What the Withdrawal Really Tells Us

Look, I'm glad that Harriet Miers withdrew her name. I really am. She was not qualified, and would have provided little of the intellectual leadership that the court has been lacking during its period of domination by the Kennedy/O'Connor fifth vote. That said, I think anyone who has been paying attention to this nomination knows that her withdrawal has nothing to do with Senate demands for executive branch documents.

Instead, I think this withdrawal, and the rebellion that caused it, expose the conservative judicial movement for what it really amounts to in the end: a movement to overturn Roe v. Wade at all costs. Sure, Miers is not qualified. She never was. But it was not until the speeches came out yesterday, with their implicit sympathy for Casey/Roe, that the pressure on the WH heated up enough to force her withdrawal.

Let me qualify that by saying that I don't think every individual conservative is so result-oriented. I am quite sure there are many individuals who do their best to stick to a more result-neutral approach to supporting judicial nominees, whether it be deference to the executive, non-ideological qualifications, or the like. But I think the goal of overturning Roe v. Wade is the glue that holds the movement together, that unites those whose philosophies are driven by Catholic or evangelical religious faith and those who are motivated by strict constructionism, originalism, or any other ostensibly result-neutral philosophy. It is that results-oriented glue that largely keeps me out of the conservative judicial movement, despite my attraction to much of the jurisprudential philosophy produced by conservative legal scholars.

I've also previously been quite frustrated at Democratic obstructionism and the attempts to focus on the judicial philosophy of Bush nominees. I don't think litmus tests are appropriate. I think a party that has won both chambers of Congress and the White House has the right to nominate qualified individuals with conservative jurisprudential views without facing filibusters from the Democrats.

But I think the conversative movement has now made clear that for them, just as for the Senate Democrats, ideology is a perfectly acceptable reason to oppose a nomination. No one has the high ground any longer, if they ever did. That bodes ill for the future of judicial nominations, and that is a loss for us all.

McDonald's Misdirection

It seems that the constant attacks on the dietary deficencies at McDonald's have the corporation concerned enough to counterattack:

McDonald's on Monday will kick off a two-day media event to tout the quality of its food and combat critics who say its burgers and fries are unhealthy.

New print ads tout McDonald's "top quality USDA eggs" and "high-quality chicken", and the company already has a Balanced Lifestyles initiative to promote physical activity.

High-profile attacks on McDonald's in recent years, such as the 2004 film, "Super Size Me," have accused the company of contributing to the United States' obesity problems with products like the Big Mac, whose 30 grams of fat are equal to about half the government's recommended daily amount.

McDonald's in recent months has blamed the poor image of its food among British consumers for a falloff in sales in Britain. To prevent that from spreading further, one marketing expert said the company wants to shift the focus away from its burgers' fat and calorie content.

"Maybe if people think they have this terrific quality, then they'll forget about the calories and the fat," said Jack Trout, president of marketing strategy firm Trout & Partners. "Will it fix it with the naysayers? No. But what it will do is present more of a rationale for the people who take their kids to this place."

Perhaps counterattack is the wrong word. This new marketing scheme is probably better described as misdirection. Although the company says that the new campaign is targeted at "the perception that McDonald's burgers are filled with additives and other non-beef ingredients," that is really a side issue to the problems with the nutritional content of the food. Perhaps a few of the critics are worried about bacteria. But most are concerned about grease, oil, fat, and outrageously sized portions. Poison mixed from the finest natural ingredients is still poison.

Additions to the Book Gallery

Well, the book gallery is filling up at a pretty good clip. I've got all of my fiction and biography sections up to date (though I still have several more volumes on their way to me). I'll work on the rest this weekend.

After I take each photo, I put the dust jacket in a Brodart book jacket cover to keep them crisp and colorful. I've purchased a number of older editions from the 1950s and 1960s that are still in pretty good shape (like the Lagerkvist and the Mishima pictured below), but they'll need some care if they are going to stay that way. These $0.30 archival covers are a no-brainer. (Demco and Gaylord covers are good too).

I thought I'd also post a few more of the recent purchases I'm most excited about:

I Passed

It was bad enough that the Virginia Board of Bar Examiners announced they would post the July bar exam results online on Yom Kippur, likely forcing observant Jews to choose between attending services and rapidly hitting the refresh button like the rest of us . But to wait until 1:15pm to actually post those results, when they just had to know everyone would start checking at dawn... well that was just cruel (not to mention the fact that as I write this, the list only goes through last names starting with S. I'd be really mad if my name came after that).

