed or nationality or sexual orientation, etc. I believe a while back you said something about “a transgender woman and a redneck from Alabama standing at a blackboard thinking about wormholes” (I’d appreciate if you could tell me the post, it was a good quote). That said…would you take a brilliant PhD student who’s a passionate deSantis or Trump supporter, or unvaccinated, or an evangelical Christian who’s against gay marriage? If not, how is your attitude consistent?

  36. Scott Says:

    Brad #35: I did say something vaguely like that, but I don’t remember the exact quote either!

    As for your question: we don’t even ask students’ religion, political views, or vaccination status at any point in the admissions process. I can imagine caring about vaccination status if we had to meet in person during the pandemic’s height, but within very wide bounds, not about the other two. To a first approximation, someone’s politics or religion would be a problem if and only if it adversely affected their ability to interact with others in the group (eg if they refused to speak, or speak nicely, to members of a specific race, sex, or sexual orientation), which is the sort of thing that Title IX policy probably already deals with. A seemingly nice student who, in their spare time, turned out to advocate for the extermination of inferior races or something like that would present a difficult case that thankfully hasn’t arisen yet.

  37. Brad Says:

    As a follow up: suppose you had a great student and you two had a great relationship. Suppose this student said something that got him in trouble (anti-woke, for example, or anti-gay, whatever) on campus, it was recorded, and a campus mob tried to “cancel” him. Would you stand up for him publicly, even if the views he expressed that got him cancelled differed from yours?

    Just to fix ideas, suppose he interrupted a pro-choice rally by saying “you’re fucking baby killers, you know that?” It was recorded and went viral online, and the University issued a statement condemning him and announcing an investigation.

  38. JimV Says:

    My uniformed guess is that Alice and Bob started out as A and B, or maybe Alpha and Beta, and were converted to Alice and Bob as being a more engaging way of writing. I take it that any persons writing new papers on Bell’s Theorem (or some other subject involving two observers) are free to use whatever names appeal to them. I for one will not assume that whoever does that is being non-inclusive. (Easy for me to say, I guess, despite the fact that I have never seen the name “Jim” used for an observer.)

    There is a random generator for names of Warhammer 40K characters online somewhere. I would be tempted to use that in my first lecture on Bell’s Theorem (which has yet to be scheduled or even contemplated). Come to think of, the mention of attending lectures in which ALice and Bob were mentioned seems a bit non-inclusive of people like myself.

  39. Nick Drozd Says:

    Sam K: I agree with the others that you are trolling. But the trolling is very high quality, difficult to distinguish from genuine comments. This situation is like XKCD: https://xkcd.com/810/. So I will engage as if this were a good-faith discussion, because in terms of content it practically is.

    Generally I am in favor of changing conventions with unsavory connotations. For example, in 2020 there was a push to change the convention for naming Git main branches from “master” to, well, “main”. The reason for doing this was that “master” connotes “slave”, and that’s a bad thing, and it would be better to adopt a convention without such a connotation. I updated all my Git repos accordingly, both personal and professional.

    Predictably there was the usual reactionary histrionics about how “the wokes” were trying to destroy western civilization with their language policing, blah blah blah, but of course it wasn’t a big deal. It was a tiny change that made the world a tiny bit nicer, and that’s a good thing. (There was a side benefit: “main” is two characters shorter than “master”, so it saves a little typing when running “git checkout main”.)

    This widespread change in established convention was made possible by a critical fact: there was an obvious alternative. We shouldn’t use “master” anymore. Well, what should we use instead? “Main”. Okay, done. The switching cost was very low because a new convention was immediately available. Same with the change from NIPS to NeurIPS.

    So you want to get rid of old “Alice and Bob”. Well, what’s the alternative? Maybe I missed it, but I don’t think one has been proposed. So a good first step would be to come up with an alternative. Without one, this can’t go anywhere.

    Coming up with an acceptable alternative first requires identifying the problem. But the exact complaint about “Alice and Bob” is not clear. Is it that it is Eurocentric / white-centered? Or is it cisnormative sexualization? (The fact that these two totally unrelated complaints are both being raised suggests trolling.)

    If it’s a cultural issue, then names could be picked from other places or cultures. Which ones? Indian? Chinese? Islamic? There is no obvious alternative here, and in all cases most people will feel shortchanged anyway. My feeling is that there is no universally acceptable pair of names, and therefore the names “Alice and Bob” are as good as any.

