2011 - %3, February

Sen. Inouye Announces Earmark Moratorium

| Wed Feb. 2, 2011 11:47 AM EST

Senate appropriations committee chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) announced that his committee will implement an earmark moratorium for the remainder of the current session of Congress.

From his statement:

The President has stated unequivocally that he will veto any legislation containing earmarks, and the House will not pass any bills that contain them...The Appropriations Committee will thoroughly review its earmark policy to ensure that every member has a precise definition of what constitutes an earmark. To that end, we will send each member a letter with the interpretation of Rule XLIV (44) that will be used by the Committee. If any member submits a request that is an earmark as defined by that rule, we will respectfully return the request.

Next year, when the consequences of this decision are fully understood by the members of this body, we will most certainly revisit this issue and explore ways to improve the earmarking process.

Inouye's point: earmarked legislation, either in the House or on the president's desk, has no shot, so what's the point? But this represents a serious about-face for the eight-term senator. Back in fiscal year 2009, Inouye pulled in almost $220 million for projects in Hawaii. Translation: he could be looking at a tough two years.

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Hatch: Huntsman's a "Moderate" and the Tea Party Has No Veto

| Wed Feb. 2, 2011 9:40 AM EST

When Republican Jon Huntsman announced that he'd be resigning as Obama's China ambassador, it spurred talk that he is prepping for a 2012 presidential bid. But with the conventional wisdom holding that the Republican primary electorate will be looking for a die-hard conservative in 2012, Huntsman, the former Utah governor who spent the last two years working for (not opposing) Barack Obama, could have a tough time establishing his right-wing credentials. And it doesn't help that a prominent GOP fan labels him a moderate. On Tuesday, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), while talking up Huntsman as a potential presidential candidate, told reporters, "He would be more moderate than most Republicans running for president, and I think he would probably admit that."

Having embraced a regional cap-and-trade system, civil unions for gay and lesbian couples, and Obama's much-loathed stimulus package, Huntsman has drawn steady fire from the right flank of the party. Some observers have already written off a 2012 Huntsman bid as a "crazy gambit," arguing that there's no way a centrist former Obama administration official could capture the Republican nomination.

But Hatch dismissed the notion that the tea-party right would automatically quash Huntsman's chances. The Utah Senator told Mother Jones:

It isn't the tea party right that is really—they're not the only people involved. The independents are tremendously involved, a lot of Democrats are involved. That's why independents went for Republicans in large measure in this last election. Even Democrats are voting for Republicans because they recognize this is an overwhelming Democrat central government bill that they really don't they like.

Hatch even denied that Huntsman's diplomatic post in the Obama administration would be much of a liability. He noted that Huntsman can say, "Look, I left the most important diplomatic post in the country because I disagree with the government. That shows some spunk." (Huntsman, though, did not announce he was leaving due to a disagreement with Obama.)

Hatch's dismissal of the tea party wing was curious. After all, tea partiers have discussed opposing him next year during the GOP primaries—in the same way they successfully went after and defeated Sen. Bob Bennett in Utah last year. (Like Bennett, Hatch has a history of occasionally reaching across the aisle, though he is a unmistakably a conservative.) Though one of the tea party's top 2012 primary targets, Hatch was downplaying the party's right flank. Does that mean he's not worried about the tea partiers—or that he's so worried that he's trying to deny their influence? In any event, when Hatch claimed that Huntsman could triumph despite tea party opposition, perhaps he was projecting his own fate as well.

"It Feels Weird To Shoot the Lady Zombie in the Boobs"

| Wed Feb. 2, 2011 7:00 AM EST

Read the Feral Pig Diaries: "Day 1: Moonshine and Teen Swine" is here; "Day 2: Do Hogs Like Supermarket Danishes" is here; and "Day 3: OK, but How Does Wild Hog Taste?" is here.

