Five years ago, comic book series "The 99" became a sensation in the Middle East, winning over magazine writers, think-tank wonks, and a generation of kids who have become obsessed with the comics. Even President Obama has praised it for capturing "the imagination of so many young people, with superheroes who embody the teachings and tolerance of Islam."

Created by clinical psychologist Dr. Naif al-Mutawa, a Kuwaiti American who sought to create positive role models for kids in the Arab world and beyond, the series features 99 superheroes, each representing one of the 99 concepts of God as depicted in Islam—although religion is not explicitly referenced. After coming up with the concept, he raised more than $7 million to fund his project, and then hired the former artists and creators of famous American comic books to make it a reality. Last year, the family friendly Hub TV channel agreed to air the animated version of "The 99" in the United States.

Ten Letters

By Eli Saslow


To keep a finger on the pulse of everyday America, President Obama reads 10 letters from the public each day. Some begin "Dear Jackass" or "Dear Moron." Others are written with style and sensitivity. Eli Saslow, a reporter for the Washington Post, tracks down and profiles 10 letter-writers from all over the map—a military officer serving in Afghanistan, a cash-strapped college freshman, a leukemia patient—whose missives affected the president and even influenced his decisions. "I will tell you," Saslow writes, quoting Obama, "my staff is very evenhanded, because about half of these letters call me an idiot."

Justin Townes Earle at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival.

Being born into a famous family can be an artist's greatest blessing or most reviled curse. Sure, things come easier when your parents are there to open doors, but there's always the fear that your life's work is validated not by merit, but by your last name. So what happens when your famous parent leaves you at a young age? The baggage is there, but not the benefit. 

Such is the story of Justin Townes Earle, the singer-songwriter son of successful country rocker Steve Earle—who in recent years landed a role on HBO's Treme. JT was born in Nashville, and shortly thereafter, his father took off for Los Angeles to develop his burgeoning music career, leaving Justin with an overworked mother, two younger siblings, a last name, and not much else. "He was very absent in my early life. There was very little contact with my father," Earle told me.

Now 29, Earle, is waist-deep in his own burgeoning career, with a fourth album out last year and, to hear him tell it, plans for the future as big as the summer Tennessee sky. And like any folk-music hero worth their salt, his success is built on a life of hard luck, hard work, and plenty of wanderin'.

Dance music diva Natacha Atlas' latest album, Mounqaliba—Rising: The Remixes, kicks off with a sound bite from President Obama's speech at Cairo University: "We meet at a time of great tension," his voice reverberates. It's an unusual start for a dance album. Then again, Atlas had unusual beginnings herself. She grew up in a suburb of Brussels to a Moroccan-Egyptian-Palestinian father and a British mother, worked as a belly dancer, and served as a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations World Conference against Racism. To date, she has released seven solo albums and a handful of international Top 40 hits.

Atlas brings a political consciousness to her belly dance grooves, which are fused with the sounds of Turkish ensembles and chamber orchestras. On the new album, consisting of remixes of 2010's Mounqaliba, she croons in her lush alto over syncopated cymbals, tablas, and violins, and heavy electronic beats. Throughout, audio clips from the economic-conspiracy film Zeitgeist: Addendum add to the tension Obama introduces. "It's a journey of thinking, as well as nice music," Atlas told me.

 John Joe Baxter is a 72-year-old troubadour from Rockaway Beach in Queens. He's been coming to Occupy Wall Street every day since it started. "I think this is the beginning of something that has never happened in our lifetimes in America," he told me yesterday. "I think this is going to turn into the biggest movement ever in this country. Because all these people here feel exactly the way we feel."

