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When Ford unveiled the 2011 Explorer last week, it was hard to say what was the bigger surprise—that the company hauled several tons of dirt, rocks and trees into the heart of New York City for the big reveal, or that anybody even cared. The rugged truck that kicked off the SUV craze in the 1990s has fallen on hard times amid the recession and steep pump prices. Over the last decade, sales have evaporated, tumbling a whopping 88 per cent, from 450,000 to just 52,000 last year. Yet, when the redesigned and retooled Explorer rolled down a makeshift hill outside Macy’s department store, it triggered gushing praise from analysts, investors and prospective buyers. And it was the clearest sign yet the turnaround at Ford has kicked into high gear.

In many ways, the new Explorer is an SUV in name only. It still resembles a sport utility vehicle—it’s roughly the same size as the previous Explorer, the V6 version offers more horsepower than the previous model and it can still tow a 5,000-lb. load. But everything about the way the 2011 Explorer is constructed points to it being a crossover. The vehicle’s unibody design, in which the body and frame are welded together as a single unit, shares more in common with the Ford Taurus car than with the company’s line of body-on-frame pickups. That has helped make the Explorer lighter and more fuel-efficient.

The real break with the Explorer’s gas-guzzling past is the introduction of an optional smaller EcoBoost engine. The company claims the turbocharged, direct-injection four cylinder engine will offer all the power of the larger V6 version, yet use 30 per cent less fuel than the outgoing 2010 Explorer. Ford even claims the fuel savings put the four cylinder Explorer in line with the Toyota Camry V6 sedan. “This is really the game changer for us,” says Rick Gemin, production manager for SUVs and crossovers at Ford Canada. “You’ll see V6 performance out of that engine, but we’re gearing it to the family that wants utility and to maximize fuel economy.”

Perhaps the most stunning news from the Explorer launch, though, was that Ford wants buyers to actually pay more for the smaller, less powerful engine. The company hasn’t disclosed how big the premium will be, but said the base prices for the various V6 models range from US$28,995 to US$37,995. (Gemin says pricing hasn’t been set in this country yet.)

One obvious reason Ford wants to charge more for the smaller engine is that it’s invested heavily for several years developing the EcoBoost technology. But with wild swings in the price of gasoline, the company feels it can put a premium on fuel mileage the same way it once charged more for bigger engines.

But the move is also a sign Ford’s management has achieved a level of self-confidence that’s been sorely lacking among the Big Three domestic automakers for years. After nearly tumbling into bankruptcy in 2006, Ford mortgaged every asset it had to raise financing for a turnaround. At the same time, Ford went outside the company to hire former Boeing senior executive Alan Mulally to lead the effort. By getting an early jump on its troubles, Ford was also able to shun bailout money from the U.S. and Canadian governments during the financial crisis, unlike GM and Chrysler, which still carry the stain of being wards of the state. With a string of successful vehicle launches, rising market share and five profitable quarters in a row—in its most recent quarter Ford earned US$2.6 billion—the Explorer launch is seen as extending that momentum. “Beyond all the numbers and financials, it’s the mental and psychological perception of Ford that’s playing to their benefit,” says Karl Brauer, senior analyst at Edmunds.com.

Not everyone is thrilled with the changes to the Explorer. The popular auto website Jalopnik trashed the new vehicle, saying it was targeted at soccer moms who are “[expletive] clueless about what makes a good SUV.” Meanwhile, one commenter on the Wall Street Journal website summed up the critics’ view: “This is nothing more than a sissy grocery-getter!”

Explorer traditionalists may be upset, says George Magliano, director of automotive forecasting in North America at IHS, but the fact is there were fewer and fewer of them every year. “At the end of the day, the thing isn’t selling,” he says. “Those people complaining about the new Explorer might be upset, but they weren’t out there buying the old version in any way, shape or form.”

In other words, Ford has finally clued in to what Explorer buyers want—a truck that lets them look like they scale sheer cliff walls on weekends, without having to mortgage their suburban homes each time they visit the gas pump.

