July 20, 2014

Review: Dinosaurs Without Bones: Dinosaur Lives Revealed by Their Trace Fossils

Dinosaurs Without Bones: Dinosaur Lives Revealed by Their Trace Fossils
Dinosaurs Without Bones: Dinosaur Lives Revealed by Their Trace Fossils by Anthony J. Martin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Two excellent science books in a row. This is a wonderful thing.

I picked this book up at the library mainly because of the magical word in the title: D*I*N*O*S*A*U*R*S. I've always loved them; one of the first toys I ever had was a battery-operated, six-inch-tall, motorized Tyrannosaurus Rex. Press one button on the controller, and the little green guy would walk forward, with enough noise to raise the dead; press the other button, and he would roar. As I remember (this was in the Late Cretaceous era, you know) you couldn't press both buttons at the same time.

It didn't matter. I had absolutely no use for dolls, preferring my various plastic dinosaurs and my noisy, cranky T-Rex.

So this book, needless to say, was right up my alley. I didn't even know what a "trace fossil" was when I started it. Trace fossils, as I was to learn, are everything dinosaurs left behind other than their bones: their fossilized footprints, claw marks, trails, body and/or feather impressions, eggs, nests, burrows, toothmarks, gastroliths (stones swallowed by some dinosaurs to aid in digestion), as well as fossilized feces, urine, and vomit. I didn't know such a specialized field as ichnology, or the study of these trace fossils, existed.

Needless to say, such a deeply technical book can get high, dry, boring, and incomprehensible very quickly, if the author permits it. That is the genius of Anthony J. Martin: he never lets his material get out of hand. His love for what he does shines through from the first page to the last, and because he wants to share that love with his readers, he communicates complex scientific concepts in an clear, understandable style. More than that, he writes this book with a sense of humor, so much so that I giggled and cackled throughout.

I mean, when's the last time a science book made you laugh out loud?

As a matter of fact, reading this book made me realize what was wrong with my previous review, Ellen Willis' Out of the Vinyl Deeps. I started Dinosaurs Without Bones while I was still struggling to finish Willis' way-too-serious tome, and the contrast was immediate and obvious. There are some subjects, be they dinosaurs or Bob Dylan, that need to be approached with humor, or you'll just bog your readers down.

Willis falls into this trap. Martin doesn't.

I haven't included quotes in my reviews before, but I'm going to for this one, just so you get the flavor of the writing. This comes from my favorite chapter, chapter 8: "The Remains of the Day: Dinosaur Vomit, Stomach Contents, Feces, and Other Gut Feelings."

Assume that every dinosaur pooped. If so, not all of these end products of dinosaur digestion were preserved in the fossil record. But you will have a load taken off your mind when you know that those found thus far have not gone to waste, nor remained the butt of jokes.

The author is punnier in some places than in others, but the whole book is like this. Who knew piss, puke and shit, along with all the other trace fossils, could be so entertaining?

Anyone who loves dinosaurs will love this book.

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July 9, 2014

Review: Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music

Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music
Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music by Ellen Willis

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I had a helluva time getting through this book. If it had been fiction, it would have been bashed against the wall before page 80. But because it's an essay collection, subdivided into sections entitled "The World-Class Critic," "The Adoring Fan," "The Sixties Child," "The Feminist," "The Navigator," and "The Sociologist," with the essays grouped around those themes, I thought, well, I'll just go on. Surely it'll get better.

Sadly, it really didn't.

Ellen Willis was a pioneering female rock journalist, with the bulk of her musical work taking place in the sixties and early seventies. Her favorite subjects were Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Lou Reed, and Janis Joplin. Speaking strictly from a technical point of view, she was a good writer--her essays are intelligent, thoughtful, and on point. Unfortunately, the very first essay in the book, "Before the Flood," (1967) about Bob Dylan, magnifies her biggest flaw: her complete lack of humor regarding her subjects. (To be fair, I think it should be MANDATORY that anyone who writes about Dylan approach him with a healthy sense of snark--otherwise, the writer inevitably starts to sound as ponderous and pretentious as his/her subject.) Her droning voice was well nigh impossible to wade through, and what little affection I have for Bob Dylan had all but vanished by the end of the piece.

