Dec 31, 2008

Can the Senate reject Rod's Choice?

Harry Reid announced after Rod Blagojevich's December 9th arrest that should the governor attempt to fill President-elect Obama's the Senate vacancy, the Senate Democratic Caucus was prepared to reject the choice and not allow him to take his seat, citing Article I, Section 5 of the U.S. Constitution:

Please understand that should you decide to ignore the request of the Senate Democratic Caucus and make an appointment we would be forced to exercise our Constitutional authority under Article I, Section 5, to determine whether such a person should be seated.

That's all well and good, Harry. The problem is that your authority isn't nearly as extensive as you seem to think.

The text of the referenced section reads:

Each House shall be the judge of the elections, returns and qualifications of its own members, and a majority of each shall constitute a quorum to do business; but a smaller number may adjourn from day to day, and may be authorized to compel the attendance of absent members, in such manner, and under such penalties as each House may provide.

That seems simple enough. I, too, would try to take this power for a spin if there were no precedent on it. Unfortunately, nothing is new under the sun, and the Supreme Court already determined this in 1969.

The case was Powell v. McCormack. The situation was thus: Adam Powell was under a mire of scandal (accused of misappropriating Congressional funds, paying his wife from his House staff salary, and not paying a judgment made by a lesser New York court). Nonetheless, he was reelected in 1966 as the representative from the 18th District of New York. The Speaker of the House, John McCormack, asked Powell to not take his seat. The House then passed two resolutions--one ordering an investigation, the other stripping him of his power and ordering the seat vacant. Powell sued, saying that he was qualified to be a member (according to the three qualifications listed in the U.S. Constitution), duly elected by the people, and therefore entitled to his seat.

Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote the majority opinion for the case (which was a 7-1 decision; Potter Stewart dissenting, Abe Fortas not voting since he had resigned from the court a month before the decision was handed down). He determined that Congress's authority was severely limited in terms of 'exclusion' of members (see bolded segment below).

Had the intent of the Framers emerged from these materials with less clarity, we would nevertheless have been compelled to resolve any ambiguity in favor of a narrow construction of the scope of Congress' power to exclude members-elect. A fundamental principle of our representative democracy is, in Hamilton's words, "that the people should choose whom they please to govern them." 2 Elliot's Debates 257. As Madison pointed out at the Convention, this principle is undermined as much by limiting whom the people can select as by limiting the franchise itself. In apparent agreement with this basic philosophy, the Convention adopted his suggestion limiting the power to expel. To allow essentially that same power to be exercised under the guise of judging qualifications would be to ignore Madison's warning, borne out in the Wilkes case and some of Congress' [p548] own post-Civil War exclusion cases, against "vesting an improper & dangerous power in the Legislature." 2 Farrand 249. Moreover, it would effectively nullify the Convention's decision to require a two-thirds vote for expulsion. Unquestionably, Congress has an interest in reserving its institutional integrity, but, in most cases, that interest can be sufficiently safeguarded by the exercise of its power to punish its members for disorderly behavior and, in extreme cases, to expel a member with the concurrence of two-thirds. In short, both the intention of the Framers, to the extent it can be determined, and an examination of the basic principles of our democratic system persuade us that the Constitution does not vest in the Congress a discretionary power to deny membership by a majority vote....

Further, analysis of the 'textual commitment' under Art. I, § 5 (see Part VI, B (1)), has demonstrated that in judging the qualifications of its members Congress is limited to the standing qualifications prescribed in the Constitution. Respondents concede that Powell met these. Thus, there is no need to remand this case to determine whether he was entitled to be seated in the 90th Congress. Therefore, we hold that, since Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., was duly elected by the voters of the 18th Congressional District of New York and was not ineligible to serve under any provision of the Constitution, the House was without power to exclude him from its membership.

Roland Burris is a citizen, he resides in Illinois, and he is over the requisite age of 30. Rod Blagojevich is under investigation; he has neither been charged nor convicted. Therefore, he retains all, I repeat, all the powers of the governor, including the statutory authority to appoint a U.S. Senator in case of vacancy. The Senate, in my opinion, has no right to exclude his choice. (note: I'm not saying that Blago isn't a scum bag, since I think he is. I'm just saying that procedurally, as a matter of law, the Senate doesn't have a leg to stand on.)

