The Riff - November 2009

Video: Sesame Street Turns 40, Goes Green

| Tue Nov. 10, 2009 6:02 PM EST

Lordy, lordy, Sesame Street is turning 40. To celebrate four decades of educational muppet fun, this year its producers are introducing a curriculum called "My World is Green and Growing" designed to "create a love and understanding of the natural world." Below, Michelle Obama helps kids and Elmo plant a vegetable garden (pesticide free, natch):

 

 

HT Sierra Club.

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Music Monday: A Tori Amos Christmas?

| Mon Nov. 9, 2009 7:00 AM EST

Tori Amos
Midwinter Graces
Universal Republic

A Tori Amos Christmas album? Seriously?

That was my first thought when I opened Midwinter Graces, a new album out this week from the indie queen. The quirky, moody crooner seems like a strange fit for the wholesome, fuzzy holiday season. Plus, Christmas albums are usually crap (a fact MoJo staffers recently lamented at length).

But I should have known better than to to doubt the seditious songstress. Rather than recording syrupy holiday tunes, Amos has crafted a collection of covers and originals filled with whimsy and melancholy—the musical equivalent of spiked eggnog.

Johnny Cash—the Man in Black & White

| Mon Nov. 9, 2009 6:30 AM EST

Reinhard Kleist's brand-new graphic novel, Johnny Cash: I See a Darkness (Abrams Books), opens with a vintage Caddy (license plate "HELL") barreling past a neon sign on the outskirts of Reno. Without a word, its surly driver—the Man in Black himself—makes his way to the strip, where he spots a short, wealthy, sleazy-looking man walking into an alley with a prostitute and proceeds to fill him with lead. In the scene's final panel, the killer is inside an armored bus, pulling up to the gates of Folsom Prison. Get it? I shot a man in Reno / Just to watch him die.

The Berlin-based artist has fun with this concept in his well-researched biography of the late country star, segueing into pen-and-ink depictions of Cash hits like "Big River," "Cocaine Blues," and "A Boy Named Sue" (which unbeknownst to me was penned by Shel Silverstein). Kleist uses a different, faux-tribal drawing style for "The Ballad of Ira Hayes"—a choice that reflects his interest in Cash's views on soldiers and war, an interest that also emerges in a studio scene with Bob Dylan.

If you caught the 2005 Cash biopic Walk the Line, with Joaquin Phoenix (the wrong actor as far as I'm concerned), you'll recognize the basic outline: The Depression-era upbringing amid cotton fields in Arkansas, where a neighbor kid teaches young J.R. Cash to play guitar. The horrible mishap that befalls his brother Jack. The Air Force service in Germany. The courtship and marriage to Vivian Liberto. The settling down in Memphis and forming a band. The record deal, tours with Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis, leading to a devastating addiction to uppers. The public disgraces. And, of course, the forbidden love with June Carter, whom he eventually marries.

Cool Chart: How Movie Stars Stack Up

| Fri Nov. 6, 2009 3:23 PM EST

This story first appeared at Miller-McCune.

Metacritic.com is an acclaimed Web site that combines thousands of media reviews of entertainment offerings — movies, games, books and albums — into a Metascore, a sort of weighted average of critics' reviews that ranges from zero to 100. Analysis of just a small subset of the site's information shows the power of numbers to confirm — or defy — expectation.

The Actors
The colored horizontal bars on this chart present a graphical representation of the distribution of scores given to movies in which each of the listed actors appear. The numbers inside the bars represent the average of review scores for those movies; the actors listed are the top 50 and the bottom 10, in terms of those averages. Note that the reviews are primarily from the last decade; no consideration is given to the magnitude of the actor's role; and a high average rating could indicate acting skill, the ability to pick good projects (or good trilogies), reviewer bias or just luck. To the extent that the ordering of the actors appears generally reasonable, some unexpected placements may inspire a rethinking of subjective assessments (or, in the case of Viggo Mortensen's rating above Clint Eastwood, a good long laugh).

The Critics
This scatterplot shows 25 prolific movie critics in terms of the favorability with which they rate films, and the degree to which their reviews tend to agree with those of other critics, scaled to reflect their volume of reviews written. If you want to get a sense of the zeitgeist but can only read one review, you might prefer Rene Rodriguez, whose low standard deviation from the mean review score makes him very nearly a living critical average. If you are interested in an alternative perspective, Mick LaSalle's high standard deviation places him further from the critical pack than any of these peers. Reviews from both Michael Wilmington and Marc Savlov are so regularly and respectively positive and negative that they should perhaps be taken with a grain of salt.

The Movies
A "smoothed" plot of movie scores over time is depicted, highlighting the expected seasonal peaks in mid-summer and at the end of the year, along with the mid-winter and early autumn doldrums. Also listed are some of the more influential movies of their eras, in terms of number of reviews, along with their mean scores. Might the poorly reviewed summer of 2002 be attributed to releases delayed in the wake of 9/11? Does the relative lack of troughs from 2003 to 2006 reflect a real or imagined streak of high-quality films?

