Over the course of the history of this country the usefulness and fairness of the Electoral College has come into question many times, most recently in the 2000 election when Al Gore won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College vote. This led to numerous calls for its elimination. At one time I even espoused this view. I have since changed my mind and here’s why.
Archive for October, 2008
An astute reader over at MSNBC wondered where the Federal Reserve actually gets its money, meaning the cold, hard cash it is using to bail out Wall Street. The basic balance sheet of the federal government is summarized nicely at the blog Econobrowser. Essentially, what the Fed is doing is trading cash for assets. How is that any different than you buying a lawnmower or a car or a nice pair of shoes and getting yourself into hock as a result? Um… it isn’t. The Fed is simply betting that it will be able to turn around and sell these assets (or recoup their value in some manor) later on. But, as is pointed out in the above MSNBC article, that implies that they have some sort of “exit strategy.”
It was announced today that Stephen Hawking, Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University, will officially retire at year’s end but will continue as an Emeritus. Apparently Cambridge has a policy that stipulates a person retire by the end of the academic year in which they turn 67. The Lucasian Professorship dates to 1663 and has been held by the likes of Isaac Newton, Charles Babbage, Joseph Larmor, and Paul Dirac.
I’m not entirely sure how I feel about forced retirements. My current institution does not have a mandatory retirement age. Indeed, one of my colleagues in sociology has been teaching here full-time for over 50 years (and is not an emeritus yet) while others have since retired and become emeriti (or, in one case, been denied that honor). I believe Hawking’s position is primarily research-based so the forced retirement seems perhaps a tad unnecessary, though I do not know what duties come with the title. Certainly, for teaching faculty there could come a point when a retirement might become a necessity, but who’s to say when? Do you base it on student evaluations, peer evaluations, Tarot cards? Not an easy question to answer, that’s for sure.
In any case, kudos to Prof. Hawking on his exemplary career. I know nothing about the man personally having never met him so I can’t comment, but his science speaks for itself.
On Tuesday NOVA aired an episode entitled “Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives” in which Eels frontman Mark Everett delves into the life of his father, the late Hugh Everett. The PBS site I linked to above includes the elder Everett’s dissertation in PDF format as well as two previously unpublished bits of writing. Until October 28, you (and I) can watch it online at the same site. However, PBS has posted the following notice:
Note: Due to rights restrictions, this hour-long program is only available for streaming on the NOVA site for one week, from October 22 through October 28. (Thereafter it will disappear into a parallel universe.)
Apparently the folks at PBS have a sense of humor. Who woulda thunk it.
Apparently the Time Service Department at the US Naval Observatory is taking a survey on whether to continue adding leap seconds periodically to Coordinated Universal Time. I was going to laugh, but then realized that time – even mere seconds – can translate into serious money in this day and age. So do your patriotic duty and take the survey!
One of my colleagues today recounted a very telling discussion he recently had with his daughter. Apparently his in-laws are rabid Democrats who hate McCain and said so out loud in front of one of his kids. The kid took the statement of hatred to mean that McCain was evil. He (my colleague) had to tell his kid that, no, McCain is not an evil man; the kid’s grandparents simply disagreed with his politics. After recounting this incident, my colleague then wondered aloud when respectful disagreement had turned into pure hatred. He recalls that, while people often disagreed with Reagan, even vehemently, very few people felt an intense hatred of him. There probably were a few people who intensely hated Nixon, but was the rhetoric as bad? I don’t know because I was in diapers when Nixon resigned. Nonetheless, it appears as if, sometime during the Clinton administration respectful disagreement turned into pure hatred for partisans on both sides of the aisle. It has gotten so bad that true independents such as myself are automatically lumped into the “left” or “right” categories depending on who is doing the talking.
Apparently Christopher Buckley, who I reported earlier had endorsed Obama, has, as a result, preemptively resigned his position at The National Review, the magazine founded by his father, the late William F. Buckley, Jr. In his own words, he was “fatwahed” by the conservative movement. What I want to know is why this story is so difficult to find? My wife told me about it (she read it in the latest issue of The Week that just arrived), but I couldn’t find it on any major – or even semi-major – news source when I googled it. What happened to the liberal media? Could it be that, rather than being biased towards the left, they’re simply biased towards the bottom line and the bottom line is Christopher Buckley’s resignation wasn’t a big enough draw? Hmmm…
I’m teaching a course on the History of Physics this semester. One of the students gave a presentation today on Galileo’s contemporaries, focusing on Descartes, and came to the conclusion that this time period – very beginning of the 17th century – marked the true beginning of what we view as modern physics. We discussed this for awhile and, in the end, agreed with his reasoning and rationale. I wish to note from the beginning that this student of mine intends to become an experimentalist and not a theorist.
One of my colleagues in the Philosophy Department has given the definition of philosophy, rather broadly, as “thinking long, hard, and carefully about something” (I may be paraphrasing since it is second-hand). My students agreed that physics seemed to be the merging of that particular definition of philosophy with rigorous mathematics, as free as possible of aesthetic or metaphysical motivations. Thus their definition would be that physics is the combination of mathematical rigor with, essentially, critical thinking and logic. Note that this is a broad definition of physicist that goes beyond simply the physical sciences. But this helps to explain why so many physicists have found their way into such diverse fields throughout history including biology, economics (there is even a burgeoning and respected field known as econophysics that uses physical models to make economic predictions), political science, etc.
I then asked what an applied mathematician was. I was curious about this because I’m one of those anomalies to whom many labels apply. I have a PhD in math, a master’s in physics, and a bachelor’s in engineering. We finally agreed to settle on the idea that a physicist is someone who works from the physical problem to the mathematical model, usually in search of a mathematical model that best describes a given physical problem, while an applied mathematician works in the other direction, beginning with a mathematical model or theory and finding physical problems and systems to which it may be applied. These are, of course, broad generalizations, but it gives the basic idea. See the figure below.
Oddly enough, it still doesn’t provide a label for yours truly since I’ve taken both approaches. But the student who led the discussion today pointed out that, while he was at Jefferson Lab this summer, he worked with a guy who was a physicist who regularly partnered with applied mathematicians. This guy seemed to confirm this idea since, given both approaches and abilities in a single situation, you’re more likely to find a match between the math and the physical phenomenon (or more rapidly find a match, perhaps). In other words, he’d often present the mathematicians with a physical problem and they’d say, “oh, yeah, sure, we can model that with this…” A little simplistic, perhaps, but interesting to contemplate nonetheless. Any thoughts?