This way-too-serious tone marred the rest of the book. To be sure, a music writer doesn't need to have the frantic, attention-deficit-disorder style of, say, a Lester Bangs, but a few cracks about the absurdity of stardom and/or the music business in general would have been appreciated. In fact, the best section of the book, by far, is when she brought feminism into the mix. (But there still had to be a downer essay about Bob Dylan in this section to nearly ruin it, dagnabbit.) She talks about bands/artists such as the Joy of Cooking and Ms. Clawdy that I've never heard of, and describes them so eloquently it makes me want to search for their music. Her voice is more focused and eloquent in "The Feminist," and a couple of observations even approach the wispy edges of humor!

I believe there are a few more collections of Ellen Willis's essays out there, and one focused on feminism might be worth picking up. I'm sure classic rock aficionados will appreciate this one. Unfortunately, for me it didn't cut it.

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June 30, 2014

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Uganda and Pepe Julian Onziema Pt. 1...

This is an excellent, excellent rant from John Oliver. He hasn't been on the air very long, and he's already better than Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. He'd be worth getting HBO for, all by himself. (Well, and that little show called Game of Thrones.)

June 22, 2014

Review: Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction

Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction
Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction by Annalee Newitz

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is one of the coolest science books I have ever read.

It's partly because the author readily admits she's an End of the World geek, like me. (She even mentions that great, cheesy Roddy Piper movie, Hell Comes to Frogtown! I didn't know anyone else knew it existed.) I love that stuff--it's one reason I've been getting more into YA lately, as there seems to be an almost unlimited supply of post-apocalyptic/dystopian young adult books. (That's not to say all of them are good, mind you, and in my reviews I've dinged quite a few that aren't.) In this book, Ms. Newitz gets to write at length about the five (and possibly six--current theory is that the sixth mass extinction is human-caused and ongoing) greatest End of the World stories ever told--the actual mass extinctions that have impacted our planet Earth.

These are fascinating tales indeed. In the first section, she devotes one entire chapter to the Great Dying, the worst of the five mass extinctions; about 250 million years ago, 95 percent of species were wiped out. Possible causes for the extinctions range from megavolcanism to gamma ray bursts to invasive species to meteor strikes (such as the K-T extinction, 65 million years ago, that wiped out the dinosaurs). Part II discusses how humans were able to survive, despite a pernicious African genetic bottleneck, plagues such as the Black Death, and famines. In the third section, the "Stories of Survival" chapter discusses science fiction writer Octavia E. Butler (!) at some length. The fourth section, "Death-Proof City," is a virtual treasure trove of ideas, including underground cities, disaster engineering, eco-architecture, and cities as genetically engineered biological entities. The final section, "The Million-Year View," includes, among other things, how to geo-engineer to combat climate change, and a greatly detailed and fascinating discussion of how to build a space elevator rising 35,000 kilometers above the Earth's surface. (A simple black-and-white drawing of this concept is enough to make an acrophobic run screaming.) Newitz ends the book with a simple statement of faith: "Things are going to get weird. There may be horrific disasters, and many lives will be lost. But don't worry. As long as we keep exploring, humanity is going to survive."

Even though she tackles complex subjects, the writing is quite accessible to a layperson, and the first section about mass extinctions reads like a novel. Newitz has clearly done her research; her notes are extensive and detailed, and the scientists she interviewed for the various chapters are well-drawn and fascinating people.

It's too bad I have to return this book to the library. I think I could read it many times over and gain fresh insights with each reading. I'm definitely buying it.

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"Better a red face than a black heart"

"I am a red man. If the Great Spirit had desired me to be a white man he would have made me so in the first place."  ~Sitting Bull

Now that the Washington football team's trademark has been stripped from them, it's time, and past time, for owner Dan Snyder to see the light and change his team's name. He's already into the point of diminishing returns, as the Native Americans (not all, but many) who think the team's name is derogatory are not going to go away. His "traditional" defense is also a cop-out; to put it bluntly, it used to be "traditional" for white people to call Asian-Americans "slants," "japs" and "gooks," Latinos "spics" and "wetbacks," and African-Americans "n-----s."

Those days are gone, and good riddance.

