2011 - %3, March

SXSW: 5 Great Sites for Progressive Media Types

| Fri Mar. 18, 2011 5:15 AM EDT
Yes, I got my photo taken with the penguin.

I took the nerd bird out of Austin with my fellow SXSW Interactive geeks this week just as a clutch of tattooed, guitar-toting rock stars swaggered into town for the Music portion of South by Southwest. The Texas tri-part festival (Film, Interactive, and Music) overlaps slightly in schedule and demographics, but frankly the attendees aren't hard to tell apart in an elevator. Real rock stars, it turns out, are generally better dressed than Internet rock stars; their pallor looks more midnight partyin' than Minecraft in the den. (I'm still not sure about that 6th Street evening parade of cheering men wearing wedding dresses, though. Start-up guerrilla marketers? Typical Austin Saturday night? The SXSW trade show featured a giant penguin, a Michael Jackson impersonator, cotton candy, and QR codes on anything not nailed down—so really, who can tell?)

Anyway, Monika Bauerlein and I did a SXSWi panel this year on how Mother Jones uses Twitter in reporting (thank you to everyone who made it such a fun panel). Also fun: Hanging out with other SXSWi media folk and hearing what sites caught their fancy lately. Below, 5 digital bon bons and what makes them so sweet:

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A Dictionary For All Things Lesbian

| Thu Mar. 17, 2011 8:28 PM EDT
Photo: Ani DiFranco

As my coworker, the whipsmart Emily Loftis, and I were discussing our mutual crush on Kaki King, she posed this question:

Can you do a post about gay language for straight girls? I’m always afraid I’m going to say something dumb considering that in my hometown “gay” is synonymous with really dumb. Grrr. I don’t have much of a measuring stick to work with. If you could include language that a well-intentioned bumpkin should avoid using, that’d be swell too.

PS: Is there a word for a girl-on-girl-crush, when the crusher is straight?

Thus inspiring me to create The Lezicon at After Ellen! A go-to guide for lesbian-related words, slang, and way too many puns.

Excerpt:

Anna says: Great question! And thank you for asking. Some straight women think being a queer gal simply means that we have 38 ways to spell wimmin, but there’s so much more to it than that! Below, I present to you the following lezicon*, a queer dictionary of sorts, with relevant examples, celebrities, and everyday usages that you can use to impress your new queer friends at the next folk festival and/or Vagina Monologues production.

*Note of historical relevance: Gay terms obviously vary by time, region, and stereotypes. I can’t get them all, nor do I mean to offend anyone with generalizations. Tongue is firmly in cheek here, but I encourage you to add your own terms in the comments.

Androgyny: Generically speaking, someone who exhibits both masculine or feminine gender traits. Might also go by: gender fluid, genderqueer, or David Bowie.

Baby Dyke: A young lesbian, often fresh out of the closet, full of ideals and front row tickets to see Girlyman.

Beersexual: A gurl who will make out or sleep with another grrrl only while under the influence. Found often in reality television shows, in sororities, and in rare cases, Nick Lachey’s above-ground swimming pool.

Birkenstock-Blocking: When you are trying to hit on a wommon and another lesbian interferes.

Boi: Could mean any of the following, depending on context — a boyish lesbian, a soft butch (aka butch lite), a biological boy who hangs in queer circles, or a member of OutKast.

Read the rest of The Lezicon at After Ellen.

Southwest Kicks Another Muslim Off Flight

| Thu Mar. 17, 2011 7:05 AM EDT

In what language do sneaky, foreign Islamic terrorists speak to each other? English, of course. That's what a Southwest Airline crew member must have thought when she flagged 31-year-old graduate student Irum Abbasi as "suspicious" and had her kicked off the plane. Abbasi, a US citizen who was born in Pakistan, was on the phone with Verizon shortly after boarding the the Southwest flight. As is regulation, she had to get off the phone before the airplane could take off. So she told the Verizon agent, "I've got to go."

A Southwest Airline crew member thought the headscarf-clad Abbasi had said, "It's a go" and suspected there might be a terrorist plot afoot. Why she thought a terrorist who wanted to keep her plans secret would give the "go" signal in English for everyone to hear is a mystery. And I don't know if the phrase "It's a go" would have been seen as terrorist lingo if it came from someone who didn't have an accent or wasn't obviously Muslim. But regardless, the flight attendant was sufficiently freaked out that the captains of the plane heeded her judgment call and ordered Abbasi taken off the flight. After talking with TSA agents and having her headscarf patted down, Abbasi was cleared to board the next flight. She was later given two apology from the airline and a travel voucher.

"This time they said we weren't comfortable with the head scarf. Next time, they won't be comfortable with my accent."

Abbasi is still upset, however. She wants the Southwest crew member who ordered her detention to be held accountable. And given the circumstances, I can't say I totally blame her. It seems that the flight attendant was the only one with security concerns about her. "They did not question me. I even handed over my purse and cell phone for inspection and they didn't even touch it," Abbasi said. Abbasi, a mother of three, says "This time they said we weren't comfortable with the head scarf. Next time, they won't be comfortable with my accent or they won't be comfortable with my South Asian heritage." Southwest has said it's looking into the matter, but hasn't said if discipline will be in order. 

