Photo for tonight

Columbia University tree lighting ceremony. New York, NY. Thursday, November 29, 2012, 6:36 PM EST.


After the end of the world


Artist Lori Nix creates painstakingly detailed miniatures of bleak, post-apocalyptic landscapes:

“I loved Towering Inferno, and it just happened the other day, in Dubai,” she says, referring to the 34-story tower that went up in flames on November 18th. The diorama, Control Room, which was inspired by Chernobyl, brings to mind Hurricane Sandy and New York’s flooded subways. While the collection started a few years ago, Nix has added new scenes along the way (the subway and anatomy classroom dioramas above were completed last month).

“Our life as we know it is spinning wildly out of control and we may not be able to finance our way back to a healthy planet,” says Nix. This is The City’s premise, though Nix doesn’t specify exactly how human beings have screwed up the planet–and, ultimately, become extinct. “It could be climate change, nuclear annihilation, a virus. I leave it up to the reader to decide. But if you were the last person left alive, these are the scenes you might find.”

Finally, a reason to visit the museum

New York’s Museum of Modern Art is now featuring video games:

In a blog post by curator Paola Antonelli, it was announced that the museum has acquired and will exhibit games including Pac-ManTetrisOut of This WorldMystSimCityVib-RibbonThe SimsKatamari DamacyEVE OnlineDwarf FortressPortalflOw,Passage and Canabalt.

“Are video games art?” asks Antonelli. “They sure are, but they are also design, and a design approach is what we chose for this new foray into this universe. The games are selected as outstanding examples of interaction design — a field that MoMA has already explored and collected extensively, and one of the most important and oft-discussed expressions of contemporary design creativity.”

The games will be exhibited as part of the museum’s Architecture and Design collection. It plans to add 26 additional games, to bring the total to around 40 in the near future, including PongSnakeSpace InvadersAsteroidsSuper Mario Bros.The Legend of Zelda and Minecraft.

The games are selected based not only on their visual quality, but the elegance of the code and the design of the player’s behavior. They were looking for games that combined historical and cultural relevance as well as innovative approaches to technology. The curators have consulted scholars, critics and digital conservation experts to understand how to display and conserve these digital, interactive artifacts.

iTunes gets a facelift

Courtesy of

But Slate tech writer Farhad Manjoo is more frustrated with the music software than ever, and he has corralled quite the imaginative narrative style to register his annoyance:

I picture frazzled engineers growing increasingly alarmed as they discover that the iTunes codebase has been overrun by some kind of self-replicating virus that keeps adding random features and redesigns. The coders can’t figure out what’s going on—why iTunes, alone among Apple products, keeps growing more ungainly. At the head of the team is a grizzled old engineer who’s been at Apple forever. He’s surly and crude, always making vulgar jokes about iPads. But the company can’t afford to get rid of him—he’s the only one who understands how to operate the furnaces in the iTunes boiler room.

Then one morning the crew hears a strange clanging from iTunes’ starboard side. Scouts report that an ancient piston—something added for compatibility with the U2 iPod and then refashioned dozens of times—has been damaged while craftsmen removed the last remnants of a feature named Ping whose purpose has been lost to history. The old engineer dons his grease-covered overalls and heads down to check it out. Many anxious minutes pass. Then the crew is shaken by a huge blast. A minute later, they hear a lone, muffled wail. They send a medic, but it’s too late. The engineer has been battered by shrapnel from the iOS app management system, which is always on the fritz. His last words haunt the team forever: She can’t take much more of this. Too. Many. Features.

Anyway, so iTunes 11 finally hit the Internet today.

Death to the fact check

Not because it’s a bad idea, but precisely the opposite: the ultimate goal of fact-checking should be for the practice to appear as part of regular news reporting, instead of as a separate, specialized feature that garners significantly less attention. The Columbia Journalism Review‘s Brendan Nyhan sums it up best:

Dedicated factcheckers like PolitiFact and play a critical role, but we will know that factchecking has succeeded in changing American political journalism when it disappears as a specialized function. The process of factchecking needs to be integrated into political coverage, not ghettoized in sidebars and online features. If more reporters adopt best practices for covering misinformation (including exercising discretion in not fact-checking some statements), politicians and other public figures could face even more effective scrutiny in 2013 and beyond.

