Monday, February 22, 2016

Apple #728: Elephants

Today I saw a little video on facebook of an elephant picking up a couple pieces of trash and putting them into a trash can.  I can't find the video now, no idea where it was filmed or any context for the elephant doing this. But it got me thinking about elephants.

You may remember an entry I did a while back on Elephant Feet. I just re-read that entry, and there's a lot of interesting stuff in there that I had forgotten.  Tracts! Varying numbers of toenails!

Anyway, I really like elephants. Fascinating, and rather marvelous that they've put up with us as long as they have. They're probably the most recognizable animal of all, and we think we know all the basic things there are to know about them.  So I want to put together some facts about elephants that maybe you don't already know.

A herd of elephants in the forest. Look how closely together they're all standing. Nobody but nobody is getting past them. African forest elephants are now considered to be a completely separate species than African savanna elephants.
(Photo from Endangered Earth)

  • Just as we are right- or left-handed, elephants are right- or left-tusked. The tusk that the elephant uses more often will be smaller than the other due to wear.

Looks like that largest elephant is probably left-tusked.
(Photo from WildAid

  • Adult elephants eat 300 to 400 pounds of vegetation per day. They eat grass and leaves, as I'm sure you know, but they also eat the roots, and the bark, as well as bamboo and cultivated crops like bananas and sugarcane, especially if their grasslands have been taken over by farmers.
  • An adult elephant drinks 30 to 50 gallons of water per day.
  • This is why elephants spend so much of their time on the move, looking for water and vegetation to eat.  

Holy bananas, that's an enormous animal. This is Satao, a bull elephant who has coated himself in red dust. Sadly, Satao was killed for his ivory in 2014. Unfortunately, you can't really talk about elephants without talking about the killing-for-ivory.
(Photo from Colorado State University, sourced from the University of Oxford)

  • Elephants cool themselves off in several ways:
    • their huge ears radiate heat
    • they spray themselves with water using their trunks
    • they coat themselves with dust or mud to protect themselves against sunburn (the dust also helps protect against parasites and insects)

Look at that happy bathing elephant.
(Photo from Pinterest, looks like it was posted by Pat Galipeau in Nepal)

  • Elephants don't sleep very much. They can lie down to sleep, but not for very long since their internal organs will get crushed by their own body weight, or the weight of their bodies pressing against the ground can get really uncomfortable on, say, the hipbone or the side of the face. So they only sleep lying down for maybe 30 minutes to 1 hour at a time. They lie down on one side, sleep for 30 minutes, get up, then lie down on the other side for another 30. They'll do this for about 4 hours and then they're on the move again, looking for more food.
  • They can sleep standing up -- most fully grown elephants only sleep standing up -- but again, not for very long stretches. Sometimes they're being vigilant, or perhaps it's only that they're used to sleeping for short periods of time.

Doesn't look very comfortable, does it?
(Photo from Charlie's Crib)

  • Elephants are extremely important to their landscape. Not only do they alter it enormously by tearing down tree branches and uprooting trees, but they also disperse the trees' seeds. It is estimated that at least 1/3 of the species of trees in central Africa's forests depend on the elephant to disperse their seeds for them. 
  • Elephants do not like bugs. If an acacia tree is infested with ants, elephants won't eat its branches. This is because they do not want to get ants crawling up their trunk. (Augh! Can you imagine? That would be awful.)
  • They also don't like bees and will avoid beehives. So farmers are now protecting their crops against elephants by establishing beehives along the borders of their farmland. This doubly helps their crops because they get pollinators as well as protection.
  • The mother elephant carries her elephant baby for 22 months. That's the longest gestation time of any mammal. A calf weighs 200 to 250 pounds at birth and stands 3 feet tall. That means the mother elephant is carrying around a 100-pound baby for over a year.
  • A baby elephant's trunk has no muscle tone.  That means the baby can't use the trunk at all for several months, until it develops those muscles. From birth, it suckles from its mother by mouth.

