Shtetl-Optimized


1. This post has no technical content.  As the tag indicates, it’s entirely “Nerd Self-Help”—thoughts I’ve recently found extremely helpful to me, and that I’m hopeful some others might be able to apply to their own life situations.  If that doesn’t interest you, feel free to skip.

2. I’m using the numbered list format simply because I have a large number of interrelated things to say, and getting each one down precisely seems more important than fashioning them into some coherent narrative.

3. For someone who walks around every day wracked by neurosis, social anxiety, tics, and depression, I’m living an unbelievably happy and fulfilling life.  For this I’m profoundly grateful—to “the universe,” but much more so, to the family and friends and colleagues who’ve made it possible.

4. On bad days, I’ve cursed fate for having placed me in a world to which my social skills were so poorly adapted.  On good days, though, I’ve thanked fate for letting me thrive in such a world, despite my social skills being so maladapted to it.  My ability to thrive in this world owes everything to the gifts of modernity, to the stuff Steven Pinker talks about in Enlightenment Now: the decline of violence, the rule of law, the freedom from hunger, disease, and war, but most of all the rise of science.  So I have a personal reason to be grateful for modernity and to care deeply about its preservation—and to detest Trump and all the other would-be autocrats who’d gleefully take an ax to it.  Like hothouse plants, nerds can flourish only in artificially safe environments.  I don’t often enough express my gratitude for having been born into a world that contains such environments, so I’m taking the opportunity to do so today.

5. I got back a few days ago from a wonderful visit to Mexico City—thanks so much to Sergio Rajsbaum, Luis González, and all my other new friends there for helping to organize it.  I gave three talks at UNAM, one of the largest universities on earth.  I ate … well, the best Mexican food I ever tasted.  I saw amazing sights, including the National Museum of Anthropology, which has hall after hall full of Aztec and Maya artifacts of a grandeur one normally associates with ancient Egypt, Greece, or Rome.  Go there if you want a visceral sense for the scale of the tragedy wrought by the conquistadors.  (On the other hand, having seen the decorated ceremonial knives, the skulls of children whose hearts were ripped out while still beating, I do have to count the end of human sacrifice as a net positive.)

6. The trip was surreal: I discussed quantum computing and philosophy and Mexican history over enchiladas and tequila.  I signed copies of my book, lectured, met fans of this blog.  There was lots of good-natured laughter about the tale of my arrest, and stern reminders to be careful when ordering smoothies.  A few people I met shared their own stories of being harassed by US police over trivial mishaps (e.g., “put your hands on the car,” rifle aimed, over a parking violation), exacerbated of course by their being Mexicans.  One colleague opined that he preferred the Mexican system, wherein you and the officer just calmly, politely discussed how many pesos would make the problem go away.  But then, from time to time, I’d check my phone and find fresh comments accusing me of being a thief, a nutcase incapable of functioning in society, a racist who wants to be treated differently from blacks and Latinos (the actual view expressed in my post was precisely the opposite of that), or even a money-grubbing Jew hyperventilating about “anuddah Shoah.”

7. The real world has a lot to be said for it.  Maybe I should spend more time there.

8. Thanks so much to everyone who sent emails or left comments expressing sympathy about my arrest—or even who simply found the story crazy and amusing, like a Seinfeld episode.  Meanwhile, to those who berated me for being unable to function in society: does it bother you, does it present a puzzle for your theory, that rather than starving under a bridge, I’m enjoying a career doing what I love, traveling the world giving lectures, happily married with two kids?  Do I not, if nothing else, illustrate how functional a non-functional person can be?

9. It’s possible that my kids will grow up with none of the anxiety or depression or neuroticism or absentmindedness that I’ve had.  But if they do have those problems … well, I’m thankful that I can provide them at least one example of what it’s possible to do in life in spite of it!

10. On SneerClub, someone opined that not only was I an oblivious idiot at the smoothie counter, I must also be oblivious to how bad the incident makes me look—since otherwise, I would never have blogged about it.  I ask my detractors: can you imagine, for one second, being so drunk on the love of truth that you’d take the experiences that made you look the most pathetic and awkward, and share them with the world in every embarrassing detail—because “that which can be destroyed by the truth should be”?  This drunkenness on truth is scary, it’s destabilizing, it means that every day you run a new risk of looking foolish.  But as far as I can introspect, it’s also barely distinguishable from the impulse that leads to doing good science: asking the questions everyone else knows better than to ask, clarifying the obvious, confessing one’s own doofus mistakes.  So as a scientist, I’m grateful to have this massive advantage, for all its downsides.

