2009 - %3, September

Health Reform Rocker: We're Number 37!

| Wed Sep. 30, 2009 3:20 PM EDT

It should no longer be any surprise to anyone that our most exceptional nation spends more on health care per capita (by a huge margin) than other countries. And that the quality of US health care, in spite of—or rather, because of—all our sweet gadgetry, ranks embarassingly low. Didn't see this the first time out, but my dad forwarded me this YouTube video of Huffington Post contributor—and Jonathan Mann imitator?—Paul Hipp rocking out on this issue. Which is kinda funny, since my dad never listens to rock 'n' roll, and rarely forwards me stuff. But he is a health policy expert. So anyway, here's "We're Number 37" (woo-hoo!).

 

 

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GOP Calendar Girls

| Wed Sep. 30, 2009 2:02 PM EDT

Have a thing for ladies of the GOP? Then why not purchase the 2010 "Great American Conservative Women" calendar?

Set for release Friday, it features such right-wing luminaries as Ann Coulter and Bay Buchanan, clad in white shirts and bathed in soft light. The target audience appears to be young women—students get it for free. Apparently, the idea is to encourage the youth of America to speak out against gay rights (like calendar girl Carrie Prejean, above), call feminism evil and embrace the atomic bomb (like Phyllis Schlafly), or just generally act insane (like Michelle Bachmann).

Noticeably absent: Sarah Palin.

Watch the behind-the-scenes video below:

Facebook Poll Asks: Kill Obama?

| Mon Sep. 28, 2009 7:34 PM EDT

The Secret Service is investigating a facebook poll (since taken down) that asked if Obama should be assassinated.

The answer choices: "Yes," "No,” "Maybe," and "Yes if he cuts my health care."

Pretty scary stuff. But what’s scarier is how unsurprising it is.

Really, what's the difference between this and a gun-toting Obama-hater holding a sign that says "It's Time to Water the Tree of Liberty"—a nod to a Jefferson quote about neccessary bloodshed? (The health care angle is particularly predictable, considering the feverish odium it’s evoked).

But gimmicks like these tend to serve as an easy access point for greater social ills. And there’s something about a poll like this—its hatred so distilled and its medium so pedestrian—that forces you to confront the question: Just how bad have things become?

Music Monday: The Monsters of Folk Rock Out, Sort Of

| Mon Sep. 28, 2009 6:30 AM EDT

Let's pretend that Monsters of Folk is, true to its tongue-in-cheek name, actually a supergroup. The first rule of supergroup appreciation is that you have to pick your favorite member. Sometimes it's a tricky choice: Nelson, Lefty, or Lucky Wilbury? Willie, Johnny, or Waylon? In Monsters of Folk, you have your pick of four artists who are neither real folkies nor real rock stars: M. Ward, Conor Oberst, Jim James, and Mike Mogis. Before even picking up their self-titled disc, my money was on M. Ward. I still have his Transfiguration of Vincent and Post-War on heavy rotation and even though his recent efforts have gone a bit soft (the inoffensive Hold Time and She & Him, a collaboration with the adorable yet Auto-Tune-worthy Zooey Deschanel), I'm a sucker for his melancholy pop.

Bright Eyes frontman Conor Oberst would be my runner-up, but only because I've never really listened to James' My Morning Jacket because the phrase "jam band" is often in proximity to its name, fairly or not. Bright Eyes' I'm Wide Awake It's Morning was great, but I have a low tolerance for Oberst's earnest warbling. And I must confess I have never heard of Mike Mogis (a member of Bright Eyes, and as the M.O.F.'s pinch hitter-slash-engineer, its Jeff Lynne, to borrow a Wilbury). So doing some quick supergroup mental math, I figured if M.O.F. was half as enjoyable as an M. Ward album, I'd be content.

Bay Area News Project: Serious Money Behind Nonprofit Journalism

| Fri Sep. 25, 2009 8:04 PM EDT

Warren Hellman, the patron saint of the Best. Festival. In. San Francisco. Ever. is plunking down $5 million to seed the creation of what's being called the Bay Area News Project, a journalism outfit that'll be linked with KQED public radio and television, UC Berkeley's J-School, and it looks like The New York Times.  Alan Mutter has the best summary of the deal, and Dave Cohn just put up a smart post about what he hopes Hellman's project does. Lots of details still to be worked out, so I think it's way too early to say much more than that I'm really hoping this works out.

Okay, that having been said, I've got a couple more things to say.