The problems with Skyfall

Eric Alterman was nonplussed about the latest James Bond film, Skyfall:

Things that are too stupid about “Skyfall” to accept, though it does not make it impossible to enjoy the movie:

1) It is based on a total absurdity: No intelligence would ever (or even could) compile such a list.

2) There is never any explanation given for the existence of said list.

3) When Bond “dies” in the beginning and then ends up on that beach, well, what? How did that happen? Again, no explanation.

I don’t mind absurdities within the movies. I do mind a) the plot being based on one and b) them not bothering to try to explain them.

Things that are silly but okay, because this is Bond: Everybody in the movie has hundreds of chances to kill everybody else. They prefer to describe how they are about to kill them instead. That’s standard fare in all bad guy movies.

Almost There: Supreme Court to Decide Whether to Hear DOMA, Prop 8 Cases

Karen Golinski, a federal employee in California, and her wife Amy Cunninghis.  Golinski is one of the plaintiffs challenging the Defense of Marriage Act. (Photograph by Jim Wilson/The New York Times.)

Tomorrow, the Supreme Court is expected to decide whether to hear a same-sex marriage case this term. While the Court has an array of petitions to choose from–five Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) cases, the California Proposition 8 challenge, and an Arizona state benefits case are all on deck–it looks likely that at least one DOMA case will get the nod if it does tackle the issue. (And not just because Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg predicted it would earlier this year.) The Proposition 8 case, Hollingsworth v. Perry, may be flashier, but it concerns a constitutional amendment that affects only same-sex marriages in California. On the other hand, DOMA creates a conflict between the federal government and any state that recognizes same-sex marriage, a group that has now grown to nine (plus the District of Columbia) and counting. As the number of legally married gay couples continues to climb, it is in the interests of the Supreme Court to decide DOMA’s constitutionality sooner rather than later.

Should the Court hear a DOMA challenge, what will be at stake for both sides? The five DOMA cases all arise from a dispute between state and federal definitions of marriage, which has been steadily brewing since the 1996 passage of the Defense of Marriage Act. While family law has traditionally been left to the states, Section 3 of DOMA defines “marriage” for federal purposes as a legal union between one woman and one man, and a “spouse” as an opposite-sex husband or wife. In the places that have recognized marriages between two women or two men, however, same-sex spouses find themselves caught in a strange limbo where they are legally married in the eyes of the state but not in the eyes of the federal government. They receive all the state benefits and privileges that marriage affords, but DOMA prevents them from enjoying the many federal benefits of marriage* that their heterosexual counterparts receive, including Social Security survivors’ benefits, joint income tax filings, shorter green card waiting times for non-citizen spouses, freedom from estate taxes on a deceased spouse’s assets, and family coverage on federal employer health insurance plans.

The DOMA challengers from Massachusetts (Gill v. Office of Personnel Management, Massachusetts v. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services), New York (Windsor v. United States), Connecticut (Pedersen v. Office of Personnel Management) and California (Golinski v. Office of Personnel Management) are a sympathetic bunch. They include a federal government employee wishing to enroll her family in her health insurance plan, a senior hit with over $300,000 in federal estate taxes for an inheritance left by her wife, and a veteran denied Family Medical Leave Act time off to take a sick spouse to medical treatments. The challengers argue that the differential treatment between opposite-sex and same-sex married couples violates the Equal Protection Clause, and that the federal government impinges on states’ rights by refusing to recognize same-sex marriage where states have chosen to legalize it. In all five cases, the federal appellate circuit courts agreed with them. On the other hand, the supporters of DOMA maintain that the federal government has a right to its own definition of marriage for the purposes of federal funding and programs, and that DOMA merely reaffirms what the executive and judiciary branches have always believed: namely, that marriage can only be between a “traditional male-female couple.”

