2012 - %3, April

Peasant's Bound for Glory

| Mon Apr. 23, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Peasant
Bound for Glory
Schnitzel Records

Damien DeRose, the 25-year-old at the heart of the indie trio Peasant, started making music as a teenager living in small-town Bucks County, Pennsylvania. He produced his first three albums—Fear Not Distant Lover, On the Ground, and Shady Retreat—largely on his own before bringing in bassist Bruno Joseph and drummer Alex Bortnichak for a more robust sound on the just-released Bound for Glory.

DeRose's delicate acoustic songs have earned him frequent comparisons to the likes of Elliott Smith and Nick Drake, but he's tried to distinguish himself from the continuous stream of indie-folk types. He told Paste he chose the Peasant moniker in an attempt to escape the ubiquitous "singer-songwriter" label, hoping that a more distinctive name would help him define his work as part of an ongoing artistic project. The name itself, he said, came from the famous line in John Lennon's "Working Class Hero"—"But you're still fucking peasants as far as I can see"—a choice he thinks makes a subtle statement about inequality in America while simultaneously conveying the band's simple aesthetic.

So does Peasant succeed in standing out from the pack? It depends: the band's music occasionally borders on the forgettably twee, as on the cloying "A Little One," while a couple of songs, like "Gone Far Lost" and "Mother Mary," cross the line from sleepy charm to soporific lull. Other songs are captivating despite modest ambitions: "Amends" is slight, but DeRoses's lilting vocals, in tandem with effervescent guitars, give it a quiet charm; likewise for the quavering vocals and sprightly cadence of "Take It Light."

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Quote of the Day: "Pineapples Don't Have Sleeves"

| Sun Apr. 22, 2012 4:45 PM EDT

The New York Times reports this weekend that the state of New York is in a meltdown over a recent piece of alleged standardized test idiocy. Here's the nickel version: It's about a short story on the 8th grade reading test. In the story, a pineapple (yes, a pineapple) challenges a hare to a race. The hare accepts. The pineapple insists it can win. But how? A nearby moose says the pineapple must have something up its sleeve. "Pineapples don't have sleeves," says the owl. Then the race starts, and the pineapple just stands there. A little while later the hare loops around to the finish line and the pineapple is still standing still. So the animals all eat the pineapple. The End.

This is obviously a nonsense story. Is that kosher for an 8th grade reading test, even if the kids all think it's weird? Seems OK to me. But the real issue, apparently, is that two of the questions about the story have been judged too ambiguous. The kids were confused. This is something I'm normally sympathetic to, since I often see answers on standardized tests that strike me as tricky to judge even though I'm a whole lot smarter than your average 8th grader.

But this time I don't see it. The story and the questions are here. The allegedly tricky questions are 7 and 8. But despite the nonsensical nature of the story, the answers seem pretty clear to me.

Nonetheless, "Pineapples don't have sleeves," has apparently taken on iconic stature in New York, and the state education commissioner has decreed that the questions won't be counted in final scores. A victory for common sense!

So your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to read the story (it's very short) and then look at the questions. Do they seem unfair? They don't to me, but maybe I'm missing something.

UPDATE: A couple of specialists have emailed to say that on high-stakes tests like this one, the general rule is to allow very little ambiguity at all. The right answer should be extremely clear. If that's the case, then I agree that this story and these questions should have been ditched. I don't think the answers were all that ambiguous, but there was certainly some ambiguity.

That said, I guess I don't understand why anything like this would have been invented in the first place. Is there really any need for creativity in tests like this? Or even a need to buy passages from published authors? Just construct a short piece, either fiction or nonfiction, and ask some straightforward questions about it. What's so hard?

Vacation Bleg: Copenhagen & Rome

| Sat Apr. 21, 2012 1:35 PM EDT

Guess what? It's vacation time again! This time it's a family affair, and we'll be spending a week in Copenhagen in the middle of May followed by a week in Rome during the last week of May. Anybody have some interesting suggestions? Stuff off the beaten path that we should be sure to see? Let me know in comments.

