Obama shadow: Republican incumbents threatened

March 1, 2008

I tried to vote in Texas’s early voting process Friday. I opted out when, at 6:00 p.m., the line to vote in our usually-sleepy end of Dallas County was up to three hours long (the last voters made it inside the building at 9:08 p.m. — with another 90 minutes of standing in line).

The Obama earthquake is particularly heavy in our precinct. We may have been the most enthusiastic precinct in Texas for Gore and Kerry, and two years ago our voting pushed Dallas County into the Democratic column for judges, sweeping dozens of Republican incumbents out of office. This year, voting by and for Democrats is more than double the early voting totals then.  Our precinct is one of many in 2008.

However the Clinton/Obama drama plays out in Texas and Ohio, this demonstration of democratic muscle — in favor of the Democrats — should worry Republicans. If the numbers are repeated in nearby precincts, which have similar demographics, and in similar suburban districts around Houston, San Antonio, Fort Worth and Austin, Republican incumbents in the U.S. House and U.S. Senate will be in trouble. No amount of advertising could avert a change in Texas’s party alignment at the national level.

Obama mania, and ennui from Republican control, combine to make a voting tsunami.

At this moment, from where I sit, it appears Democrats will win Texas’s U.S. Senate seat held by Republican John Cornyn. U.S. Representatives such as Kenny Marchant, who unseated Democratic Whip Martin Frost four years ago, should consider new employment beginning January 2009.

Republicans in Texas were talking about voting in the Democratic primary this year, to vote for Hillary Clinton, in the hopes that waving that particular flag would anger conservative Christians enough to motivate them to vote against her.

That’s a thin hook on which to hang hopes of election wins. There are not enough conservative, religious voters in America to overcome the wave of discontent with the present, and hope for the future, this election race has created. If Texas voters realize the power they wield, and they use it in November, the political world will reel and rock.

Alas for Republicans, that’s not a big “if.”

Will the ground move on Tuesday night?



4,000 screaming fans welcome Barack Obama to Republican stronghold Duncanville, Texas, in the Sandra Meadows Arena, February 27, 2008. Cellphone photo copyright © 2008 by first-time voter James Darrell; used with permission.

Tagged by Myers to do history! Meet James Madison

March 1, 2008

One of those memes. I’ve got a couple of them hanging fire still, I really do badly at this stuff.

So I have to start chipping away at them. Latest first.

P. Z. Myers at Pharyngula tagged me. As he describes it, it’s a meme of history; here’s what I’m to do:

  1. Link to the person who tagged you.
  2. List 7 random/weird things about your favorite historical figure.
  3. Tag seven more people at the end of your blog and link to theirs.
  4. Let the person know they have been tagged by leaving a note on their blog.

Okay, #1 is out of the way.

Now the trouble. A favorite “historical” figure? Maybe for Myers, a biologist, that’s easy. But I teach history. I like teaching the quirky stuff. The universe of possibilities is so enormous! Whom to choose? How to choose? Which seven little snippets?

Here are some of the possibilities — you may as well share in my misery.

I could designate Douglas Stringfellow. You’ve never heard of him, most likely. He was known most famously as a congressman from Utah’s 1st District in the 1950s. Stringfellow rose to prominence on the strength of his stories of behind-enemy-lines work, kidnapping physicist Otto Hahn, losing the other 29 members of his squad, escaping to France and losing the use of his legs from a land mine there. He was elected to Congress, joined the anti-Communist faction, and was zooming on the way to re-election when one of his old Army buddies got off the train in Salt Lake City, read the story, and blew the whistle. Stringfellow spent the war in the U.S. He wasn’t a spy, not a hero. His wounds were not from combat. Stringfellow resigned his candidacy at the insistence of the Mormon Church and Utah Republicans (perhaps the last time an organized religion and the Republicans acted nobly, together). It’s a story that should be made into a movie. There’s a good account published by the Taft Institute of Public Policy at the University of Utah, but it’s difficult to get (funding f0r the Taft Institute ran out, I hear, and it was replaced by the Huntsman Seminars on Politics — but that may be erroneous information, too).

Or I could talk about Richard Feynman, an inspiration to me, and to our two sons, both of whom fully enjoyed his books, and one of whom seems destined to follow Feynman into physics (the other works to understand neuroscience, still inspired by Feynman to do science). Everybody knows the story of Feynman, though.

Millard Fillmore is already covered pretty well here; adding more would be gilding the lily, or covering tracks, or something. I could write about one of my modern heroes of history, Mike Mansfield, one of the best bosses I ever had — but trying to find seven items that could be explained quickly might be difficult. I could write chapters about one of my other bosses, too, Orrin Hatch. Or I could write about Jefferson.

