Monthly Archives: February 2008

Maxwell’s Demon as one explanation for the Democratic primaries

Daniel Faraday

If you’re like me you’ve been ass-deep in online Lost recaps these past few weeks, and that means you’re up to speed again on the concept of Maxwell’s Demon. The Demon is a device (existence believed to be physically impossible) for violating the second law of thermodynamics, for reversing the effects of entropy, for moving away from equilibrium. That is, it sorts.

Like with our undecided electorate, which started in a mixed state of equal approval for the party’s major candidates, so talented were they all and proud we were. But the sentiments have since fully self-separated by twin criteria: Irrational Clinton hatred, and its correspondent, irrational Obama fondness. The electoral molecules (my Maxwell’s Demon way of saying ‘voters’) have been sorted by whether they possess these two irrational qualities or the equally irrational and opposite compulsion to identify and decry their appearance everywhere in the populace and media.

Clinton supporters and Obama supporters are indistinguishable to the naked eye in daylight, yet can’t fucking stand each other now and are pledged to mutually assured destruction. The growing threat is that the primary season Maxwell’s Demon threatens the smooth function of our general election Maxwell’s Demon, which is the political blogosphere. This is already beginning to suffer from zero entropy, as more have begun editing or outright shutting down their comments sections because of trolls. (Troll, like demon, describes a mysterious physical process.)

One thought, though: To my knowledge no one has argued that irrational Clinton hatred is just going to go away (self-destabilize, dissipate through the natural process of entropy), given its staying power since Clinton 42. But we are warned that its mirror, irrational Obama fondness, is ephemeral, and it threatens to collapse and disappear the instant we are foolish enough to elect him.


Glare Bombs v. The Heavens in Florida

Light Pollution

Blur – Far Out (mp3)

I caught the lunar eclipse Wednesday night but couldn’t find the satellite being exploded. That was clearly the more awesome event and would have been broadcast live on PBS if we had a halfway competent government.

I mention this because it reminded me of all the stars we had during our Florida Keys trip last month. They were allover in a way we hadn’t seen before, in a way we didn’t recall from last year’s trip. It was like one of those desert places where universities build their observatories. I, since I’m really good at figuring things out, explained to everyone that this was because there were no lights around to drown all the stars out, just water. All we had to compete with was U.S. 1, and the roadside kitsch on either side of U.S. 1, and nothing beside that from the panhandle to Cuba.

(I was fixated on U.S. 1 this trip, convinced the story of the Florida Keys was not the story of island life but the story of the American road. We kept running into markers for Flagler’s Folly, the railroad that preceded the paved road, a story that writes up as a South Floridian There Will Be Blood. America’s epic distilled to two lanes.)

My mind was just frazzled. It took us two nights to figure out the stars were there because there wasn’t any moon.

I was walking around the park with Katie on New Year’s Eve gazing up at these things, and predictably, as New Yorkers, we fell into talking about light pollution. More specifically, about that New Yorker light pollution article from a few months back. For a couple of post-Inconvenient Truth ecologists, here was something else to feel guilty about. The article, The Dark Side by David Owen, built up detail on detail into a cosmological gothic: glare bombs, circadian rhythm cancer, decimated insect populations, Vegas light leakage, children with telescopes, Home Depot signs on the moon.

The debate on light pollution, to the extent there is a debate, is a funny one: not good v. bad, or (like the guy who keeps taking out those Why won’t Al Gore debate me? ads) bad v. non existent, but bad v. who cares, bad v. we have priorities, bad v. lighten up.

As a generalization, the world’s big light polluters are its big energy consumers, our most economically developed nations. That seems to matter more than densely v. sparsely populated. Light pollution doesn’t come from the underdeveloped or remote regions, from the $1 a day world. Light pollution is a form of waste, but waste when waste is the burning off of luxury.

I don’t want to fault them, but the light pollution advocates haven’t been discussing the question on the metaphysical level. You’re going to call me old fashioned, but back in the day we used to think of light and dark primarily as symbols. They were the forces also known as good and evil; they were born to do battle with each other. Two players, two sides:

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Without Feathers

Michele Norris: Has there been a case where someone is known as a great speaker in running for President, but when they (sic) actually sit in the Oval Office where you don’t hear the President deliver these kinds of speeches, where you actually hear the President very little, that people wind up being a bit disappointed— they’re wondering, “Where is that guy that used to inspire me?”
Douglas Brinkley: My answer is the great speakers usually become great Presidents.

I threw that quote up there because it’s the word of a historian.

In many senses the promise of a Barack Obama victory is a return of History. This must partially explain Obama’s appeal to youth. The Young, demographically, have lived through technological progress and a self-perpetuating war, but not History, and understandably they are curious to experience some of it for themselves. Clinton’s fans, the older crowd among them, have seen History firsthand, and feel no obligation to revisit it.