Southwest spokesperson Chris Mainz said, ""We treat all our customers the same and we think all of our employees do a very good job of that." People have been kicked off Southwest for having being too thin AND being too fat, so there may be some truth to that. The airline can also be quite hypocritical: they kicked Kyla Ebbert off a flight for dressing too sexy, then painted a bikini-clad model on a plane as part of a Sports Illustrated promo.

Similarly, the airline says it is committed to equality and has hired Muslim pilots, but it also appealed $27.5 million in damages awarded to a woman of Iranian descent who successfully sued the company for racial profiling. In that case, three flight attendants found passenger Samantha Carrington, an economics professor, "suspicious"-looking and claimed she was verbally abusive, physically assaulted a crew member, and threatened to storm the cockpit. As a result of their claims, Carrington had to spend a night in jail. However, Carrington never faced criminal charges because the investigating FBI agent couldn't find enough truth in the attendants' story to merit them. Carrington said she had only complained about poor service during the flight, and sued Southwest. During the trial, it came out that one of the attendants had said Carrington "reminded her of a terrorist." The court ruled in Carrington's favor, but Southwest appealed and the two parties later settled out of court for an undisclosed sum.

It's not known what happened to the flight attendants involved, but Carrington (who, like Abbasi, is a US citizen and lives in California) has still not been able to remove her name from terrorist watchlists.

Teacher Layoff Day at Mission High

| Tue Mar. 15, 2011 12:00 PM EDT

Should freshly pink-slipped Mission High School choir director Steven Hankle spend his off-hours prepping choir students for an upcoming concert in front of 2,500 people at Davies Symphony Hall? Or job-hunting? A new, young teacher, 29-year-old Hankle is among tens of thousands of teachers in California who'll be grappling with similar questions after receiving preliminary lay-off notices today. Even though the state's real budget numbers will only become clear after a special election in June—in which Governor Jerry Brown will ask voters to approve a temporary sales tax increase to save schools—California mandates today's ritual of early notifications.

It's the second time Hankle has received a pink slip at Mission High. Last year, Principal Eric Guthertz and the teachers union fought for months to reinstate him, and it worked. But it's still just as demoralizing for a choir director trying to provide an anchor of stability for teens at risk, even though Guthertz told Hankle he'll fight for him again this time around. "Choir is about building community," Hankle explained to me over lunch last month, "and that takes time." It takes even more time when most of your students come from struggling homes. One student I met in Hankle's choir lives in a group home. Another lives with six other family members in one room. Hankle now has been working with the choir for two years, and he feels that the "momentum is building" for these kids and their small, safe choir community. Not to mention that a music program also makes the school more fun. Maybe that's why in part school test scores are growing and the drop out rate at Mission High is declining. Most songs Hankle teaches are covers of popular hip hop and R&B tunes.

A few weeks ago I watched the choir perform "I Believe" in front of a packed school auditorium filled with parents. Rafael Ortiz, a single father who sat next to me, took time off work and brought three friends with him to watch his daughter Teresa perform. "She loves singing," he told me, as he smiled and took pictures through the entire performance. A few weeks ago, Hankle's choir got invited to perform at the Davis Symphony Hall on April 21.

Elephant 6 on a Rampage

| Mon Mar. 14, 2011 7:30 AM EDT
Julian Koster introduces the Holiday Surprise Tour's inflatable snowman.

One day a few years back, Julian Koster awoke from a dream on an island in Maine. The whimsical multi-instrumentalist from the Athens, Georgia-based Elephant 6 Recording Company was thinking about an old show he'd played at an abandoned church with artists from the expansive E6 collective. "Somehow I woke up with the conviction that I should call everyone and propose that we do that on tour," he says.

And so he did: "I seriously picked up the phone and got everybody, one after another, and they were all just like, 'Yeah!'" A dozen or so calls later, Koster had commitments from members of E6's indie flagships—Apples in Stereo, The Olivia Tremor Control, the long-disbanded Neutral Milk Hotel of which he'd been a part, and a few other bands.

The resulting Holiday Surprise Tour, named after an OTC song, was a return to form for the collective. Its close-knit members have always collaborated on each other's projects in Athens, a town that "incubates very eccentric souls and takes care of them," according to Koster. The tour followed a period when Koster says he felt "like we all wanted to be hermits or something." But both he and OTC's Will Cullen Hart, an E6 cofounder, insist that it was for their own enjoyment, not an attempt at rebranding. They had enough fun that the group launched a second tour of the same name, and it stopped through San Francisco venue The Independent a couple of Saturdays ago.

Kaki King Talks Back

| Mon Mar. 14, 2011 7:20 AM EDT
Showing off the harp guitar

Kaki King has been playing music for so long, she can't even say when she started: "I don't remember a time that I didn't know how to play the guitar," she says. The Atlanta-born 31-year-old was up on stage at an early age, playing music in primary school, drumming her way through adolescence, scoring gigs before she got her drivers license, and producing her first album at 23.

