2010 - %3, February

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for February 2, 2010

Tue Feb. 2, 2010 8:00 AM EST

100127-N-2855B-037

US soldiers who are wounded, ill, or injured attend a Warrior Transition Brigade event at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC, on January 27. Photo via the US Army by US Navy Petty Officer First Class Molly A. Burgess.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Are Female Teachers Squashing Little Girls' Interest in Math?

| Mon Feb. 1, 2010 10:43 PM EST

Arithmetic-phobic female teachers may be schooling your young daughter to think she is not as good at math as her male classmates, according to research published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week. The study examines levels of math anxiety in a very small sample size of fewer than 20 first-and second-grade teachers in a large, urban, Midwestern school district. It found that in classes taught by math-anxious female instructors—teachers who had mastered mathematical concepts in class but still performed poorly on exams—girls had lower levels of math achievement than boys.

The University of Chicago researchers who authored the study hypothesize that girls are more affected by math-anxious female teachers than boys because girls see their teachers' behaviors as typical of the female gender and model them accordingly. So does a study of so few teachers say anything about trends among the country's hundreds of thousands of public school educators? Maybe not. After all, the 'math is hard, lets go shopping' idea has been floating around for a long time—teachers are not the only ones signaling to little girls that they are not supposed to be good at math. Barbie does, er, did.

But if a simialr study with a larger, statistically significant sample size turned up the same results, it might warrant some concern. The math requirements to pursue a degree in elementary education stop at a candidate's mastery of algebra and geometry, so the field can attract teaching hopefuls who think they can't cut it in the higher level math courses required to teach middle or high school. And according to this study, that math apathy is trickling down to students who are so young, they can't yet spell algebra. At a time when the country needs a boost in its STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) job force, it can't afford for even a small number of little girls to leave their math ambitions in primary school.

Bonobos Share Better

| Mon Feb. 1, 2010 8:51 PM EST

Sharing comes naturally to bonobos, the smallest of the chimpanzeelike apes. Their larger cousins, common chimpanzees, share naturally only in childhood. Human children have to be taught how to share. But bonobos apparently never learn how not to share.

In the paper in Current Biology, researchers from Harvard and Duke universities designed experiments to measure food-sharing and social inhibition among chimps and bonobos in African sanctuaries:

  • Paired animals were put into an enclosure with food. Younger chimps behaved similarly to young bonobos in their willingness to share food. But as chimps matured, they became markedly less willing to share.
  • Bonobos, given an opportunity to hog a food pile all to themselves, while a fellow bonobo watched from behind a gate, universally chose to open the gate and let their friend share—even if he or she wasn't begging or asking.

Co-author Brian Hare told Duke University:

"A chimp would never voluntarily do that. Chimps will do things to help one another, but the one thing they will not do is share food."

Bonobos continue to share like juveniles even in adulthood. This may be thanks to their habitat south of the Congo River, where an abundance of food allows them to maintain a cooperative gentleness throughout life. Unlike common chimps, bonobos don't have to compete with gorillas for food. Nor do they compete with each other.

In effect, the researchers say, bonobos never have to grow up. Peter Pan. Pan paniscus.

Bonobos also enjoy life in a matriarchy. Chimps weather life in a patriarchy. Lucky bonobos.
 

Paul Ryan's Smoke and Mirrors

| Mon Feb. 1, 2010 7:56 PM EST

Rep. Paul Ryan recently introduced the Roadmap for America’s Future Act of 2010, a piece of legislation that claims to eliminate the long-term budget deficit. The CBO agrees, and Ezra Klein says it's "an object lesson in why so few politicians are willing to answer the question 'but how will you save all that money?'"

Well, sort of. I give Ryan credit for being more forthcoming than most supposed deficit hawks, but the truth is that for the most part he doesn't explain how he's going to save all that money. It's true that he's got a plan for Social Security private accounts, a plan for Medicare vouchers, and a plan for tax credits to replace the current tax deductibility of health insurance. It's good conservative boilerplate.

But it turns out that's all it is. Those things themselves don't really save any money. The real action comes from a collection of arbitrary spending limits, but these limits don't offer any clues about how we're going to meet them. There's a freeze on nonsecurity discretionary spending from 2010-2019 — but saying you're going to freeze spending is easy. The hard part is figuring out what to cut. There's also a limit to the growth of Medicare payments — but saying you're going to limit growth is easy. The hard part is figuring out how to limit growth and deciding what you're going to cut to meet your caps. Medicaid is treated the same way: Ryan's plan simply sets a limit on growth rates without saying how those limits will be met.

