About webnerbob

A Cleveland and Ohio State sports fan who lives in Columbus, Ohio

The Justice Scalia I Knew

The news media is reporting that United States Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died today, apparently of natural causes, at age 79.

Justice Scalia served on the Court for 30 years.  He was a staunch conservative, and as a result he was the subject of lots of controversy and attention — as is seemingly every member of the Court, from one end of the political spectrum or the other, in these days when the Supreme Court and politics are more intertwined than ever.

960I want to write about Justice Scalia for a moment, however, because he was one of two members of the Supreme Court I met personally.  (His friend and colleague, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, was the other.)

I met Justice Scalia before he reached the high court, when he was a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.  In those days, 30 years ago, trying to achieve a balanced budget was a big political issue, and Congress had passed a law called the Gramm-Rudman Act that provided that, if Congress couldn’t meet certain budget targets, automatic spending cuts would be imposed by the comptroller general.  The law was immediately challenged in court on a number of constitutional grounds, including separation of powers, and the judge that I was clerking for, Senior United States District Judge Oliver Gasch, got the case by random draw.  In those days, such constitutional challenges to federal statutes could be heard by a three-judge court — comprised of the original judge, a court of appeals judge, and a second district court judge — and then be subject to immediate appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.  Judge Scalia was the appellate court judge, and Judge Norma Holloway Johnson was the other district court judge on the panel.

The panel members and their clerks met regularly to discuss the case before the decision was announced, which is how I met Justice Scalia and got to work with him briefly.  Judge Gasch knew him, called him “Nino,” and liked him very much — so much so that my Judge gave some of his treasured cigars to Judge Scalia.  I came to like Judge Scalia, too.  He was witty and engaging and nice to the clerks working on the case, which could not be said of all of the judges serving on the district court and court of appeals at that time.  He had a fantastic sense of humor and told a pretty good joke.  He also was obviously a brilliant mind, which made working with him, when you knew his keen intellect would be reviewing your work product, a nerve-wracking experience for a new lawyer just out of law school.  Justice Scalia, though, was gracious, and his attitude made working with him a real pleasure.  He used his brilliance affirmatively, to bring out the best work from others, rather than negatively, as a cudgel or means of silencing contrary views.

The Gramm-Rudman case ended with our three-judge court unanimously voting to strike down the law, everyone went back to their respective chambers, and my brief exposure to Judge Scalia ended.  Within a short period the Supreme Court affirmed the panel decision and Judge Scalia himself was nominated to a seat on the Supreme Court — which was where his sharp legal mind really belonged — and confirmed.

I knew him only for a short time, but that limited experience left a very strong and positive impression on me, and I thank him for that.  Whatever people might say about his jurisprudence, I know from personal experience that he was a good man.  Condolences to his family and friends.

Cold Rage

IMG_0461Today Columbus is having one of those brutal days, when the temperature is in the single digits and a hard, cold wind strikes you like a fist.  So when I walked home from work this afternoon, I was surprised to see a vigorous protest on the Broad Street sidewalk in front of the Ohio Statehouse, with still other protestors marching on the sidewalks circling Statehouse square.  The group of bundled-up protestors — men, mostly, from what I could see — were waving Don’t Tread on Me, Confederate, “III,” and American flags, handing out leaflets, and chanting at the behest of a guy holding a bullhorn.

What were they protesting?  Just about everything.  One handout had the Declaration of Independence on one side and the Bill of Rights on the other, and another encourages people to contribute to the “Ohio to Michigan:  Flint Water Drop,” which is described as “a multi-state effort to collect and deliver much-needed water to the residents of Flint, Michigan.”  One sign said “We Demand Justice” for the man shot by the authorities in connection with the Oregon public land protests.  The “III” flag is called the Nyberg three percent flag (purportedly because only three percent of the colonists fought the British during the American Revolutionary War) and apparently is a favorite of people who hold anti-government, anti-gun control views.   And when a city bus rolled up, the guy with the bullhorn started bellowing:  “Hands up!  Don’t shoot!” — which is a chant used by the protestors against the police in Ferguson, Missouri.

IMG_0464There was a lot going on at this protest, a heady mix of what might be viewed as some liberal and some conservative issues that had energized this group, but the overall message was clear:  these guys were furious.  Angry enough to come out to the center of downtown Columbus on an appallingly cold day to vent their spleens in a public forum.  Incensed about the government that they think has let them down and failed the people.  Outraged that the people of Flint, Michigan can’t get safe drinking water and willing to organize their own, people-driven effort to help the people of Flint even when the local, state, and federal government seem to be unable to do so.  To these folks, Flint is not a conservative issue or a liberal issue, it’s an issue of basic governmental functioning and competence.  If a government can’t be trusted to do the basics like provide drinking water that doesn’t poison its own citizens, then what good is it, and what are all those taxes we pay being used for?

