2012 - %3, August

VIDEO: Invisible Bike Helmet Saves Your 'Do

| Tue Aug. 21, 2012 6:00 AM EDT
The Hövding helmet.

If you've ever felt self-conscious about less-than-fashionable bike headgear, you might be in luck. Two Swedish female designers who "wouldn't be seen dead in a polystyrene helmet" aim to change that. They've launched an "invisible bike helmet" that looks like a cute scarf—but upon impact, inflates like an airbag.

I must admit, I find this idea sort of appealing. The first and only time I got hit by a car on my bike, I wasn't wearing a helmet. I was riding a rainbow fixed-gear near Wannsee, Berlin, on one of Germany's many bike paths. Few casual cyclists in Europe wear helmets and I was jealous of how chic they looked with their hair flying free. So I, too, ditched my headgear. 

But then, ein Auto, backing out of a driveway, knocked some (literal) sense in me. I was only a little banged up, but I put my helmet back on, where it remains to this day. Still plenty of riders here and abroad continue to forego protection for better hair. 

There's only one catch: Right now, the Hövding is only for sale in the European Union. It costs almost 4,000 Swedish Krona (about $600) and needs to be replaced after it inflates. Here's how it works:

                            

So will it catch on in the US? Not according to Walker Wilkson, service manager at the Bike Rack, a bike store in Washington, DC.

"It seems to me to be a novelty," he says  "I honestly don't think it will make more people wear helmets."

The helmet also contains a black box, which records 10 seconds of data on the bicyclist's movement patterns around the time of an accident. Right now, the founders are asking that cyclists involved in a crash send them the recording for development work. But in the future, the technology could be useful in solving legal disputes with drivers.

"Having a black box would be great," Wilkson says. "I know there have been situations, some occurring in DC, where cyclists having video of events prior to and post-accident actually helped them in court."

That also would have been true in the case of my bike accident. The driver of das Auto blamed me for the crash, despite the fact that she careened straight into my bike lane. If I'd been seriously injured, a video of the accident would have proven useful.

In any case, US cyclists don't need to pony up for the invisible helmet to get its black box capabilities—as The New York Times reports, cyclists are already strapping video cameras on their heads to fight drivers.

Drum music courtesy of Mike Smirnoff.

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A Farewell to Phyllis Diller and Tony Scott

| Tue Aug. 21, 2012 1:37 AM EDT

On Monday morning, Phyllis Diller was found dead at her Los Angeles home, having passed away "peacefully in her sleep" at the age of 95. Diller, a roaringly funny, trailblazing comedienne, has an extensive résumé in need of no qualification.

Even into her elderly, feeble years, she stayed fierce, endearing, and thoroughly watchable. My introduction to her work came rather late—when I was 17 and had just rented the documentary The Aristocrats in early 2006. She, like the other comedians interviewed for the movie, riffs on the classic improvisational "Aristocrats" joke. On the DVD's special features, there is a deleted scene in which Diller takes a break to tell a Monica Lewinsky joke. In that short bit, she is effervescent, quietly captivating, and, most shockingly, she manages to keep the joke (a Lewinsky joke) from sounding unpardonably dated.

Therein lies what made me such a fan in the first place: It wasn't her big, outlandish moments (as great as they frequently were) that really made her shine—it was the fact that she could floor you with the small moments and the little things, and make it look like a cakewalk all the while.

The following is by the late author Christopher Hitchens (to whom we bid farewell late last year) from back in December 2008, in which he writes about a Christmas card he received from Diller. I mean this in only the best of senses: The anecdote tells you everything you need to know about the woman:

I had never before been a special fan of that great comedian Phyllis Diller, but she utterly won my heart this week by sending me an envelope that, when opened, contained a torn-off square of brown-bag paper of the kind suitable for latrine duty in an ill-run correctional facility. Duly unfurled, it carried a handwritten salutation reading as follows:

Money's scarce

Times are hard

Here's your fucking

Xmas card

Stellar Crime Reporting Doesn't Come for Free

| Mon Aug. 20, 2012 6:00 AM EDT
This photo gallery shows victims from Homicide Watch DC's database.

Two years ago, Laura Amico and her husband Chris created Homicide Watch DC, a website that reports on every homicide in the nation's capital that the two can track down. Visitors can easily look up any recent homicide victim or suspect in the DC metro area, locate incidents on a Google Map, track cases through RSS feeds, and read public records associated to each case. The site gets 330,000 pageviews a month, and its commenting system has been particularly valuable for family and friends of homicide victims looking to ask questions, offer additional information, or simply express their grief.

