9:40 PM. Ohio has been projected to go for Senator Obama. CNN isn’t about to call the election officially, but John King just hypothetically went through the map of the outstanding states and even under the wildest bias in favor of Senator McCain, he still loses. Mr. King said “I can’t see any plausible way for McCain to win.” As far as I’m concerned, CNN has called it.

District of Columbia, Precinct 39, Ward 1

Election day, Precinct 39, Ward 1, Bell Multicultural High School, District of Columbia, 4 November 2008

I’ve only voted one time in my life, when at the age of 18 or 19 my mother requested an absentee ballot for me, sat me down at the dining room table and showed me how to fill it in. It was an off year and it was some issues and offices entirely forgettable. I consider voting to be mostly irrational behavior since the chance of my swaying my state’s slate of electors is somewhere on the order of < 0.5*10-7. Being permanently ensconced in the liberal archipelago, my vote matters even less. But this election is historic and I figure some children might ask me about it some day. Having to answer that I didn’t vote would be quite the wet blanket.

So for the first time in my life I drug my ass out of bed at some hour where birds and worms lock in mortal combat, hauled on last night’s clothes and walked a few blocks over to precinct 39, ward 1 voting center, namely the Bell Multicultural High School theatre and voted. I got there twenty minutes after polls opened. Nonetheless, the line stretched out the door, down the block, into the D.C. Parks Department parking lot, where it snaked around the perimeter, then back out onto the sidewalk, to the end of the block, across the street and part way down the next block. It was cold enough this morning that people were wearing gloves and hats and performing little mini-callisthenic foot shuffle dances while they waited.

We had an option of voting paper or electronic. Since I was unsure that I could properly navigate a grid of arrows, bubbles and names with my eyes, and since being victimized by Diebold seemed exciting, I opted for electronic.

Of course I voted for Senators Barack Obama and Joe Biden. For fun I also voted for House of Representatives Observer Elinore Holmes Norton, a friend of the Colbert Report, and as a cantankerous and cranky old lady, one of the few figures in public life with which this pessimist can identify somewhat.

After two hours and twenty minutes I was on my way back home. There wasn’t much by way of excitement. Some people took pictures. Some high school students shouted pro-Obama slogans from the upper-floor windows. Many cars honked as they drove past our long line. Everyone seemed a little excited when a Navy official of some sort came out and ran the flag up the pole in front of the school. It was pretty bureaucratic. The flag wasn’t folded into one of those neat little triangles like boy scouts and marine drill squads are taught. He just came out with it wadded under his left arm, like it were the laundry. It was a nice autumn morning. The sky was grey. The most beautiful tree on my block had covered the sidewalk with a layer of variegated, crunchy orange leaves. The hot shower between my civic duty and work felt wonderful after that long standing in the cold.

And now the waiting.

An Early Night

Like I was saying, make sure you’ve got a line on a glass of champagne early (Steinberg, Jacques, “Networks May Call Race Before Voting Is Complete,” The New York Times, 4 November 2008, p. A24):

A senior vice president of CBS News, Paul Friedman, said the prospects for Barack Obama or John McCain meeting the minimum threshold of electoral votes could be clear as soon as 8 p.m. — before polls in even New York and Rhode Island close, let alone those in Texas and California. At such a moment, determined from a combination of polling data and samples of actual votes, the network could share its preliminary projection with viewers, Mr. Friedman said.

“We could know Virginia at 7,” he said. “We could know Indiana before 8. We could know Florida at 8. We could know Pennsylvania at 8. We could know the whole story of the election with those results. We can’t be in this position of hiding our heads in the sand when the story is obvious.”

Similarly, the editor of the Web site Slate, David Plotz, said in an e-mail message that “if Obama is winning heavily,” he could see calling the race “sometime between 8 and 9.”

“Our readers are not stupid, and we shouldn’t engage in a weird Kabuki drama that pretends McCain could win California and thus the presidency,” Mr. Plotz wrote.

There’s no need to mention Barack Obama or John McCain meeting the minimum threshold of electoral votes by as soon as 8:00 PM. Either Senator Obama is going to be declared the President Elect early, or it’s going to drag on all night.


It’s hard to know what to think about tomorrow. I’ve been a subscriber to the school of “big factors count most,” so incumbent approval, the economy, right direction-wrong direction, party identification. It probably didn’t matter who the Democrats put up this year. That person was going to win owing to the structural factors. In fact, I turn to racism — or if not overt racism, at least race-related conservatism — on the part of white voters on the Democratic side and selection by the Republicans of the maverick with the maximum crossover appeal among the Republican slate for things being as narrow as they are. However much spleen is being pumped up by the far-right in anticipation of the blood-letting to come after their defeat, Johm McCain was the Republican capable of losing by the least in 2008.

