2010 - %3, December

Corn on "Countdown": McCain's Lame Duck Whine Fest

Tue Dec. 21, 2010 3:37 AM EST

David Corn joined guest host Chris Hayes on MSNBC's Countdown the discuss the whining and bitterness on display from John McCain and Lindsey Graham after the Obama administration won several key victories in the lame duck session of congress.

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter.

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Lame Duck Not So Lame After All

| Mon Dec. 20, 2010 6:52 PM EST

From The Hill:

Republican senators say privately they expect the Senate to ratify the New START treaty this week, which would hand President Obama his third major victory of the lame-duck session.

GOP senators — including those who plan to vote for the treaty and those who say they’ll oppose it — have told The Hill they expect it to pass easily. At least eight Republican senators have announced they either will vote to ratify the treaty or are leaning strongly toward doing so.

Hmmm. So Obama will have a tax deal, repeal of DADT, a food safety bill, approval of New START, and (maybe) the 9/11 first responders bill to his credit during the lame duck session. On the downside, the DREAM Act and the omnibus budget bill failed.

If this is how things turn out, that's a helluva lame duck session. Maybe we should have more of them?

Mental Health 101

| Mon Dec. 20, 2010 4:58 PM EST

Hey, remember college? The carefree experimentation? The neverending Animal House-style parties? The major depressive episodes?

According to a recent study (PDF) by the American College Counseling Association, today's college kids have a bit more on their plates than the easygoing, hard-partying John Belushi archetypes of yesteryear: Nearly half of college students visiting school counseling centers today have what qualifies as a "severe psychological disorder," about twice the percentage of students that did so 10 years ago. The most common disorders counselors see are depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, alcohol abuse, attention disorders, self-injury, and eating disorders.

Busy Beavers Building, Part 1

| Mon Dec. 20, 2010 4:31 PM EST

This post courtesy BBC Earth. For more wildlife news, find BBC Earth on Facebook and Posterous.

It’s at this time of year when many of us batten down the hatches and prepare for the chilly months ahead! Pulling shut the windows and doors, building a roaring fire and snuggling up under our coziest of blankets is at the top of our priority list. But how does that compare with the animal kingdom?

Beavers, unlike many of their closest kin which include marmots and squirrels, do not hibernate and live up to their name, keeping busy and working hard to make sure that their winter lodges, much like our homes, are solid, secure and most of all, full of seasonal essentials such as a fully stocked larder and a tailor-made chimney!

Yet to say that beavers are masters of their trade is a huge understatement! Alongside humans, beavers do more to mould and shape their landscape than any other animal. Not only do they fell trees in strategic locations for specific purposes of their own, but they are also responsible for engineering many woodland ponds which bring new life to other animals, and plants alike.

In this first video of our beaver series, we see our family working flat out to prepare their pond for the Wyoming winter!

Return here to see what happens next. Will the dam spring a leak? Will the pond be deep enough? And who invited the muskrats? All will be revealed here soon.

Girl Chimps Make Dolls

| Mon Dec. 20, 2010 4:28 PM EST

Young female chimpanzees treat sticks as dolls. That's according to a new paper in Current Biology. Researchers at Harvard and Bates report more than 100 cases of stick-carrying by young female chimps during 14 years of observations at Kibale National Park in Uganda. Their findings:

  • Young females weren't carrying the sticks to forage or fight or any other discernible reason.
  • Adults carried sticks only for other reasons.
  • Young males carried sticks built far less often.
  • Some young females carried sticks into their nest to sleep with them at night.
  • Once a young chimp built a separate nest for her stick.
  • The researchers witnessed the animals playing a version of the "airplane game," lying on their backs with their "offspring" balanced across their upraised hands.
  • Young females carried sticks until they had offspring of their own.

"We have seen juveniles occasionally carrying sticks for many years, and because they sometimes treated them rather like dolls, we wanted to know if in general this behavior tended to represent something like playing with dolls," says Richard W. Wrangham, the Ruth Moore Professor of Biological Anthropology at Harvard. "If the doll hypothesis was right we thought that females should carry sticks more than males do, and that the chimpanzees should stop carrying sticks when they had their first offspring. We have now watched enough young chimpanzees to test both points."

