Cosma Shalizi was born in Boston, grew up in the Washington DC suburbs, studied physics in Berkeley and Madison, was a post-doc in complex systems in Santa Fe and Ann Arbor, and since 2005 has been an assistant professor of statistics at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. He began his first blog-like website ('Notebooks') in 1994. Since 2003 Cosma has blogged at Three-Toed Sloth.
Why do you blog? > I'd been wandering around since adolescence composing prose in my head about whatever was on my mind; around 2002 it really sank in that there might be a place for that.
What has been your best blogging experience? > Getting my job! That's an exaggeration, but not a complete one; when my last post-doc was ending, I put up a post mentioning that I was going on the job market. One of the senior faculty in my present department and I had been reading each other's blogs for a while before that, and when he saw my post he encouraged me to apply here, which I wouldn't have done otherwise.
What has been your worst blogging experience? > I've been suckered a few times.
What would be your main blogging advice to a novice blogger? > The blogosphere is a province of the commonwealth of letters. What happens there - flame-wars, fiskings, 'the lurkers support me in email', emotional involvement with strangers' literary personas - is what happens whenever lots of people communicate with each other in print. So the rules are the same, too: either write about things that matter to you, and try not to care too much about whether or how you're being read; or else push your audience's buttons relentlessly, and ingratiate yourself with whoever happens to be a taste-maker at the moment.
Who are your intellectual heroes? > Bertrand Russell, Philip Morrison, Karl Popper, Joseph Needham, Norbert Wiener, Herbert Simon, David Ruelle, Ernest Gellner, Jerzy Neyman.
What are you reading at the moment? > Bernard Williams's Truth and Truthfulness (which could be summed up by a saying of the late John M. Ford, 'Say what you mean; bear witness; iterate'); Peter Grunwald's The Minimum Description Length Principle; Cesa-Bianchi and Lugosi's Prediction, Learning, and Games; Eric Rauchway's Blessed Among Nations; Thomas Geoghegan's The Law in Shambles; Zellig Harris's The Transformation of Capitalist Society; Cat Rambo and Jeff VanderMeer's The Surgeon's Tale; and Phil Rickman's The Fabric of Sin. (I tend to finish fiction too quickly for it to stay on the list.)
What is the best novel you've ever read? > For sheer artistry, Turgenev's Fathers and Sons; but my favourites are much more low-brow.
What is your favourite poem? > Robert Pinsky's 'The Figured Wheel'.
What is your favourite movie? > If I can offer a linked pair, Yojimbo and Sanjuro; if I can only name one, The Seven Samurai.
What is your favourite song? > 'Burning Down the House' by the Talking Heads.
Can you name a major moral, political or intellectual issue on which you've ever changed your mind? > Whether or not we have free will; reading Daniel Dennett's Elbow Room convinced me that (in every meaningful sense) we do.
What philosophical thesis do you think it most important to disseminate? > The old Enlightenment/liberal thesis that it is neither necessary nor desirable to have a single vision of the good enforced on society. (I wish I could answer 'individual rationality and morality are delicate social products' or something like that, but, sadly, no.)
What philosophical thesis do you think it most important to combat? > That there are any such things as discrete, distinct civilizations, cultures, races, etc., with enduring essences, destinies or interests. There are only 'real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live'.
Can you name a work of non-fiction which has had a major and lasting influence on how you think about the world? > Karl Popper's The Open Society and Its Enemies permanently shaped how I think about the goals and means of politics and progressive social change; I like to think of myself as a sort of Left Popperian.
What is your favourite piece of political wisdom? > 'Work like you were living in the early days of a better nation.'
If you could effect one major policy change in the governing of your country, what would it be? > Changing the labour laws to make it easy to organize unions, and painful and dangerous to employers who try to bust them.
What do you consider to be the main threat to the future peace and security of the world? > It's a toss-up between competing apocalyptic movements, and our military-industrial-political complex's mad desire to establish untrammelled American military hegemony at all costs.
Do you think the world (human civilization) has already passed its best point, or is that yet to come? > Either is possible; it depends entirely on us.
Do you think you could ever be married to, or in a long-term relationship with, someone with radically different political views from your own? > No; it'd end in tears and angry recriminations within weeks.
What is your favourite proverb? > 'Why think when you can do the experiment?' (I realize this isn't a proverb, just a saying of my mother's, but I hope it becomes one.)
What commonly enjoyed activities do you regard as a waste of time? > Watching professional sports.
What, if anything, do you worry about? > Being too lazy, too procrastinatory, or too preoccupied with blogging and committees to do significant scientific work; my vices and weaknesses are getting worse as I age; what another eight years of Republican government would do to my country.
If you were to relive your life to this point, is there anything you'd do differently? > What I regret most, looking back, are all the times I've hurt people near me through thoughtlessness. Also: I'd go to more parties.
Where would you most like to live (other than where you do)? > The San Francisco Bay Area; unfortunately everyone else would also like to, so it's not going to happen. (I still get homesick for northern New Mexico, but think moving back there would cure me.)
What do you like doing in your spare time? > Reading; complaining about people being wrong on the internet; cooking; running (if it will ever stop snowing); gardening.
What talent would you most like to have? > Facility with languages.
If you could have one (more or less realistic) wish come true, what would you wish for? > To travel the Silk Road overland, from Chang-an to Constantinople.
How, if at all, would you change your life were you suddenly to win or inherit an enormously large sum of money? > I'd worry less about my finances, fix my roof, and probably be even lazier than I already am.
What animal would you most like to be? > My cat.
[The normblog profile is a weekly Friday morning feature. A list of all the profiles to date, and the links to them, can be found here.]