Do Americans Really Watch 8 Hours of TV Daily?

It's no surprise that Americans are world-champion couch potatoes, but just how bad are we? According to this chart in the Economist, we watch more than twice as much TV than other countries:
 

TV Watching


More than eight hours of TV a day!? That's disturbing. (So is that kid zoning out to nothing but static.) When a friend posted this graphic on Facebook yesterday, it spurred a mild meltdown in the comment thread. But then, the disbelief was coming from statistical outliers such as me. My family's TV set lives in the closet with a "Kill Your Television" sticker on it. I recently discovered that I'd let yet another digital TV converter coupon expire and missed my final chance to get another one, making me the last American under 75 with a now-useless analog-only TV. (Maybe that kid watching static is unlucky enough to have a parent like me. No wait—parents like me don't let our kids watch TV.) Still, the eight hours a day stat seems nuts. But is it?

If you're associated with drug enforcement and moonlight as a drug dealer, this month has not been easy on your kind. Last week authorities in Maryland busted up a $1.5 million cocaine ring. Among the 12 arrested, a former DC cop.

Earlier this month, the DEA arrested Richard Padilla, a high-ranking US official in the war on drugs, for serving "as a secret ally" to the drug lords of Mexican cartels. This from the LA Times:

"The charges underscore the corruptive might of the cartels, which have bought off Mexican politicians, police chiefs and military commandos. Drug lords have corrupted U.S. border inspectors and agents to help smuggle cocaine north. In 2006, the FBI chief in El Paso was convicted of charges related to concealing his friendship with an alleged kingpin."

Ah, the corruptive influence of Mexican drug cartels. That's the same point we made in our July/August cover story. And it doesn't stop in Mexico—but really now, who's surprised?

And finally, in other drug news, two amazing tidbits:

  • It must be hard out there for a narc, because after executing a drug raid, some cops in Tampa got a Wii bit distracted by the suspect's video games.
  • And... We so badly want to claim British blogger Andrew Sullivan as a fellow American that we don't care what he's smoking; he didn't even have to pay his $125 fine after getting caught with pot on National Park Service property. It just goes to show we DO like immigrants, and let them be naughty—or shill for the party, in the case of former GOP operative Michael Kamburowski—as long as they speak English well enough to write for The Atlantic.

Correction: Oops! In the original post, I misidentified Sullivan as Canadian. What was I smoking? Fixed.

Although it's barely into its second week of sales, more than two million copies of Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown's long awaited thriller The Lost Symbol have flown off the shelves. Not surprising, considering the Da Vinci Code sold an absurd 81 million copies (compared with 17 million for the entire Twilight series).

What is surprising is just how many of those copies were electronic: Roughly 100,000 e-copies of The Lost Symbol sold last week, which is about five percent of the book's total global sales, and close to nine percent of its US sales. Amazon won't release its total e-book sales figures, but Brown's book is locked in at No. 1 on the Bestseller list. 

One thing is for sure: If you analyze Amazon's best selling e-books side by side with the New York Times best sellers list, the dead tree readers seem a bit smarter and a lot more liberal than the e-readers.

Observe: No's 4 and 5 on the Amazon e-list are Glenn Beck's Arguing with Idiots and Common Sense, respectively, followed by Michelle Malkin's Culture of Corruption, an out-and-out attack of the Obama administration. Of course, Kindle doesn't have a monopoly on the conservative treatise market—Bill O'Reilly's latest offering clings to the NYT list at No. 8, but it's sandwiched between Tracy Kidder's new book about a medical student caught in Burundi's civil war and Nick Kristof's latest about the trafficking of women in Asia and Africa, both decidedly more highbrow than anything in the Kindle's top ten. 

Once again, the internet's wealth of data has compelled us to compartmentalize our interests and narrow our worldview. We no longer browse. It's an unfortunate trait to bring to the world of books, and if the Kindle bestsellers are any indication, one that won't disappear soon.

Is Twitter Feeding the NYT?

