Thursday, January 31, 2008

Blog Tag--You're it!

Via Lileks at buzz.mn earlier in the week, it's time for a quick round of Blog Tag. This week's topic: Six non-important things/habits/quirks of yours. Here are mine:
1) If I eat a meal that includes french fries, I have to eat the fries first, no matter what. (I think it's simply because I really dislike cold fries.)

2) I have lived in Texas since the third grade, but I have never developed a taste for jalapeƱos or sweetened tea. (I have also never said "fixin' to" or "over yonder" unless i was making a joke, but I say "y'all" all the time.)

3) I was an "extra" in the movie Necessary Roughness; I got autographs from Kathy Ireland and Sinbad during the filming, but I didn't realize until a week or so ago that Fred Thompson was also in the movie.

4) I never wear shoes in my house, ever.

5) I keep the money in my wallet in order, with the smallest bills in front. ATM and debit card receipts go behind them, with the most recent one up front.

6) I missed winning the Texas Lottery by one number about a month after its introduction. If I'd picked that one number (which was a number I had picked in the past), I would have split $15 million with two other people.
While some of these things may also be found in the 50 Fun Facts About Kev post, a couple of them are new to the blog.

Your turn. I hereby tag my entire readership! Post either your answers, or a link to your own blog with those answers, in my comments.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

What's in a Name? (Music Venue Edition)

The outdoor music venue in Fair Park (the big one, not the band shell) started out its life as Coca Cola Starplex, and then just Starplex. After that, it became Smirnoff Music Centre (except for rare occasions when they booked some sort of teenybopper concert where the majority of the audience was under 21, and then it would revert to Starplex again. I'm not sure how long that agreement was in place.) And now, it's changing its name again: It's going to be known as Superpages.com center.

Rolls right off the tongue, doesn't it?

As the article points out, there are other local venues with long, awkward-sounding names, and they usually have some sort of nickname: The American Airlines Center (The AAC). The Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center (The Meyerson, or--much less commonly--The Mort.) So what will people call this one?

I know what I'll probably call it: The Place I Haven't Been To In Nearly A Decade Because It's Too Expensive And There's Rarely A Concert I'm Interested In Seeing There Anymore. (TPIHBTINADBITEATRACIIISTA, for short.) But seriously, I haven't been there much since my heavy-metal days, though I'll always be grateful for the daylong jazz festival held there that turned out to be the only time I ever got to see Miles Davis live. I also have fond memories of Steely Dan and Harry Connick, Jr. concerts there, but there hasn't been much that's been up my alley lately.

(I just posted the above paragraph on the DMN's Playlist music blog, where they're soliciting nicknames for the place.)

So what would you call the place, if you called it anything at all? And, for the locals, what was the last concert you saw there?

Politics and entertaInment, part 1: A Vermont state legislator has an interesting day job: He's a stand-up comic. (Ironically, there are no comedy clubs in Vermont.)

Politics and entertainment, part 2: The son of Kansas' governor has created a new video game for a college class project. (The game's title is a groaner; it's a prison-themed effort called "Don't Drop the Soap." Ouch.)

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Host Busy--Try Again Later

I'm sitting down to write a number of recommendations for current or former students who are trying out for my beloved alma mater in the next month or so. Chances are, this will take me right up till bedtime, and if I do have blogging time, it'll be to finish yesterday's post. So I'll be back with something new tomorrow.

Monday, January 28, 2008

School Board to Robin Hood: Bug Off!

A school district in South Central Texas is either really brave or really stupid...maybe a little of both.

But first, some background: I don't know if any other state does this, but Texas education has been under something that's informally known as the "Robin Hood" plan for many years now (I think the official name is "recapture"). The way it works is that if a school district is considered "property-wealthy" by the state, it is required to send a certain amount of its property tax revenues back to Austin to be redistributed to "property-poor" districts.

But what happens if the "wealthy" district is itself strapped for cash and really can't afford to part with its money? Such is the case in Wimberley, where the school district is saying "enough" and planning to defy the order:
Protests from this small school district nestled in the Texas Hill Country are reverberating across the state's school finance landscape.

Wimberley is one of more than 160 high-wealth school districts – including several in the Dallas area – that are required to share their property tax revenue with other districts. But residents here insist that their students will suffer if they turn the money over to the state.

