Archive

February 19th, 2016

The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Trump

    Donald Trump has been recognized for his mastery of the media, his fascination with gilt and his bold advocacy for baffling hair.

    But I think his greatest distinction is as a surrealist. Not since Salvador Dalí has someone so ambitiously jumbled reality and hallucination.

    I’m thinking of his news conference in South Carolina on Monday and of one assertion in particular, although with Trump it’s always hard to pick and choose.

    In an appeal to African-American voters, he charged that Barack Obama had done nothing for them, and drew a contrast between himself and the president by saying: “I’m a unifier. Obama is not a unifier.”

    The second of those sentences is debatable. The first is just a joke. Trump sneeringly divides the world into winners and losers, savagely mocks those who challenge him, dabbles in sexism, marinates in racism, and on and on.

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Scalia's death probably flips big cases

    How will the death of Justice Antonin Scalia affect the major cases before the Supreme Court this term, all of which are expected to be decided by the end of June? The answer doesn't depend entirely on how Scalia would've voted. It also depends on a necessary rule of procedure: When the Supreme Court is divided equally, it upholds the decision below.

    Applying this dual analysis to five major cases in the pipeline yields some surprising results. The issues involved are: fees in lieu of union dues for nonunion workers, the University of Texas's affirmative-action admissions program, Texas's restrictive abortion law, President Barack Obama's executive action on immigration, and a group of nuns' demand to be exempted from filing a certificate so they won't have to pay for employees' contraceptive insurance under the Affordable Care Act. By my reckoning, most of these cases now have a strong chance to come out differently than they would've had Scalia lived through the end of the term.

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Reid to Republicans: Don't take the path of partisan sabotage

    We are entering uncharted waters in the history of the U.S. system of checks and balances, with potentially momentous consequences. Having gridlocked the Senate for years, Republicans now want to gridlock the Supreme Court with a campaign of partisan sabotage aimed at denying the president's constitutional duty to pick nominees.

    Republicans should not insult the American people's intelligence by pretending there is historical precedent for what they are about to do. There is not.

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Originalists wouldn't delay

    A controversy has erupted over whether the Senate should consider anyone President Obama nominates to the Supreme Court to replace my friend Antonin Scalia, who died unexpectedly Saturday. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and others argue that, because it's an election year, the Senate should delay confirming a new justice in order to "defer to the American people."

    A true "originalist" would reject the Republican position.

    After Scalia lost a bet to me in 2010 over whether the Affordable Care Act would be enacted, we shared many meals and arguments. He educated me about his judicial philosophy of "originalism." This is an approach to constitutional interpretation that emphasizes that understanding the Constitution's capacious phrases, such as "due process of law" and "equal protection of the laws," requires examining what those phrases meant when they were written. Originalism is a quintessentially backward-looking doctrine that gives respect to those present "at creation."

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Jeb Bush's big brother makes him look small

    It was the mystery of the 2016 presidential campaign: Why wasn't Jeb Bush, who seemed a shoo-in for the Republican nomination and has the resources to go all the way, doing better in polls and primaries? In North Charleston, South Carolina, on Monday night, I got my answer.

    Bush, who at first seemed unsure whether his last name was an asset or a liability -- his posters, after all, just say "Jeb!" -- has increasingly brought his family into his campaign in recent weeks. Barbara Bush, his mother, came to New Hampshire. On Monday, his older brother George W. Bush went to bat for him at the North Charleston Convention Center -- and stole the show. In fact, his appearance was such a triumph that it became obvious that Jeb didn't quite measure up to the ex- president, for whom many Republicans feel nostalgia.

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Humanity may be losing a race with its own growth

    Humanity is engaged in a high-stakes race with its own growth: Lest our use of energy and materials get out of control, we must constantly innovate to become more efficient. Unfortunately, new research suggests we may be losing.

    The rapid advancement of electronics technology illustrates how the race works. The number of transistors in the world's devices has gone from one in 1947 to a thousand billion billion today -- more than there are letters in all the written text produced in human history. The proliferation hasn't inundated the planet because the amount of physical material and energy used in each transistor has shrunk spectacularly, reflecting a relentless advance -- seen in almost all technologies -- that gets economists and tech enthusiasts excited about the possibilities for a cleaner and more environmentally friendly future.

    The hope is that by doing more with less, we can keep growing without bumping up against physical limits -- an optimistic vision sometimes called "decoupling." But is there any evidence for it? That's less clear.

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George W. Bush is a mixed blessing for Jeb

    Jeb Bush has had a brother problem from the start of his campaign. Asked about the 43rd president, George W. Bush, Jeb has always hemmed and hawed. He said, "I love my brother ... but I'm my own man." He noted that information on weapons of mass destruction from the intelligence community turned out "not to be accurate" and riffed that "there were mistakes made in Iraq, for sure." He said that looking back, "anybody would have made different decisions."

    Despite their vast understatement, misuse of the passive voice, and blame-shifting, Jeb's answers tamped down the issue. It helped that there were bigger fish to fry, as Jeb plunged in the polls. The fickle focus of the race moved on.

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Best Supreme Court pick for Obama would be boring

    The death of Justice Antonin Scalia on Saturday creates a major challenge for President Barack Obama in the run-up to the 2016 election. Obama has said he will nominate a replacement to the U.S. Supreme Court, even though Senate Republican leaders have made it clear they prefer the seat remain vacant for now. Should the president go along, and not nominate anyone, liberals will be enraged at his passivity.

    If Obama does nominate a justice quickly, should he pick a liberal whose rejection will galvanize Democratic voters to turn out for the party's nominee in November, in hopes of a second chance? Or should he pick a moderate who has an outside chance of actually being confirmed, creating the possibility of a liberal balance on the court even if a Republican wins in November?

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Apple's `Error 53' could upend a lucrative business

    Imagine if Ford remotely disabled the engine on your new F-150 pickup because you chose to have the door locks fixed at a corner garage rather than a dealership. Sound absurd? Not if you're Apple.

    Since 2014, the world's most profitable smartphone company has -- without warning -- permanently disabled some iPhones that had their home buttons replaced by repair shops in the course of fixing a shattered screen. Phones that underwent the same repair at Apple service centers, meanwhile, have continued working just fine.

    The message seems clear, at least to the multibillion- dollar independent repair industry: Your phone is yours until you decide to get it fixed. Then it's Apple's.

    Apple says it was merely trying to keep the iPhones "secure," and that "Error 53" -- the code that pops up after the company bricks a unit -- is meant to ensure that nobody messes with the phone's fingerprint sensor. Whatever the intent, the company now finds itself amid a PR and legal debacle that could upend the lucrative business of servicing gadgets worldwide.

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A love story, Neanderthal-style

    Scientists are showing Neanderthals some love. This is new, and required them to overcome some unscientific prejudices. It was only a few years ago that many anthropologists insisted that Neanderthals can't possibly have contributed to human ancestry because they were too ugly to appeal sexually to their modern human contemporaries.

    Wrong. DNA evidence showed six years ago that many ancestors of modern humans made love with Neanderthals. Scientists now know in some detail how sex with Homo neanderthalensis contributed to the gene pool of today's Homo sapiens.

    Yet our Pleistocene cousins still have an image problem and scientists deserve much of the blame, said John Hawks, a University of Wisconsin anthropologist who has been one of their leading defenders in blog posts dubbed the Neanderthal Anti Defamation Files. Not only were they complicit in the ugliness frameup, they also had deemed Neanderthals stupid. That doesn't look smart now.

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