Homicide Watch's data-driven approach, combined with Laura's more traditional style of reporting—she spends most days jotting notes inside court rooms or on the phone with victim relatives—has resulted in a deep historical archive and factchecking tool. Late last December, when the DC Metro Police Department held a press conference to announce a 94 percent homicide closure rate in 2011, Laura thought that number sounded implausibly high. Chris checked their database and found that Homicide Watch records showed 61 arrests made out of 108 incidents in 2011, falling short of MPD's closure claim. Laura made a few phone calls and determined that the disparity was due to the police department including arrests made prior to 2011* in their count (a practice also used by the FBI).

Sent from Space: YACHT's Claire Evans

| Mon Aug. 20, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

"Oh, this one's got a real rapid BPM, kids!" yells Claire L. Evans of the band YACHT at a recent festival show in San Francisco. She's wearing an all-white skintight get-up that accentuates her bleached-white hair—contrasting markedly with the outlandish outline of her metallic blue lipstick—and a massive silver disc necklace carved to display a complete moon-cycle. YACHT's trademark insignia, a giant yellow triangle happy face, stares placidly from behind her, and the band's alien electro-pop slowly builds to a crescendo as Evans continues. "That means it has been designed explicitly to help you release anxiety! To help you release stress! To help you to form close personal bonds with other people around you as you move your bodies. Through SPACE!!" The beat crashes, Evans dances frantically across the stage, and the audience loses all semblance of self-control.

Evans is a special kind of performer and YACHT is certainly a special kind of band—a mix of eerily accessible electro-pop seamlessly integrated with a quirky futurist mantra. YACHT (or "Young Americans Challenging High Technology") was launched in Portland in 2002, the brainchild of Jona Bechtolt (formerly of The Blow), who released three albums on his own seeking to fuse the sounds of technology and traditional pop. In 2008, after they had a "shared mystical experience" in the Texas desert, he joined forces with Evans, who was already a long-time collaborator—and YACHT was reborn. The duo have recorded two albums to date. 

Review: Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti, "Mature Themes"

| Mon Aug. 20, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti
Mature Themes
4AD

Weirdos are having a moment in music. From the obsession of indie bands with psych-inflected forms to the surreal costumes and antics of pop superstars, it seems like everyone's trying to claim the mantle of weirdest-of-all. But Ariel Pink makes most of the rest look like pale imitators. Pink spent years beneath almost everyone's radar, making ultra-low-fi home recordings, which garnered him a cultish fanbase but little mainstream recognition, before bursting into the (relative) spotlight with 2010's Before Today, a richly produced album full of songs—many of which had appeared earlier in lower-fi versions—that seamlessly hopped among styles and genres. With Mature Themes, Pink takes his brand of weird-pop a step further, with a set of even more intricately bizarre gems.

"Is This the Best Spot" opens with a driving beat and robotic voiceover before launching into a chorus of "step into my time warp/step into my time warp/step into my time warp now." It sounds like a house-of-mirrors version of a Girl Talk mashup—in fact, most of these songs resemble one. The title track is a sweetly earnest piece of gauzy soft rock with stream-of-consciousness lyrics and a rapturous synth melody, while "Nostradamus & Me" is seven-and-a-half minutes of beautifully swirling ambient noise. "The Early Birds of Babylon" sounds like the theme to a fantasy TV series from the '80s, with a heavy dose of death metal for good measure: "Satan explodes," a voice intones over dungeon-y guitars and a dark bassline

Introducing "A Movie & an Argument," With Alyssa Rosenberg and Asawin Suebsaeng

| Sat Aug. 18, 2012 10:50 AM EDT

Today, we're introducing a new weekly feature—a podcast called A Movie & an Argument, with Alyssa and Swin.

Each week, I'll be sitting down to chat with ThinkProgress critic Alyssa Rosenberg (who also does awesome work at The Atlantic and "Double X" at Slate). We'll talk, argue, and laugh about the latest movies, television series, and pop-cultural nonsense—with some politics thrown in just for the hell of it.

Alyssa describes herself as being "equally devoted to the Star Wars expanded universe and Barbara Stanwyck, to Better Off Ted and Deadwood." I (everyone calls me Swin) am a devoted lover of low-brow dark humor, Yuengling, and movies with high body counts. I hope you tune in for this episode and the ones to come.

We'll be featuring guests on the program, and also taking listeners' questions, so feel free to Tweet them at me here, and we'll see if we can get to them.

Below, you'll find the audio for our inaugural episode, in which we discuss:

  • The second season of Boss, starring Kelsey Grammer as a slick, corrupt Chicago mayor (the new season premiered Friday August 17 on Starz).
  • 2 Days in New York, a new indie comedy starring Julie Delpy and Chris Rock.
  • The Expendables 2, the testosterone-sodden ensemble action flick (had its wide release Friday August 17).
  • Copper, a BBC America dramatic series created by Tom Fontana and Will Rokos that takes place in 1860s New York after the American Civil War.
  • The ongoing first season of Aaron Sorkin's HBO series The Newsroom.

