2011 - %3, February

Venn Diagram: Taliban v. Christians v. Lolcats

| Thu Feb. 24, 2011 5:00 PM EST

Recent anti-abortion bills have got me thinking how the Taliban has some things in common with the far-right here in America. (Trolls: No, I am NOT saying they're the same, so don't even start.) I've made this Venn diagram comparing the Taliban to the Christian Far-Right and, for a good measure, threw in some LOLcats. Enjoy.

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All Quiet in Benghazi...for Now

| Thu Feb. 24, 2011 4:54 PM EST

I just spoke to a friend's husband who is in Benghazi. He's Libyan, works there and in Europe, and his family is in this city, the second largest in the Libya. He asks that I don't use his name—because Muammar Qaddafi is not gone yet (and though he'll eventually return to Europe, his relatives won't). He reports:

* Benghazi is quiet and safe. Shops and banks—though not schools—were open today. He had no trouble driving throughout the city. "Everybody's fine," he says. I'ts very safe... Unbelievably. Nobody is afraid of Qaddafi like before."

* The Internet is not functioning in the city. International phone service is sketchy. Many residents are receiving and watching Al Jazeera.

* The city is being governed by an ad hoc assortment of military people, police, past government officials, and groups of citizens.

* There is a major fear shared by the residents of Benghazi: that Qaddafi will launch an air assault on the city. My friend's husband notes that the military guarding the city does not possess anti-aircraft guns. He says that because Qaddafi was distrustful of this region, he did not supply the military based there with large amounts of weaponry. "We cannot fight back against an air attack," he says.

* The residents of Benghazi have been trying to follow what's happening in Tripoli. "I was able to talk to a friend in Tripoli," he notes. "He told me, 'It's hell in Tripoli. There's shooting everywhere. Qaddafi's mafia is shooting people everywhere in the city.'"

He's hopeful that the violence in Libya—a friend of his was shot and killed in Benghazi—will soon be over and Qaddafi gone. "In a couple of days," he says, "everything will be finished."

Science Shots: Science in Politics, Egypt, the Gulf—plus Bats!

| Thu Feb. 24, 2011 4:30 PM EST

This issue of Science Shots comes entirely from today's issue of Science, filled with unusually juicy research and articles, at least to my taste. Here's a sampling.

In Letters, a thoughtful argument from Andrew D. Leavitt, of UCSF's Department of Laboratory Medicine, on why we need scientists to run for political office:

[I]n addition to improved science education, our society needs people trained in the scientific process and scientific thinking to serve in the political arena, not just as advisers, but as the actual policy-makers at the local, state, and federal level. This can only happen if the scientific community supports such career ambitions. As Carl Sagan said, "Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge."



From last weeks' AAAS meeting, Samantha Joye of the U of Georgia reported on BP's not-so-missing methane. Half a million tons of methane and other gases escaped from the Deepwater Horizon. Others have reported it gone. Joye's as-yet unpublished findings indicate the microbes worked hard—but not for long. The microbial breakdown, which had been 60,000 times higher than normal to the southwest of the well, fell to 300 times the background rate 6 weeks after the blowout, despite plenty of dissolved methane in the water:

Joye speculated that the microbes ran out of another nutrient, which would have prevented them from metabolizing more methane. She also reported that her team detected far more methane than expected to the northeast of the well in late summer, after it had been capped. "It looks like there's a significant amount of gas in the ecosystem," and it's spread across a larger area, she said.