The findings link this play to adult behavior, since female carry infants more than 99 percent of the time and males less than 1 percent of the time—making this a seemingly clear case of nature over nurture. But there's little evidence of stick-carrying behavior in other chimpanzee communities. So the Kibale chimps appear to be copying a local behavioral tradition—making this a case of nurture over nature. Put them together, and you get a clear case of biological and social influences entwining. Here's the abstract:

Sex differences in children's toy play are robust and similar across cultures. They include girls tending to play more with dolls and boys more with wheeled toys and pretend weaponry. This pattern is explained by socialization by elders and peers, male rejection of opposite-sex behavior and innate sex differences in activity preferences that are facilitated by specific toys. Evidence for biological factors is controversial but mounting. For instance, girls who have been exposed to high fetal androgen levels are known to make relatively masculine toy choices. Also, when presented with sex-stereotyped human toys, captive female monkeys play more with typically feminine toys, whereas male monkeys play more with masculine toys. In human and nonhuman primates, juvenile females demonstrate a greater interest in infants, and males in rough-and-tumble play. This sex difference in activity preferences parallels adult behavior and may contribute to differences in toy play. Here, we present the first evidence of sex differences in use of play objects in a wild primate, in chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes). We find that juveniles tend to carry sticks in a manner suggestive of rudimentary doll play and, as in children and captive monkeys, this behavior is more common in females than in males.

Plus, hey guys, girl chimps make toys! How cool is that?

The paper: Sonya M. Kahlenberg and Richard W. Wrangham. Sex differences in chimpanzees' use of sticks as play objects resemble those of children. Current Biology. 20 (24) 2010. DOI 10.1016/j.cub.2010.11.024

Counterterrorism and You

| Mon Dec. 20, 2010 3:56 PM EST

Dana Priest and William Arkin have a big piece in the Washington Post today about the vast expansion of local counterterrorism efforts in the United States since 9/11. An excerpt:

At the same time that the FBI is expanding its West Virginia database, it is building a vast repository controlled by people who work in a top-secret vault on the fourth floor of the J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building in Washington. This one stores the profiles of tens of thousands of Americans and legal residents who are not accused of any crime. What they have done is appear to be acting suspiciously to a town sheriff, a traffic cop or even a neighbor.

....[For example, there's the question of whether a] man snapping a picture of a ferry in the Newport Beach harbor in Southern California simply liked the way it looked or was plotting to blow it up.

Suspicious Activity Report N03821 says a local law enforcement officer observed "a suspicious subject . . . taking photographs of the Orange County Sheriff Department Fire Boat and the Balboa Ferry with a cellular phone camera." The confidential report, marked "For Official Use Only," noted that the subject next made a phone call, walked to his car and returned five minutes later to take more pictures. He was then met by another person, both of whom stood and "observed the boat traffic in the harbor." Next another adult with two small children joined them, and then they all boarded the ferry and crossed the channel.

All of this information was forwarded to the Los Angeles fusion center...[where] it would immediately be entered into the Guardian database, at which point one of three things could happen:

The FBI could collect more information, find no connection to terrorism and mark the file closed, though leaving it in the database.

It could find a possible connection and turn it into a full-fledged case.

Or, as most often happens, it could make no specific determination, which would mean that Suspicious Activity Report N03821 would sit in limbo for as long as five years, during which time many other pieces of information about the man photographing a boat on a Sunday morning could be added to his file: employment, financial and residential histories; multiple phone numbers; audio files; video from the dashboard-mounted camera in the police cruiser at the harbor where he took pictures; and anything else in government or commercial databases "that adds value," as the FBI agent in charge of the database described it.

Definitely read the whole thing. But here's one thing to keep in mind as you read: in the great debate over body scanners at airports recently, one of the most popular lines of criticism was that counterterrorism efforts should rely more on intelligence and police work and less on physical security. And maybe so. But at ground level, this is what intelligence and police work looks like: having your name stored in a central FBI database for years because you took a picture of the world's smallest ferry boat.

This isn't necessarily wrong. Maybe it's the price of living in the modern world. But it is what it is, and it's what we get if we insist in ramping up intelligence and police work to keep tabs on potential terrorists. We also, apparently, get legions of newly minted terrorism trainers like Ramon Montijo: "What he tells them is always the same, he said: Most Muslims in the United States want to impose sharia law here." Lovely.

So: more porno scanners or more local intelligence? Or both? Or neither? There don't seem to be a lot of easy choices here.

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Failed Koran Burners Execute Santa Instead

| Mon Dec. 20, 2010 3:55 PM EST

Some of you may remember Repent Amarillo as the far-right group whose planned Koran burning last September was foiled by the shirtless "Dude, you have no Koran!" dude. As its name suggests, the group's mission is quite simple: pressure the Texas city's 67,000 godless residents to repent for their sins and find Christ. To that end, organizers have created their own nifty "prayer map," which carefully charts various local hotspots for spirtual warfare (the group has already claimed victory for shutting down a Masonic lodge, a swingers bar, and a strip club.)

