2011 - %3, May

Jon Huntsman: George W. Bush's Choice for 2012?

| Mon May 23, 2011 6:21 AM EDT

For the GOP's 2012 presidential contenders, there's one family whose approval the candidates will be fighting for more than any other: the Bush family. An endorsement by George H.W. Bush or Jeb or George W. will go a long way toward winning over Republican voters—and perhaps more importantly, deep-pocketed Republican donors—in the fiercely competitive primary season and ultimately locking up the GOP nomination.

It's too early now to say who's winning over the Bushes. George H.W. has agreed to meet with several presidential hopefuls, including Tim Pawlenty, who dropped in at Bush the senior's office in Houston. But Time's Mark Halperin sees Jon Huntsman, Obama's former ambassador to China, as a likely candidate to win over "BushWorld." That observation looks especially true in light of Indiana governor and Bush favorite Mitch Daniels' exit from the race:

The members of BushWorld (the family's political and policy advisers, its bundlers—and 41, 43, and would-be 45 themselves) still don't have a candidates in the Republicans' 2012 presidential race. These are not a group of disinterested observers. Some are with Mitt Romney. Many are pressing Mitch Daniels to run. But most of them are searching for an answer to the question "Who can be nominated and beat Barack Obama?"

If Daniels doesn't run (and even if he does...), Huntsman might end up being the consensus BushWorld candidate. Within the Republican Party, that remains the largest source of nomination throw-weight out there. Huntsman is playing an aggressive inside game, mirroring his long weekend in New England with many public events. Over the next few weeks, he will go from coast-to-coast doing more prospecting for campaign cash. And BushWorld is watching closely. The semiotics and symbolism of giving Huntsman a Kennebunkport audience are not lost on the very sophisticated Bushes.

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for May 23, 2011

Mon May 23, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

U.S. Army Capt. Edwin Churchill calls for indirect fire following an enemy attack on his company’s position near the Pakistan border in Afghanistan, May 18, 2011. DOD photo by Karen Parrish

Will Kids Get Lyme Disease If Schools Don't Spray?

| Mon May 23, 2011 5:30 AM EDT

Hip, hip, hooray! As of last week, student athletes in New York will no longer have to worry about getting a mouthful of toxic chemicals when they dive for the ball: The state became the second to ban pesticides on school playing fields and playgrounds, following Connecticut, which has had a similar law since 2007. A ban has also been proposed in New Jersey.

The move would seem like a no-brainer, considering the ever-growing pile of evidence that pesticides are harmful to kids. Childhood exposure to the chemicals has been linked to a long list of conditions, including asthma, ADHD, and even cancer. But not everyone thinks school spray bans are a good idea. Some have argued that pesticides are essential tools for preventing tick-borne illnesses like Lyme disease, allergies to bee stings, and other creepy-crawly threats. Here's a spokeswoman for the pesticide industry group Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment (RISE) in the Hartford Advocate on Connecticut's school pesticide ban:

"It's quite an over-reach," says RISE spokeswoman Karen Reardon. She says the failure to use pesticides on school fields in Connecticut, for example, could lead to "the spread of Lyme disease" by allowing deer ticks to multiply. There can be instances when "pest pressure needs to be knocked down immediately," Reardon says, adding the best way to do that is with the "judicious use" of pesticides.

Environmental health advocates dismiss the tick argument as a pesticide-industry scare tactic. "Whether it's public health crises or those deadly weeds, there's always some emergency that industry touts as the reason to spray pesticides on school grounds," says Paul Towers, state director of the California watchdog group Pesticide Watch. Still, the idea of playing fast and loose with Lyme disease at schools is a bit unsettling. So is there any merit to RISE's claims?

Not really, says Mana Mann, a pediatrician with the Mt. Sinai's Children's Environmental Health Center. "There is no evidence supporting the use of pesticides in the school environment to affect the incidence of Lyme disease." Furthermore, most laws that ban or limit chemical use at schools make exceptions for public health issues. Both New York's and Connecticut's bans fall into this category. "We're not asking anyone to stop controlling ticks," says Paul Tukey, the founder of the environmental health advocacy group Safe Lawns. "We're trying to get people to stop using pesticides to kill dandelions."