 

Photo: US Coast GuardPhoto: US Coast Guard


"Cairo writes, Beirut prints, Baghdad reads," goes an Middle Eastern old saying. So will Egypt's revolution allow for a rebirth of science? asks Andrew Lawler:

As the country's universities prepare to reopen... Egyptian and foreign researchers see an opportunity to elevate science, if decades of neglect and corruption can be overcome... The statistics are daunting. According to the United Nations and the World Bank, Egypt spends less than a quarter of 1% of its gross domestic product on private and public R&D combined. In contrast, its neighbor Israel devotes 5% of its domestic product to R&D, and even Tunisia invests 1%, the highest percentage of any Arab country... Whether European and U.S. governments will assist in modernizing Egypt's antiquated R&D system remains unclear... Some worry that under a new government, religious conservatives could limit science or the public role of women. But many in Egypt dismiss such concerns. [Karimat] El Sayed, one of the most prominent women scientists in the country, says: "People here don't want to be ruled by an Islamist government. And women here in the past 10 to 15 years have taken on many managerial roles." The larger concern, says [Mahmoud] Saleh [a Cairo University chemist], is rooting out members of an old regime who blocked progress.

 

Photo: Jonathan Rashad, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.Photo: Jonathan Rashad, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.


Also from the AAAS meeting (wish I'd been there), Winifred Frick of UCSC reported on her use of increasingly-available radar data to study bat behavior and ecology—specifically, to study Brazilian free-tailed bats common in the south-central US and in Mexico. Elizabeth Pennisi writes:

Frick and her colleagues described a new Web portal, called Surveillance Of Aeroecology using weather Radar (http://soar.ou.edu/), a collaboration between the University of Oklahoma and the [National Severe Storm Laboratory in Norman, Oklahoma]. It makes using those data much easier for biologists. Researchers can look at the big picture or zoom into a particular locale. The data are updated every 5 minutes, and all the information is archived. And in the next few years, the NEXRAD radars will be upgraded with equipment that may allow biologists to tell birds, insects, and bats apart, something they can't really do right now. "It's a tool that can be used by lots of people to ask a variety of different questions," says Frick. "It will really open up the field."

Already the weather radar data have revealed to Frick et al that during a dry year the bats risked emerging from their cave earlier in the evening to hunt, and emerged even earlier if the days were also hot. Whereas in a wet year they started to work later. All of this is an effort to balance the risks (from diurnal predators, like hawks, and daytime dehydration) with the benefits (from optimal insect blooms).

The potential of radar-assisted aeroecology comes not a moment too soon, as North American bats face severe threats from white nose syndrome, the mysterious bat disease driving at least 9 species towards extinction. The Center for Biological Diversity reports the fungal infection has appeared in two new states this month. Current thinking is that the fungus, a North America invasive species, may have been unwittingly imported from Europe on the clothing of a single spelunker.

 

 

Finally, incredible thermal infrared video of more than 500,000 Brazilian free-tailed bats emerging to forage at night from New Mexico's Carlsbad Caverns.

The issue:

  • Science. 25 February 2011 vol 331, issue 6020, pages 975-109.

Beware the "Dirty Handshake"

| Thu Feb. 24, 2011 4:12 PM EST

When she heard I might soon be headed for a conflict zone in Central Africa, MoJo digital media mistress Laura McClure stopped by my desk to offer some advice. She lived in West Africa for years when she was in the Peace Corps and has traveled widely on the continent, and thought I could use some tips on comporting myself. From her email of what not to do so no one "interprets [my] normal American actions as sexual invitations":

  • No clothes above the knee, no tight shirts. Long skirts and sleeved, collared shirts best.
  • Don't be out after the sun goes down.
  • Women may hold your hand, men never should.
  • Never hug or kiss a man there. Shaking hands ok, but you risk the "dirty handshake." Remind me to show you this so you can avoid it. [This turns out to be the basic tickle-the-other-person's-palm-with-one-finger move we Catholic school kids always used to pull on each other during the peace shake during Mass.]
  • Never invite any man into a hotel room, or let him invite you into a hotel room. Never, basically, be alone in a room with a man in any context.
  • Limit drinking to your hotel bar, or in the company of women. Most assaults on foreigners in that area involve alcohol.

It all sounds "totally draconian, I'm sure," McClure said, "but the gender rules are very Victorian there." Well, you have to do whatever it takes to help defend against the sexual threats and assault that so plague lady-reporters. Adopting culture-specific decorum is of course far from a guaranteed safe time, but you cross your fingers that working within those boundaries will help. Some of the suggestions have the added bonus of being better for your health, anyway.