Is that the end of the story? Definitely not. A host of options remain for our dear Mr. Reid. The Democratic Caucus can refuse to appoint Burris to any committee posts, effectively giving him no say in lawmaking. He can choose not to invite Burris to the Democratic caucuses where they devise strategies. Mr. Burris would be left with only his right to speak and vote on the floor.

Also, if they really don't want him there, the Senate, with 67 votes (2/3 for the mathematically-impaired), can expel him. That right, under the Constitution, is absolute. It doesn't matter who or why; either house can expel anyone from their ranks for any reason, so long as they have a 2/3 majority. This might look bad politically, though, since usually members are considered for expulsion due to their own scandals, not the scandals of the governor appointing them to a vacant seat.

All in all, it should be interesting to see what happens. Sen. Reid's hands aren't necessarily tied, but it would be foolish (and unconstitutional) for him to attempt Burris's exclusion from the Senate rather than other means.

For additional info, see my hattips on this: The Arena, and NRO

Update: The Senate is apparently looking at referring his appointment to the Rules Committee, which would give them 90 days to figure out what to do, since, remember, Congress convenes this Tuesday.

Update deux: Apparently some Senators are considering blocking the door so that Burris can't enter the chamber. That sounds like a great idea, guys!

Dec 27, 2008


I have no idea how to speak Deutsch, but I love the crazy puppets that this company has made.

Here's a sampling (all courtesy of the website):

There was also a video (in German) showing off their work (h/t to Thistledown Puppets)

Dec 25, 2008

Meet Schubert!

Well, after weeks of work, my first puppet is done! My brother has been calling him Schubert, and the name has stuck. He's a T-Rex. He's also, in my opinion, awesome.

Dec 19, 2008

How to Make a Puppet Pattern, Part II

The Ellipsoid

Go to Part I if you want to see how to make a sphere. Now, we're going to make an ellipsoid. The formulas are more difficult, but overall, the process is almost identical.

I worked this up last night in my apartment. The circumference (or perimeter--whatever you want to call it) of an ellipse is a really crazy formula:
where (denoted in the C equation as ) is the eccentricity of the ellipse.

"Whoa!" you say. "What are these a's and b's you're talking about?"

Well, my dear friend. Look to the left. You can see in my little drawing that I have denoted both a and b. We are going to make this figure, which is a 'prolate' spheroid (a 'stretched' sphere). The darker edge is one half of the ellipse (oriented vertically). Can you see that b is the radius of a circle in the middle? Good. Now, what do those mean?

a is half of the ultimate height of your spheroid (A is the total height). So, if I want my puppet's spheroid head to be 1.5 feet tall, then a is 1.5/2 = 0.75 feet. b is half of the width of the spheroid (B is the total width; the diameter of the central circle).

That equation above, though, is ridiculous. No one wants to spend the time solving for eccentricity. That is where Srinivasa Ramanujan comes in. He estimated (way more accurately than we care to be) that the perimeter of an ellipse is roughly:
That is (though it may not appear so) way easier than the real formula. Look at that picture above again. See the dark curve marked C/2? That, you can see, will be the height of our pattern. That amount is simply half of the circumference, which means it is roughly the amount to the right: [4.5(a+b) - 1.5*sqrt((3a+b)(a+3b))]. That is by far the most difficult part of this process.

The width of each piece will, like the sphere, be one-eighth (1/8) the circumference of the center circle. Remember that b is the radius of the center circle? That means the circumference is 2πb. Estimate that π is 3, and we get roughly 6b. Now divide that by eight, and we get .75b, as you can see in the formula to the left.

Now, you simply need to follow the instructions for the sphere. Choose your height-- A=2a, your width-- B=2b for the final product. Now, draw a vertical line equal to 4.5(a+b) - 1.5*sqrt((3a+b)(a+3b)). Through the midpoint of that line, draw a horizontal line equal to .75b. Now, copy the angle made by connecting the end of the horizontal line to the end of the vertical line (M), to make angle N. Make an isoceles triangle (as you can see to the right), and use its tip as a center for your compass to creat a curve connecting the top of the vertical line, the right end of the horizontal line, and the bottom of the vertical line.
Do that again on the other side, and you get a figure that looks like this.
Just to demonstrate that the equation really isn't that hard, take my example from before. Say that I want my height to be 1.5 feet and my width to be 1 foot. Using the formula, we discover that the height is simply 2.27 feet and the width is .375 feet. I can now follow the rest of the instructions, cut out eight foam pieces, and creat my ellipsoid!
So--that's how you make a puppet pattern for a sphere or an ellipsoid. I know that it may not make complete sense. Please feel free to write questions in the comment field, and I'll be happy to answer them ASAP

Mathematical Caricatures?

