2011 - %3, June

Nikka Costa: The "Funky White Bitch" is Back

| Sat Jun. 25, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

Nikka Costa is a rare breed. With roots in Frank Sinatra's rat pack—her father, Dan Costa, produced and arranged songs for the famed crooner—Costa traveled the world as a child singer and performed on the White House lawn with Sinatra himself, all before the age of nine. Since then, she has churned out four retro-soul albums with hits like "Everybody's Got Their Something" and "Stuck to You." Think of her sound as a reincarnation of Betty Davis, but swap the fro with wild red hair and add some of Janis Joplin's emotive howl to the mix.

For Costa's new release, Pro Whoa, the self-proclaimed "funky white bitch" hung up her hang-ups and whipped up a new sound, swapping her previous blues-and-funk signature for beat-heavy dance tracks. (You can download it here.) In a phone chat prior to her San Francisco tour stop, Costa let loose about signing fans' body parts, finding inspiration in Annie Leonard's The Story of Stuff, and why you simply must see her perform.

Mother Jones: Let's talk about the new album. It's got more of a modern, futuristic feel than your funkier prior releases, what brought on the change?

Nikka Costa: I wanted to do something different than my last album, Pebble to a Pearl. I loved that record, it had a very vintage, old-school feel and we recorded it all in one room. I wasn't in the funk mode this time around. So I started working around with MPCs [Akai's music production centers]. I wanted a harder, more beat-driven sound.

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The Man Who Outed Hollywood

| Sat Jun. 25, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

"Well, it's about fuckin' time!" This was the late playwright Doric Wilson's reaction when he was approached by Michael Schiavi to be interviewed for The Celluloid Activist: The Life and Times of Vito Russo, just published by the University of Wisconsin Press last month.

A serious study of Russo's life was long overdue. In 1981, he wrote The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies, a groundbreaking look at how Hollywood had long depicted gay characters as either sex-crazed predators or helpless victims. (It was later made into a documentary featuring stars such as Lily Tomlin and Tom Hanks.) He also co-founded ACT UP and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation; GLAAD now presents an annual award named after Russo (this year’s recipient was Ricky Martin).

Russo died in 1990 at the age of 44. I had known him for only four or five years, but I was referred to Schiavi by a mutual friend. I sent him an email with my reminiscences of Vito, which I’ve included below, slightly edited. Some of these episodes were expanded in Vito’s biography. (I thoroughly recommend that you read it!) Though this doesn't begin to enumerate Vito's accomplishments or his charms—and he had plenty of both— I'm presenting it here as a brief personal footnote to a very big public life.

Weekend Quick Bites

| Fri Jun. 24, 2011 7:05 PM EDT

Civil Eats' Paula Crossfield breaks down Gannett's absurd decision to lay off the last D.C. beat reporter covering ag policy: Phil Brasher, former mainstay of the Gannett-owned Des Moines Register. This is what you get when newspapers are owned by faceless corporations, not community members. The move is even more absurd given that we're moving into a presidential election and negotiations over the 2012 Farm Bill.

• On Grist, Monica Potts dives deep into something I covered briefly last week: the House's move to keep the USDA from protecting small farmers against the market power of giant meat companies.

• HuffPo's Lucia Graves goes long on the suspicion that Roundup, Monsanto's flagship herbicide, is linked to birth defects. This is an explosive story. Roundup rains down on millions of acres of farmland each year. I'll have more to say next week.

• On Pesticide Action Network's Ground Truth blog, Kathleen Schafer delivers the latest on a more definitive herbicide-birth defect link: the one involving Syngenta's atrazine.

• This week, I wrote about how my esteemed representative to the US Congress, Virginia Foxx, had taken a break from bashing gays and immigrants to try to stamp out the progressive wing of Obama's USDA. Turns out, she's even busier than I thought—in debate over the same House bill she managed to use as a club to pummel the USDA's Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative, Foxx essentially tried to do away with the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), reports belmontmedina of Postbourgie. Classy! Belmontmedina notes that "half of all American infants and about a quarter of kids under 4 have participated in WIC," and that "every dollar spent saves three in health care costs during the first 2 months of a child's life."