On Monday I dragged fellow MoJo staffers Mac McClelland and Adam Weinstein with me to our (sort of) local shooting range. What, you may ask, were some hippies like us doing in a place like this? Well, I needed to learn to shoot for an upcoming reporting trip. I'll explain that part in a second, but first, some pictures and a video clip of our afternoon:

 We piled into my car and drove out to Jackson Arms, a shooting range within spitting distance of San Francisco International Airport. (File this fun fact away for your next layover.) Once inside, Adam passed a quick test so we could rent a few guns and a rifle lane—novice shooters like me must be accompanied by at least one experienced marksman, house rules. I was the only novice in the crowd: Adam is a Navy veteran and grew up around guns, and Mac was a great marksman in college.

Adam showed me how to load, carry, and shoot the gun safely, then we headed into the rifle range. Above, Adam fires off a round on the AR-15. Doesn't he look cool? Both he and Mac were total badasses shooting this gun, which made a big noise and had quite a kick. In a moment that probably would have reminded my mother of the time when, at age five, I had to be carried out of the lightning show at the Boston Science Museum because it was too loud and scary, I declined to shoot the AR-15 and decided to stick to this gun instead:

Yes, this Ruger 1022 semiautomatic rifle is very one-if-by-land compared to the AR-15. At first I was aiming pretty well, hitting the evil clown target (see below) right between the eyes. But by my fourth round or so, my beginner's luck had worn off considerably. Also, I was freezing; the range was, for some reason, like a meat locker. Mac and I decided to go warm up in the lobby for a minute. I took out my granola bar and asked the guy behind the counter if it was okay to eat it, at which point Mac tweeted, "Kiera to attendant: 'Can I eat my granola bar in here?' #MotherJonesGoesToTheFiringRange!" Then, as I was eating my granola bar I noticed a sign about how you should always wash your hands after handling ammo, and I started worrying about whether hunters inadvertently give themselves lead poisoning. Like Mac said, #MotherJonesGoesToTheFiringRange!

 

The sheer variety of paper targets for sale at Jackson Arms really surpassed my expectations. We selected this evil clown, a man zombie, a lady zombie, and a few plain old bullseyes. While I had no qualms aiming for this clown's big red nose, Mac remarked, "It feels weird to shoot the lady zombie in the boobs." 

Unfortunately I don't have a video of Mac and Adam shooting, since my phone is the opposite of smart. But this one, which Adam took, shows me shooting and Mac sweeping up some bullet casings and generally looking cool.

Now back to the reason for the trip to the shooting range: Next week, I'm headed down to rural Georgia to work on a story about invasive species—specifiically, the idea that the best way to get rid of destructive non-native animals is to get people to eat them. Jackson Landers, a.k.a the Locavore Hunter, aims to whet American appetites for invasive species like lionfish, geese, deer, boar, and even spiny iguanas by working with wholesalers, chefs, and restaurateurs to promote these aliens as menu items. As Landers recently told the New York Times' James Gorman, "When human beings decide that something tastes good, we can take them down pretty quickly.”

I'll be accompanying Landers and a few of his friends on a hunt for invasive feral pigs, which have proliferated over the last decade in much of the southeastern US, competing with native species for food and wreaking havoc on farmlands with their rooting. They're particularly problematic in coastal areas, where they eat the eggs of endangered sea turtles. (A few years ago, Ian Frazier wrote an eloquent New Yorker piece about the hog population explosion; among his observations: "The presence of feral hogs in a state is a strong indicator of its support for Bush in '04.")

Let's be clear: I've never wanted to go hunting before. I come from a family that likes creatures the way other families like football. Some of my earliest memories are of my dad hustling me outside to listen to migrating Canada geese honking overhead. More recently, he has been known to imitate yipping coyotes, loudly and gleefully, at the dinner table. Needless to say, my father is not pleased about my upcoming pig trip. When I explained to him that we were hunting animals that didn't belong here and were forcing out native species, he countered: "Yeah, and immigrants are taking our jobs, too, isn't that right, Kiery?"

No doubt many of you guys agree with my dad, and you'll probably tell me so in the comments section of this post and elsewhere. (I'm looking at you, Vegansaurus!) I don't mean to be flip about any of this. If we do end up shooting a pig, Jackson has generously offered to show me the whole butchering process. We'll try to make use of the entire animal. I'm not sure how I'll feel when I'm actually on the trip, but I'm going to be thinking a lot about ethics. I'll be chronicling the whole thing here on the Blue Marble. Let's call it the Feral Pig Diaries. 