Baseball Finance Reform: Time to Cut A-Rod's Salary

| Thu Nov. 5, 2009 2:31 PM EST

When the Philadelphia Phillies lost the World Series to the New York Yankees last night, I felt anger, heartbreak, frustration and the burning desire for a salary cap in Major League Baseball. Of course, I’m happy for those who saw their team win the World Series. But in the 108 years that the Yankees have been around, they’ve won the World Series a whopping 27 times. That's right: 25 percent of the time. And in the 126 years that the Phillies have been around, they've won twice. Yep, two percent of the time (rounded up).

And that's no mistake. In the past decades (and the foreseeable future) the Yanks have held a crushing financial advantage over all other major league franchises. This year, for example, the Yankees spent $208 million on player salaries, more than $60 million more than the second highest-paid team (The Mets) and nearly what the Phillies spent on their payroll ($111 million). A-Rod alone made $33 million this year, nearly a third of the entire Phillies payroll.

Baseball needs a salary cap. Think of it like campaign finance reform in politics. If the world’s richest donors could shovel all their cash to a single candidate, that person would flood the market with advertising and crush his or her opponent. But the government has deemed this unfair because it elevates the influence of rich voters above poor voters. Without a salary cap, the MLB elevates the hopes of fans in rich cities over fans in poor cities. Baseball is supposed to be about home team rivalries and anxious competition, not the size of each team's checkbook. Forgoing a salary cap allows rich teams like the Yankees to swallow up promising talent when it matures, which is too un-American for America's favorite past time.

More on the "Lady Bloggers" Hullaballoo

| Wed Nov. 4, 2009 5:54 PM EST

So given all the discussion generated by my "Lady Bloggers" post last week, I thought it would be wise to throw out a little reminder: The whole point of my post was to share a new statistic, to ask some pointed questions, and to say that if female bloggers aren't equally represented in the blogosphere, that's something that needs to change as more and more folks get their information from blogs.

After the story hit, female blogger Sarah Posner brilliantly suggested the hashtag #followwomenbloggers, and hundreds of people pitched in with suggestions for excellent female bloggers to follow. Several of you also had questions for me, and I've responded to a few of the main points in the comments section of the original post. In case you missed it, I'm reposting my response below:

Q: Why'd you pick a photo of Ana Marie Cox with cleavage?

A: I didn't pick it, and even if I had, now who's paying attention to the boobage? Do her breasts somehow undermine her legitimacy? Hell no, if you ask me, Ana Marie Cox can wear whatever Ana Marie Cox wants. Even if I didn't pick the picture, I fully stand behind my editor's choice. What's wrong with the picture? In my book, women shouldn't have to hide away their biology to be taken seriously. (Bonus: Ana's a MoJo alum.)

Q: Why 'lady' bloggers? What about 'gentlemen' bloggers?

A: If you'd rather me call you a homosapien who blogs and possesses two X chromosomes, I can. I just thought lady was a little shorter for the headline, which is the only place I used that term. I do hear your point, though, and I realize that "lady" has very traditional connotations, but as a female blogger myself, I certainly don't blog while sitting in Victorian dress, sitting sidesaddle and sipping Earl Grey. (Okay, maybe I still drink Earl Grey.) But I didn't envision any of you "lady bloggers" out there doing that either. Isn't there a point at which we can reclaim and reappropriate words? And if we're going to get all technical, it's not "women bloggers" either—it's female bloggers.

Q: This is bullshit and sexist, women are blogging.

A: Given that I quoted a female blogger in this piece, there's a high likelihood that I'm aware women are blogging. I never made any assertion that there are no female bloggers out there, but if you're disagreeing with the report and asserting that female bloggers make up more than a third of the blogosphere, I'd be happy to update the story to include whatever statistics you have. I'm aware that Technorati's study is hardly comprehensive—it's hard to have comprehensive, absolutely accurate statistics on the blogosphere—and that's why I chose to pose it as a question. To be honest, when I first wrote this blog entry, I thought it was kind of a throwaway post because I felt I wasn't really answering my own question. Apparently, based on your comments here, my very act of asking the question said more than I was aware of, but in any case, I'm glad it generated discussion because that's kind of the point of blogging.

Q: How can you even talk about women bloggers without taking a look at X blog? That you failed to do so tells me you didn't dig very deep.

A: This blog post isn't a comprehensive report. I'm absolutely sure I didn't get every blog out there, or cover every angle. It's a 600 word piece—if it got all of you to converse with each other, it served its purpose. It's not an expose (although Mother Jones has plenty of that too. Check us out on your news stands).

Thanks for reading, and keep the discussion going!

