Archive for August 1st, 2008
Interesting article by Vikram David Amar, professor of law at the University of California, Davis School of Law, and Alan Brownstein, a Professor of Law at the University of California, Davis, School of Law.
Amar is a 1988 graduate of the Yale Law School, and a former clerk to Justice Harry Blackmun. He is a co-author, along with William Cohen and Jonathan Varat, of a major constitutional law casebook, and a co-author of several volumes of the Wright & Miller treatise on federal practice and procedure. Before teaching, Professor Amar spent a few years at the firm of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher.
Brownstein holds the Boochever and Bird Chair for the Study and Teaching of Freedom and Equality.
Some critics of the state Supreme Court rulings in Massachusetts and California that recognize the right of same-sex couples to marry have suggested that these cases create a conflict between religious believers and proponents of religious liberty, on one side, and gay men and lesbians and supporters of gay rights, on the other.
Their argument is more practical than normative. The rulings’ critics maintain that recognizing same-sex marriages will inevitably lead the state to interfere with and burden the religious liberty of faith communities that hold traditional beliefs deeming homosexual conduct immoral. For example, the critics fear that religious employers may be forced to violate the tenets of their faith if they are required by state law to extend health and retirement benefits to the same-sex spouses of their employees, just as they are for opposite-sex spouses.
We think this new attempt to characterize the debate about same-sex marriage as a “God versus Gays” battle is grounded on mistaken, or at least carelessly-considered, legal assumptions. Indeed, in important respects, protecting the right of gay men and lesbians to marry may help to reaffirm and reinforce religious freedom in our legal system far more than it will interfere with the free exercise of religion – for reasons we explain later in this column.
Extremely interesting, again in New Scientist.
“On entering this tremendous chasm an immense cliff overhangs the traveller and strikes the mind with considerable terror. Even in a light gale the sound of the wind is awful; each winter the appearance of the place alters as stones are continuously falling in immense fragments.” When English artist Charles Tomkins described Blackgang chine in the Isle of Wight in 1796, it was a spectacular coastal ravine almost a kilometre long. After 200 years of erosion and landslides, the chine has almost disappeared. Yet the vanished views painted by Tomkins and his fellow artists are of more than historical interest. For coastal engineers and planners, old artworks provide a helpful dose of perspective.
IN THE mid-18th century, gentlemen with lots of money and little to do would take themselves off to Europe for the Grand Tour. In Paris, they polished their social skills. In Italy, they admired the ruins, learned about classical architecture and studied old masters. In 1789, the French Revolution put a stop to all that. Britain was at war with France for the best part of the next quarter of a century, and the continent was closed to travellers. Stuck at home, gentlemen of leisure swapped culture for the countryside and ruins for remote and rugged landscapes – places where those who liked to stretch their minds as well as their legs could dabble in the fashionable new science of geology. Where wealthy travellers went, writers and artists in need of patrons followed.
Very interesting article in New Scientist:
Two young girls focus on a monitor in front of them as one of them steers a blue dog through a bright pink and purple tunnel using a computer mouse. Against a background buzz of classroom noise, a boy nearby is guiding an animated Mini Cooper car around a simple on-screen maze.
There is nothing unusual in 10 and 11-year-olds playing computer games, but the pupils at St Mary’s Church of England Primary School near Wolverhampton in the UK are no mere gamers. They are testing games that they have designed and programmed themselves to help even younger children develop computer skills.
The children are the latest members of a rapidly expanding global community using a new programming language called Scratch to create interactive stories, animations, videos, music and games. “We saw a real gap for children today,” says Mitchel Resnick at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab, who came up with the idea for Scratch and leads the team that runs the project.
Resnick points out that despite the amount of time children spend playing with computers, games and gadgets, they have little opportunity to create the interactive media they use every day. “I worry about us moving into a world where everybody has access to computers but all they are doing is browsing and chatting.”
Anyone who has struggled with the complexities of C++ or Java knows that writing software is not usually child’s play. To develop user-friendly Scratch, the researchers watched how children create and learn with Lego building blocks. Users do not have to write complicated code, but instead drag and “snap together” colourful graphical building blocks, each of which represents a simple programming instruction, such as making a character move 10 steps forward, play a sound, or repeat previous actions.