Read the Feral Pig Diaries: "Day 1: Moonshine and Teen Swine" is here; "Day 2: Do Hogs Like Supermarket Danishes" is here; and "Day 3: OK, but How Does Wild Hog Taste?" is here.

Climate Scientists Seek Invite from Congress

| Wed Feb. 2, 2011 7:00 AM EST

A group of scientists, seeking to cut off assaults on climate science at the pass, sent a letter to every member of the House and Senate urging them to take a "fresh look" at climate change and volunteering to appear at hearings on the subject.

The letter asks representatives to set partisanship aside for a fair analysis of the science. "Political philosophy has a legitimate role in policy debates, but not in the underlying climate science," they wrote. "There are no Democratic or Republican carbon dioxide molecules; they are all invisible and they all trap heat."

The 18 climate scientists–organized as the Project on Climate Science—stressed the practical need to be concerned about climate even at a time of economic distress, emphasizing that it will only become a more expensive problem if the country waits to act. They also emphasize the threat that sea level rise poses to coastal infrastructure and the human health implications.

The scientists urge members and senators to hold hearings on climate science, offering their own services for that purpose. Some House Republicans now in leadership positions have called for climate science hearings, albeit from the perspective of accusing scientists of fraud. That appears to have fallen down their list of priorities for this year.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for February 2, 2011

Wed Feb. 2, 2011 6:30 AM EST

Sgt. Heather Blake, who serves as a medic with Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force – Afghanistan, listens to the heartbeat of a small boy at the free clinic at Bagram Airfield’s Korean Hospital Jan. 29. The event included medical personnel from Afghanistan, Korea, United Arab Emirates, the U.S. Army and Army Reserve and U.S. Navy who treated more than 200 patients. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Katryn McCalment)

Judge Vinson Revisited

| Tue Feb. 1, 2011 9:30 PM EST

A knowledgeable reader writes in to take issue with my earlier post about Judge Vinson's ruling on the constitutionality of the healthcare reform law's individual mandate provision:

As someone who works in health policy and has studied this issue pretty closely in consultation with several lawyers, I have to take issue with your assertion that:

"Judge Vinson simply decided to make up his own law and ignore precedent entirely."

This is simply not a fair reading of his decision which was eminently reasonable, if not necessarily correct. He discussed the relevant precedents in great depth and came to a conclusion that although the Commerce Clause does give the national government a virtually unlimited ability to regulate things that have a substantial impact on interstate commerce, this particular instance is beyond the pale.

You can, and I do, disagree with his reasoning in this area. I am a supporter of healthcare reform generally and a believer in the necessity of the individual mandate specifically. There are a lot of things that have been justified under the Commerce Clause that I find unjustifiable, but a mandate for this specific product is an exception that I would make if I were deciding these matters of law.

The reason that I write to you about this is that I really think that you (and other center-left commentators) are missing a very important point here, namely that Vinson both in his striking down the mandate and declaring that the provision cannot be severed, is acting well within controlling precedent. This decision would be radical in its impact but it is not a radical decision. Were the Court to rule against the entire healthcare law here, it would be objectively on much firmer precedential and textual ground than it was in Bush v. Gore (or for that matter Roe v. Wade, Buckley v. Valeo, Brown v. Board, etc.). We need to wake up to this reality and start dealing with it accordingly. In fact, we were aware of this early in the process and could have structured the requirement to make it pass constitutional muster (designing it as a tax rather than a penalty which we have attempted to do ex post to no avail).

So we'll see what happens. But the moment is coming that I have been dreading ever since my first correspondence with a friend (a Democrat who is a lawyer and former law review editor) who said when he first heard of this proposal in Hillary's healthcare plan ... "well, that's unconstitutional on its face."

