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.