Do Americans Really Watch 8 Hours of TV Daily?

| Fri Sep. 25, 2009 2:44 PM EDT

It's no surprise that Americans are world-champion couch potatoes, but just how bad are we? According to this chart in the Economist, we watch more than twice as much TV than other countries:
 

TV Watching


More than eight hours of TV a day!? That's disturbing. (So is that kid zoning out to nothing but static.) When a friend posted this graphic on Facebook yesterday, it spurred a mild meltdown in the comment thread. But then, the disbelief was coming from statistical outliers such as me. My family's TV set lives in the closet with a "Kill Your Television" sticker on it. I recently discovered that I'd let yet another digital TV converter coupon expire and missed my final chance to get another one, making me the last American under 75 with a now-useless analog-only TV. (Maybe that kid watching static is unlucky enough to have a parent like me. No wait—parents like me don't let our kids watch TV.) Still, the eight hours a day stat seems nuts. But is it?

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When American Narcs (and British Bloggers) Just Say Yes to Drugs

| Thu Sep. 24, 2009 1:39 PM EDT

If you're associated with drug enforcement and moonlight as a drug dealer, this month has not been easy on your kind. Last week authorities in Maryland busted up a $1.5 million cocaine ring. Among the 12 arrested, a former DC cop.

Earlier this month, the DEA arrested Richard Padilla, a high-ranking US official in the war on drugs, for serving "as a secret ally" to the drug lords of Mexican cartels. This from the LA Times:

"The charges underscore the corruptive might of the cartels, which have bought off Mexican politicians, police chiefs and military commandos. Drug lords have corrupted U.S. border inspectors and agents to help smuggle cocaine north. In 2006, the FBI chief in El Paso was convicted of charges related to concealing his friendship with an alleged kingpin."

Ah, the corruptive influence of Mexican drug cartels. That's the same point we made in our July/August cover story. And it doesn't stop in Mexico—but really now, who's surprised?

And finally, in other drug news, two amazing tidbits:

  • It must be hard out there for a narc, because after executing a drug raid, some cops in Tampa got a Wii bit distracted by the suspect's video games.
  • And... We so badly want to claim British blogger Andrew Sullivan as a fellow American that we don't care what he's smoking; he didn't even have to pay his $125 fine after getting caught with pot on National Park Service property. It just goes to show we DO like immigrants, and let them be naughty—or shill for the party, in the case of former GOP operative Michael Kamburowski—as long as they speak English well enough to write for The Atlantic.

Correction: Oops! In the original post, I misidentified Sullivan as Canadian. What was I smoking? Fixed.

Dan Brown Sells 100,000 e-Copies of The Lost Symbol

| Wed Sep. 23, 2009 2:42 PM EDT

Although it's barely into its second week of sales, more than two million copies of Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown's long awaited thriller The Lost Symbol have flown off the shelves. Not surprising, considering the Da Vinci Code sold an absurd 81 million copies (compared with 17 million for the entire Twilight series).

What is surprising is just how many of those copies were electronic: Roughly 100,000 e-copies of The Lost Symbol sold last week, which is about five percent of the book's total global sales, and close to nine percent of its US sales. Amazon won't release its total e-book sales figures, but Brown's book is locked in at No. 1 on the Bestseller list. 

One thing is for sure: If you analyze Amazon's best selling e-books side by side with the New York Times best sellers list, the dead tree readers seem a bit smarter and a lot more liberal than the e-readers.

Observe: No's 4 and 5 on the Amazon e-list are Glenn Beck's Arguing with Idiots and Common Sense, respectively, followed by Michelle Malkin's Culture of Corruption, an out-and-out attack of the Obama administration. Of course, Kindle doesn't have a monopoly on the conservative treatise market—Bill O'Reilly's latest offering clings to the NYT list at No. 8, but it's sandwiched between Tracy Kidder's new book about a medical student caught in Burundi's civil war and Nick Kristof's latest about the trafficking of women in Asia and Africa, both decidedly more highbrow than anything in the Kindle's top ten. 

Once again, the internet's wealth of data has compelled us to compartmentalize our interests and narrow our worldview. We no longer browse. It's an unfortunate trait to bring to the world of books, and if the Kindle bestsellers are any indication, one that won't disappear soon.

Is Twitter Feeding the NYT?

| Wed Sep. 23, 2009 12:46 PM EDT

On Monday, a small corner of the Internet exploded with reports that Martin Nisenholtz, Senior Vice-President of digital operations at The New York Times Co., had credited Twitter with 10 percent of NYTimes.com traffic. That would be roughly 2.8 million people redirected from the micro-blogging website to NYTimes.com every month. 

