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Seattle to New York

October 26, 2008 1 comment

Yesterday I flew from Seattle to JFK and went into Manhattan. I know one’s travel travails are never as interesting to others as they are to oneself, but here goes. It’s long, and maybe not too interesting. You’ve been warned. Go to the jump if you want more. Read more…

Categories: Travel

The Princeton Companion to Mathematics

October 24, 2008 Leave a comment

I received my copy of the new book The Princeton Companion to Mathematics a few days ago and I’ve been wanting to say something about it ever since, but I’ve been waiting until I’ve had a chance to read more of its 1014 two-columned pages. However, I won’t be making any additional progress on the book in the next few days, since I’m leaving early tomorrow morning for New York and I don’t plan to carry it on the plane with me, so I’ll make some preliminary comments now.

First, the book is beautiful. Despite its weight, it’s a joy to hold and to look at. And no matter where you open it, there’s something fascinating to read. The Table of Contents gives a good idea of the book’s layout and underlying conception. Part II, The Origins of Modern Mathematics, and Part VIII, Final Perspectives, are excellent starting points. I have not yet spent much time in Part VII, The Influence of Mathematics, but I’m eager to jump in. Part VI, Mathematicians, contains 96 short biographies of mathematicians, arranged chronologically by birth. The few I’ve read were superb, even given the severe space constraints. The first and last mathematicians treated are Pythagoras (born ca. 569 B.C.E.), about whose life nothing is known, and Bourbaki (1935), who didn’t even have a life. Two of the ninety-six are women: Sonya Kovalevskaya (1850) and Emmy Noether (1882).

So far, what I’ve enjoyed most are the Final Perspectives, especially the last section, Advice to a Young Mathematician (provided by Atiyah, Bollobas, Connes, McDuff, and Sarnak), and Michael Harris’s essay “‘Why Mathematics?’ You Might Ask.” I need to re-read Harris’s article. It’s filled with ideas, and very provocative. (Michael and I were colleagues decades ago, first in a summer undergraduate research program at Rutgers in 1972, between our junior and senior years, and then again for three years at Brandeis.)

Timothy Gowers is to be congratulated for his accomplishment as editor of the book. Order the book now.* And while you wait for your copy to arrive, have a look at his blog.

*Well, if you’re a mathematician, order the book now. If you’re not, be sure to borrow it from a mathematician or from the library.

Categories: Books, Math

Our Wasilla Trip

October 22, 2008 Leave a comment

Yup, we were there, on May 20, 2005. I had a meeting in Fairbanks the following week, so Gail and I decided to make our first trip to Alaska. We flew up to Anchorage on a Thursday afternoon (the 19th), spent the early evening exploring the city on foot, and returned to the Captain Cook Hotel for a 9:30 dinner, and then watched the sun set from our room. The photo below was taken at about 10:45 PM local time.

Anchorage sunset from Captain Cook Hotel

Anchorage sunset from Captain Cook Hotel

We were up early the next morning to catch the Alaska Railroad’s Denali Star. In season, there is one train a day from Anchorage to Fairbanks and one a day from Fairbanks back. Our plan was to go as far as Denali National Park on Friday, arriving in the late afternoon, and to pick up the train the next day at the same time for Fairbanks, arriving Saturday night around 8:00. And that’s what we did. We were lucky with the timing. This was only the first week that the train was running and only the first week as well that Denali was open. We were also a little unlucky, because in that first week, the services in Denali are limited, so our tour options without a car were few.

Anyway, Friday morning we got ourselves to the Anchorage train station, boarded the Denali Star, and departed at 8:15 AM for Denali.

The Denali Star

The Denali Star

I imagined that once we got out of Anchorage, we wouldn’t be seeing much of “civilization” until Fairbanks. In particular, I never dreamed that I would see a Fred Meyer. After about an hour and a quarter, we slowed down, and there it was.

Fred Meyer, Wasilla, Alaska

Fred Meyer, Wasilla, Alaska

A Fred Meyer in the middle of nowhere. But we weren’t in the middle of nowhere. We were in Wasilla. And everything was up to date. Just around the bend, we passed a shopping center one of whose occupants was receiving deliveries by a Sysco truck.

