2011 - %3, February

An Orchestra of Elephants

| Mon Feb. 28, 2011 7:45 AM EST
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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Quote of the Week: "YouTubes Are Infallible"

| Sun Feb. 27, 2011 1:26 PM EST

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 7:00 AM EST
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.

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week [4]

| Fri Feb. 25, 2011 5:59 PM EST

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.)

"Gendered Advertising Remixer" for Kids

| Fri Feb. 25, 2011 5:00 PM EST

Are Disney princesses evil? Maybe not, but absurdly retro-gendered toy commercials might be. When boys' toy ads promote battle and girls' toy ads convey the importance of appearance, it's small wonder that even kids raised in neutral homes buy into gender-appropriate colors and behaviors.

Political remix artist Jonathan McIntosh created the "Gendered Advertising Remixer" to make the divergent messaging so obvious that kids can see through it themselves:

Young people in the United States are subjected to an average of 25,000 TV commercials every year. Embedded in those advertisements are a very regressive and stereotypical set of social values about gender roles for boys and girls. So how can kids push back against a multibillion dollar corporate marketing machine? The goal of this project is to help empower youth of all genders to better understand, deconstruct and creatively take control of the highly gendered messages emanating from their television sets.

Want to give it a try below? Just swap out the audio with a track from an ad intended for the other gender. (My favorite combo so far is the 4 Ever Kidz Fashion Pets video, mixed with the Kung Zhu Battle Hamster audio track).

The "Gendered Advertising Remixer" app lets you swap audio and video tracks in a Web interfaceThe "Gendered Advertising Remixer" app lets you swap audio and video tracks in a Web interface.

And if you haven't seen it already, McIntosh's previous work mashing up old Donald Duck cartoons with Glenn Beck is also worth a gander.

Teacher Union Head Wants to Overhaul Teacher Tenure

| Fri Feb. 25, 2011 5:00 PM EST

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."

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Questions for Diane Ravitch?

| Fri Feb. 25, 2011 2:00 PM EST
Diane Ravitch, education historian

Do you have a question for Diane Ravitch? If you care about the future of public education or teacher unions, you probably should. In addition to being a prolific education historian, Ravitch is most well-known as a conservative who supports teacher unions, and opposes charters and No Child Left Behind. What makes her perspectives especially fascinating, no matter where you stand on these issues, is that less than seven years ago she was on the opposite side of the fight. Ravitch used to serve in George H.W. Bush's administration championing No Child Left Behind accountability measures, charters, and teacher merit pay among other controversial reforms before she changed her mind, somewhere around 2004.

I am thrilled to interview Ravitch for Mother Jones Monday, and hope you'll share your questions for her in the comment section below this blog post. Please post them by Monday, Feb. 28, 6am PST. To kick it off, here are some questions in my notebook:

What does your education reform agenda look like?

You believe that the testing and standards in NCLB have been extremely damaging to schools. What other external measures can we use to make sure that students across the country are proficient in the basic subjects?

What will happen, if teachers in Wisconsin lose their collective bargaining rights?

This Week's Dear Anna: How To Curb Your Social Media Habit

| Fri Feb. 25, 2011 6:00 AM EST

Help! I feel like all my social media-ing is cutting into my productivity and life. I'm on all these different sites now, and sometimes I feel like I come to work basically to read Twitter all day. How can I get my social media fix without feeling like an Internet loser and/or getting fired?

~Intertube-Tied

Is there a bigger timesuck in the history of ever than the Internet? One minute you're trying to do your taxes, and the next thing you know you're skimming Portuguese newspapers, watching Skins recaps, Googling "hilarious condoms," and learning that tutorials exist for people who want to have sex with dolphins.

Wading through the muck and white noise of the interwebs can certainly be a daunting task. Here are some tips to help you strike a balance between taking a few bites of Internet cake and sticking your whole head in there like a diabetic Ostrich and never coming out again.