  • Don't smoke, unless you're in your hotel bar or alone in your hotel room. Otherwise they'll think you're a prostitute. Seriously.

Virginia's Abortion Crackdown

| Thu Feb. 24, 2011 3:49 PM EST

The Virginia legislature on Thursday approved a bill that will regulate abortion clinics as hospitals—a move that abortion-rights advocates say make state's rules among the most restrictive in the country and could signficantly limit access to first-trimester procedures.

Currently, clinics that provide first trimester abortions are regulated like other physicians' offices that provide out-patient services, such as vasectomies or breast augmentations. Under this new law, clinics would be subject to the much more stringent rules applied to hospitals.

Via the Washington Post:

The bill's passage came as the Democratic-led state Senate voted 20 to 20 Thursday to approve the measure after a lengthy and emotional debate. The tie was broken by Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R), who cast his vote in favor of the bill. All 18 of the chamber's Republicans backed the bill, as did two conservative Democrats.
Antiabortion activists hailed the vote as the most significant victory they've achieved in Virginia in years. Abortion rights groups said they think the regulations will place an unconstitutional burden on a woman's ability to get an abortion in Virginia, and pledged to sue.

As the reproductive health news site RH Reality Check wrote yesterday, the law would subject clinics to rules like requiring the number of parking spots to equal the number of beds (which doesn't really apply, since first-trimester abortions don't require an overnight stay). And clinics would have to make structural changes like widening their hallways so that two gurneys can pass at the same time—not insignificant burdens for these clinics, as the site reports:

The architectural costs of having to make such changes would dramatically raise the costs for clinics operating out of buildings they own and would likely be impossible for those that rent space. "Even if [those that rent] could afford to do this," said Joseph Richards, NARAL Virginia's Program and Communications Manager, "it essentially shuts them down. Seventeen of the 21 first-trimester abortion providers in Virginia would likely be forced to close due to an inability to comply with medically-unnecessary, cost-prohibitive cosmetic regulations."

Anti-abortion activists and legislators have been trying to pass a bill like this for decades, but succeeded this week by slipping it into legislation dealing with hospital policies for controlling infections.

This is the latest in an onslaught of anti-abortion bills in state legislatures around the country offered in the last month, and it's the most restrictive one to pass so far this year. Georgia, Iowa, South Dakota, Nebraska, Ohio, and Texas have also offered bills that would dramatically limit access to abortions.

Is Wisconsin Really About the Kids?

| Thu Feb. 24, 2011 3:24 PM EST

Mike Konczal points to this as the most interesting passage from Wisconson Gov. Scott Walker's telephone conversation with the fake David Koch:

I had all my cabinet over to the residence for dinner. Talked about what we were going to do, how we were going to do it, we had already kind of doped plans up, but it was kind of a last hurrah, before we dropped the bomb and I stood up and I pulled out a, a picture of Ronald Reagan and I said you know this may seem a little melodramatic but ... when he fired the air traffic controllers and, I said, to me that moment was more important than just for labor relations and or even the federal budget, that was the first crack in the Berlin Wall and the fall of Communism because from that point forward the soviets and the communists knew that Ronald Regan wasn’t a pushover....

Mike comments:

When the true believers get together and talk openly, they don’t talk about this being about the budget, or getting innovative school practices in place, or whatever. It’s about showing their enemies that they mean business and aren’t pushovers. He believes that by smashing one you can smash them all. And he believes he is the first domino to move.

Quite so. Which brings to mind the pro-Walker argument currently making the rounds over at Modeled Behavior: namely that, as Karl Smith puts it, "to the extent public sector unions matter at all, it's because they stand in the way of educational reform." Adam Ozimek expands on this a bit:

Do I really have to run down the litany of bad policies unions have fought to keep, and good policies they’ve fought against in education reform? A clear indicator of how bad they’ve been is that the most anyone will say in their defense on education reform is that “well, some unions are embracing reform now in some places!”

