Monday, November 28, 2022

Skolem Lecture on "The Birth of Binary" – 8 December 2022

Following publication of my edition, with Lloyd Strickland, of Leibniz's writings on binary arithmetic, I'll be giving the annual Thoralf Skolem Memorial Lecture at the University of Oslo on December 8, and it will be both live-streamed and recorded. The lecture will be at 1:15pm Oslo time, which is 7:15am EST. Here is the full information, including the Zoom link (I imagine a link to the recording will at some point be posted on the last page linked below):

The 2022 Thoralf Skolem Memorial Lecture

Harry Lewis, Gordon McKay Research Professor of Computer Science at Harvard University.

The Birth of Binary: Leibniz and the Origins of Computer Arithmetic

The curious history of the binary number system includes a multimillennial prehistory and a few early seventeenth-century sparks that did not catch fire. Though several others independently came up with the binary system, my recent translation and edition (with British intellectual historian Lloyd Strickland) of mostly unpublished works on binary by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716) establishes Leibniz as the key progenitor of the arithmetic used in today’s communications and computing technologies. I will review Leibniz’s research on binary notation, his increasingly sophisticated algorithms for binary arithmetic, his development of some rudiments of Boolean algebra to describe his calculus symbolically, his improvisation of a concatenation semigroup to describe patterns in bit strings, his plans for two different binary calculators, and his invention of what we now call hexadecimal notation, complete with four different notations for the hex digits, including the one in general use today. I will also comment on Leibniz’s efforts to universalize his invention by connecting it to Christian and Chinese traditions.

Harry Lewis, Gordon McKay Research Professor of Computer Science at Harvard University, holds AB and PhD degrees in Applied Mathematics from Harvard. A member of the Harvard faculty since 1974, he has helped launch thousands of Harvard undergraduates, including both Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, into careers in computer science. Principal architect of Harvard’s undergraduate computer science program, he served as Dean of Harvard College and interim dean of Harvard’s Engineering School and was the recipient of the IEEE’s 2021 Mary Kenneth Keller Computer Science & Engineering Undergraduate Teaching Award. His recent books include an edited collection of classic computer science papers, “Ideas that Created the Future,” as well as “Leibniz on Binary” with Lloyd Strickland, both published by MIT Press.

Time and place: December 8, 2022, 13:15 –15:00, Georg Sverdrups hus (Universitetsbiblioteket), Blindern, Auditorium 1.

It will be possible to follow the lecture on Zoom:


Fore more on the Skolem Lecture, see

Friday, November 18, 2022

Virtue signaling, at the Kennedy School and elsewhere

The imperative to show our commitment to redress social injustices, even if it means overshooting the mark, takes Harvard to positions that are, if not literally indefensible, far beyond what most of the community would be willing to defend. Extreme positions may even offend and injure the very people they are voiced to advance. To declare such a position is "virtue signaling"--broadcasting to some audience our own good intentions, regardless of antipathy such declarations may excite in the general public or the resentment that may result in the affected population.

Some years ago, for example, I was in a faculty meeting where faculty candidates were to be chosen to receive offers. Someone said he would support any set of candidates, as long as at least one was a woman. This way of putting it simultaneously signaled flexibility, virtue, and determination to right a historical injustice. I cringed, and not just because such a stipulation would be, as I understood it, illegal if adopted broadly and not at all what Harvard means when it favors "affirmative action." That would have been enough, but I instinctively glanced around the room, wondering whether the women faculty present for the discussion were pleased to think their male colleagues were devoutly committed to gender diversity on the faculty--or were asking themselves if they had been deemed second-tier intellectually when they themselves were hired and were still thought of that way.

Something of the same strikes me about this scene, captured a couple of weeks ago in the men's room on the second floor of Wexner Hall at the Harvard Kennedy School. (No, I had not made a mistake about where I was; I left and double-checked that I was in the MEN's room, before re-entering to use the urinal.)

As the availability of menstrual products in men's rooms is a new thing, it's fair to assume that the new stocking protocol responds to concerns of the kind voiced in the People Have Periods campaign, showing transgender men menstruating.