11. Of the hundreds of reactions to my arrest, some blamed me, some the police, some both and some neither.  As I mentioned before, there was an extremely strong and surprising national split, with Americans siding with the police and non-Americans siding with me.  But there was also an even deeper split: namely, almost everyone who already liked me found the story funny or endearing or whatever, while almost everyone who already hated me found in it new reasons for their hate.  I’ve observed this to be a general phenomenon: within the range of choices I’d realistically consider, none of them seem to do anything to turn enemies into friends or friends into enemies.  If so, then that’s a profoundly liberating realization.  It means that I might as well just continue being myself, saying and doing what seem reasonable to me, without worrying about either winning over the SneerClubbers or losing the people who like this blog.  For neither of those is likely to happen–even if we ignore all the other reasons to eschew overreliance on external validation.

12. Every week or so I get emails from people wanting to share their spiritual theories with me, and to illustrate them with color diagrams.  Most such emails go straight to my trash folder.  This week, however, I received one that contained a little gem of insight:

I realize you are professionally reluctant to admit that Spirit actually exists. However, it is obvious to me from your blog that you are personally committed to what I might label “spiritual development.” You are continually pushing yourself and others to be more self-aware, reflect on our actions and assumptions, and choose to become our best selves.

I can only imagine how much pain and psychic energy it costs you to do that so publicly and vulnerably. But that is precisely why so many of us love you; and others hate you, because they are understandably terrified of paying that same price.

13. To those who’ve called me a terrible person, based on how they imagine I’d respond in hypothetical scenarios of their own construction, I make one request.  Before passing final judgment, at least exchange emails with me, or meet me, or otherwise give me a chance to differentiate myself from your internal bogeyman.  Ask me for grad school advice, or comments on your CS idea, or whatever—and with nothing in it for me, and swamped with similar requests, see how much time I spend trying to help you.  Or ask me to donate to your favorite charity, and see if I do it.  Or tell me about misconduct by a prominent member of my community, and see how I respond.  See if any of this is noticeably affected by your race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or anything else besides the honesty of your request.

14. None of the above are hypotheticals for me.  Once I was given firsthand reports, which I judged to be extremely credible, about a serial sexual harasser of women in the math and TCS communities.  The victims had already pursued formal complaints, but with an unsatisfactory resolution.  In response, I immediately offered to publish the perpetrator’s name on this blog along with the evidence and accusations, or help in any other way desired.  My offer was declined, but it still stands if the victims were to change their minds.

15. My mom once told me that, having been hippies concerned about overpopulation, she and my dad weren’t planning to have any kids.  When they finally decided to do so, it was in order to “spite Hitler.”  I felt incredibly proud to have that be the reason for my birth.  Every time I think about it, it fills me with a renewed urge to stand up for whatever seems most human and compassionate, regardless of how unpopular.

16. Going forward, if I ever (hypothetically) experience a relapse of the suicidal thoughts that characterized part of my life, I’m going to say to myself: no.  Not only will I remain alive, I’ll continue to enjoy my family and friends and research and teaching, and mentor students, and get involved in issues I care about, and otherwise make the most of life.  And if for no other reason, I’d do this in order that Arthur Chu could remain, as he put it, “unhappy about [my] continued existence”!  Admittedly, spiting Chu and his chorus of SneerClubbers is far from the only reason to continue living, but it’s a perfectly sufficient reason in itself.  And this will be an impenetrable shield against suicidal thoughts.  So thanks, Arthur!

17. Four years ago, I received hundreds of moving responses to comment 171.  But perhaps the most touching were from several female classmates who I’d had crushes on back in the depressed period I wrote about, and who said some variant of: “it’s a shame you never asked me, because I liked you and would’ve gladly said yes.”  One of these classmates, bless her heart, recently asked me to share this information, as an encouragement to young nerdy readers who might find themselves in the same situation I was in.  Four years ago, a few feminists lectured me that the crippling fear I’d suffered was good, a feature rather than a bug: if only every other predatory nerdbro would be paralyzed by the same fear!  (That is, when they weren’t also lecturing me that the fears were ridiculous and existed only in my head.)  But the women who wrote to me are also left-wing feminists.  So if you confess your feelings to someone, know that no one who despises that decision, who considers it ‘problematic’ and ‘entitled’ and ‘privileged’ and all the rest of the modern litany of just-die-already words, can pretend to speak for all feminists.  I love my wife and my children, and wouldn’t go back in time to change my life’s trajectory if I could.  But you, readers, armed with wisdom I lacked, can reach a happy place in your lives a hell of a lot faster than I did.

