Tuesday, November 25, 2008

A Blood Thirsty Biochemical Explanation

During this summer, I was preparing myself for medical school by doing foolish things- I read a popular teen vampire novel called Twilight. This week Twilight the movie premiered, although I haven’t had time to go see it yet. However, it was during this same week at one of my final biochemistry lectures that I learned something very interesting and unexpected… vampires are real!

What?! Why didn't I hear about this disease before? Oh yes, that’s probably because people who actually have this genetic disease would rather not be related to vampires. Given that vampires are considered evil by many people and were tortured outcasts of society, this is a touchy subject. The legend of vampires exists nevertheless, and there is a real medical explanation for how it may have originated. Therefore, I feel compelled to share this intriguing knowledge.

It makes sense that before science was able to explain strange genetic diseases and symptoms, people assumed that they were connected with the devil or a result of certain behaviors or diet. In fact, when I lived in rural Ukraine, pregnant women refused to cut their hair, thinking it would cause birth defects. Yet, now we know that genetic defects are often the result of a tiny, unlikely mistake in the duplication & division of DNA. A single tiny rearrangement or deletion can cause a lot of strange things to happen- it’s amazing that most of us come out looking “normal.”

The possible explanation of the vampire legend is one of seven types of porphyrias, which are all diseases in the synthesis of heme (the compound in blood which carries oxygen and carbon dioxide to keep us alive). Heme is synthesized in the liver and bone marrow. There are eight steps, four of which take place inside mitchondria and four in the cytoplasm. Therefore, there are multiple opportunities for defective enzymes and build up of intermediate products.

The interesting thing about the intermediates in heme synthesis is that they contain many benzene rings. When these rings are oxidized, they can absorb light and appear to be colored (think of purple-yellow-brown-greenish bruising when heme is broken down right under the skin). When there is a build up of intermediates, it causes purple urine, red and fluorescent teeth, and extreme sensitivity to light rays.

The type of porphyria believed to have started the legend of vampires is called porphyria cutanea tarda. It leads to a build up of products which cause a variety of problems. First, people suffer from extreme anemia, so they are very pale. Additionally they have red and fluorescent teeth, which can look pretty strange. The intermediate products in their blood can oxidize to become insoluble when exposed to sunlight. This causes pain and blistering in their skin, so they would try to never go outside in sunlight. Also, drinking fresh blood, which somebody may have figured out, could relieve the neurological symptoms. This was a genetic defect, so it stayed within families. Since these people were probably outcasts from society, they may have married cousins causing the disease to proliferate faster.

None of this is proven fact because nobody knows where any supposed “vampires” are buried. Otherwise, it would be possible to dig them up and perform a genetic test. Also, this explanation doesn’t explain a fear of garlic or why you have to put a stake through their hearts to kill them. This is an extremely rare disease. Yet, it’s interesting to know that we understand so much about the body now that we can go back in time to solve medical mysteries.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Random observations

One of the best parts of higher education is having someone explain something to you in such a way that you exhale the quintessential "OH!" One such moment was a computer science instructor who stated the now obvious "Random generation is a human construct." It is tempting to observe the chaotic structure of the universe as random, but such an observation would be incorrect. The universe, just as all things in it, is bound by what we understand as physical laws. Under specific conditions all objects operate specifically according to their composition. Our ability to perceive the complex structure of the universe may be limited, but a larger perspective will reveal that all things within the universe follow a specific order. In that sense I believe, to a certain degree, in pre-destiny. The universe is massive, but if you trace any event you will find that it was always meant to occur as it occurred, based on the fact that said event is the effect of an infinite number of causes, all causes of which are in themselves diverse effects.

Anyway, randomness does not exist in a physical model, but only as a conceptual model that we have invented. Even so there are certain logical flaws to randomness we need to observe. Ideally we initialize the concept of randomness to imply chaos or surprise. The best model to demonstrate randomness that we use is the coin toss. Heads or tails seems random enough, and statistical analysis shows that the results hold very close to 50-50. Such analysis is ignorant to all conditions present however. Elevation in relation to air pressure, speed of rotation based on the kinetic energy of the flick, the shape of the thumb and the finger upon which the coin rests, the coin's initial resting state in reference to heads or tails facing upward, the atmospheric conditions, the temperature of the air, etc. If humans were capable of ascertaining all conditions possible we would then create perfect predictions to the outcome of a coin-toss. As such, our fallibility is perfect in allowing us a fair and perfect method for deciding the initial state of a football game. Music is another idiom where I encounter randomness and often so. In the course of electronic composition we use random number generation regularly. It is a very effective tool to avoid the predictability that years of tonal composition have afforded us. Still, even the most elaborate algorithm of randomness is never really random. The other day I was playing my iPod through my stereo. I created a playlist that, as I was using the limited technology of the iPod's "On-the-Go" listing, was not linked in a way any DJ would be proud of. There was no consideration of feel, tempo, key, or splice points, only a list of songs I enjoyed. Instead of put forth the effort to make cognitive and meaningful transitions to songs, I instead employed the "shuffle" feature. As evidenced by my prior statement I am obviously lazy, and as such decided to leave "shuffle" on when listening to Hot Chip's "The Warning" album. Expecting a random distribution of songs from the album order, what gave me the greatest apprehension was that the random distribution played the songs in order of 1, 2, 3, 5, and then selected from the end of the album. The anticipation of unknown segues and an altered energy flow was further disturbing when my usual sense of order was inserted into a chaotic environment. In that sense, with the anticipation of chaos, the most chaotic occurrence was order.

