Friday, November 16, 2007

The Constitution says George Bush must step down in 2009, but it doesn't say anything about Cheney

Why Don't I Find This More Reassuring?
That's the real reason I don't find this bumper sticker as reassuring as I should. It's not only that the deadline still leaves 14 months and 4 days for Bush to screw up, the consequences of which we'll have to live with a lot longer than that -- such as bombing Iran, for example.

It's mainly that the sign only refers to Bush, not Bush and Cheney. That's because the Constitution says nothing about a vice presidential term limit. Here's the relevant part of the 22nd Amendment:
Section 1. No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice, and no person who has held the office of President, or acted as President, for more than two years of a term [a term is four years] to which some other person was elected President shall be elected to the office of the President more than once.
Nothing there about any restriction on the term of the vice president, nor anywhere else in the Constitution. Vice presidents can serve as long as they want (if their party will have them). Of course, prior to Cheney, the office was considered so undesirable, nobody would have wanted to serve more than two terms. So it would have seemed silly to even talk about prohibiting it.

Now it's a whole new ballgame, and Cheney seems to be writing the rulebook as he goes along. He apparently was the first person to ever really appreciate how remarkably well-suited the vice presidential bunker is to exercising power without leaving too many fingerprints at all (especially if the courts are mostly friendly toward your administration).

Cheney seems to enjoy the power. Why should he give it up? All he has to do is find another front man. Giuliani could strut while Cheney ruled, and both men's temperaments would find their perfect expression. Ditto McCain. Ditto Romney.

All along, it has seemed strange that in the midst of an unpopular war the Republican candidates have done so little to distance themselves from the administration. Maybe they know something we don't. It's not hard to imagine a scenario in which Cheney is "drafted" to remain in place.

For example, imagine that Iran provokes us unforgivably (or is portrayed as doing so in the all too complaisant media) just before the Republican convention. A "reluctant" President Bush is forced to fight back. The Republican nominee appoints Cheney as the vice presidential candidate in a patriotic show of national unity and purpose -- and they hit the campaign trail lashing out at Democrats who want to surrender to the aggressor. With the help of more than a little Election Helper on election night, the two Republicans sweep to an easy election and reelection, respectively.

Yes, George Bush will leave office on a winter day in January, 2009. But it could be a cold day in hell before Cheney ever leaves.

Social Security facts vs. the unbearable lightness of primary campaign rhetoric

Let's face it. Reality really takes a beating during the unbearable lightness of political discussion during our longer-than-ever primary campaign season, when scoring points replaces reasoned discourse, sound bites replace thought, and tactical considerations seem to govern every word. Endless debates long before America is even ready to focus on the presidential campaign turns the candidates into parodies of themselves. We get absurdities like Barack Obama conjuring another Social Security "crisis" out of thin air and accusing Hillary Clinton of not doing enough about it. Yeah, right.

In a useful column today, Paul Krugman takes on this canard and reminds us of a few facts.
  • Inside the Beltway, doomsaying about Social Security — declaring that the program as we know it can’t survive the onslaught of retiring baby boomers — is regarded as a sort of badge of seriousness, a way of showing how statesmanlike and tough-minded you are.

  • But the “everyone” who knows that Social Security is doomed doesn’t include anyone who actually understands the numbers. In fact, the whole Beltway obsession with the fiscal burden of an aging population is misguided.

  • How has conventional wisdom gotten this so wrong? Well, in large part it’s the result of decades of scare-mongering about Social Security’s future from conservative ideologues, whose ultimate goal is to undermine the program.

  • The anti-tax activist Stephen Moore gave the game away when he described Social Security as “the soft underbelly of the welfare state,” and hailed the Bush plan as a way to put a “spear” through that soft underbelly.

  • In October, The Washington Post published an editorial castigating Hillary Clinton for, um, not being panicky about Social Security — and as we’ve seen, nonsense like the claim that Social Security is a Ponzi scheme seems to be back in vogue.

  • And on Social Security, as on many other issues, what Washington means by bipartisanship is mainly that everyone should come together to give conservatives what they want.
  • Good points to keep in mind. As the campaigns continue heating up heading into the first caucuses and primaries, things are likely to get worse before they get better. We're going to have to keep our wits about us.

    Thursday, November 15, 2007

    My camera hungers for a solar battery charger. but its owner is confused about where to find a good one.

    The good news about my Coolpix P50 is that it runs on (disposable or rechargeable) AA batteries. The bad news about my Coolpix P50 is that it runs on (disposable or rechargeable) AA batteries. So, what to get to keep this hungry little guy fed?