On Monday, a small corner of the Internet exploded with reports that Martin Nisenholtz, Senior Vice-President of digital operations at The New York Times Co., had credited Twitter with 10 percent of NYTimes.com traffic. That would be roughly 2.8 million people redirected from the micro-blogging website to NYTimes.com every month. 

Fortunately, at least one blogger did his homework, noting that NYT spokeswoman Diane McNulty would confirm only that: “At its current growth rate, Twitter is, or will soon move into, the top 10 in terms of referrals to NYTimes.com.” To those not versed in Google Analytics, that means Twitter probably brings in a much smaller piece of the Gray Lady's pie than speculated. But it's growing! And, importantly, skewing toward that oh-so-elusive younger audience the NYT and other papers have been chasing.

The Times seems to be throwing its weight behind the Twitter phenomenon. @nytimes has nearly 2 million followers, which is nothing to sneeze at even if Twitter does slough half of its new users, and given that plenty of profiles are inactive. But not every Twitter profile in the Times-iverse was created equal: Maureen Dowd's @NYTimesDowd has a meager 1,500 followers, compared to Nicholas Kristof's @nytimeskristof, which has more than 600,000. 

Not an @nytimes follower? May I humbly suggest @sewell_chan, the powerhouse behind the paper's City Room blog. Chan's mere 3,000 followers and relative obscurity in the world of the Times belies a feed full of pointed questions and tantalizing tidbits.

OMG! Liv Dolls Totally Aren't Bratz, LOL

Spin Masters, the creators of Tech Decks (the bane of every school teacher's existence), recently released a new line of dolls in an effort to compete with Barbie's half-century iron-clad hold on the market. Toymaker MGA tried a similar trick once with the release of Bratz (the bane of every feminist parent's existence); then a court determined that the rights of the Bratz line belonged to none other than Barbie's maker, Mattel.

The self-proclaimed rulers of boys' toys, Spin Masters are looking to break into the girls' toy market by creating what "girls really want." Apparently three years of development determined that what girls really want is...more of the same, but with articulated action-figure-like limbs. What started as a fully articulated "fashion robot" evolved into the top-selling Liv Dolls, who each have storylines continually updated via the LivWorld website (fully accessible for one year after purchase):

"Spin Master ….also gave its characters—four friends from an imaginary high school—backstories and imperfections that make them seem more real than the aspirational Barbie astronauts, beauty queens, and Presidential candidates."

For all of Barbie's flaws, I'd rather girls 6-10 aspire to be a presidential candidate or an astronaut instead of "following their dreams" by getting jobs at the mall—what the Liv dolls are doing according to their online diaries. Not only do the dolls ask girls to bring their aspirations down a notch, the depth of each character and the ability of girls to relate to them is pretty stereotypical and just as flimsy:

Alexis: A head-turning African American girl who is obsessed with fashion.
Imperfection: Her little brother, who she has to babysit all the time.

Daniela: A Latina who can sing and dance and pose for the camera.
Imperfection: School smarts. Her parents want her to be an engineer, but she really wants to be a pop star!

Sophie: The blonde whose calling is to be "Hairstylist to the Stars!"
Imperfection: She'll screw up your makeover if she isn't wearing her glasses. Oh, no! Not glasses!

Katie: The brunette who seems to pack in every attempt to make Liv dolls a positive alternative to their foresisters, she's smart, athletic, and a lover of books.
Imperfection: She's a klutz—oh, and clueless to the fact that every boy has a crush on her!

With their "extensive" back stories, it seems that Spin Masters attempted to find a space not just between Barbie and Bratz, but the other product of the Mattel trifecta—the American Girl line. At $19.99, Liv dolls are considered a more affordable option for girls who want to model their plaything after themselves, since you can change out their hair (so long as you have straight hair that takes well to curlers). But since just one extra wig will run you 12 bucks, even the affordability argument is a little weak.