In fairness, there are a few specifics. The eligibility age for Medicare would rise gradually to about age 70. Social Security payments would be reduced. All the money in the stimulus bill that hasn't been spent yet would be eliminated.

But those are nits. For the vast bulk of the savings, Ryan simply declares that they'll happen. His bill would cap growth rates, and that's that. Whatever happens, happens — and he carefully avoids actually saying what would happen. That's not serious, and it doesn't deserve praise.

Pollster on Filibuster: "A Lot of Ground to Cover"

| Mon Feb. 1, 2010 7:40 PM EST

On Friday I highlighted the public's chronic ambivalence about the issue of the filibuster. After 12 months of filibuster-powered obstruction, only a quarter of Americans know much about it, which is roughly how things played out in 2005 as well, when Republicans unsuccessfully pursued the "nuclear option" to end the procedure. Today I talked to Pew's Andrew Kohut to get his explanation of why the filibuster might not be the winning argument some Democrats seem to think it is.

 

The takeaway is this: While progressives bind the filibuster to specific issues like health care (for the GOP in 2005 it was abortion), the public by and large approaches it from a much different perspective. "I think what happens in those situations is that the public seems to think that they're somehow losing the check of one party against the other," Kohut told me. "I don't want to exaggerate this point but people take comfort in the fact that Republicans are looking over the shoulder of the Democrats and vice versa. Changing the rules to deal with [gridlock] I think raises some anxiety." (No kidding: here's what we wrote back in 2005).

 

As for turning the issue into a populist barnburner, Kohut's prognosis was less than optimistic: "I don't have a crystal ball on this one," he said. "But when you have only 26 percent of the public that knows how many votes it takes to break a filibuster, you've got a lot of ground to cover."

 

Follow Tim Murphy on Twitter.

 

Smuggling Cory Doctorow Into a Dictatorship

| Mon Feb. 1, 2010 7:23 PM EST

Today Digital Democracy previewed this hot little mockup of a cover for its upcoming Burmese translations of Cory Doctorow's Little Brother, whose premise of citizens forced to fight the man with the Internets happens to describe the nonfiction drama of Burma's activists. The "Little Brother vs. Big Brother" initiative was itself an experiment in techno-democracy, paid for by crowdsourcing on Kickstarter, backed by the author and original publisher, and further supported by a generous designer. The goal? "[T]o inspire people from the country with Cory Doctorow's compelling tale of a teen and his friends who take on Big Brother, using technology to challenge an authoritarian regime." The strategy? Clandestinely spreading free electronic editions around a country where even watching the most recent installment of Rambo is an imprisonable offense. Cofounder Mark Belinksy says they hope to have completed translations circulating in six months. Is there anything motivated geeks can't do?

 

(h/t @IsaacFitzgerald)

Advertise on MotherJones.com

CBS Says Yes to Life, No to Gay Dating

| Mon Feb. 1, 2010 6:27 PM EST
A bit of drama over at CBS, where the television network, after approving an anti-abortion Super Bowl ad sponsored by Focus on the Family, found itself in the awkward position of having to review an ad from ManCrunch, a gay online dating site. CBS ultimately rejected the ManCrunch ad, and a number of bloggers on the left are calling it everything from blatant discrimination to reasonably nixing a lame ad that was never worth fighting for anyway. (See AtlanticWire for a good round-up.)
 
For the record, the Focus on the Family ad shows that not having an abortion significantly increases your chances of having a famous football player for a son, and the ManCrunch ad shows that even if you’re two straight-ish-looking commercial actors, an accidental brushing of hands in the chip bowl raises your chances of experiencing a spontaneous man-on-man make out session. 

 

 
Meanwhile, Liliana Segura at AlterNet wonders whether NFL quarterback Tim Tebow’s birth story, which provides the juicy material for the Focus on the Family ad, is even true.
 
Interesting to note that Focus on the Family recently hired 27-year-old Esther Fleece to bring Twitter-savvy millenials—who, according to Fleece, find some of their older predecessors’ anti-gay rhetoric alienating—into the conservative Christian fold. To read more about Fleece, be sure to check out Stephanie Mencimer’s excellent article in the most recent issue of Mother Jones. Also see Tim Murphy's post on the ongoing rift at Focus on the Family.
 