Many pundits wonder what is driving people to support “anti-establishment” candidates like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.  I think a lot of it is anger, like the rage that motivated the cold protestors in front of the Ohio Statehouse today.  It’s not political parties that have spurred them on, it’s their own perception of a country in a downward spiral.  They’re not going to put up with the direction in which they think their country is heading, and if the government isn’t going to recognize the problems and change of its own accord, then they’re just going to have to change the government.

The last two lines of the “Ohio to Michigan:  Flint Water Drop” leaflet read:  “We the People are uniting to assist and support communities in need.  No matter your race, religion, group or political affiliation, we all must come together.”  It’s really not hard to see how angry people at all points on the political spectrum might unite behind that kind of message.

Getting Down And Dirty

The New York Times carried an interesting article recently about how the “dirt cure” can make children healthier.  The theme of the article, which featured an interview with pediatric neurologist and author Dr. Maya Shetreat-Klein, is that children are better protected against illness and infection if they are routinely exposed to dirt — by eating natural, non-processed foods and by playing outside, with hands and knees on the soil.

2501c9ff68b8ed08549c745f9bddd4c0In the article, Dr. Shetreat-Klein relayed two fascinating things about dirt.  First, in one teaspoon of soil, there are more organisms than there are humans on our planet.  (That sounds impossible, but it’s one of those factoids that is often cited in articles about soil.) Second, soil is home to about 25 percent of Earth’s biodiversity — in the form of bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes, mites, microbes, and microarthropods.  There’s a lot going on below our feet that we never even think about.

Studies show that kids who play outside tend to be healthier, do better on standardized tests, have lower cortisol levels, which means they’re calmer and less stressed, and be more creative.  Dr. Shetreat-Klein thinks all of those attributes might be related to exposure to the teeming population underground.

I can’t speak to the science of it, but I suspect that Dr. Shetreat-Klein is right . . . and that there’s an additional reason for the results reported in those studies, which is that playing outside is just a lot of fun.  Of course kids who get away from their houses and play with their friends outside, explore a wooded area, build a dam in a stream, and turn over rocks just to see if there’s anything underneath are going to have stronger immune systems, because of what they’re exposed to, but they’re also going to be more curious, more self-reliant, and more willing to take risks because that’s what playing outside is all about.

Our mother used to groan when UJ and I came home with faces streaked with dust and shoes caked with mud, carrying caterpillars or crayfish or a captured garter snake or a big, weirdly shaped toadstool that we and our neighborhood friends found in the woods that encircled our houses, but I think it did us a lot of good in a lot of ways.

Friday Night At Notes

It was bitterly cold last night, with a teeth-rattling wind blowing, but Kish and I wanted to get out of the house, anyway.  We decided to walk down to High Street to check out Notes, which is something that has been on our to-do list for a while now.

IMG_0457Notes is the music venue below Copious, one of the newer restaurants in the German Village area.  Last night the Tim Cummiskey Duo was playing the 7:30 set, and there was no cover charge.  How could we go wrong?

Well, we didn’t.  I’m happy to report that Notes is a pretty nice place to spend your Friday night.  It’s a big open room, the stage at one end and the long bar at the other, with bench-style seating along the walls, several dozen tables of different sizes around the room, and even a small area in front of the stage for dancing.  The Notes bar is stocked with just about every kind of adult beverage you’d care to drink — an extremely important consideration at any night-time music venue, in my book — and there is also a limited food menu.  Kish and I tried one of the create-your-own flatbread pizzas, and it was quite tasty.

The sound quality and acoustics — the other extremely important consideration in a music venue — were excellent.  That was crucial last night, because the Tim Cummiskey Duo turned out to be a good jazz guitar and bass combo, and for that kind of music you want to be able to hear every note, in every improvisation, clearly.

Our Friday night at Notes turned out to be a fun way to beat the winter cold and the winter blahs.  Good live music will do that for you.  There are lots of fine musicians out there; they just need a place to perform.  Now we know there’s a good spot only a few blocks away.

The Gravitational Waves Of Uncle Albert

Somewhere out in the far reaches of space, 1.3 billion light years from Earth, two incredibly dense black holes spin around each other, racing at incredible speeds and moving ever closer to their inevitable collision.  Finally, their event horizons merge, and they become one.