By snapping together different combinations of these blocks, children can create sequences that build up into animations and games. Some blocks, for example, allow players to control characters using keystrokes. They can also design their own characters and make them speak, as well as adding photos.
The software is linked to a website (http://scratch.mit.edu/) that allows kids to upload their projects, as well as comment on and rate each other’s work. Since it was launched in May last year, more than 300,000 children have downloaded Scratch. Of these, 30,000 have between them uploaded almost 180,000 projects onto the website. The number of new contributors is growing at close to 1000 a week, and a new project appears on the site on average every 2 minutes.
Continue reading. (Requires a subscription, but the on-line only subscription isn’t expensive.)
A strange way to fight the War on Drugs. But then, invading Iraq when Al-Qaeda was based in Afghanistan and Pakistan was a strange way to fight the War on Terrorism. Quincy Adams of the Reality Based Community points out:
Is Afghanistan a narco-state? This question was raised last Sunday in a NYT Magazine article by a former US senior counter-narcotics representative in Afghanistan. The facts presented:
1) Hamid Karzai is actively protecting poppy growers in Pashtun areas against effective eradication programs.
2) Farmers with other crop options are switching into more lucrative poppy cultivation; this is not a case of subsistence farmers with no crop alternatives.
3) The US military, the civilian Pentagon, and the Bush National Security Council have effectively opposed effective eradication and disincentive programs — as recently as 2007 (so this cannot be blamed on Donald Rumsfeld).
4) Poppy money is filling the coffers of the Taliban.
Obviously some nuance is required to not needlessly undercut Karzai, but the account makes clear that there was never a high level calculation of what an optimum strategy might be.
In 2007 the sea ice at the North Pole was at its thinnest since records began.
Christian Haas of the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in Bremerhaven, Germany, and his team estimated the thickness of late summer ice at the North Pole in 2001, 2004 and 2007. They found that the ice was on average 1.3 metres thick at the end of the summer in 2007. By contrast, its depth was 2.3 metres in 2001 and 2.6 metres in 2004.
The team went to the North Pole aboard the German icebreaker RFV Polarstern in August and September of 2001, 2004 and 2007. While there, they used helicopter-borne instruments to determine the thickness of large swathes of ice by measuring its conductivity (Geophysical Research Letters, DOI: 10.1029/2008GL034457).
Previously, glaciologists had measured ice thickness in spots by placing instruments directly on the ice. Records from 1991 show that the summer ice that year was 3.1 metres thick.
While the ice at the North Pole used to be thick “old” ice, much of it now is thinner first-year ice, which has had only a single winter to grow.
Earlier studies had already shown that the extent of Arctic sea ice reached its lowest level in 2007, 23 per cent below the previous minimum set in 2005. Taken together, the studies suggest that the Arctic could soon be ice-free during summer.
An industry front group best known for opposing the BTU tax in the 1990s has resurfaced in New Mexico, where it’s running radio ads attacking congressman Tom Udall for his opposition to oil drilling. According to Time magazine, the American Energy Alliance was created in 1993 when the National Manufacturers Association “got together with the American Petroleum Institute, 1,600 large companies, small businesses and farmers to form … a group designed solely to defeat the BTU tax. The coalition paid more than $1 million to Burson-Marsteller, a public relations firm, to deploy nearly 45 staff members in 23 states during the past two months. Burson’s goal was to drum up as much grass-roots outrage about the BTU tax as possible and direct it at the swing Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee.” Matthew Reichbach, who reported on the group’s current attacks on Udall, noted that “Information on the group is hard to come by. There are no online Federal Energy Regulatory Commission filings, no Internal Revenue Service filings and no way to contact the group.”
Seeing effectively—observing—is a skill that can be taught, and it turns out that one way to teach it is through art. Kimberly Sheridan, an assistant professor in Educational Psychology and Art and Visual Technology at George Mason University, explains. (She is co-author of the book, Studio thinking: The real benefits of visual arts education.) Her article begins:
Over the past few years, there has been a flourishing of programs where professional training institutions (ranging from medical schools to police academies) hone students’ observational skills by having them look at art. For example, since 2004 the Frick collection has been running an educational program for the New York City Police Department, the FBI and the National Guard aimed at improving their visual observational skills (and communication skills) by having them look at and talk about art.