It reminded me of a cartoon I watched as a kid. It was a Sesame Street video I had that was telling stories of all the characters. Oscar the Grouch was talking about how cold it was outside and said "This hot chocolate is going to taste good and yucky." Oscar is a character that has a fine appreciation for negative things. Hot chocolate is a foodstuff that the majority of its consumers find to be quite enjoyable. The fact that hot chocolate is an enjoyable beverage is something that a person with a negative disposition would find disgusting, but as such is counter-intuitive to the fact that a negative person thrives off of negative experiences. Any "yuckiness" present is a sought-after experience, and as such would be considered good. This began an inner-manifestation of a dialogue about good and evil, and how the supposed polar opposites are completely meaningless. In a sense randomness is the same way. The creation of chaos is internal, in which case the superimposition of order upon your given state is the ultimate in chaos. Or so my perceptions have led me to believe.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Señor Coconut and his Orchestra: Around the World

Originally published on Fábrika here:

As a great music critic once put it, “pop eats itself.” Nowhere is this dictum as playfully and wantonly embodied as in “Around the World,” by electronic musician Señor Coconut. Our shape-shifting DJ (a.k.a. Atom) has resurfaced under yet another alias to produce a quirky, delightful collection of international pop covers. His self-described style, “electrolatino,” is an idiosyncratic mixture of cha-cha, mambo, merengue, and various other assorted Latin American genres fused with a healthy dose of beat science and a generous supporting section of horns and vibraphones (his “Orchestra”). On paper, this seems to be an odd, incoherent, and kitschy concept – covering such hallowed pop ground as “Sweet Dreams” (The Eurythmics) and “Kiss” (Prince) as lounge lizard, irony-drenched mambo tunes should be violating some unwritten law of pop appropriateness. Yet, surprisingly and inexplicably, “Around the World” is a stunning success. In a pop music world where ironic detachment is all too often a vehicle for angst and despair, Señor Coconut shows us just how fun and original kitsch can be.

Outsiders appropriating Latin music is nothing new. Señor Coconut is part of a long line of distinguished Lationophiles, from Dizzy Gillespie’s experiments in Afro-Cuban rhythm to Herbie Mann’s leisure-suit 60s chic. (If you wanted to go way back, French composer Georges Bizet was dabbling in the exotic textures of Cuban music for his iconic opera “Carmen” in 1875). Where Coconut differs from the above, however, is in his unabashed, brazen disregard for any notion of authenticity. As he points out on his website, mambo itself is a synthetic genre invented by a Cuban exile living in Mexico and writing for the American market. It is therefore a byproduct of multicultural crosscurrents, just like “Around the World.” Nothing in pop music is stylistically “pure,” and this revelation is flaunted across the fourteen tracks that make up the album.

But don’t take “Around the World” as simple empty pastiche. The international covers included here, from the ones mentioned above to 80s German electronica “Da Da Da” and the Antonio Carlos Jobim classic “Corcovado,” are immaculately re-imagined here with a deft ear to the arrangements and a keen sense of humor. Don’t expect the bluesy, seductive saunter of “Kiss” with a clave and timbales pasted into the mix: all the covers here are complete makeovers of the originals. The concept of the album may be all about carefree amalgamation, but the arrangements themselves are precise and carefully planned. This outing is a rigorous exercise in genre bending without losing sight of the sublime silliness that makes the collection so immensely listenable.

Señor Coconut has accomplished something truly elusive with this record. “Pop eats itself” is a commentary on the unimaginative, derivative nature of most popular music. Coconut has demonstrated here, however, that derivatives can in fact be imaginative. Who’d have thought that the sound of pop eating itself could be so much fun?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Thievery Corporation Review

Originally published in Fábrika here.

For most groups, establishing a unique signature sound is a matter of transcending strict genre – witness, for instance, Sigur Ros with their symphonic soundscapes that seem to defy the broad label “rock.” This is understandable, for as much as we cling to the norms of a given genre to define our tastes, we always want our favorite musicians to violate those same norms. As unique as Sigur Ros may be, they still play electric guitars and drum sets. For the Washington, D.C.-based Thievery Corporation, however, a different approach is taken. Instead of transcending genre, this duo embraces diverse musical forms, cutting their material up in the laboratory of beatcraft to produce something that is defined more by the sheer quality of synthesis than by anything else. Their music is the sonic equivalent to collage art.

