October 21, 2010

I’ve been reading a book about the evolution of grammar, The Unfolding of Language by Guy Deutscher. One of his main examples of how a new grammatical word (one used for things like tense or number or conjunction or such) can evolve is how in English “going to” is pronounced “gonna” when used with a verb to indicate a future action. So it seemed a bit of a coincidence when I read this transcript of the Apple earnings call and saw that it consistently wrote “gonna” when that’s what people said. I expected this change to happen some day, but I didn’t expect to see it in standard, commercial written English so soon.

(Ig) Nobel prizes

October 9, 2010

I’ve been meaning to cross-post this from my work blog, but I kept forgetting:

So this is cool: Andre Geim, one of the winners of this year’s Nobel Prize for Physics was also one of the winners of the 2000 Ig Nobel Prize for Physics. (The Nobel was for experiments with graphene, the Ig Nobel was for using magnets to levitate a frog.)

Judicial review

October 4, 2010

When I first mentioned that I’d bought a copy of The Federalist, I said:

I bought a copy of the Federalist Papers the other day, and now I think when I read them I need to see what was said about checks on the judiciary, because those have been proving inadequate.

I haven’t finished the introduction yet, but I think what I’ve read there has answered this. Here’s an outline:

  1. When the Constitution was written, the idea of judicial review was pretty vague. The people at the convention seem to have some idea that courts could consider the constitutionality of laws, but they certainly didn’t see it as one of the court’s principle functions, and determining constitutionality certainly wasn’t in any way exclusive to the courts. The Constitution itself has nothing to say about how conflicts in interpreting it should be resolved, and part of the reason judges were given life tenure was because the courts were seen as relatively weak.
  2. The first clear exposition of the idea of judicial review was by Hamilton in one of the later numbers of The Federalist, number 78. (According to my book, he may have been reacting to an Anti-Federalist, Robert Yates, who wrote, “They [the courts] will give the sense of every article of the constitution, that may from time to time come before them. And in their decisions they will not confine themselves to any fixed or established rules, but will determine, according to what appears to them, the reason and spirit of the constitution. The opinions of the supreme court, whatever they may be, will have the force of law; because there is no power provided in the constitution, that can correct their errors, or control their adjudications.” (page 74) Hamilton, who would have given the central government much more power than the Constitution did if he’d had his way, saw this as “not a bug but a feature.”)
  3. The principle of judicial review was established by Chief Justice Marshall in 1803 in Marbury vs. Madison. This is over 15 years after the Constitution was written. (I now remember learning this back in High School. That was a long time ago.)

So, the Constitution puts few checks on the courts because few people if any saw the courts as having sufficient power to cause mischief.

It’s worth noting that legislators and presidents (at least through Lincoln) didn’t always accept the Supreme Court’s position awarding itself the power to determine constitutionality. Their position was that since they had taken a oath to protect and defend the constitution, they also had a role in determining what it meant.

Related: A Supreme fetish.

On the other hand

October 1, 2010

I suppose I should have read the next page before my last post:

Later (in Number 58) he urges the, as we know valid, reason for relatively small legislative assemblies: “the greater the number composing them may be, the fewer will be the men who will in fact direct their proceedings.” Moreover, the greater the size of the assembly, the more it will “partake of the infirmities incident to collective meetings of the people.” … With large bodies of representatives, “The countenance of the government may become more democratic, but the soul that animates it will be more oligarchic.”

I didn’t have time in my last post to expand on the fact that a much larger House of Representatives would need drastically different rules to operate effectively, and frankly I’m not sure what form those rules should take. As the number of people in a group grows the number of possible relationships between them grows as the square, so some scheme is needed to reduce the interactions. (This is, in fact, the reason we have a representative democracy instead of direct democracy.) If you don’t have explicit rules to deal with this problem, you’ll end up with de facto rules that are unacknowledged and therefore prone to underhand manipulation.