Friday, December 22, 2006

A Recommendation Letter

December 22, 2006

Dear Recruiting Committee:

George Henry is among the top fifty computational complexity theorists on the market this year and you should consider him for any faculty, postdoc or janitorial position in your department.

Computational Complexity compares complexity classes representing different amounts of complexity resources among different computational models. There are hundreds of complexity classes and thousands of variations on those classes. Henry's best result shows that for two of these classes, one of them is not contained in the other assuming that some third class is not contained in some fourth class. This work appeared in a theoretical computer science conference you've never heard of.

For service, George Henry has wasted his money joining the ACM, IEEE, AMS, MAA, ASL and SIAM. He's even (under duress) refereed a paper or two.

Henry gave a seminar once and nobody ran out screaming, probably because they were too busy sleeping. Henry also taught a course once. He was not actually convicted on any harassment charges.

George Henry has no two body problem since he's never had a relationship last more than three days.

In short, there are several great complexity theorists on the market this year but since your department has no chance of hiring any of them you might as well look at Henry.


Lance Fortnow
Professor of Computer Science


  1. what's going on?

  2. Lance, I won't be needing a recommendation for a couple more years. And you badly misspelled my name. But I do appreciate your taking the initiative on this one, because lord know I never would.

    - Slothful in Grad School

  3. what's going on?

    Don't you get it? Lance is indirectly saying "Don't ask me for a letter, or else..." :-)

  4. It was Dirac who said "Golden eras occur when ordinary people can make extraordinary contributions" (please don't make me post the BibTeX reference!)

    From the Dirac perspective, Lance's letter amounts to a confession ... a confession that complexity theory is not presently in a Dirac-style golden era.

    Which raises interesting questions like "Why are we not living in a golden era? Whose responsibility is it (if anyone's) to create such eras? Is there any reasonable prospect that we will soon be moving into a golden era?"

  5. John, don't be ridiculous. That was supposed to be funny, and it was. It has nothing to do with "golden eras" or otherwise.

  6. Anonymous says: John, don't be ridiculous. That was supposed to be funny, and it was. It has nothing to do with "golden eras" or otherwise.

    Hmmmm ... "anonymous" complains about a response to a "funny" post because the response is "ridiculous". Pretty clearly, all three of us---Lance, me, and anonymous---are tuned to the funny channel!

    One of humor's two most blessed attributes (IMHO) is that it can encourage us to think painful thoughts that would otherwise be censored at the unconscious level. Its other blessed attribute is that humor simultaneously helps us deal with that pain.

    Lenny Bruce understood this well, and I thought Lance's post was written very much in Lenny's tradition.

    The present science and technology job situation is painful to contemplate whether you are junior or senior, and it is especially painful for those of us who must write letters of recommendation into a tight job market. This is what I took to be the humorously provocative point of Lance's excellent post about a very painful subject.

    But there are also wonderful opportunities opening up for the broader science and technology community, and I am a little bit surprised that (so far) no one on this thread, senior or junior, is inclined to point them out.

    E.g., in the mid-70s America was winding up the long, painful, tremendously expensive Vietnam War, at the same time that physical science research funding was being slashed to pay for that war. North American physics graduate enrollment, in particular, has never recovered to the levels attained before this cutback.

    Nonetheless, it is arguably true that a thirty-year Dirac-style Golden Era in American science and technology began, encompassing the decades 1975-2005.

    Who can point out the reasons for this three-decade Golden Era? And do we have the resources to create a new Golden Era in the coming three decades?

    Your mileage may vary, but I consider that these questions definitely fall into the "fun" and "humorous" category, because I believe---along with many other people---that the answers are strongly affirmative, yet challenging in some respects to established modes of thinking. Hence, humor is a required ingredient of any thoughtful discussion of these issues.

    So Lance, thank you very much for a post that at least one person found to be both humorous AND thought-provoking.

  7. Ha. Fortnow makes a funny.

  8. Lance,

    Thanks a lot for the glowing recommendation letter! I am flattered.

    George Henry

  9. Dear Recruiting Committee,

    After careful consideration, I
    regret to inform you that I am unable to accept your refusal to offer me an assistant janitor position in your department.

    There may be a few other stronger complexity theorist candidates on the market competing for this assistant janitor position you are attempting to fill, but I believe I've made it clear in my job talk as well as in my interactions with your department facutly members, that you simply have no chance of hiring any of them. I also have good reason to believe that at least one of my references has a good understanding of this situation. As such, I will assume the assitant janitor position to your building and am looking forward to becoming a tenured janitor and later a chaired janitor.

    Sincerely yours,

    Goerge Henry

  10. Dear Fartnow:

    We are glad to offer you to a deanship position in our university. Based on your (sarcastic) recommendation letter, we realize that you have the "right" credentials and "screw everyone mentality". This awesome quality of yours convinced us to make this offer.


    Chair Recruiting committee.

    ps: we ran our letter through a Microsof word spell check program.

  11. Very Funny... I wonder how many proffesors would outwardly refuse to right a recommandation letter they don't want to write, and how many would simply write a less extreme version of this one.
    And what's the 'right' response? Refusing to write a letter is probably offending. On the other hand, could such a neutral recommandation hurt the candidtate's chances?

  12. wondering whether this is a pity state of complexity theory, lance or market :D