Now I don't doubt that some trans men have periods and haven't carried supplies with them, but I doubt it's a common occurrence. Trans men usually stop menstruating within a year of within a year of the time they start on testosterone. (Weiselberg, E., 2022. Menstrual considerations for transgender male and gender diverse adolescents who were assigned female at birth. Current Problems in Pediatric and Adolescent Health Care, p.101239.) So this accommodation is for a minority of a minority of a minority--trans men, in the first year of their transition, who have forgotten to carry supplies with them. It would not swell the number much to add a few forgetful nonbinary menstruating individuals who use the men's room when they have to make a choice.

Whatever the number might be, it is surely smaller than the number of people who might benefit from stocking public bathrooms with other items. For example, it must be less than the number who have nicked themselves and just need a bandaid--and have to walk around the corner to CVS to buy a box rather than bleeding in public, bathrooms not having been stocked with free bandaids. Or the number of people who, like me, wish there were sharps receptacles in more bathrooms, because we use syringes, lancets, and subcutaneous needles for medical therapies. (Most such sharps now come with plastic sheaths, but it is still improper to toss them in the paper towel bin, where they are hazardous to custodians. And implanting some devices, such as the Silhouette infusion set, leaves the user with a nastily evil unsheathed needle to get rid of.) 

So the sanitary product display seems to me the essence of virtue signaling--doing something not for what it actually accomplishes but for what it says about the way others feel about the affected group. Now one might counter that yes, it is exactly because trans men are a socially marginalized group, while shavers and diabetics are not, that it is important to make small gestures--such as stocking men's rooms with sanitary products--to show them and everyone else that they are welcome and included.

But there's a problem, and it's the same worry I have about hire-a-woman declarations in faculty meetings. Trans men who have planned ahead may not want to be reminded, and to have others reminded, that they have periods. The publication cited above on this subject says, " [M]enstruation for transgender males, and other gender diverse individuals assigned female at birth, may be anything but celebratory. … Menstruation or the anticipation of menarche for many transgender males is often met with worsening of dysphoria, anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation. Therefore, to meet the physiologic and psychologic needs of transgender males, one needs to be aware of issues that may be present in relation to menstruation and be knowledgeable on how to medically proceed with sensitivity and respect toward one's gender identity."

In any case, it seems likely to this old-fashioned integrationist that that trans men may generally wish to be treated as men, not as trans men, in the same way I expect that most women faculty wish to be treated by their peers as faculty first and women faculty secondarily. It also seems to me that the most likely result of putting those supplies in the men's room is not that they will be used, but that some bozo will throw them on the floor or into the trash, someone else will discover that and complain to university officials, who will express their outrage and solidarity and promulgate a re-education program on the Harvard community such as we already receive on other social issues affecting the workplace and classroom.

Those who have made the difficult decision to change their gender deserve our support, just as efforts to diversify the faculty are worthy when they do not conflict with deeper principles. Showy public gestures, in the place of more substantive help, are acts of politics more than of kindness. They are ways to get Harvard to stake out its position in American culture wars. I do hope the University can become less political in the future and refocused on academic issues instead.

Of course, it is also possible this was all just a mistake made by a sleepless janitor!

Thursday, November 3, 2022

Harvard Alumni: Sign Harvey Silverglate's petition to get on the ballot for the Overseers

 Noted civil libertarian and free speech advocate Harvey Silverglate is trying to be elected to the Harvard Board of Overseers. I know Harvey well and have never met a more principled person -- and on top of that, I admire the principles he stands for and his way of defending them, even though we don't always agree on how they should play out in practice. He is exactly the kind of no-BS person who should be on the Board of Overseers to challenge Harvard's authoritarian tendencies and the verbal dreck Harvard too often uses to justify positions that cannot survive rational scrutiny.

Most Overseer nominees are selected by an HAA committee, but there is a process for alumni to nominate additional names to appear on the ballot. That process involves collecting quite a few nominations from alumni. If you hold a Harvard degree and are not currently on the Harvard payroll, you are eligible to add your name to the petitioners.

The link is on Harvey's web site:, where you can learn more about him. When you click through to fill out the petition, you need to fill in your own name and degree information (Harvard School and year of degree) as well as Harvey Silverglate's (Harvard Law School, 1967). Please do it now -- he needs more than 3000 signatures over roughly the next 90 days -- and tell your Harvard-educated friends and relatives to do so too!