On their latest record, Radio Retaliation, Thievery Corp. continues in this aesthetic. One can’t help but marvel at the global, “one world” philosophy that underlies their sampling choices – on this record, we have everything from hints of dub reggae (“Sound the Alarm,” “Radio Retaliation”) to classical North Indian music (“Mandala,” featuring the virtuosic Anoushka Shankar on sitar). It is a testament to the syncretic skills of the group that they can put so much diverse musical material through the mill and still create a coherent product. Highlights of the album include: “Hare Krishna,” which features the buoyant samba-funk guitar and vocals of Brazilian star Seu Jorge; “El Pueblo Unido,” an uptempo Afro-Cuban track complete with piano montuno and brass section; and “(The Forgotten People),” which employs samples of a Middle-Eastern oud and dumbek drum to great effect (despite the unsubtle political commentary of the title). Listening to this record is a veritable world tour of disparate genres.

Of course, underpinning the whole project are two themes consistent with previous Thievery Corp. releases: politically charged lyrics and a lush production style. Although the stylistic conceit of each song varies wildly, all of the tracks on the record are given a similar sound, complete with textured, ambient waves and that classic down-tempo signature, the heavily reverb-modified Fender Rhodes piano. It is this style – pulsating grooves, samples, and sonic swirls – that moves Radio Retaliation beyond simply a grab-bag of world styles and into its own orbit of electronic-lounge-downtempo-chill out-(insert genre) music.

To me, this last point is what makes Radio Retaliation a shallow, if reasonably enjoyable, listen. The name of the group is quite appropriate: Thievery Corp’s music steals from all over the place, processes it, and spits out something that, while being a product of genre-play, ends up as firmly embedded in genre as anything else. Minus the transcendence.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

The World's President: Part 2 - Change

On the stump, Obama liked to talk about his unique heritage, his "father from Kenya and mother from Kansas." Poised between two cultural worlds and witness to many more in his formative years, Obama's childhood presented many complex challenges to the traditional, rooted sense of identity. His father abandoned him when he was very young; he was raised for years by his white grandmother in Hawaii; he spent some time in Indonesia when his mother was married to an officer there. With this diverse background, largely separated from both African-American culture and his African father, Obama was able to play with many identities in a Protean manner. It wasn't until after his extensive education at Occidental, Columbia, and Harvard that he moved to the South Side of Chicago, began community organizing, integrating himself into one of the biggest black neighborhoods in the country, and attending the Afro-centric church of the now infamous Jeremiah Wright. At this point in his life Obama embraced "blackness" with vigor. I imagine that a certain realization came to him at some point: in this world, if you look black, you are black. No matter if your mother is a white Kansan and you grew up in Hawaii: you may have had a white upbringing, but if you look black, it's simple - you're black. The choice that Obama made to embrace this half of himself and the African-American experience, therefore, was both elective and necessary. He could never be, after all, a white guy (with a black father).

It's been amazing how little the issue of race has actually come up in this campaign. Despite some veiled racial smears centered on Obama's "Otherness," he never really emphasized his "blackness," nor was this point a major issue in the back and forth tug of war of a modern political campaign. Instead, he talked about roots that defy simple black/white dichotomy - in other words, he discussed growing up multiracial. Intriguingly, however, in the wake of his victory, Obama's race has all of sudden become much more present on the national stage. "First African-American President," "America broke the race barrier," "Black President," etc. were many of the front page titles that greeted us Wednesday morning. It is fascinating that, while Obama himself emphasized his biracial background and spoke of a "post-race" world, the world on the day after his election hailed it as "a historic moment when the first black man is elected president."

This is odd. Something about the race issue here is eerily reminiscent of the Jim Crow laws that classified anyone with as much as 1/16 black blood as officially black. Obama is 1/2, of course, and it is clear from his appearance that he has this in his background. Yet calling Obama simply "the first black president" is - while filled with justified historical and symbolic importance - not entirely accurate. He is biracial. And his political persona, the one the world has become captivated with, is more closely tied to this complex identity than one that is either simply black or white.

Obama is a fascinating new type of public figure because so many disparate groups of people in the world identify with him. To Africans (and Kenyans in particular) he is a native son; to Indonesians, he is an initiate into their culture and ways; to Hawaiians he is one of them; to black Americans, he is black man in America. His mixed background and mobile upbringing in many ways allowed him to become a cultural chameleon. As Judith Warner points out, it is very easy to identify with all sorts of aspects of his life:

The glory of Barack Obama is that there are so many different kinds of us who can claim a piece of that “our.” African-Americans, Democrats, post-boomers, progressives, people who rose from essentially nowhere and through hard work and determination succeeded beyond their parents’ wildest dreams are the most obvious.