Not as easy as it sounds, considering that the $36 billion pesticide industry has devoted significant resources to convincing the public that its wares are keeping them safe. The RISE website Debug the Myths is entirely devoted to defending the reputation of much-maligned pesticides. "We know you can handle the truth," reads one section of the site. "Pesticides help keep our families healthy and our homes happy." This summer, Debug the Myths will go on tour, offering kid-oriented activities like a "What Pest Are You?" quiz. Adults can "write a letter to tell your local government officials about the benefits of the pesticide and fertilizer products you use at home and about those used in your community."

All the PR and lobbying efforts seem to be paying off. In California the Healthy Schools Act of 2011 would have required school districts to adopt stricter rules around pesticide applications. It was weakened in an amendment this month, after lobby groups including RISE and the Western Plant Health Association fought against it. The first version of the bill forbid, for example, the use of known carcinogens and blanket spraying on school grounds; the amended version included neither of these rules. When I spoke to Dominic DiMare, a lobbyist for the Pest Control Operators of California, he said he believed that industry groups played a major role in the amendment.

Earlier this year in Connecticut, environmental groups fought for a bill that would give individual cities and towns more autonomy in limiting pesticide use in lawns and public spaces. But in March, State Rep. Richard Roy (D-Milford) announced that the state senate's Environment Committee had decided not to introduce any new pesticide bills in 2011. Roy told a CT News Junkie that he "made the agreement with the lead pesticide lobbyist to take a year off on pesticides because passage of the law banning pesticides on school grounds was so contentious."

Politically expedient though such deals may be, they're not the best move for kids' health. "Children are especially vulnerable to pesticides because they are still growing and developing," says Mann, the Mt. Sinai pediatrician. "Because research studies have shown a wide range of negative health effects for children from their exposure to pesticides, pesticide use [at schools] should be avoided as much as possible."

Laws about pesticide use at schools vary widely. Many states use some form of integrated pest management, which incorporates non-chemical control methods as well as traditional pesticides, though there's not a lot of consistency in exactly how this is interpreted. If you're curious about policies in your state, check out Beyond Pesticides' guide (PDF).

A Marketing Geek Look at the GOP Primary

| Sun May 22, 2011 11:31 PM EDT

Michael Grunwald, after observing that the Republican Party is increasingly untethered from reality, notes that there are now two kinds of GOP presidential candidates left, reality-based and wingnuts, and two possible outcomes for them, either beating Obama or losing to him. He then analyzes each possibility, which I've taken the liberty of converting into a sort of bastardized BCG matrix:

If Huntsman or Romney wins the nomination, and then Obama wins the election, the GOP will quickly shift from “loosely tethered to reality” to “out of its freaking mind.” Remember, after its crushing defeat in 2008, the party faithful concluded that John McCain lost the election because he wasn’t conservative enough—and that George W. Bush lost his popularity because of his big spending....A Huntsman or Romney defeat would just prove to the party that electoral salvation lies in ideological purity and rigid obstructionism, the kind of conclusion that already appeals to Tea Party activists who consider Obama some kind of tyrannical socialist usurper.

....On the other hand, if Huntsman or Romney wins the nomination and then beats Obama, the Republican Party might rediscover big-tent reality-based policies. (It’s also possible that Huntsman or especially Romney would cut reality loose.) Similarly, if a Tea Party true believer like Sarah Palin or even former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum wins the nomination, and then Obama wins the election, the Republican Party might have a Goldwater moment where it starts to reconsider its small-tent extremism. (It’s also possible—maybe likely—that it would devise some excuse why Palin or Santorum had sold out conservatism.) And if a reality-denying extremist actually beats Obama, well, then we’re in trouble, because reality-denial isn’t going to fix the double-dip recession we must have had to make a reality-denier electable.

I endorse this pretty much completely. It's not a sure thing, by any means, but these four scenarios do seem the most likely to me. If you rank the probability of each one happening and then multiply by the badness of the outcome, you can also make an informed decision about whether you hope Republicans nominate someone at least modestly reality-based.

I continue to hope that they nominate Michele Bachmann. From this, can you deduce the probabilities and badnesses I assign to each square?

