Friday, November 26, 2004

Light blogging this week with a 40% chance of rain

I am in the middle of finishing my Ph. D. thesis, so blogging is going to be extremely light for the indeterminate future.

Just remember: The only good dissertation is a signed dissertation (hat tip: The Cranky Professor).

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Darn kids!

Syracuse Univerity has recently installed a set of barrier walls to keep students from snowboarding down one of big slopes on campus. If you search around the website, you can even find a meme-to-completion photo gallery recording the construction of the barriers out of cinderblocks. That'll teach those kids to have fun when there's work to do!

Warning to S.U. students: the next spectacular artistic achievement will be duct-tape caps and gowns at graduation.

The U.S. Senate: back to normal

If you've been paying any attention to the Senate battles over confirming judicial nominee's, then you've heard about the recent attempt to keep Senator Arlen Specter from assuming the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Senator Arlen Specter will become chairperson of the committee unless the Senate somehow modifies its rules to prevent him. Conservatives who want pro-life judges want to modify the rules to make someone else chairperson out of fear that Senator Specter will attempt to bork one of Bush's pro-life Supreme Court nominations. Conservatives even have a good reason to oppose Specter as chairperson, since it was Specter who conducted the original "borking" along with Ted Kennedy.

Today, Fox News reported that Specter has secured the support of the the Judiciary Committee's current chairperson. Current Bush second term score: Specter 1, conservatives 0.

This result, of course, was obvious to everyone except for the conservatives most stridently opposing Specter. The Senate has always been very strident about guarding its independence from the executive branch, even if that means grinding down the President's agenda to a standstill. Old-fashioned Republicans discovered this the hard way back in the age of Senate dominance at the end of the 19th century, and liberals got the same lesson during the civil rights era of the 20th century. Insofar as the conservative movement is interpreted as "going over the top" in pressuring the Senate to adopt President's Bush's agenda, conservatives are going to get the same treatment.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

Six Degrees of Vacuum Energy

The American Mathematical Society has a new tool for computing the collaboration distance between any two mathematicians in its database (in other words, for computing the mathematician's version of the "Bacon Number").

The most commonly used example refers to the famous mathematician Paul Erdős. If you are Paul Erdős, then your Erdős number is 0. If you've collaborated on a paper with Paul Erdős, then your Erdős number is 1. If you've collaborated on a paper with someone whose Erdős number is X, then your Erdős number is X+1. You get the idea.

Based on the search results, I discovered that my Erdős number is 5:
  • Vidali, G., Pirronello, V., Biham, O., Liu, C., & Roser, J. 1997, in 191st AAS Meeting, #32.04, Bulletin of the American Astronomical Society, Vol. 29, 1258

  • Biham, O., Mukamel, D., & Shtrikman, S. 1988, in Introduction to Quasicrystals, Ed. M. Jarìc (Boston, Academic Press), 171

  • Godrèche, C., Luck, J. M., Evans, M. R., Mukamel, D., Sandow, S., & Speer, E. R. 1995, J. Phys. A., 28, 6039

  • Hell, P. & Speer, E. R. 1984, North-Holland Math. Stud., 87, 165

  • Erdős, P., Hell, P., & Winkler, P. 1989, Ann. Discrete Math., 41, 117

Saturday, November 13, 2004

A thought experiment about the contemporary university

One of the minor daydreams that I have from time is to imagine what it would be like to travel backwards in time, assemble a group of scientists (or what have you), and listen to their reaction upon hearing about some great advance in 20th/21st century knowledge. In a way, this is something of a minor thought experiment: how exactly would an educated person of some past era react to such a situation?

For example, suppose you could go back in time to the 19th century and sit in on an academic debate about the merits of the particle theory of light versus the wave theory of light. How would the scholars positioned in support of one side or the other react if you told them that light is both a particle and a wave? The obvious answer is that they would probably laugh in your face before continuing to argue over the same points as before, but I find myself thinking that this might be underestimating them. Isn't it possible that particle/wave duality could have been just as quickly accepted by 19th century scientists as it was by 20th century scientists if only they had the advantage of some 19th century genius hitting onto that key leap of insight?

