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The Tribe-Obama Theory of "The Curvature of Constitutional Space: What Lawyers Can Learn from Modern Physics"

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Seriously.

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, let’s ponder the fact that the young Barack Obama really did help Harvard Law professor Laurence Tribe write this embarrassingly sophomoric-sounding article. Here’s the abstract that reads like a Sokal Hoax:

The Curvature of Constitutional Space: What Lawyers Can Learn From Modern Physics

Laurence H. Tribe
Harvard Law Review (Impact Factor: 3.95). 11/1989; 103(1):1. DOI: 10.2307/1341407
ABSTRACT

Twentieth-century physics revolutionized our understanding of the physical world. Relativity theory replaced a view of the universe as made up of isolated objects acting upon one another at a distance with a model in which space itself was curved and changed by the presence and movement of objects. Quantum physics undermined the confidence of scientists in their ability to observe and understand a phenomenon without fundamentally altering it in the process. Professor Tribe uses these paradigm shifts in physics to illustrate the need for a revised constitutional jurisprudence. He argues that judges and lawyers need to recognize the profound impact that the law has in shaping the social background. This background is too often taken as given. Judges, in particular, cannot simply reach in and resolve disputes between individuals without permanently altering the legal and social space. The very act of judging alters the context and relationships being judged. Professor Tribe concludes that, while perspectives resembling those of modern physics have been integrated into some of the most important constitutional cases decided during the twentieth century, the current Supreme Court shows an unfortunate tendency toward relying too often on visions of society and knowledge that have long been rejected as overly formal and sterile.

According to Tribe, Obama did the physics parts for him, so you know it’s legit.

Is this where Obama got that “arc of history bends toward” whatever he feels like trope? Is the full article available online anywhere?

Update: Thanks to commenter Handle, here’s the full paper, which indeed thanks Barack Obama. Here’s the official “Summary:”

SUMMARY:
… Early in our nation’s history it was commonplace, for example, to say that the 1787 Constitution was Newtonian in design, with its carefully counterpoised forces and counterforces, its checks and balances, structured like a “machine that would go of itself” to meet the crises of the future. … The dissenters, in what I would praise as an admirably post-Newtonian insight, concluded that it belied reality to contend that the state had done nothing with respect to Joshua. … From a post-Newtonian perspective, Boddie is the more dramatic case and provides the stronger parallel to DeShaney. … B. The Tentative Emergence of a Post-Newtonian Paradigm … This school board focus creates the perception that white flight is an insoluble problem. … The constitutional violation Kennedy identifies is all but invisible unless one takes a post-Newtonian perspective. … The first is empirical — which paradigm best explains the available “data”? Although the mathematics needed to work it all out is complex, Einstein’s theory is not only simpler in basic conception and more elegant in design than Newton’s; it makes better predictions about a number of real-world phenomena — including the degree to which a star’s light ray that passes in the sun’s vicinity appears to be deflected by the sun’s mass when visible during a solar eclipse. … The Einsteinian paradigm is, in this way, more progressive than the Newtonian paradigm. … In this way, the post Newtonian legal paradigm is more progressive than the Newtonian
paradigm. …

Here’s never-before-seen video of Tribe and Obama writing “The Curvature of Constitutional Space” together:

 

61 Comments to "The Tribe-Obama Theory of "The Curvature of Constitutional Space: What Lawyers Can Learn from Modern Physics""

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  1. The Michelson and Morley 1887 Experiment and the Discovery of Absolute Motion

    Physics textbooks assert that in the famous interferometer 1887 experi-
    ment to detect absolute motion Michelson and Morley saw no rotation-
    induced fringe shifts – the signature of absolute motion; it was a null
    experiment. However this is incorrect. Their published data revealed
    to them the expected fringe shifts, but that data gave a speed of some
    8km/s using a Newtonian theory for the calibration of the interferom-
    eter, and so was rejected by them solely because it was less than the
    30km/s orbital speed of the earth.

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  2. I’ve got a feeling that we’re going to see the same type of buildup of Obama in the next few years as we did in the 2008 election. Why? He’s a lame duck, and now the left is trying to burnish his legacy. So expect the same over-the-top nonsense about how Obama is great at everything.

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  3. Judge Richard Posner is coming out with a book about how useless scholarly work coming out of law schools is to practicing lawyers.

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  4. Yeah, and here’s a clip of what Obama is going to say at his final State of the Union address…

    • Agree: Percy Gryce
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  5. The ‘arc of history’ bit comes from Martin Luther King Jr. He may have been paraphrasing Theodore Parker, an abolitionist,

    “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”

    He does appear to have been talking about geometry at least.