Anyhow, I passed. Huzzah. Alas, the girl who sat next to me did not. Nor did 403 others out of the 1,367 who took it, for a rather low passage rate of 70.4%.

UPDATE: A friend emailed to ask whether 70% is really all that low, especially since it includes people who are re-taking the exam (and are much more likely to fail than first-time takers). The answer is no, 70% is not all that low relative to other states or to Virginia historically. It is rather low, however, compared to any other testing situation I have ever been in. It is just hard for me to grasp that of all those people sitting around me in July, three out every ten did not pass.

More on Home Depot Day Laborers

A few months ago I wrote an entry about my first experience seeing day laborers outside my local Home Depot. Today I got an email from PG directing my attention to a New York Times article on the growing controversy over how these laborers should be treated by Home Depot, their customers, and the government:

Morning after morning in city after city, contractors as well as homeowners needing an extra hand or two drive up to a Home Depot and hire laborers to paint walls, nail down roofing or trim branches, usually for $8 to $10 an hour. Not only has this caused friction between the stores and neighboring businesses and homeowners who do not want the men around, but it has also thrust the company into the nationwide debate about what to do about these workers, the majority of them illegal immigrants from Mexico and Central America.

In Illinois, several Hispanic groups are angry with the company because 40 day laborers have been arrested in recent months, accused of criminal trespassing at a Home Depot in Cicero. One Hispanic shopper was arrested by mistake.

In California, a group called Save Our State has held protests at numerous Home Depots, asserting that the company has aided illegal immigration. But in Los Angeles, a city councilman has proposed requiring all new large home-improvement stores to build shelters that would provide day laborers with basic amenities like toilets and drinking water.

Like I said in my last post, this is an absolutely vexing political and moral problem, like many immigration issues. I don't really have a firm enough grasp to make intelligent commentary. Instead, I'll point out that not all home improvement stores are having the same problem:

Experts on day labor said they knew of only a handful of Lowe's stores - the No. 2 home improvement retailer - where workers congregate. Lowe's attracts far fewer day laborers, these experts said, because Home Depot is more popular with contractors.

A side benefit, perhaps, to the fact that Lowe's has targeted home improvement novices rather than professionals. There is a relatively new Lowe's in Atlanta's Edgewood shopping district, and I can't deny that I drive right past the Home Depot closest to my home in order to go to Lowe's. It is just so much more user-friendly to someone who walks in not necessarily knowing exactly what they want or need.

Book Gallery

For years my unlimited hunger for books saw me gather hundreds of paperbacks around me, overflowing my shelves and ending up in boxes. Because of my limited budget, however, many of them were tattered, remaindered books from discount online bookstores. There was no end in sight for working my way through all of the books I'd yet to read. I needed a change.

When I moved to Atlanta and built my own book-friendly (i.e. strong and shallow) bookshelves, it was the perfect opportunity for that change. Now I've begun, slowly but steadily, to collect well designed and well crafted hardcover copies of the books I love (or think that I will). I use "collect" cautiously, as I am not at a point where I have any real interest in owning "first editions" or the like. I don't want expensive books. I want books in a nice readable condition, that will last for many years if I take care of them.

I value the aesthetic attractiveness of books, and their history too. I love cracking open an old Modern Library hardcover and seeing the $2.95 price on the dust jacket. But there are modern editions that I enjoy as well. The current Everyman's Library has many attractive volumes, as does the Library of America. The point is to have the books I enjoy, in volumes that I can both read and admire.

And now I've set up a gallery of my books. The first books I've added are the first books I sought out in nice hardcover editions: the novels of Yasunari Kawabata and Michael Chabon's Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay:


Bush Didn't Want a Scalia

Many conservatives are up in arms over the Miers nomination because they consider it a betrayal, or at least a failure to follow through on a promise to nominate someone in the mold of Scalia. I don't have any special way of knowing what the President was really looking for when he chose Chief Justice Robert and now Harriett Miers, but I have some suspicions. Many have pointed to his personal knowledge of candidates as a common link, since Bush has known Roberts since he was first (unsuccessfully) nominated to the D.C. Circuit by Bush's father and working in the Solicitor General's office. And his long connection with Miers has been much lauded and criticized.

