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Vladimir Voevodsky has died (ias.edu)
397 points by slbenfica on Oct 1, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 89 comments

During grad school I had to spend a year at IAS, because my advisor was there on sabbatical.

The Institute is not very grad-student-friendly (by design): there are a lot of cultural and bureaucratic hurdles a student might find there, such as refusing any affiliation, both for visa and academic purposes, not offering proper office place, and a certain aloofness of the faculty.

My experience was a bit better than the norm at the then-new School for System Biology, but I have a lot of great memories of discussion with Voevodsky over lunch. He had found in me and another grad student from the same group two people interested in the use of computers in science, and he didn't care that we completely out of our depth discussing the foundations of mathematics. We were both just very interested in how computers were transforming science, and he kept telling us that the same revolution was going to happens for mathematics as well, despite the resistance of some of his colleagues.

These discussions sparked an interest I still have for proof verification, automatic theorem proving, and type systems.

Here's to hoping his legacy lives on and that the revolution he helped start brings on a new era in mathematics.

This interview (link below) gives some interesting insight into his work and motivations. It’s in Russian, but Google Translate does a pretty good job with it.


Among many other things, he describes some unusual experiences in 2006–7 that clearly had a powerful impact on his thinking:

[Translation by Google] “I had in a few months acquired a very considerable experience of visions, voices, periods when parts of my body did not obey me and a lot of incredible accidents. The most intense period was in mid-April 2007 when I spent 9 days (7 of them in the Mormon capital of Salt Lake City), never falling asleep for all these days.

Almost from the very beginning, I found that many of these phenomena (voices, visions, various sensory hallucinations), I can control. So I was not scared and did not feel sick, but perceived everything as something very interesting, actively trying to interact with those "creatures" in the auditorial, visual and then tactile spaces that appeared (themselves or by call) around me. I must say, probably, to avoid possible speculations on this topic, that I did not use any drugs during this period, tried to eat and sleep a lot, and drank diluted white wine.”

Thank you for posting this! I'm lucky to be able to read the interview in the original (for those who can't, google translate does a reasonable job). Part I: http://archive.is/b4gHd. Part II: http://archive.is/NtBiy.

Well worth reading.

I'm getting access denied on this entry. Could you copy-pase it somewhere else?

Try this (may have to run it through Translate): http://archive.is/b4gHd

Amusing anecdote from the life of Voevodsky (https://lj.rossia.org/users/tiphareth/2097217.html):

Voevodsky was too lazy to search for an apartment, so he lived in his office (at Harvard each graduate student gets a personal office) and slept on the roof. Unfortunately, the windows of dean office (Willy Schmid) had direct view at that roof. Volodya didn't adhere to the usual day routine (and didn't adhere to anything at all), sometimes he slept during the dean office hours. Some day Schmid looked through the window and saw a roof and Voevodsky was sleeping at the roof. It has to be said, that living and sleeping in the office is a terrible taboo and social stigma in America, so Schmid was outraged. Voevodsky was almost expelled, but everything turned out well, though he was forced to rent an apartment and he has lived there from then on.

I was a grad student at Harvard... let me correct a few things. First, Wilfred Schmid would probably never be called Willy. It's a funny idea though. Like calling the Queen of England Lizzy. He wasn't the dean... he might have been the dept chair at the time. As for living/sleeping at the office -- it's not a "terrible taboo and social stigma in America". (I'm American). But it's not allowed due to problems with hygiene (no showers in most bathrooms), smell, clutter, disruption at odd hours, etc.. So it's not allowed in any workplace. When it happens, the response of most departments is sympathy and an effort to find the cause and find the person a place to live. And grad students at Harvard are financially supported well enough to afford a decent room in the area. I mean... I wasn't rich, but lived comfortably in apartments shared with a few other grad students.