Gem of the Week: Humpback 'Bubble Nets' More Complex

| Fri Jun. 24, 2011 6:01 PM EDT

With warming oceans and less prey, humpback whales have to be innovative to catch a full meal these days. Recent research by NOAA's David Wiley shows just how fine-tuned their hunting techniques are. Wiley gets this week's "gem" for revealing a new level of complexity and forethought in the whale's hunting strategy.

Humpbacks feed on densely-packed prey like krill or small fish that travel in schools like herring and mackerel. One of the ways they corral their prey is to create "bubble nets", vertical columns of bubbles that fish see as a barrier. By creating spirals of bubbles, the whales restrict their prey to a smaller sphere of movement, making them easier to scoop into their huge mouths. Wiley was aware of the whale's sophisticated use of bubbles to concentrate prey density and thus more efficient feeding, but in his latest study (published in Behaviour this week), he used sensors attached to the whales which captured the bubble nets in action in 3D.

As Wiley created a computer-generated 3D model of the nets, he found that the nets sometimes consisted of a previously unknown tactic called "double loops". Working in teams of at least two, the double loop consists of "one upward spiral [of bubbles] to corral the prey, a smack of the fluke on the ocean surface (known as a 'lobtail') then a second upward lunge to capture the corralled prey." Wiley also found that despite the humpback's use of teamwork as a species, some individual humpbacks were not immune to "stealing" fish from bubble nets set up by other whales. It seems the best bubble net, even a double looped one, could be foiled by a hungry interloper.

 

Will Obama Take US to 60 MPG?

| Fri Jun. 24, 2011 4:53 PM EDT

President Obama announced on Thursday that the administration is releasing 30 million barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, the 727-million-barrel stockpile of crude that the US government keeps on hand in case of an emergency. It's an option that comes up every summer when gas prices start climbing, but this marks the first time since Hurricane Katrina that we've tapped the emergency reserve. The announcement generated a bunch of criticism from Republicans and renewed calls of "drill, baby, drill."

There are a few interesting things here. First, I can't say that I disagree entirely with the accusation that Obama's motivations were political. Everyone loves lower gas prices, and a week before a long holiday weekend is pretty interesting timing. But since gas prices have been trending downward of late, the move probably says more about broader economic concerns than anything else, as others have noted. In either case, it's only a short-term fix.

Perhaps a better long-term solution would be improving the fuel efficiency of vehicles, so people don't have to buy as much gas. More oil, either from the SPR or increased drilling, doesn't help a whole lot. The Obama administration is at work on the next round of fuel economy standards, set to be released in September, for model years 2016 and beyond. The last standards increase required auto dealers to hit a fleet-wide average for light vehicles (like passenger cars) of 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016, up from the previous average of 27.5 miles per gallon. Enviros have been lobbying the administration to set a goal of getting to 60 miles per gallon in the next 15 years—which they argue is entirely possible and would do far more than any short-term fix.

"Whether or not this band-aid stems any economic hemorrhaging due to our costly oil addiction," said Deron Lovaas, federal transportation policy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, following the SPR announcement, "the President can and should provide real, lasting relief by boosting the fuel-efficiency of our car and truck fleet to 60 miles-per-gallon by 2025."

The enviros got support this week from a group of Republican former EPA heads and lawmakers, who wrote to Obama requesting the very same target. But will automakers, abide willingly? A spokesperson for Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers dismissed the letter as "a special interest campaign to achieve a politically motivated fuel economy number." I guess that would be a "no."

"Recessions don't affect people like me."

| Fri Jun. 24, 2011 3:52 PM EDT

Editors' note: Mac is spending a month in her home state of Ohio, reporting on the Wisconsin-style showdown involving Republican Governor John Kasich, public employees, unions, teachers, students, and struggling middle-class families.