Create boundaries

I know, self-control: zzzzzzzz. What are you gonna tell me next, to eat more kale, exercise, and wear taupe because it goes with everything? No, asshole, you don't look good in taupe! But the self-control part we can totally work on. Start small. Tell yourself, I will only log-in to Facebook three times a day. Or I will only check my email once an hour. Or Twitter is reserved for lunchtime. If you find you can't adhere to your own rules, then consider enlisting the help of addiction-curbing websites like LeechBlock, which is a Firefox extension that blocks up to six websites during times you specify. Of course, this can be easily sidestepped by using another Internet browser, like Safari or Internet Explorer, since most of us have more than one on our computers, but LeechBlock can at least slow you down and help you realize just how Facebook-crack-addled you really are. Another perk/judgment LeechBlock provides is the ability to track how much time you spend playing Farmville or watching Justin Bieber blowdry his hair on YouTube, thus effectively shaming you into recovering a little bit of your dignity.

Read the rest at SF Weekly

Textbook Colonialism

| Thu Feb. 24, 2011 2:00 PM EST

Mission High School teacher Jenn Bowman has been trying to educate 10th graders about the Scramble for Africa using Belgian King Leopold II's brutal colonization of the Congo as a case study. Too bad the "Modern World History" textbook isn't helping. How can the textbook's "Imperialism" section end with a nearly equal number of both positive and negative consequences of terrible events? "At its core, Imperialism is an act of aggression. Finding positive impact in it is like looking for positive outcomes in a rampage of a serial killer," she says.

"If you were writing a letter to our textbook publisher, how would you review their treatment of Colonialism?" Ms. Bowman asks.

That's why she got up at 5 a.m. that morning to write a letter to the textbook publisher, Bowman tells her students. She reads her letter aloud, and then uses it to discuss the meaning of "Eurocentric Worldview," a new term for this class. She discusses writing too, asking students to critique the letter's thesis, evidence, and conclusions. "If you were writing a letter to our textbook publisher, how would you review their treatment of Colonialism?" she asks. "How would you organize your arguments? How many sentences do you need in the first paragraph?"

"Ms. Bowman, were you writing political letters in your punk-rock days too or just going to a bar and yelling at people?" Pedro asks at one point. "Both," she laughs.

"Ms. Bowman is so political!" Rina complains to me softly as she hunches over her desk. Suddenly she sits up straight and asks, "Ms. Bowman, in those protests in Egypt, were high school students on the streets too?" "Absolutely!" Bowman answers. "I wonder what they're doing in Egypt right now," a student at the front of the classroom asks. "I wonder," Bowman says, as she walks toward a student in the back.

Editors' Note: This education dispatch is part of an ongoing series reported from Mission High School, where education writer Kristina Rizga is embedded for the year. Read more: Mission High School students talk about education reform and grade the film "Waiting for Superman. Plus: Sign up for the weekly newsletter "In the Mix" to get all of the latest Mission High dispatches.

America's "Race to Nowhere"

| Wed Feb. 23, 2011 7:00 AM EST

After Jane Marvin's 13-year-old daughter Devon committed suicide in 2008, Marvin reviewed every email, chat, and phone call for missed signs of a troubled mind. A high-achieving, highly popular student, Devon had shown no symptoms of depression, Marvin reflects in the new documentary Race to Nowhere. Eventually Marvin uncovered just one clue: an unexpected "F" on a math test—the first one for Devon, a straight 'A' student.

It was this death that compelled ex-Wall Street lawyer (and mother of three) Vicki Abeles to make Race to Nowhere. Abeles—who interviewed psychiatrists, child development experts, teachers, parents, and teens in affluent and low-income communities for the film—claims that a silent epidemic of stress-related diseases among American children is leading to increased rates of suicide, depression, and anxiety. While I think the film at times oversimplifies the connections between No Child Left Behind testing and increased mental disorders, Race to Nowhere is still a must-see for any parent who wants to understand the daily pressures facing kids in schools.

Check out this site to find or host a film screening in your area, or get school survival tips.