The fact that everyone can claim a piece of Barack Obama is telling about what sort of a country (and world) we live in now. Sure, there are those who identify more with the hockey-mom Sarah Palin or the everyday workingman Joe the Plumber, but provincial, white, narrow-minded types like this are not the future of this country. The GOP is realizing this fact now, in the depths of their defeat. Appealing only to white, rural, uneducated, older voters is a strategy that will only lead to greater irrelevance. Our society is transforming, but the Republican Party doesn't realize that yet. This election was a stunning refutation of this ignorance: we've changed, but the Grand Old Party hasn't.

Americans are increasingly brown and increasingly mobile. Like Obama, many of us these days live bi-cultural (or tri-, quadri-) lives, speaking one language to our grandparents and another to our peers. White families in Portland eat sushi made by Mexican chefs; Asian kids in LA break dance; Arab-Americans hang the US flag proudly outside their homes on the 4th of July. This is the new face of America. Yet at the GOP convention, you had to strain your eyes to spot a bit of color in the crowd.

Also, more and more of us have the experience now of living in multiple places while growing up. It is not uncommon for young people to have lived in different states, gone to college in a place far away from where they were born, worked in locales far away from where they went to college, etc. Living in different places can give perspective and nuance to your understanding of culture. It is also make you more sensitive and culturally flexible. Yet to the modern GOP, this is seen as a negative. I don't mean to demean Sarah Palin for staying in the same small town her whole life - there are definite virtues to that. But she certainly shouldn't have touted her "small town experience" as being fundamentally more American than a background like Obama's. Many of us live mobile lives now, and we identify much more strongly with Obama's varied past than with a woman whose imagination and curiosity never seem to have ventured outside Wasilla's borders.

Towards the desperate end of the presidential race, the McCain campaign tried to portray Barack Obama as unknown, threatening, and Other. It is telling that America rejected this characterization wholesale. It also makes you wonder: in today's America, who is the "Other"? If we identify more with a multiracial, multicultural, mobile, educated, young man than we do with Joe the Plumber, paragon of Americanness, this to me indicates that we've changed a lot as a country over the last number of years.

"Change" is another buzzword of the old Obama campaign. It's had a lot of harmless fun poked at it over the course of the campaign, and in many ways it's lost its meaning through repetition. Nonetheless, what a perfect description of what this election represents. I think Barack Obama revealed a lot in his speeches when he says, "'change' isn't about me, it's about you." Although there's been a lot of demagoguery around the man, he is not leading the enthusiastic masses to change; he is not the magical agent of change. Rather, he in an embodiment of the change that our culture has been going through already. What he talks about and who he is isn't foreign, new, and exotic - it is how many of us live right now. What he represents mirrors what many of us already know to be true about the country and the world we live in.

-- This essay appears in full in the Miami-based online culture and lifestyle magazine Fábrika here. --

Absence makes the heart grow fond...

... but doesn't make the internet any cheaper.

Anyway, with a move, new jobs, a new kid, no wireless, and array of art projects, it gets tough to sit down and be Mirthful & Matterful. It's also difficult to compose the rather large essays this blog has become famous for (locally famous at least). That said, here's a few blurbs tugging at my brain.

1. John McCain. If you had run your campaign the way you ran your concession speech the outcome may have been different. Although I will admit that as the season grew on I became less afraid of you and more accepting.

2. Sarah Palin. You are completely justified in calling the media "jerks" for the way you've been treated. That said, it doesn't do any justice to your case when you call the media "jerks" in the same sentence in which you accuse them of being "juvenile."

3. Gay marriage. Maybe I'm wired in an ungodly way, but I just don't get the argument. Saying that allowing gay marriage is a slight to the sanctity of straight marriage is invalid. Combat the growing divorce rate and then you can talk. As I was discussing with my wife I understand the argument that raising children in an unconventional format raises issues in child development, but so far there is no factual evidence to support any such assertion. The only factual evidence that even remotely degrades the existence of homosexuality is the fact that anal sex practices are more succeptible to the spread of disease. Anal tissue is more porrous and allows for greater ease of microbe penetration, the temperature and humidity conditions are more favorable to the incubation of viruses, and the anus, unlike the vagina, is not a self-flushing mucous membrane. Those are facts. Facts that, I contend, should encourage gay marriage, as a willing adoption of monogamy in gay communities would be ideal to prevent the spread of STD's. I am not saying that homosexuality means you're a walking time bomb, nor do I blame homosexuality for the sexually-transmitted ills of the world. I'm just saying that marriage would help. Ignore, for the time being, that straight marriage is a niche and it is unconstitutional to not allow equal rights to all members of American society.