"So, why is it that you're here?" one of my father's coworkers, Mike, asked me. We were in the backseat of his boss James' Lexus. My dad was in the front. Together, the three of them account for three of the Lexuses (Lexi?) in the office parking lot.

"Because you guys are the only people I know here without any job- or financial-security concerns," I said.

"Really?"

"Yeah."

"You don't know the right kind of people."

Over lunch at a Thai restaurant, James explained why business is so steady at their firm, which companies hire to find them the managers and VPs and CEOs they need. "We work with people in the $100,000-plus range," James told me. The average salary of a person they place is $130,000, but they can deal in much "bigger fish," as my father calls them; right now, for example, he's been tapped by a company to find them the right candidate for a position that pays $600,000. Last year he placed someone who made $1.4 million annually, and another who made $1.5 mil. "The unemployment rate for people who make $100,000-plus is only 4 percent," James said. That never changes much. So over the last few years, while the economy's been...troublesome for a lot of other types of businesses, profits at the firm have been steady.

"Do you guys have unlimited capacity to absorb more employees? The market would support that, and support their being successful?"

"Oh yes," James said.

Their firm is part of a global group with 4,400 employees. James keeps his firm to 22, because his preference is a smaller, closer working environment. Mike is the star of the whole damn global show, the highest grosser. He generally bills more than a million dollars. Last year, my dad only billed $630,000. Though he admits he would probably make more if he worked more than 12 hours a week.

He wasn't always this fancy! About 15 minutes after I graduated from college, he got fired from his position at the head of a company; our overmortgaged, overfinanced house and cars all had to go back to the banks and dealerships that rightfully owned them. Both my parents were unemployed and effectively homeless for a while. And way before that, in order to get to that, he'd worked his way up from being a day-laborer at a moving company. After lunch, he was talking about how shortly before I was born, he made $10 an hour.

"You did not make $10 an hour," I said. That's the same wage that a lot of moving companies pay now, I offered as proof that he was wrong.

"Exactly," he said. "That's the problem. The cost of living has gone way up, but wages have just been"—and here he made a box in the air with his hands and sort of a Tupperware-closing sound with his mouth—"locked in." In 1980, when the value of $100 was the equivalent of $274 today, he got his first management job at a Cleveland business with a high-school diploma for $28,000 a year. In 2007, I got my first magazine job with a master's degree for $27,000.

My dad's been at the firm since 2003; he got into the people-who-make-more-than-$100,000-a-year, unemployment-resistant job world just in time. Everybody at the office is totally in love with super-supportive James, and they have a room where you can take naps, and they put plaques with your face etched in bronze all over the walls when you've billed for the firm a million, and two million, four million dollars. "Recessions," my dad often says, "don't affect people like me."

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Friday Catblogging - 24 June 2011

| Fri Jun. 24, 2011 3:00 PM EDT

By the time you see this I should be flying across the country, ready for some R&R in New York City. The cats, of course, are ready for R&R at all times, especially on warm summer days like these. As always, let them be your guide to a successfully stress-free weekend.

Climate Change: Bad News for Baby Boys?

| Fri Jun. 24, 2011 2:49 PM EDT

Ask the vicitms of horrific flooding in Pakistan or raging wildfires in the Southwest what the consequences of climate change are, and they're likely to mention something personal, like a lost family member or damaged property. But a University of California-Berkeley study out this month shows that the impacts of climate change could be biological, too.

Using 150-year-old Swedish family records and temperature data, public health professor Ralph Catalano and his colleagues suggest that rapid and wide temperature fluctuations (one of the expected effects of climate change) could lead to shorter lifespans for some men.

