2011 - %3, February

An Orchestra of Elephants

| Mon Feb. 28, 2011 4:45 AM PST
Prateedah the elephant plays the drum.

Imagine building a xylophone for a 6,000-pound mammal. Columbia University neuroscientist slash experimental musician David Soldier (aka David Sulzer) teamed up with elephant expert Richard Lair, and did just that. At the Thai Elephant Conservation Center (TECC), in Lampang, Thailand, the two men taught elephants to play oversized xylophones, drums, chimes, and even harmonicas. An American expat, Lair knew about Ruby, an elephant that had famously learned how to paint pictures. He also understood that elephants loved music. After meeting Soldier, he asked him to join the Thai Elephant Orchestra project, an endeavor that, beyond science and art, was intended to draw attention to the elephants' plight.
 

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Jamba Juice's Mysterious "Dairy Base"

| Mon Feb. 28, 2011 3:30 AM PST
What do they really put in commercial smoothies?

Last week in the New York Times, Mark Bittman scolded McDonald's for turning something as inherently healthy as oatmeal into additive-laden junk food. This got me thinking about another "natural" item that fast-food chains have desecrated: the smoothie. I can make my own relatively low-calorie smoothie with three ingredients (fruit, ice, and skim milk) in my home blender. And yet fast food chains have somehow managed to mess up this simple task.

The bulletin board at the Jamba Juice near MoJo HQ welcomes customers with a colorful, friendly sign that reads, "We commit to bring you consistently great-tasting products made from simple, honest ingredients." The Jamba Juice website highlights its "natural energy from nutritious ingredients." Yet it's actually impossible to get a smoothie made with a base of plain old real milk: Only soy milk can be substituted for the frozen yogurt and sherbet in the "classic" smoothies, and the light smoothies are all made with a mysterious "dairy base" that contains the artificial sweetener Splenda.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for February 28, 2011

Mon Feb. 28, 2011 3:30 AM PST

A Paratrooper from 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, returns fire on the opposing force during the Joint Operation Access Exercise, Feb. 15. Photo via US Army
 

Hating on Vegetables

| Sun Feb. 27, 2011 10:54 AM PST

James Oliphant's piece in the LA Times today tells you everything you need to know about what's wrong with movement conservatism in America today:

Former First Ladies Barbara and Laura Bush worked to end illiteracy. Nancy Reagan famously took on teenage drug use. Lady Bird Johnson planted flowers. But none of them have been seared for something as seemingly benign as calling for kids to eat more vegetables, as Michelle Obama has.

Radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh....remarked on her waistline....Critics have carped about Obama's spread at her Super Bowl party....the end of school bake sales....government takeover of business....increase in pedestrian deaths....Mitt Romney...."Let them eat cake"...."I'm sorry," he crowed. "Organic cake."....encouraging mothers to breast-feed their newborn babies...."very consistent with where the hard left is coming from," [Rep. Michele] Bachmann said....Conservative blogger Jenny Erikson....Obama's efforts were "incredibly insulting to parents."

So that's where we are. A first lady campaigning against obesity and in favor of breast feeding is now the target of all-out war from the right. I imagine that if she were taking on illiteracy, teenage drug use, or planting flowers, the Republican Party would suddenly find itself opposed to reading, defending Mexican drug cartels, and in favor of vacant lots. And yet we're supposed to take these people seriously.

Quote of the Week: "YouTubes Are Infallible"

| Sun Feb. 27, 2011 10:26 AM PST

Photo: Office of Rep. Leo BermanPhoto: Office of Rep. Leo BermanHere's Texas state rep. Leo Berman explaining to Reeve Hamilton why he suspects the President of the United States was not born in the United States:

"I'm just a person who wants to see fact," he said.

Though the Obama campaign produced a certificate of live birth from Hawaii, Mr. Berman was not swayed. "The latest rumor I hear, and I don't know if this is true or not," he said, "is that he's used about 25 different Social Security numbers."

Mr. Berman said he got his information from e-mail and online video clips. "YouTubes are infallible," he said.

Emphasis mine. Anyways, as a test of Berman's universal theory of YouTubes infallibity, I present this 100-percent-true documentary about how Denver International Airport is actually a New World Order death camp. No, really it's true; I saw it on YouTube:

Dating Advice for Lesbians

| Sat Feb. 26, 2011 4:00 AM PST
Flickr/alikai

My girlfriend and I have had a great, loving, romantic relationship for three years now. The sex is still great too, but we both kinda fancy the idea of having a threesome (having another lady join us as a one-time-only deal). We are not looking for a polyamorous relationship, just something a little different under the sheets. Would such an experience be harmful to our relationship? Are we getting into "bad" territory?

Anna says: Doesn't seem like it. Assuming y'all are both on the same page about what you want, who you want, and what that might mean for your relationship. Threesomes can be tricky because as hot as they may seem in our fantasies, the realities of the situation can play out very differently. (Is there any good way to excuse yourself from an orgy?)