4. Abortion. I contend that, while abortion isn't a pleasant subject, people need to at least grasp the very elemental concept that the people who are opposed to Roe vs. Wade are in no need of its protection. If over-protective fathers didn't turn into a rhinoceros on steroids at the mention of abortion then Roe vs. Wade wouldn't exist. If women didn't have to be retreated to closets with the highly unsafe coathanger method the issue would be different. Our population is out of control and our overly-prideful, dog-eat-dog society is just too threatening to people who have no hope. Yes, adoption is better, but it's not your choice. If religious zealots in opposition to Roe vs. Wade were a little more religious and a little less zealot they might see the hypocrasy in their actions. The paramount of Christianity is God's gift of free will to humans, or to use more fluid terminology: CHOICE. So please, if it's a religious reason you're opposed, consider this notion.


5. Missile Defense Shield. Can someone tell me how both of the candidates made it the entire election cycle without even mentioning it? Perhaps it's my naivete, but it's a big deal, right? Aggravating Cold War sentiments with unreliable technology against enemies who are not Russia but don't have the bomb either just seems foolish.

Friday, November 7, 2008

From 52 to 48 with love

There's a poignant and telling project going on in a certain quiet corner of the Internet. View love letters from the 52% of blue America to the 48% of red America (and vice versa) here.

The World's President: Part 1 - Hope

Since Barack Obama's stunning and monumental election as president earlier this week, Americans have started to repair the shame that has accompanied their nationality for years. Americans living in Berlin and Paris were out in the streets early Wednesday morning proudly displaying the flag; being an American in the world suddenly stopped being a liability and became an object of celebration. And the rest of the world reacted to the news in a similarly jubilant fashion. "Hope" and "Change," those buzz words of the long campaigning process, took on a radical new meaning and were handily yanked from the abstract when we saw a black American family take the stage in triumph, joined later by the Biden clan. Watching this group of Americans - black and white - appear before the nation was not simply a victory for the Democrats, nor was it only an "historic" moment, as we've heard time and again in post-election wrap-ups. The election of Barack Obama was a triumph for humanity.

This probably sounds grandiloquent. And naive. "It is the mark of inexperienced youth," some wag once said, "to read one's own historical moment as completely unique." With full knowledge that history moves along slowly, with fits and starts, and that it is constantly repeating itself, I also recognize that there are moments that come along every so often that change the game entirely. Often these events are technological: the invention of the printing press, for instance, ushered in a whole new era in the way humans communicate. Other times they are cultural: the writing of the US Constitution inaugurating this model of government, for instance. History trudges along slowly, but occasionally a power surge flows through the machine and forces its gears to speed things up. I believe that this election will be remembered as one of these moments, not just as a country but as a species.

Since the beginning of the colonial era, black people across the globe have been systematically kept from attaining real power. Perhaps the most emblematic story of this failure is the nation of Haiti, the world's first independent black country. Upon pushing out the French, the Haitians were left with only one option to regain stability: trade with France, who had made the colony the wealthiest in the New World. Alone in the world, isolated by oceans, Haiti needed diplomatic recognition and trade to prosper, but France would not grant them this privilege until they paid a huge fee (reparations, really). This debt crippled the nation from the very beginning, making it virtually impossible for them to succeed in any meaningful way. Add to this the symbolic import of an independent black country and what it came to represent for slaves throughout the New World, and you can see that the very idea of Haiti was profoundly destabilizing. For this reason, the United States has kept the country on a short leash for over a century, at times occupying it with Marines for years on end. Most recently, in 2004 the democratically elected and highly popular leader Jean-Bertrand Aristide was removed from power and essentially kidnapped by the US Military and sent to live in exile in South Africa.

I relate this truncated history of an unfortunate nation because it is, essentially, the story of black people the world over. Both within the United States and on the global stage, people of African ancestry have been marginalized and kept poor, uneducated, and unhealthy. Naysayers to this claim might argue that the intense tribalism within Africa has led to the continent's endemic cycle of poverty and politico-economic instability. Arguments made on these cultural grounds, however, really don't carry too much weight: for years in this country, the disadvantaged status of black Americans was all too often chalked up to "laziness" and other demeaning cultural excuses. While I certainly wouldn't put blame for the failure of black ascension entirely on the shoulders of the rich world, I would say that this is the major culprit for why the situation is as it is today. As the story of American slavery has taught us, it takes centuries to heal these sorts of wounds; in Africa, the wounds come from a colonial past. The current state in sub-Saharan Africa, with Somalia controlled by militias, Sudan engulfed in an ongoing genocide, Congo teetering on the brink of another devastating civil war, and Zimbabwe collapsing, is not just a tragedy for Africans - it is failure of humanity.

The ravages of poverty are just as much psychological as they are physical. What must it be like to look around the world and see not one single majority-black nation really succeeding on the global stage? (Perhaps with the exception of South Africa, who built its economic power over its years of white rule.) How would it effect you if the only wealthy people you saw who looked like you were athletes and rappers? A friend who lived in Cameroon told me that she was dismayed to learn that there is a lot of anti-black racism within African nations: professors at the main university in Yaounde told her that clearly there was a difference in intelligence between the races. The evidence? "Just look at the world. We are poor everywhere - you are rich," they told her.

