Concepts familiar from grade-school algebra have broad ramifications in computer science.
Like others across the nation, many MIT students took time out from their usual activities to keep an eye on the election results last Tuesday night. It turned into an all-nighter for some. The delayed pronouncement of the next president took its toll in class preparation and work, as next-day e-mails from several sleep-deprived students show.
"I can tell you that last night I completely blew off studying for my probability/statistics exam to watch the presidential election. Now it's 1:30pm the next day. I've failed my test and I still don't know who won the election."
-- Sid Henderson, sophomore in electrical engineering and computer science (EECS).
"On my hall, there was a minimum of 10 people consistently gathered around our television from 7pm-4am. People tried to do school work initially, but as the night went on and as suspense escalated, most put aside their books and intently focused their attention on the various network broadcasts. Many people had problem sets and tests to complete the next day, but no one was willing to miss the history-making occurring in South Florida."
-- Chris Smith, a senior in political science who lives at East Campus.
"I forgot it was happening until about 5pm, and then I couldn't figure out where I needed to go to vote. As for the election outcome, flip-flopping all night, I ignored the test I had today and stayed up watching the coverage until Florida slid back to undecided at 4:30am or so. I thought it was ridiculous to call close states (regardless of probabilistic models) with low percentages of precincts reporting, when the totals were so close. Incidentally, the midterm today was in probability, and all I learned from my night of 'studying' was P(Bush | Florida) = 1."
-- Mark Spaeth, graduate student in electrical engineering.
Some students took the election very seriously, campaigning for a candidate or helping to count votes at precincts in Cambridge...
"I started watching the election returns at the Senior Center in Cambridge where I was helping the elections commission... Later I watched the end of the returns at my dorm, Next House. A group of strongly opinionated Democrats watched in a lounge, while a group of my more conservative friends decided that they needed to seek refuge in a room. When the press declared Bush the winner, [they] quickly dispersed in dismay and headed for bed. I was about to go to sleep myself until I received an e-mail telling me that the gap in Florida had closed to about 600 votes. Then I watched the networks try to cover up their mistake, which was probably the most entertaining part of the evening."
-- Victoria Anderson, a sophomore in nuclear engineering and political science who voted for Ralph Nader.
"Some friends and I stayed up late counting ballots for Cambridge while discussing the election process with local volunteers. It was very eye-opening to be involved in the election first-hand and to see how meticulously people work to see that every vote is accounted for. It amused me that Nader won in Cambridge. I attribute that to the great representation of students at the polls this year."
-- Tina Salmon, a sophomore in biology who is secretary-general of the Undergraduate Association (UA).ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½
...while others played.
"It was like a Monday night football game. My fraternity brothers stayed up until 3am joking with one another. At one point the election was separated by seven points. We thought if we could just get one more touchdown, we'd have the election."
-- Damien Brosnan, a senior in physics and president of the Intrafraternity Council. He voted for George Bush.
"I usually treat elections like an incoming new year. After having my fill of parties, I now completely ignore all the hype and go right to bed. Imagine my surprise when I awoke this morning only to realize that it's still 1999!
-- David Freeman, graduate student in mechanical engineering.
Students reacted to the uncertain turnout in different ways. Some grieved for the nation and its election process...
"I think this is the worst way for an election to turn out. Although it may increase political activism and voter turnout by its incredible closeness, what it really means is that neither man will be able to take office with the support of even half the country. I think the history books will read: 'No one will ever know who fairly won this election.' Challenges to the outcome are a certainty and it may be that neither concedes even as one takes office. This is a terrible thing for our country."
-- Sommer Gentry, graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science.
"I am disappointed that the selection of the president has to come down to a few votes in Florida. This dramatic and in some ways hilarious political race is certainly not the best representation of our democratic process."
-- Jason Lee, graduate student in the Center for Real Estate.
...while others had some fun with the messy process.
"I had very little interest in the elections until the close race yesterday. I was probably more interested in the apparently somewhat flawed models the networks were using to determine who had won states without the complete vote. I am from Alabama originally and wasn't sure who to vote for. My mother then forced me to vote for Bush."
-- Adam Golden, sophomore in EECS.
"I got to buy back some stocks at lower prices. The market doesn't like uncertainty."
-- John Alan Groff, graduate student in health sciences and technology.
"There were certain people on our hall who chose not to register to vote, even though they were eligible. We were going to shower them to show our disgust. When we tried to shower the chief offender -- there were no mitigating circumstances in his case, only sloth and apathy -- he hid in his room where he stayed for the next 13 hours, afraid to come out... Had I been eligible to vote, I would have voted for Ralph Nader... The outcome of the election matters little to me, as my views are either ignored or actively opposed by both Democrats and Republicans."
-- Mateusz Malinowski, a freshman living in East Campus.
"After hitting refresh an infinite number of times on my computer to determine who had won, I called my friend at work. His first question, being isolated at work without the Internet, was, "Who won?" I told him I didn't know, but he did have my write-in vote. In the wee hours of the morn, he notified me that he was an overwhelming write-in candidate and sent me a rough draft of his inauguration speech, which included Cherry Pez as the national food and every Tuesday dedicated to recognizing the National Glue Sniffers Association. Of course, as his assumed running mate, I have decided to advise that he appoint well-trained chickens for his cabinet members. I have always wanted to have a pet chicken."
-- Leigh Outten, graduate student in nuclear engineering.
And one student even helps us to understand how mistakes the size of Florida's can occur.
"I'm a registered independent in California, but switched my registration for the primaries in Massachusetts. Later I decided that California is worth more for electoral votes so I filed for my absentee ballot with Santa Clara County. Unfortunately last week I was sent a notice saying that I was registered in both states. I called back to explain the confusion, so the Santa Clara County Office of Registrars said they would go ahead and process my ballot. Then they got confused because their records showed two Hus with the same birthday, not realizing that I have a twin brother at MIT. They cancelled my registration and ended up sending another ballot to Stan, my twin. I called on Monday to ask what was going on, and they offered to fax me a ballot. I ended up faxing my ballot to California. Thank goodness California and Massachusetts had clear winners."
-- Roger Hu, graduate student in EECS.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 15, 2000.