Obviously I take a dimmer view of Vinson's decision: I just don't see how it jibes at all with current Supreme Court precedent. But if my reader is right, the Supreme Court itself might end up disagreeing with me.

I'm not sure what that would mean. My guess is that they won't throw out the entire law regardless; only the individual mandate will get overturned. If that's the case, then Republicans will be in a sticky situation. Democrats will pretty obviously be unwilling to repeal the rest of the law, but the health insurance industry will go bananas if everything else stays intact but the individual mandate goes away. They'd argue, with some justice, that this would essentially destroy them, and they'd demand that Republicans join with Democrats to do something about it. That would be hard pressure for Republicans to resist.

This is all still a couple of years away, since it still has to go through the appellate courts and I assume the earliest the Supreme Court could take it up would be in its 2012-13 session, with a decision handed down sometime in 2013. So we have plenty of time to think about it.

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UN Memo: Just in Case Haiti Blows Up...

| Tue Feb. 1, 2011 8:31 PM EST

In December, when electoral officials announced the results of Haiti's presidential election, people rioted. Following much outcry and many accusations of fraud on the part of President Rene Preval's party, an Organization of American States panel conducted an investigation. The OAS panel recommended election officials drop Preval's handpicked and deeply unpopular candidate, Jude Célestin, from the upcoming runoff ticket; election officials said they may or may not. So, now you're up to speed on why the UN, which has a huge peacekeeping force in Haiti, is worried about what's going to happen tomorrow when election officials finally announce which candidates are advancing to the next round. Check out the memo the UN sent to its in-country staff, below. 

To all UN personnel,

SITUATION: The announcement of the result of the presidential elections is expected to take place on Wednesday, 2nd February 2011. This may impact on the security situation in Haiti and on UN staff and operations.

MOVEMENT RESTRICTION: In case the security situation deteriorates a 'Restrictions of Movement' may be put in place, which will only allow a few essential movements. Staff members will be not allowed to travel to the beaches or to other leisure locations.

PREPARATIONS

Critical Staff: All designated 'Critical Staff' may be requested to stay in the office for several days without having the opportunity to travel to their residence starting morning of the 2nd February.

Therefore, all Critical Staff is requested to make preparations to have their 15Kg Emergency Bag with sufficient supplies, sleeping bag, change of clothing and toiletries at hand.

International and National staff: Those staff members that are NOT determined 'Critical Staff' may be requested to stay at their residence until further notice.  Staff members must ensure that they have adequate supplies (food, water, and gas, medications) to last for one week at least.

Vehicles: Ensure that vehicles are in good order & fully fuelled and the radio is working. All UN vehicles, especially during the night, have to be parked in secured compounds.

COMMUNICATION: Radios must be monitored at all times.

Your Questions for Kate Sheppard

Tue Feb. 1, 2011 7:04 PM EST

How to use this page: Start by asking Kate a question and submitting it for her to answer. Then be sure to check back next week to see what Kate had to say and to see what other Blue Marble readers and Planet Forward community members asked her. For more experts from Planet Forward, click here.

America's Love Affair With Ronald Reagan

| Tue Feb. 1, 2011 6:42 PM EST

I agree with Brendan Nyhan and others that Ronald Reagan didn't actually change Americans' attitude toward government that much. What's more, to the extent that attitudes did change, it was mainly thanks to a backlash against 70s liberalism that would have happened with or without Reagan.

Still, when Paul Waldman suggests that Reagan's popularity is a myth too, I think he takes a step too far. Reagan is pretty popular! With the exception of our weird ongoing love affair with John F. Kennedy, Reagan and Bill Clinton are routinely chosen in polls as the most popular postwar presidents. Likewise, Reagan and Clinton were basically tied for the highest approval rating when they left office.

This isn't too hard to understand, either. People mostly associate Reagan with recovery from a lousy economy, they associate him with the fall of the Iron Curtain, and they associate him with rebuilding America's prestige in the world. Maybe this is right, maybe it's not, but it's pretty understandable.