The word "hope" must have an entirely different ring for individuals and nations that have come to accept the fact that they will always struggle. Obama's meteoric rise and victory has demonstrated something incredibly profound - in a world where "black" and "Africa" are virtually synonymous with poverty, AIDS, military coups, and a host of other crises of humanity, one man - with black African roots - has risen to lead the world's most powerful nation. The symbolic import of this moment very well might, I believe, cause a shift in the machinery of human history. It has the potential to fill millions of souls with hope, purpose, and greater collective self-worth. (This goes for people of all colors and creeds, of course.) But for a black person, the significance of this moment must stand as a game-changer.

Yes we can.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Twenty-four hours ago . .

The tremendous victory last night was just not enough. For almost twenty-four hours, I've been working to extend these moments: When Ohio was called for Barack Obama and, driving home alone from downtown Cleveland, I started sobbing. When Barack reached, almost anti-climatically, the milestone of 270 electoral votes and ended the longest, hardest-fought election in modern memory. When the genuine John McCain, a man I have mourned the past several months, returned to make a measured and gracious concession speech.

And the moment when Barack and Michelle Obama embraced onstage, then walked off together, the new President-elect pausing to throw one last wave and smile to a roaring crowd.

Others want to extend the moment too. Delirious grins are exchanged, clips are re-loaded and re-watched. I'm wasting hours tearing up over photo montages, those dependable mood rings of historical significance, and reading international reactions. I can't stop, especially since the internet heartily encourages this new habit.

I have supported Barack Obama ever since he entered the presidential race. But the moment I became truly committed to his candidacy was just over a year ago, during Flag Pin Gate. His response to that headlining controversy:

"You know, the truth is that right after 9/11, I had a pin. Shortly after 9/11 . . . that became a substitute for I think true patriotism, which is speaking out on issues that are of importance to our national security, I decided I won't wear that pin on my chest. Instead, I'm going to try to tell the American people what I believe will make this country great, and hopefully that will be a testimony to my patriotism."

I was floored. I had never heard any politician making such a nuanced statement, acknowledging the difference between empty symbolism and true patriotism. And even when Barack went back to wearing a pin, I realized I could live with it because I knew he was making a concession for the greater good. If people needed to see him with a flag pin, okay. There were bigger hurdles. And he met them with eloquence and the essential talent to assemble, organize and motivate a crack team.

Thoughtful, cool, nuanced . . . even intellectual. I wanted this man to be my president, but feared it wasn't possible. These qualities had been so soundly derided by the new Republican order (see John Kerry and his ability to speak French), that I wondered how the American people could ever elect someone with ambiguous feelings toward flag pin-wearing. Oh, and by the way, he was also African-American.

Yet, somehow . . . Barack Obama will be our next president.

The talking heads are quick to point out (and they have their own frantic reasons for extending the story), that this is just the beginning. Barack Obama faces tremendous adversity as he begins to navigate the United States away from the last eight years: the deficit, the economy, the wars, the healthcare system, the banking industry, and the disaffected McCain supporters who will need outreach and reassurance if we are truly to overcome a particularly bitter brand of partisanship.

But hey - Barack Obama is no stranger to adversity. Reports continue that he is working to expand and re-organize his crack team, preparing to hit the ground running on January 20, 2009. I truly believe that most Americans, even those who exist beyond the adoring throngs, will eventually respect and support him.

Watching the global jubilation last night, I remembered that the United States has always progressed forward. We might take a step sideways here, or make a leap backwards there, but we continue to march a line toward increased and equal rights, greater compassion and further equanimity. Last night's victory, and the feeling of unity we shared across continents - that is true symbolism.

So, please, let us have this moment. At least for the next few days.

That was better than New Years

Which is to say that January 1st doesn't really feel any different than December 31st, at least not in the way that today feels different than yesterday. At 11 PM eastern standard time, America finally moved into a new era. I found myself in a room full of NYU students studying majors related to public service and public policy - needless to say, this is a big deal for all of us. There's nothing like drinking with your professors and screaming at the top of your lungs each time a major swing state is announced.

Of course, I returned home afterwards to Bed-Stuy, an historically African American neighborhood in the middle of Brooklyn. I emerged from the subway at the corner of Nostrand Avenue and Fulton Street to find crowds of people holding signs, cheering as cars passed honking their horns. I imagine this is a bit like the World Cup in Europe. Which is ironic, since America doesn't tend to get too worked up about the political process. A stranger on the street congratulated me. I thanked him and congratulated him back.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Let the Horse Race Begin

A lot of political coverage throughout an election cycle focuses on the horse race aspect of the thing, fixating on who's up and who's down and where. Issues are sidelined, and many more reasoned heads out there ring their hands and pray that our political dialog was more substantive. I agree that this sort of reporting is a problem for democracy, but on one night, the horse race is all that's left. The first polls have just closed - let the horse race begin.