    The NYT had an article about this the other day. "In Battery Buying, Enough Decisions to Exhaust That Bunny" gave a semi-exhaustive overview of the options -- store brand vs. brand name, alkaline vs. other alternatives, disposable vs. rechargeable, etc. It recommended Duracell's top-of-the-line rechargeables.
    To address the problem of batteries that drain quickly, Duracell has introduced a nickel metal hydride rechargeable battery that retains power for up to a year. Called Duracell Pre-Charged Rechargeable, it is intended specifically for use in digital cameras, MP3 players and portable games, with a price of about $12.99 for four.
    Rechargeables sound good at first glance, but there's something missing here. The reason I called the story semi-exhaustive was that it never once used the word "solar." A conventional battery charger still pulls power from the grid. It may slow environmental litter, but by adding to the demand on power plants, it still contributes to global warming. Charging the batteries to power all our small consumer devices would seem to be one of the most obvious solar applications., one that it should be easy to implement.

    The trouble is, when I look online, there are plenty of solar battery chargers, but nothing that seems to have a large, happy installed user base. The only one Amazon sells direct has a single, highly negative review. Others are sold by other Amazon resellers, but there's nothing there that inspires confidence. I'm not sure who to trust. Does anyone out there have experience with a solar battery charger? What would you recommend?

    Wednesday, November 14, 2007

    The Hobbesian world of the Mormon cricket, revealed in the NYT's science story about swarming

    "From Ants to People, an Instinct to Swarm" is the title of the NYT story summarizing current research on the physics, biology and mathematics of swarming, which happens throughout the animal kingdom and may even happen among the cells in our brains.
    If you have ever observed ants marching in and out of a nest, you might have been reminded of a highway buzzing with traffic. To Iain D. Couzin, such a comparison is a cruel insult — to the ants.

    Americans spend a 3.7 billion hours a year in congested traffic. But you will never see ants stuck in gridlock.

    Army ants, which Dr. Couzin has spent much time observing in Panama, are particularly good at moving in swarms. If they have to travel over a depression in the ground, they erect bridges so that they can proceed as quickly as possible.
    It's a fascinating article, especially the material about how computer scientists are studying swarming by creating simple rules, such as maintaining a certain distance from your neighbor, that can be used to create realistic computer models of highly complex swarm behavior.

    Swarming is a beautiful example of complexity emerging from simplicity. Some of the simple rules apply to many species. Some are highly specific, such as this dramatic rule that applies to the Mormon cricket in Utah.
    Mormon crickets will sometimes gather by the millions and crawl in bands stretching more than five miles long. Dr. Couzin and his colleagues ran experiments to find out what caused them to form bands. They found that the forces behind cricket swarms are very different from the ones that bring locusts together. When Mormon crickets cannot find enough salt and protein, they become cannibals.

    “Each cricket itself is a perfectly balanced source of nutrition,” Dr. Couzin said. “So the crickets, every 17 seconds or so, try to attack other individuals. If you don’t move, you’re likely to be eaten.”

    This collective movement causes the crickets to form vast swarms. “All these crickets are on a forced march,” Dr. Couzin said. “They’re trying to attack the crickets who are ahead, and they’re trying to avoid being eaten from behind.”
    Kind of makes that famous statement by Thomas Hobbes that life in a state of nature without a social contract is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short" seem like a huge understatement.

    Do you know where your car is? Madison's annual memory tax starts November 15.

    For most Madison residents, winter parking, alternate side parking rules start Thursday, November 15 and run through March 15. Get the details here: Park on odd-numbered sides of the street on odd-numbered days (between 1:00 a.m. and 7:00 a.m.), except in the congested downtown where the rules only apply in a declared snow emergency. Certainly makes sense during a snowstorm, when overworked crews are trying to plow the streets, but we don't have that many snowstorms.

    The rest of the time, the policy serves as a memory tax, with the forgetful being aggressively ticketed by enforcers who seem to prowl the streets at night looking for every possible municipal revenue enhancement. For me this functions as a handy check on the state of my mental acuity and memory. Most years I get one or two tickets. If I see a major spike over that baseline, I'll know I'm in trouble. Last year I had none. My memory must be getting sharper.

    Tuesday, November 13, 2007

    Misplaced creativity on the Southwest Bike Path

    Brain Teaser on Madison's Southwest Bike Path
    It's certainly an interesting abstract pattern -- but if you're biking along Madison's Southwest Bike Path at a decent clip, heading south near Brittingham Bay, you may be across the railroad tracks before you ever figure out what, exactly, the sign means. If you can figure it out, you probably don't need it. And if you do need it, you probably can't figure it out.

    This may be a stupid question, but why don't they use one of the universally recognizable symbols for a railroad crossing used on roads and highways? Aren't creativity and originality rather counterproductive in a warning sign? Just wondering.

    Life imitates art for Sandra Day O'Connor

    It turns out that it's not uncommon for advanced Alzheimer's patients to forget their spouses and fall in love with someone else -- often someone who is a familiar presence in the treatment facility where they are staying. That was the subject of the Julie Christie movie last spring, "Away from Her," a film that was based on an Alice Munro short story in The New Yorker. Now USA Today reports that the husband of former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor has fallen in love with someone he met in his Alzheimer's facility, and that his family, including Justice O'Connor, is happy for him.
    Retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's husband, who suffers from Alzheimer's, has found a new romance, and his happiness is a relief to his wife, an Arizona TV report reveals.