I was a grad student at Harvard in the math department too. In my time there was a student who decided he was going to sleep in his office (I don't think sleeping outside is such a great option in the New England winter). These offices are small - there's a desk, then room for a chair, and shelves for books above the desk. They are essentially for solo work. Anyway, this student was handling it fine - showering in the university gym and doing laundry in the basement of the nearby graduate residence halls, and rolling his bed up in the morning so as not to be reported by the cleaning staff. Then his girlfriend visited from abroad and she was so appalled with the suggestion that they bed down together essentially under his desk, that he ended up having to pay for them to stay for a week in a decent hotel. After that he found himself an apartment-share pretty quick.

> As for living/sleeping at the office -- it's not a "terrible taboo and social stigma in America". (I'm American). But it's not allowed due to problems with hygiene (no showers in most bathrooms), smell, clutter, disruption at odd hours, etc.. So it's not allowed in any workplace.

And as a Russian, my impression is somewhat similar to the original - in order to avoid all the problems that you mentioned it was made into that "terrible taboo". I mean many (if not pretty much any) taboo had pretty reasonable rationale at the time and place of its creation.

His own words in this interview: http://www.polit.ru/article/2006/08/22/voevod/ (in Russian)

> It has to be said, that living and sleeping in the office is a terrible taboo and social stigma in America

I am not a US-American, so can you elaborate?

Not having a home in general is looked down upon here. Everyone is expected to have their place of work/study to be separate from the place where they bathe, sleep, etc.

Any idea why it's frown upon though?

My guess is that the US is a very individualistic, achievement, money-is-good, capitalistic place. Not owning a place to rest your head, being homeless, etc is associated with moral failure: laziness, lack of drive, addiction to drugs...

There is no stigma against homeless people in your country?

When I see the description that monort gave, I would think that in Germany this would be seen as somewhat bizarre (as in mathematician ;-) ), but not as "terrible taboo and social stigma" or something to be outraged about (as dean Schmid was in monort's description).

Quite the opposite: If you keep in mind that in many large German cities (such as Munich, Stuttgart and Berlin) it is hard to find an apartment, in particular if it is supposed to be affordable, I can imagine quite well that "living to the logical consequences that it is not worth the time to look for an apartment" could easily give him lots of sympathizers in Germany.

On the other hand Voevodsky would probably get in trouble with German law (Meldegesetz (https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meldegesetz) - I don't know an "official" English translation of this word, but perhaps "registration law" might fit). But always keep in mind when talking about Germany, what Germans think and what the German laws say are two very different animals.


Concerning your point

> There is no stigma against homeless people in your country?

monort's description of Voevodsky's lifestyle does not sound like the lifestyle of a homeless person. So the argument void. But to give nevertheless a point: I don't think there is a lot of a stigma against homeless people in Germany. The stigma is rather against things that accompany being homeless like drinking, rarely showering etc.

EDIT: To elaborate on the point that I don't think there is a lot of a stigma against homeless people in Germany: I (as an academic) actually know someone who was homeless for a longer time in life (at least 6 months, probably much more) and also had an interesting discussion about homeless people face in Germany with a homeless person who was begging for money when I was waiting for a train that was massively delayed.

I (American) have the same reaction you do. I think this is an incident where something is not properly explained so non-Americans think this is just some weird American thing.

The text " living and sleeping in the office is a terrible taboo and social stigma" is not phrased well. The issue with living at your office is much more due to liability reasons. If someone is allowed to live at their office, then the organization might be liable for anything that person does, or anything that happens to that person, even when not working. Also, as an organization it looks bad to have your graduate students / researchers be homeless, not to other grad students or researchers on an individual level, but in the sense that outsiders will react "I do not want to work at Harvard because they work their researchers so hard / pay their researchers so little that they have to live at their office."

This also happened about 25 years ago, when there was more of a stigma in the US for living an untraditional lifestyle. It's much, much more common these days for people in their 20s to live semi-homeless (e.g. in a car) and housing usually costs a lot more know, adjusted for inflation.

F*. This is an unfatomable loss both him as a amazing person and him as an outstanding mathematician.

We just lost the Hilbert of the new Hilbert program.