Buddy Roemer Redefines the Political Circus

| Sat Apr. 21, 2012 6:00 AM EDT
Gov. Buddy Roemer

"We've got to redefine America!" Buddy Roemer roars, sounding exactly like the former Congressman, ex-governor, and current presidential hopeful that he is. But what he says next is a bit of a departure from campaign-trail boilerplate. "Look at Southwest Airlines!" he shouts. "Who here likes Southwest?! I love Southwest! No numbers, no lines, you sit wherever you want! They've redefined the airline!"

"And look at Cirque du Soleil!" he goes on. "Look at what they've done! No popcorn, no sodas! No animals!" Roemer looks incredulous. "No animals!"

Buddy Roemer, you might say, is seeking to redefine the circus. Having had it with both the Democrats, who first made him a Congressman in the 1980s, and the GOP, his party for the past quarter-century, he is running for the nomination of the Reform Party. It's slow going—the campaign event I attended was held in a small classroom on the University of California-Berkeley campus, with maybe 30 students and aging hippies in attendance.

Two Years After the BP Spill, Gulf Oysters Are Full Of Heavy Metals

| Fri Apr. 20, 2012 4:40 PM EDT

On the second anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon explosion, evidence of the spill's ongoing impacts on Gulf people and ecosystems continues to mount. As if eyeless shrimp, toxic beaches, and dead dolphins weren't bad enough, a new study suggests that Gulf oysters are also in trouble.

A team of scientists led by Dr. Peter Roopnarine of the California Academy of Sciences says that oysters in the Gulf contain higher concentrations of the heavy metals found in crude oil now than they did before the spill. Using a method known—awesomely—as "laser ablation inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry," the scientists vaporized oyster shells and ionized them, separating out different elements according to their mass and making it possible scientists to identify them.* They measured higher concentrations of vanadium, cobalt, and chromium—three heavy metals present in oil—in the oysters sampled after the spill. Even more worrisome, the team found that 89 percent of post-spill specimens displayed the signs of metaplasia, a condition in which tissues are transformed in response to stress. Oysters suffering from the condition often have trouble reproducing, which could have worrisome implications for oyster populations and the species further up the food chain that depend on them.

Scientists don't yet know how trace metals like those found in the oysters move through food chains, or what effects they could have on high-level consumers, including people. This study is just the start of a broader effort to understand the impacts of heavy metals on Gulf ecosystems: the team is planning to conduct a similar analysis of mussels, and hopes to model the potential impacts of the spill on the Gulf food web. For now, though, the study provides more evidence that the oil spill's effects are still being felt, and are likely to continue long into the future. The findings are particularly troubling in light of past studies indicating that the combination of heavy metal pollution and warmer temperatures is especially deadly for oysters—a fact that doesn't bode well in an age of warming seas.

It's yet another piece of bad news for Louisiana's oystermen, who are still struggling to recover from the double whammy of Katrina and the BP spill, and faced with consumers afraid to eat the oysters they do manage to harvest. For many, particularly in the African-American, Cajun, and Croatian communities, oyster fishing is a tradition stretching back generations; for them, the long-term effects of the spill threaten to put an end to a way of life with a proud heritage. It's also bad news for the state's economy, which reaped around $300 million from oyster sales in good years before the spill. And of course, it's bad news for lovers of the region's iconic sandwich, the oyster po'boy.

One bright spot amidst the often-bleak Gulf Coast news comes in the form of the RESTORE Act, which has been slowly winding its way through Congress over the past year. If enacted, it would deliver much-needed funds—80 percent of BP's Clean Water Act fines—to coastal communities and coastal restoration projects; fingers crossed that the bad news about ongoing ecosystem and social impacts will have a silver lining in the form of greater impetus for the act's passage.

 

Correction: The original version of this article stated that the elements were identified according to the light that they radiated rather than their mass. Thanks to a commenter who pointed out the error, it has been corrected.