Another commonality, and I suspect an equally important one, is the likelihood that both Roberts and Miers favor a strong deference to the executive branch in matters of national security. In cases like Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, Roberts has given sufficient signs to the administration that he is not disposed to limiting the administration's efforts in the war on terror. Assuredly, Miers' work in the White House Counsel's office has given the President similar comfort.

It would not be hard to believe that the President feels the war on terror (including, in his calculus, Iraq) is supremely important, perhaps even the "issue of our times," and thus should drive these nominations. It certainly seemed like much of the 2004 campaign was driven by the notion that Bush was the better choice for leading the war effort. If so, then like FDR and his pro-New Deal justices, Bush may be pushing nominations that focus on the issues important to him, with less regard for their overall philosophies or their potential effect on as yet unseen issues (like the incorporation and civil liberties revolutions of the post-WWII era).

In this light, Bush has a different set of priorities than quite a few of his vocal supporters now making waves at places like Confirm Them. For many of them, judicial nominations are not about the war on terror, nor taxes, nor corporate regulations. They are about abortion. Surely they would like a judge who supports the President's other priorities, but most of all they want one who will vote to overturn Roe. To them, that's what "like Scalia" really means.

But I will suggest that perhaps Bush is no longer so enamored with Scalia. I don't know why I forgot this until now, but I happened to be in the courtroom last June when the Supreme Court handed down Hamdi. v. Rumsfeld. This was the case of the U.S. citizen alleged to have been caught fighting for the Taliban in Afghanistan, and held without trial at a naval brig in Charleston, S.C. The court held that although Congress authorized the detention, Hamdi's citizenship meant he was entitled to a meaningful factual review before a neutral decisionmaker. Last October, Hamdi was freed and returned to Saudi Arabia.

Justice O'Connor wrote the majority decision and was joined by the Chief Justice, Justice Kennedy, and Justice Breyer. Justices Souter and Ginsburg concluded the detention was unauthorized, but voted with the plurality to remand for a factual inquiry.

Justice Thomas filed a true dissent, arguing that deference to the government's war powers should prevent the court from second-guessing the administration's decisions.

What is curious, however, is the opinion written by Justice Scalia. It is labelled a dissent, and thus the case if often cited as a 6-3 decision with Scalia and Thomas dissenting. Actually reading the decision, which was joined by Justice Stevens, shows that Scalia and Thomas could not be further apart on this. Scalia actually dissented because he did not think the plurality opinion went far enough in its criticism of the administration position:

The Founders well understood the difficult tradeoff between safety and freedom. “Safety from external danger,” Hamilton declared,

“is the most powerful director of national conduct. Even the ardent love of liberty will, after a time, give way to its dictates. The violent destruction of life and property incident to war; the continual effort and alarm attendant on a state of continual danger, will compel nations the most attached to liberty, to resort for repose and security to institutions which have a tendency to destroy their civil and political rights. To be more safe, they, at length, become willing to run the risk of being less free.” The Federalist No. 8, p. 33.

The Founders warned us about the risk, and equipped us with a Constitution designed to deal with it.

Many think it not only inevitable but entirely proper that liberty give way to security in times of national crisis–that, at the extremes of military exigency, inter arma silent leges. Whatever the general merits of the view that war silences law or modulates its voice, that view has no place in the interpretation and application of a Constitution designed precisely to confront war and, in a manner that accords with democratic principles, to accommodate it. Because the Court has proceeded to meet the current emergency in a manner the Constitution does not envision, I respectfully dissent.

When the decision was announced in the court that day, several of the justice spoke from the bench. They did not read their opinions, but rather gave prepared summaries. Justice Scalia was quite passionate and visibly outraged by the administration's attempt to hold a U.S. citizen in the United States withou trial. He argued that the only way the Constitution allowed for this was by suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, an action we can be sure President Bush is not interested in taking.

This may not have even crossed the mind of the President or his nomination advisers. But it may have, and it stands as pretty good evidence of the unpredictabilities of nominating a truly independent, intellectual conservative who aims to be more committed to a particular judicial philosophy than to any policy-driven outcome. I would be surprised if Bush did not take note of this, and perhaps adjust his committment to nominating "another Scalia."