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I'll Karate Chop Your Christian Book if You Don't Stop Pimping My Culture

| Wed Nov. 4, 2009 7:30 AM EST

Update: This afternoon the authors posted an apology on their Deadly Viper blog. So far they've gotten some very forgiving responses in the comments section. I guess I won't be needing karate lessons after all? That's a relief.

Zondervan, the world's leading Bible publisher, just released a book called Deadly Viper Character Assasins: A Kung Fu Survival Guide for Life and Leadership.

I'll let that name sink in for a moment. A KUNG FU SURVIVAL GUIDE. It's written by Mike Foster and Jud Wilhite, two people who must understand a form of Chinese even Chinese people can't make sense of, because the cover and website of their book features Chinese characters that read like total gibberish... because they are. They were selected because they "looked compositionally cool."

Seriously? At least the kids at the mall who get various Chinese characters tattooed on their ankles still want to know what the words mean. To me, there's just a total lack of recognition that Chinese characters are part of an actual language, and more than a pretty decoration. Or that the use of an stereotypical Asian ninja theme has little to do with the content of their book, which is Christian leadership. Or that this dubbed-over kung fu video made to promote the book is just downright offensive. Or that kung fu is Chinese and ninjas are Japanese, and those are two totally different cultures.

Monster Mashups Shine Light on Government

| Tue Nov. 3, 2009 6:40 PM EST

This story first appeared on the Miller-McCune website.

The gushing effluvia of spreadsheets and thick reports that flow from government are dissected, reconstituted and displayed by a dedicated band of coders.

Clay Johnson pulled out his iPhone to illustrate the kind of mashup that's possible when coders get their hands on data churned out by government, whole reams of transactions on where federal money is spent, who gets it and how it's used.

On the screen was a live view up 19th Street in northwest Washington, the moving picture overlaid with small bubbles representing projects on this very block paid for by the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act.

"It blows your mind, right?" Johnson asked. "This is the tip of the iceberg."

White House Poetry Jam Awesomesauce

| Tue Nov. 3, 2009 1:58 PM EST

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama hosted a "White House Evening of Poetry, Music, and the Spoken Word" back in May. Videos from the event are now online, and it's pretty clear that the highlight was Lin-Manuel Miranda. You may know Miranda from his musical In The Heights, which he starred in and wrote. (In The Heights won the Tony for Best Musical in 2008. I can assure you that it is great.) Anyway, Miranda has ridiculous, sick-nasty flow and can write a great song about pretty much anything. In this particular case, it was onetime Treasury Secretary, dead white man, and all-around badass Alexander Hamilton (the guy on the $10 bill) that got Miranda's creative juices flowing:

If this doesn't get the kids jazzed up for some musical theater, I don't know what will.

Vampires Make Everything Cooler—Even Volvos

| Tue Nov. 3, 2009 10:00 AM EST

By now, the Twilight marketing team has made it clear that "creepy protectionist vampire stalker" is a winning theme that can apply to all sorts of products.

Twihards can cuddle up under a cozy Edward duvet cover emblazoned with the romantic line: "What choice have I? I can not be without you, but I will not destroy your soul."

They can wear the rather worrisome bracelet inscribed, "I'd rather die than be with anyone but you." (Luckily, it's rubber, so the words will rub off about the time you move on to your next cultural obsession.)

Or they can buy the unofficial (but officially paternalist) life-size Edward wall decal to loom over them with the reminder to "Be Safe."

But Stephenie Meyer didn't need a marketing team to flood the market. She managed to make the Twilight series itself a product placement extravaganza. And thanks to the Cullens' centuries of compound interest and their obsession with automobiles, it was only a matter of time until we graduated to high ticket items, which means Volvos are now cool.

Volvos? Yes, Volvos. And not in the "I'm packing up the family wagon that I've converted to bio-diesel so I can drive it to the Ivy League to major in Environmental Sciences with a minor in Folklore" kind of cool. Suddenly Volvo is marketing station wagons to the swooning teenage masses—or maybe their parents.

The tag line (mysteriously absent of capitalization) manages to turn what has long been the standard of sensible automobile reliability into full on Shakespearean romantic protectionism:

"there's more to life than a Volvo. there's having the power to keep safe what you hold most dear. that's why you drive one."

Of course you have to have a valid driver's license and be a legal adult to win the super studly station-wagon, so there is hope that this may actually be aimed at the parents of fans, or those fans of parenting age, which makes the campaign a little less cringe-worthy. After all, we hope all parents want to keep their kids safe. Which is far better than making sure that fans who want to get closer to their favorite sparkly vampire by endangering themselves (let's hope that's not the only thing readers take away from New Moon) will be doing so in a car with a high safety rating.

But that leaves this 30-year-old reader with one question: How long will it be until the marketing division starts to capitalize on the characters that try to instill some agency in our heroine, and Porsche gives away Alice's 911 Turbo?