2010 - %3, August

Does Prop 8 Judge's Personal Life Matter?

| Wed Aug. 4, 2010 1:50 PM PDT

READ ALSO: MoJo's Josh Harkinson on San Francisco's family night and Celia Perry on why she's been waiting for this ruling since the third grade.

Back in February, the San Francisco Chronicle took the bold step of outing Judge Vaughn Walker, who ruled today, in Perry v. Schwarzenegger, that Prop 8 is unconstitutional: "The biggest open secret in the landmark trial over same-sex marriage being heard in San Francisco is that the federal judge who will decide the case, Chief U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker, is himself gay." This was well-known among San Francisco court reporters (who didn't feel it was all that important) but juicy news to the right. Fox News ran a headline today asking, "Why Has Media Ignored Judge's Possible Bias In California's Gay Marriage Case?" The National Review has argued that the judge should have recused himself from the case because a judge must do so when he has any "interest that could be substantially affected by the outcome of the proceeding" (28 U.S.C. § 455(b)(4)).

Of course, while this plays well in the conservative media, it would be a tough argument to make in the courtroom. To state the obvious, arguing this point could mean conceding that there is a substantial difference between a domestic partnership and marriage, something the Prop 8 defendants have steadfastly denied.

The larger point, however, is that it doesn't matter what Walker's sexual orientation is. He's an extremely well-qualified judge who, despite the right's complaints, has shown himself to be an impartial and unbiased jurist throughout his career and this trial. Actually, as the two-and-a-half-week trial began, there were some serious concerns in the LGBT community. After all, this is the same Judge Walker who was appointed by George HW Bush after a failed appointment by Ronald Reagan; the same Judge Walker who was harshly criticized by Nancy Pelosi for being insensitive to gays; and the same Judge Walker who prevented the "Gay Olympics" and put a lien on an AIDS-stricken organizer's home.

Throughout the court trial, he peppered both sides with equally tough questions. Interjecting often, he was clearly an engaged and active participant. He gave little quarter to either attorney, and it showed in his follow-up questions during closing arguments. There, it became clear that not all arguments are created equal, and given the number of "I don't know"s and "I don't have to prove anything"s that the Prop 8 defenders responded with, the right has only intself to blame for Walker's ruling. (See page 144 of the closing arguments transcript [PDF].)

However, while his sexual orientation does not matter from a legal perspective, it does put the judge in a tough position politically and personally: No matter how he ruled, he was bound to come off as biased, insensitive, or both.

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Green Porno, Carl Zimmer Edition

| Wed Aug. 4, 2010 12:50 PM PDT

"Sex Week" wrapped up last Friday over at science writer Carl Zimmer's blog The Loom, and a titillating week it was. Each post delved into the seedy underbelly of a species' funky reproductive habits.

The three cases of animal sex that Zimmer discusses revolve around Darwin's principle of sexual selection, which argues that certain aesthetic ornaments within a given species evolve to connote the biological fitness of individuals—think the elegant flair of a male peacock's feathers, or the bright face and backside of a male mandrill (though these secondary sex characteristics are most often pronounced in the male of a given species, it can occur in females, too—see the spotted hyena or the anglerfish). It could be easy for deceitful members of a species to adopt these fitness markers without the mojo to back it up and trick their way into the gene pool. To avoid this situation, perhaps it takes too much time and energy for the weak ones to fake it: the widely accepted (or at least discussed) Handicap Principle states that these sexual signals take an enormous amount of resources to produce and that only the "strongest" individuals, the ones with the most energy to spare, can afford such an investment. This keeps individuals honest and a species strong.

Below, a look at Zimmer's (re)productive discussions. Be sure to read his last post on the arbitrariness of desire, and let us know if you have any interesting animal copulation stories to share. And if you find your reproduction education still lacking, be sure to watch at least one of Isabella Rosselini's jaw-dropping "Green Porno" narratives (here and here).

Treasury, ACLU Still At Odds Over Al-Awlaki

| Wed Aug. 4, 2010 12:25 PM PDT

[Update, 5:21 p.m. EST Wednesday: the ACLU and CCR just got their license.]

On Tuesday, the ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights sued the Obama administration. The two rights organizations hoped to obtain a permit that would allow them to sue on behalf of Anwar al-Awlaki, an alleged terrorist who is supposedly on a list of American citizens who the US government is trying to kill. Late last night, Politico's Josh Gerstein reported that the Treasury Department intends to give the ACLU and CCR the license they need to sue on al-Awlaki's behalf. But the ACLU and CCR quickly issued a statement saying that it still hasn't received that permission:

OFAC has neither issued a license nor stated that we don’t need one. It suggests that it might eventually grant us a license for our work, but our application has already gone unanswered for eleven days. OFAC is well aware that the case relates to the government’s decision to add a U.S. citizen to its ‘targeted killing’ list. To say that the matter is urgent is a dramatic understatement. Instead of issuing press releases, OFAC should simply issue us a license.