Miers... or the Other Two

In an overall very interesting article about conservative resistance to the Miers nomination, the Christian Science Monitor has an especially interesting paragraph about the White House floating the names of potential nominees to Paul Weyrich, the influential head of a conservative think tank in Washington:

In the run-up to this week's announcement, Mr. Weyrich says he and other conservative leaders were given a list of three potential nominees, including Miers, and asked whether they had anything against them. "Based on their records," he had objections for two on the list. But for Miers, "we didn't know anything about her. Nobody knew where she was coming from, so we couldn't tell them anything," he says.

What is most intriguing about this is not that Weyrich was consulted in advance, but that Miers was the least objectionable choice from a conservative perspective. Which begs two questions: 1) who were the other two names, and 2) how can the conservatives calling for Miers to withdraw be so sure that President Bush won't turn around and name one of the other two?

Of all the president's traits that have exasperated Democrats for the past five years, near the top of the list must be his stubborness or resoluteness (depending on your perspective). While many unhappy conservatives are shouting that the White House has not yet recognized the depth of their displeasure, it might be worth suggesting that they have not yet come to terms with just how unflappable this administration can be in the face of overwhelming pressure to reverse course.

Miers and Elite Law Schools

Over at Originalisms, Tim Shuman gives what I think is unshakeable evidence that whatever the basis of conservative opposition to the Miers nomination may be, it is not law school snobbishness:

In the end, the depression, disappointment, and demoralization of many conservatives (especially those with legal training) is not about snobbish elitism over Miers's education at SMU. As Power Line has pointed out, the list of potential nominees come from diverse law schools: Karen Williams went to the University of South Carolina; Priscilla Owen, to Baylor University; Maura Corrigan, to the University of Detroit; Alice Batchelder, to the University of Akron.

I would add that Janice Rogers Brown went to UCLA; Edith Jones went to the University of Texas; and Edith Clement went to Tulane.

Now we could argue that some of these schools are more elite than others, but that is beside the point. What separates every single one of the candidates I just named from Harriet Miers is that each has some sort of judicial or appellate experience. Each one has conservative appellate credentials that we people who are not President Bush can observe, so we are left with more to rely on than "trust me."

James Joyner at Outside the Beltway has a post on the related elite/non-elite debate that seems to have erupted among conservatives. He makes an interesting point:

Conservatives love to make fun of "elites" but we are not without our own. Indeed, until the incorporation of Evangelical Christians into the movement in the 1970s and 1980s, conservatism almost certainly had more elites as a percentage of the movement than did liberalism. At least the George Wills, William F. Buckleys, and Bill Kristols of the world recognize that they are themselves part of an elite and eschew use of that rhetoric. Others, including Ann Coulter, Laura Ingraham, and Bill O'Reilly don't see that irony.

Indeed, having attended an Ivy League college and what most would consider an "elite" law school, I am finding this whole debate pretty fascinating. I became good friends with many members of what could only be called the "conservative elite," having rather "conservative" jurisprudential views of my own, and have always been struck by the elite education of many leaders of a conservative movement that oftens decries liberal elitism regarding higher education. And it is not as if Republicans have been been putting country bumpkins on the Supreme Court. Souter went Harvard/Harvard, Thomas went Holy Cross/Yale, Kennedy went Stanford/Harvard, Scalia went Georgetown/Harvard, and O'Connor and Rehnquist both went Stanford/Stanford.

I for one don't think that where someone went to law school should be a big factor in a nomination, especially when one notes that the only justice to attend my law school was perhaps the most awful, bigoted man ever to sit on the court. But it has been interesting to watch this aspect of the Miers nomination debate.

The Promise of Dar

mybetterselfDar Williams has been among my favorite musicians for nearly a decade now, having been introduced to Mortal City by my favorite high school teacher as a way of easing me into folk music. With the release of her latest album, My Better Self, I had been hoping for the long-awaited return to the quality that hooked me back then. I have enjoyed everything she has recorded since, without a doubt, but alas, this Amazon reviewer sums up all too well the way her last several albums have been received:

"My Better Self" is arguably Dar's most accomplished album since "Mortal City", but lyrically it still falls well below the mark set by her first two albums. Somehow the major poetry ("major" as in Paul Simon, later Lennon/McCartney, earlier Billy Joel major) in songs like "Traveling Again", "When Sal's Burned Down", "The Babysitter's Here", "Iowa", "As Cool As I Am", and "Western New York" turned into a Frankenstein third album, and then two nice sounding albums with far too many boring cliches, and now this: a *very* nice sounding album with some great collaborations, where, unfortunately, the best poetry is in the covers.