Elephants use their trunks like straws when they drink: they suck water partway up their trunks and hold it, then bring their trunks to their mouths and squirt the water in. 
(Photo from Wonderopolis)

  • But the elephant's trunk is pretty much indispensable. Its eyesight is quite poor, but its trunk with its 150,000 muscle parts is profoundly capable.  The trunk can grab and pull things with great strength, or it can caress another elephant's face with great gentleness, the trunk can smell food a great distance away, and of course the trunk is the tube through which the elephant trumpets, calls, tweets, and makes those sonic rumbles that are too low for humans to hear, but which the elephants can detect from up to 5 miles away.
  • The way that elephants detect those rumbles, by the way, is with their feet. The sound travels into their feet, up their legs, and ultimately to the middle ear. They use echolocation, determining how long it takes for the signals to arrive at each of their front feet as an indicator of the distance of the origin of the sound.
  • An elephant's sense of smell is extremely sensitive -- they are the best smellers in the animal kingdom. They can smell water from up to 12 miles away.
  • But it turns out that if an elephant is using its trunk like a hand to hold onto something, that truncates some of its smelling capabilities, and it also keeps the elephant from being able to feel around for the food with the end of its trunk. This is why experiments designed by humans to test elephants' ability to pick up sticks to get to food often were not successful.

I guess this means that the whole time elephants are painting (to please us, mind), they can't smell too well.
(Photo from Listverse)

  • Other tests that gave elephants the opportunity to roll objects into position and stand on them like stepstools to reach the food have been much more successful. Recent research of this sort has proven that elephants at least match chimps in terms of use of tools and problem-solving abilities.
Video below shows Kandula, an 8-year-old Asian elephant at the Smithsonian zoo, rolling a cube into place to reach food dangling from above. No one showed him how to do this; he smelled the food, found the cube, and put 2 & 2 together.

  • We have also come to understand that elephants experience and express a wide range of emotions and associated actions -- grief, consolation, stress, depression, joy. 
  • Elephants have been seen inspecting the bones of a dead elephant, snuffling them with their trunks, kicking sand or even laying palm branches over them. They do not do the same thing for the bones of other animals.
  • However, after one man who studied and lived with a herd of African elephants died, the herd arrived at his house and demonstrated signs of mourning him.
  • Females live in highly social herds that cooperate with each other to solve problems, including one instance when a young elephant bounded into the wrong herd and was effectively kidnapped by the new herd.  Her original herd banded together to confront the kidnapping herd, and they released her.

Video below shows a baby elephant collapsing in a road and several elephants from its herd coming to help. It looks like the baby elephant is having trouble standing, or something's not right with its balance, and eventually the elephants figure out he needs help on one side, and they support him on that side until he's able to stand and walk off the road. This is one of the things I love about elephants: they're so enormous and powerful, but they can be so gentle with each other.

A baby elephant among its herd looks like a pretty good place to be.
(Award-winning photo by Blaine Harrington)

  • About 1 in 3 elephants recognize themselves in a mirror. This may not sound like much, but only about 1 in 5 chimps recognize themselves in a mirror. This suggests that elephants' self-awareness is better than most other mammals'.
  • Adult males tend to live most of the time on their own, but they are not as completely solitary as people have thought. They often encounter other males on their search for food and water, and they may band together in groups of 12 or 15.

Video below shows Shirley and Jenny, two circus elephants being reunited after 20+ years at an elephant sanctuary in Tennessee. Whoever thought there should be bars between them did not know much about elephants. The way they embrace each other with their trunks at the end, you can't tell me that's not love.

  • And for the big finish: elephants don't actually like peanuts.
Ferris Jabr, The Science Is In: Elephants Are Even Smarter Than We Realized, Scientific American, February 26, 2014
Smithsonian, 14 Fun Facts About Elephants
World Wildlife Foundation, Elephant
Defenders of Wildlife, Basic Facts about Elephants
National Geographic Society, African Elephant
African Wildlife Foundation, Elephant
San Diego Zoo Animals, Elephant (they have a live elephant cam. As I type this at 11:15 at night, they elephants are walking by.)
Fact Slides, 28 Facts About Elephants
Modern Ghana, Do You Know Elephants Stand To Sleep?

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Apple #727: Supreme Court Justice Nominations

The death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has prompted all sorts of speculating and bloviating about how the next Justice should or should not be chosen.  In particular, the hot-button question is whether President Obama as an outgoing President should abstain from nominating another Justice and let the next President make the nomination, or if he should proceed with appropriate speed and put forth his nomination as soon as possible.