Strip Mall, Wasilla, Alaska (and Sysco truck)

Strip Mall, Wasilla, Alaska

I was quite taken by our brief view of Wasilla. It seemed just like anywhere else, which I found surprising, and a little disappointing as well. We would have to wait a little longer for the wilderness.

Of course, it did come. Disappointment was short lived.

Denali National Park

Denali National Park

And the next day, we had some company at Denali’s train station while we waited for the train to take us to Fairbanks.

Waiting at Denali Train Station

Waiting at Denali Train Station

Categories: Travel

More Electoral Fun

October 20, 2008 Leave a comment

Four addenda to my post on Electoral Fun:

1. I should have warned that in Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections, the coloring of states in the maps is counter to current standard usage: the atlas has states colored red if they vote Democratic and blue if they vote Republican. This will be clear enough after studying any one of them for a few moments, but I want to spare any initial confusion.

2. It’s worth adding to my list of years with close elections the year 1880. Go to the results page in the atlas, click on 1880 in the left margin, and you’ll see the results for that year. James Garfield won the popular vote over Winfield Hancock by 4,453,337 to 4,444,267. The electoral vote wasn’t as close: 214 to 155.

But there’s another interesting feature. If you look at the map, you’ll see that the blue (Republican) states are all to the north, the red (Democratic) states all to the south.

3. With this last observation in mind, you can go to another interesting page at the atlas. Once you have clicked on the results for any given year, look at the links below the national map and find the link “Compare National Maps by Year.” Click on it. You’ll find all the maps for the elections from 1824 to 2004 on one page, allowing you to see by color how the states, or regions, voted from election to election. The persistence of the South as a Democratic voting block (occasional landslide aside) until Reagan’s election in 1980 leaps out visually.

4. Finally, be sure to go to the Electoral College Calculator for 2008. It has as its initial setting the results of the 2004 elections. The states are all listed, with their electoral vote totals. You can change the winner of certain states, then hit the “Update Map and EV Totals” button and see the result. For example, leave everything else the same but move Colorado and Virginia from the Republican column to the Democratic one. You find that Obama wins narrowly.

Categories: History, Politics

Electoral Fun

October 20, 2008 Leave a comment

I’ve had some fun the last two days reviewing the popular and electoral vote counts for past presidential elections. It all started when I decided to find a list of all vice-presidential candidates in order to compare them (within the limits of my historical knowledge) with Sarah Palin. I found a table at infoplease and quickly realized that lots of vice presidential candidates were new to me.

By the way, it’s worth recalling the fact that Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution states that “after the choice of the President, the person having the greatest number of votes of the electors shall be the Vice President.” Until the passage of the 12th Amendment, there was a single pool of candidates. The candidate with a majority of the electoral votes became president; the runner-up became vice president. If the top vote getter did not receive a majority, the House got to vote. The 12th Amendment was passed by Congress in 1803 and ratified by the states in 1804, in time for the 1804 election. Under its terms, the presidential and vice presidential pools were separated.

I quickly lost interest in examining the qualities of vice presidential candidates. Instead, fascinated by the popular and electoral vote numbers, I began to examine elections in which one or the other or both were close. For a closer analysis of this, I recommend Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections. Clicking on Results, one is led to data for the most recent election (2004) and a list of years on the left margin. Clicking on any year leads to data for that year.

Let’s look for example at 1960. (This was the first presidential election I was old enough to pay attention to, but without much understanding. I couldn’t figure out, for example, why Kennedy had someone named Johnson as a running mate but Nixon had a building.) Clicking on it, you’ll be reminded that Kennedy beat Nixon by a popular vote margin of 34,220,984 to 34,108,157 and an electoral vote margin of 303 to 219. I always remember this as a nail biter, with the shenanigans in Illinois. The electoral vote suggests it wasn’t so close after all. Clicking on Popular Vote State-Level Data on Leip’s atlas entry for 1960, we are led to the voting results by state, where we see that in Illinois, the vote for Kennedy was 2,377,846 to 2,368,988. Now that’s close. And 27 electoral votes were at stake. Switch them from Kennedy to Nixon and the electoral vote becomes 276 to 246. We can go one step further. Missouri voted for Kennedy 972,201 to 962,221. Imagine a slight change in voting there, switch the 13 electoral votes to Nixon, and Kennedy wins 263 to 259. Neither has a majority! (A lot of strange things happened that year, including some electoral voters giving their support to Harry Byrd.) The election goes to the House!