18. While this has been beneath the surface of a huge number of my posts, it seems worth bringing out explicitly.  On certain blogs and social media sites, I’m regularly described as a “leftist troll,” a “pathetic, mewling feminist,” or a “rabid establishment liberal.”  On others I’m called a “far-right Zionist” or an “anti-feminist men’s rights advocate.”  It’s enough to make even me confused.  But here’s how I choose to define my stance: my party is the Party of Psychological Complexity.  Our party platform consists of Shakespeare’s plays, the movie The Breakfast Club, the novels of Mark Twain and Philip Roth and Rebecca Goldstein, classic Simpsons and Futurama, and anything else that tries to grapple with human nature honestly.  For most of the past few centuries, the Party of Psychological Complexity has been in a coalition with the political left, because both were interested in advancing Enlightenment ideals, ending slavery and female subjugation and other evils, and broadening humankind’s circles of empathy.  But the PoPC and the political left already split once, over the question of Communism, and today they split again over the morality and the wisdom of social justice vigilantism.

19. Here in the PoPC, our emphasis on the staggering complexity of the individual conscience might seem hard to square with utilitarian ethics: with public health campaigns, Effective Altruism, doing the greatest good for the greatest number, etc.  But the two philosophies actually fit beautifully.  In the PoPC, our interest (you might say) is in the psychological prerequisites to utilitarianism: in the “safe spaces” for the weird and nerdy and convention-defying and literal-minded in human nature that need to get established, before discussion about the best ways to fight malaria or global warming or nuclear proliferation or plastic in the oceans can even begin.

20. On leftist forums like SneerClub, whenever I’m brought up, I’m considered a dangerous reactionary—basically Richard Spencer or Alex Jones except with more quantum query complexity.  Yet, while there are differences in emphasis, and while my not being in politics gives me more freedom to venture outside the Overton window, my views on most contemporary American issues are hard to distinguish from those of Barack Obama, who I consider to have been a superb president and a model of thoughtful leadership.  If you want to understand how racist demagogues managed to take over the US—well, there was a perfect storm of horribleness, with no one decisive factor.  But it surely didn’t help that the modern social-justice left so completely disdains coalition-building, so values the purity of the Elect above all else, that it cast even progressive Obama supporters like me into its lowest circle of Hell.

21. Open yourself up to the complicated and the true in human nature.  Don’t be like Donald Trump or Arthur Chu, two men who represent opposite poles of ideology, yet who have in common that they both purposefully killed what was complicated in themselves.  For those two, winning is all that matters—they’ve explicitly said so, and have organized their entire lives around that principle.  But winning is not all that matters.  When I stand before the Lord of Song, even though it all went wrong, the only word on my lips will be “hallelujah”–because while I have many faults, I did make some room in life for beauty and truth, even at the expense of winning.  Though everything temporal turns to dust, I experienced some moments of eternity.

22. I can already predict the tweets: “No, Scott Aaronson, your weird numbered ruminations won’t save you from being the privileged douchebag who you fundamentally are.”  How was that?  Let me try another: “Aaronson embarrasses himself yet again, proves he doesn’t get why nerd culture is totally f-cked up.”  Here in the Party of Psychological Complexity, we’re used to this stuff.  We don’t fare well in social media wars, and we’ll gladly lose rather than become what we detest.  And yet, over the long run—which might be the very long run—we do mean to win, much like heliocentrism and quantum mechanics ultimately triumphed over simpler, more soundbite-friendly rivals.  Complex ideas win not through 140-character flinged excrement but through conversations, long-form essays, discourse, verbal technologies able to transfer large interconnected bundles of thoughts and emotions from one mind to another one that’s ready for such things.

23. Try every hour of every day to extend your sympathetic imagination to those who are unlike you (those who are like you don’t need such a strenuous effort).  And carve this message of universal compassion onto your doorposts, and bind it to your wrists, and put it for a sign on your foreheads.  There is no ideology that relieves us of the need to think and to feel: that’s my ideology.

24. When people give feedback about this blog’s topics, they seem roughly evenly split between those who beg for more quantum computing and other technical posts that they can actually learn from, and those who beg for more nontechnical posts that they can actually understand!  The truth is that, from the very beginning, this has never been a quantum computing or theoretical computer science blog—or rather it has been, but only incidentally.  If you had to sum it up in one sentence, I suppose this blog has been about surviving and thriving as a quantum complexity theorist in a world that isn’t designed for quantum complexity theorists?

25. But I’ll tell you what: my next post will be a quantum computing one, and I’ll make it worth the wait.  What else could I do by way of thanks to the world, and (more to the point) my family, friends, and readers?