I was looking for a good photo of Ronald Reagan to caricature (he's so wrinkly...), and I came across this amazing article. It's about topology and how continuous deformations of objects can yield recognizable, though drasitcally different mirror-objects. The question asked (and never answered by the article) is: why is it that we recognize a cartoon of a certain person as that person. How is it that all the cartoons about George W. Bush are clearly about him, even when the White House and other context-driven clues are removed? It also asks why people can recognize someone with only a tiny piece of the face--the eyes, the hair, the nose, the mouth, etc.

Most caricatures are not done by mathematic means but by emphasizing already prominent features (while maintaining space relationships between different facial planes). What does that mean? Cartoonists are effectively using biological topology every day. Why do pictures that emphasize George Bush's hair not look like him while those that emphasize Rod Blagojevich's do? Why are Jimmy Carter's lips always big, while Richard Nixon's nose is always long? These are the identifying characteristics, and, I would posit, they are the planes that most strongly depart from the ideal face of beauty, be they bigger, smaller, wider, thinner, or whatever.

Dec 17, 2008

I was bored at work I drew a caricature. Can you guess who? I'll give you a clue: his initials are J-F-K.

Dec 15, 2008


As much as I hate seeing the sun go down at 4:30pm during the winter, Christmas lights somehow make it a little more bearable. If you are in the Chicagoland area (and it's not frigid like today), be sure to take some time to see ZooLights at Lincoln Park Zoo. It's free, it's beautiful, and it provides a perfect melding of Christmastime and animals. I'm going this week sometime. Hope to see you there!

photo h/t stephanie says (via flickr)

Chicago Weather is Nuts

Yesterday, Chicago was met with remarkable warmth: 52 degrees at the peak. Today, I was met with -12 degree windchills and enough ice to take me a few minutes to open my car door. The weather here, once again, demonstrates its insanity. An interesting post from Tom Skilling's (WGN Weatherman) blog:

Chicago's warmest Christmas

Dear Tom,
When was Chicago's warmest Christmas?

Adam Bednarek, Dyer, Ind.
Dear Adam,
It was nearly 26 years ago in 1982 when Chicago experienced a Christmas that was warmer than most Easters. The afternoon temperature peaked at a balmy 64 degrees, twice the day's normal 32-degree high. While most Chicagoans celebrated a traditional holiday, some people were washing their cars, barbequing and even playing golf. Excited children got an unexpected chance to ride their new bikes and scooters outdoors. The very next year was payback time as the city shivered through its coldest Christmas. After a frigid Christmas Eve when the mercury dipped to minus 25, Christmas Day 1983 dawned with a low of 17 below and could only muster a high of minus 5. The back-to-back Christmases had an incredible temperature spread of 81 degrees, a true testament to Chicago's vigorous and volatile climate.

Obama Logos

I must say, though I am no huge fan of Barack Obama, I really enjoyed the graphics of his campaign. McCain's seemed so very traditional, while Obama's in some strange way seemed to speak to the 'now'. I'm a firm believer that you can't underestimate the simple power of aesthetics, especially in political campaigns. People in my generation are attracted to things that look new and modern. His team clearly spent some time trying to find a look that would suit the Obama message.

This link is to the Obama logos that didn't make the cut. I especially like the speech-bubbles, though I understand why his final choice was, in many ways, ideal. The uniqueness of his name let the 'O' make his symbol very obvious (in a way that an 'M' likely wouldn't have been for McCain), and the center being a rising sun over stripes, which both evoked the American flag and the classic agrarian life (did anyone else notice that it looks like a freshly plowed field?), was, to put it bluntly, very impressive.
That said, the Republican party needs to hire some people with eyes for aesthetics. Bold words won't cut it anymore. It didn't help either that McCain is old and white and his smiles are creepy. Even youthful supporters of his like me cringed a bit when watching him.