Connie Willis, the Nebulas, and Me

| Sun May 22, 2011 1:14 PM EDT

I see that the Nebula Awards are out, and Connie Willis won in the novel category for her two-part story1 Blackout/All Clear. I think this might officially mark my final estrangement from the science fiction community. I'm a big fan of Willis, and a few months ago I bought both books and dived into them pretty eagerly. And they were terrible. Over the course of a thousand pages, Willis seemed to have almost no interest in building any kind of engaging narrative at all; the characters behaved throughout like scared high school students (in the end, the exception turns out to be the only character who is a high school student); arbitrary coincidences and artificial secrecy were jammed in repeatedly to keep the plot from falling apart completely; and the resolution of the main time travel story was almost nonexistent. I repeatedly felt like throwing the book at the wall in frustration and giving up entirely on it.

In other words, it was a mess. Willis's real goal seemed less to tell a story than to exhibit her encyclopedic knowledge of British life during the Blitz. This would have been fine if her storytelling had genuinely conveyed a sense of what it was like to live during that period, but it never really did. So even that fell through.

There was, however, one rewarding aspect of making it to the end. My most common complaint with modern novels is that they're usually extremely well crafted — often elegantly so — but the authors simply can't create an ending to match the buildup. I don't know why. But Blackout/All Clear was exactly the opposite, and I can't remember the last time that happened to me. I was continuously annoyed with the novel from about page 300 on, but that annoyance stopped during the final hundred pages or so. The ending of Blackout/All Clear was terrific. It was, in the end, a story about the power of family and upbringing, and that story was both affecting and powerful.

Did that make the previous 900 pages worth it? No. But it erased some of the sting.

As for the rest of the Nebula nominees, I haven't read any of them, and four of the authors I've never read anything by. I just hardly read any science fiction these days, and I'm not sure why. I don't think there's anything wrong with sf itself, since lots of people still like the current output, but I'm disappointed almost every time I pick something up. Last year the only sf I read was a couple of books by China Miéville, both highly recommended, but neither one did anything for me. I actively disliked Perdido Street Station and was only mildly interested in The City and the City. I've morphed into an almost pure nonfiction reader these days. I don't like this much, but I'm not sure what to do about it.

1Speaking of this, what do you call a two-part novel? A diptych? A duology? There's no equivalent to trilogy or tetralogy, is there? So what's the accepted term of art?

Publicizing the Rapture

| Sat May 21, 2011 10:38 AM EDT

I haven't paid too much attention to rapture-mania, but I have vaguely wondered why Harold Camping is getting so much attention. Slow news week? Hollywood tie-in? What? Today the LA Times provides the answer:

The former engineer has long predicted the apocalypse, most famously in 1994, but his new date — May 21, 2011 — has received unprecedented publicity. That is thanks to a worldwide $100-million campaign of caravans and billboards, financed by the sale and swap of TV and radio stations....[Camping's longtime producer, Matt Tuter] thinks $100 million is a conservative figure for the money Camping has spent publicizing May 21.

OK then. Now I know. More details here.

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Do Republicans Make Tougher Professors?

| Fri May 20, 2011 7:23 PM EDT

Professor Talia Bar from Cornell University and Asaf Zussman from Hebrew University, looked at 3,300 college classes taught by Republican and Democratic professors and found that Democrats seem to be more egalitarian in grading. Republicans tended to give a lot of very high or very low grades, while Democrats have a more even spread. The study, to be published in Applied Economics, was previewed by Inside Higher Ed. From Higher Ed

Among grades given by Republicans, 6.2 percent were C- or lower, compared to only 4.0 percent of the Democratic grades. But Republicans were also more likely to give out A+ grades (8 percent of their grades, compared to only 3.5 percent from Democrats).

In addition to surveying professors about grade distribution, the study also looked at race. One of the more controversial findings in the study is that while black students overall did worse than their white peers, they were graded more harshly under Republican teachers than Democrats. It's hard to see if that really implies that Republican professors have any more inherent bias than their liberal counterparts, especially since Republicans only made up 10% of the teachers studied. In addition, it looks like the study only surveyed one elite university from 2000 to 2004, so there's no way to know if the results were specific to that school or region, or if they could be applied more widely. Another thing I wonder: would these partisan biases regarding race disappear at a school that had more black professors and/or students? The study only surveyed 11 black professors, and none of them were Republicans: so even though it looked like black professors graded similarly to whites, there weren't enough of them to include it in the study's results.