"We're not going to pay it," said Gary Pigg, vice president of the Wimberley school board and a small-business owner. "Our teachers are some of the lowest-paid in the area. Our buildings need massive repairs. We keep running a deficit – and they still want us to give money away.

"It's unconstitutional – and I'm ready to go to jail if I have to."

Mr. Pigg and the rest of the Wimberley school board voted last fall to withhold the payment of an estimated $3.1 million in local property taxes – one-sixth of the district's total revenue – that was supposed to be sent to the state under the share-the-wealth school finance law passed in 1993. The law was passed in response to a series of court orders calling for equalized funding among school districts.
Part of me admires their spunk, their defiant attitude. Certainly, the legislators who passed this ridiculous law, and the bureaucrats who administer it, deserve this sort of contempt, and more. But another part of me says, "Are these guys crazy?" After all, their defiance could have serious consequences:
The first payment this year from Wimberley is due Feb. 15, and Texas Education Agency officials and Wimberley schools Superintendent Dwain York have been looking for a way to avert the first instance of a school district refusing to share its property taxes under the 15-year-old law.

State Education Commissioner Robert Scott and the TEA have remained firm that if the situation can't be resolved, Mr. Scott will be required to take steps to dissolve the 2,000-student school district and annex it to a neighboring district, mostly likely the San Marcos or Hays school district.

"There is no option for the commissioner," said Debbie Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the education agency. "If they refuse to make payments, Wimberley must be consolidated with a lower-wealth district."
Aarrrgh--what a mess. So why is this system even in place, if it's causing so many problems?
Lawmakers had hoped to do away with the unpopular Robin Hood system when they passed a massive school finance reform law in 2006, but the wide disparities in property wealth among districts made that impossible – so long as education funding continues to be heavily dependent on local property taxes.

The new system significantly reduced the amount of revenue taken from high-wealth districts – by almost half – but the figure is still expected to reach about $1.1 billion this year.
One of the big problems I have with the Robin Hood idea is that it sounds a little too much like this for my personal taste. And the way it's affecting Wimberley is borderline criminal:
The cutbacks have been particularly frustrating for the school board members because they have seen the beneficiaries of the Robin Hood system avoid such constraints.

"We're giving money to supposedly poor school districts that are giving their teachers raises every year, and in some cases, using that money to buy buses for their football teams," Mr. Pigg said.

Meanwhile, he added, Wimberley has been ranked "recognized," the second-highest rating, by the state, while some districts receiving Wimberley's property taxes have been rated "academically unacceptable. "

In discussions with state officials, Mr. York said, "They tell us our only hope is to either cut teachers or raise taxes. Those are two pretty pathetic answers."
I have an idea here: If people really want to untie school funding from local property taxes, then the state government needs to decide how much it should cost per student to fund a "basic education" and then themselves kick in a certain amount so that every district has the means to supply that basic education. Anything above that (local enrichment) is up to the citizens of each district. And no whining about some people being able to raise more money than others; there are individuals in society who will choose a certain district because of the "extras" and throw down plenty of their own cash to fund them. If the basic education is covered by the state, then local enrichment shouldn't be a problem. After all, we should be trying to guarantee equal opportunity, not equal outcomes.

So what's going to happen to Wimberley? Will they really defy the state, and will the state really shut them down
Local school officials said they will continue to negotiate with the state as the Feb. 15 deadline approaches, looking for common ground, such as a proposal to allow the district to stretch out its Robin Hood payments.

"The TEA is just as worried about this as we are," Mr. York said. "They know how bad it would look if they consolidate a recognized school district – one that has a 98 percent graduation rate – with a lesser district. What kind of message would that send?"
It would send the message that the system is broken and needs to be fixed. And I hope that the Wimberley district doesn't have to fall on its own sword to get that message across.

The porn tax, the jock tax and the moonshiner tax: in the meantime, here's a story about some creative ways that cash-strapped states are using creative new taxes to raise revenue. (Included is Texas' "pole tax," an extra levy on strip joints.)

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Another Sunday Smorgasbord

All the stories I wanted to talk about that were too small to be posts unto themselves:
  • Another in a continuing series of "don't mess with Granny" stories: A burglar is caught by a grandmother who chases him six blocks and then uses her martial arts skills to tackle him and hold him till the police arrive.