 

The Unmanned Future of US War

| Mon Feb. 1, 2010 5:15 PM EST

From land to sea, there's no mistaking that the US is heading toward a future of unmanned wars. That conclusion is one of the main take-aways from the Defense Department's 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, released today, a detailed report that updates Congress on the Pentagon's strategies and planning. The 2010 QDR further cements the Defense Department's commitment to bolstering its fleet of unmanned combat ships, like the Reaper and Predator drones whose lethal attack missions over Pakistan and Afghanistan are one of the worst-kept secrets in all of government.

According to the QDR, everything about the military's drone armada is ramping up. The DoD plans to increase the number of Predator and Reaper drone orbits (sustained airborne missions for more than 24 hours) from 35 today to 50 in the 2011 fiscal year to 65 in 2015, a significant uptick that comes on top of the Air Force's projections that all its drones will fly 250,000 total hours this year, up from a measly 71 hours for the Reaper drone in 2004. The QDR says the Army will also increase the number of drones in every class of its fleet in the next few years, especially its souped-up Extended Range Multi-Purpose Predator.

Not to be outdone, the Navy is developing its own aerial drone, the N-UCAS built by Northrop Grumman, which could deploy from aircraft carriers around the world and expand the military's aerial reach. And as the QDR reports, the unmanned future isn't confined to the skies, either: Underway right now is a far-ranging underwater drone with strike capabilities that the Navy is developing. The QDR also vaguely hints at improvements in drone intelligence gathering capabilities, like the current "Gorgon Stare" video technology boasting 10 different cameras operating at once and a more advanced camera technology with 30 feeds at once that could come online this fall.

Interestingly, the QDR's outlook on drone warfare isn't limited to the US. DoD officials anticipate—as they logically should—that unmanned drones are quickly becoming the weapon of choice around the world, briefly noting that "non-state actors such as Hezbollah have acquired" drones and pose a threat going forward. The only question now, based on this latest QDR and other news reports, is whether future warzones will actually feature any living, breathing people at all—apart, that is, from the unfortunate bystanders living in countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan whose skies are filled with the Predators and Reapers and other drones of the future.

Rick Perry Considers Own Mortality

| Mon Feb. 1, 2010 4:29 PM EST

At Friday's final Texas GOP Gubernatorial primary debate, incumbent Gov. Rick Perry, whose name has been floated as a possible presidential candidate in 2012, was asked the standard question of whether he'd promise to finish out his term, if re-re-elected in November. Normally, this is where the candidate issues a bland non-denial, something like "Right now I'm just focusing on fighting for the good people of this state." Perry's answer? He can't make any guarantees because he could just die, and then what, right?


"That's kind of up to the good Lord from that standpoint. I have no idea what my future holds for me four years down the road. I have a lot of faith in the Lord I hope he's gonna let me live for four years and if he does I'm gonna serve out my governorship."


What does Rick Perry know that we don't?


Follow Tim Murphy on Twitter

Energy Scientists: Nuclear Loan Increase is Bad Policy

| Mon Feb. 1, 2010 4:25 PM EST

When President Obama voiced strong support for nuclear energy at his State of the Union address last week, both sides of the aisle jumped to their feet in applause. Nuclear subsidies have become a political necessity in Congress, despite the fact that nuclear energy is dirty, dangerous, and not really renewable. And due in large part to the nuclear industry's lobbying strength in Washington, democrats have drawn criticism for favoring cleaner options like wind power in lieu of nuclear. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, for one, criticized the president's initial plan as "a national windmill policy instead of a national energy policy, which is the military equivalent of going to war in sailboats."

Nuclear enthusiasts are no doubt pleased by the administration's announcement today that it intends to triple the amount of nuclear loan guarantees for new nuclear plants to $54 billion. "It's important to have a higher bar than what we have been working with, just $18.5 billion," John Keeley, a spokesperson for the Nuclear Energy Institute, told me. "Put it in the context of where we need to go as a culture. You can't get there with the volume the government has underwritten so far."

USA Today's Green House blog reports today that a cohort of environmental groups, energy scientists, and small-government conservatives have mobilized to oppose nuke pushers like Alexander and Keeley. One letter to Obama, penned by taxpayer advocacy and nuclear non-proliferation groups, warns that "With hundreds of billions in bailouts already on the shoulders of U.S. taxpayers, the country cannot afford to move forward with a program that could easily become the black hole for hundreds of billions more."