Update (10/27): Peter Norvig at Google points me to his Election FAQ, for those who feel they haven’t yet spent enough time reading about the election. I’ve just been perusing it, and it’s an unbelievably good source of information—reaching the same conclusions as I did on just about every particular, yet also calm, reasoned, and professional.
1. That’s my mom at an Obama office in Sarasota, FL. For once, I find myself kvelling to strangers about her.
2. I’m at FOCS’2008 in Philadelphia right now. Yesterday morning I gave a tutorial on The Polynomial Method in Quantum and Classical Computing, and was delighted by how many people showed up — I wouldn’t have woken up for my talk. (And before you ask: yes, the PowerPoint slides for this talk include photographs of both Bill Ayers and Joe the Plumber.)
3. Here’s the FOCS conference program — tons of good stuff, as you can see for yourself. If there’s a talk you want to know more about, say so in the comments section and I’ll try to find someone who attended it.
Note: I was a program committee member, and therefore know much more than usual about the talks—but my objectivity and license as a “journalist” are also severely compromised. If unvarnished opinion is what you seek, ask my friend and roommate Rahul Santhanam, who’s also reporting live from the conference over at Lance’s blog. (As you can see, we CS theorists manage our conflicts of interest roughly as well as the Alaska governor’s office…)
4. I apologize that I haven’t had much to say recently. Against my better judgment, I find myself transfixed by the same topic everyone else is transfixed by, and it’s hard to find anything to say about it that hasn’t been said better by others. If you want to enter my world, don’t read Shtetl-Optimized; read Andrew Sullivan or FiveThirtyEight.com. Following the election is, of course, not all that different from following a football game, except for the added dash of excitement that the future of civilization might hinge on the outcome.
(Years congruent to 0 mod 4 are pretty much the only times when I understand what it’s like to be a sports fan. Speaking of which, I heard there was some sort of “World’s Series” in Philadelphia last night—probably in basketball—and something called the “Phillies” won? I might be wrong, though. Maybe it was the “Flyers” … or is that a volleyball team? Keep in mind, I only lived in this area for the first 15 years of my life.)
5. For a congenital pessimist like me, I confess it’s been difficult to deal with the fact that my team (I mean the Democrats, not the Eagles or whatever they’re called) is winning. I simply don’t know how to react; it’s so far outside my emotional range. Since when has the universe worked this way? When did reason and levelheadedness start reaping earthly rewards, or incompetence start carrying a cost? I’m sure Nov. 4 will bring something to console me, though: maybe Al Franken will lose the Senate race in Minnesota, or the homophobe proposition will pass in California…
6. Writing blog posts in numbered lists is easier; I should do it more often. I don’t have to pretend all the little things I want to say are part of an overarching narrative, rather than standing in the relation “and that reminds me of … which in turn reminds me of…”
7. There’s another psychological question inspired by the election that’s fascinated me lately: how does one become more obamalike in temperament?
I’ve written before about Obama’s penchant for introspection and respect for expertise, which of course are qualities with which I strongly identify. But Obama also has a crucial quality I lack: as the whole world has marveled, nothing rattles him. Placed for two years under the brightest glare on earth, besieged by unexpected events, he simply sticks to a script, Buddha-like in his emotional control (although not in his quest for power in the temporal world). His nerves are of carbon nanotube fiber.
When he briefly slipped behind after the Republican convention, I panicked: I felt sure he’d lose if he didn’t completely change his approach. Sean Carroll recommended chilling out. I now face the indignity of admitting that I was wrong while a physicist was right.
What struck me most, during the debates, was how again and again Obama would pass up the chance to score points—choosing instead to let his opponent impale himself with his own words, and use his time to hammer home his message for the benefit of any voters just emerging from their caves. (As an example, consider his pointed refusal in the third debate to say anything bad about Palin—the subtext being, “isn’t it obvious?”) It’s almost as if he thought his goal was winning the election, not proving the other guy wrong.
I have (to put it mildly) not always exhibited the same prudent restraint, least of all on this blog. So for example, whenever there’s been bait dangling in front of me in the comments section, I’ve tended to bite, often ending up with a hook through my cheek.
But no more. As the first exercise in my newfound quest for the Zen-like equanimity and balance of our soon-to-be-president, I now present to you two excerpts from the comments on my previous post, with no reaction whatsoever from me.
Have you considered the possibility that, in the same way a logical deduction is being equated with truth, understanding a thing is just an illusion? If a thing is logical, that only means that it appeals to the reasoning facility of the brain, not that it’s the truth.
Mathematics is just a place where it becomes clear how a human may think. Computers only go for the calculable. And the mathematical truths a computer can produce are at most countable infinite. But there are uncountable infinite truths.