But where music comes naturally, all the publicity can be odd, King says. "I'm constantly in this world of I'd Rather Not: I'd rather not answer the same question over and over so my whole life and emotions can be put in a little paragraph that you can edit. I get why people want to come see me play guitar, but I still don't understand why people want to interview me."

Not to say she can't handle a journalist. She repeatedly pokes at Rolling Stone's effort to describe her music as "Bootsy Collins meets Van Halen"—the description from when she became the first woman included in the magazine's "The New Guitar Gods" list. She also talks back if she thinks a question is bunk. When I tossed her the customary wrap-up, asking whether she thinks there's anything I missed, she got all laughingly sassy on me. "Oh No! You have to do your own job! I'm not doing your job for you! What kind of question is that? You have to come up with your own questions!" she teased. "What do you want to ask that your editor never lets you ask?"

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What We Talk About When We Talk About Zombie Ants

| Sun Mar. 13, 2011 10:18 AM EDT

One of the best things about fact-checking an article about combatting invasive pests with imported insects is that the researching process jumps back and forth so effortlessly from serious academic and scientific questions, to really crude Discovery Channel-style footage of insects eating other insects. Cutting-edge entomological research is pretty highbrow stuff. Referring to the subjects of cutting-edge entomological research as "zombie ants"? Not so much. To wit:

Story link: kxan.com

Brain-eating larvae are inherently newsworthy, but there's a broader signifance, too. As Michael Behar explains in the latest issue of Mother Jones, Texas' experiments with phorid flies are part of a relatively recent push by entomologists and land managers to combat invasive pests not with gallons upon gallons of toxic chemicals, but with something far more basic: their natural predators, imported from the home country. The process is called biocontrol, and if it works, it can save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars and keep sensitive ecosystems clear of harmful chemicals. It's not an easy process—biocontrol projects regularly take decades to yield results—but it just may be man's best shot at reining in invasive pests with  names ripped out of Harry Potter (leafy spurge, tansy ragwort, cottony cushion scale) and no natural predators. As one University of Florida researcher tells Behar, "We've reached the end of our chemical rope"; maybe it's time to give the insects a shot.

Anyways, it's a fascinating topic. Check out the piece here. Read more about ants whose minds have been possessed by fungi here.

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week [6]

| Fri Mar. 11, 2011 3:37 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.)

Map of the Day: The Problem With Maps

| Thu Mar. 10, 2011 6:00 PM EST

Image Courtesy of the AtlanticImage Courtesy of the AtlanticBy now, you've probably taken a look at our (As Seen on TV!) charts on the rising income equality gap in the United States. Now the Atlantic has gotten in on the action, with this interactive map from Patchwork Nation's Daniel Chinni and James Gimpel. Look at all the pretty colors.

It's a pretty fantastic concept, conveying the complexity of the American landscape in a way that the red state-blue state map—or even a map about where you can marry your cousin—simply can't. But I've got some issues.

For one thing, it's subject to the same fundamental flaw of the electoral map: There's only room for one category per county. Colorado Springs has been called the "Evangelical Vatican," but it's not an "Evangelical Epicenter" on Chinni's map, because it's also a "Military Bastion." The two categories are of course related, but there's no room for that kind of complexity. Orange County, likewise, gave us modern the modern conservative movement and Billy Graham, but it's a "Monied Suburb" here, which puts it in the same category as certain parts of Vermont. Hispanic immigration extends far beyond the Southwest, but because it's not a defining force like it is in, say, Imperial County, the demographic shift barely registers.

A more systematic problem is simply that it's really, really tough to come up with any sort of grouping system for American places. States don't work. Congressional districts don't either. Counties have the benefit of at least being relatively small, but that's still highly variable—and in any event totally blind to population. Cook County, Illinois has 5 million residents and encompasses about half of the Patchwork categories; Brewster County, Texas has 10,000 people but takes up four times as much space. Alaska looks like one giant boomtown but in reality no one's building McMansions at Denali National Park.

This isn't a problem with Chinni and Gimpel—who've done great work here—so much as it's a problem with making maps about America.

Nobel-Winner Yunus Ousted, Documentary Premiers in English

| Thu Mar. 10, 2011 1:58 PM EST

On Tuesday, Nobel Laureate Muhammed Yunus was deposed as managing director of the microcredit organization he founded 30 years ago, Grameen Bank. The reason? Bangladesh courts say the 70-year-old is too old. Yunus is now in violation of a national mandate that all citizens retire at age 60. Grameen Bank insists the issue was resolved a decade ago, when a then-59-year-old Yunus received government permission to continue [PDF].

Yunus's removal comes just a few days prior to the English-language premier of a Danish documentary, Caught in Micro Debt, (Micro Debt in the English version), which takes aim at Yunus and Grameen. The film, which debuts in London today, is directed and produced by Tom Heinemann and has a different take on the man who has long been hailed South Asia's savior to the poor. Indeed, Yunus has been so highly lauded by prominent people like the Clintons, President Obama, and Bono (not to mention Western humanitarian circles) that it’s only surprising a backlash to Yunus' empire didn't come sooner.