Generally, mothers are less likely to automatically miscarry male fetuses very early in gestation when it's warm, and more likely to do so when it's cold, because baby boys are more "frail" in early life than baby girls. But according to the study, warm temperatures could trick more newly-pregnant mothers—or rather, their bodies—into keeping male fetuses they might otherwise have rejected for genetic weakness. Although that would mean an increase in the total number of births, it would also lead to an increase in the number who die young if those baby boys then experience cold temperatures early on, thus driving down average life expectancy.

Meet the 'Christie Democrats'

| Fri Jun. 24, 2011 12:59 PM EDT

The New Jersey legislature on Thursday joined Wisconsin, Ohio, and a handful of other states by drastically scaling back pension and health-care benefits for government workers and curbing collective bargaining rights for public-sector unions. All told, 750,000 public-sector workers will end up forking over thousands of dollars more each year to fund their pension and health-care benefits—in part to plug a $52 billion hole in New Jersey's state pension fund.

But there's a key distinction between New Jersey and the other states that passed similar bills: Democrats control the legislature.

Unlike Wisconsin and Ohio, where newly elected Republican majorities in the legislature and new Republican governors rammed through unpopular bills curbing bargaining and benefits, in New Jersey, Democrats gave a Republican governor, Chris Christie, the votes he needed. The state Senate passed the bill 24 to 15, with 8 Democrats bolting from their party to support Christie. In the Assembly, the vote was 46 to 32 in favor of the measure, and 14 Democrats sided with Republicans.

So what happened? After all, this is New Jersey we're talking about, where public-sector unions are traditionally a pillar of support for Dems in fundraising, get-out-the-vote, and at the ballot box. According to the New York Times, Christie was able to cobble together support for his bill, which he called a model for other state legislatures, by taking advantage of the Garden State's old-school, city-centric political system:

In his campaign to rein in the unions and shrink government, Mr. Christie has often been helped by New Jersey’s unique political culture, where local political machines still dominate some areas, and many state legislators also hold local government jobs. That gives striking influence in Trenton to mayors, county executives, and local party bosses who struggle with rising labor costs and have repeatedly sided with the governor’s push to cut benefits and wages.

There's another intriguing narrative here—namely, how the state Democratic Party functions effectively after a handful of its members backed a bill hugely unpopular with the Democratic base. What we'll likely see, per the Newark Star-Ledger, is a growing schism among New Jersey Democrats:

Today's union protest, like other recent demonstrations, did nothing to stop the bill. But it did highlight the growing fissures in the state Democratic Party. While Sweeney and Oliver were pushing the bill, the chairman of the state party, Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex), was rallying protesters with two-dozen other Democrats. "I represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party," he said. Bob Master, a leader in the Communications Workers of America, said Democrats should not be "collaborating" with Christie.

Opponents of Christie's bill have a nickname for those Democratic "collaborators": Christie Democrats. That will be a damning label to hang around a Democrat's neck when re-election rolls around.

Mark Kelly: First Space, Next the US Senate?

| Fri Jun. 24, 2011 10:23 AM EDT

The rumor-mill has generated chatter this week that Mark Kelly—veteran, astronaut, and husband of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.)—could make a run for Senate. He announced his retirement from NASA earlier this week, and posted on Facebook that he "will look at new opportunities" to once again "serve our country."

With the coming retirement of Jon Kyl in 2012, there will be an open seat in Arizona available should Kelly decide to run. But this of course raises all kinds of questions about Giffords' status and whether she will be able to run for reelection to her House seat, or possibly—circumstances permitting—run for Senate herself. If she isn't able to run for reelection, Kelly could also run to fill her seat in the lower House.

In either case, he'd have a lot going for him. Spouses running to fill the seat of their partner have done pretty well in the past (usually when the partner dies, but in this case I think the sentiment would still transfer, given the tragic circumstances). Military vets also have a pretty good record, and astronauts have done pretty well for themselves, too. Before she was shot in January, Giffords' was considered a likely candidate to run for Kyl's seat, but since then, no other prime contender has really shaken out of the mix. Might Kelly be the next best choice?