This is a massive loss for mathematics and the world :(

Although I've never met him, I've been strongly influenced by his writings and contributions to math, especially his down to earth blog posts.

That's two Fields Medalists taken entirely too early in the past 3 months (the other being Maryam Mirzakhani). Very sad.

It is. I wonder what this will mean for Homotopy Type Theory.

I think that people will still develop the theory. It still needs a bunch of work but it seems popular enough to stay around.

Working in the field I rather have the feeling that it is slowly but surely falling asleep.

One of Voevodsky's views was that all the foundation for a dependently typed formalization of maths is already there, and that it mainly needs to be organized in a better way (cf his unimath project).

From http://www.mathunion.org/ICM/ICM2002.1/Main/icm2002.1.0099.0... (2002):

"Among his main achievements are the following: he defined and developed motivic cohomology and the A1-homotopy theory of algebraic varieties; he proved the Milnor conjectures on the K-theory of fields."

Quite an achievement, indeed...

A great video interview of VV (2014) discussing his career, in english (subtitled in French) is available here: https://vimeo.com/99586217

French transcription here: http://smf4.emath.fr/Publications/Gazette/2014/142/smf_gazet...

Oh no! I was following his work closely and had high hopes for him delivering on his vision: type theory and constructive notion of equality not getting in the way of doing mathematics with computer, but helping us along. It will hopefully will be picked up by his collaborators.

:( Such a huge loss to the world. What a terrible year, to lose such bright and young mathematicians.

Comments from the members of Homotopy Type Theory - Google Groups.


Reading the story[1] about Voevodsky, I was reminded of how Bertrand Russell described Gottlob Frege as "almost superhuman":

> As I think about acts of integrity and grace, I realise that there is nothing in my knowledge to compare with Frege’s dedication to truth. His entire life’s work was on the verge of completion, much of his work had been ignored to the benefit of men infinitely less capable, his second volume was about to be published, and upon finding that his fundamental assumption was in error, he responded with intellectual pleasure clearly submerging any feelings of personal disappointment. It was almost superhuman and a telling indication of that of which men are capable if their dedication is to creative work and knowledge instead of cruder efforts to dominate and be known. [2]

And how rare it is to see such "exceptionally honest" academic dialogue as Frege's:

> Frege starts his analysis by this exceptionally honest comment : "Hardly anything more unfortunate can befall a scientific writer than to have one of the foundations of his edifice shaken after the work is finished. This was the position I was placed in by a letter of Mr Bertrand Russell, just when the printing of this volume was nearing its completion" [3]

Voevodsky too, upon finding himself in the same position as Frege, reacted with a super-human level of integrity and intellectual honesty:

> In 1998, the American mathematician Carlos Simpson published a paper indicating there might be a mistake in Voevodsky and Kapranov’s 1990 result. For years Voevodsky sifted through the details without making much progress. He remained convinced the result was right. Then, in the autumn of 2013, as the leaves changed color and summer gave way to autumn, he made a breakthrough. Of sorts. He confirmed the error. The important result was no longer quite so important.

> “It is plainly wrong. The main theorem is incorrect,” he says. “It’s not that there is some gap in the proof. It’s that the main theorem is plainly wrong.” The mistake, he explains, was in failing to question the obvious. “We had proved that an assertion was indeed true in all of the difficult cases, but it turned out to be false in the simple case. We never bothered to check.” In confirming the error, he added an addendum to the original citation in his official publications list—“Warning: The main theorem of this paper was shown by Carlos Simpson to be false.” [1]

It is all the more remarkable that he spent years of working through painstaking details to prove to himself that he was wrong. And rather than quietly issuing a retraction, he shouted it from the rooftops, leading a heroic charge to get mathematicians to stop hand-waving with English-language proofs, and start writing code. [4]

> And I now do my mathematics with a proof assistant. I have a lot of wishes in terms of getting this proof assistant to work better, but at least I don’t have to go home and worry about having made a mistake in my work. I know that if I did something, I did it, and I don’t have to come back to it nor do I have to worry about my arguments being too complicated or about how to convince others that my arguments are correct. I can just trust the computer. There are many people in computer science who are contributing to our program, but most mathematicians still don’t believe that it is a good idea. And I think that is very wrong.[5]

1. https://nautil.us/issue/24/error/in-mathematics-mistakes-are...

2. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/russell-paradox/

3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russell%27s_paradox#cite_note-...

4. https://www.quantamagazine.org/univalent-foundations-redefin...

5. https://www.ias.edu/sites/default/files/pdfs/publications/le...

Univalent Foundations is apparently controversial. It appeared to come to a head a couple years ago when a lively debate played out in the comments of a blog (including a comment by Voevodsky himself): https://mathematicswithoutapologies.wordpress.com/2015/05/13...

(To contextualize [hopefully without misrepresenting their positions], Lurie and Vlad both think/thought that axiomatic set theory is not a proper mathematical foundation. Their disagreement lays in how to construct the reformalization of mathematics (Univalent Foundations vs Higher Topos Theory).

A (very rough) analogy would be the general consensus of climate change scientists agreeing on global warming being the result of the rapid re-release of fossil fuels into the ecosystem but disagreeing on whether the cause is from shipping container barges or the rapid industrialization of the BRIC nations.)

Here's what's regarded as the seminal resource[1] on Univalent Foundations. "Homotopy Type Theory: Univalent Foundations of Mathematics" which Vlad was working on at IAS. Not only mathematicians but logicians and computer scientists have made large contributions to this work. Names like Awodey and Robert Harper will certainly sound familiar to the C.S. crowd here.


What a huge loss :(

I have been dreaming that one day we will have a fully developed type system for programming languages based on HoTT and I can develop a new language based on that.

Does anyone know what happened ?

Was he sick ? Was it cancer ?

He struggled deeply with alcoholism, but the cause of his death has not been announced.

I cannot confirm this in any way, but one of my Russian friends told me he had Cirrhosis and was being treated for it.

It’s a frightening testament to the power of addiction that even some of the smartest, most logical people in the world cannot control some of their own extremely illogical decisions.

On the other hand, lacking proof this comment chain amounts to nothing more than a smear.

"Vladimir Voevodsky alcohol" gives zero results.

Can we let one person's death be a little respectful? Just once.

I think you're being pretty hyperbolic in your reaction here. A lot of people like to indulge in their morbid curiosity, and they're free to do so. If that means aimless speculation about the cause of someone's death as a means of rationalizing it then so be it. It's not really your place to be the arbiter of someone's death and others' reactions to it.

A friend of mine died when he was only 24 due to a sudden brain aneurysm in his sleep, and in that same year I had two other friends commit suicide (in fairness one was questionable, but it was by a train). I grappled with that for well over a year, to the point that it caused me a great deal of anxiety and insomnia for someone apparently healthy to die that young. It fundamentally crushed a lot of my own personal sense of control and security. One of the most difficult things for me to process was the utter lack of information - how did he die? Did he have chronic headaches and didn't check? Is there a way I could consider him accountable for it? Something to understand the situation would give me greater closure than the reality that people simply die, sometimes quite suddenly, for no predictable reason at all.

This is an extreme example for me to give, but the message is this: I understand that you're upset by this individual dying and the way others reacted to it (take a look at a comment I made here when John Nash died in a car accident in 2015: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=9597349). But what you're doing is policing other peoples' emotions, and they have a right to react to the death by speculating about its causes. That is a natural and very common response that you cannot artificially remove.

Yeah, I agree. I'm not thinking clearly right now. My wisdom tooth appears to be coming in. Or something. The right half of my face is swollen and this pain is ~excruciating. Hey, at least my face looks the way my comments sounded, right?

Thanks for putting this into perspective. My comments in this post are pretty embarrassing. I wish I could delete them. But mistakes are too easy to run from. Apologies regardless.