I just exchanged emails with two ACLU spokespeople, Laurie Beacham and Rachel Myers. The organization has still not received a license to represent al-Awlaki (who could be killed by a drone strike at any point)—just a "form letter saying they received our application," Beacham says—"nothing responding to it." Myers' response was similar. "I don't think Josh saw our statement before he wrote," she says. "We stand by it."

Improving Malaria Treatment...or, Why You Should Have Paid Attention in Geometry Class

| Wed Aug. 4, 2010 12:21 PM PDT

Prior to the 1970s, doctors weren't aware that there was more than one type of diabetes. It was a group of Stanford researchers who made the discovery when they were analyzing a data set containing six bodily measurements from 145 patients who either had or were at risk of the disease. They applied a mathematical technique that essentially allowed them to graph the six-dimensional data set in three-dimensional space, while still preserving certain relationships between the data points. Looking at the graph, they noticed that diabetes sufferers clustered into two main groups. These groups represented what is now known as type 1 and type 2 diabetes. Drawing a distinction between the two forms of the disease undoubtedly has improved the quality of life for millions of people over the past few decades, as it has enabled the development of more specialized treatments. The moral of the story: There is a lot hidden in the data we collect. And sometimes to uncover it, we simply need to change the way we look at the information.

14th Amendment Crackpottery

| Wed Aug. 4, 2010 11:12 AM PDT

The folks at First Read are gobsmacked:

Out of touch? By now, you've probably heard about the GOP push — embraced by Mitch McConnell, Jon Kyl, and even John McCain and Lindsey Graham — to hold Senate hearings into whether the 14th Amendment should be amended. At issue: the 14th Amendment granting automatic citizenship rights to anyone born in the United States, even the offspring of illegal immigrants. Just askin, but do these Republicans want to be tied to wanting to change this historic, post-Civil War amendment, which made former slaves and their children full citizens in this country? At a time of 10% unemployment and two wars, do politicians really want to debate a Constitutional Amendment from the 19th century? For the GOP, does this help them with their problem at wooing non-white votes? This seems a tad tone deaf; it may be popular with folks who listen to talk radio or watch evening infotainment debate shows but really?

As a friend says, "Yes, Really." But look: there's no mystery here. Republicans know perfectly well this isn't going anywhere, but they also know that symbolic issues like this are great for firing up their base. People like me scratch our chins and wonder why their base falls for this schtick so regularly when Republicans never follow up on this stuff, but that's not the point. The point is....to make a point. They're just signalling to their base that their hearts are in the same place and their values are aligned. And that's good politics.

Democrats, as critics like Drew Westen routinely point out, aren't as good at this. This might have something to do with the liberal temperament, but I sort of doubt it. More likely, it's just that the liberal base is smaller. When Republicans pander to conservative hot buttons, they're pandering to something like two-thirds of the party. When Democrats do it they're pandering to about a third of the party. So the arithmetic is simple: for Republicans this kind of pandering is a winner, probably producing more votes than it loses. Among Democrats it's just the opposite, so they don't do it as much. There's too much risk of offending large numbers of independents, as well as the (still) fairly significant number of conservative Democrats.

As for why the press continues to treat this stuff seriously, I think this is the reason: they know perfectly well that this is just political puffery, but they figure that all's fair in love and politics. Who are they to tell the parties how to pander to their own base? Quite the vicious circle, no?

Sugarcoating the Truth

| Wed Aug. 4, 2010 11:05 AM PDT

My favorite part of the latest government claim is that as much as a quarter of BP's oil has dissolved in the warm Gulf waters. Like sugar. How benign is that? Sounds like a little leftover oil sweetens the ocean.

Dissolved oil is still oil. Just like dissolved sugar still tastes like sugar. Ever tried to dilute the taste of sugar out of your cup of coffee? Not possible.

That's how it will taste to marine life too. Oily.

Dissolved oil is not benign. It's still lethal. Particularly to small life, like plankton, a community that includes the larval and juvenile stages of almost all marine life. It may prove fatal to those who eat contaminated plankton, which is everyone in the ocean one or three links along in the foodweb.

NOAA has released a report devoid of data or methods, which has not been peer reviewed—meaning it meets none of the requirements for scientific publication.

Today's mainstream headlines say: Most of the Oil is Gone. But 53.5 million gallons of oil remain at large. Unspin this report and it ought to read: Five Exxon Valdez's Still Foul Gulf. At least.
 

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Facebook Bleg

| Wed Aug. 4, 2010 10:19 AM PDT

This is a small abuse of the blog for purposes of personal mental hygeine, but.....

As part of its campaign to take over the world, Facebook has persuaded more and more sites to install its social networking widget. Unfortunately, beginning on Saturday, it started driving my browser nuts. I finally figured out how to uninstall it on the Washington Post front page, but since then I've noticed half a dozen other sites using it too. Every one of them sends my browser into overdrive, refreshing manically two or three times a second as it tries to figure out what the latest news from all my Facebook buddies is.

Of course, it's only a problem on Opera. Firefox and Explorer work fine. Sigh. Which means no one cares. But maybe someone does! Anyone else having this problem? After a bit of trial and error I've blocked *facebook.com/plugins* and this seems to mostly fix the problem, but I know deep in my heart that it's going to end up causing some kind of unforeseen massive system failure in the future. It always does. Anyone have any advice about how to fix this for real?