Fortunately, at least one blogger did his homework, noting that NYT spokeswoman Diane McNulty would confirm only that: “At its current growth rate, Twitter is, or will soon move into, the top 10 in terms of referrals to NYTimes.com.” To those not versed in Google Analytics, that means Twitter probably brings in a much smaller piece of the Gray Lady's pie than speculated. But it's growing! And, importantly, skewing toward that oh-so-elusive younger audience the NYT and other papers have been chasing.

The Times seems to be throwing its weight behind the Twitter phenomenon. @nytimes has nearly 2 million followers, which is nothing to sneeze at even if Twitter does slough half of its new users, and given that plenty of profiles are inactive. But not every Twitter profile in the Times-iverse was created equal: Maureen Dowd's @NYTimesDowd has a meager 1,500 followers, compared to Nicholas Kristof's @nytimeskristof, which has more than 600,000. 

Not an @nytimes follower? May I humbly suggest @sewell_chan, the powerhouse behind the paper's City Room blog. Chan's mere 3,000 followers and relative obscurity in the world of the Times belies a feed full of pointed questions and tantalizing tidbits.

OMG! Liv Dolls Totally Aren't Bratz, LOL

| Tue Sep. 22, 2009 5:28 PM EDT

Spin Masters, the creators of Tech Decks (the bane of every school teacher's existence), recently released a new line of dolls in an effort to compete with Barbie's half-century iron-clad hold on the market. Toymaker MGA tried a similar trick once with the release of Bratz (the bane of every feminist parent's existence); then a court determined that the rights of the Bratz line belonged to none other than Barbie's maker, Mattel.

The self-proclaimed rulers of boys' toys, Spin Masters are looking to break into the girls' toy market by creating what "girls really want." Apparently three years of development determined that what girls really want is...more of the same, but with articulated action-figure-like limbs. What started as a fully articulated "fashion robot" evolved into the top-selling Liv Dolls, who each have storylines continually updated via the LivWorld website (fully accessible for one year after purchase):

"Spin Master ….also gave its characters—four friends from an imaginary high school—backstories and imperfections that make them seem more real than the aspirational Barbie astronauts, beauty queens, and Presidential candidates."

For all of Barbie's flaws, I'd rather girls 6-10 aspire to be a presidential candidate or an astronaut instead of "following their dreams" by getting jobs at the mall—what the Liv dolls are doing according to their online diaries. Not only do the dolls ask girls to bring their aspirations down a notch, the depth of each character and the ability of girls to relate to them is pretty stereotypical and just as flimsy:

Alexis: A head-turning African American girl who is obsessed with fashion.
Imperfection: Her little brother, who she has to babysit all the time.

Daniela: A Latina who can sing and dance and pose for the camera.
Imperfection: School smarts. Her parents want her to be an engineer, but she really wants to be a pop star!

Sophie: The blonde whose calling is to be "Hairstylist to the Stars!"
Imperfection: She'll screw up your makeover if she isn't wearing her glasses. Oh, no! Not glasses!

Katie: The brunette who seems to pack in every attempt to make Liv dolls a positive alternative to their foresisters, she's smart, athletic, and a lover of books.
Imperfection: She's a klutz—oh, and clueless to the fact that every boy has a crush on her!

With their "extensive" back stories, it seems that Spin Masters attempted to find a space not just between Barbie and Bratz, but the other product of the Mattel trifecta—the American Girl line. At $19.99, Liv dolls are considered a more affordable option for girls who want to model their plaything after themselves, since you can change out their hair (so long as you have straight hair that takes well to curlers). But since just one extra wig will run you 12 bucks, even the affordability argument is a little weak.

Fans of Liv Dolls tout them as age-appropriate since they don't have Barbie's severe bust to waist ratio, or the Bratz' virtual closet full of hot pants and halter tops:

"The small details, says Varadi, were toughest. He says he worked for months making sure the lips were right, referring to pictures of his girlfriend for guidance. 'I didn't want them to look collagen-injected'."

While I'm sure his girlfriend appreciates the plastic portrayal, to me the Liv dolls still look pretty collagen-injected, anime-eyed, and vapid. It seems that for now girls looking for a real play alternative to fashion dolls will have to transgress the gendered lines in the toy-aisle sand, or (god forbid) venture into the "educational" section.