2011 - %3, May

Must-See: Johnny Flynn and the Sussex Wit

| Mon May 16, 2011 5:50 AM EDT

This past November, when the wonderfully talented Brit-folk troubadour Johnny Flynn told me he was set to have a baby in March with his longtime girlfriend, I sent a onesie to his London address, and resigned myself to the fact that we probably wouldn't be seeing him for quite a while.

At the time, Flynn, who is in his late twenties, was touring solo because it was too expensive to bring his band, the Sussex Wit, all the way to America, where he's still relatively unknown. So I was pleased to learn that not only was he embarking on his third tour of the States—but the full band would be in tow this time around. 

I first came across Flynn's debut album, A Larum, in the Dog Pile, the collection of books and CDs sent to the magazine from people we have never heard of, and where you can make a great discovery on occasion—like A Larum. I was pretty much smitten after listening to it twice, and Flynn's followup EP, Sweet William, and recent full-length CD, Been Listening, proved that his first effort was no fluke.

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Klezmering Against Israel's Occupation

| Mon May 16, 2011 5:30 AM EDT

Nick Cooper, a 42-year-old Houston drummer of Jewish ancestry, conceived the idea for the 2010 album, Klezmer Musicians Against the Wall, while standing outside a Muslim punk rock concert in New York.

Cooper had spent the evening slamming to the music of the Kominas, one of many bands inspired by Michael Mohammad Knight's portrayal of a fictional Pakistani punk-rock scene in his 2003 novel, The Taqwacores. "What if we did something like that?" he remembers thinking. "Maybe I could create an anti-occupation klezmer scene?"

Many Americans associate klezmer with Jewish weddings and bar mitzvahs. But the folksy, instrumental music from 19th century Eastern Europe has spawned diverse, creative offshoots, including Cooper’s band, The Free Radicals. Cooper says he was attracted to the "one-two beat" of klezmer music, which "kind of overlaps with punk-rock tunes." The New Yorker describes his band as a "horn-heavy, continually evolving collective" that "produces a wildly eclectic fusion."

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week [15]

| Fri May 13, 2011 6:59 PM EDT

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.)

People Who Name Their Kids After the Palins

| Thu May 12, 2011 4:31 PM EDT

The Social Security Administration has just released its annual data on all the names given to babies last year. Besides revealing the nation's most popular names of 2010 (Jacob and Isabella), the files are loaded with details about all the unusual names people give their offspring, from Lazer (the given name of 20 boys) to Symphony (86 girls). Pop culture definitely influences people's picks—Isabella is the hero of the Twilight series; her nickname, Bella, has gone from being the 259th most popular name in 2004 to the 48th in 2010.

What about politics? Does it have any influence on baby names?

To find out, I searched for incidences of the following names between 2007 and 2010: Barack, Palin, Malia, Sasha, Track, Bristol, Willow, Piper, and Trig. Each of these names is distinctive enough that any changes in their popularity after 2007 might be partly attributed to parents intentionally naming their kids after Barack Obama, Sarah Palin, or their kids. Sure enough, all of those names saw big bumps in 2008 and 2009. In 2007, fewer than 5 boys were named Barack; there were 52 in 2008 and 69 in 2009. In 2007, fewer than 5 girls were named Palin; in 2008 there were 14 and in 39 in 2009.

Likewise, all the Obama and Palin kids' names saw significant rises in popularity after their namesakes entered the limelight (except Track, which didn't show up at all). I won't speculate on what the trends for Sasha and Malia (both peaked in 2009 and fell in 2010) versus Bristol (still climbing in 2010) suggest about the political fortunes of the First Dad or the Grizzly Mama. But their names would certainly be even more popular if they dated vampires.

Palin, Barack, Malia, Sasha, Bristol, Willow, Piper, Trig, baby names

Education Roundup: Why Don't We Have a National Curriculum?

| Wed May 11, 2011 12:02 PM EDT
  • There's a battle brewing over common curriculum standards in math and English, Education Week reports. All but six states have adopted the common curriculum standards, which essentially means 8th graders in Missouri will be taught the same material as 8th graders in New York. And since September of last year, the US Department of Education has financed two testing groups to develop these standards. But 100 conservative business, political, and education leaders—led by William Evers, the former assistant secretary of policy in George W. Bush's Education Department—have now signed a manifesto stating that they don't want the federal government controlling what students learn in school.
  • Remember Tanya McDowell, the homeless, single mother in Connecticut who may face up to 20 years in prison and $15,000 in fines for using her friend's address to enroll her son in a better kindergarten? She's asking prosecutors to drop the charges against her so the school district can handle her case administratively. Out of 26 other families who purposely enrolled their children in Norwalk school under wrong addresses, McDowell was the only one arrested.
  • Where are the lowest-performing schools in the country? Short answer: California, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Washington DC, and Wisconsin. The Hechinger Report follows federal money going to the worst schools in the country. On the list of failing schools, charter schools were overrepresented.
  • If GOPers in Alabama have their way, undocumented students won't be allowed to go to their prom, reports MoJo's Tim Murphy.
  • The US Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights issued this reminder to public schools: Discouraging undocumented children or their parents from enrolling students in public school violates the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Apparently, many states have tried to bar undocumented students from their school system (I'm looking at you Oklahoma), but none have succeeded yet.
  • Last, what do teachers really want? Collaborative working environments, supportive leadership, more say in the policy decisions that govern their work, and more respect, reports the Huffington Post.