Less work for Eric Holder. (Photograph by Brendan Smialowski, AFP/Getty Images)

Adding a wrinkle to this scenario is the fact that the executive branch has actually been doing everything in its power to get the judiciary to step in and resolve the issue in favor of the anti-DOMA side. In February 2011, the Obama administration announced that the Department of Justice would no longer defend DOMA in legal challenges, including the five cases before the Supreme Court now, because it believed Section 3 to be unconstitutional. (The Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group from the House of Representatives now defends DOMA in court.) At the same time, the administration signaled its intention to keep enforcing the law (by continuing to reject federal benefits applications from same-sex married couples) until either Congress repealed the law or the Supreme Court decided its constitutionality. While this may seem counterintuitive, this bifurcated method of enforcing but not defending a federal law ensured that all five cases had a chance to keep moving through the federal appeals system and reach the Supreme Court. Granting the plaintiffs their benefits in the middle of a case would have removed their immediate cause for complaint and mooted their lawsuits before an appellate court could find the underlying law unconstitutional. Keeping the plaintiffs’ injury alive, however, kept the cases in play. Now that they have reached the certiorari stage, the DOJ has explicitly asked the Supreme Court to take at least one case and provide a definitive ruling on the constitutionality of Section 3.

The 2010 Census found that 42,000 same-sex couple households resided in states with same-sex marriage.  That figure doesn’t even include the thousands more in Maine, Maryland and Washington, the three states that legalized same-sex marriage this month. Thanks to the bottom-up, state-by-state legalization approach that marriage equality proponents have been using, nearly one-fifth of the states now allow gay and lesbian couples to marry. The more states that join, the higher the number of couples adversely affected by DOMA will be, and the more challenges we will see in the federal courts. Expect the Supreme Court to accept at least one DOMA petition, and expect the arguments to focus not only on equal protection but also on federalism and states’ rights. I’ll be back next time to talk about the Court’s track record on gay rights and the likely concerns of our resident swing vote, Justice Anthony Kennedy.

* In January 2004, the United States General Accounting Office counted 1,138 provisions in federal statutes in which “marital status is a factor in determining or receiving benefits, rights and privileges.”

Victoria Kwan holds a J.D. from Columbia Law School in New York and has just completed a clerkship with a judge in Anchorage, Alaska. She tweets as @nerdmeetsboy and will continue to post here on legal issues.


Kathleen Massara reminisces about growing up in Nebraska’s biggest city (although, as in New York, the capital lies strangely elsewhere). As an Omaha native who moved to the East Coast at the age of nine but then spent four additional years in the suburbs of Chicago later on, I can confirm the validity of her observations about the Void:

Which brings up the point: to grow up in Omaha is an exercise in confronting the void. The Void should be capitalized, though, because it is a big deal. Here, the buildings are stout, the streets are wide, and there are twice as many bars as there probably should be for a mid-sized city. In the winter, when the surrounding farmland lies fallow, the only thing in your rearview mirror will be sky—ominous, gray-streaked winter sky with giant clouds hanging low. It reminds you of your insignificance, of how fucked you would be if your car broke down.

It is a city bifurcated by I-80, the interstate running from San Francisco to Teaneck, New Jersey, which means that you can coast along at 60-plus miles per hour to get from downtown to more residential areas in a matter of minutes. It also makes it easy to enter and exit the city without stopping. Omaha is a rest stop, a short break on your way to more exciting places. We all know this, and we resent you for it…

I left Omaha because the Void frightened me. The landscape was too large for my reptilian brain to handle, and I wanted to see a world outside of insurance agencies and tight military haircuts. It turned out, though, that I had stupidly underestimated the intelligence of Omaha’s good-natured citizens, and every time I come home I find my curiosity growing. When we’re not catering to the needs of those aging Americans who still order things over the phone, we’re figuring out what to do about Iran, or how to keep China in line. The people planning our geopolitical strategy and acting in the interests of national defense are living in a place you’ve probably never taken seriously. Welcome to The Good Life.