John Horgan in Scientific American:
1. Have you become what you wanted to be when you were a kid?
Come on, that’s too high a bar! When I was a kid, I wanted to be the founder and ruler of a rationalist space colony, who also wrote video games and invented the first human-level AI and led a children’s liberation movement and discovered the mathematical laws underlying society.
On the other hand, as far as childhood dreams go, I have no right to complain. I have a wonderful wife and three-year-old daughter. I get paid to work on engrossing math problems and mentor students and write about topics that interest me, to do all the things I’d want to do even if I weren’t getting paid. It could be worse.
2. Why do you call your blog “Shtetl-Optimized”?
I get that a lot. It’s one of those things, like a joke, that dies a little when you have to explain it—but when I started my blog in 2005, it was about my limitations as a human being, and my struggle to carve out a niche in the world despite those limitations. It also gestured toward the irony of someone whose sensibility and humor and points of reference are as ancient as mine are—I mean, I already felt like a senile, crotchety old man when I was 16—but who also studies a kind of computer that’s so modern it doesn’t even exist yet.
Shtetls were Jewish villages in pre-Holocaust Eastern Europe. They’re where all my ancestors came from—some actually from the same place (Vitebsk) as Marc Chagall, who painted the fiddler on the roof. I watched Fiddler many times as a kid, both the movie and the play. And every time, there was a jolt of recognition, like: “So that’s the world I was designed to inhabit.