To be sure, improving observation is a valuable goal and observation is central to learning in the arts. In our studies of studio arts classrooms, my colleagues Ellen Winner, Lois Hetland, Shirley Veenema and I found teachers consistently working on developing students’ ability to observe in more careful, complex and varied ways. And I like the idea of harried medical students and police officers being given the time and skills to look, think and talk carefully about what they see in artworks.
However, should we be skeptical of the underlying claim that looking at art leads to improved looking elsewhere? Does looking at and talking about a Rembrandt really help you analyze a crime scene or diagnose a patient? Do we have generic “visual observational skills” that can be translated between domains? And what do we mean by “visual observational skills” anyway?
So The Wife is lying on her back-cylinder on the floor, with Molly watching from atop the cushioned bench. Molly decides that it would be best to watch with her head upside down, so she drapes it over the edge of the cushion. To see better, she squirms to let her head, still upside down, drop lower, but the cushion is slippery and before she realizes it she’s sliding off the cushion. She manages to land on her feet, then immediately turns around and gives the bench a good, hard slap.
The Liberal Avenger has a very good post on the Libertarian approach to lead toys, as indicated by Ron Paul’s vote. Basically, the Libertarian view (aligned with the Wall Street Journal view) is that the Consumer Products Safety Commission should not exist, since the free market would take care of any problems.
The eldest [sic] of his two brothers, Thomas Ivins, said he was not surprised by the events that have unfolded.
“He buckled under the pressure from the federal government,” Thomas Ivins said, adding that FBI agents came to Ohio last year to question him about his brother.
“I was questioned by the feds, and I sung like a canary” about Bruce Ivins’ personality and tendencies, Thomas Ivins said.
“He had in his mind that he was omnipotent.”
What’s even more interesting is the role that ABC News played in the early days of the story. Glenn Greenwald has details about that, and I highly recommend that you read the column, even if you normally don’t like Greenwald. He explains aspects of the story that the two newspapers either overlooked or decided not to include.
Speaking of Homeland Security, Michael Crowley reports:
During wartime, one of America’s most solemn duties is to take care of its veterans. So why do careless government workers keep putting our vets at risk? That happened last January at a Department of Veterans Affairs medical center in Birmingham, Alabama, when an employee’s portable hard drive containing Social Security numbers of more than 250,000 vets and more than a million doctors went missing. A jackpot for any identity thief, the computer was never found, despite an FBI reward. An inspector general later found that the VA office “did not take adequate information, physical, or personnel security measures to protect sensitive data from potential loss or disclosure.”
Shocking, right? Well, it’s even more shocking when you consider it had happened before. Less than a year earlier, another VA employee in the Washington, D.C., area brought home a laptop computer that held the names, birth dates, and Social Security numbers of 26.5 million veterans, only to have it stolen from his house. When one chagrined U.S. Senator pronounced the incident “absolutely baffling,” then-VA secretary Jim Nicholson assured Congress he was “mad as hell” and vowed to aggressively reform security practices. Another federal agency set new guidelines for the handling of portable computers, including the use of special encryption technology to keep unauthorized people from accessing sensitive data.
But the computer lost in Alabama wasn’t encrypted. Neither was a laptop stolen from the car trunk of a researcher at the National Institutes of Health in February. That laptop had detailed information — names, birth dates, medical histories — on 2,500 patients enrolled in a federal medical study. (In a twist you couldn’t make up, one of them was Texas Congressman Joe Barton, who also happens to be the founder of the Congressional Privacy Caucus. “I was stunned,” Barton said.)
Apologies for national policies that mistreated groups (for slavery, for the genocide of Native Americans, for putting people of Japanese descent (though not those of German or Italian descent) in concentration camps in WWII, and so on) are lacking something. Edward Lazarus, a FindLaw columnist, comments on this. (He writes about, practices, and teaches law in Los Angeles. A former federal prosecutor, he is also the author of two books — most recently, Closed Chambers: The Rise, Fall, and Future of the Modern Supreme Court.)
Yesterday [30 July - LG], the House of Representatives passed a non-binding resolution apologizing for the nation’s history of slavery, as well as for the “injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity” of Jim Crow, the system of law that pervaded the South between 1875 and 1965, segregating public life and denying blacks the right to vote and other basic liberties.