The Best American High Schools

| Fri May 20, 2011 7:00 PM EDT

Principal Eric Guthertz at a recent lunch celebration at Mission High. Photo: Winni WintermeyerPrincipal Eric Guthertz at a recent Mission High outdoor festival. Photo: Winni WintermeyerMission High School was honored among the top 7 percent of all US high schools on Washington Post's annual rankings list, published today. Only five schools in San Francisco  made this national list of 1,900 schools, and among the five schools, Mission High educates the highest number (by far) of Latino, African American, low-income, and English-learning students. The Post's veteran education journalist and columnist, Jay Mathews, described the newspaper's methodology for their rankings this way:

"We take the total number of Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and Advanced International Certificate of Education tests given at a school each year and divide by the number of seniors who graduated in May or June. ... But this year only 7 percent of the approximately 27,000 U.S. public high schools managed to reach that standard and be placed on our list."

Why is the Post using this formula? Mathews explains:

"My method differs from how high schools are usually rated. Some lists use average SAT or ACT scores, state test scores or the percentage of graduates who go to four-year colleges. Those results are often so influenced by family income that you could get similar rankings by averaging the square footage of the students' homes. Many principals and teachers have told me they prefer a measure such as mine that puts weight on efforts of school staffs to prepare students for college. They say that shows the quality of the school rather than the economic status of the parents and gives schools full of impoverished students a rare opportunity to shine."

Yesterday I wrote about why students and teachers at Mission High feel that the state and federal "scales" for measuring the quality of schools are broken. According to current state and federal measures, Mission High ranks at the bottom five percent of all schools in the nation. "We send more African-American students to college than most schools in the district. Our student and parent satisfaction surveys are very high. Why isn't that considered?" Principal Guthertz wondered out loud. Looks like the Washington Post agrees. Maybe federal and state lawmakers will too, as they attempt to improve the current scales of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Which Politicians are Waiting for the Rapture?

| Fri May 20, 2011 6:25 PM EDT

In just a few short hours, you should know for sure whether or not you've ascended into Heaven, or been left behind (San Francisco, that means you!) to fend for yourselves as the armies of darkness descend upon the Earth in advance of the Tribulation. Politics can seem downright trivial as you nail down the last-minute details—purchasing an insurance policy for your not-so-rapture-ready pomeranian, for instance.

But for a large percentage of the American population, the Rapture's no laughing matter. According to the Pew Research Center for People and the Press, 41 percent of American believe Jesus will return by 2050. The belief that the Rapture is not only coming, but coming soon has a very real, if subtle impact on the American political scene—through foreign policy, economics, and social issues like gay marriage. Is your favorite politician bracing for Armageddon? Here's a very incomplete guide:

Sarah Palin: The former Alaska governor has been bullish in her support for Israel—she kept an Israeli flag in her Juneau office, and as a vice presidential candidate said that Americans should never-second guess that nation's policies. In 2009, she told Barbara Walters that "more and more Jewish people will be flocking to Israel in the days and weeks and months ahead." Those ideas didn't come from an international relations textbook; as a Liberty University researcher told the Atlantic's Jeffery Goldberg, it seemed to mirror her own eschatological views:

"I've read that Palin has been part of an apparently unique movement I've heard of -- that her pastor, when she was in the Assembly of God, believed based on some personal revelation he claims to have gotten from God, that the Jews would move to Alaska during the Tribulation. But nevertheless, my understanding from what I've seen is that she holds fairly typical Protestant Zionist beliefs, and one of those beliefs is the regathering of the Jews in Israel."

Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.): If Bartlett is left behind, he'll at least be well prepared. Earlier this year, the Maryland congressman and Seventh Day Adventist starred in the survivalist documentary, Urban Danger, in which he teaches viewers how to build a root cellar and can vegetables. Although the documentary never explicitly suggests what kind of catastrophe might require an underground shelter and stockpiles of food, interviewees suggest that it could be Biblical in nature. As the narrator puts it, "A storm is coming, relentless in its fury." Writing for the Seventh-Day Adventist magazine Spectrum, Alexander Carpenter called Bartlett's views, "faith-based apocalypticism" that are common among "fringe movements in the denomination."