Although I sometimes say nice things about music games such as Guitar Hero, I don’t host enough parties to justify spending money on them, but I might consider buying a fake plastic guitar for Instant Jam, a music game that launches in closed beta on Facebook today.

At a glance, Instant Jam looks like Guitar Hero for the PC. Colored notes scroll down the screen, prompting you to press keyboard buttons in step with the guitar track. You can also use guitar controllers from other games, as long as they have USB output.

Here’s the big twist: Instant Jam uses music you already own, reading songs off your hard drive and matching them with a database of note charts. If a note chart exists for your favorite tune, you can play it in Instant Jam for free, and if a chart exists for a song you don’t own, the game provides links to iTunes and Amazon. Furthermore, there’s no music licensing involved, so even artists that have refused to appear in Guitar Hero and Rock Band, such as Led Zeppelin, are represented among the initial 2,000 songs.

Instant Jam’s executive producer, Amir Rahimi, assures me that bypassing music labels and musicians is completely legal, because the game is merely playing back your music library with an interactive layer on top. Along these lines, you might notice a couple differences from Guitar Hero or Rock Band. For instance, when you flub a note, the overall volume decreases and a garbled sound effect plays, but the guitar itself is never muted. That’s because Instant Jam uses final recordings instead of master tracks. You also won’t see on-stage avatars playing along. (Rahimi says avatars could be added later, but I’m guessing they won’t be able to mouth specific lyrics or do anything that could be interpreted as a derivative work.)

Unlike Guitar Hero and Rock Band, Instant Jam has no single-player campaign and no live multiplayer. The game’s main thrust is social networking, encouraging players to challenge each other remotely for high scores and level up by earning “fans.” Doing so unlocks currency, which can be spent on new visual effects. It should be a familiar formula for anyone who’s played social games like Mafia Wars, but compared to the living room parties of console music games, it makes for a decidedly solitary experience, for better or worse.

Instant Jam is free to play on Windows PCs, with Mac support coming soon, but the number of songs you’re allowed to play in one sitting is limited. There are plenty of opportunities to earn more free plays — simply looking at friends’ profiles earns fans, which can unlock more plays, and challenges are always free — but eventually you’ll hit a wall, at which point you can pay for more plays (in-game currency comes in $5 increments, and each play costs roughly a penny) or wait an hour and a half for plays to recharge. Instant Jam will also make money by selling virtual goods, including special guitar necks and bodies, and by collecting affiliate revenue from music sales.

To promote Instant Jam, developer InstantAction will use embedding technology that allows the game to be published on any web page like a YouTube clip. Embedding was supposed to be ready today, but the game’s being limited to Facebook while developers squash bugs.

I did a little late-night jamming in a private beta after getting home from the bar on Saturday. (Isn’t that the only way to play music games?) Clearly there are some bugs that need fixing — sometimes the song entered an endless loop after the performance was over, other times the music fell out of sync with the note chart, and the game failed to recognize all the songs in my library, forcing me to browse the entire Instant Jam catalog for matches and load songs manually.

But my biggest gripe is with the note charts themselves. Some songs are dead-on, but developers got lazy with a few of the guitar solos, even iconic ones like the jam from Pink Floyd’s “Money” (the notes were not even close to what was being played) and the solo in Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun.” (You play the rhythm guitar track instead. Seriously?) Rahimi said Instant Jam may crowdsource note charts in the future. This will have to happen if in-house transcribers can’t pay more attention to accuracy.

Drawbacks aside, I’m still excited about Instant Jam, if only because it tosses out the double-dipping in which every other music game indulges. Being able to buy a song once and enjoy it in many ways? That’s worth paying for.

All the talk about fertile young virgins made me want to tell y’all this. It’s the story of the origins of the thin ideal, as I learned it at a conference about eating disorders. This is what I learned:

Time was (and by “time” I mean the C17th-ish) a softer, rounder, plumper female was the glorious standard. See, it was only the rich women who could afford the food and the sedentary lifestyle that allowed them to accumulate the abundant curves of the women in Rubens’ paintings.
Rubens's eve

Around maybe the mid-C19th, coinciding roughly with the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the middle class, it became a fashionable thing for a man to be able to afford a wife who was too weak to work.