I’ll try to go right down the middle on this one: James Madison it is.

Seven items about James Madison, our fourth president, and “the Father of the Constitution”:

  1. See that scar on his nose? It’s from frostbite. When Gov. Patrick Henry blocked Madison’s appointment to the U.S. Senate, in order to fulfill his commitment to James Madison create a bill of rights, Madison had to run for election to the U.S. House of Representatives. Henry thought he could block that, too, by picking James Monroe to run against Madison, and getting lots of support for Monroe. In the last debate, a good buggy ride away from their homes, the two men decided to share the fare. Monroe said Madison won the debate handily; Madison wasn’t sure. On the buggy ride back to their homes, at night on a very cold winter, the two got involved in a long discussion about the new government, the new nation, and their hopes and dreams about the future. Discussion was so engrossing that Madison failed to notice his nose was freezing. Fast friends ever after, Madison won the election; Madison introduced Monroe to Jefferson. Patrick Henry’s plan to frustrate the Constitution and the new government was thwarted. And Madison bore the scar the rest of his life.
  2. Good government as religion — Long before the concept of an American secular religion, Madison attended the College of New Jersey (later to become Princeton), aiming for a career in the clergy. College President John Witherspoon, a Presbyterian minister, urged Madison to take not just any calling, but the highest calling. Madison went into politics and government. Religionists try to paint Madison as a secularist; early on, his drive for religious freedom was fueled by his faith. It’s an example more church people should follow.
  3. Egalitarian trends — On his trip to New York for the inauguration and opening of the 1st Congress, Madison stopped off at Mt. Vernon. (See notes about ghosting below — it was an eventful trip.) One of the topics of conversation was what form of address to use for the chief executive. Two camps were forming, one favoring “Your Highness,” the other favoring “Your Excellency.” Asked for his opinion, Madison suggested “Mr. President.” Some tried to make a more formal, more stuffy title official later in the year, but we still call our chief executive today by the unroyal sobriquet Madison suggested, “Mr. President.”
  4. Romance with George and Martha as cupids — Madison’s bachelorhood was a challenge to George and Martha Washington. Once the government got underway in Philadelphia, and after Aaron Burr introduced Madison to the woman, George and Martha worked to match up Madison with a vivacious widow, successfully. James Madison and Dolley Payne Todd were married in 1794.
  5. Great Madison’s Ghost! — Madison played ghost writer for George Washington, and others. On his way to the first inauguration, at his courtesy stop at Mt. Vernon, Madison was asked to draft a speech suitable for a president at inauguration. He happily complied. With some irony, whether it was known or not, once Washington delivered the address, Congress designated Madison to write Congress’s reply. Madison’s writing shows up under many other names, including that of “Publius,” in the Federalist Papers. Madison also contributed major parts of the farewell essay Washington planned to use in 1792; Madison and Washington were not on such good terms when Washington actually bid farewell in 1796. Alexander Hamilton got the last crack at ghosting the piece, and added some barbs aimed at Thomas Jefferson. Madison’s own ghosting had come back to haunt him, and John Adams won the election of 1796. (Madison got revenge, if you can call it that, in 1800, when Jefferson won the rematch, but not until the House of Representatives had to break a tie between Jefferson and his vice presidential slate-mate, Aaron Burr; it was Hamilton who finally had to eat some crow and urge the Federalists in the House to go for Jefferson over Hamilton’s more bitter enemy, Burr.)
  6. Offending the great man — Madison was off getting married when Washington and Hamilton headed the army and put down the Whiskey Rebellion. Madison suggested to Washington that alternative resolutions would have been possible. Washington took offense. It is unclear whether they ever spoke to each other after that, but that event breached the once-warm and cordial relationship that had produced the Constitution and got the new government off to a fine start, not to mention got Madison into a good marriage.  It’s fascinating Washington would show such pique, and fascinating that Madison stood for it.
  7. America’s greatest collaborator? Madison got to the Virginia Assembly late in the Virginia Bill of Rights process, but collaborated with George Mason to add a clause on religious freedom, helping to secure George Mason’s reputation. He collaborated with Thomas Jefferson, pushing Jefferson’s legislative ideas while Jefferson was in France, getting immortality for Jefferson with the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. He collaborated with Washington to resolve the Chesapeake dispute between Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania; he collaborated with Washington and Alexander Hamilton to get the Continental Congress to call the Philadelphia convention. He collaborated with Ben Franklin to convince Washington to attend the convention, and to get Washington elected president of the convention. When John Jay was physically beaten badly at a demonstration for ratification, Madison stepped in to collaborate with Hamilton on what we now call the Federalist Papers. He collaborated with Washington on the formation of the new government; collaborated with Jefferson on a bill of rights and foreign affairs. In an era when one did not run for office one’s self, Madison got Jefferson on the ballots in 1796 and 1800, essentially managing the campaigns that put Jefferson into office. He was with Jefferson on the butt-kicking they got from John Marshall on the Marbury v. Madison decision. At the end of their lives, and especially after Jefferson’s death, Madison followed through on the establishment of the University of Virginia, Jefferson’s prize project. In each case, Madison’s collaboration improved the project, and in several cases, the projects would have failed but for Madison’s work. Madison may take the title of the most successful legislator ever in U.S. history (competing perhaps with LBJ), but he definitely takes the crown as the best collaborator for the public good. Had Madison not been the collaborator on these things, would they have happened? In all of these projects, the people with whom he collaborated achieved their highest aims. Who wouldn’t want to collaborate with Madison?

