2014 - %3, August

Film Review: Life Itself

| Wed Oct. 29, 2014 5:31 PM EDT

Life Itself

KARTEMQUIN FILMS

There's a scene early in Life Itself when a hospitalized Roger Ebert, missing his lower jaw after multiple surgeries for thyroid cancer, needs his throat suctioned. The camera holds steady as Ebert winces through the procedure, but then an email box pops up on the screen. "great stuff!!!!!" types Ebert, no longer able to speak. "I'm happy we got a great thing that nobody ever sees: suction." Director Steve James (Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters) blends an intimate end-of-life story with Ebert's wide-ranging biography: precocious college newspaper editor, recovering drunk, screenwriter of the schlocky Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, friend and critic of Hollywood's biggest names. But for all of Ebert's exploits, it's the private moments James captures, like his increasingly brief email responses as cancer slowly wins out, that endure.

This review originally appeared in our September/October issue of Mother Jones. 

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Film Review: "The Overnighters"

| Mon Oct. 27, 2014 1:57 PM EDT

The Overnighters

MILE END FILMS

This engrossing film is set in Williston, North Dakota, where locals are freaking out about the hordes of desperate men in need of cash and a fresh start who pour into their tiny town in search of fracking jobs. A local pastor takes pity on them, converting his Concordia Lutheran Church into an ad hoc shelter. He's resolute, even as his family reels from the criticism of angry neighbors and congregants who want him to be a little less Christian. But he risks losing everything when the local paper reports that sex offenders are among the visitors. Up through its devastating reveal, The Overnighters questions the motivations behind (and consequences of) our choices and convictions.

This review originally appeared in our September/October issue of Mother Jones. 

Book Review: The Birth of the Pill

| Tue Oct. 14, 2014 4:24 PM EDT
birth of the pill

The Birth of the Pill

By Jonathan Eig

NORTON

Seventy years ago, birth control—illegal, crude, and unreliable—was reserved for women with means whose men were willing to go along. Jonathan Eig's gripping history recounts how two men and two women fought science and society for a pill to enable smaller families (and low-risk recreational sex). Their campaign, which touted pragmatism (population control, economics) over pleasure, won some unlikely victories: the support of a devout Catholic OB-GYN, for instance, and the backing of a feisty heiress who once smuggled more than 1,000 diaphragms into the States, sewn into the folds of the latest European fashions. The pill is utterly ordinary today. The story of how we got here is anything but.

This review originally appeared in our September/October issue of Mother Jones. 

Book Review: My Life As a Foreign Country

| Tue Sep. 16, 2014 3:33 PM EDT
my life as a foreign country

My Life As a Foreign Country

By Brian Turner

NORTON

In this moving account of his time as a sergeant in Iraq, Brian Turner, whose poem "The Hurt Locker" was the namesake for the Oscar-winning film, delivers a succession of oddly beautiful, appropriately devastating reflections that drive home the realities of war. Turner takes us from training camp to war zone and home again, where, in bed with his wife, he dreams he's a drone, flying over countries of wars past.

This review originally appeared in our September/October issue of Mother Jones. 

Book Review: The Human Age

| Wed Sep. 10, 2014 2:32 PM EDT
the human age

The Human Age

By Diane Ackerman

NORTON

Is humankind so dominant that we deserve our very own geologic era? Naturalist Diane Ackerman answers an emphatic "yes" in this ambitious survey of our brief reign on Earth. Despite pockets of purplish prose, The Human Age is a well-crafted and often compelling book: Orangutans with iPads, self-aware robots, and visionary fishermen are characters in her expansive story of how human advancement affects our lives and our environment. Ackerman is neither overly optimistic nor alarmist as she explores the pros and cons of humanity, expressing wonder and concern at all the things we're capable of.

This review originally appeared in our September/October issue of Mother Jones.

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Russia Is Going After McDonald’s. (Can We Give Them Jack in the Box?)

| Fri Aug. 29, 2014 3:28 PM EDT
A McDonalds in St. Petersburg, Russia

Russia's health inspection agency is scrutinizing more than 100 McDonald's locations and has forced the company to temporarily close multiple others in the country. The agency says McDonalds outlets are getting inspected because some have violated sanitary regulations— but others see retaliation for US sanctions on Russia.

"This is a prominent symbol of the U.S. It has a lot of restaurants and therefore is a meaningful target," Yulia Bushueva, managing director for Arbat Capital, an investment advisory company, told Bloomberg. "I don't recall McDonald's having consumer-safety problems of such a scale in over more than two decades of presence in Russia."

McDonald's was the first fast food chain to enter Russia, and it holds some symbolic importance in the country. The first location opened in Pushkin Square in Moscow in January 1990 to one utterly massive line (see video below). This was shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall but nearly two years before the dissolution of the Soviet Union when Western brands of any stripe were a rare sight in Russia. At the time, the site of the Golden Arches in the center of Moscow signaled the arrival of a new era of prosperity and integration with the world economy.