It was quite selfish to make a ruckus like that, so I think I was the disrespectful one. The focus should be on Vladimir and his life.

Just for the sake of it, I may say that first I understand your concern, but whatever takes away someone, might be a source of shame, disrespect or lack of care for the parent poster. Maybe the opposite even.


Can we not? Do you think that they would have wanted the thread about their death to be filled with speculation about whether he killed himself or drank himself to death? No one knows anything, and even if they did it would be impolite to offer up that information.

He was a great mathematician. RIP.

I think if he did have mental health problems, like many others in the field, it's now more than ever to raise the point. If he didn't it doesn't hurt to raise the issue, because it is genuine.

If you suffer from anxiety and/or depression, there is help. Talk to someone. You're not alone, and you don't need to suffer alone.

> Can we not?

He was a great mathematician. But I'm still interested in how he died. So actually, can we? You're free not to participate in that which you find distasteful, but we're adults here.

A great loss for mathematics!

I became familiar with his work through HoTT --

> More recently he became interested in type-theoretic formalizations of mathematics and automated proof verification. He was working on new foundations of mathematics based on homotopy-theoretic semantics of Martin-Löf type theories. His new "Univalence Axiom" has had a dramatic impact in both mathematics and computer science.

And some of his online lectures outlining his reasoning and motivations became greatly influential on my own interests.

Could you expand on his work, related to CS and/or his influence in your work?

I've never heard of him so I'm curious, being a Field medalist and all.

Voevodsky won the Fields medal for A^1 homotopy theory: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A%C2%B9_homotopy_theory

It's quite technical to describe what that is, but the general idea is that he imported homotopy theory, a fundamental concept in mathematics which allows you to describe topology with an algebra of paths in that geometry, to algebraic geometry. This allowed him to solve some major open problems in the field.

Topology is essentially the study of continuity and the properties that are invariant of objects under continuous deformation. The prototypical example of a topological space is the continuum although the concept of continuity has been generalized a great deal. Homotopy is the study of continuous paths which are defined as continuous functions from the unit interval into topological spaces, as well as higher dimensional "paths". It turns out that these paths have a rich algebraic structure which give you a strong idea of what the "shape" of the space is like.

Classically algebraic geometry is the study of solutions to systems of polynomial equations over systems of numbers related to the integers, rationals, reals, and complex numbers. More modernly, it is the study of models of theories that resemble the previously mentioned theory in fundamental ways. For example, the theory of elliptic curves which underlies some of our modern cryptography is part of algebraic geometry.

I think topology is mentioned in recent Microsoft Ignite Quantum Computing discussions from at least 1 panel who is a mathematician. I wonder how it might be related.

Topology of course is fundamental to all of physics, but in that context my guess would be on topological quantum computing: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Topological_quantum_computer

I once attended a talk on the subject by Michael Freedman who is with Microsoft Station Q. They are trying to build just such a computer.

Since you didn't include it, but it's relevant to the topic at hand -- Michael Freedman is also a Fields medalist that did substantial work in topology. Which is, ultimately, why he's involved with Station Q -- he was part of the group that realized you could use the topological structure of certain interactions to encode general computations, and was part of convincing MS to pursue that.


Vladimir Voevodsky's legacy could be part of Quantum Computer design if it pans out in the future.

It is actually Michael Freedman who was that math panel. https://youtu.be/d7f_GZsQMpA?t=59m56s

Not sure who else might have a device that can instantiate in some physical way a Quantum Superposition, but Microsoft showed such a device during that discussion: https://youtu.be/d7f_GZsQMpA?t=1h3m6s

Not the op, but basically Voevodsky realized that the notion of equality in type theories as implemented in Coq or Agda is fundamentally more fine grained than what mathematicians are used to thinking of. This mismatch causes problems when formalizing mathematics in type theory.

Voevodsky proposed the univalence axiom which can be used to obtain more equalities and gave rise to the field of homotopy type theory (HoTT).