With that in mind, here are a few suggestions for new names. I came up with these off-the-cuff/with a few Duck Duck Go searches in a manner of minutes; don't tell me Mr. Snyder couldn't do the same.

Washington Potato Skins (I originally said "Potato Heads," until I realized that might be interfering with the Mr. Potato Head trademark. Although I imagine they would be open to the possibility of licensing both the name and the likeness to go on the team's helmet, for a hefty enough fee.)

Washington Dragonets (From Thomas Hardy's book "Red Dragon.")

Washington Redwings

Washington Hawks (as in "Red Tailed," to keep with the color scheme)

Washington Crimson Devils

Washington Carmines; Washington Rubicunds (synonyms for "red" from the color wheel)

Washington Clarets, Merlots, Zinfandels and/or Cabernets (as in red wine; this would give the team a somewhat more sophisticated image)

Washington Flamethrowers

Washington Red Hots (This might require licensing from the candy company.)

Washington Tangerines (This is actually a little more orange-ish, according to the color wheel, but "tangerines" is such a lovely word.)

Washington Red Delicious (This might be too complicated, as this seems to have been trademarked by various entities. I'm not a copyright lawyer, however.)

Washington Communists (If you really want to go "traditional.")

Washington Ladybugs (The black-dotted red of the ladybug would also make excellent team colors.)

Washington Redbacks (A poisonous spider native to Australia.)

Washington Poison Darts (A poisonous red frog.)

Washington Ibis (A beautiful red bird.)

Finally, these last two names would obviously run afoul of network television censors, but they would require virtually no creativity, as Snyder would be naming the team after himself.

Washington Dickheads
Washington Dipshits

June 13, 2014

Review: Ancillary Justice

Ancillary Justice
Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is apparently very popular at my library. I had to get on a hold list to check it out, and there are people waiting to read it after me.

The reason for this could be the little award it just won (among several others, and I will bet money it will pick up a Hugo as well) called the Nebula Award for Best Novel.

Seriously, it's fantastic.

And I say this as a reader who had a bit of a hard time getting into it. In the beginning, the writing style comes off as almost flat...it's very detached, pragmatic, and unemotional throughout. (Except for when Breq saves Seivarden's ass. S/he [I use this deliberately; if you've read the book, you know why] doesn't know why s/he did this, and I really don't either. It seems like s/he would be much better off without his whining presence. Hopefully this will be addressed in the sequel.) It's only later on that you realize this narrative voice is perfect for the story...because the protagonist is not human at all, but an artificial intelligence downloaded into an organic body, the last surviving segment of the troop carrier Justice of Toren.

This is definitely not a quick beach read. It's a book that demands your full attention, to be read slowly and savored. There are nuances here that I think it would take more than one reading to puzzle out. (Which is why I'm late returning it...I'll have to pay a fine, but oh well) The roots of this story run deep, literally three thousand years, in the case of the antagonist, the dictator Anaander Mianaai. (Leckie definitely likes her doubled a's.) But the antagonist, like the protagonist, is not necessarily a bad person (and both are/were not really people at all, but intelligences split between multiple bodies), but a complex character with motivations who is the hero of his/her own story, whether or not the reader agrees with the methods and outcomes.

There's so much here I literally can't list it. There's two storylines running at ones, present day and twenty years ago, with overtones centuries old. There's a unique concept of artificial intelligence (and a really creepy scene where a human kept in stasis in Justice of Toren's hold is defrosted to be pressed into service as an "ancillary," to be taken over--in reality, killed, not bodily but the personality completely erased--by the starship's AI. This person is never identified as anything but "it," which it would be, to a galaxy-spanning starship). There are scenes written from the simultaneous viewpoints of the starship and several ancillaries, with an omniscient POV like nothing I've ever read before, as the narrative bounces from head to head...and it totally works, because this is the main character, and this is how the story has to be written. This is why I say you have to read it slowly, because otherwise you won't understand anything of what's going on. There's the empire of the Radch and the purity its Emperor, Anaander Mianaai, is trying to maintain, by any means necessary, at least until his/her three-thousand-year-old identity suffers a disassociative split. (I believe that's the term now, Disassociative Identity Disorder, for what used to be called split personality.) And last but not least, there's the fact that in the Radchaai language, the pronouns are genderflipped and everyone is referred to as "she," whether or not the person is biologically male.