Broad Generalizations

I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art

I’m kinda surprised more people have not been arguing the Roberta Smith position in today’s Broad Contemporary Art Museum review from the start: LACMA can and should do better than Eli Broad’s predictable, white, conservative, auction-house collection. Maybe it’s good they didn’t get the gift.

But the comedy in today’s paper is the Broad Art Foundation’s straight-faced response to the Guerrilla Girls, who attacked the show for reasons outlined in Smith’s review. It’s a battle of statistics that’s reminiscent of partisan tax cut fights and probably something we can look forward to for the rest of 2008: the Broad show is either 13 percent or 33 percent women, depending. No points for guessing whose stat is whose. Maybe the Broad Foundation genuinely believes that a wall of Cindy Shermans does an inclusive presentation make.

Rounding Up the Usual Suspects
And Speaking of Broad

The Clean Team

Men in Black

Meanwhile, in torture news, two fascinating items from the morning paper. In an effort to gather evidence against 9/11 suspects at Guantanamo that can’t be tossed out, the Dept. of Justice and the Pentagon in 2006 put together what they call a ‘Clean Team’ to re-collect the evidence without using any coercive measures. Clean Team investigators, according to the Times, ‘had not been briefed on earlier interrogations by the C.I.A. using harsher tactics,’ but it is presumed they will, with their Clean skills, collect the same information as what we should now infer was the government’s Dirty Team.

And Justice Antonin Scalia—in remarks that were clearly meant to bait but are nevertheless still the on-the-record statements to a reporter of a Supreme Court judge’s interpretation of the constitution—claimed that constitutional provisions against ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ don’t automatically apply if the cruel and unusual treatment is not intended to punish but to collect information.

I chose the word ‘fascinating’ because the two stories knock the justifications out from under each other. If, as the existence of a Clean Team indicates, the U.S. has faith that information can be obtained without coercive techniques or torture, then that treatment—like the waterboarding of KSM and friends—isn’t needed for information gathering. If it is permitted because it does not count as punishment, then we cannot explain it as a form of justice. All that leaves is that we wailed on them for wailing’s sake, like we did with Maher Arar: just to show we’re mad, to show we’re tough, to show we could.

Vampire Weekend


I’ve been enjoying the online back and forth over Vampire Weekend— I think we’ve just rounded the backlash to the backlash to the backlash to the straw man. These kinds of silly arguments are good things, because they often serve as surrogates for the more urgent debates we aren’t having.

The core problem—cause of both hype and backlash—is VW’s packaging of old-WASP privilege in (self-described) African music. The knowingness and absurdity of their stance: they’re not just white folks, but the stereotypically whitest white folks (privileged, rich, and educated) playing not just African music, but the blackest African music—could possibly be categorized as post-racist— like Sarah Silverman (or like most of Comedy Central)— something that claims it can’t be racist because it plays on the moral architecture of racism, but still manages to somehow perpetuate elements of racism, just in a more smug way. (Richard Thompson Ford—in the link—calls it the “supernova late stage of racism”).

The essentialist argument—just listen to the music—ignores the realities of context and the band’s lyrics and self-promotional tactics. Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa (citation in a VW blog post obligatory) is not as bad a song title as it could be—they could have called it Martha’s Vineyard Kwassa Kwassa. But they didn’t call it Southie Kwassa Kwassa, or Worcester Kwassa Kwassa. Upper West Side Soweto (citation also obligatory) is just nonsense, an exquisite corpse of indie rock star posturing. Are they trying to say they’re slumming?

It’s possible you haven’t heard yet, but Vampire Weekend are from Columbia. So was Edward Said. So were the Fugees, another Upper West Side Soweto (gosh, I hope I’m using that term correctly) that borrowed liberally from international black music culture.

Peter Beard

As the argument side of the debate maintains, they did it to themselves. VW’s sound is barely Afrobeat (or Afropop)—even when it’s Graceland, it’s Graceland minus the guest musicians. Given their self-definition, the globalism of Vampire Weekend shares less in common with traditional musical cross-pollination (as practiced by Byrne or Gabriel or Simon) than it does with the examples on view in the Met’s new gallery of 19th-century Orientalist paintings, compelling less for what it tells us about the culture being copied than the blind spots of the copier.

So why would they even do it? Why dress up fondness for African music in summer houses and Cheever? Is it a publicity ploy or a defense mechanism? Is it the George Plimpton thing, where the privileged escape risking failure at something by staying amateurs at everything, laughing off mistakes as the old Ivy League try? What’s the point?

Fela Kuti – Water No Get Enemy
Video – You Can Call Me Al