If the above seems surprisingly negative for a 4-star review, it's because Dar still has one of the most amazing voices out there, and because she and her people have gotten very skilled at blending the best elements of folk, indie pop, and old-school Beatles pop into something both soothing and challenging to my ear. As a poetry lover, though, I have to say that Dar needs to go back and read some Auden, some Millay, some... something. The author of "The Ocean" has far too much poetic talent to be coasting.

Scratch the Billy Joel reference and I feel the same way. It may be unfair to expect so much from one person, particularly when you get the sense that a lot of what drives a great artist is the pain of life (especially when you really read the lyrics to a song like "The Ocean"). So when an artist cheers up, gets married, and her music stops hitting those very highest notes of genius, it is awful to say that you wish she were more depressed and thus more lyrically creative. Still, the feeling lingers.

Men, Women, AND Minorities

My father pointed out this rather oddly phrased comment by Senator Trent Lott regarding the Miers nomination:

There are a lot more people -- men, women and minorities -- that are more qualified, in my opinion, by their experience than she is.

I'm sorry... men, women, and minorities? It's been a long time since that was an acceptable way to categorize people. I'm one to give people the benefit of the doubt, and even with the Thurmond comments that cost him his leadership role, I think Lott just has some articulation problems and an occasionally severe case of foot-in-mouth disease, rather than conscious racial biases. But still, comments like this do make you wonder.

The Parable of Publius

Publius at Legal Fiction has written an apt faux parable entitled "The Parable of Social Conservative and Justice Luttig." Here's a taste:

And when Social Conservative was ninety years old and nine, the BUSH appeared to him, and said unto him, “I am the Almighty Bush; walk with me and vote for me this fall.” Normally, Social Conservative would have fallen on his face and given thanks to the Bush. But not today.

“Why should I vote for thee?”

“You must trust me my faithful follower,” the Bush replied.

“I have trusted thee before. I have wandered in this desert for years and have been thirsty. And you have said, ‘vote for me and I will give you water.’ And you said, ‘there is water’ and I looked. But there was no water. Only Arlen Specter with a Chairman’s crown upon his head.”

“You must trust me my faithful follower.”

Publius is painting broad strokes with a blunt instrument (ah, the unsettling tingle of a mixed metaphor), but it's pretty funny nonetheless. There's much more on his site, though my favorite is this part: "But there was not water. Only Arlen Specter." That's rich.

Sam in the OC

Ezra Klein's wondering whether his West Wing memory is faulty, and his e-mailers correct when they assert that Rob Lowe's exit from the show was due to Sam Seaborn actually winning his congressional race in Orange County. As is usually the case in the world of political blogging, Ezra, your e-mailers are nuts. When in doubt, do what my wife would do: check Television Without Pity:

We are preaching to the choir and that is all that we are doing," Sam yells to Toby, walking into a bar and discovering Toby is no longer behind him. Toby finally catches up, and Sam complains that all the groups he's spoken to today are people who are voting for him already. He wants to know why. Toby explains, "The story's going to be that you stood up for what you believe in." And so Sam finally gets it: "I'm going to lose." Toby assures him that he will. They hug in solidarity because Toby is standing by him anyway, but their manlove reverie is quickly broken by the appearance of a bartender, who informs them in a most unlikely way, "There was a terrorist bombing in Africa, at an army base." And yes, America is totally much more attuned to news of terrorism than we used to be, but I'm still not sure a bombing at an army base is the first thing off a bartender's lips whenever a patron enters the premises. I'm not saying that it's right; I'm just saying that it's true. Nevertheless, Toby and Sam affirm that they already knew that, thanks, and they clink shots to Toby's toast, "God save the President of the United States." They walk out of the bar. Where's the Pope and the Protestant when you need 'em?

And that, as they say, was the end of that.