  • A Wisconsin man had several items of value (laptop, Palm Pilot, digital camera, etc.) stolen from his home recently, but the burglar had second thoughts and returned most of the items the next day--after calling the victim (from a blocked cell number) to tell him that he had the items.

  • A list of creative excuses for missing work. Perhaps the best one: "A tiger peed in my ear, which then became infected."

  • I imagine the next family gathering will be awkward: In Pennsylvania, one sister attacked another--using the latter's artificial leg as a weapon.

  • Now that the nation's "eccentric" former dictator has passed on, the nation of Turkmenistan has lifted its ban on opera and circuses.

  • To promote awareness of a campaign to send shoes to poverty-stricken Africans, Indiana University/Purdue University at Indianapolis (IUPUI) coach Ron Hunter coached a game barefoot on Thursday night. (The campaign brought in over 100,000 pairs of sneakers for the charity before the game even tipped off.)

  • Misunderstood headline of the week: Turkey blocks access to YouTube for second time. It didn't occur to me at first that an Eastern country was practicing Internet censorship; I thought maybe that the site's server had been compromised by some sort of wacky caper by a barnyard animal.

  • And in the "sweetest" story of the week, an 87-year-old woman from Maine--struggling to get by on a Social Security check--told a newspaper that her only real indulgence over the years has been Hershey's candy bars. Upon hearing of this, people from across the country started sending her some, and the company itself sent her a generous assortment.
This has been a lazy day for me; back to regular news tomorrow.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

This Night Moved Me

It's always a privilege to see Kurt Elling in concert, and--even though his guest appearances anywhere are also outstanding--it's doubly special to see him with his trio, led by pianist Laurence Hobgood. On this particular Dallas visit (at Brookhaven College in Farmers Branch, home of a Diane Schuur concert I saw a few years ago), he and the group were in fine form, mixing tunes from his newest CD (last year's Nightmoves) with older material and even an unrecorded gem.

One thing which, while nothing new, was really brought home this evening is that Elling is the possessor of a gorgeous instrument. (In his introduction, Brookhaven's Dean of Arts noted that even when Elling talks on the microphone, it still sounds musical.) He coaxes a variety of timbres from his voice in an amazing range, playing the part of everything from the hipster to the crooner when the music calls for it. In addition, he has become his generation's foremost practitioner of the art of vocalese, the practice of taking jazz instrumental solos, transcribing them and adding lyrics to them, no matter how angular a bebop line may be involved. This was best represented on "A New Body and Soul," the tour de force from the new CD that has its musical roots in a great Dexter Gordon solo, over which Elling has penned lyrics inspired by the birth of his daughter a few years ago. (Later in the evening, he would juxtapose a mellower--but no less effective--solo by fellow Chicagoan Von Freeman with words from a 13th-century Persian poet over Duke Ellington's "I Like the Sunrise.")

The trio--each member a master in his own right--served as perfect comrades in arms throughout the evening's journey. Pianist Hobgood had the perfect mix of chops and sensitivity; bassist Rob Amster, a longtime cohort, provided a solid foundation and got his own chance to shine on a duet with Eliing, "The Waking." Drummer Gregory Hutchinson, a pleasant surprise (it was his very first time to perform with the group on stage), added some fresh energy to the proceedings, most notably on "A New Body and Soul" and the closing number, "Resolution" (the adaptation of a movement of John Coltrane's A Love Supreme from a few years ago). The trio proved to be extremely tight with its accents and punches behind Elling's vocal romps, and they could change the dynamics from a whisper to a shout at moment's notice.

Though Nightmoves is a mellower, more ballad-y album than some of Elling's recent efforts, the pace never slowed, and the live setting uncovered fresh new elements of the music that brought the recorded versions even more to life. The unrecorded song, "You Are Too Beautiful," was made famous in jazz by John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman on their classic Impulse! recording, and Elling announced that a tour would start this summer--first in Europe, then in the States--devoted to the Trane/Hartman catalogue (along with other Trane ballads), with the trio accompanied by a string quartet and the great tenorist Ernie Watts. (All I can say to that is, I'm there.)