This is what I mean by electoral fun. The scenario I just described can be found in the Leip atlas entry for 1960 by clicking on the “What if?” button. Another scenario described there under “What if?” has New Jersey switching a little over 11,000 votes to Nixon, along with the switches of less than 5000 votes in each of Illinois and Missouri that give them to Nixon, in which case he wins the election.

Here are some other years worth checking out:

1800: You know this one. Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr tie with 73 electoral votes apiece. Sitting president John Adams gets only 65 electoral votes, with Charles Pinckney just behind at 64. The House chooses Jefferson.

1824: No wonder Andrew Jackson didn’t like John Quincy Adams. Jackson gets 99 electoral votes to Adams’ 84. Jackson wins the popular vote too. But he doesn’t have a majority and the House chooses Adams.

1876. Of course. This was a bitter one, a precursor to 2000. Samuel Tilden wins the popular vote, 4,286,808 to 4,034,142. Rutherford Hayes wins the electoral vote, 185 to 184. Results are disputed in several states. Congress meets to resolve the disputes and declares Hayes the winner.

1968: Nixon has a narrow margin over Humphrey in the popular vote, 31,783,783 to 31,271,839, but the electoral vote isn’t so close, 301 to 191. Of course, George Wallace is a major factor, with 9,901,118 popular votes and 46 electoral votes. The Dave Leip atlas provides this “what if” scenario: a change of 41,971 votes in three states (Missouri – 10,245 votes; New Jersey – 30,631 votes; and Alaska – 1,095 votes) from Nixon to Humphrey results in no electoral majority, throwing the election into the House.

1976: Another close one. Carter wins the popular vote over Ford by 40,831,881 to 39,148,634 and the electoral vote by 297 to 240. The what if? Move 5,559 votes in Ohio and 17,624 votes in Wisconsin from Carter to Ford and he wins the election. (Note that there’s a missing electoral vote. That’s because one Washington State elector cast a vote for Reagan rather than Ford.)

2000: A real close one. Gore wins the popular vote by 51,003,926 to 50,460,110 and the electoral vote by 291 to 246, with the District of Columbia elector (in principle for Gore) abstaining from voting. As for the what if, a tiny change in Florida’s popular vote gives the electoral vote to Bush.

What? Bush actually won the Florida popular vote? But then he would win the electoral vote 271 to 266. He did? But then he would have won the election. He did? Really? The Supreme Court said so? Um. Gosh. What about the House?

I better re-read the Constitution.

Categories: History, Politics

More on Droppin’ g’s

October 20, 2008 Leave a comment

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Sarah Palin and the speech pattern known as “dropping g’s,” with reference to a post on Language Log and to an earlier primer on g-dropping at Language Log.

Two days ago, three additional posts on the subject appeared on Language Log, as follow-ups to Steve Pinker’s op-ed piece in the New York Times on Palin’s pronunciation “nuc-u-lar” for the word nuclear and Geoff Nunberg’s post in response. I recommend looking at Mark Liberman’s post two days ago, the subsequent post by Geoff Nunberg, and yet another Liberman post. It’s a lot of reading, but fascinating.

Part of the issue is the extent to which such speech patterns as g-dropping are part of one’s natural accent, set early in life, as opposed to being folksy tools one employs for effect. And if such patterns are tools, under what circumstances are they used? The first of the three posts includes a discussion of g-dropping by McCain and Obama in last week’s third debate. (It’s not just Palin!) The second of the three focuses on Palin, including the following discussion:

Palin can signal authenticity simply by refashioning her original accent, rather than acquiring a new one. You can actually hear how this developed if you pull up the Youtube video of Palin as a 24-year-old Anchorage sportscaster fresh from her broadcasting classes in college. She wasn’t in control of her accent back then: she scattered the desk with dropped g’s: “Purdue was killin’ Michigan”; “Look what they’re doin’ to Chicago.”