A more depressing thought experiment is imagining how a scientist of some past age would react to being told about the state of the contemporary university. A 19th century univeristy scientist would probably be deeply shocked to discover that his august institution was fated to become, in essence, a widely successful sports franchise, a hotel for undergraduate students, and a small contingent of professors who are largely useful for capturing federal appropriations as far as the university is concerned.

As Mark Edmundsen mentions in his essay On the Uses of a Liberal Education:
Perhaps it would be a good idea to try firing the counselors and sending half the deans back into their classrooms, dismantling the football team and making the stadium into a playground for local kids, emptying the fraternities, and boarding up the student-activities office. Such measures would convey the message that American colleges are not northern outposts of Club Med. A willingness on the part of the faculty to defy student conviction and affront them occasionally -- to be usefully offensive -- also might not be a bad thing. We professors talk a lot about subversion, which generally means subverting the views of the people who never hear us talk or read our work. But to subvert the views of our students, our customers, that would be something else again.
As an alumnus of a university with a 50,000 seat stadium that recently experienced a classroom shortage, I couldn't agree more.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

A thought about evolution

The recent discovery of remains of Homo Floresiensis, a newly discovered species of hominid that coexisted with Homo sapiens on the small island of Flores in Indonesia, has apparently created something of a minor uproar in the evolution/creationism debate. A columnist on the Right side of the blogosphere has accused evolutionists of "striking while the iron is hot" in support of their "bogus evolutionary dogma". And at least one creationist has already stated that the discovery supports creationism (hat tip: Evolutionblog).

For those of us who have been dosing up on philosophical morphine, newly uncovered evidence of this sort can only be a good thing for evolutionary theory and science in general. Let's suppose for the sake of argument that this new discovery really is proof of the intelligent design of at least one terrestrial animal species. It still does not follow that God must therefore exist, because the alternative explanation that the "intelligent designer" was some undiscovered intelligent species (or undiscovered human civilization) capable of genetically engineering an animal species has not been excluded. Creationists must be able to prove both "intelligent design" and the impossibility of what one might call "mortal design" before the genesis of that species can be attributed to God.

Technically speaking, even if Homo Floresiensis was proven to have been intelligently designed, that proof would not necessarily imply that Homo Sapiens Sapiens has been intelligently designed. The theory that God's true creations died out on a small island in the South Pacific, leaving us behind as the refuse, might be more shocking to the creationists than the theory of evolution.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Bush hating flops. News at 11

Here is Mark Steyn's latest take on the Bush hating phenomenon:
Bush hatred flopped big on Tuesday. That's not a problem for The Guardian's editors, who have to sell papers in Britain, but it is for a Democratic Party that has to sell itself in the US. Michael Mooronification damages everyone who gets it.

Look at the recently resurrected Osama bin Laden. Three years ago he was Mr Jihad, demanding the restoration of the caliphate, the return of Andalucia, the conversion of every infidel to Islam, the imposition of sharia and an end to fornication, homosexuality and alcoholic beverages. In his latest video he sounds like some elderly Berkeley sociology student making lame jokes about Halliburton and Bush reading My Pet Goat.
2005 terror highlight: Osama bin Laden adds "mocking your friends and family with your obessesion to save money on your car insurance" to his indictment of the United States.

Four more years!

You must have heard the news by now. I'm pretty happy, although I'm a lot happier now that my Star Trek metaphor came out right.

So, what went wrong for the Democrats? I'm not sure that I can answer that, given that I had a last minute crisis of confidence in a Bush victory on Tuesday afternoon. But here's my take, in hindsight:

  • Flip-flopping and seduction don't mix. Remember all of those Kerry "firearm photo-ops" that were designed to show that Kerry was a safe vote for gun ownership? As a tactic for getting the NRA's support for his election campaign, it was probably a pretty good idea. Remember when Kerry declared that he wanted to reauthorize the assualt weapons ban to keep assault weapons out of the hands of domestic terrorists? As a tactic for getting the NRA's support for his opponent's election campaign, it was a brilliant idea.