After a show of nearly an hour and a half in length, Elling came out for a short scatted encore that he did solo, off-mic, showing off his wonderful voice along with the fine acoustics of the room. Sure, it ended too soon (it could be said that twice that length would be too soon) but it was the most generous portion of Elling I'd seen since the Greeley festival in '04. The artist who's arguably the top male jazz singer of his generation (Kevin Mahogany is several years his senior, so there's room for both of them to stake their claim to unique pieces of real estate here) was once again in fine form--an evening well spent, and I look forward to the next one.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Old Home Week at Region

Tonight was the annual All-Region Band concert in my neck of the woods. Since I usually talk a little about this concert, I'll do so again this year:
  • This was the first time in recent memory that I had students in all five bands; it was cool to be able to stand up each time whenever directors and private teachers were recognized.

  • The concert itself was sort of a reunion for me, as I had ties to three of the conductors: One of them taught my sister in high school, a second one was one of my supervising teachers when I student taught, and yet another one also supervised me when I student taught and was one of my sister's directors in middle school.

  • I was very happy for my alto players, as I had a record number of them in the bands this year. Since I have a history--deserved or not--as a low saxophone player, it always frustrated me when my altos didn't do as well as my tenors and baris did in some years. But my altos came through with flying colors this year; in two of the bands, three of the four altos were from my studio. Way to go, folks!

  • This concert is known for running like clockwork; each band is given a 45-minute allotment, so that parents whose kids don't play till later know exactly when to show up. But we did see the one downside of this policy tonight: One of the bands only took 25 minutes of its time, so we all had to sit around for 20 more minutes, as starting early would have probably caused some of the aforementioned parents to miss a tune or two.

  • The concert was held in a coliseum-like venue rather than a traditional school auditorium. The pros of this: Plenty of seats, the ability to see everyone (even in the middle of the band, where they'd normally get covered up by the people in front of them). Also, the sound was better than I expected from this type of place. Cons: The stage was very far away from the seats; the performers and conductors generally left through the back, so it wasn't as easy to congratulate them afterwards (I only got to visit with one of the three conductors whom I knew); it was impossible to turn off the lights during a performance; the concrete floors amplified the footsteps of the late arrivals (who didn't know that it was against concert etiquette to walk in during a performance in the first place). Also, the place was built without water fountains, in an effort to force people to buy $3 bottles of water from the concession stands. Me, I went thirsty.

  • It was cool that some of these directors talked to the audience more than others had in the past (the desire to adhere to the strict schedule had sometimes limited their comments to a single set, right before the last piece). It was less cool that some of them inexplicably chose not to use the microphone when doing so. Those of us seated near the top had no clue what they were saying.

  • In the previous posts from Region concerts of the past two years, I've stated my preference for the newer, film score-ish "wind ensemble music" over the old traditional band music, and I've said that these concerts have reinforced the fact that I'm in the right place, career-wise, as a private instructor instead of a band director. Those feelings haven't changed a bit; I'm still very happy where I am, and I always enjoy the opportunity to watch some of the fruits of these labors on a big stage (literally).
Assuming tickets are still available, I'll be blogging about a very different kind of concert tomorrow night.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Anybody Taking Bets...

...on whether we'll really have an ice day in the morning? The stuff is headed here, evidently, but it all depends on whether or not it gets cold enough.

Personally, I'm half-and-half on whether I'd like the ice day or not. I'm way more tired than I should be after two days of a three-day school week and could certainly use the sleep, but I also missed a lot of students last week because of semester exams, and i'd hate to miss them again. At any rate, I'll be turning on the radio first thing in the morning to see what happens.

UPDATE: Of course, we didn't get the ice; the projected low temperature of 28 was off by six degrees. Oh, and it was also hard to get you to make your predictions when I forgot to click "publish" on this post until the next night. D'oh.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Mystery Solved?

Remember the Stephenville UFO sightings last week? Evidently, there may be an answer, though nobody's sure if it's the answer:
The U.S. military has owned up to having F-16 fighters in the air near Stephenville the night that several residents reported unusual lights in the sky. But the correction issued Wednesday doesn't exactly turn UFOs into Identified Flying Objects.

Several dozen witnesses reported that they had seen unusual lights in the sky near Stephenville shortly after dusk Jan. 8. One sighting included a report that the lights were pursued by military jets. Military officials had repeatedly denied they had any flights in the area that night.