    Offering a glimpse into the private life of a woman who has remained on the public stage since her Supreme Court retirement in 2006 to care for her husband, the report spotlighted John O'Connor, 77. He and the woman, referred to only as "Kay," live at a Phoenix facility for people with Alzheimer's.

    "Mom was thrilled that Dad was relaxed and happy and comfortable living here and wasn't complaining," Scott, 50, told KPNX-Channel 12 in Phoenix in a story that aired Thursday.
    Munro's story, "The Bear Came over the Mountain," was published eight years ago and is once again on their website. It provides a powerful, dark and poignant look at the depths of love and loss experienced by Alzheimer's victims, their spouses and their families.

    Traveling back through time the other night by walking along Lake Mendota at twilight

    Time Travel Made EasyEvery step of our walk the other night semed to take us back through time as all vestiges of the present seemed to fade away into the dusky shadows, and we could have been out for a stroll a hundred years ago. We walked through a soft Lake Mendota twilight, looking as if it might have been a lost Alfred Stieglitz photograph from the early days of the Photo-Secession, before he discovered the angularities and hard edges of Modernism. (Howard Temin Lakeshore Path, University of Wisconsin, Madison. Wisconsin.)

    Monday, November 12, 2007

    Abstract art on the Wingra Creek Bike Path

    Wingra Creek Bike Path Abstraction
    Anyone know what the white tape is that is stuck to the asphalt patches? It looks like toilet paper, but I imagine it's not. Seems more functional than that. Does it help cure the asphalt? Or is it mainly there to protect shoes and bike tires from picking up asphalt before it sets? Whatever it does, it also functions as an accidental work of abstract art -- an unconscious homage to Jean Dubuffet, perhaps.

    Sunday, November 11, 2007

    The fifth Veterans Day of the Forever War, which has now dragged on longer than World War I

    November 11: Veterans Day
    November 11, 1918 -- the end of the "War to End All Wars." That didn't work too well. Now celebrated as Armistice Day or Remembrance Day in the rest of the world, Veterans Day in the U.S., celebrated both on Nov. 11 and as a Monday holiday. This is the fifth Veterans Day of the Forever War, which has dragged on longer than World War I. We no longer talk about ending all wars. We can't even figure out how to end the one we've got.

    How to review a book you haven't read

    One way is to quote from a blog post you wrote months before the book was published. The book is Pierre Bayard's new book, How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read, which is reviewed in today's NYT Book Review by Jay McInerney, and my post was written last May, in response to a John Updike speech at a booksellers' convention, in which he lamented the decline of our book culture under the influence of new media and the Internet.

    "The book revolution, which from the Renaissance on taught men and women to cherish and cultivate their individuality, threatens to end in a sparkling pod of snippets," warned Updike. I suggested that what constitutes reading is larger than that, and has more sturdy, maleable boundaries than Updike seemed to think.
    Is individuality really that clear cut? Are book boundaries really that inviolable?

    I forget so much of what I read, even the work of my favorite writers—especially my favorite writers. Sometimes I’ll go to retrieve something from the library stacks of my mind, and that’s when the fuses blow and the lights go out. More often, I’ll emerge with what I’m looking for, but in a form that bears only a passing resemblance to the original. Is this normal, or should I be seeing a neurologist? I used to worry a lot about this.

    I became more accepting of my literary amnesia after I happened upon a sly 1970 essay, “My Recollections of Kafka,” by John Fowles, in which no less a literary light than the author of “The Magus” and “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” makes what he calls an “appalling confession of ignorance”—that he has forgotten almost everything he ever knew about Kafka and his work, which he had read while at Oxford. “What I think I know well is his spirit, his tone of voice, his coloration (or lack of it), his drift, his one brilliant metaphor,” writes Fowles, and that’s about it.

    As an Oxford graduate and former schoolmaster, Fowles may have been gently mocking the academic assumption that the more you can accurately recall of a work of literature, the better. But we don’t have to prove anything to ourselves when we read for pleasure. Outside the classroom and the pages of literary journals, you could almost view literature as the residue that remains after all the details have faded, living on in a kind of twilight zone of the dimly remembered and half forgotten. No sharp edges at all, just a big blur, really.
    For Bayard, the blur is extended beyond our own fuzzy memory to include skimming and secondhand knowledge as well.
    Lest the reader, or the nonreader, think that Bayard underestimates the power of reading, he proposes that we are all essentially literary constructs, defined by our own inner libraries: the books we’ve read, skimmed and heard about. “We are the sum of these accumulated books,” he writes. (And make no mistake about it, this prof is far more literate and widely read than he pretends to be.)
    Sounds like an interesting book. I might even read it, if I get around to it.