The Riff - September 2009

Music Monday: 15 Minutes with Dengue Fever

| Mon Sep. 14, 2009 5:30 AM EDT

If 1960s Cambodian pop revival doesn't sound like your cup of tea, maybe you just haven't heard the multi-culti rock group Dengue Fever, brainchild of brothers Zac and Ethan Holtzman, which has been making waves in the Los Angeles music scene. When Dengue came around recently to perform at Outside Lands, I sat down with Zac and lead singer Chhom Nimol to chat about vector-borne diseases, Long Beach's Little Phnom Penh, their genre-bending new album, and the revival of a musical style Pol Pot sought to wipe out. 

Mother Jones: Gotta ask, what's with the name? 

Zac Holtzman: When my brother was traveling in Cambodia, his traveling companion came down with dengue fever. When they were taking him to the hospital they were in this truck and driving on some crazy dirt roads. The music the driver was playing was a lot of old Cambodian tunes from the late '60s, the early '70s, the stuff we're all into—and that's how my brother heard it for the first time. So when we were thining of a name for the band he kind of went back to his sketchboook, and there it was. I heard it for the first time from my friend who was working at Aquarius Records here in San Francisco. I was playing it to my brother and he was like, 'Oh my god, these are all the same music as the tapes I collected when I was in Cambodia!' From there we were just like, we should form a band around this. 

MJ: How did you find a singer? 

Chhom Nimol: I was working at the Dragon House (a club in Long Beach). I worked there for three years, almost, and then I saw Zac and Ethan come; they wanted to talk to me and they ask me to be in their band. They needed a singer, and I said okay.

MJ: Is there a large Cambodian population in Long Beach? 

CN: About 50,000. In Oakland, Stockton, Boston, and Texas there are communities. But in Long Beach we call it Little Phnom Penh. 

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Michael Savage Has to Apologize to Brave New Films

| Fri Sep. 11, 2009 4:17 PM EDT

This story first appeared at Alternet.

Shock jock Michael Savage, who is not prone to public shows of remorse, has been forced to apologize to progressive video production company Brave New Films after a take-down notice his syndicator sent to YouTube in 2008 resulted in the removal of all BNF's films from the site.

The company's YouTube complaint specifically targeted a Brave New Films video called "Michael Savage Hates Muslims." In the video a nice photo of Savage posing by the Golden Gate Bridge is overlaid with soundbites of the shock jock railing against Islam, Muslims and the Koran. "I can see what it says in their book of hate … make no mistake about it, the Koran is not a document of freedom. The Koran is a document of slavery and chattel!" screams Savage. Kind of hard to misrepresent his meaning.

Google's Plan to Save Newspapers

| Fri Sep. 11, 2009 2:36 PM EDT

Can Google save the newspaper industry?

That's the question being posed, now that the search giant has announced it's developing a platform to microcharge for online news content.

The plan promises a win-win scenario: The news industry finally profits online, while Google takes 30 percent off the top (much like Apple with iPhone apps).

Based on the (rough) outline, there's plenty to be excited about. The proposal involves a fee to access multiple sites, a clever way to assuage commitment issues. And Google is, after all, Google—an online behemoth with a ton of power to leverage.

The downside: Precedent. There has been scant luck with charging for content so far, so who's to know if anything will work? And getting the news industry on board may prove difficult, considering Google's contested aggregation practices.

But whether it pans out or not, it's good to hear that interesting ideas are being tossed around. Because if something isn't done to save quality, original reporting soon, we'll all be the worse for it.

Dewey Defeats Truman: SF Chronicle's Bay Bridge Edition

| Tue Sep. 8, 2009 12:19 PM EDT

Here in the Bay Area, we take our earthquake retrofitting seriously: Hence the Labor Day weekend closing of the Bay Bridge for a crucial step in the ongoing replacement of the eastern span, and the announcement last night that all 260,000 cars that use the bridge on a typical day would have to find other ways to commute this morning due to a newly discovered crack in a steel link. Given the new crack, I was expecting to have to forsake my usual cushy carpool ride from Berkeley to the Mother Jones office in downtown San Francisco for a long, crowded, and expensive train ride today, but when I woke up this morning I checked the news on the computer and, just like that, the bridge workers had beaten the odds and the bridge was operational. All it took was 70 hours of continuous work.