Watch: Adam Hochschild on Democracy Now!

| Tue May 10, 2011 8:35 PM EDT

Even though Osama bin Laden is now sleeping with the fishes, we are still very much at war, as we remind you every day in our photo series. What can be gleaned by looking at the making and sustaining of war from a historical perspective? How do politicians amp up support for wars? Why do people continue fighting in unpopular conflicts even after nationalist fervor has waned? Amy Goodman at Democracy Now asked these questions today in an interview with Mother Jones co-founder and historian Adam Hochschild about his new book, "To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion 1914-1918." He also shared his thoughts on the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and one of the world's bloodiest conflicts, World War I.

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California Teachers: Textbooks, Not Tax Breaks

| Tue May 10, 2011 4:53 PM EDT

"We are not here to lobby. We're here to raise some hell," Betty Olson-Jones, president of the Oakland Education Association, told The Sacramento Bee this morning, as California Highway Patrol officers arrested 65 protesters in Sacramento today. Olson was there along with about 1,000 teachers, parents, and students to urge California lawmakers to pass a tax extension to avoid deeper cuts to education budgets around the state. California, which educates one in eight public school children in America, is staring down a $28 billion budgetary hole.

The protest in Sacramento—along with hundreds of other protests throughout the Golden State—was organized by the California Teachers Association as part of a weeklong "State of Emergency" campaign to stave off a third round of cuts to California's schools. Tom Torlakson, the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, argued earlier this year that there's no more meat on the bone. According to the non-partisan Legislative Analysts Office, per-student spending for California schools has dropped by 6.6 percent, or about $540 per student, over the past three years. California ranks close to the bottom when it comes to funding per student. Many of the state's school districts have already cut teaching materials, increased class size, and cut teachers, nurses, counselors, and psychologists. Some teachers buy supplies with their own money, share tips for donation websites, and clip coupons together in staff rooms.

In San Francisco, more than 100 teachers marched by City Hall, chanting "close tax loopholes, not schools," and "textbooks, not taxbreaks." The San Francisco Unified School District sent out preliminary pink slips to 400 teachers, and other staff, including Steven Hankle, the choir director at Mission High. "We've made great progress in the last few years," Mission High principal Eric Guthertz told me earlier this year. "I worry what the cuts will do to that."

What will it take to stave off these cuts? California Teachers Association says that first, state legislators should extend some existing taxes immediately. And after that, Jerry Brown will continue to push legislators to agree to a special election that will ask voters for an additional tax hike on their purchases, cars, and income. A CBS poll in March found that the majority of Californians support a special election to let voters decide whether to extend tax increases to help close California's massive budget deficit.

Sex-Toy Maker Thanks SEALs for Killing Bin Laden

| Tue May 10, 2011 1:26 PM EDT

Jessica Wakeman over at The Frisky was kind enough to share this with us:

The world's number one selling sex toy company, Fleshlight (www.fleshlight.com) [editor's note: TOTALLY NSFW] has extended their thanks to SEAL Team 6...who conducted one of the bravest missions in American history, forever changing the landscape of the Unites [sic] States of America, and the world.

The company sent the SEAL team a six case of Fleshlight products named "Stealth." This product is aptly named as it is very concealable and hard to detect...

"We want to thank the Navy SEALs for their efforts," says Brian Shubin, COO of Fleshlight. "For their courage, and the fact that they risked their lives to protect our freedom, we hope they will appreciate our gifts."

Oh, they will, Brian. As a Navy and Iraq vet, I can personally vouch for the popularity of your products...and far, far, worse...in the fleet and downrange. General Order 1 (PDF), the overarching conduct code for soldiers deployed in the war zones, forbids porn. But it says nothing about gadgetry. (Mind you, I always wondered about the guys who mail-ordered this stuff from the US while in a war zone. Specifically, I wondered what the postal screeners and package X-rayers thought. Something like, "Hey, as long as it's not explosive, it's all good.")

A Fleshlight, by the way, is pretty much what it sounds like it is. Looks like a flashlight, feels (I was told, by an enthusiastic contractor colleague of mine in Baghdad) like a certain fleshy lady part. If you really want to know what one looks like, here you go. On the company's website, you can build your own, patterned after specific actresses' (or your willing loved one's) fleshy parts, or you can opt for the "alien" toy. Don't ask.

In any case, the special operators of the armed forces thank you, Brian Shubin, COO of Fleshlight. This totally makes up for losing that $60 million super-stealth helicopter!

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week [14]

| Mon May 9, 2011 2:01 PM EDT

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.)

Fleet Foxes Sing the Blues

| Mon May 9, 2011 5:30 AM EDT

There's a moment towards the end of Fleet Foxes' new album Helplessness Blues, during the song "The Shrine/An Argument," where front man Robin Pecknold's voice cracks in desperation. The fissure may be the emotional nadir of the record's narrative, but it sends ripples down my spine—it's probably been the highlight of my listening experience lately. For the first time, Pecknold dares to waver from his flawless vocal prowess, hinting at a darkness his listeners have rarely experienced from the angelic singer.

Helplessness Blues is not a huge departure from Fleet Foxes, the band's first CD, but it possesses more moments of frustration and despair. By allowing these feelings to creep in, Fleet Foxes have created a more complicated and ambitious repertoire, strengthening their overall reach.