An intuition about the univalence axiom is that it allows to regard isomorphic types as equal. (This isn't entirely correct but gives a good intuition). The consequences of the axiom are severe (probably in a good way) but a lot more research is needed.

The hopes are that the work on HoTT will make it easier to formalize mathematics and in turn make it easier to verify software.

I'm in a similar situation, I hope these couple of pieces about univalent foundations are useful: https://www.ias.edu/ideas/2014/voevodsky-origins, https://www.ias.edu/ideas/2013/awodey-coquand-univalent-foun...

The name Voevodksy comes from two old russian words: vodit, which means "to lead", and voena which means war. So, voevod, would mean something like "war leader", or general. (Source: russian friend that I just consulted.)

In Polish, there is the word "wojewoda" (Polish uses "w" where in English or Latin languages you would use a "v"). Historically it meant the same as in Russian, but nowadays it is the title of the governor of a province.

To make things even more interesting, Poland is actually divided in regions / provinces called "województwa" (plural), or literally "lands that belong to the wojewoda". A "województwo" (singular) is more or less the equivalent of a German "Land" or US American "states".

The word is voevoda (воевода) and, indeed, originally meant "a general". https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voivode

It seems like the word "Voevoda", at least in Ancient Rus, was the highest military rank given to someone who exceled in very specific areas of warfare.

For instance, the Voevoda of Defense (modern minister of defense?) would figure out how to fortify and defend a city from assault. Similarly, a Reconnaissance Voevoda would be sent to figure out the position and the size of an enemy. So it's not necessarily the general, although it looks like the highest class of Voevoda "Bolshoi Voevoda" or "Big Voevoda" could probably be compared to modern day Generals. I'm not entirely sure if one could progress up the ranks or if they just sort of branched out. Very interesting read here (in Russian) [1]

[1] https://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/воевода

The description by your link is from the Tsardom period, by the time when the title already acquired a different meaning (more along generic administrative lines).

In Ancient Rus, it was strictly a military rank, and simply meant "general" (or something roughly equivalent - a commander of a large military force, at the level where large-scale strategic considerations are as important as battlefield tactics).

>old russian words

That word "voevoda" existed before Russians were even a thing.

That's young. What happened?


You're getting downvoted because putting forward suicide as an explanation without any evidence is, well, "bad taste" doesn't really cut it. If you're going to speculate about it, at the very least give some justification.

A sincere question: Why is it bad to speculate that it was suicide? I assume there is some intention-guessing or social norm coming into play that I don't see. Could you explain your reasoning?

Edit: Is it that it is not considered okay to consider suicide a plausible explanation? Is suicide a taboo, or something that would make a person seem less?

Suicide is a very sensitive topic. There's issues of blame and justifiability and stuff (like what you mentioned in your edit) that are highly emotionally fraught. It's better not to open that can of worms without a good reason. To just casually toss out the idea in a low-effort content with no evidence appears to make light of suicide and the surrounding issues, and/or be insensitive to the stressful, unproductive discussion it's likely to trigger. That's not a great explanation, but it's the best I can do right now.

I think it is a great explanation. It makes the reactions understandable to me. Now it seems like an example of shooting the messenger of a disliked message (where the message here is not a fact, but a thought).

There is a certain emotional dryness to scientific curiosity, at least to me, social norms do not have a say. The boundary for me are ethics. I did not see unethical behaviour, so I do not sympethize with the silent/vague outrage.

I wish we could talk about suicide more freely. Why do we talk about breast cancer but not suicide? I think because the illusion of free will is still so prevalent, and psychological problems are fallout-causingly considered connected with the concept of guilt. These archaic ideas do not stand the test of time. Science and ethics supplant them.

I once read that reports about suicide increase the likelihood of others committing suicide. Is that reason enough to censor debate about it? That is a hard ethical question. I would say it depends on the medium where the discussion is held. HN seems acceptable to me, though I see arguments against it.

I wish we could talk about autism more freely. It's a terrible condition that seems to afflict many in these parts. It inhibits people's ability to judge the context rather than the content of social interaction, and causes them to misjudge and disregard others' contextual receptiveness to their own immediate needs.