    BTW, scientists hate this kind of thing.

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  6. He may have been paraphrasing Theodore Parker…

    In my precaffienated haze, I read “Dorothy” for “Theodore.

    Anyway, my immediate take on it was that someone had been at the weed. This stuff in particular was a popular subject of stoned natural-philosophizing back in them days:

    Quantum physics undermined the confidence of scientists in their ability to observe and understand a phenomenon without fundamentally altering it in the process.

    As I tried to explain back then: Not mostly, no.

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  7. The paper you cite states:

    But it is absolute motion which causes the dynamical effects of length contractions, time dilations and other relativistic effects, in accord with Lorentzian interpretation of relativistic effects.

    As a physicist who has studied relativity over a period of several decades, I think I am putting it politely in saying this dude is confused, badly confused.

    And why, pray tell, did you choose to post this here?

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  8. The inaccessibility of law review articles, like this one, is a whole topic in itself.

    For instance, suppose people could easily find the law review articles of Federal Reserve Board member (and likely future Treasury Secretary) Daniel Tarullo from when he was a critical legal studies academic at Harvard Law. Maybe he would have had to answer some questions about them. Or maybe not.

    You can find old law review articles on Westlaw and Lexis, which are expensive services used by lawyers, but usually the articles aren’t on the public internet/Google.

    Lani Guinier lost her chance to become Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights in 1993 on account of her law review articles, but that was because conservative and libertarian lawyer types take an interest in the backgrounds of Justice Department nominees, so they bothered to look her up on Westlaw or Lexis.

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  9. The article – remember it’s from 1989 – is available here

    I’m pretty sure it’s some kind of elaborate joke.

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  10. Perhaps you can help me here, Dave. In (probably) the mid sixties I read – perhaps in New Scientist – the claim that the MM experiment wasn’t accurate enough to prove their point (subsequent experiments supported their conclusion, however). Do you know whether that argument about their accuracy is widely accepted?

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  11. It’s bizarre that the President of the United States’ main claim to intellectual achievement doesn’t appear to have been read by almost anybody.

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  12. Judging by the abstract, they seem to be engaging in a trick that was common in postmodernist etc. “scholarship” of the 1980s and 1990s: Take some half-digested concepts from physics or some other highly developed science, and apply them, no matter how incongruously, to social science or humanities topics, thus proving, in the eyes of the scientifically illiterate, that your arguments are backed up by hard science.

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  13. Laurence Lost Tribe is the Ta-Nisi-Coats of the legal profession. Tribe’s ground breaking text on the Curvature of Harvard’s white legal bodies is worthy of a MacArthur grant.

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  14. I think we should get Genius T. Coates to update this article, taking into account the latest developments in string theory and how they impact on the Constitution. For example, he could posit the existence of parallel universes where blacks are not associated with criminality.

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  15. This is the kind of thing Richard Feynman used to crap all over. There’s another Feynman out there somewhere, but he took one look at the sad state of academia and decided to go into finance instead.

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  16. Probably not good that the Turks have shot down 1 or 2 (reports seem contradictory so far as to which) Russian aircraft. Especially not when the pilot who managed to eject was shot (apparently by Syrian rebels or the like) dead while parachuting to the ground. I mean, it’s one thing to have your planes shot down by a country that actually takes its borders seriously, but it’s another to have one shot down by a country with borders that are a joke and whose territory forms a haven for your enemies’ forces.

    Russians don’t tend to take this kind of thing sitting down. I doubt they priced having their planes shot down by Turkish missiles into their mission. Given the non-border Turkish border, they probably see this as a serious provocation. My uneducated first guess is that Putin will take this as license to have his special operations ground forces treat Turkey’s border like the joke it is. Maybe watch for something to mysteriously explode in spectacular fashion not far from the crash site, killing a few Turks and causing millions of dollars in damage, assuming there’s something nearby that valuable (if not, something further away will probably satisfy the Russians just fine).

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  17. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/25/world/europe/turkey-syria-russia-military-plane.html

    The Turkish military did not identify the nationality of the plane, but it said in a statement on its website that its pilots fired only after repeated warnings to the other warplane. Turkey released a map that it said showed that the plane, flying east, was shot down as it transited a narrow finger of Turkish land less than two miles wide that juts down into Syria.

    Hmm. Sounds like the NYT doesn’t mind reporting that it looks like the Turks were just looking for an excuse.

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  18. Or is Obama, rather than a physicist, being a jazz musician with the law? By my measure, we’re just about at the 100th anniversary of jazz, too.