I think I would have been more open to this argument a year or two ago, but I'm less sure now. First, because it's obvious that guys like Walker couldn't care less about ed reforms. As Mike says, in private Walker makes it clear that his union busting efforts are mostly designed to show that he's a tough guy, not to hasten ed reforms that will help Wisconsin's kids. 

More importantly, though, I've simply become less convinced about the value of all the ed reforms that periodically capture the hearts of the Beltway chattering classes. I'm generally in favor of things like charter schools and disciplinary reforms that make it slightly easier to fire bad teachers, but even if they're worthwhile on their own merits there's not an awful lot of evidence that these things actually improve the overall quality of the educational system. It's not that there's no evidence to support these kinds of reforms, just that the evidence is thin and contradictory every time I look at it. Test scores haven't dropped over the past 30 years. Other countries largely haven't leapfrogged us during the same period. High-stakes testing doesn't appear to have a big impact. Charter schools aren't unquestionably superior to equivalent public schools. Merit pay might work but it might not. The presence or absence of teachers unions doesn't seem to have much effect on educational outcomes. For more on this, try reading Joanne Barken's contrarian take on the ed reform community in the winter issue of Dissent.

I'm not trying to stake out some kind of maximal position here. There is some evidence in favor of some of these reforms, and I support the idea of experimenting to find out what works and what doesn't. I'd also like to see teachers unions lighten up on some of this stuff, so to some extent I agree with Karl and Adam. Still, the overall evidence that teachers unions are our biggest impediment to a nation of young geniuses is pretty weak. If that's your main reason to oppose public sector unions, I think you probably need a better case.

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Texas Gambles for Textbooks

| Thu Feb. 24, 2011 1:40 PM EST

Will Texas school kids get new texbooks? It could depend on a roll of the dice.

Staring down the barrel of a two-year, $15 billion budget gap, state lawmakers offered up a no frills funding proposal this week. How no frills? Well, it offers no funding for new textbooks—this, in a school system where before 2009 students were using 12 year-old science textbooks. The budget situation has grown so desperate that state Democrats are floating the idea of legalizing casino gambling to address the shortfall.

Funding education has decidedly not been a high priority for Republican Governor Rick Perry, who appears increasingly distracted by the lure of a prominent place on the GOP's national stage. Perry's budget-mantra prescribes deep, potentially crippling cuts in education, health, and social services. What are Perry's priorities? Last month, Tim Murphy broke down some of the three-term Republican's goals for this legislative session: mandatory ultrasounds for abortion seekers, abolishing sanctuary cities, and an amendment calling for the federal government to balance its budget. In other words, nothing that's going to improve IQs of Texas' kids. As Texas Tribune's Ross Ramsey points out, These issues are "conservative candy" that will "get Republican lawmakers accustomed to party-line votes right away. And bringing the list in early [in the legislative session] gives conservative lawmakers a chance to work before opponents can use late-session parliamentary tricks to plug the pipeline."

Meanwhile, analysts say his merciless slash and gouge approach to fixing the budget is unlikely to solve Texas' long-term problems—though it could make Texas school kids dumber. "We believe that a balanced approach that includes both revenue enhancements and expenditure cuts has a higher potential of success in preserving the state’s long-term structural budget balance than a strategy that relies solely on expenditure cutbacks," wrote Standard & Poor's credit analyst Horacio Aldrete-Sanchez last week. The S&P also says that Perry's cuts are particularly high for a state with such a low level of per capita spending.

There's at least one bill floating around Austin to legalize casino gambling. Lawmakers on both sides of the issue acknowledge that gambling could rack up at least $1 billion in revenue annually through gambling taxes, helping chip away at the budget gap. The plan's details haven’t been released yet, but it's possible it could be pushed as a ballot initiative. "The people deserve the right to choose whether they want draconian cuts to children's education, health care for the elderly, and aid to veterans, or they want to move forward with an option to bring back the jobs and money to Texas we are giving away to other states," said Democratic Senator Rodney Ellis, who plans introduce a legalization bill. But with the GOP—which tends to oppose legalization—increasing its majority in both the House and Senate last November, supporters and opponents alike know that legalization is unlikely: gambling legislation requires a two-thirds majority in both chambers. Social conservatives also argue that the state treasury only stands to take in 2 cents per every $1 bet at a slot machine, making gambling's potential for solving the budget crisis a losing bet.