Fans of Liv Dolls tout them as age-appropriate since they don't have Barbie's severe bust to waist ratio, or the Bratz' virtual closet full of hot pants and halter tops:

"The small details, says Varadi, were toughest. He says he worked for months making sure the lips were right, referring to pictures of his girlfriend for guidance. 'I didn't want them to look collagen-injected'."

While I'm sure his girlfriend appreciates the plastic portrayal, to me the Liv dolls still look pretty collagen-injected, anime-eyed, and vapid. It seems that for now girls looking for a real play alternative to fashion dolls will have to transgress the gendered lines in the toy-aisle sand, or (god forbid) venture into the "educational" section.

Saying Goodbye to Clove Cigarettes

Walking home from high school one day during freshman year, I ran into my sometimes friend Michel Finzi with his sidekick, a smart-ass kid named George who played in the school band. Finzi, a good-looking French kid who was always regaling me with stories of the girls and surfing at Cape Cod, a world totally foreign to me, was smoking something enticingly pungent. "What's that?" I asked.

"A Krak," Finzi said. "Wanna try?" He handed over a burning Krakatoa brand clove cigarette.

I took a drag of the sweet, heavy smoke, and after about five seconds was floating pleasantly. "Cool," I said. So Finzi, who was headed the other way, generously gave me my own to smoke. By the time I got home, I'd finished about half of it and was feeling pretty damn sick. Had to lie down a while.

Thus began my occasional affair with clove cigarettes. But never again did I smoke one alone. A complex etiquette developed among my close friends. A clove had to be shared with others. Spoken of in codes. Symbols on the package took on special meanings. One could not smoke it past a certain point. One could never ask for a lit clove, reach out for it, or even eye it furtively in the hands of another. It could only be offered. But woe befall those who would Bogart it—hold it longer than the others deemed appropriate. For that sin, you risked ignominy.

Rosh Hashanah is The Big Show, one of two days a year when every Jew, no matter how lapsed, at least considers attending the service that has existed virtually unchanged since antiquity. And every year, brave cantors test a different rendition of a traditional prayer. Sometimes those new melodies strike a cord, but mostly people want their Pepsi to taste like Pepsi and their Rosh Hashanah to sound like Rosh Hashanah.

I wanted to love Saturday night's Hidden Melodies Revealed, the Sway Machinery's free Rosh Hashanah concert at San Francisco's major Reform temple. And so did the few hundred folks who turned out to see the combined forces of indie-darlings Arcade Fire, Balkan Beat Box, and others. When I arrived to find Emanu-El's Spanish courtyard thronged by hipster masses, I felt sure we were about to witness something transcendent, music that would touch the observant and the lapsed alike. After 14 non-stop hours of prayer and ritual, I was ready for something completely different. Some small part of me even hoped this could be what klezmer revival was a decade ago—a wedge into Jewish culture for the masses.

Alas, it wasn't.  

Instead, the concert was what my mother would call "a good idea, poorly executed." To put it another way, I was really glad I hadn't brought my mother. When the lights dimmed at 10 p.m., roughly two-thirds of the temple's massive sanctuary was full. By 10:03, pretty much everyone over 30 had cleared out. It all started innocuously enough, with a brass rendition of Judaism's central prayer. But the intricate and vaunted melodies of the High Holy Day liturgy just never quite matched up with the music. The product was discordant at best, and ear-splittingly loud. Within 15 minutes, a third of the audience was gone. Another third were pressed against the impromptu stage, while the final portion sat transfixed, unsure whether to rock out or melt into their seats.

There are ways to do religious music so that it's moving to the secular and the faithful alike. Matisyahu—who sings a version of the sacred Shema in his single "Got no Water"—has made a career out of it. Unfortunately, the Sway Machinery hasn't found that balance yet. I'll call it a failure in the tradition of ambitious Rosh Hashanah failures all over the world. Better luck next year, guys.

This Is Your Brain on Kafka

This story first appeared at Miller-McCune.

The befuddled tramps in Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot are a poetic personification of paralysis. But new research suggests the act of watching them actually does get us somewhere.

Absurdist literature, it appears, stimulates our brains.

