Scott Aaronson gets arrested

though “detained” is probably the more precise word. This sort of thing can happen to anyone, and we wouldn’t wish it upon any undeserving person. There’s a certain amount of karma in having a man who fantasizes* about wrongthinkers being “thrown in prison for life” experience first-hand the humiliating cold steel of handcuffs, but do not mistake this remark for schadenfreude on our part. Our own absentminded tenured self is certainly not immune from the kind of innocent mistake he made (read his post), and we shall not liken ourself to the braying mob of gleeful detractors.


Question for Scott: How do you feel about Black Lives Matter? There’s a lot of race and white privilege talk in the comments, but nobody mentions the anarcho-tyranny angle. As chance would have it, both of Scott’s arresting officers were black. And while the optics of two white cops handcuffing a black scientist at an airport would have catapulted this story to international front pages, there is no Ashkenazi “stuttering and potbellied complexity blogger” Lives Matter movement — and none planned for any foreseeable future. So yeah, check your privilege, or something.


* There was a weaselly half-way walk-back, of sorts.


Reverse, projective, commutative racism

Jordan Ellenberg is hyperventilating over the shocking racism of science fiction from 100 years ago:

[…] I’m stopped short by, well, how super-racist a lot of these stories are? I hadn’t remembered this at all. Like, you write a story (“Awlo of Ulm”) about a guy who makes himself smaller than an atom and discovers an entirely new subnuclear universe, and the wildest thing you can imagine finding there is… that the black-skinned subnuclear people are cannibalistic savages, and the yellow-skinned, slant-eyed ones are hyperrational, technically advanced, and cruel, and the white-skinned ones are sort of feudal and hapless but really standup guys when you get to know them?

I’m completely with you, Professor — these stereotypes have no grounding in reality whatsoever. (But didja have to do that SJW uptalk in writing as well?) You’re in good company, too; racism is without a doubt the worst thing in the world, but there is a cure!

Say, Prof. Ellenberg, how’d you like to have a reverse mentor?

Male, pale and stale university professors are to be given “reverse mentors” to teach them about unconscious bias, under a new Government funded scheme.

Under the project, white men in senior academic posts will be assigned a junior female colleague from an ethnic minority as a mentor.

Prof John Rowe, who is overseeing the project at Birmingham University, said he hoped the scheme will allow eminent professors to confront their own biases and leave them “feeling quite uncomfortable”.

In all seriousness, the article left out a crucial detail: How will this project be administratively enforced? I expect the majority of the “male, pale and stale” professors to be thrilled to have an opportunity to be berated by a vibrant diversity hire, but what about the occasional retrograde holdout? Will attendance be taken? Will the minority mentors be expected to snitch on no-shows? Will they entrap their prey into uttering the ineffable?

Fields medal

Don’t feel bad if you missed the Fields Medal announcements. Apparently, it wasn’t a very exciting crop this time around*. I say this not as one who is qualified to judge mathematical achievement of the highest level, but rather as one who is privy to the gossip in the relevant academic circles and is fairly competent at appraising academic status based on objective markers.

The Fields award that raised the most eyebrows was the one given to the Kurdish “refugee”. We can only speculate what kind of political considerations might have played a role in the decision. For one thing, Terry Tao served on the prize committee, and seeing as his blog masthead features the zeroth amendment and how Prof. Tao doesn’t shy away from political forays, one can’t help but wonder if the curvature of the historical arc introduced a distortion into the judgment metric. (In a twist of irony, Birkar’s medal was stolen minutes after being awarded; make of this what you will.)

Coming down from the rarefied heights of mathematical Mount Olympus to my own humble lived experience, I’ll wager to say that a great many, if not most, competitive judgments of academic and artistic worth are deeply subjective — and hence prone to political coloring. If we suppose (Queen Izabella’s aggressive ignorance notwithstanding) that human achievement has a rough bell-shaped distribution, we expect to see light tails with the majority of the mass near the middle. This phenomenon is manifested at competitive conferences such as NIPS (or whatever it’s called now). A minority of submissions (roughly 40%) are clear accepts or clear rejects, while the rest are borderline or close to it. To its credit, such conferences (NIPS included) attempt to minimize personal bias via a double-blind review process. Still, one can often discover the author’s identity from the subject matter and writing style. And eventually, someone in the conference program committee hierarchy will know the true identity — and these are the people making the final decisions.

This subjectivity of judgment is baked into the scientific cake — science, after all, is a social activity. We do not lament this unavoidable state of affairs, but find it healthy to remind ourselves and others of it occasionally.

*except for this guy, who everyone agrees is of the right caliber

What’s in a name? A power grab!

If you’re not a researcher in machine learning, you probably haven’t heard of the NIPS conference. Don’t let the name (acronym of Neural Information Processing Systems) distract you: it’s machine learning. Language is well-known to lag behind the times: that’s why we still “dial” on touch-screens and write on dry-erase white “blackboards”.

Established in 1987, NIPS has been a flagship, top-tier research conference for 30 years. To the uninitiated, the name did occasionally raise eyebrows: mostly, when googling “nips” and getting “mature content” but also the occasional question concerning overrepresentation of Japanese people. The rest of us mature, well-adjusted adults managed to compartmentalize these distinct senses — much as we do with other dual-use words, such as ass, dick, pussy, n***** (well, not that one).

Fast-forward to 2018, when the name has suddenly become problematic. We don’t know if the tweet by this twit (talk about informative physiognomy!) is what actually got the ball rolling, but now “The NIPS executive board is currently discussing the possibility of changing the name of the NIPS conference.” This reddit commentator got it exactly right:

The thing is: it is not “just a name”, it is about a power game, a display of power over a big entity. It has been done in many organizations (private and public), in the last 5 years, throughout the US. Look at the way this is being presented:

The specification of an oppressor (the conference) and an oppressed entity (the women), the definition of how that oppression is being implemented (i.e. verbal communication, in jokes made in conference related events, that CERTAIN women and men dislike) and how what change is required in order to eliminate the oppression or neutralize the oppressor.

Does this template sound familiar? If yes, it is because it was used over and over and over in other places. The thing is not about the name. The thing is about what certain people in this thread know that is behind the reasoning, and the endgame, of this type of requests.

This is nothing but a bald-faced power grab. We must understand this as a (probably lost) battle in the Cold Civil War — and not some intellectual debate, which the other side emphatically does not want. I don’t see this war being won by rational arguments. In particular, to save science, we must first drain the higher education swamp — and nothing short of a full reset will do. Glenn Reynolds has been writing about The Higher Education Bubble and every decent man must do his bit to hasten its bursting. De-funding and certification are two obvious lines of attack; we shall try to elaborate in future posts.

Niggard of question;

but, of our demands,
Most free in his reply.*

Speaking of questions, let’s do another entry in our Questions Instead of Commentary series.

  1. At which exact point in history did real life become Life of Brian?
  2. [re-asking] “How long before provocateurs deliberately utter the ineffable in conversation and then rush to denounce their friends and colleagues for failure to report?”
  3. How long before the n-w*rd itself becomes taboo and needs to be replaced by something else (perhaps, “the word“)?


*Hey, it’s posted on an MIT site, go after them — they’ve got deeper pockets than yours truly. And while you’re at it, go ahead and take dead-white-male Shakespeare down a notch. Buildings? Monuments? You know what to do.