    He’s improvising or extemporizing new legal principals (“paradigms”) or turning established principals into something they aren’t, which essentially means he’s making shit up. The only constitutional paradigm shift that has occurred with this type of thinking is the shift from using the law as a solid foundation to using the end result as a solid foundation. The legal principal then becomes an amorphous tool to facilitate the end result.

    I mention jazz musician because black people live in the moment. In jazz music this is a good thing. In the realm of the legal, not so much. )

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  19. Very interesting how Obama was slotted into national leadership in our current time. He has been promoted and hyped far beyond his abilities and accomplishments, yet the fawning doesn’t stop. It is like the boy king of certain monarchies; he so fits what the Court needs that the obsequiousness becomes institutionalized.

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  20. Most academic social science work is merely evaluated for its impact on fellow academics. Stanley Fisher’s most cited paper is a macroeconomics piece that is totally irrelevant, no one thinks monetary policy/union contract interaction is useful in explaining any of the prior recessions or current one. Yet, it was ‘state of the art’ in 1977, and useful for getting Pokemon points in his milieu. Krugman’s Nobel prize work centered on why path dependence and increasing returns to scale imply we should have more free trade; even he never uses this argument when he talk about international trade, which he takes a more ‘who, whom?’ approach to now. The model, however, was state of the art when introduced, and highlighted he was expert at the parochial abstruse rhetoric of economists of his era.

    Social science academics is all about forming a tribe with methodological barriers, in the sense that smart outsiders are then excluded from debates, most importantly, pointing out how pointless or stupid the research really is. I imagine law is no different.

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  21. It’s useless. His presidency has unraveled. A few terrorists in Paris exposed him as an empty suit.

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  22. There were 2 pilots because it was a 2-man aircraft, my mistake.

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  23. I actually read Sokal’s hoax on the internet. It utterly amazed me that anybody would not have seen that it was a joke. The Three Stooges seem a lot smarter than the editors of the magazine which published Sokal’s article.

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  24. “”Quantum physics undermined the confidence of scientists in their ability to observe and understand a phenomenon without fundamentally altering it in the process.””

    “As I tried to explain back then: Not mostly, no.”

    Yes, a lot of people try to extrapolate meanings from quantum mechanics that just aren’t there. And, as you say, for the most part, what Tribe and Obama say there is just wrong. Physicists can (and do) observe and understand things without fundamentally altering them.

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  25. “I’m pretty sure it’s some kind of elaborate joke.”

    The same could be said of Obama’s entire career.

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  26. I read a few books on quantum mechanics when I was 23, but I eventually realized I wasn’t learning anything (other than that I wasn’t learning anything, which had value). It sounds like the 28-year-old Obama had more self-confidence (and less self-awareness).

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  27. I don’t really understand either Relativity or the Uncertainty Principle but the reason the concepts are popular is because they quickly became buzzwords for moral, ethical, public policy concerns.

    For example, I had a mathematician explain to me once that the Uncertainty Principle had to do with Heisenberg’s insight that while you could establish the velocity of a subatomic particle, or its position, you couldn’t do both; it has to do with whether you are evaluating it as a wave or as a particle (which is why the old joke, Heisenberg stopped by state trooper who asks, “Do you know how fast you were going?” Heisenberg says, “No, but I know exactly where I am.”) I imagine that Relativity too is also rooted in practical observational data and attempting to explain same.

    However, a few years later in graduate school it was common to hear social scientists invoke the Uncertainty Principle in terms of Participant Observation: thus, observers were unreliable because merely by observing they were changing what they were observing, etc. (Usually invoked, of course, when someone disagreed with the observations under discussion.)

    Leaving science to the scientists, all that happens here is that science has created terms that allow moralists wriggle room to say whatever it is they want to say about whatever. Without the ostentatious dress, the article in question is simply a call to using context in the application of he Law. Well, no kidding. Tying it into physics is pretentious and silly.

    • Agree: Jim Don Bob
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  28. He argues that judges and lawyers need to recognize the profound impact that the law has in shaping the social background. This background is too often taken as given. Judges, in particular, cannot simply reach in and resolve disputes between individuals without permanently altering the legal and social space.

    Whether physics has anything to do with this or not, the quoted bits above are undoubtedly true–although probably not a way that Tribe would acknowledge. Think about how Roe v. Wade and Goodridge v. Dept. of Public Health and United States v. Windsor affected public opinion on abortion and SSM. The media especially accelerated the feedback loop with Windsor. The federal appeals courts ran with Windsor and accordingly struck down the marriage laws of dozens of states, which the media dutifully reported as “X states now have adopted gay marriage.” That kind of triumphalist reporting put huge pressure on public opinion, which in turn emboldened the courts. A death spiral, one might say.

