OK, these are just genius: the laws of the Old Testament as retold and illustrated using LEGOs. From the kosher laws to slavery and the rules about marrying your sister-in-law, the LEGO people are there to help you understand your Levitican duties. The series is part of the larger “Brick Testament”, and there are even printed books and custom LEGO characters available. Awesome. (via The Morning News)

Tomorrow is the annual Blessing of the Bikes, held for the eighth time at New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine. (As you’d expect, there’s a neat picture or two of the event from last year!) It makes me miss my old neighborhood in New York City…

If you want to be a wee bit depressed, head over to the Anderson Cooper 360° weblog at CNN.com, specifically to the comments on Dan Simon’s post about the connections eleven women have made to each other after each underwent artificial insemination with the same donor’s sperm. In that comment thread, you’ll find such gems of wisdom as “these procedures rationalize polygamy,” “it totally ruins the very definition of a family,” “I guess these women have have little common sense or spiritual background,” “God designed marrige [sic] and families for a specific purpose,” and “how despising that humans have come to this” — all from a bunch of readers who can’t even lay claim to knowing how each of the eleven women came to her decision to undergo artificial insemination, but are damned sure that the decision was wrong. A bunch of the comments are enough to highlight what is, in my mind, a pretty big division in this country, a division between those who are willing to accept ways of living life that differ from their own, and those who feel not just that their beliefs are unquestionably correct, but feel the need to impose those beliefs on the rest of their communities.

I’m heartened to see that yesterday’s elections swept eight anti-evolution candidates off of the Dover Area School Board, the board in Dover, Pennsylvania that mandated the inclusion of “intelligent design” (read: creationism) in the biology curriculum. That school board is made up of nine members, and eight of the seats were up for election yesterday; all eight were contested by candidates on each side of the evolution debate, with the eight evolution advocates (and election victors) banded together into a group named Dover C.A.R.E.S.. (Interestingly, Dover is in York County, a county that threw 64% of its votes to George Bush in the 2004 election.) As a scientist, it makes me happy to see that the Dover voters seem to want to keep religion and politics out of the classroom; as a citizen, it makes me even happier to see that the backlash I hoped for against religious conservatism in government might be taking place, and taking place at the more local, grassroots level.

I love it — in response to the challenge offered up by Kent Hovind, wherein he’ll give $250,000 to anyone who can empirically prove the theory of evolution, Xeni Jardin and Jason Kottke have offered up a combined half million to anyone who can prove that Jesus is not the son of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Seems reasonable.

(Oh, and you’ll note that I’ve left off the “Dr.” title for Hovind, as his claim to the title is a Ph.D. in “science education” from a known diploma mill, and apparently, a godawful thesis to go along with it.)

Reading the emails I’ve received about my Boy Scouts Jamboree post two days ago, I think I’m going to need to start including a section in my posts entitled “Arguments you might notice I’m not making”. For example, that Boy Scouts bit would contain the following list of things that I’m specifically not arguing:

  • The Boy Scouts of America don’t build character or impress values on individual scouts.
  • The BSA exists as a recruiting arm of the U.S. military.
  • There should be no way that a cent of federal money should end up in the hands of organizations which encompass any element of religion.
  • The BSA shouldn’t be allowed to exclude athiests and agnostics from membership.

If you’re looking to drop me a line refuting any of the above arguments, you can feel free to, but don’t expect me to put up a huge fight!

Reading about the fatal tragedy at the Boy Scout Jamboree, two things struck me. First of all, the death of four people in front of their entire troop really is a horrible tragedy, and given the way that it appears the four died, I can’t imagine it’ll be all that easy for some of the kids to recover from that. In an entirely different vein, though, I also realized that the Jamboree is taking place on federal land — the Army’s Fort A.P. Hill — which means that our government still feels it appropriate to give access, funding, and support to an organization that specifically excludes gay, athiest, and agnostic people. I honestly don’t understand how this can still be occurring.

Doing a little reading this evening about the state of our government’s Boy Scout support, I discovered a few interesting things. First, I learned that a judge in the Northern Illinois U.S. District Court issued a ruling earlier this month which bars government support of future Boy Scouts Jamborees. The decision is available (in PDF form) from the ACLU’s website; it contains a thorough description of how the Boy Scouts meet the standard of a religious organization, and as such, how explicit government support thus violates the Constitution’s prohibition of a link between government and religion. Seems logical to me, and would seem to put this whole issue to bed. Oh, if it were only that easy.

The other thing I learned tonight demonstrates why it’s not that easy; it revolves around an argument made by the government in the Illinois court case that has set the stage for at least one future attempt to maintain government support of the Boy Scouts. Essentially, the U.S. claimed that the plaintiffs in the lawsuit — people who, as federal taxpayers, brought suit under their right to exercise oversight over the way their tax money was being spent — lack standing to claim harm because the money wasn’t spent pursuant to the clause of the Constitution dealing with taxation and government spending (Article I, section 8, clause 1). Instead, the Department of Defense claimed that their support of the Boy Scout Jamboree derived from the specific powers vested in Congress over military affairs (Article I, section 8, clauses 12-14), and as such, taxpayers wouldn’t have the same right to question the way the money is spent. The District Court judge found ample evidence that the money was spent at least in part under Congress’ taxation and spending authority, and dismissed the argument. The reason this is interesting to me is that it appears our Senate took note of this, and passed an amendment to the Defense Department spending bill yesterday, an amendment which explicitly allows the Secretary of Defense to support the Boy Scout Jamboree on the basis of it being required “for defending our national security and preparing for combat.” (To see the amendment, you can follow this link to the Congressional Record documents, click the link to page S8686, and then scroll down two or three screens to “SA 1342”, the relevant text.)