 

Americans on Environment News: We Want More!

| Fri Apr. 20, 2012 3:15 PM EDT

It may not come as much of a surprise that news on the environment drags far behind in popularity compared with, say, news on whether or not Lindsay Lohan wears a bra, but apparently Americans are beginning to realize there's a problem. According to results from a nationwide poll released Thursday, roughly 79 percent of Americans believe environmental news needs a drastic overhaul—both in terms of how much it's being covered and what's making up the conversation.

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Friday Cat Blogging - 20 April 2012

| Fri Apr. 20, 2012 2:55 PM EDT

Today is outdoor portrait day! On the left, Inkblot is pretending that he's king of the jungle. On the right, Domino is favoring us all with her squinty look.

Need more cats? If you haven't yet seen Henrí the existential cat, you should. The original Henrí is here; the sequel is here. And my sister (aka Inkblot's Aunt) sends along news of Boo the doorstop thwanger, via the Daily Mail. Scroll to the bottom for the video.

The United States Has Not Abandoned Space. Really.

| Fri Apr. 20, 2012 2:33 PM EDT

Charles Krauthammer, it turns out, is a small-government conservative only as long as our small government keeps doing all the stuff that Charles Krauthammer gets a kick out of. Today he's unhappy about the end of the space shuttle program:

Is there a better symbol of willed American decline? The pity is not Discovery’s retirement — beautiful as it was, the shuttle proved too expensive and risky to operate — but that it died without a successor. The planned follow-on — the Constellation rocket-capsule program to take humans back into orbit and from there to the moon — was suddenly canceled in 2010. And with that, control of manned spaceflight was gratuitously ceded to Russia and China.

....There are always excuses for putting off strenuous national endeavors: deficits, joblessness, poverty, whatever. But they shall always be with us....NASA will tell you that it’s got a new program to go way beyond low-Earth orbit and, as per Obama’s instructions, land on an asteroid by the mid-2020s. Considering that Constellation did not last even five years between birth and cancellation, don’t hold your breath for the asteroid landing.

Nor for the private sector to get us back into orbit, as Obama assumes it will. True, hauling MREs up and trash back down could be done by private vehicles. But manned flight is infinitely more complex and risky, requiring massive redundancy and inevitably larger expenditures. Can private entities really handle that? And within the next lost decade or two?

Krauthammer agrees that the shuttle was a boondoggle, but he wants a replacement program anyway. He agrees that deficits are a problem, but apparently not a problem that should be solved by cutting programs he thinks are cool. And although he's normally the country's biggest fan of private enterprise, he doesn't think the private sector is up to this particular task. That's a mighty fair-weather version of conservatism, I'd say.

But the most annoying part of this column is that Krauthammer shamelessly sidles around the most important fact of all: the United States isn't retreating from space. We're only retreating from manned space flight. Our technology for boosting satellites and unmanned probes into space remains unmatched, and the technology that goes into those satellites and unmanned probes is phenomenal — and getting more phenomenal every year. They are marvels of advanced technology. If you want to insist that the federal government should spend gazillions of dollars making sure that there are always a few American citizens orbiting the earth, that's fine. But that's the argument you need to make. And when you make it, you need to keep in mind one of the oldest jokes about the shuttle program:

The purpose of the space shuttle is to take astronauts up to the space station. The purpose of the space station is to give the shuttle someplace to take the astronauts.

Personally, I wouldn't mind spending some boondogglish money on a manned space program. I'm not a big fan, mind you, but I can think of worse things to flush our money away on. But I wonder if Krauthammer would agree to raise taxes on the wealthy in order to do it? That might tell us just how serious he really is about our supposedly "willed decline."

Vietnam Dispatch: The Salt Problem

| Fri Apr. 20, 2012 1:20 PM EDT

Kate Sheppard is reporting this week from Vietnam, where she's learning how the country is already adapting to climate change. To read her first dispatch—from a farm where one family is planting a new type of watermelons designed to withstand weird weather caused by global warming, click here.