Let’s get some good stuff in here in the tagging. Let’s tag some diverse blogs and bloggers who write a fair amount. I tag Pam at Grassroots Science, Bug Girl, Miguel at Around the Corner, Ron at Route 66 News, Curious Expeditions, Dorigo at Quantum Diaries Survivor, and Barry Weber at The First Morning.

Whew!  There’s good reading at those places even if they don’t do anything new.

Thanks, P.Z., for the kick in the rear to think about Madison, and to think about seven (out of dozens) of good blogs to refer people to.

Why real science is better in school than faux science

March 1, 2008

P. Z. Myers notes the silliness that anti-science types get involved in, especially when they attempt to make scientists look bad over something complex enough that it just can’t be worked out — leap years!

The two most amusing explanations for why we have leap years that I’ve heard came from creationists:

  1. Those scientists can’t even measure the length of the year accurately! They have to keep fudging their numbers every few years to make everything add up, so why should I trust them?
  2. We have leap years because the earth is slowing down in its orbit, which proves that the earth can’t be old — a million years ago the earth would have been whirling around the sun so fast it would have flown out of orbit!

Phil Plait at the misnamed (for this post) Bad Astronomy explains in glorious mathematical detail how leap year calculations work, and why we need wait around for more than three millennia to lobby for another calendar correction. Phil is really a remarkable story teller, for an astronomer:

We have two basic units of time: the day and the year. Of all the everyday measurements we use, these are the only two based on concrete physical events: the time it takes for the Earth to spin once on its axis, and the time it takes to go around the Sun. Every other unit of time we use (second, hour, week, month) is rather arbitrary. Convenient, but they are not based on independent, non-arbitrary events.

It takes roughly 365 days for the Earth to orbit the Sun once. If it were exactly 365 days, we’d be all set! Our calendars would be the same every year, and there’d be no worries.

But that’s not the way things are. There are not an exactly even number of days in a year; there are about 365.25 days in a year. That means every year, our calendar is off by about a quarter of a day, an extra 6 or so hours just sitting there, left over. After four years, then, the yearly calendar is off by roughly one day:

4 years at 365 (calendar) days/year = 1460 days, but4 years at 365.25 (physical) days/year = 1461 days.

These are mysteries that beg for explanations in social studies classes. For example, the differences in George Washington’s birth date, as recorded in the year he was born, and as listed today, are due to England’s and the English-speaking world’s late adoption of the Gregorian Calendar, switching from the Julian (England made the switch in 1752, about a half century after almost everyone else in the west, 170 years after Pope Gregory XIII proposed it).

Pope Gregory, who ordered new calendars, better to calculate religious feast days, like Easter. The Gregorian Calendar was introduced about 1583, with leap years. The actual time between two yearly solar events isn't 365 days exactly. It's actually 365.2422 days — so every four years there's approximately one extra day left over.  (NPR image and information)

Pope Gregory, who ordered new calendars, better to calculate religious feast days, like Easter. The Gregorian Calendar was introduced about 1583, with leap years. The actual time between two yearly solar events isn’t 365 days exactly. It’s actually 365.2422 days — so every four years there’s approximately one extra day left over. (NPR image and information)

If nothing else, social studies should be good for providing cocktail party trivia, shouldn’t it? And it won’t really matter to you unless one is a scientist launching rockets at a distant planet, or a churchman trying to fix the date of Easter, or a farmer trying to be certain the planting calendar is accurate to the season, or a commodities futures trader trying to figure out when agricultural goods come to market, or a mortgage banker working to make sure mortgages are calculated correctly for the next 30 years and that notices go out to homeowners as required by law, or a homeowner checking up on your mortgage bank, or an average investor checking up on your commodities futures traders and REIT investment advisor, or just a kid interested in the minutiae of how science really affects us in our every day lives.

Now we wonder: In comments, will some creationist bring up the old canard about Harold Hill and NASA’s calculations being off by the one day Joshua stopped the sun?


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