Too bad the print edition of the San Francisco Chronicle couldn't keep up with the news. Millions of people in the Bay Area woke up this morning wondering about the Bay Bridge and the area's largest daily, with a daily circulation of 312,408, got it wrong.

Ironically, I saw this in the newspaper box while waiting in the carpool line for a ride over the Bay Bridge. Ouch.

Music Monday: Ingrid Michaelson's New CD Hit and Miss

| Mon Sep. 7, 2009 5:30 AM EDT

Ingrid Michaelson
Everybody

Much of chanteuse Ingrid Michaelson’s charm lies in her unpretentious approach: Her sparse use of ukulele, piano, and guitar. Her warm voice. Her clean, catchy melodies.

On Everybody, which quickly soared to No. 1 on the iTunes charts, Michaelson evokes this simple style to mostly good effect. Part of the credit goes to the producers (of which she is one), who understand when to punctuate the minimalism with flourish. "The Chain," for instance, is elevated by a vocal round at the climax, while "Man of Snow" benefits from an ethereal string section in the chorus.

Yet at times it is Michaelson's austerity that snags her. This is most apparent in the lyrics, which can tread the line between earnest and treacly. I gotta see if I'm filled up when it's only me/It's not your fault but you just can't be here she croons in "Once Was Love." In "Locked Up," she asks Have I taken a wrong turn? When will I learn? Great lyrics manage to be both personal and profound, and Michaelson seems to struggle sometimes.

The Conde Nast Conspiracy

| Fri Sep. 4, 2009 2:19 PM EDT

Last week, a shocking GQ investigative report, "None Dare Call it Conspiracy," hit the newsstands. Not that most people would know about it. Oddly, the magazine's parent company, Conde Nast, seems bent on squelching the explosive article.

The report links Russia's intelligence service to a series of bombings in 1999—blamed on Chechen terrorists—that killed over 300 Russian citizens, led to the Second Chechen War, and propelled Vladimir Putin to the presidency. At the center of the story is a Mikhail Trepashkin, a former KGB-turned-FSB agent, whose detailed allegations draw into question Putin's role in the bombings. Similar inquiries have led to the mysterious deaths of both journalist Anna Politkovskaya and Trepashkin's former colleague Alexander Litvinenko.

Perhaps fearing that the story would impact the advertising revenues of the four titles Conde Nast publishes in the Russian market, the media company has attempted to bury the piece. In an internal email on July 23, obtained by NPR's David Folkenflik, one of the media company's top lawyers informed GQ editors that "Conde Nast management has decided that the September issue of US GQ magazine containing Scott Anderson's article...should not be distributed in Russia." The report was not teased on the magazine's cover and, as of now, is not available on the magazine's website. Gawker has attempted to rectify the situation by posting a scanned copy of the article on its website and asking readers to help them translate the article into Russian.

While Conde Nast has thus far been silent on the NPR report (they did not respond to my request for comment), this appears to be a clear-cut case of commercial interests trumping journalistic integrity. As Scott Anderson, the author of the piece said to Folkenflik

I think it's really kind of sad. Here now is finally an outlet for this story to be told, and you do everything possible to throw a tarp over it.

By attempting to stifle the report, Conde Nast may end up succeeding in bringing more attention to the piece. That, and inadvertently making one of the strongest arguments yet for supporting independent nonprofit media like NPR (and Mother Jones).

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Filmmaker, Photojournalist Killed in El Salvador

| Thu Sep. 3, 2009 5:42 PM EDT

Christian Poveda, a prominent French filmmaker and photojournalist who spent years chronicling the lives of El Salvadorian gang members, has been found dead—possibly the victim of his subjects.

Poveda first came to El Salvador in the 1980's, to photograph the country's civil war for Time. He returned in the 1990's to document its gritty gang life, and in 2008 produced the acclaimed documentary La Vida Loca (Crazy Life).