BP Spill: Where is the Oil?

| Wed Aug. 4, 2010 9:33 AM PDT

The federal government just released that spill report I referred to earlier. The report confirms the government's claim that only about a quarter of the oil spilled from the well—or roughly 51.5 million gallons—remains at or just below the surface in the Gulf. Another quarter of the oil was dispersed, either naturally or via the nearly two million gallons of chemical dispersant, into the depths of the sea.

This is good news, but this doesn't mean the problem is solved. There's still a lot of oil out there—about nine and a half Exxon Valdez spills in total. So, while other news outlets are reporting headlines like, "Nearly 3/4 of BP spill oil gone from Gulf," it's actually closer to half. And, most importantly, the impacts of dispersing so much of that oil throughout the water column are still not well understood.

Also, as several others have pointed out to me, the report doesn't include much in the way of specifics on the supporting data used to reach these conclusions. I'm trying to get more background from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on that.

Here's the graph included in the government report:

Eating Our Seed Corn

| Wed Aug. 4, 2010 9:28 AM PDT

And now, combining yesterday's post about the value of preschool with today's post about federal aid to strapped state budgets, here's the latest news on budget cuts aimed at the worst possible place:

States are slashing nearly $350 million from their pre-K programs by next year and more cuts are likely on the horizon once federal stimulus money dries up, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. The reductions mean fewer slots for children, teacher layoffs and even fewer services for needy families who can't afford high-quality private preschool programs.

....Wealthier parents can afford to send their kids to private preschools, but children from poorer families will likely languish in lower-quality childcare that doesn't prepare them for kindergarten, experts said.

....Marci Young, director of the Pew Center on the States' Pre-K Now program, said prekindergarten is the key to helping the Obama administration achieve one of its main goals — improving persistently failing schools. "When you're thinking about turning around low performing schools or making sure you're helping close the achievement gap ... you've got to start in the early years," said Young.

She pointed to studies that show states see a $7 return for every $1 they invest in early education because children who attend prekindergarten are more likely to not need remedial education, to graduate from high school, to go to college and to have higher-paying jobs that produce more taxes.

Sounds like socialism to me! Here in America we prefer nature red in tooth and claw. For poor people, anyway.

Arguing With Conservatives

| Wed Aug. 4, 2010 9:12 AM PDT

Who should liberals be arguing with right now? Option A: the smartest, freshest thinkers on the other side. That's who you should test your ideas against. Option B: actual influential conservatives, since they're the ones who control Congress and determine what happens in the real world.

Smart conservatives think the answer is Option A. And I don't blame them! Hell, I get bored with shooting ducks in a barrel anyway, and it would be great to have more meaningful conversations, stretch our minds a bit, and maybe even raise the profile of the non-Tea Party wing of modern conservatism in the process. The problem is that the non-Tea Party wing is pretty damn small these days, which means that conversations like this pretty quickly take on an air of la-la land. Take this exchange between Ezra Klein, for the left, and Reihan Salam for the NTP right, about a supposed "consensus" among Republicans that they're in favor of federal aid to states as long as states are willing to reform their budgeting processes. Here's Ezra:

When asked to name some legislation, Reihan didn't come up with much. "That is the basic idea behind Sen. Scott Brown’s Fiscally Responsible Relief for Our States Act," Reihan said. But Brown's proposal — a proposal from one of the most moderate Republicans who is representing one of the most liberal states in the union — doesn't have any co-sponsors, so it's hard to see how it represents a consensus....Moreover, making aid conditional on budget reform is not the basic idea behind Brown's bill. Just ask Brown.

....The basic idea behind Brown's bill is that state aid should be funded using preexisting stimulus dollars. That's what he talks about in the video. He doesn't say anything about conditions. And to double-check, I read the bill. Still nothing.

It's possible I'm missing something in the legislative language, but from what I can see, Brown's bill doesn't make aid conditional on state reforms, and it doesn't have Republican co-sponsors. It provides no evidence for the contention that Republicans would happily partner with Democrats on state aid, if only Democrats would embrace more stringent conditions.

My guess is that making aid conditional on states developing fiscally sound long-term budgets is unworkable. It's too hard to define what "sound" means, it would take too long to do it, and it's next to impossible to guarantee that states would stick to their bargains once the crisis has passed. But it would be an interesting discussion. Way more interesting than, say, commenting on Sean Hannity's latest attack on the New Black Panthers.

Unfortunately, you'd have to be happy leading an essentially monk-like existence to do this on a regular basis. In the real world Republicans are mostly yammering about the Ground Zero mosque and other assorted idiocies, not developing creative proposals that address actual problems. Even Paul Ryan's "Roadmap" proposal, which I don't think is nearly as smart as consensus has it, can't get any real support in the Republican caucus. They're too busy pretending that they're going to repeal healthcare reform or get rid of the 14th amendment. Bottom line: I don't demand a huge conservative groundswell before I start blogging about some of these more moderate proposals, but there's got to be some support for them. Otherwise this is just a dorm room bull session.