Today, there are more than 400 McDonald's outlets in the country. Many are owned locally. The company employs more than 37,000 people in Russia and sources 85 percent of its products from Russian suppliers, according to its website.

But as Russia and the West began facing off over Ukraine this spring, McDonald's has fallen victim to their power struggle. In April, McDonald's announced it would close it's three company-owned locations in Crimea "due to operational reasons beyond our control," according to their statement to Reuters.

That decision was praised by Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a prominent legislator and Putin supporter, who suggested the chain should leave Russia as well. "It would be good if they closed here too, if they disappeared for good," he said in Russian media. "Pepsi-Cola would be next." Zhirinovsky also proposed instructing members of his Liberal Democratic party to picket outside McDonald's until they closed.

Since August 20, McDonald's has temporarily closed 12 locations throughout Russia, including four in Krasnodar, near the black sea, and the iconic first-ever location in Moscow. Burger King, Subway, and KFC— which have all seen big expansions in Russia in recent years— have remained unscathed.

Friday Cat Blogging - 29 August 2014

| Fri Aug. 29, 2014 1:51 PM EDT

It's the return of quilt blogging! Sort of. In any case, there's a quilt in the background because that happens to be where Domino was posing this week. I think she's auditioning to be the model for a new pair of sculptures outside the New York Public Library.

Chart of the Day: When Women Fail, They Pay a Bigger Price Than Men

| Fri Aug. 29, 2014 1:19 PM EDT

The chart below is not part of a study that examines a statistically random set of data. It's quite informal, and probably suffers from some inherent sampling biases. Nonetheless, it's pretty astonishing:

Here's the background: Kieran Snyder asked men and women working in the tech industry to share their performance reviews with her. Virtually all of them were high performers who got generally strong reviews. But it wasn't all positive:

In the 177 reviews where people receive critical feedback, men and women receive different kinds. The critical feedback men receive is heavily geared towards suggestions for additional skills to develop....The women’s reviews include another, sharper element that is absent from the men’s:

“You can come across as abrasive sometimes. I know you don’t mean to, but you need to pay attention to your tone.”

[Etc.]

This kind of negative personality criticism—watch your tone! step back! stop being so judgmental!—shows up twice in the 83 critical reviews received by men. It shows up in 71 of the 94 critical reviews received by women.

This comes via Shane Ferro, who concludes that there's probably good reason for women to be more cautious than men in their professional lives. It's easy to tell women they shouldn't be afraid to fail. "But we as a society (men and women), need to stop judging women so harshly for their flaws. For them to be equally good, it has to be okay that they are equally bad sometimes."

Has Vladimir Putin Painted Himself Into a Corner?

| Fri Aug. 29, 2014 12:14 PM EDT

Max Fisher writes today that Vladimir Putin probably never wanted to invade Ukraine. So why did he? It all started when he was elected to a third term as president amid continuing economic stagnation:

Putin expected another boisterously positive reception, but that's not what he happened. Instead, he got protests in major cities, opposition candidates, and, even according to the highly suspicious official tally, only 63 percent of the vote.

Putin panicked. He saw his legitimacy slipping and feared a popular revolt. So he changed strategies. Rather than basing his political legitimacy on economic growth, he would base it on reviving Russian nationalism: imperial nostalgia, anti-Western paranoia, and conservative Orthodox Christianity.

....Then the Ukraine crisis began....In March 2014, Putin indulged his own rhetoric about saving Ukraine's ethnic Russians — and seized an opportunity to reclaim a former Soviet strategic port — when he launched a stealth invasion of Crimea....This is when the crisis began to slip beyond Putin's control....The nationalistic rhetoric inside Russia was cranked up to a fever pitch. Putin's propaganda had built a parallel universe for Russians, in which the stakes in eastern Ukraine were dire not just for Russia but for the world....But the violence in eastern Ukraine was spinning out of control, with Ukrainian military forces looking like they were on the verge of overrunning the rebels.

In a rational world, Putin would have cut his losses and withdrawn support for the rebels. But, thanks to months of propagandistic state media, Russians do not live in a rational world. They live in a world where surrendering in eastern Ukraine would mean surrendering to American-backed Ukrainian Nazis, and they believe everything that Putin has told them about being the only person capable of defeating these forces of darkness. To withdraw would be to admit that it was all a lie and to sacrifice the nationalism that is now his only source of real legitimacy. So Putin did the only thing he could to do to keep up the fiction upon which his political survival hinges: he invaded Ukraine outright.

Is this basically correct? It's more or less the way I view events in Russia, so it appeals to me. But I don't know enough about Russia to have a lot of confidence that this is really the best explanation for Putin's actions.

It's also not clear—to me, anyway—that Putin is truly stuck in a situation he never wanted. I agree that this interpretation makes sense. Eastern Ukraine just flatly doesn't seem worth the price he would have to pay for it. But that's easy to say from seven thousand miles away. I wonder if this is really the way Putin sees things?