While Ellis may have trouble getting his proposal onto the ballot, a majority of Texans seem to be on board. A recent University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll shows that 56 percent of Texans say they support full casino gambling (currently, it's legal in some limited capacities), suggesting that legalization is politically viable in the state. Historically, though, Perry has opposed any expansion, including legalization. But by backing himself into a corrner with his budget cutting-orthodoxy, he may very well have to consider such a strategy.

Fla. Mayoral Candidate Jokes About Bombing Abortion Clinic

| Thu Feb. 24, 2011 1:30 PM EST

Facebook/ Mike Hogan for Mayor Jacksonville FLFacebook/ Mike Hogan for MayorFebruary's been a busy month in the war on reproductive rights. Last week, MoJo's Kate Sheppard broke the story about an effort in South Dakota to classify the murder of abortion doctors as a "justifiable homicide" (the bill was scrapped); this morning we told you about a similar effort in Nebraska, which the Omaha Police Department says could incite violence; and in Georgia, lawmakers are considering a bill that would conceivably permit the state to execute women who have miscarriages.

The legislators behind these efforts have generally deflected criticism by arguing that their bills are being misinterpreted. But Jacksonville, Florida mayoral candidate Mike Hogan doesn't really have that option. Participating at a candidate forum at a Catholic church on Monday, Hogan emphasized his long-standing opposition to Roe v. Wade, which is to be expected from a conservative Republican. But then he went one step further:

Hogan added that the only thing he wouldn't do was bomb an abortion clinic, then the law-and-order advocate added, with a laugh, "but it may cross my mind."

The Mandarin crowd applauded.

In a follow-up interview with the Florida Times-Union, Hogan emphasized that his comments shouldn't be taken seriously, because he was only pandering. "I mean, I'm not going to be politically correct," he told the paper. "That was a joke. This was an audience for this. This is a Catholic Church. I guarantee you they are 110 percent pro-life." 

Did the Army Use Psy-Ops on Members of Congress?

| Thu Feb. 24, 2011 1:28 PM EST

Michael Hastings, the guy who General Stanley McChrystal talked to a little more freely than he should have last year, has another big story in Rolling Stone today. He reports that the officer in charge of psy-ops in Afghanistan was ordered to use his team to spin visiting American dignitaries instead of Afghan tribal leaders:

The orders came from the command of Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, a three-star general in charge of training Afghan troops — the linchpin of U.S. strategy in the war. Over a four-month period last year, a military cell devoted to what is known as "information operations" at Camp Eggers in Kabul was repeatedly pressured to target visiting senators and other VIPs who met with Caldwell. When the unit resisted the order, arguing that it violated U.S. laws prohibiting the use of propaganda against American citizens, it was subjected to a campaign of retaliation.

"My job in psy-ops is to play with people’s heads, to get the enemy to behave the way we want them to behave," says Lt. Colonel Michael Holmes, the leader of the IO unit, who received an official reprimand after bucking orders. "I’m prohibited from doing that to our own people. When you ask me to try to use these skills on senators and congressman, you’re crossing a line."

....What Caldwell was looking for was more than the usual background briefings on senators. According to Holmes, the general wanted the IO team to provide a "deeper analysis of pressure points we could use to leverage the delegation for more funds." The general’s chief of staff also asked Holmes how Caldwell could secretly manipulate the U.S. lawmakers without their knowledge. "How do we get these guys to give us more people?" he demanded. "What do I have to plant inside their heads?"

According to experts on intelligence policy, asking a psy-ops team to direct its expertise against visiting dignitaries would be like the president asking the CIA to put together background dossiers on congressional opponents. Holmes was even expected to sit in on Caldwell’s meetings with the senators and take notes, without divulging his background. "Putting your propaganda people in a room with senators doesn’t look good," says John Pike, a leading military analyst. "It doesn’t pass the smell test. Any decent propaganda operator would tell you that."