Now you see why I find this so fascinating? It’s clear that the Constitution forbids our government from supporting organizations that mandate religious faith (like the Boy Scouts), and it’s also pretty clear that there’s no way the Senate would get the country to amend that ban out of the Constitution. So in order to get around it, the Senate is trying to pass laws that aim to prevent ordinary taxpayers from having sufficient standing to bring suit — “what we do might be unconstitutional, but you don’t have the right to file a court case to demonstrate that, so we can do it anyway.” And as the final straw, they did all of it by declaring that the Boy Scout Jamboree is vital for national security.

Ignoring fundamental prohibitions built into our Constitution is pretty bad… but getting caught doing so, and then responding by passing laws which aim to restrict oversight of the unconstitutional actions, is worse.

Update: Hey, lookie there — via Rafe, I appear to have ignited a MetaFilter shitstorm. Fun fun.

Since I’ve been gone for so long (almost a week!), a few quickies to get ‘em out of the ever-accumulating to-do bookmark list:

  • My parents gave Shannon and me our wedding present early — a Canon EOS 350D (also known as the Digital Rebel XT, reviewed here at Rob Galbraith’s awesome Digital Photography Review) — and this thing is just amazing. I’ve played quite a bit with digital SLRs, and this is the best of the prosumer ones I’ve used; the images (even the compressed JPEGs) are bright and crisp, it autofocuses fast even in low light, the shooting modes run the gamut from letting the camera handle everything to manually controlling every last detail, and between the in-camera memory buffer and the CompactFlash write speed, I haven’t yet found myself in a position where the camera prevents me from shooting in order to catch up. Shannon and I had a blast with it during the Fourth of July weekend, and I’ve started tagging all the Flickr photos I’ve shot using the new toy. Fun fun!
  • I’m with Jason Kottke on this one — Microsoft’s page explaining leetspeak to parents has to be a joke, or at least the result of a bet made by some Microsoft employee about whether or not he could get the article online without anyone noticing.
  • I totally dig these “Charles Darwin has a posse” stickers — they’re cool as hell, and come in a handy PDF version as well!
  • After more than a month of inundation with news about another missing American white girl, I’m pretty much on board with the sentiment behind this op-ed over at Kuro5hin. Arianna Huffington also puts it pretty well, and provides some pretty depressing observations on the media coverage of the Aruban Abomination.

I’ve generally been of the mindset that it’s hard to hold compulsory service in the Nazi Youth or the German Army against Pope Benedict XVI, but I’d say actively petitioning for covering up the growing number of priest sex abuse allegations is a whole different ball of wax for the supreme leader of the Roman Catholic faith.

It makes me a little sad that today, I received what could rationally be called the Redneck Primer as an email forward from my very own grandmother. It’s a tract that claims to be an editorial “written by an American citizen, published in a Tampa newspaper,” and goes on to spout beliefs that immigrants should pipe down, speak English, and stop adhering to any cultural norms but those cultivated right here in America. (I guess that means that immigrants should all eat a lot, give up exercise for television, and rip their way through marriages and divorces like it’s going out of style? It’s a little hard to parse this.)

The vagueness of the statement of origin on the essay made me curious, though, so I put in a little bit of search engine time. Doing a Google search for some key words and phrases brought up 38 unique (and 842 total) hits; out of these, most were authored on dates evenly scattered between January of 2003 and the present. I then found one reference which was posted on September 11, 2002 as an email forward, and it stands as the only reference from 2002 (on the Web or Usenet). This made me wonder why the piece seemed to go on a hiatus for the remainder of 2002, and finding that hard to believe, I changed my search string around a little bit. This led to finding another version of the screed with earlier heritage (July 24, 2002); this version didn’t list Portuguese in the group of languages which somehow offended the author, and since it was included as a direct quote in my initial Google string, my first pass had been slanted towards its derivitave. Eventually, I was able to find the original article, not a Tampa editorial but rather a veteran’s advocacy group magazine piece written by an Air Force veteran, originally published sometime around February 13, 2002, and since removed from the magazine’s website. Sometime between then and the end of 2002, the author’s piece was modified in a few ways — the Tampa newspaper bit was prepended, a swipe was taken at Muslim women, and the aforementioned addition of Portuguese was included — and it became the spam chain email that it is today. (I wonder what the Portuguese did to the person who initiated that change?) And of course, after all that, I finally found the Snopes piece that could have saved me all the work.

In the end, I find it interesting how things like this spread and mutate as they wend their way through the ether. That being said, this specific case is much more sad than it is interesting to me. Trawling through the various places that the essay has landed on the internet was frightening; most are shining examples of the complete and total intolerance that has become a defining feature of certain groups in America, and whenever readers were given the chance to respond to the posting, the typical response was something along the lines of “PREACH IT, MAN! GET OUT OF MY COUNTRY, TOWELHEAD!” Knowing that my own grandmother read the essay and felt a resonance with her own beliefs gave me pause, but in the end, I feel OK knowing that she comes from an entirely different generation that began life with a very different worldview, and that most signs seem to indicate that each generation of younger Americans is more tolerant than the last. And it definitely helps to remember that in less than a year, she’s going to be sitting in the front row of seats watching Shannon and I get married underneath a chuppah and standing amongst a wedding party that includes four people who are Jewish, two people who are Indian, one person who’s half-Chinese, and a gay man!