Also, the traditional Republican elephant is boring. It needs to be changed.

Dec 13, 2008

Making a Maquette

There seems to be a horde of websites and blogs about animation--everything from traditional 2-D to computer to stop-motion. However, one important part of the traditional animating process is having a sculpture of the character you want to draw, a maquette, that gives an animator the ability to visualize a character in three dimensions and keep the drawing consistent. Unfortunately, there is a veritable dearth of sites telling you how to make a maquette. I, being but a lowly amateur animator/sculptor, will attempt to fill this gap.

First, some reference points.

Here is the awesome site of Shane Zalvin, who has made some professional maquettes for Dreamworks productions (maquettes in the computer animating process are more conceptual, and 3-D character models are made off of them). He has some Disney sculptures as well, but they are for consumer products, not actual productions.

Here are two photos of Disney maquettes, one of Cookie from Atlantis and one of Koda and Kenai from Brother Bear.

For my yeti project, I've been working on the yeti himself as a maquette. Mine has not been baked (and likely won't be), though I'm looking at ways to make a mold for him so I can transfer the sculpture into resin.

How did the sculpture happen, though?

First, I had to decide what type of clay I was going to use. I knew that I wanted a modeling clay of some type (since I don't have a kiln). I went to the Utrecht store in downtown Chicago and bought medium-pliability, gray-green Roma Plastina. I found that the stuff was perfect; easy to mold (after a little kneading), but firm enough to keep me from worrying that it would melt into itself on a hot day. It cuts pretty roughly, but with some work, it smooths very well and doesn't leave many fingerprints, which was an added bonus for me.

I already owned some cheaper, more oily modeling clay (I think I bought it at Hobby Lobby or Michael's or something). I used that to make a model for the head that I would eventually create out of the Roma Plastina. It was an easy way to try out what I wanted to do.

I came up with this head, and I really liked it. I made a head out of the Roma Plastina that was very similar to it, though more on that later.

My first challenge was with the body. My yeti has a huge, heavy body, supported by relatively tiny legs. I needed some way to keep the body from being so heavy that it would make the legs collapse. My solution was aluminum foil. I molded it into the shape of the body and then covered it with a relatively thin (though far more than paper-thin) coat of clay.

I then began making the extremities. I used sculpting wire around each arm and leg, sticking it into the foil, to make them keep their shape and to keep them better attached to the body. When possible, I wanted to avoid having the clay supporting itself.

I also made a base (which was basically a messy-looking cut of the clay--it looked like rock).

I followed with the head, which I used a toothpick to attach. A few details, and presto! A maquette:

Dec 12, 2008

I Heart My Family

Somehow, my Dad and me putting up Christmas lights turned into a whole family mom and brother came out to see us and ended up helping with the lights and ornaments. Then we all went in and had hot drinks. It was very Norman Rockwell-esque.

Slate Goes Reenactor!

Once humans spent most of their days doing useful things with their hands, and I realized that we were designed to get a deep satisfaction from this. As Hughes put it, "You have the feeling people were supposed to do this kind of work, rather than data entry, which is amazingly horrible."

An article today on Slate magazine about Emily Yoffe's 'brief, inspiring career as a historical re-enactor'. In it, she discusses her time portraying a colonial farm woman at the Claude Moore Colonial Farm in McLean, Virginia. The place is apparently right across the street from the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. How weird. I love the strange juxtapositions that inevitably arise when reenacting.

It's cool to hear someone else discuss it. One of the best parts of recreating the past is when you get the 'high'--the feeling that you really are where you up to then had only been pretending to be. She got it through the mundane tasks of growing tobacco and dealing with livestock.

Reenacting helps you remember that there was a time, not so far back, when people lived with a purpose that was more than waiting for the weekend. I had a class a few years ago about American demographics in marketing. Robert Fogel taught it, and he showed us how the average American in 1800 only had about 30 minutes of free time each day, whereas the average American today has around eight hours. That's amazing when you think about it. Additionally, 50% of a typical family income was used to pay for food. Today, it hovers around 10%. Disposable income for the masses is a relatively recent phenomenon. People in the past worked hard, not to make a living, but to survive.

