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Alex (Powell) Altair

Head shot of Alax Altair

Current Name:

Alex (Powell) Altair

Graduation Year and years at MSSM:

2004 after 3 years at MSSM  

Hometown/Sending School:


Where did you go after MSSM?:

I spent some time at both Worcester Polytechnic Institute and UMaine Orono, but didn't graduate from either. Instead I found my way to Berkeley, California, and joined a growing community called the "rationalists". I spent several years as a software engineer.

What are you doing now?:

In 2022, I finally went full-time as an independent researcher in a new field called agent foundations. (You can read more about my research here.) I'm essentially trying to put myself through grad school (which I think is going quite well) while seeing if I can usefully contribute along the way. So after many years of not doing math, I'm back in the full swing of it.

What is your favorite (or one of your favorite) memory from MSSM?:

One night, someone came into our room around 3am and said, guys, you have to look outside! We opened the shades, and there was the aurora borealis! We were awestruck. I called my girlfriend on the phone (the landlines that each room had) and said, hey I'm sorry to wake you, but you have to look outside! The guys in my wing decided that we had to go out onto the fields to see the whole sky. I was a pretty rule-following kid, but I knew we wouldn't be blamed for this. So we snuck out the window and watched the streaks in the sky for a while.

What class/teacher most sticks out in your mind?:

Mr. Sid. His linear algebra class was my first exposure to rigorous mathematics, and you could see that he loved every minute of teaching it. After we learned about Boolean algebra in Intro to programming, I came to Mr Sid and said, this feels kind of like a vector space. How is it related? He led me through the axioms, and we could see that it was *not* a vector space. We looked it up and found that it was a "distributive lattice". It had its own axioms, some of which overlapped with vector spaces, and some which didn't. This was when I started getting a sense of what it was like to explore mathematics, and not just be taught it.

If you could go back in time, what would you tell your past self as you prepare for MSSM?:

I'm not sure what would have been helpful here. It went quite well overall. I had more or less One Big Problem, which is something about attention control. And I've built some functional systems accommodating for that, but it would take a while to usefully convey it to my younger self, and it also seems to be pretty idiosyncratic.

Otherwise, I'd tell myself to pay more attention to people.

What role did MSSM play in who or where you are now?:

All the conversations with my peers helped me work out a lot of my worldview; things like how the universe works, where values come from, how society should be organized, what the future might look like, and what we should do about it. I think I would have ended up in a similar place without MSSM, but MSSM enabled me to work through it much earlier and with more people. MSSM also showed me that there were other people "like me", and gave me my first sense of a community.

What is the best book/movie/tv show you can recommend to your fellow alumni?:

One book I enjoyed reading recently was The Anthropocene Reviewed. It's entertaining, it's full of nerdy tidbits of information, and it infuses everything around you with a sense of meaning and wonder, without imposing on the reader what that meaning is exactly. It prompts the reader to reflect and then to use those reflections moving forward.