At the end of the book, I realized I didn't know if Breq's ancillary body was male or female, and it didn't matter in the least.

This book deserves all the accolades it's been getting. I've never read anything quite like it. The only thing I don't care for is the cover; it's dull as dishwater, and doesn't reflect anything of what's inside. Ignore this and buy this book anyway.

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June 8, 2014

Review: Godzilla

Yes, I know I'm behind the curve on this one, but I prefer to go to movies after the initial rush has died down. In this case, a 10 AM Sunday showing was perfect: not only did I save two dollars off the regular ticket price, there were very few people in the theater.

Unfortunately, I came out of the movie feeling deeply unsatisfied. Sure, it was a big, badass, blow-em-up, crash-and-bang, gorgeous-CGI monster movie, but it didn't feel finished somehow. I thought about it for a while, and finally realized what the problem was: the screenwriter had made the mistake of focusing his film on the most uninteresting character in the cast.

(And yeah, I know the movie's title is "Godzilla," and I realize he comes on the scene, destroys San Francisco, kills two giant preying-mantises-cum-bats before they spawn several hundred more of their kind, thus saving humanity's collective ass, and leaves. [Accompanied by a terribly schmaltzy tagline on CNN: "King of the Monsters--Savior of Our City"--or rather, what's left of it, which surely translates into a Pyrric victory. Barf.] But he's not really a character, just a terribly convenient Force of Nature and Serve-the-Plot-Device. [With one fleeting exception, which I'll get to later.] There was no discussion of his possible intelligence, other than Ken Watanabe mouthing a few platitudes about "the balance of nature," and there should have been. Either (a) he's not intelligent, in which case he would have gone on hibernating merrily away at the bottom of the ocean, since the Bat-Mantises weren't directly threatening him; or (b) he was intelligent, in which case I suspect he would have been righteously pissed off at human beings for all the attempts to kill him with so-called "A-bomb tests" in the Fifties, and he would've stayed out of the fight altogether. Either way, we wouldn't have had a movie, so let's just jump over that gigantic plot hole and go on.)

Bryan Cranston's Joe Brody starts off the show, as administrator of a nuclear plant in Janjira, Japan, who is concerned about a recent series of seismic events close to the plant; events he believes is becoming a pattern. He is threatening to shut the plant down, and sends his wife and her team into the reactor to check out what's happening. Of course, all hell breaks loose, the reactor is breached and superheated radioactive steam comes billowing up the hallways, killing Brody's wife and her team. This is a rather well-done death scene (although I hated for nearly the only woman in the cast to be refrigerated so soon), and looking back on it now, that was the writer's first mistake. Because that scene clearly should have set the tone for the rest of the movie, and Bryan Cranston's character should have been the protagonist.

Instead, he dies about a third of the way through, fifteen years later when he sneaks back into the Janjira Containment Zone, accompanied by his now-grown son, to find out just what the hell happened. What happened was Papa Bat-Mantis, newly hatched in the Philippines after a cave collapse, was drawn to Brody's plant by its radiation, which the Mutos (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms) feed upon. The creature destroyed the plant and burrowed in for a fifteen-year hibernation, absorbing all the radiation that otherwise would have lethally contaminated the area, and emerges sexually mature and looking for his mate (who is still in a dormant state until he starts calling her, having been taken to the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Depository in Nevada--which is actually another gigantic plot hole you shouldn't think about too long; WHY THE HELL WOULD THEY HAVE DONE THAT??), setting the film in motion.

From then on, unfortunately, the focus is on Brody's grown son Ford, and a duller "hero" I have rarely encountered. I can't even remember the actor's name; he made no impression on me whatsoever, and he simply isn't capable of carrying the film. As I said, Bryan Cranston should have been the protagonist, and Ken Watanabe, as a scientist for Monarch, who has been hunting  for/studying the Mutos since World War II, should have been the antagonist. Because as far as I can see, it was his mistakes (and his unscientific awe and near-worship of the creatures--when he looks at Godzilla swimming, he appears to be staring into the face of his god) that led to both of the Bat-Mantises breaking out. I mean, why the devil didn't he destroy the male while it was in hibernation and in a relatively defenseless state? There was an attempt at an explanation given, but in light of later events, it proved to be catastrophically inadequate.