Long and short of it, historical reenacting is fun and educational--practically and emotionally--and everyone should try it out at some point.

Shameless Plug for Awesome Toy

So, there is an awesome toy that I now have in my office. Did you ever fall over in awe of the stony silence and markedly superior bounty-tracking techniques of Boba Fett from Star Wars? Did you enjoy Mr. Potato Head as a kid? Well look no further for the perfect gift. Fusion is posh right now.

Introducing Spuda Fett:

Someone at Disney or Lucasfilm had way too much time on his/her hands.

Buy him here.

Photo credit: Bratislabat via Flickr

Dec 9, 2008

How to Make a Puppet Pattern, Part 1

OK, so I'm a complete amateur, working on my first puppets right now. I am, however, a mathematician (or I pretend to be). I recently realized that I needed to make a body for my puppet. I wanted to make a football shape, but I didn't want to fork up the cash for a Project Puppet design. I decided to do some math to find out how to turn a 2-d surface (namely, foam) into a 3-d shape (namely, an ellipsoid). What follows is how I went about it. Be forewarned that there will be math and formulas, which may be boring to all one of you that will read this post. I'll start with a sphere and then move on to the prolate and oblate spheroids (stretched sphere, squashed sphere).

If you don't want to read the process, just go to the end of the post, and you will find simple directions on how to make a pattern.


Take a look at my handy picture. You will see that in a sphere the distance from the center to the surface on all three axes (X, Y, Z or length, width, and height) is the same. I've labelled it R (for 'radius', since I'm clever). R will make our calculations very convenient, as you will see if you make it to the spheroids.

When we make a sphere out of foam, we will need to focus on the surface. (since it will be hollow). We will cut it into kayak-shaped pieces, just like the longitude lines on a globe (see picture to the left). I will use eight pieces (though you can easily to more, and less easily do less; I wouldn't recommend less than five or six).

How will we figure out the measurements for these pieces?

First, consider how tall you want to make your sphere. How big will the puppet's head or body be? That length is the length from the top to the bottom of the sphere, which, as you can easily see, is 2R. This allows you to figure out R (by dividing the length you want by 2).

Now, have you ever noticed that if you cut a sphere in half along any of the axes (X,Y, or Z), the circle that you get is the exact same size? That's important here. We're going to cut the sphere along the X axis (with an X/Z plane). We get a circle (which I've highlighted in blue). You can see that the height of our sphere piece will be half the circumference of that circle.

That's handy for us. The circle has a radius of R, which means that it has a circumference of 2πR (see here for that formula). We want half of that, which is πR. This will be the height of our piece. I have drawn it out in the picture to the left.

What will the width be, you ask? Great question! I am making this out of eight pieces, which means that the width of each piece should be one-eighth (1/8) of the entire length of the sphere's equator. Note that if you are making it out of more or fewer pieces, the fraction will reflect the number of pieces you are making (so, ten pieces, 1/10; four pieces, 1/4). Because this is a sphere, once again, the length of the sphere's equator is equal to 2πR, which means that the length of our piece will be 2πR/8 = πR/4. This is important. It means that the width of our pattern will be one-fourth (1/4) the height. Since a sphere is symmetric in all directions when cut through the center, the width and the height will bisect each other. I've drawn it out to the left. Oh, and don't worry about π right now. We're just going to estimate it as 3 at the end.

Well, this is great. We have the height and the width. we have just one more problem. The sides must be curved, since the sphere itself is curved on its surface. We need to figure out how to connect the endpoints of the width and the height. See figure to the left.

To find this curve is surprisingly simple. We need a circle that has a center on the same axis as our width (the short line). The distance from that center to the end of our width line (the radius of that circle) must be the same as distance from the center of that circle to the top and the bottom of the height line. How can we do this? We need an isoceles triangle, with the two equal sides going from the far end of our width line and from the top of the height line to the center of that circle. Using a compass and straightedge, it's not too hard. Just copy angle M (see picture) to become angle N.

Now, using the compass, make a curve from the bottom of the height line to the top of the height line. Copy that to the other side, and you have your pattern. Make eight of these out of sheet foam, and, presto! you have a sphere.

Check in soon to see how to make a spheroid.