Here he is singing an as-yet-unnamed song that he wrote for the movement, as cops try to keep his audience from blocking the sidewalk:


For beat junkies and fans of jazz and retro hip-hop, the September 30 battle between Pete Rock and DJ Premier at San Francisco's Mighty nightclub was nothing short of epic. Beyond collaborating in the past with an impressive rolodex of artists, including Kanye West, Jay-Z, Big L, J Dilla, Wu-Tang Clan, Rakim, Nas, and Notorious B.I.G., these guys have graced the best of the best lists for beat makers two decades running. To top it off, both are the remaining halves of some of the genre's greatest jazz-rap combos: Gang StarrPete Rock & CL Smooth. The sheer star power was enough to push the crowd's adrenaline off the charts.

Following a brief tour of hip-hop history courtesy of opener DJ Shortkut, smoke machines ushered in a set change, and Premier and Pete Rock took over, serving up a goody bag of improved beats, club bangers, and individual scratch sessions as they took turns passing the proverbial mic. 

They spun each other's classic material ("T.R.O.Y," "Full Clip"), laid down 1986-era Beastie Boys tracks, remixed classic soul and R&B crowd pleasers (including cuts from James Brown's funky people—like Maceo & The Macks "Soul Power '74"  and The JB's "You Can Have Watergate." They even took a 15-minute diversion into classic TV themes like this and this

Both of these producers are masters at weaving the horn improv into a heavy beat or taking a guitar lick and melding it with a spontaneous freestyle. Gang Starr, consisting of DJ Premier and the late Guru, helped pioneer the fusion of jazz and hip-hop. "Words I Manifest," the first track they ever recorded, sampled Dizzy Gillespie's "Night in Tunisia." Check it out below.

Folks, This Ain't Normal: A Farmer's Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People, and a Better World

By Joel Salatin


A Virginia farmer and devout Christian whose innovative livestock operation was featured in Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, Joel Salatin has been reaping a literary cash crop: books of homespun food wisdom. His latest combines Wendell Berryesque agrarian ecology with barnyard preaching and cornpone comedy to accomplish what literary theorists call "queering"—highlighting just how strange our "normal" worldview has become. While his chatty informality gives the book a padded feel, even alt-foodies should be able to appreciate his lucid treatment of topics like bovine ecology. But the ideal audience is your Big Gulp-quaffing conservative cousin. This book has enormous potential to broaden the movement's appeal.

Ryan Gosling in the 2011 political thriller "The Ides of March"

The Ides of March


101 minutes

George Clooney's latest directorial effort, The Ides of March, fits rather snuggly into the mood of the 2012 election season. Working off a script based on Beau Willimon's 2008 play Farragut North, Clooney & Co. serve up dirty politics, a pitiless primary, a candidate of hope and change, plenty of liberal angst, and—as an apparent throwback to the '90s—an intern-centric sex scandal.

The political thriller embeds the viewer in the war room of Democrat Mike Morris' presidential campaign during the final days before the decisive open primary in Ohio. In the heat of televised debates and media interrogation, Morris (played by Clooney, seasoned and stoic as ever) doesn't give off the faintest scent of a character problem. Morris—think an amalgam of Gavin Newsom, Barack Obama, and John F. Kennedy Jr.—openly brands himself as an atheist, an unabashed lover of green jobs, a foreign policy dove, and a tough opponent of the death penalty. But in spite of his considerable charisma and grassroots pull, he's stuck in a dead heat for the nomination, up against the safer, more traditional Sen. Pullman.

At the center of all of this is the Morris campaign's wiz-kid media consultant, Stephen Myers (a pitch-perfect Ryan Gosling), a rising star in the Democratic Party and a savvy practitioner of the backroom ballet of scuzzy politics. But sometime during the election cycle, Myers passionately bought into the governor's rhetoric, sucking down the "delicious" Kool-Aid of the Morris camp. "I don't have to play dirty anymore," Myers proudly swears. "I got Morris!"

Aaaand…cue the playing dirty. (Spoilers follow.)

Channeling the dark reality of American politics, The Ides of March goes from idealism to opprobrium faster than you can spell "Yes We Can."