The disappearing coastline is one of the most oft-cited concerns about climate change, as rising sea levels gradually chip away at the edge of our terrestrial domain. In Vietnam, that's certainly a concern, with 2,025 miles of exposed coastline. But more immediately, the rising seas are pushing salty water into freshwater sources like the mighty Mekong River.

The delta is the region of southern Vietnam were the branches of the river reach the sea. Known here as the "Nine Dragons" of the Mekong, the tributaries pass through fertile farmland before emptying into the sea. Salinity intrusion has long been a problem, but as the sea level rises, the salty waters of the South China Sea are traveling farther up the long fingers of the Mekong. The salt poses an immediate threat to much of the agriculture here: rice, coconuts, and other crops. It's also making it harder for people who live here to access freshwater for drinking, cooking, and bathing.

This is a particular challenge in Vietnam's Ben Tre province, whose land lies between four of the Mekong's dragons. I visited Ben Tre, a sleepy coastal province about two hours from Ho Chi Minh City, as part of a field trip for the Community-Based Adaptation Conference taking place in Vietnam this week. Ben Tre is the most affected of the country's provinces in terms of sea level rise, with 50 percent of its land area expected to be submerged by 2100 with one meter of sea level rise (which is within the range of what scientists predict will occur). But saltwater intrusion is already a major problem, and local officials say that the brackish water is creeping as much as five kilometers farther up the river each year. (It's also exacerbated by decreased flow down the Mekong from big dams upstream, and by more severe dry seasons that mean less fresh water flowing through.)

It's not just in Ben Tre. Here's the projection for salinity intrusion throughout the Mekong Delta from climate researchers at Can Tho University's DRAGON Institute:

DRAGON Institute/World BankDRAGON Institute/World Bank

Home to 1.3 million people, Ben Tre has nearly tripled its GDP in recent decades by increasing agricultural and shrimp exports, and boasts that it's the "coconut capitol" of Vietnam. But access to freshwater is crucial to continued development here, and getting that water is getting really difficult.

This is one reason the Vietnamese government has made Ben Tre a pilot site for a National Target Program to Respond to Climate Change. The first projects have included building a dam and a sluice gate to protect freshwater in the region. Earlier this week, I went out to see the earthen dam in the Thanh Tri commune that now closes off a branch of the river so that salt water can't enter. To get out to this part of the country, we crossed over five smaller fingers off the river, rumbling over five tiny one-lane bridges.

The dam was started in 2010 and completed a year later. Now, on one side shrimpers and farmers load up large boats with goods for transport. On the other, coconut trees grow along the freshwater. Atop the dam, a few locals are repairing small wooden boats used to navigate the tributaries and channels. The province also built a large sluice gate on another branch of the Mekong to prevent saline intrusion back in 2002.

The newest dam might seem underwhelming; after all, who hasn't seen a dam before, and this one is really just a pile of dirt. But they're significant for several reasons. For one, it's expensive to build a dam. This project was paid for with part of a $25 million grant from the Danish government, which is also providing technical support for the province. And for two, it's kind of a big deal to dam off open access to a waterway—a permanent testament to the fact that the Vietnamese government doesn't think this problem is getting any better any time soon.

 

A pile of coconuts beside the new dam.: Kate SheppardA pile of coconuts beside the new dam Kate Sheppard

Quote of the Day: The Tornado of Idiocy That is American Politics

| Fri Apr. 20, 2012 12:53 PM EDT

From Ezra Klein, after learning that conservatives are attacking President Obama for eating dog meat when he was a seven-year-old growing up in Indonesia:

After I learned the story, I felt a little worse about myself for being in any way involved in the tornado of idiocy that is American politics.

Ezra points to a recent handful of especially idiotic silly-season incidents, and I just want to point out that, unlike Ezra, I heard about all of these things in real time. That's what being a pro is all about, boys and girls. No need to thank me.