....Under duress, Holmes and his team provided Caldwell with background assessments on the visiting senators, and helped prep the general for his high-profile encounters....In March 2010, [Col. Gregory] Breazile issued a written order that "directly tasked" Holmes to conduct an IO campaign against "all DV visits" — short for "distinguished visitor."...On March 23rd, Holmes emailed the JAG lawyer who handled information operations, saying that the order made him "nervous." The lawyer, Capt. John Scott, agreed with Holmes. "The short answer is that IO doesn’t do that," Scott replied in an email. "[Public affairs] works on the hearts and minds of our own citizens and IO works on the hearts and minds of the citizens of other nations. While the twain do occasionally intersect, such intersections, like violent contact during a soccer game, should be unintentional."

It's worth noting that this story is essentially single-sourced to Holmes, who was later investigated and reprimanded for "going off base in civilian clothes without permission, improperly using his position to start a private business, consuming alcohol, using Facebook too much, and having an 'inappropriate' relationship with one of his subordinates." Holmes says the reprimand was retaliation for refusing to break rules, but there's no independent verification of that. There's always the mirror-image possibility that Caldwell did nothing wrong and Holmes is merely trying to get back at him for the reprimand.

That said, Holmes's story sounds pretty plausible. More to come on this, I'm sure.

Iowa Bills Could Also Allow for "Justifiable Homicide" Defense Against Abortion Docs

| Thu Feb. 24, 2011 1:00 PM EST

The Midwest is seeing a wave of new measures intended to give additional protections to fetuses—including a growing number of bills that could make it legal to kill an abortion doctor in the name of protecting an "unborn child."

A South Dakota bill that could have allowed the "justifiable homicide" defense to be used for individuals who murder abortion providers was shelved last week after public outcry. And as my colleagues Daniel Schulman and Nick Baumann reported Thursday morning, a Nebraska lawmaker introduced a very similar bill there. Now legislators in Iowa are have also introduced a pair of bills that would recognize a fetus as a separate person and would permit "deadly force" in the protection of that fetus, as the Iowa Independent's Lynda Waddington reported Thursday:

Currently, abortion is also settled law in Iowa. But House File 153, sponsored by 28 Republicans, challenges it. Under that bill, the state would be mandated to recognize and protect “life” from the moment of conception until “natural death” with the full force of the law and state and federal constitutions. Essentially, the bill declares that from the moment a male sperm and a female ovum join to create a fertilized egg that a person exists.
House File 7, which has been sponsored by 29 GOP House members, seeks to expand state law regarding use of reasonable force, including deadly force. Current state laws provide that citizens are not required to retreat from their dwelling or place of business if they or a third party are threatened. The proposal would significantly expand this to state that citizens are not required to retreat from “any place at which the person has a right to be present,” and that in such instances, the citizen has the right to use reasonable force, including deadly force, to protect himself or a third party from serious injury or death or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.

The first bill is the sort of "fetal personhood" legislation that anti-abortion groups have tried to pass in order to establish a fetus as deserving of the same rights and protections as a woman. But legal experts in the state say that the two bills together create the kind of situation where an anti-abortion extremist could make the argument in court that killing a doctor is a justifiable act to protect an unborn child:

Todd Miler, a criminal defense attorney in Des Moines, agrees that these two bills, when combined, create a situation that could lead to someone claiming the killing of an abortion provider or a family planning worker was reasonable use of deadly force.
"My first thought when I looked at House File 153 was that it was a first step — something that had been put out there as a first step toward a larger political goal. But, when you place it next to House File 7 the potential ramifications are startling," Miler said.

As we pointed out in our initial piece on the South Dakota bill, this is not an abstract concern; anti-abortion activists who have killed doctors have attempted to use this defense in court. So far they have not been successful, but the proposed bills in the Midwest could open that door in the future.