    • Agree: slumber_j
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  29. Finance is doubtful.

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  30. Obama is being burnished because he intends to be President for a Third and possibly Fourth term.

    Aside from his ego being gargantuan, he cannot afford (literally) for Hillary! to be President since both his personal income from influence peddling (his influence in a Hillary! White House will be zero) and his entourage will go to nothing, but also Hillary! and Bill hate hate hate him and will likely indict him to prevent an Obama catspaw to emerge to challenge Hillary!

    This is all about the struggle for Democratic spoils and status, on steroids. Obviously Hillary! will face a surprise indictment over her emails or something right before the Convention, Obama will spring into action to “save the Party and the Nation” by graciously and self-sacrificingly offering himself as a unity VP candidate behind, oh Joe Biden or someone, and then have the plan to be Biden resign upon winning for health reasons, Obama takes office.

    Yes, sounds strange and ridiculous. Almost like disqualifying one’s mentor from a ballot by a series of legal challenges. Or suing to release the divorce records of one’s most dangerous Senate challenger.

    Re Turkey vs. Russia. A continuation of their centuries old Ottoman vs. Czar struggle, and since Turkey IS ISIS (along with the Gulf states) I’ll take Russia.

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  31. In Paul Johnson’s book on the 20th century he claimed that Einstein’s Theory of Relativity was taken by the Progressives to prove that everything people commonly believed to be true wasn’t true, and that this was the launching point for a politically and morally destructive era.

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  32. The inaccessibility of law review articles, like this one, is a whole topic in itself.

    You can find old law review articles on Westlaw and Lexis, which are expensive services used by lawyers, but usually the articles aren’t on the public internet/Google.

    All true, but there are a lot more law review articles freely available online now than at any other time.

    These days my favorite place to get old law review articles is Hein Online, the Internet identity of the old legal publisher and bookdealer William S. Hein:

    http://home.heinonline.org/titles/Law-Journal-Library

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  33. Kill a few Turks? The beard will only grow better for the razor.

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Lepanto

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  34. Also, why are they talking about quantum mechanics all of a sudden when originally it was about relativity theory? The two aren’t compatible, and on the scale of general relativity the “uncertainty principle” doesn’t really apply.

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  35. “In Paul Johnson’s book on the 20th century”

    Right. Tribe’s article seems like it was written to illustrate the famous opening argument in “Modern Times,” but it came out a half dozen years later.

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  36. OT- Regarding the Turks shooting down the Russian fighter, does anyone think that the Turkish Kurds are going to find Russia suddenly interested in becoming a benefactor very much interested in their fight for a homeland?

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  37. Judge Richard Posner is coming out with a book about how useless scholarly work coming out of law schools is to practicing lawyers.

    Yeah, funny (in the “sad” sense) that he would say that, when he tried to torpedo an incredibly useful and practical bit of legal scholarship, Justice Scalia and Bryan Garner’s Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts:

    http://www.amazon.com/Reading-Law-Interpretation-Legal-Texts/dp/031427555X

    Here’s Posner hack jack on Scalia and Garner:

    https://newrepublic.com/article/106441/scalia-garner-reading-the-law-textual-originalism

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  38. In Paul Johnson’s book on the 20th century he claimed that Einstein’s Theory of Relativity was taken by the Progressives to prove that everything people commonly believed to be true wasn’t true, and that this was the launching point for a politically and morally destructive era.

    Yes — I remember this as well. Johnson has real insight.

    The attempts at applying cutting-edge theoretical physics by academics in the humanities and social sciences provided a weird subtheme to the general disgust I felt in my graduate school years in the late 1980s.

    I recall especially the Heisenberg principle being not cited, exactly, but alluded to by cultural anthropology types who were fast losing confidence in their ability to understand cultures not their own. Their ‘application’ of the theory — i.e. that by observing a subject they were inevitably altering/polluting the results they were seeking — fit in diabolically well with a parallel loss of faith in the power of language to describe reality (driven by the French post-structuralist stuff).

    So budding ‘scholars’ were getting undermined both coming and going — we were being taught that our very acts of observation were tainted and probably harmful, plus that whatever attempts we made to report our observations would be hopelessly inadequate because we were ultimately the tools of language, rather than the reverse.

    I managed two years in this environment (I wasn’t studying anthro, but was in a field that drew upon it), saw the writing on the wall, and got the hell out.

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  39. Here’s Tony Shalhoub’s character in the Coens’ The Man Who Wasn’t There really getting into it:

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  40. So Obama is a genius after all?