More on Africa

It looks like I'm not the only one with Africa on his mind. Over at Begging the Question, Fitz-Hume has posted about various ways in which Africa keeps coming to his attention, including a review of Lord of War, a film that is getting good audience reviews but has gone largely under the radar due to lukewarm critics and, I suspect, a growing suspicion of all things related to Nicolas Cage. Anyhow, Fitz-Hume also had this to say:

But as fascinating as Africa is, the whole continent is so troubled that I get depressed just thinking about it. AIDS, genocide and ethnic violence, manmade famine, perpetual poverty, magnificently corrupt rulers who revel in the suffering to which they subject their people, violent religious extremism, the destruction of habitat, when I take a close look at Africa it's makes me begin to question the humanity of man.

There is a lot of truth in that. I have tried to take a step back and decide whether Africa is so much worse than other parts of the world in terms of its tragedy, its violence and the like. And I think in the end, it is worse. But not because of anything inherently wrong with the people there. I think the combination of geographical and historical forces can teach us a lot about why Africa is the way it is, and what can be done.

That's one of the reasons reading Kapuscinski's The Shadow of the Sun has been so valuable. He has a way of bringing together the political, the sociological, the geographical, and the historical fabrics into a well-woven tale that does not explain all, nor attempt to, but does educate. Here's a good example, in which he discusses the lingering effects of the colonial system after African independence in the 1960s:

London and Paris, in order to induce their civil servants to go work in the colonies, created for those amenable to the idea a grand quality of life. A minor clerk from the post office in Manchester received upon arrival in Tanganyika a villa with a garden and swimming pool, cars, servants, holidays in Europe, etc. Members of the colonial bureaucracy lived truly magnificently. And now, between one day and the next, the inhabitants of the colony receive their independence. They take over the colonial state in an unaltered form. They even take great care not to alter anything, because such a state offers fantastic privileges, which its new administrators naturally do not wish to renounce. The colonial origins of the African state--a state wherein the civil servant received renumeration beyond all measure and reason--ensured that in independent Africa, the struggle for pwoer instantly assumed an extremely fierce and ruthless character. All at once, in the blink of an eye, a new ruling class arises--a bureaucratic bourgeouisie that creates nothing, produces nothing, but merely governs the society and reaps the benefit.

I don't think all of the corruption seen in many African governments can be blamed on this colonial heritage, and I don't think Kapuscinski is making such a claim. But how else could the newly independent countries have been expected to respond? The colonial governments were the only model they had for how to govern these larges "nations" that had little or no connection to the tribal or clan affiliations by which most Africans had identified themselves for hundreds or thousands of years. Can they be blamed for not recognizing that the European colonial governments were awful and corrupt in their very design, and not merely in their application? This does not excuse the horrendous behavior of many individuals in their offices, nor the failure to effect meaningful reform in many countries in the decades since independence. It does however, give an insight to understanding the root of the modern problem, and makes clear that it can not all be blamed on "Africa."

Africa and the Subway

An interesting opening to Ryszard Kapuscinski's The Shadow of the Sun, in which he relates the shock of stepping off the plane on his first visit to Africa:

In times past, when people wandered the world on foot, rode on horseback, or sailed in ships, the journey itself accustomed them to the change. Images of the earth passed ever so slowly before their eyes, the stage revolved in a barely perceptible way. The voyage lasted weeks, months. The traveler had time to grow used to another environment, a different landscape. The climate, too, changed gradually. Before the traveler arrived from a cool Europe to the burning Equator, he already had left behind the pleasasnt warmth of Las Palmas, the heat of Al-Mahara, and the hell of Cape Verde Islands.

On a much smaller scale, I experienced a related phenomenon during my travels in Europe. It was in Paris, my favorite of cities, during my four visits as a teenager (and none since!), that it became clear that simply stepping down into Le Metro at Gare du Nord and stepping out at St-Michel gives you absolutely no sense of Paris as it should be experienced, as a grand portrait painted with shades of color that blend and evolve into each other street by street.

The better choice is to walk, for hours, for days, to roam aimlessly, to chart interesting paths that take you through that one arrondissement you've somehow yet to visit. You see the cafes, the bars, the markets, you see the life of the city. You can see the sights too, but now you've seen the context in which they exist.

Seeing Paris by subway is seeing Paris as a series of postcards, each sight utterly disconnected from the rest. But a fist is more than the sum of five fingers, and a city is more than the sum of its landmarks.