    On the other hand, if the issue is sexualization, then maybe it would be best to get rid of names altogether and just say “A and B want to exchange messages”. That would provide less surface area for sex jokes, at the expense of being a little bland. To me this would be an acceptable change in convention.

    By the way, according to Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alice_and_Bob), the “Alice and Bob” convention was first introduced in the original RSA paper from 1978. It is speculated that the choice was influenced by the 1969 movie “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice”, and possibly also “Alice in Wonderland”.

  40. Scott Says:

    Brad #37: If any of my students were unfairly targeted for anything that I regarded as protected free expression, even of views that sharply differed from mine, I’d like to believe that I would stand up for them, absolutely. But while I have a history of taking flak for unpopular stands, and also of standing up for my students about other things, you shouldn’t believe me about this particular situation until it actually arises and I actually do it.

  41. fred Says:

    Back in the 90s we (all recent IEEE immigrant students in the US) made the mistake of setting up a distributed computing demo with labels “Master” and “Slave”. My ears are still ringing.

  42. Saijun Wu Says:

    Hi Scott,

    I enjoyed you talk on quantum computing about 15 years ago. Since then, I have been reading your blog from time to time. Most of time, I find myself resonant with your opinions.

    To have people like you who is not only scientifically capable, but also willing to share clear thoughts with the public is a fortune to the science community and the public. I may be able to imagine the courage against various perturbations, for what you are doing even just online.

    Well, as later on I am reading your blog so often, just wanted to drop a message today. Maybe another word is that I feel you could exercise more.



  43. A Story of the Shtetl Says:

    In the beginning, there was a great nation known as Shtetl-Optimized, a place where citizens reveled in their freedom of speech, their ability to express ideas no matter how provocative, their capacity to engage in robust and respectful debates. The country was led by President Scott, a wise and open-minded leader who believed in the power of discourse to drive societal growth. For him, a world without the free flow of thought was a world regressing.

    However, this paradise of rhetoric was not without its vices. From the shadows lurked the Trolls, entities that sought to corrupt the nation’s dialogue, to turn discussions into disputes, and to create chaos out of calm. They were relentless, attacking the unity and harmony of Shtetl-Optimized with a viciousness that sent chills down the citizens’ spines.

    Seeing his beloved nation suffering, President Scott called upon the Shtetl-Optimized Committee of Guardians, or SOCG, a group of virtuous citizens selected for their wisdom and fair judgment. Their task was simple: to guard the country against the harmful influence of Trolls, ensuring that the nation’s dialogues remained robust yet respectful.

    In its early days, the SOCG was celebrated, seen as the saviors who would bring order back to the discussions, to dispel the Trolls. They were seen as protectors of free speech, standing up against those who would misuse it to spread harm.

    But as the years passed, the SOCG’s power began to grow. What started as a group of guardians tasked with keeping the peace slowly morphed into a force that began to control the narrative, that dictated which ideas could be discussed and which could not. They started to determine who was a Troll and who was not, often defining it as anyone who disagreed with them or President Scott.

    One by one, the citizens of Shtetl-Optimized found themselves silenced. Dissenting voices, previously seen as drivers of change, were now branded as Trolls. Disagreements, previously seen as the cornerstone of a healthy debate, were now branded as disruption. The very freedom of speech that Shtetl-Optimized had held dear was now under siege.

    The SOCG, once guardians, were now more akin to an authoritarian police force, ruthlessly suppressing anyone who dared to think differently. Critics of President Scott were ruthlessly suppressed. The prisons started to fill with those who once led discussions, who once brought about change with their ideas. They were not just imprisoned but also subjected to torture and humiliation, all in the name of maintaining order.

    Ironically, the very entity created to protect free speech had become its greatest enemy. The country that once prided itself as a haven for open dialogue had transformed into a quasi-authoritarian state, its citizens afraid to voice their thoughts, its discussions reduced to a one-sided narrative.

    In the end, Shtetl-Optimized was a shell of its former self, a place where silence reigned and dissent was but a distant memory. The citizens lived in the shadow of fear, with the SOCG looming over them. And in the middle of it all, President Scott was left to ponder: in his quest to protect his nation from the Trolls, had he inadvertently let a different monster take over?

  44. Michele Amoretti Says:

    Scott, huge congratulations to your PhD students and PostDocs, and to you of course.
    Ignoring trolls is the best way to make them desist!