It’s strikingly different from the way she talks now in her public appearances, not just because she’s much more poised, but because she’s learned how to work it. When she talks about policy, her g’s are decorously in place — she never says “reducin’ taxes” or “cuttin’ spendin.'”

But the g’s disappear when she speaks on behalf of ordinary Americans — “Americans are cravin’ something different” or “People… are hurtin’ ’cause the economy is hurtin’.” It’s of a piece with the you betchas, doggones and the other effusions that are meant to signal spontaneous candor.

Now there are clearly a lot of people who find this engaging, but I can’t imagine that anybody really supposes it’s artless. What it is is a stone-washed impersonation of a Mat-Su Valley girl. I wouldn’t be surprised if Palin and her friends perfected this way back in high school. There’s no group that’s so unselfconscious that its members don’t get a kick out of parodying their own speech: most Brooklynites do a very creditable Brooklyn, and every Valley girl can do a dead-on Valley girl. And with all credit to Tina Fey, she wouldn’t be so brilliant at doing Sarah Palin if Sarah Palin weren’t so good at doing herself.

See, too, today’s Liberman post and Nunberg’s response on verbiage vs. verbage, following up on James Wood’s article in the October 13 New Yorker titled Verbage: The Republican War on Words.

Thank god for Sarah Palin’s appearance on the national scene. She provides so much material for us to contemplate and learn from.

Categories: Language, Politics

Eloquent Support for Obama (from unexpected quarters)

October 20, 2008 Leave a comment

I’m a little late in pointing to two editorial endorsements of Obama that were widely publicized over the weekend, those of the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune. In 161 years, the Tribune had never before supported a Democratic nominee for president. These are strange times indeed. As striking as the support itself are their eloquent expressions of that support. I recommend reading both in full. Here are excerpts.

From The Los Angeles Times:

We need a leader who demonstrates thoughtful calm and grace under pressure, one not prone to volatile gesture or capricious pronouncement. We need a leader well-grounded in the intellectual and legal foundations of American freedom. Yet we ask that the same person also possess the spark and passion to inspire the best within us: creativity, generosity and a fierce defense of justice and liberty.

The Times without hesitation endorses Barack Obama for president.

Our nation has never before had a candidate like Obama, a man born in the 1960s, of black African and white heritage, raised and educated abroad as well as in the United States, and bringing with him a personal narrative that encompasses much of the American story but that, until now, has been reflected in little of its elected leadership. The excitement of Obama’s early campaign was amplified by that newness. But as the presidential race draws to its conclusion, it is Obama’s character and temperament that come to the fore. It is his steadiness. His maturity.

We may one day look back on this presidential campaign in wonder. We may marvel that Obama’s critics called him an elitist, as if an Ivy League education were a source of embarrassment, and belittled his eloquence, as if a gift with words were suddenly a defect. In fact, Obama is educated and eloquent, sober and exciting, steady and mature. He represents the nation as it is, and as it aspires to be.

From the Chicago Tribune:

Many Americans say they’re uneasy about Obama. He’s pretty new to them.

We can provide some assurance. We have known Obama since he entered politics a dozen years ago. We have watched him, worked with him, argued with him as he rose from an effective state senator to an inspiring U.S. senator to the Democratic Party’s nominee for president.

We have tremendous confidence in his intellectual rigor, his moral compass and his ability to make sound, thoughtful, careful decisions. He is ready.

Obama is deeply grounded in the best aspirations of this country, and we need to return to those aspirations. He has had the character and the will to achieve great things despite the obstacles that he faced as an unprivileged black man in the U.S.

He has risen with his honor, grace and civility intact. He has the intelligence to understand the grave economic and national security risks that face us, to listen to good advice and make careful decisions.

When Obama said at the 2004 Democratic Convention that we weren’t a nation of red states and blue states, he spoke of union the way Abraham Lincoln did.

It may have seemed audacious for Obama to start his campaign in Springfield, invoking Lincoln. We think, given the opportunity to hold this nation’s most powerful office, he will prove it wasn’t so audacious after all. We are proud to add Barack Obama’s name to Lincoln’s in the list of people the Tribune has endorsed for president of the United States.

Categories: Politics