New Chairman of the Joint Chiefs

With the retirement of Air Force General Richard Myers, the military has a new leader, the first Marine to hold that job:

Marine General Peter Pace took over yesterday as the military's top leader, facing an unpopular war in Iraq, recruitment shortfalls at home, and the possibility of an expanded role in domestic disasters.

At Pace's swearing-in, several Marines who have served with the Vietnam veteran said he would give President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld honest counsel as the military tries to reshape itself to battle the war on terrorism.

But some critics said they were concerned that as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Pace, 59, would march in the footsteps of his predecessor, General Richard Myers, and loyally tout the administration's defense strategy.

That seems a rather strange thing to be concerned about. Have we come to expect the Joint Chiefs to vocally question the strategy of the Commander in Chief? That's not their role. They should advise, certainly. They should bring their expertise to bear, certainly. But the military answers to civilian superiors.

In fact, the best examples I can recall of military chiefs resisting civilian policies are the gays in the military fiasco during Clinton's first term, Curtis Lemay wanting to nuke Korea and Cuba, and this:

July 26, 1948: President Truman signs Executive Order 9981, which states, "It is hereby declared to be the policy of the President that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin." The order also establishes the President's Committee on Equality of Treatment and opportunity in the Armed Services.

July 26, 1948: Army staff officers state anonymously to the press that Executive Order 9981 does not specifically forbid segregation in the Army.

July 27, 1948: Army Chief of Staff General Omar N. Bradley states that desegregation will come to the Army only when it becomes a fact in the rest of American society.

July 29, 1948: President Truman states in a press conference that the intent of Executive Order 9981 is to end segregation in the armed forces.

I'm not sure we want the military leaders being the ones challenging administration policies. It might seem good to some in the immediate situation, but in the long term I think it is rarely the right move.

Baby Panda / Evolutionary Biology

panda1It sounds like the baby panda at the National Zoo is still doing well, a much welcome sign of good news for a zoo that has had its share of problems in recent years:

The National Zoo's giant panda cub has doubled in length since his first examination two months ago and could be crawling around within two weeks, the animal park's chief veterinarian said yesterday.

During his seventh medical examination yesterday morning, the cub measured 24.7 inches long, compared with 12 inches during his first exam Aug. 2. He weighed 11.1 pounds, compared with 1.82 pounds at his first checkup.

"He's the incredible expanding panda," said chief veterinarian Suzan Murray.

I have been glued to the story of the baby panda, both because pandas are one of my favorite animals and because I am fascinated by the phenomenon of altricial young, where newborns are so helpless as to require long term care by a parent. Humans (and pandas and elephants) are interesting examples of altricial creatures, since we are also k-selected. K-selected animals tend to have infrequent breeding, long gestation and maturation periods, and precocial young (born with skills, sight, hair, etc).

It does seem a bit strange, after all, that human babies gestate for so long, and yet are born still utterly defenseless, and remain that way for years. Cats gestate for nine weeks, have litters averaging two to five, and a newborn kitten can safely leave its mother after 12 weeks, reaching sexual maturity in six months.

Of course, elephants gestate for 22 months for a single calf and the calf nurses for up to 2 years (at 3 gallons of milk per day!). Like human children, elephant calves learn primarily through observation of adults, not from natural instinct. Elephant calves do, however, stand within an hour after birth and can follow a herd within a few days.

A lot of fascinating stuff out there. The only two science classes I took in college were intro to astronomy, which was less fun than anticipated, and Science B-29, "Human Behavioral Biology", which went (and presumably still goes) by the euphemism "Sex" at Harvard. The latter was one of the more fascinating classes I took, and I have retained a novice interest in the subject.

Harvard's Endowment

My goodness, I guess the old saying is true: it takes money to make money. But this also raises fundamental questions about why the dining hall food was so subpar:

Harvard University's endowment has surged past the $25 billion mark, the school said Friday as it named an interim head of the successful, quasi-independent company that has helped make the university the wealthiest in the world.

Harvard said departing money manager Jack Meyer earned a return of 19.2 percent for the university last year, helping boost the endowment to $25.9 billion.

I think I should be writing to them and asking for donations, and not the other way around. 19.2 percent!