But I’m jumping into the details way too fast. The big picture is that I am making sure that I am getting together with my people tomorrow night early. If we wait too long to meet up, we could miss it. I am anticipating that Senator Obama is not just going to win, but win in a landslide. If he wins Virginia and Pennsylvania, they could call the whole election on that basis. With polls closing in those two states at 7:00, they could have a statistically significant portion of votes counted by 9:00 and it could all be over. This is, of course, barring total electoral chaos.

A dash of confidence off the top, I am still significantly worried and tomorrow evening is going to be a nail-biter all the way until it’s called. I think that polling is essentially sound and the big numbers are the ones that count. The lesson of 2004 seems to be that frittering around the margin is misguided. That being said, I can’t help the frittering. There are still seven percent of voters undecided and presumably anyone still undecided is going to break for Senator McCain. The race is tightening somewhat. And I am completely freaked out over a potential Bradley effect, though it hasn’t appeared in this cycle to date. On the other hand, I am also counting on that segment of people only owning cell phones who don’t show up at all in the polls causing an Obama win larger than expected. And opposite a Bradley effect might be the fact that people want to bet on a winning horse. Maybe the heard mentality will kick in with the undecided votes and they will do what’s cool.

All the rational calculation aside, I am trying to contain an overwhelming amount of positive excitement for tomorrow. I have my rational, pessimistic expectations for an Obama administration. That being said, we will get to witness one of the great bugaboos of U.S. history slain: the idea that only a white man can be entrusted with the fate of the country. I feel like there have been two outstanding political events in my lifetime: the end of the Cold War and September 11th. Tomorrow we will be adding a third event of similar magnitude to the list. President elect Obama should lead the inaugural parade down the Capital Mall instead of Pennsylvania Avenue and take the oath of office not from the Capital, but from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Barack Obama is a phenomenon of his own and deserves the enthusiasm he gets, but part of the determination and anticipation of tomorrow is that after eight seemingly interminable years we will finally be closing the door on a dark period of U.S. history, namely the administration of George W. Bush, Jr.

I find the whole media invented “hundred days” narrative tiresome and I wish that an Obama administration would do something to counter it. But I wholly anticipate a frenetic burst of energy from an Obama administration. There is so much in need of fixing, so much done wrong or neglected, or in need of undoing. And in every instance the right thing so damn plain. There is so much pent up energy at this point. We’re not just going to close the door on the Bush years, we’re going to slam it shut.

The Supernovae in Your Coffee Cup

The Supernovae in Your Coffee Cup

I loved the film π. I consider it a hugely flawed film, but what I loved about it was the way that it worked in subtle allusions to the underlying concepts motivating the film. The main character walked through a park and they point the camera skyward to show the denude winter branches of the trees, an example of fractal symmetry. One of the images that they showed a number of times throughout the film was that of a cup of coffee. Whenever someone ended up in a diner, we got a tight-in shot of them dumping the cream into their coffee and the blooms of turbulent fluid redounding from the depths. It’s a perfect example of turbulence, a phenomenon that utterly defies computation. Since π I’ve never looked at a cup of coffee the same. Every time I pour cream into my coffee it’s a little ritual where for just a second I consider the boundlessness complexity of the world, as close as the cup in my hand.

I was amused to see a recent article in New Scientist invoke the image of the cup of coffee in reference to the problem of turbulent fluids in supernovae (Clark, Stuart, “How to Make Yourself a Star,” vol. 200, no. 2679, 25 October 2008, pp. 38-41):

As the dense inner material is flung through the less dense outer layers of a star, it creates turbulence and mixes everything up. Traditional computer simulations do not model turbulence well.

“Our theoretical understanding of turbulence is incomplete,” says astrophysicist Alexei Khokhlov of the University of Chicago. In other words, you cannot write down a set of equations describing the state of a turbulent system at any given time and then use them to predict what it will look like next. Instead, you have to employ a brute-force approach, using sheer computer muscle.

To seen the scale of this problem, take your morning cup of coffee and stir in some milk. You are using turbulence to mix the two fluids. To determine how they mix, physicists mentally split the cup into boxes and assign numbers to represent the properties inside each box, such as the temperature and density of the fluid. A computer can then calculate how each box interacts with its neighbors during one brief instant of time and then re-evaluate those numbers. Once it has done this for every box, it starts again for the next slice of time and so on.

To do this massive computation perfectly, each box should be tiny and contain just one fluid particle, but before you can get anywhere near this sort of precision, the numbers become mind-bogglingly large. Scientists talk of degrees of freedom as a measure of both the numbers of particles in a system and the number of ways each particle can interact with those around it. A single cup of coffee possesses a staggering 1040 degrees of freedom — far more than you can model on today’s computers. “Maybe in 10 years we will be able to fully model a cup of coffee,” says Khokhlov.

Until then the computation will always be approximate, and thus prone to errors, because small-scale physical interactions are not being taken into account. … If it is going to take 10 years to fully model a cup of coffee, how long until we can model an entire star?

“Never,” Khokhlov says. “Not until someone comes up with a cleaver theory that does not depend on what is happening on the small scale.” The only hope is to continue to investigate turbulence to learn how to better approximate its behavior.