As Myers finds himself at the heart of a devastating scandal, his idealistic chimera caves in on him from every angle. Eventually, the hotshot strategist has to come to terms with the sad realization that Morris might be just as much of a cold, ruthless crook as the next electable candidate. Predictably, Myers starts rapidly swapping out his starry-eyed outlook and loyalty for career moves and personal vendettas. Gosling, who scored major indie points for his work in compelling, low-budget fare like The Believer and Blue Valentine, handles his character's moral degeneration with precision and a chilling, poker-faced drive.

Octopi Wall Street!

A few days ago, photographer and idea blogger David Friedman tweeted, "Octopi Wall Street. You can have that." Beyond the Occupy Wall Street-inspired wordplay, he was on to something. There's a long American tradition of mixing economic populism with cephalopods.

Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi famously described Goldman Sachs as "a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money." More recently, Mother Jones cartoonist Zina Saunders drew the Koch brothers as the twin heads of an oil- and money-spewing "Kochtopus." But the first comparisons of moneyed interests to voracious tentacled creatures date back to the Gilded Age. Here, a quick review of the metaphor's greatest hits.

In this 1882 illustration, a grinning 10-tentacled octopus (decapus?) headed by California railroad tycoons ensnares everything in its path, from farmers and miners to an entire sailing ship.

caption TK: credit TKThe Curse of California Wikimedia Commons


The arms of the Traction Monster, drawn by George Luks in 1899, include a variety of monopolistic entities, from the Steel Trust to John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil, a favorite target of antitrust foes.

The Monopoly Octopus: Wikimedia CommonsThe Traction Monster Wikimedia Commons


In this 1904 illustration by Udo Keppler, Standard Oil wraps its tentacles around the Capitol and average Americans, while eyeing the White House.

caption TK: credit TKStandard Oil vs. America Library of Congress


Standard Oil again, this time drawn as "A Horrible Monster, whose tentacles spread poverty, disease and death."

caption TK: credit TKA Horrible Monster International Team of Comics Historians


In this 1899 cartoon, the Devil Fish of California Politics (a San Francisco Democratic party boss) emerges from a Sea of Corruption, his "rapacious maw" agape.

The Devil Fish of California: Library of CongressThe Devil Fish of California Politics Library of Congress


Octopus-mania also extended to other causes. Here, the Liquor Octopus taunts the entire world in a 1919 prohibitionist cartoon.

The Liquor Octopus: Anti-Saloon LeagueThe Liquor Octopus Anti-Saloon League

Note the octopus lounging in the Fountain of Taxation, in which the Burden of Taxation trickles down to the Laboring Class. "Eventually the bottom basin gets it."

caption TK: credit TKThe Fountain of Taxation Library of Congress


Which brings us to this Occupy Wall Street stencil by artist Molly Crabapple, in which Taibbi's vampire squid tips its top hat to its Turn of the Century forebears.

caption TK: credit TKFight the Vampire Squid Molly Crabapple


For many more examples of classic octopus propaganda, check out Vulgar Army's well-stocked collection.

From YouTube:

"Demo of the first Apple Macintosh by Steve Jobs, January 1984, in front of 3000 people. Andy Hertzfeld captured the moment quite well in his retelling: 'Pandemonium reigns as the demo completes. Steve has the biggest smile I've ever seen on his face, obviously holding back tears as he is overwhelmed by the moment. The ovation continues for at least five minutes before he quiets the crowd down.'"

A few months later, in 1984, Mother Jones published a short piece about Jobs' upstart company and its now famous "1984" ad. It contains this quote, from an employee at Apple's advertising agency at the time: "There's a residual feeling on the part of corporate computer buyers that Apple builds computers for people, not for companies." Sounds about right. Read the full piece here: Apple's Free Spirits Vs. Big Blue's Meanies.

And we'd be remiss if we didn't link to this classic from the Steve Jobs personality cult cannon, in which the world's most famous businessman responds to customer service queries. RIP Steve.

Update: This video of Steve Jobs' 2005 Stanford commencement address is making the rounds on Facebook. From the speech, delivered about 10 months after he'd undergone successful surgery to remove a cancerous tumor from his pancreas:

No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don't want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life's change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.