Dick Armey: In 2006, the former Republican House Majority Leader, and founder of the powerful astroturf group FreedomWorks (which stirred up outrage over health care reform), told the BBC the Rapture was imminent: "We talk about the End Times, the day of Tribulation. Yes there seems to be, if you believe in Bible prophecy, there seems to be a great deal of the circumstances that was prophesised present at this time, and a lot of people believe that this is the time for that prophecy. They also believe that a free and a, what shall I say, well, Israel will be a consequence after those days of Tribulation, but that the whole world goes through a difficult time during those days of Tribulation."

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.): She's warned against the implementation of "One World" currency, advocated for a more pious military, and spread fears about the true motives of the smooth-talking leader who considers himself a citizen of the world—all of which feature prominently in Tim LaHaye's Left Behind series (although LaHaye has said that Obama is not the Anti-christ). So perhaps it's no surprise that Bachmann credits her start in conservative politics with a meeting with LaHaye's wife, Beverly. Bachmann has championed apocalyptic causes in the most literal sense, warning that if the United States fails to properly support Israel, a "curse" will be placed on the land. She has also been a regular guest on Jan Markell's "pro-Israel, prophecy-oriented" Olive Tree Ministries radio program.

Mike Huckabee: The former Arkansas governor and Southern Baptist preacher hasn't talked much about the Rapture specifically; that's what supporters are for. LaHaye was an advisor to his 2008 campaign. Also an advisor? Janet Porter, an Evangelical activist who has argued that former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson might be the Anti-christ, and calls for Christians to take over the government and media to prepare the Earth for the second-coming. Huckabee has also praised the Rev. John Hagee, the influential San Antonio mega-church pastor who mixes End Times eschatology with foreign policy through his organization, Christians United for Israel. (Hagee has called for the United States to "consider" military strikes against Iran).

Del. Mark L. Cole (R-Va.): Inspired by the Book of Revelations, Cole led the fight in the Virginia House of Delegates last February to ban employers or insurance companies from implanting micro-chips in people against their will. As Cole told the Washington Post: "My understanding—I'm not a theologian—but there's a prophecy in the Bible that says you'll have to receive a mark, or you can neither buy nor sell things in end times. Some people think these computer chips might be that mark." We're not theologians either, but this is what's known in the industry as Too Good to Fact-Check (TGTFC). And for the record: planting micro-chips in people's bodies against their will is definitely poor form, if not actually the work of the Devil.

You're Gonna Need a Bigger Boat

| Fri May 20, 2011 6:12 PM EDT

When I heard about the Peter Benchley Ocean Awards, I was at first a little confused. I knew the name from his renown as the writer behind Jaws, which of course became a film that scared the living bejesus out of me as a child. I was not aware, however, that Peter Benchley committed much of his life to environmental activism after the book, specifically to shark conservation.

His fame came largely from his 1972 novel by the same title about a man-eating terror, upon which the infamous film was based. But now, even after his death in 2006, his legacy of calling attention to the misunderstood beasts continues. For the last four years, his wife, Wendy, has dedicated an award in his name that honors work to protect the ocean and its inhabitants in a variety of areas—science, public policy, media. This year's award ceremony is Saturday night here in DC.

I recently spoke to Wendy Benchley, who is also the director of Shark Savers, a non-profit that, as the name implies, is dedicated to saving sharks. I wanted to know more about what inspired the shark love, given that my own thought after watching Jaws wasn't to run out and hug a great white.

"He was just hooked by the power of this beautiful shark," she said, noting that her husband went on to write both fiction and nonfiction about the ocean. "I would certainly say that Jaws is what opened the ocean world to us and allowed us to go and dive, to research, study and educate ourselves about the ocean and do what we could to try to help with the issues."

She continued, "Peter's life mirrors recognition that the ocean is a complicated, vital place, and over last 30 years we've been systematically damaging it."

She notes that while some people may have read Jaws and been terrified (like me), there are also many for whom the book inspired a love of the water. "I would place my best that for every person who was terrified, there were 10, 20, or 100 who were fascinated."