 

Thanks for tuning in!

Click here for more movie and TV features from Mother Jones. To read more of Swin's reviews, click here.

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Moscow Dispatch: The Pussy Riot Sentencing

| Fri Aug. 17, 2012 3:13 PM EDT

No one reads Anna Karenina these days to find out that poor, messed-up Anna throws herself under the train; we all know she's done for the moment she sets her eyes on Vronsky.

And so it was with the hundreds of people who gathered this afternoon on a leafy street in central Moscow to await the judge's ruling in the Pussy Riot trial. Only an idiot could have doubted that the three young women would be found guilty of anti-religious hooliganism (whatever the hell that is) for their anti-Putin punk-rant in Moscow's central cathedral; that they received a sentence of two years instead of the three demanded by the prosecutor was not viewed by anyone, except perhaps the authorities, as a sign of leniency.

In fact, Moscow has been gripped by pussy fever all week, as the city braced for the verdict and news organizations published breathless updates and commentaries about day-to-day developments. Yesterday came word that the judge in the case, Marina Syrova, had asked for bodyguards because of the "incessant threats" she had received because of the trial. The Moscow Times, the city's English-language daily, yesterday published a scathing commentary blasting Madonna for her expression of support for the Pussy Riot grrls in her recent Russian concerts and declaring that "the truth has no significance in the West."

My One-Sentence Review of "The Expendables 2"

| Fri Aug. 17, 2012 12:11 PM EDT

If Leonardo da Vinci had been more awesome.

The Expendables 2
Lionsgate
102 minutes

Things go boom, bad guys go ouch, Stallone grunts, and Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren are in the movie; see it in theaters if you find an extra $10 in your laundered blue jeans, and if you don't need the money for beer or food.

The Expendables 2 Lovable Freight Train From Hell gets a wide release on Friday, August 17. The film is rated R for shit exploding. Click here for local showtimes and tickets.

 

Click here for more movie and TV features from Mother Jones.

To read more of Asawin's reviews, click here.

To listen to the weekly movie and pop-culture podcast that Asawin co-hosts with ThinkProgress critic Alyssa Rosenberg, click here.

Solar-Powered Concert Stages? Yep, They Really Work

| Wed Aug. 15, 2012 3:40 PM EDT
Dr. Dog on Outside Lands' solar stage.

It's after dark on a Saturday when San Francisco's preeminent garage rockers Thee Oh Sees take the stage for their Outside Lands music festival set. Frontman John Dwyer and his guitar send shuddering distortion through the packed pit; crowd-surfers hurl themselves from one set of hands to the next. My own limbs rattle from the bass. But while the sound is forceful, those of us in the audience are at the mercy of no ordinary stage system—instead, this one runs on solar.

To skeptics, solar-powered stages might sound like a gag, a green washing hijink for mild-mannered acoustic bands at best. But Mark McLarry of Alternative Power Productions, the company running Outside Lands' solar stage, has been in the business of providing music festivals with real, concert-grade sound since 2005, and his stages keep getting bigger.

Gen. Wesley Clark, Todd Palin, and Nick Lachey Blow Things Up For America

| Mon Aug. 13, 2012 7:15 PM EDT
Blue Steel.

Remember that night you drank too much Drambuie and then had a dream in which Wesley Clark, Picabo Street, Todd Palin, Superman, a WWE Diva Champion, and Nick Lachey were all shooting bazookas and other loud weaponry at inanimate objects in the desert?

Well, mega-producers Dick Wolf and Mark Burnett read your mind, stole your idea, and made a summer reality show out of it for NBC.

Stars Earn Stripes (premiering Monday at 8 p.m. EDT—with a two hour season opener) pairs each C-list celeb with a military or law enforcement tough guy. Together, they simulate wartime scenarios, all of which look like deleted scenes from Joel Schumacher movies. Every time Dean Cain or Todd Palin make something go boom, they raise money for their partner's charity.

All of this is conducted under the watchful eyes of hosts Samantha Harris and ex-Army general/ex-presidential candidate/ex-non-reality-show-personality Wesley Clark (just for a frame of reference, the guy used to save the lives of Kosovars).

Yes, the show means well. Nick Lachey and co. gush endlessly about how lionhearted our men and women in uniform are. The episodes are set to music that somehow manages to sound even more glowingly patriotic than the score to Air Force One. Things detonate violently.

It's also one of the most patronizing things to which you could ever subject yourself. But if watching the one-time 98 Degrees frontman fall out of a helicopter in the name of charity and freedom sounds appealing to you, then I suppose it sounds appealing to you.

Here's a TV spot, in case you need any more convincing one way or the other:

Click here for more TV and movie features from Mother Jones. To read more of Asawin's reviews, click here.