That's the conclusion of a study recently published in the journal Psychological Science. Psychologists Travis Proulx of the University of California, Santa Barbara and Steven Heine of the University of British Columbia report our ability to find patterns is stimulated when we are faced with the task of making sense of an absurd tale. What's more, this heightened capability carries over to unrelated tasks.

In the first of two experiments, 40 participants (all Canadian college undergraduates) read one of two versions of a Franz Kafka story, The Country Doctor. In the first version, which was only slightly modified from the original, "the narrative gradually breaks down and ends abruptly after a series of non sequiturs," the researchers write. "We also included a series of bizarre illustrations that were unrelated to the story."

Penthouse, iPhone, and Fishing Music

Ben Winship, David Thompson (and friends)
Fishing Music II

I haven't listened to Fishing Music I, so you won't find any comparisons here. But as a kid back in Wisconsin, I regularly scrutinized the Bass Pro Shops catalog and subscribed to a magazine called Fishing Facts. Back then at least, each issue kicked off with a Penthouse Forum-style letters section, except with fish. Typically, you'd get stuff like: "The sun had set and it was growing dark along the fringes of Lake Wingra. I was cold and discouraged; not a strike all day, and so I decided to call it quits. With one desperate last cast, I tossed my #2 Mepps minnow near the end of a submerged pine, and reeled it back, jigging slightly. When all of a sudden a tremendous yank on the line nearly pulled me out of my canoe. My Fenwick superlight nearly snapped in two as the 13-pound, 7-ounce lunker bass took off with my Mepps." (Cue heavy breathing.)

What were we talking about, again? Oh right, the fishing CD. We'll get to that. But let me tell you about the iPhone I bought my wife for her birthday. Or rather, I said, "I'm getting you an iPhone for your birthday, but you should set it up how you want it," so I only bought it for her in the abstract. The point is that she installed a little app called Flick Fishing—weird, since fishing isn't among her passions. But this thing is a patently addictive little timewaster. You choose a location, pick a lure or bait, make a casting motion with the phone, and when something strikes, you turn a reel on the screen to land it. Sometimes the line snaps or you get an old boot. More often you land a fine-looking specimen with goosed poundage. If you were impressed by that 13-pound, 7-ounce bass from above, a couple weeks back I landed a 19 pounder in the game. "This is so unrealistic!" I complained to Laura, momentarily forgetting my irony detector. "Nobody catches a 19-pound largemouth bass!" (Or maybe I was just using the wrong bait all those years.)

Tonight, Jews around the world celebrate the dawn of year 5770. Tomorrow night, a lucky few will get to rock out to "Hidden Melodies Revealed," a free, live remix of traditional cantoral music by an indie-rock dream team. 

Jewish religious music, like the religion, is notoriously change-averse, and very few have successfully introduced new tunes to the litergy. The Sway Machinery—consisting of members of Arcade Fire, Balkan Beat Box, Antibalas, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs—doesn't hope to do that, exactly, but the musicians are planning to introduce the crowd to a radical reimagining of High Holiday cantoral music. The supergroup chose Temple Emanu El in San Francisco, erstwhile home of famed singing rabbi Shlomo Carelbach, to reinvent the sacred music of the past, transforming a purely vocal tradition into a thumping, instrumental celebration of Judiasm's venerated back catalogue. Sway frontman Jeremiah Lockwood of Balkan Beat Box gave us the inside dirt. 

Mother Jones: Saturday is the second night of Rosh Hashanah. What's the significance of playing then?

Jeremiah Lockwood: It's the center of the spiritual cycle of the year. Rosh Hashanah is the big show for the cantor, the time they get to shine, and the whole community gets together. Growing up, my grandfather was a great cantor, and for the last 30 years of his career, he only sang for the High Holy Days. It always seemed to me to be the nexis of all the culture of cantoral music was going towards this one moment. Part of my musical concept for the band is that I was going to take this vocal music tradition and work with the melodies and create instrumental music and rhythmic accompaniment to it.