It was a status symbol for a man, an advertisement of his wealth, you see, for his wife to be a small, thin, weak female, barely able to totter daintily around the house; how decadent to have a wife who not only didn’t but COULDN’T contribute to the household income!

This is in contradiction to everything evolution would have a woman be: robust, healthy, strong, tall, able healthfully to conceive, gestate, birth, and breastfeed multiple offspring.

But it’s so vulgar and coarse, isn’t it darling, for a woman to be able to give birth without having to spend months recovering, and it’s quite low class to breastfeed one’s own children.

Need evidence that big was beautiful? Take Jane Eyre (1847); whereas Jane herself is small and thin – “puny,” Ms Bronte says – Blanche, the lady lined up to steal the heart of the black but comely Mr Rochester, is tall and curvy:

They were all three of the loftiest stature of woman…. Blanche and Mary were of equal stature—straight and tall as poplars. Mary was too slim for her height; but Blanche was molded like a Dian.

When I first read Jane Eyre – when I was 12 or 13 and thoroughly steeped in the thin ideal – I thought, “That’s ridiculous, of course he’ll choose Jane, she’s smaller!” Which just goes to show you.

So that, my friends, is where the thin ideal originates.

Nowadays thin is the ideal for a combination of historical and class reasons: only the rich, you see, who can afford real food and have the leisure for exercise, can be thin. But always these fashions around women’s bodies are about social class. Thin is rich and thin is young. Nothing to do with fertility (on the contrary), nothing to do with an “evolved preference,” except insofar as we have an evolved preference for higher social status.

(Remind me to tell you one day why it’s stupid to think human males aren’t attracted to cues of high social status in females – which is a myth firmly entrenched in the “standard narrative.”)

Next time you meet a young woman who is worried about her body fat, maybe tell her this story and remind her that she’s no man’s property, no one’s status symbol, and the best way for her to be beautiful is to be healthy, which isn’t at all about weight (it’s healthier, indeed, to be 75 pounds “overweight” than to be 5 pounds “underweight”), and self-confident.

John Henry checked out a book from the library called “Ron’s Big Mission.”   Before he began to read the book aloud to me, I was not quite prepared to have a discussion on America’s past history of segregation.  But, it was time.  I am sure.

The book is based on the true story of Ron McNair who, as a child, was an avid reader and loved to read books about airplanes.  Growing up in South Carolina in the 50’s and 60’s was not exactly easy for any black child.  Especially a black boy who simply wanted to check out books from his local whites only public library.

Until one day, Ron decided he wasn’t leaving the library until he was a card holder.  His mother was called, police officers showed up, and Ron stood his ground still.  As a result, Ron changed a piece of history and became the first black person to check out books from that library.

Talk about a lion chaser.

John Henry, of course, asked a lot of questions.  A lot of surprising questions.

“Am I a black person?” he asked.

“No, baby, you are a white person.”

At this point in the conversation, I realized he had never identified people belonging to different races.  So, I asked him what he thought when he saw someone with dark skin.

“I just thought their skin was darker.  That is all.  I kind of have dark skin, so I am really kind of white and black.”  He told me.

“Sure.  You are white and black,” I assured him.

I was not about to disappoint him.  I taught him about the days of segregation.  I explained where we were as a nation during those times and where we are now.  Honestly, it was a difficult, but necessary conversation.

We then read a little more on the life of Ron McNair.  This 9-year old hero grew up to be an even greater American hero.  This little boy who loved airplanes became a pilot.  And, on January 28, 1986, he lost his life as an astronaut during the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger.

I hope John Henry not only learned something about the significance of civil rights.  I also hope he learned about what it means to stand up for something he believes in.  And, what it really means to be a lion chaser.