So: We should have had Bryan Cranston and Ken Watanabe, two wonderful actors, going toe-to-toe, instead of  mostly (especially so in Cranston's case) wasting them. At this point (and this is a good thing) Godzilla takes over the film, and the last half of the movie is a lay-waste-to-cities (Honolulu, Las Vegas and San Francisco respectively) fight. Godzilla finally manages to destroy both Mutos (and I don't know why he didn't whip out his deadly "atomic breath" earlier, but again, we wouldn't have had the entire third act if he had) and little Ford-the-Dullard does manage to do one thing: he destroys the female Muto's eggs. (But then, instead of disarming the warhead which was supposed to destroy both Mutos--and Godzilla as well--with its blast, he fails at the only reason for his character to be there, and passes out. Kee-ripes. The bomb is taken out to sea and detonates there, so all is good, but I swear, this script needed at least one more rewrite: PLEASE get rid of this guy, and keep Bryan Cranston. Which would also have necessitated eliminating Ford's wife and son, but they were only there for cynical audience manipulation anyway.)

There's one exception to my creeping dissatisfaction with the film. It's a brief scene when Godzilla is staggering after killing Papa Bat-Mantis, and he comes eyeball to eyeball with Ford-the-Dullard. Godzilla obviously doesn't speak in his movie, but they did some really good CGI in this scene: he looks unutterably weary, and you can tell what he's thinking: "Why am I getting beat up protecting these little human shits?" This goes back to my original question, which should have been explored. (Another wasted opportunity for a great scene between Cranston and Watanabe.) It makes about as much sense as me getting in a knock-down drag-out fight over an anthill.

Well, anyway. I'm glad I saw it. Kinda sorta. But it could have, and should have, been so much more.

June 7, 2014

"Equality is the soul of liberty"

"We will never have true civilization until we have learned to recognize the rights of others."  ~Will Rogers

Here is the complete text of the decision from Judge Barbara Crabb striking down Wisconsin's constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. At 88 pages, it's pretty long, but it's worth reading in full; it seems to me to be quite even-handed and well thought out (with extra bonuses of lots of quotes from Justice Scalia, whose karma is deliciously biting his ass).

Some excerpts:

Under these circumstances, personal beliefs, anxiety about change and discomfort
about an unfamiliar way of life must give way to a respect for the constitutional rights of
individuals...In doing this, courts do not “endorse” marriage between same-sex couples, but merely affirm that those couples have rights to liberty and equality under the Constitution, just as heterosexual couples do.

Second, even if I assume that the state would be free to abolish the institution of
marriage if it wished, the fact is that Wisconsin obviously has not abolished marriage; rather,
it has limited the class of people who are entitled to marry. The question in this case is not
whether the state is required to issue marriage licences as a general matter, but whether it
may discriminate against same-sex couples in doing so. Even in cases in which an individual
does not have a substantive right to a particular benefit or privilege, once the state extends
that benefit to some of its citizens, it is not free to deny the benefit to other citizens for any
or no reason on the ground that a “positive right” is at issue. 

Although Wisconsin’s same-sex marriage ban was approved by a majority of voters,
is part of the state constitution and deals with a matter that is a traditional concern of the
states, none of these factors can immunize a law from scrutiny under the United States
Constitution. The Supreme Court has not hesitated to invalidate any of those types of laws
if it concludes that the law is unconstitutional.

To the extent that defendants mean to argue that a special rule should apply to the
issue of same-sex marriage, they cite no authority for that view. There is no asterisk next to
the Fourteen Amendment that excludes gay persons from its protections.  (BOOM)

Defendants’ observation that the Supreme Court has not yet recognized a “right to
same-sex marriage” is both obvious and unhelpful. When the Court struck down Virginia’s
anti-miscegenation law in Loving, it had never before discussed a “right to interracial
marriage.” If the Court had decided previously that the Constitution protected marriage
between same-sex couples, this case would not be here. The question is not whether
plaintiffs’ claim is on all fours with a previous case, but whether plaintiffs’ wish to marry
someone of the same sex falls within the right to marry already firmly established in Supreme
Court precedent. For several reasons, I conclude that it does. 