Now, Repent Amarillo has set its sights on an institution more powerful, even, than the Crystal Pistol: Santa. Here's a video the group just released, in which they execute the big man via firing squad, as part of an effort to teach kids the true meaning of Christmas. Guys, Fred Clause wasn't that bad!

Simple Answers to Simple Questions

| Mon Dec. 20, 2010 2:49 PM EST

Doug Mataconis has a question about Sarah Palin's continuing mockery of Michelle Obama's public education campaign aimed at improving child nutrition:

Is Palin actually saying she’s against child nutrition and against providing information to parents? Or is she just taking cheap shots at Michelle Obama?

The latter. Thanks for asking.

The Radicalization of Peter King

| Mon Dec. 20, 2010 2:31 PM EST

Rep. Peter King (R-NY), last seen calling WikiLeaks a terrorist organization, is back in the news after annnouncing plans to hold hearings next year on the radicalization of America's Muslim communities. King believes Muslim leaders have been less than helpful in combatting extremists in their ranks, and he'd like to find out why.

The timing is a little curious: Just two weeks ago, members of a mosque in Orange County became so concerned about a possible extremist in their ranks, they reported him to the FBI (It turned out he was an FBI agent; this is basically Fletch for the terror age). But the larger issue is King, whose ability to spot terrorists is unmatched. That is, he constantly spots terrorists where there are none at all, like an Icelandic clairvoyant tasked with inspecting construction sites for the presence of elves. Here's what he told Sean Hannity back in 2004, for instance, while promoting his novel, Vale of Tears:

"I would say, you could say that 80-85 percent of mosques in this country are controlled by Islamic fundamentalists...Those who are in control. The average Muslim, no, they are loyal, but they don't work, they don't come forward, they don't tell the police."

80-85 percent! Run for your lives!

Post-DREAM, What's the Next Immigration Battleground?

| Mon Dec. 20, 2010 2:16 PM EST

The DREAM Act died in the Senate on Saturday morning when Democrats were unable to get enough votes to overcome a Republican filibuster. The vote was 55-41, meaning that supporters were five votes short. Few expected the legislation to pass, so why did Senator Harry Reid decide to bring it up in the first place? The rationale was essentially political: First, it was meant to show Latinos and immigration advocates that Democrats were willing to push for a tough vote on the issue. Obama's enforcement-heavy approach to immigration has frustrated many, though it's unclear whether failed action on DREAM restores Democratic credibility.

Secondly, the vote was supposed to show how far right the Republican Party has moved on immigration. Only Sens. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), and the soon-departing Bob Bennett (R-Utah) voted for the bill, though five Democrats also crossed party lines to vote against it. The vote is essentially a curtain-raiser for the newly empowered GOP, whose incoming leadership has vowed to pursue an immigration crackdown.

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), who's slated to take a leadership role on immigration on the House Judiciary Committee, told the New York Times about some of his 2011 plans last week. "His priority as chairman would be to pass a bill he introduced last year that would also require the Internal Revenue Service to share information with the Department of Homeland Security and the Social Security Administration about the immigration status of workers," writes the Times. "Mr. King said his measure would increase pressure on employers to fire unauthorized immigrant workers by increasing their cost." King has also vowed to push for a bill on birthright citizenship, in addition to grilling top administration officials about Obama's border enforcement tactics. That being said, it will be tough for King and the other immigration hawks to pass any legislation through the Democrat-controlled Senate—and top Republicans could end up tamping down their crusades as 2012 gets closer, for fear of alienating Latino voters even further.

Immigration advocates, for their part, have resigned themselves to focusing their next fight on the state level. As I reported last month, there's a raging debate in many states over whether undocumented immigrant students should receive in-state tuition, financial aid, or admission to public universities:

While political gridlock is likely to continue in Washington, the university and student-led advocacy has helped advance a bill in California that would extend state financial aid to undocumented students...And a handful of conservative states are now moving to restrict undocumented immigrants' access to public education. Georgia passed legislation denying in-state tuition to undocumented students, joining Arizona and South Carolina.

It's unclear, though, how Washington Democrats will position themselves on immigration as 2012 gets closer. Certainly, they'll try to call the Republicans out on their most extreme rhetoric and positions, but Obama will also be pressed to defend his border enforcement policies. In 2010, the Democrats had Arizona's harsh immigration law to use as an unexpected rallying cry against anti-immigration Republicans—a cudgel that arguably helped them in states like Colorado and California. But Democrats might not have the same wedge issue two years from now, and a boldly pro-immigration stance might not help Obama in some of the states where he could have the most trouble.