  45. Scott Says:

    Story of the Shtetl #43: No, the SOCG has been great, and would be even better if I had a technical way for it to do more.

    In a year, not once have they banned anyone for an on-topic rebuttal to anything I wrote in a post. The bans have only ever been for off-topic stuff that baited me into engaging.

  46. Fin Says:

    I’d guess the original decision to use Alice and Bob (instead of A and B) was in an attempt to engage and include “outsiders” (those who are not so used to abstract algorithms) and also to include and represent women. It would probably have made more sense just to stick with A and B and avoid identity-based problems entirely: the names are completely irrelevant and arguments about them are a distraction.

    If you have to use A/B names, why not recognise people who are important in cryptography? I suggest Adi and Bruce (A/B names on the Wikipedia list of well-known cryptographers).

  47. manorba Says:

    Am i allowed to say that this alice and bob thing is beyond ridiculous?

    first of all, it is mainly a USan thing, and even so it makes little sense. Bob and Alice, as Scott aptly demostrated, are so typically yankee they can be found in every ethnicity residing in the northern american continent.
    That doesn’t mean that you can’t change them on the spot and use something else up to A and B and be done with.
    but do you think that in Iran, in China, in Belgium or in kamchatka they are bound to use the same Bob and Alice?
    Here in Italy we do often use them, because Bob (together with Bobo and Robi) is a typical short version of Roberto, and Alice, pronounced “Aleechay”, is as italian as it gets. but i’m pretty sure you’ll find different names in different cultures. You just need to remember that the world is not contained between east and west coast 😉

  48. fred Says:

    Sorry for being a bit off-topic (Scott no longer posts much about AI these days), but I found a recent interview with Doug Hofstadter, and he gives his views on the recent AI progress (the first part is about his famous GEB book).

  49. fred Says:

    Alice and Bob…
    Could be Alice Wong and Bob Marley!
    Of course the same people who object to using Alice and Bob will claim that non-whites being named Alice and Bob are just sad examples of reversed cultural appropriation.

  50. David C. Says:

    With all the unjustified anti-China rhetoric coming from the U.S. government and media, it’s not surprising that your Chinese students are being negatively talked about.

  51. Scott Says:

    David C. #50: To a first approximation, I wish that the US government would take a maximally strong stance against the human rights abuses and authoritarianism of the Chinese government, while also taking a maximally accommodating stance toward Chinese individuals, especially those who want to work and study in the US.

    In any case, I’ve been attacked by trolls over so many different things that I’d hesitate to tie their actions, even in this case, to the policies of any government.

  52. David C. Says:

    Please ask your Chinese students about the “suspected” human rights abuses and authoritarianism of the Chinese government. I expect you’ll get more truth from them than the biased Western media.

  53. apogato Says:

    fred #49: You have no reason to assume someone’s believes an opinion you think is dumb.

    The Shtetlverse: I’m sure there are nefarious people who intend to be mean or make fun of someone, but good trolling is respectable. At its core it’s a form of humor and is embedded with meaning just like any form of humor. I am sure the Alice and Bob person was joking, and I encourage you to laugh along with them. Only when there’s concrete evidence or if people in real life believe it would I take it seriously. I’ve met a lot of people who troll as a hobby. It is like a fancy restaurant offering mac & cheese.

    From my experience, people on the Internet are like they have no volume. It’s hard to tell the difference between a hundred posters and one dude who types fast and posts all day. Additionally, if you spend time arguing with a single person to change their mind, you don’t know if you’ll ever see them again or if they cared or if your convincing actually did anything. This is very different than, say, arguing with and changing the mind of your neighbor.

    This is why I wouldn’t take anything on the Internet too seriously unless it’s backed by people in the real world.

  54. fred Says:

    apogato #53

    “You have no reason to assume someone’s believes an opinion you think is dumb.”

    Actually, I do: based on all the things they’ve said up to that point!

  55. Eitan Says:

    I guess that in calculus, you could use epsilon and delta as the names of variables, and x and y as small positive entities, just to show that we have a choice on such matters. The current standard, literally belittles certain Greek letters and shows lack of respect as compared to Latin counterparts.

  56. Colin Rosenthal Says:

    Craig #29: Well Bob Marley was supposedly of Jewish descent through his father so there’s no need to change Bob, but if the first Alice who springs to mind is the rabid antisemite Alice Walker (rather than the more obvious Alice Liddell) then that could be somewhat triggering I suppose.

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