If the scope of the right to marry is broad enough to include even those whose past
conduct suggests an inclination toward violating the law and abdicating responsibility, then
it is difficult to see why it should not be broad enough to encompass same-sex couples as
well. Defendants do not suggest that the decision about whom to marry is any less
important or personal for gay persons than it is for heterosexuals.

Past practices cannot control the scope of a constitutional right. If the scope of the
right is so narrow that it extends only to what is so well-established that it has never been
challenged, then the right serves to protect only conduct that needs no protection...Thus, the scope of the right must be framed in neutral terms to prevent arbitrary exclusions of entire classes of people. In this way, courts remain true to their “obligation . . . to define the liberty of all [rather than] mandate [their] own moral code."

Although amici try to rely on the inherent “nature” of marriage as a way to
distinguish anti-miscegenation laws from Wisconsin’s marriage amendment, the argument
simply reveals another similarity between the objections to interracial marriage and amici’s
objections to same-sex marriage. In the past, many believed that racial mixing was just as
unnatural and antithetical to marriage as amici believe homosexuality is today.

As an initial matter, defendants and amici have overstated their argument.
Throughout history, the most “traditional” form of marriage has not been between one man
and one woman, but between one man and multiple women, which presumably is not a
tradition that defendants and amici would like to continue. Stephanie Coontz, Marriage,
a History 10 (2005) (“Polygyny, whereby a man can have multiple wives, is the marriage
form found in more places and at more times than any other.”).

Defendants identify no other situation in which a right could be denied to a class of citizens
simply because of a perception by the state that the class “doesn’t need” the right as much
as another class. Treating such a fundamental right as just another government benefit that
can be offered or withheld at the whim of the state is an indicator either that defendants fail
to appreciate the implications for equal citizenship that the right to marry has or that they
do not see same-sex couples as equal citizens.

The lack of any attempts by the state to dissuade infertile persons from marriage is proof that marriage is about many things, including love, companionship, sexual intimacy, commitment,
responsibility, stability and procreation and that Wisconsin respects the decisions of its
heterosexual citizens to determine for themselves how to define their marriage. If Wisconsin
gives opposite-sex couples that autonomy, it must do the same for same-sex couples.

In any event, neither defendants nor amici cite any evidence or even develop a cogent
argument to support their belief that allowing same-sex couples to marry somehow will lead
to the de-valuing of children in marriage or have some other adverse effect on the marriages
of heterosexual couples. Thus, it is doubtful whether defendants’ belief even has a rational

Second, there are obvious differences between the justifications for the ban on same-
sex marriage and other types of marriage restrictions.  For example, polygamy and incest
raise concerns about abuse, exploitation and threats to the social safety net.  A more
fundamental point is that Wisconsin’s ban on same-sex marriage is different from other
marriage restrictions because it completely excludes gay persons from participating in the
institution of marriage in any meaningful sense.  In other words, gay persons simply are
asking for the right to marry someone.  With the obvious exception of minors, no other class
is being denied this right.  As in Romer, plaintiffs are not asking for “special rights”; they are
asking only for the rights that every adult already has.

Third, opponents of marriage between same-sex couples have been raising concerns
about the slippery slope for many years, but these concerns have not proved well-founded.
Again, there is no evidence from Europe that lifting the restriction on same-sex marriage has
had an effect on other marriage restrictions related to age, consanguinity or number of
partners.  Eskridge and Spedale, supra, at 40.  Similarly, in Vermont and Massachusetts, the
first states to give legal recognition to same-sex couples, there has been no movement toward
polygamy or incest.  Further, I am aware of no court that even has questioned the validity
of those restrictions. 

Sorry for the length...the more you get into this decision, the more you find to quote.

I believe the tide has turned. It's pretty much a foregone conclusion how this is going to go when the issue makes its way back to the Supreme Court. Needless to say, in all the states that have allowed same-sex marriage, the sky has not fallen.

It's a wonderful thing.