    Even back then, says Tribe, Obama had the ability to see all sides of complex issues – and not necessarily to his detriment.

    “He displayed the ability to see a multifaceted problem in all of its complexity – and you want presidents to do that. The separate question of decision-making style, of managerial style, how somebody handles himself or herself on the world stage – I obviously had no [foreknowledge of that]. He certainly saw every side of everything – and deeply. He really has deep insight into a number of things, including physics, and history, and political science, and seemingly a lot of law, though this was before he [finished] law school.”

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  41. Oh, that’s perfect — thanks!

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  42. How about some law professor and law student writing a paper about what lawyers can learn from Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and the Bell Curve.

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  43. My pleasure. He’s pretty great in that movie–as is everyone else, more or less.

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  44. Even back then, says Tribe, Obama had the ability to see all sides of complex issues

    And yet, when he opens his mouth, out comes “The police acted stupidly” and “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon” and “The death of Michael Brown is heartbreaking.”

    • Agree: Chrisnonymous
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  45. Yep, but you must agree that Obama has raised asshattery to an art form.

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  46. I managed two years in this environment

    I do not know whether to salute your endurance or condemn you for finally noticing that the aroma you notice when you stand in a cesspool is a bad smell.

    But congratulations for extracting yourself from the sewer of anthropology.

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  47. Yes, and this trick is still being used in the social sciences, often by people who can’t even spell the words correctly….

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  48. Good point.

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  49. In understanding quantum mechanics, it helps if you’ve been exposed to Fourier transforms first. Another problem with a lot of popular treatments of the subject is that they omit the rationale for adopting it – the various ways that classical mechanics broke down when people applied it to describe the atom.

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  50. Shaloub is a highly underrated actor. He’s always very entertaining.

    • Agree: slumber_j
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  51. “He certainly saw every side of everything – and deeply. He really has deep insight into a number of things, including physics, and history, and political science, and seemingly a lot of law, though this was before he [finished] law school.””

    Raymond Shaw Barack Obama is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.

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  52. Of course, quantum physics has been used to justify and even create all kinds of medical quackery. Uberquack Deepak Chopra’s book Quantum Healing from the 80s is at the root of much of this. There’s also the newage (rhymes with sewage) classic The Tao Of Physics by Fritjof Capra.

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  53. Somebody (maybe Christopher Orr) said after watching Tony Shaloub in this role as the big time defense lawyer in The Man Who Wasn’t There that he should have been cast in every Coen Bros. movie, that he’s the near perfect mouthpiece for Coen dialog.

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  54. Videogame design. You can see the talent being poured into the field, and especially the tech. This is what happens when you drive people away from socially beneficial areas by squatting on them and reducing their prestige. I like videogames, the good ones. And it’s still a male dominated field, with token women who have to pull their weight.

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  55. That definitely needs to be part of his comic book series… even if it’s a little too heavy for legal articles.

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  56. There are many many math, comp sci, and physics PhDs working on wall st and in greenwich at quant funds, doing complex financial modelling.

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  57. >>>the Turkish Kurds are going to find Russia suddenly interested in becoming a benefactor very
    much interested in their fight for a homeland?

    Respectfully request, permission to change that to: suddenly interested in keeping the Kurdish ethnic-nationalism pot boiling in ways that distract/weaken Ottoman power

    Actually taking the Kurds all the way to independence, is an expensive project – and probably not to Russia’s direct benefit.

    Just because Washington doesn’t know how to properly play the geo-politics game, doesn’t mean that Moscow doesn’t.

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  58. Yeah, that’s how we got Credit Default Swaps and Collateralized Debt Obligations. How did that work out?

    http://polizeros.com/2009/02/23/the-formula-that-blew-up-wall-street/

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  59. Obama’s Possible Supreme Court Nominees To Replace Scalia | VDARE - premier news outlet for patriotic immigration reform
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    […] Harvard Law School professor Larry Tribe, whom Obama helped write his anti-Scalia paper “The Curvature of Constitutional Space: What Lawyers Can Learn from Modern Physics” by contributing his deep knowledge of cutting-edge physics he learned from some very heavy […]

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  60. Obama’s Possible Supreme Court Nominees To Replace Scalia | Neoreactive
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  61. Obama’s Possible Supreme Court Nominees To Replace Scalia |
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    […] 1. Harvard Law School professor Larry Tribe, whom Obama helped write his anti-Scalia paper “The Curvature of Constitutional Space: What Lawyers Can Learn from Modern Physics” by contributing his deep knowledge of cutting-edge physics he learned from some very heavy […]

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