CNN is starting to report returns based on 3% of the electorate of Kentucky and Indiana. If the political pundits on NPR this afternoon are correct, however, we might very well know who's going to win before many folks on the west coast even get to the polls. If Obama wins any two of VA, PA, or FL, then mathematically it will be near impossible for McCain to win. In that case, the race will be over by around 9 tonight.

West Coast Voting

Voting for president on the west coast can be anti-climactic. When voting in the past as a California resident, I would usually not get a chance to vote until the evening after work. Because of time zones, I was voting even after voting booths in huge numbers of states had already closed. I remember getting home from voting only to find out that the media was already projecting a winner. The perception was that at that point, my vote didn't really count simply because I voted too late.

Blue-Eyed Wonder mentioned that we Oregonians lose out on the experience of physically going to a voting booth. But a nice side-effect of this is that I got to deposit my ballot yesterday—early enough to know that as the media projects how the popular vote lays out tonight, my voice has truly been heard.

Washington, D.C.

Meredith Slesinger in D.C. writes:

I was looking for my voter registration card when my boyfriend called my cell phone to tell me that the line at our precinct stretched out the door, around the corner, and down the hill into Rock Creek Park. Clearly, the residents of Mount Pleasant in Washington DC were going to be in for a long morning.

General elections in Washington are generally anti-climactic. 90% of the city voted for John Kerry in 2004 and the Republican party is nearly non-existent in local politics, save for an obscure rule requiring that one of the at-large council seats be held by an opposing party. (This usually means interested candidates change their registration from Democrat to Independent.) DC is a place where at the presidential level, the winning candidate is a foregone conclusion.

However, the inevitability of DC's three electoral votes did not appear to deter myself and the rest of my neighbors from turning out to vote for Barack Obama. While I'm sure there has to be at least one McCain / Palin voter among the 12,000 or so residents of Mount Pleasant, I can report I have not seen a single McCain / Palin sign or bumper sticker anywhere in the neighborhood. In fact, I can only recall a spotting a single McCain / Palin yard sign in DC at all, far up Oregon Avenue near the Maryland line.

Mount Pleasant is one of DC's most diverse neighborhoods, with a population nearly evenly divided between whites, blacks, and Hispanics. I couldn't help but grin as I walked down the hill to meet my boyfriend at end of the line, passing the entire racial and socioeconomic spectrum on my way. Mount Pleasant residents run the gamut from the affluent to those barely getting by. Regardless of color or tax bracket, everyone in line this morning was excited to be voting in this election.

In and of itself, that's pretty sweet.

Quiet in Miami Beach

After reading news all morning of huge lines at the polls, I headed out to three local polling places and was shocked to find not a single person standing in line at any of them. In the most notorious swing state of all, the dead quiet at the polls is surprising and a bit disconcerting. I'll head out later and see if things start picking up.

Out West

Here in my south Eugene neighborhood, if one was to base election assumptions on yard signs alone, you might believe the race being waged today was between Obama and Nader. I pass one big McCain sign on my way to campus, but there's not much question who has won the hearts and minds of the Willamette Valley. We're especially pleased by our local collective memory that, on his campaign swing through town last May, Obama stopped at a campus hangout for ice cream. He likes mint chocolate chip, and tips well. We like knowing that.

I find myself feeling oddly jealous of those of you who get to actually go to a polling place today. Out here, the vote-by-mail system eliminates that special moment (and also the long lines). It's a decent trade-off, but I feel like I'm missing out on something. And I don't get one of those little "I Voted" stickers.

The closest I came to that moment you're all experiencing today was walking through the rain and soggy maple leaves yesterday to drop off my sealed envelope at the Lane County elections office. There was a steady stream of foot traffic going in and out of the building, and I noticed how we all smiled and made eye contact and held the door for each other in a way slightly more generous than we would on any other day, or for any other errand. I'm not sure what that says, exactly, about this community, or the weight of this election, or the occasional pleasures of the usually-aggravating democratic process. But today really does feel special. I like knowing that, too.

Early Voting

Vote early last week was very similar to the experience of buying an iPhone last summer. Although I chose a strategic time - the middle of the day on a weekday - the line stretched right out of the city hall, and an elaborate system of queues kept the parade of people moving forward. Ten at a time, people standing in the line outside the building were ushered in and taken to yet another network of lines inside. Just as all of us poor Applephiles in the hot sun had nothing to talk about but the virtues of the new iPhone last summer, conversation in the voting line inevitably turned to politics.

My conversation partner was a middle-aged black American who works as a waiter at Miami's poshest and most famous restaurant. He told me about his 96 year old mother in Indianapolis and her giddiness at being able to vote for a black man this year. Overhearing our conversation, a wizened lady of 70-80 approached us to say, with a heavy Cuban accent: "I came here in 1959 and I always vote for the Republican. But guess what I just did?" She smiled broadly and mischievously. "I voted for Barack Obama."