To see Poveda's haunting portraits of El Salvadorian gang members, whom he called "victims of society," click here. For more of his work, click here.

Washingon Monthly's College Guide

| Thu Sep. 3, 2009 10:52 AM EDT

Ask not what your college does for you, but what your college does for the country. That's the creed of the Washington Monthly's annual college guide, released this week. This is the newest in a string of college rankings, ranging from the elite US News & World Report to the hilarious GQ, which ranked the country's 25 Douchiest Colleges. But the Washington Monthly's guide stands apart. It explains:

Unlike U.S. News and World Report and similar guides, this one asks not what colleges can do for you, but what colleges are doing for the country. Are they educating low-income students, or just catering to the affluent? Are they improving the quality of their teaching, or ducking accountability for it? Are they trying to become more productive—and if so, why is average tuition rising faster than health care costs? Every year we lavish billions of tax dollars and other public benefits on institutions of higher learning. This guide asks: Are we getting the most for our money?

Of all of the college rankings I've seen, this most closely matches the ethos behind the 2009 "MoJo Mini College Guide," because both place smart, fearless education and public service above endowment size and reputation. US News, for example, describes Kentucky's Berea College, one of the ten schools on MoJo's guide, simply as a "Tier 3" school. But Washington Monthly placed it at #12 on it's list of top liberal arts colleges, perhaps because it offers all students free tuition for four years. For more examples like Berea, check out the the MoJo Mini College Guide, which includes some of the best schools you've never heard of that won't destroy your wallet, the best jobs that don't require a college degree, and some of the more... uh... creative funding options out there.

Low Res: Designing Veterans Mental Health

| Wed Sep. 2, 2009 6:49 PM EDT

The 2010 United States defense budget is officially $533.7 billion, but it's been estimated that it's closer to $780 billion. The Department of Veterans Affairs budget is about $56 billion. That means that we spend 10 times as much to fight wars as we do to take care of the people who fought them.

Granted, weaponry is pretty damn expensive. So is getting soldiers to the two fronts we are currently fighting on (and the many other places where we are present) and making sure that all 1.5 million active duty personnel and over 800,000 reservists have the resources they need—though the extent to which we do that appropriately is questionable. But, according to the VA we also have 25 million living veterans, and a full 1/4 of the US population is eligible for benefits.

As they say, money talks, and sometimes it speaks directly to you through advertising. Recently, San Francisco Bay Area public transit has been besieged by ads for a mental health hot line for veterans. While this type of outreach is long overdue, the effort being undertaken to address veterans' mental health is overshadowed by the campaign's awful design.

If you look closely at the ad above that appeared in BART trains, you'll notice that the proud American flag in the background looks like it was pasted from the Internet and then blown up, the outline of the soldier has some serious anatomical problems, and the god-awful yellow text is incredibly hard to read.

As it turns out, that grainy flag isn't just a dpi problem. The VA must have thought the grainy Stars and Stripes was "arty," because the graininess is the same on this much larger ad that appeared on AC Transit buses:

But, does design really matter? Yes, it does. While it is great that a concerted effort is being made to address the needs of veterans' mental health, these slipshod ads are nothing compared to recruiting ads.

The active military has moved past the print campaigns of yore into snazzy television commercials (now with a softer, kinder feel), video games, mall-based "experience centers," flash-laden websites and of course going directly to the source in our nation's classrooms.

Every branch of the military has a separate recruiting website. The VA, however, only has one. It would be a fine website, if it were say, 1999. But, compare it to the Army one, where you can watch videos, play games, and even have a virtual sergeant show you around, and you begin to see where our priorities lie.

Thankfully, the Veterans Administration is not alone. It seems that both the VA and the Department of Defense have realized that they cannot meet the needs of this growing group. There are many private citizens working with government agencies in an attempt to fill the gap and address veterans', and active duty soldiers', needs. If you, or anyone you know, needs support, visit The National Resource Directory's (better designed) site for a list of the organizations that are there to help.