At the moment of contact, the black holes lose mass and emit gravitational waves — bursts of pure energy so powerful that they warp space time.  It sounds like a fantastic, far-fetched scenario, but it’s not.  This week, scientists announced that they were able to detect, and record, the gravitational waves here on Earth, on special antennae.  You can listen to the chirp-like sound of the gravitational waves through a link here.

albert-einsteinThe confirmation of the existence of gravitational waves in this scenario is yet another confirmation of the theories of relativity of Albert Einstein.  It’s extraordinary to think that one man, through use of thought experiments and applied mathematics, could have been such a profound scientific visionary and been able to predict so much — predictions that have been confirmed, time and time again, by others who followed in his path.  We tend to think of Einstein as a kind of rumpled, wild-haired, avuncular figure, but inside lurked a mind and spirit so unique and far-sighted and brilliant that he was able to develop theories that explain some of the most amazing elements of our universe.

Gravitational waves, the bending and stretching of space time, the changes in relative time as a traveler approached the speed of light — all of these, and more, were born in the fertile brain of Uncle Albert.  This week we learned, yet again, that the story of Albert Einstein is one of the great stories in the history of the human species, and it reaffirms that one person, through hard work and brilliant insight, can make all the difference.

Unflattering Sign

IMG_0428Recently I was on the Otterbein University campus and had reason to visit the facilities, where I was struck by this sign posted on the mirror.  It made me wonder:  What kind of kids are going to Otterbein these days that they would come into the bathroom needing to wash off scum?  I’m all in favor of rhyming, but it’s not exactly the kind of message that makes you want to sit on, or otherwise touch, any surfaces on the Otterbein campus.

The Sad State Of Freedom Of The Press On Campus

Most college campuses have student-run newspapers.  At some schools, like Ohio State with the Lantern, the newspapers are “laboratory” publications, where students receive course credit and training as they perform different positions; at other schools, the newspaper is an extracurricular activity.  But in either case, the student newspapers are, in fact, newspapers, and are protected by the First Amendment.

Unfortunately, that protection seems to be eroding.

bradley_hallThe latest example has occurred at Mount St. Mary’s University, a small school in Maryland where the newspaper is called The Mountain Echo.  Two enterprising students reported that the  school was considering a new proposal to shore up its student retention numbers, and thereby improve its U.S. News and World Report rankings, by looking to get rid of struggling freshman students.  An even bigger scoop was that the University president, Simon Newman, was quoted as using a bizarre and disturbing metaphor to try to convince a professor about the merit of the program.  Newman was quoted as saying:  “This is hard for you because you think of the students as cuddly bunnies, but you can’t.  You just have to drown the bunnies,” and later stating: “Put a Glock to their heads.”

By all accounts, the story was good, solid reporting, with the quotes attributed to the University president confirmed by two professors who witnessed the conversation.  And the University president doesn’t seem to be denying that he said what he was quoted as saying — he apologized for his choice of words and explained that he was just trying to help struggling students at risk of failing avoid racking up a lot of student loan debt.

So how did Mount St. Mary’s respond to the blockbuster story in The Mountain Echo?  Amazingly, by firing the newspaper’s faculty adviser, Ed Egan.  The chairman of the school’s board suggested Egan had manipulated the student reporters into presenting the retention program negatively — a charge the student reporters themselves deny — and that he should have framed the story to focus more on the merits of the retention proposal than on the University president’s stupid comments about drowning bunnies.

The students on the newspaper were appalled that Egan was fired.  Ryan Golden, the managing editor of the paper and one of the two students to break the story, was quoted as saying:  “He’s really a good mentor for a lot of students at this school. He absolutely encouraged us to pursue journalistic integrity, absolutely encouraged us to be ethical, to be fair, to be thorough, to be objective and to do the best work that we could.”  Mr. Egan sounds like Tom Wilson, who was the faculty adviser of the Ohio State Lantern when I worked there in the ’70s.  Mr. Wilson was an old school newspaperman who cared only about the story — and let the chips fall where they may.  He was a great teacher.

Things have changed a lot on college campuses since the ’70s, and in some ways not for the better.  Many colleges seem to have become hotbeds of political correctness, where freedom of speech and freedom of the press are under assault on a daily basis.  In any rational universe, students who broke a story about a college president’s weird and ill-advised comparison of struggling students to bunnies that need to be drowned would be congratulated for exposing that fact, and the president would face the music for saying something so ridiculously stupid.  Instead, in our world, the newspaper faculty adviser gets terminated, and a chilling, anti-free speech and anti-free press message gets sent.

On too many college campuses these days, we are just heading in the wrong direction.