This is a hornet's nest of political grandstanding and finger-pointing and barbs of all persuasions.  I, your intrepid Apple Lady, am going to don my helmet of information-gathering, enter the hornet's nest, and sort out the fact from the bloviating.  Because this is what your Apple Lady does in the name of knowledge.

The United States Supreme Court. Of the three branches of the US government, this one is my favorite. They wear robes, and they say, Hey, I don't care what you've been doing, from now on, you have to be decent to each other. Most of the time, that's what they say.
(Photo from Wikipedia)

  • The most important thing to know about the rules governing the nomination of Supreme Court Justices is there aren't any.
    • The only official document that discusses the nomination of judges to the Supreme Court is the US Constitution, and it does so in a dependent clause within a very long sentence about all sorts of nominations the President shall make to all sorts of posts.  The part pertaining to the Supreme Court is very small, so to get at it you have to elide a bunch of other stuff.  And you wind up with this:
    • The President "shall have power, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, to . . . nominate . . . judges of the Supreme Court. . . ." 
    • That's it. The Senate has to advise the President on his or her choice, and the Senate has to agree to that choice. No instruction about how that advice is to be given, or how the agreement is to be made, or anything like that. So a majority of Senate votes determines confirmation.
    • Tradition and party politics has added complication to the process, but none of those extras is required or mandated by the Constitution or any other legal document.

Article II, not shown here in its entirety, but this is where the minimal rule appears about how Supreme Court judges are chosen.
(Image from Simplebooklet)

  • There is no rule that says nominations must be made within a certain amount of time after a vacancy on the Court opens.
    • One thing that I thought would be a consideration is that you might not want to have a seat on the Court to be vacant for very long.  But there is no rule that says the vacancy can't last for a certain amount of time.  The vacancy could theoretically be indefinite.
    • In case you're interested, statute dictates that the Supreme Court convenes the first Monday in October and continues sessions until late June or early July (the term is actually supposed to continue until the day before the first Monday in October, but the judges typically get through their caseload by July). So this opening has occurred in mid-session. 
  • There is no rule that says the Court cannot convene with an empty seat.
    • If a seat is not filled, does that put the Supreme Court on hold?  Can they hear cases and make decisions with less than their usual 9 judges?
    • The short answer: yup.
    • Rules established by the US Code say there must be a quorum, which is 2/3 of the total participants, which is therefore 6.  So they could still decide cases with 1 seat empty.
    • In 1971, there were 2 seats empty after John Marshall Harlan resigned and Hugo L. Black died. Before that, there were 2 vacancies in 1957.  One of those 2 seats was vacant for several months, after the resignation of Justice Sherman Minton.

Inside the US Supreme Court. Imposing, isn't it?
(Photo from the Library of Congress. I'd just like to point out that Getty is selling this exact same photo with their name on it and charging people to use it.)
    • In fact, the number of judges seated on the Supreme Court has fluctuated over the years.  
      • The Judiciary Act of 1789 established that there would be 6 judges (5 associates and 1 chief).  Subsequent acts of Congress that changed the total number of judges are as follows:
      • 1807: 7
      • 1837: 9
      • 1863: 10
      • 1866: 7 (and prevented then-President Andrew Johnson from making any appointments) 
      • 1869: 9
    • If Congress decided on a number other than 9, quorum would therefore also be a different number.
    • So there's nothing that says President Obama (or any President) must nominate a new Justice within a certain time-frame.

  • There is no rule that says an outgoing President cannot nominate a Justice in the last months of his or her term, but must leave that privilege to his or her successor.
    • This is the hot-button issue at the moment.  A lot of politicians who are not fans of President Obama and who think his nominee would be someone whose political positions they also dislike have been maintaining that, because our current President is in the waning months of his 8-year-elected term, he should not be allowed to nominate someone. Or should be discouraged from doing so.  Or should not have his nominee considered. Etc.
    • I haven't read all the articles that take this position, but I suspect they are doing so on the basis of what is known as the "Thurmond Rule."
    • In 1968, Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) made the statement that a judicial nominee should not be confirmed in the months prior to an election.  He said this in the context of, and as one rationale for, blocking the confirmation of LBJ's nominee Abe Fortas to be promoted from an associate Justice to Chief Justice. 
      • In fact, the majority of the arguments made against the confirmation of Fortas had to do with objections on the basis of his religion/ethnicity (he was Jewish), concerns about his ethical position, and concerns that he made decisions that were too consistently liberal, and that he was politicizing the Court. 

Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.). A guy who said some stuff. Including the longest filibuster on record, against the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957.
(Photo sourced from Real Clear Politics)

    • Regardless of the primacy(or lack thereof) of the Thurmond Rule at the time, it has been invoked since then as though it were some regulation that must be adhered to.  But it isn't actually a rule, nothing has ever been codified or signed into law. It's just something that one Senator said should be a practice.
    • Since this statement has never been codified or signed into law, no particulars have been set as guidelines. Within how many months before the end of the sitting President's term does this "rule" come into play?  Is it only when the President becomes a lame-duck? If so, that does not apply here, since an office-holder only becomes a lame duck when his or her replacement has been elected.
    • Furthermore, politicians invoke the "rule" when it benefits them and they argue against it when it doesn't.
      •  Patrick Leahy (D-Vt): In July 2008, the Senate Republican caucus held a hearing solely dedicated to arguing that the Thurmond Rule does not exist.  At that hearing, the senior Senator from Kentucky stated:  “I think it’s clear that there is no Thurmond Rule.  And I think the facts demonstrate that.”  Similarly, the Senator from Iowa, my friend who is now serving as Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, stated at that hearing that the Thurmond Rule was in his view “plain bunk.”  He said: “The reality is that the Senate has never stopped confirming judicial nominees during the last few months of a president’s term.”  That was certainly the case when Democrats were in the majority in the last two years of the George W. Bush administration.  I served as Chairman of the Judiciary Committee then, and I can tell you that Senate Democrats confirmed 22 of President Bush’s judicial nominees in the second half of 2008. 
      • Interestingly, on another occasion, Leahy himself apparently argued exactly the opposite, that there is a Thurmond Rule, and it should be upheld. Because in 2004 Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) responded: "There is no 'Thurmond Rule,' " Hatch said about Leahy's contention that the committee since Thurmond led it has shut down confirmations after the first party convention in an election year. "Strom Thurmond unilaterally on his own . . . when he was chairman could say whatever he wanted to, but that didn't bind the whole committee, and it doesn't bind me," Hatch said. "He (Leahy) raises the 'Thurmond rule' to remind us that Sen. Thurmond, who was inconsistent in applying his own ideas, should bind the whole committee, but it doesn't," he said. "To make a long story short, we're going to keep on pushing ahead on judges and hopefully get a number of them through before the end of the year," Hatch said.
    • I have every confidence that a scrutiny of the remarks made by several Senators from either party will reveal arguments in favor of or against the Thurmond Rule, depending on whether that position happens to benefit that Senator's party at the time.
    • In other words, politicians use it as an excuse, or an expedient. It is not a law or even a rule that must be followed.
    • Anyone who argues that the Thurmond Rule has been followed in the past, and therefore should be followed now, is ignoring history.  Election-year nominations in the 20th century are as follows:
      • Mahlon Pitney, nominated by William Taft on March 13, 1912, and confirmed March 18, 1912
      • Louis Brandeis, nominated by Woodrow Wilson on January 28, 1916, and confirmed June 1, 1916
      • John Clarke, nominated by Woodrow Wilson on July 14, 1916, and confirmed July 24, 1916
      • Benajmin Cardozo, nominated by Herbert Hoover on February 15, 1932, and confirmed February 24, 1932
      • Frank Murphy, nominated by FDR on January 4, 1940, and confirmed January 16, 1940
      • Anthony Kennedy, nominated by Ronald Reagan on November 30, 1987, confirmed February 3, 1988
  • There is no rule that says the nomination cannot be made while the Senate is in recess.
    • In fact, if the President wanted to, he could wait until the Senate is not in session and nominate whoever he wants.
    • In fact, the only other rule about the Supreme Court nomination process that the Constitution does state is that a nomination CAN be made while the Senate is in recess. Also from Article II:
    • "The President shall have power to fill up all vacancies that may happen during the recess of the Senate, by granting commissions which shall expire at the end of their next session."
    • Recesses used to last a lot longer, in the 1700s and 1800s, when it took Senators much longer to get to D.C., and then they'd want to go home to be with their families.  So it was a bigger deal if a vacancy opened up in a key post while they were home plowing their fields or writing their memoirs or whatever they were doing.  So the Constitution allowed for the President at least to get someone in position while the Senate was away.  Then when the Senate came back in session, that temporary appointment would expire. 
    • Usually the President would ask, once the Senate was back in session, if they'd approve the nomination of that temporary appointee to a full term for real.  When this happened in the Supreme Court, in every case but 1, the Senate agreed to the lifetime appointment. 
    • Recesses are now much shorter.  The Senate gets weekends off, and they get a week or two off here & there.  They have this week off, actually, and they get a couple weeks off at the end of March, and another week off at the beginning of May.  You know, around the major holidays.
    • It would be legally allowed for President Obama to appoint a a new Justice while the Senate is having a recess.  But the appointment would only last for the week or two of the Senate's absence.  Historically, that appointment would probably have been confirmed.  But given today's political climate, the Senate would probably be so mad he did that, they'd reject the nominee even if it was Oliver Wendell Holmes himself--and with vitriol.
  • There is no rule that says the Justice has to have been born in the United States.
    • There can be no "birther" objections here.