Election Day Words from the "Far Left" of American Politics

So I did my civic duty today, and cast my vote at my polling place, deep in the heart of Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. I was a little worried, given the words of warning in the press about shortages of voting machines, that I would get there to find throngs of people waiting in line for the one working voting machine. I was pleasantly surprised that the line I had to wait in for my polling district was quite short. Some of the lines stretched outside the door. There were only a couple of elderly women in front of me, one of whom got yelled at by the sour poll worker for being in the wrong line. I was able to get a laugh out of that poll worker when I asked her how many times I was allowed to vote today. Part of me is serious about that. The actual voting experience though was kind of anti-climactic. The voting booth appeared to date back to before I was born. So if there was any attempt to fix the election with rigged voting booths, it was perpetrated by the Nixon administration. I pulled the lever, pushed some little levers, pulled the lever again, and walked out. No receipt, no ballot to put in a box, no visible holes punched in a card, not even one of those iconic "I Voted!" stickers to wear on my sweater. Other than the memory of elderly African Americans waiting in long lines and pulling levers, I really have no evidence of ever having voted.

Still, this is the first election where I've felt pretty good about my choice. My last two presidential ballots were sent (lost) in the mail. I still think Barack Obama is the lesser of two evils. I have been joking about how I still need to decide between Nader and the Working Families party candidate. It turned out that Obama WAS the Working Families candidate. I still voted for him under Democrat though, due to the fact that I wasn't too sure how my vote would be counted if I pulled the working families lever.

One of McCain's talking points for the last few weeks has been to label Obama as "from the far left of American politics." As someone who considers himself pretty far left, and who knows and respects a handful of socialists, I am a little offended by this. If wanting to cut taxes for everyone but the very rich and supporting health care that DOESN'T necessarily result in universal coverage means that Obama is "far left," then what am I? While I still think Obama is more likely to be in touch with the needs of the majority of working- and middle-class Americans, I'd prefer it if McCain did not lump him in with my beliefs. It turns my beliefs into an insult lobbed by uninformed people to bring down a candidate they also know nothing about. This is basically to say two things: Obama is categorically NOT from the "far left" of American politics, and even if he was, what's so bad about that?

Concord, NH

Woke up this morning in downtown Concord, NH. You can tell this is a swing state. In Massachusetts where I live there is no contest - we are a blue state through and through. Here, people are out all over the place with signs, banners. People are honking their horns as they drive by. I've also seen about even numbers McCain and Obama signs. Projections show this state going blue, but from look of things no one is taking it for granted up here. If I had a camera I'd post some photos.

Alright, back to Massachusetts to vote.

The Florida Vote

While I was out canvassing on Saturday, I was struck by just how outflanked McCain is in this area. Literally every few blocks I ran into another Obama volunteer with their "Change" t-shirts and clipboards. The streets were so saturated with Obama canvassers, yard signs and stickers that for a moment it was hard to believe this was a swing state.

The Obama campaign's canvassing technique was exacting to the extreme. We visited Democrats with a history of not showing up on election day, and the organizational system employed by the office ensured that EVERY ONE of these people were visited, either in person of by phone, by a representative. If they weren't home when we were canvassing at their door, we marked them as "N/H" on a form so a volunteer later in the day could follow up. Obama's penetration into this district is so complete that many people have been visited numerous times.

Of course, as the organizers pointed out, for every Obama supporter in South Beach there is a dyed-in-the-wool Republican in Pensacola or Jacksonville. All of the three major South Florida counties will most likely go blue (Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade); however, we're going to need strong victories here to offset the red votes from Northern Florida. In this election, the place to watch is not West Palm or Miami: it is the area between the north and the south, that deeply purple area around Orlando in central Florida. Tonight, as goes the I-4 corridor and Orange County, so goes Florida.

Election Blogging

New media has changed the way politics is reported in this country and opened once sealed, closed happenings and impressions up to the collective knowledge of everyone. For all the back and forth in the media wars between the bloggosphere and the established traditional organizations, this is one moment where, quantifiably, bloggers can tell the story of the 08 Presidential election in ways that the mainstream media simply cannot. We can testify to the minutiae and the anecdotes that fill in the messy human story of an election; we can bear witness to the polling process itself with a camera. I believe that this election will be the most thoroughly documented in American history, in large part because both the bloggosphere and the traditionals are opening up the nets of information to the wider world. Many major news companies (including the NY Times) are accepting photos from across the country to post on their site; important bloggers like Andrew Sullivan are welcoming emails from across the spectrum so he can post them on his blog. Election day is the moment in American life that most firmly embodies our Democratic ideals, where every proud individual becomes, if only for a moment, an anonymous Citizen. Please join me on the blog to document this historic event.