The way you treat others' emotions is an ethical matter. For the rest, I agree. There are important discussions to be had about suicide. I'm mostly just saying cft's post was the wrong way to bring it up.

> The way you treat others' emotions is an ethical matter.

This is a fundamental conflict in ethics. Where does freedom end in the face of the freedom of others?

Now, in this case, there is framing going on. One could say that group A were playing with the emotions of group B and hurt them that way. I think, on the other hand, group A wanted to have a conversation about a topic, group B did not tolerate that discussion and tried to shut it up. I think group B acted unethical. If you don't like a topic of a debate, do not take part in it. After all, that is trivially easy here on HN. To me this seems to be an example of aggressive political correctness; a topic is identified as unwanted, and attacked with the aim to shut it down.

This critique is not against you. Others that have also commented here show this behaviour blatantly. You on the other hand gave constructive critique and insight, even though I disagree with the judgement. What is a "right" way to bring up a topic? The way it was brought up was literally a single word with a question mark. I don't think this is the optimal way to constructively bring a discussion forward, but it certainly does not deserve the reaction it got.

You’re a good person for explaining this.

I doubt it's any more or less taboo than speculating whether he died from a car accident, FSB plot, or unrequited love of Kim Kardashian. Without substantiation, it's not very productive discussion, especially for those who are curious about his life's achievements. Otherwise, suicide and depression have been not uncommon topics of discussion:



It's from a text from a friend who knew him, if that matters. We all got PhDs from the same school. I have been here for 6.8 years and in the last two I find myself going back to Slashdot more and more.

Your first comment didn't say anything about having a personal connection or any first-hand knowledge of the situation, so it was reasonable for people to consider the comment as empty, insensitive speculation.

There are valid grounds for wishing that HN was better than it is, but this case doesn't epitomise anything that is fundamentally wrong with HN; you could have done better in your initial comment, and then done better than to use it as an opportunity to take a swipe at the entire community.

For HN to be better, it relies on all of us to do our bit to make it better.

I wonder if you're running into the problem of mixed cultural standards on HN. People here come from very different backgrounds but we interpret each other's statements without knowing that—a hard problem. I'm not assuming anything about you but I can imagine different pairs of backgrounds that would react quite differently to the simple, blunt question "was it suicide". Some would think "what's the problem it's a simple factual question" while others would wince and almost feel pain. This isn't an issue of PC culture, but of the lossiness of channels across multiple cultures.

Different cultures also have different standards around speech vs. writing for such a question, as well as around public vs. private. And a small private conversation and a large public internet forum are miles apart even before bringing culture into it.

On HN we're dealing with all that and more. Our way is to try to have a local culture in which people err on the side of posting civil, substantive comments. Civility and substance both compensate for packet loss in the channels, making it easier for real communication to occur, leading to more interesting conversations. But it comes at a cost: utterances can't be quite as sharp or colorful. We give up some expressive range. Things get more bland. It took me years to reconcile myself to this—I hate blandness and am a fan of the historical art of vicious wit—but then I realized that if you don't make this tradeoff the smart people eventually leave, and that would be blander to say the least.

People do sometimes mistake this approach for political correctness—and then wonder how the author of "What You Can't Say" could have created both—but that's because they don't understand what HN is going for. (I feel annoyed sometimes when people accuse us of being champions of bourgeois politesse when they haven't the least idea, but what can you do.) We're trying to optimize the site for interestingness. So you should think of it as an engineering tradeoff to achieve a design goal: one we have to make to protect HN from the dynamics that make internet forums less interesting and then dead. This design decision goes back to the founding of the site: see https://news.ycombinator.com/newswelcome.html and https://news.ycombinator.com/hackernews.html.

Thanks. You are doing the "manual" community maintenance, things that don't scale as pg put it. I certainly appreciate it.