Austrian-born Justice Felix Frankfurter told the Senators on his nomination committee that “a nominee’s record should be thoroughly scrutinized by the committee,” but the nominee should take no part in that scrutiny.
(Photo via Separate Is Not Equal)

  • There is no rule that says the Justice has to have a certain level of qualification or education.
    •  A Supreme Court Justice doesn't even have to have a law degree. But every judge who has sat on the Court has had a law degree. That is the only thing all the Supreme Court Justices have in common.

  • There is no rule that says the Justice must be a particular age.
    • The youngest Justice was Joseph Story who was 32 when he was appointed.  The oldest Justice was Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who was 90 when he retired. 

  • I think you get the point, how few rules govern the nomination of Supreme Court Justices. But one other point caught my eye: There is no rule that says a nominee must answer a Senate committee's questions. 
    • Justices are not supposed to be politicians. They are supposed to make decisions based on the rule of law, not based on anything to do with party platforms or vote-garnering or anything like that.  In fact, the American Bar Association's Code of Conduct stipulates that they're not supposed to make political statements: judges“shall not make . . . statements that commit or appear to commit the candidate with respect to cases, controversies or issues that are likely to come before the court.”
    • This applies to any judge being considered for any office. Many state codes of conduct have adopted this same language.
    • Because judges are allowed and even encouraged to avoid making political statements, Supreme Court nominees are not even required to appear at the Senate Judiciary committee hearings to determine their confirmation. They could skip the whole clown show if they wanted to.
The upshot: President Obama can nominate whoever he chooses, if he wants to.  But he doesn't have to nominate anybody if he doesn't want to. It's up to him, as the elected President of the United States to decide whether or not to nominate someone. And if people don't like that decision, well, I guess they'll have to reject his nominee, or re-write the Constitution. 

E pluribus unum, baby.
(Image sourced from Wikimedia)

Cornell University Law School, Legal Information Institute, U.S. Constitution, Article II
The Leadership Conference, Federal Judicial Nomination Process 
Congressional Research Service, Supreme Court Appointment Process: Debate and Confirmation Vote, October 19, 2015
Supreme Court of the United States, The Court and Its Procedures
Supreme Court of the United States, Rules of the Supreme Court of the United States
SCOTUS Blog, Supreme Court vacancies in election years, February 13, 2016
Tom Curry, A guide to the Supreme Court nomination, NBCNews, November 5, 2005
How Court Posts Are Filled, The Desert News, October 23, 1971
Lee Davidson, Griffith to miss Demos' deadline, The Desert News, July 21, 2004
Politico Magazine, Republicans, Beware the Abe Fortas Precedent, February 15, 2016