Generally speaking, even decades later presidents are mostly judged by how they did and how things were going during their last year in office. Things were going great for Kennedy, Reagan, and Clinton, so they're remembered very favorably. Things were going decently for Eisenhower, Ford, and Bush Sr., and they're remembered decently. Things were going badly for LBJ, Nixon, Carter, and Bush Jr., and they're remembered badly. The main exception seems to be Truman, who ended his presidency on a sour note but has since recovered pretty well.

In any case, maybe Reagan deserves his popularity, maybe he doesn't. Still, he's a pretty popular guy.

Fish Decide Better in Groups

| Tue Feb. 1, 2011 6:13 PM EST

Photo by Uxbona, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.Photo by Uxbona, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

 
How can so many—fill in the blank—fish, birds, grasshoppers move as one, often at lightning-fast speed, without killing most members in the process? How can they manage to get anything done in the midst of what seems to be barely-controlled chaos?
 
 
Photo by Dead Fish, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.Photo by Dead Fish, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
 
First up: In common parlance, shoaling and schooling are interchangeable. Technically, though, shoaling is defined as fish hanging out in groups for social reasons—for predator detection, for better foraging, for mate selection, and/or for enhanced hydrodynamics. Shoaling fish stick close to each other but don't attempt to move as one organism. You can see shoaling surgeonfish in the top photo.
 
Schooling is when fish—often fish already grouped in a shoal—reorient in order to swim together in a coordinated manner. The silver moonies in the photo below have reoriented into a school... something usually done in response to a threat.
 
Photo by Mila, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.Photo by Mila, courtesy Wikimedia Commons. 

So, what's better, a small school or a big school? The many eyes theory predicts that predators will be detected faster by larger groups, and that all group members—not just the first detector—will enjoy a higher probability of escape as news of the predator is transmitted across the group.

Now a new paper in PNAS shows that bigger schools not only make faster decisions, they also make more accurate decisions. From the abstract: 
Here we show that both speed and accuracy of decision making increase with group size in fish shoals under predation threat. We examined two plausible mechanisms for this improvement: first, that groups are guided by a small proportion of high-quality decision makers and, second, that group members use self-organized division of vigilance.

The researchers investigated the two possible mechanisms by working with captive mosquitofish (Gambusia holbrooki) in a Y-shaped maze. They filmed groups of 1, 2, 4, 8, and 16 fish swimming through the "approach zone" and towards the "decision zone" just before the Y split.

A replica predator, measuring 12 cm in length, was allocated to one of the arms of the Y-maze at random and suspended in midwater using fine monofilament line. In pilot trials, the fish showed a strong aversive response to the predator once they detected it. 

Credit: PNAS DOI:10.1073/pnas.1007102108Credit: PNAS DOI:10.1073/pnas.1007102108

Fish expressed uncertainty about which way to swim at the Y split by slowing down and turning more often. The researchers measured this as "path tortuosity" (the ratio of the path taken to the straight line distance of the route) for each group size.

Results indicated that leader fish—those  in the front of the school—were not more accurate decision-makers than follower fish—those in the rear. In other words, the group was not benefiting from the presence of super-vigilant individuals... suggesting that the second option—self-organized vigilance—was the mechanism allowing for increased speed and accuracy in group decision making: 

We propose that the many eyes response is facilitated by a form of self-organized vigilance, whereby information acquired by one individual is transmitted by positive feedback and communicated across the group.
Although there may be some debate about what mechanisms allow such accurate and fast decision making in groups, it is clear that our results are not consistent with the game-theoretic reasoning often applied when thinking about predator avoidance situations. For example, there is no evidence of individuals in larger groups slowing down to force another group member to take the risk of inspecting the two options. On the contrary, the efficiency of the fish shoal’s many eyes suggests a high degree of cooperation in detection and avoidance of predators. 
 

100,000 starlings fill the skies in Poole - 1 Minute: a Vimeo Project from Mark Rigler on Vimeo.

 
The paper:
  • Ashley J. W. Ward, James E. Herbert-Read, David J. T. Sumpter, and Jens Krause. Fast and accurate decisions through collective vigilance in fish shoals. PNAS. DOI:

 Crossposted from Deep Blue Home.