If you don't want to put some effort in writing a substantive comment, probably you should go back to Slashdot. Your first comment showed no effort in justifying your speculation with relevant evidence. The reason why I like HN so much and why I gave up Slashdot and Reddit in favor of HN is how I don't have to scroll down a list of funny or low-effort comments to find a few substantively written comments. The low funny-to-substantive ratio of HN is what attracts me to HN and I am glad that low-effort comments like yours are quickly downvoted.

On this reddit thread [1] there is a link to an interview that mentions mental illness and someone else mentions alcoholism. So, unfortunately, suicide is the most likely possibility. [1] https://www.reddit.com/r/math/comments/73ibgx/vladimir_voevo...

It was also my first thought.

Unfounded speculation is now "PC"?

You got it wrong. He complained that speculation is considered non-PC here.

Speculation is at the heart of science. We shouldn't forget that.

Speculation without justification is not part of science. The original post didn't add anything substantive to the discussion. Anyone seeing the age of the deceased would consider suicide as a possibility. It's completely obvious.

Now if the OP had said "possibly suicide because ...", that would have been a valuable contribution. As it stands, saying "suicide?" is no more a contribution than me saying "flying blue elephant landed on him?"

Is talking about the obvious explanation now taboo? Do we really want to pretend the emporer is wearing cloths? I certainly do not.

What is obvious to me might not be obvious to others. I learned that time and time again. That is why I'll tell the emporer that he is naked.

But besides that, speculation without evidence is part of science. The scientific method does not restrict how to come up with hypotheses to test. We may have heuristics, like intuition, but they are not required. Random guessing is sound, while it might not be efficient.

In this case, the speculation was ironically completely motiviated by reason.

> Is talking about the obvious explanation now taboo?

Except that's not what happened. Ridiculing a post for non-substantive content is not labeling that post taboo, it's labeling that post pointless.

> But besides that, speculation without evidence is part of science.

It's not. Speculation is still founded on reasons. No serious scientific paper, ever, just tossed out an idea without justifying why it might be true, for instance, by explaining why it's consistent with existing evidence, why it might in fact be a better explanation than alternatives, why it might provide a better foundation for future work, and what sort of predictions the idea might make if it were true.

There were literally no reasons given in the OP's post. This repeated appeal to science is beyond absurd, and is frankly indicative of people who seem to have no idea how science really works.

> In this case, the speculation was ironically completely motiviated by reason.

No it wasn't. Where is the reason why it might have been suicide in a post that consists entirely of the word "Suicide?"

It sounded like he was complaining that the downvotes were out of "PC", as if we were offended that suicide could be the cause. I downvoted him because I don't think speculation without evidence is useful.

Speculation without evidence is a fundamental tool to figure stuff out. You are given a situation you don't understand (He died young). You make a speculation that seems plausible (Maybe suicide). You look for evidence (They asked here). Seems naively fine to me.

This is someone whose cause of death is unknown because, as far as we know at this point, the revelation of his death is new, not because it's a scientific field of inquiry and experiment.

I disagree politely. Even the death of a beloved person is not above the scientific method. One may choose not to investigate, but that is a personal decision. I don't see a problem if someone far away speculates. Also, I don't see a problem talking about these speculation. As long as speculations stay speculations in the absence of evidence and are discarded in front of conflicting evidence, it seems sound to me.

Nonsense. Someone died. This is disrespectful and distasteful.

Elsewhere in the thread people are speculating he died of alcoholism. Just stop.

That is an arrogant and aggressive appeal to emotion. But even following that non-logic, as soon as someone dies we are supposed to turn our head off and to shut up? I think quite the contrary, we should think even harder why it happened, and learn from that. After all, it is a significant event, and, in this case, a loss for all of us.

Ironically, your comment was putting fuel into the fire of speculation because here we weren't even conversing about the details and circmustances of the death. Now, a debate about the danger of alcohol, and, more interesting, the causes of alcoholism would be helpful. Alcoholism often has a cause, in my experience. Is that really so? Are these causes identifiable and fixable? That are questions that I wish we knew more about.

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