In decrying this history, the House recognized that “African-Americans continue to suffer from the consequences of slavery and Jim Crow — long after both systems were formally abolished — through enormous damage and loss, both tangible and intangible, including the loss of human dignity and liberty, the frustration of careers and professional lives, and the long-term loss of income and opportunity….” The House also committed itself to stopping future human rights abuses.
This apology followed a similar expression of regret in a resolution passed by the Senate a few months ago. There, the Senate said it was sorry for the many acts of “violence, maltreatment, and neglect” carried out against Native Americans.
It is hard not to sympathize with the impulse behind these resolutions. They address the original sins of our history – that fact the our nation, though it proclaimed itself to be conceived on the ideals of liberty and equality, nonetheless countenanced the vicious practice of slavery and racial oppression for most of its history and was built at the expense of native tribes robbed of their land, health, and way of life.
But at the same time, there is an empty symbolism about such expressions of remorse that rankles. Coming in 2008, decades after the sentiments expressed might have felt truly meaningful, these gestures seem to be more about assuaging the residual guilt of the white folks (like the politicians who sponsored the resolutions) than about taking meaningful steps to address the still-lingering effects of the country’s historical acts of degradation and cruelty.
I wish reporters would get out of the business of reporting the future and stick to the present (and do a better job of reporting the present). For example, this from Editor & Publisher:
Last November, for a cover feature on Campaign 2008, E&P’s Joe Strupp asked several top reporters for newspaper blogs to predict the nominees for president, before the primary season started.
The crystal balls weren’t working too well at the time, it turns out.
Of the five who were queried, not a single one picked Barack Obama. At the time, Obama was widely given a fair shot to win, but four of the five (James Pindell of The Boston Glove, Frank James of the Chicago Tribune, Chris Cillizza aof The Washington Post and Andrew Malcolm at the Los Angeles Times) picked Hillary Clinton and the other writer did not choose (Kate Phillips, The New York Times).
On the GOP side, James did select McCain. Cillizza and Malcolm named Mitt Romney, Phillips and Pindell remained safely silent.
Asked to name a “dark horse,” Pindell and Phillips chose Mike Huckabee, Malcolm picked John Edwards and Cillizza eyed both Huckabee and Edwards. So Obama wasn’t named at all.
All five chose Iraq as the chief campaign issue — but it has now been supplanted by the economy.
Getting there is no longer half the fun—indeed, probably less than 1% of the fun, if that. In addition to the other indignities, TSA can now seize your laptop, cellphone, PDA, etc., and hold them indefinitely on grounds of wanting to take them. In other words, “suspicion” is no longer required. You’ve got a laptop? Hand it over. Goodbye. So if a TSA agent starts admiring you laptop or PDA, beware. It’s one easy way for a poor TSA agent to get an iPhone, so there is a silver lining.
The Eldest passes along this story from Reuters, reported by Paul Eckert:
U.S. federal agents have been given new powers to seize travelers’ laptops and other electronic devices at the border and hold them for unspecified periods the Washington Post reported on Friday.
Under recently disclosed Department of Homeland Security policies, such seizures may be carried out without suspicion of wrongdoing, the newspaper said, quoting policies issued on July 16 by two DHS agencies.
Agents are empowered to share the contents of seized computers with other agencies and private entities for data decryption and other reasons, the newspaper said.
DHS officials said the policies applied to anyone entering the country, including U.S. citizens, and were needed to prevent terrorism. [Ah. The magic words, "prevent terrorism," which allow absolutely any revocation of your civil rights and of the Consititution. RIP Fourth Amendment. You were good to us and we're sorry to see you go. - LG]
Reminded by Kafeneio, I dug out my jar of Cyrus R. Salter Vetiver shaving cream. What a pleasure! One does get in a rut, somehow, and it feels good to break out. What a fine, sturdy fragrance. The Cyrus R. Salter shaving creams, BTW, are all extremely good, and at least one jar should find a place in your stash. I have Fresh Mint and Almond in addition to the Vetiver.
I used a brush from Tones Barber Shop, which I believe I found via eBay. (It was quite a while back.) I haven’t been using the brush, and I have no idea fine: it’s quite nice. Readers in the UK should certainly check the link. They also carry Cyril R. Salter shaving creams.
The Gillette President with an Astra Superior Platinum blade provided a very nice shave. I polished with a water pass and used the alum bar at the end. After rinsing that, I dried my face and applied a splash of Parfums de Nicolaï New York aftershave.