  • There is only one America, stupid. Let's face it, any campaigner whose stump speech is essentially "There are two America's, and you don't belong in the one you're in" is going to get trumped by the campaigner who starts off with "We're all in this together".

  • In hindsight, maybe Howard Dean would have made a better vice-presidential choice after all. The Democratic party's health-care base probably wasn't too happy when they found out how John Edwards had earned the family fortune. Also, did you notice how Dean's big college campus supporters basically vanished after the primaries, never to return?

  • Mindless attacks don't work in the long run. Taking ever conceivable bit of bad news and blaming your opponent for it is not going to help you after a while. Accusing Bush of deliberately poisoning children with arsenic, deliberately killing off Democratic voters with terrorist attacks, or deliberately cutting flu vaccine supplies to slaughter the elderly is just too insane to be credible. To put it another way, if Kerry and the Democrats had given the President more leeway on the more routine problems of government, then maybe they would have had more credibility with the public over the more critical problems of the government.

Monday, November 01, 2004

Propaganda and partisanship

Here is James Bowman's opinion about a recent column by David Brooks concerning the 2004 partisan political divide. David Brooks denotes the nearly rigid ideological dividing-lines as the "central mystery of this election", a mystery that James Bowman addresses with the insight that
This may be true, but it tells us not why but how we are divided. For the why, I wonder whether or not the nearly even red-blue split can be said to be a kind of statistical artefact of the final and total extraction of principle from politics.
(Author's italics). This is true up to a point, although Brooks hits upon an important truth when he observes that
In this campaign the two candidates do not just describe different policies. They describe different realities. In short, the partisan rivalry fuels itself. Once an electorate becomes tied, there is a built-in emotional pressure that keeps things that way. Even people who claim to be independents find themselves sucked into the vortex.
The best explanation that I can offer for why the partisan divide in the United States is so passionate is that it is due not just to a triumph of politics over principles but also to a triumph of propaganda over politics. Start with the postulate that contemporary politics is defined by a clash between two adversarial propaganda campaigns directed by the two major political parties. The individual voter, when faced with two mutually contradictory but equally imperative points of view, has two relatively sane responses to escape the logical dilemma. One response is to endorse one propaganda campaign, at random, to the complete irrational exclusion of the other, while the other response is to irrationally exclude both propaganda campaigns by ignoring politics completely. Thus, we would expect a strident 50/50 partisan split with a major turnout problem if this postulate were true.

Star Trek and the presidential campaign

It's the day before the election, which means it's time for another shockingly partisan analogy between politics and Star Trek. Here's a recap of the two previously postulated analogies and then the newest one.

The 2000 Republican Primaries: I saw this as the good, old-fashioned Captain Kirk vs. Khan slugfest. Given that the Republican establishment was hitting Senator McCain with accusations of (to put it nicely) anger-management issues, he gets to be Khan, while we all know who gets to be space cowboy Kirk. The primary campaigns played out a lot like the space battles in Star Trek II; Bush and McCain were lurching from one mutually damaging engagement to another each desperately looking for a knock-out punch to use against the other. And it was only when McCain's "two-dimensional thinking" got him sneak-attacked by Bush in the South Carolina primary that McCain was forced to put his campaign into "self-destruct mode".

The 2000 General Election: This was a classic Kirk vs. Spock matchup. Everyone knew that Spock/Gore would use his superior intellect to maximize some critical statistic that normally guarentees victory (in this case the popular vote) while Kirk/Bush would use his intuition to exploit some loophole in the rules and end up the winner.

The 2004 General Election: This one is a lot harder to analyze in Star Trek terms, mostly due to Senator Kerry's lack of personality. The best analogy for Kerry that comes to mind is General Chang from Star Trek VI, mostly due to the General's favorite battle tactic of launching attacks on his enemies while keeping himself well-hidden with his cloaking device. Let's face it, the Klingon/Democrats hate Kirk/Bush, they won't sign the peace treaty with the Federation/Republicans until he is gone, they do everything they can to screw him over, and in the end, Kirk/Bush still manages to win!