The most important thing you can do is to communicate a lot. You do not want to go into this with a "we'll just see what happens!" attitude because that kind of devil-may-care approach is what leads to crying, resentment, and reality TV shows about midgets. This is going to sound super business, but seriously, make a spreadsheet. Fill it with three columns: This stuff is OK, this stuff might be OK, and this is not OK at all.

Then try to think up everything that might happen and assess how you feel about it. For instance, will you do it at your place or theirs? Will you spend the night together? How do you feel about spooning? Are there acts that are sacred to the two of you that you don’t want the third person to get in on? This might sound like a bit of a killjoy to spontaneity, or the opposite of hot, but I’m of the mind that good sex often requires planning. Especially when you add more people to the mix. And don’t skip the talk about safety either. There’s a persistent myth that lesbians can’t give each other STIs, which is made worse by the fact that lesbians get tested less often than straight chicks, due to the whole no-pregnancy-scares shtick, as well as the prejudice queer women face in the health care system generally.

Read the rest at AfterEllen.

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Corn on "Hardball": More Gunplay From the GOP

Fri Feb. 25, 2011 5:40 PM PST

David Corn and Brian Levin joined Chris Matthews on MSNBC's Hardball to discuss Rep. Paul Broun's non-condemnation of a constituent's question about shooting President Obama and the GOP's continued use of gunplay in their political rhetoric even after the Giffords shooting.

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

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week [4]

| Fri Feb. 25, 2011 2:59 PM PST

Mother Jones guest blogger Mark Armstrong is the founder of Longreads, a site devoted to uncovering the best long-form nonfiction articles available online. And what better time to curl up with a great read than over the weekend? Below, a hand-picked bouquet of five interesting stories, including word count and approximate reading time. (Readers can also subscribe to The Top 5 Longreads of the Week by clicking here.)

Gov. Walker Played Political Chicken With Public Jobs

| Fri Feb. 25, 2011 2:13 PM PST
Flickr/WisPolitics.com

For the past week, Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker has wielded the threat of statewide layoffs if his controversial "budget repair bill" isn't passed immediately. He's said that as many as 1,500 state workers—teachers, nurses, janitors, bureaucrats, and more—could lose their jobs by July if the 14 Senate Democrats in hiding didn't return so the Senate could vote on the bill. But while Walker casts the current layoffs as a purely fiscal issue, he's used the threat of job losses before as political leverage, playing chicken with the livelihoods of public workers.

In the fall of 2009, Milwaukee County's budget was in bad shape. Facing a $3 million deficit, Walker, then the county executive, went looking for places to cut. In late October, he announced plans to axe 180 county workers by Thanksgiving as a way to balance the budget. With the year drawing to a close, Walker argued, the only way to solve Milwaukee County's financial headache was layoffs.

Not long after, though, county department chiefs returned to Walker with promises to save up to a million dollars through non-employee cuts of their own. Just as soon as he'd announced that pink slips were going out, Walker backed off. No one was getting laid off, he announced.

But here's the kicker: In an interview a few days after backing down, Walker told a Madison radio station that the layoff threat was merely a ploy. "I needed to get their attention to show how serious we were about having a balanced budget," Walker said on the "Sly in the Morning" show on WTDY radio.

Graeme Zielinski, a spokesman for the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, said Walker has played political games like this for "his entire career."

"He's played games with people's livelihoods, oftentimes with zero reason," Zielinski says. "He kicks around the less fortunate, and this time he's kicking aorund the working people in this state."

Teacher Union Head Wants to Overhaul Teacher Tenure

| Fri Feb. 25, 2011 2:00 PM PST

Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, announced a plan Thursday night to overhaul the teacher tenure laws that guide how teachers are evaluated and fired. Here's how the process works currently, generally speaking: A teacher usually spends two-three years in the classroom before becoming a permanent employee. During that probationary period, a teacher can be let go at the end of the year for almost any reason. After a teacher becomes tenured, critics (including Waiting for Superman) argue that it's difficult to dismiss ineffective teachers. Critics also argue that the current system places too much emphasis on seniority versus quality. In many schools, including Mission High School where I report, that can mean that hard-to-recruit young teachers of color are the first to get pink slips in a budget-strapped state.

Of course, the devil of this overhaul will be in the details. Will the overhaul just increase managerial flexibility? Or will it also implement more effective teacher evaluation systems, using multiple measures? I'm at Mission High School today and can't review AFT's new plan, but here's what The New York Times says about it:

"Teachers rated unsatisfactory would be given a detailed "improvement plan" jointly devised by school administrators and experienced master teachers. Some improvement plans - like maintaining better classroom order - could last a month. Others would take a full school year. The results would be considered separately by administrators and the peer experts, whose judgments would be sent to a neutral arbitrator. The arbitrator would be required to decide within 100 days whether to keep or fire the teacher."