But that position changed Wednesday with a terse news release:

"In the interest of public awareness, Air Force Reserve Command Public Affairs realized an error was made regarding the reported training activity of military aircraft. Ten F-16s from the 457th Fighter Squadron were performing training operations from 6 to 8 p.m., Tuesday January 8, 2008, in the Brownwood Military Operating Area (MOA), which includes the airspace above Erath County."

Maj. Karl Lewis, a spokesman for the 301st Fighter Wing at the Naval Air Station Fort Worth Joint Reserve Base, blamed the earlier erroneous release on "an internal communications error."
Eh, they might have been keeping things secret for a good reason. I have no argument with that. But still, some people remain skeptical:
One battle tactic used routinely by F-16s involves the ejection of flares that are intended to confuse heat-seeking missiles. The flares can be ejected several at a time, and could form a pattern of bright lights traveling across the sky.

But such activity would not match other aspects of the descriptions of the Stephenville lights. Witnesses generally described what they saw as silent, apparently changing speeds and passing over populated areas. That does not sound like a flare release, said Jay Miller, an aviation consultant and historian in Fort Worth.

For one thing, any jet that dumps flares also would be trying to get away as fast as possible.

"He's going to be in full afterburner," he said, and that's very loud. But the jets wouldn't be the only noise associated with flares.

"Flares don't burn silently. They actually burn quite loudly," he said.

Flares are also extremely hot and dangerous, and it's highly unlikely that any drill would involve their use over populated areas, Mr. Miller said.
So the jury's still out on this one. But it's nice to see one of my favorite small Texas towns get some publicity, and if even one national reporter went back home raving about Dublin Dr Pepper or Hard Eight BBQ, it's all worthwhile in my book.

So what do you think--military planes, or something much less easy to explain?

Blunder from down under, part 1: An Australian teenager stole two crocodiles and a monkey from a nature park last summer. In his trial recently, he claimed he did it because he was high on weed.

Blunder from down under, part 2: Meanwhile, in eastern Australia, an 81-year-old woman was charged with growing and selling pot.

Blunder from down under, part 3: And finally, two Australians were sentenced in a robbery that took place, appropriately, last April Fool's Day. They robbed a restaurant and thought they were getting away with a huge sack of cash. Unfortunately for them, the sack only contained rolls--the kind made out of bread.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

An Inconvenient Word?

Tonight at dinner, I went into the men's room at a local restaurant and saw an unusual thing: The baby-changing table was out of order. I don't think I'd ever seen that before, and I wonder how they found out that it broke; I hope that no actual baby was harmed in the discovery of this condition.

But what really made me laugh was the sign attached to it:

BABY CHANGING TABLE IS BROKEN
PLEASE DO NOT USE
SORRY FOR THE INCONVIENENCE

It seems to me that the word "inconvenience" gets misspelled all the time, especially in situations like this. Tonight's spelling was new, however; I usually see it as "inconvience." Is it that hard of a word to spell, or is it only hard when you're probably doing several things at once? (Note yesterday's discussion on multitasking.) And yes, I'm sure there are a zillion typos in this blog (in addition to the normal accidental leetspeak of things like "teh," my biggest one lately is typing "sqaure" for "square"), but to me that's a different kind of mistake than missing something on a handwritten sign.

Certainly, someone putting up a sign to tell people about an out-of-order object probably aren't worrying about their spelling, but the lack of same has caused quite a bit of amusement for me over the years. Perhaps my two favorites come from opposite ends of my life: One was this past year, when one of the drinks on a soda fountain was listed as OFF HORDER instead of "out of order," while the other happened way back when I was about nine years old, when we pulled up to a gas station and noticed that one of the pumps was BROKED. (And there have been lots of funny restaurant signs as subjects of this blog over the years.)

What is your easiest word to misspell, or mis-type? And what's the funniest misspelled word or awkward phrase you've ever seen on a sign?

Cool gadget of the week: Give it up for the world's first transparent toaster.

Honey, does this postcard make me look fat? Staffers of Dean Hrbacek, a Houston-area man running for Congress sent out a flyer with a picture of his head attached to someone else's skinnier body. Hrbacek (who used to be the mayor of Sugar Land, where my parents live) supposedly hasn't had time to pose for a full-body shot, according to his campaign manager.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Music and Multitasking

In his "TierneyLab" blog for the New York Times, John Tierney discusses multitasking in terms of musical conductors:
[...]Maintaining a blog while doing other things has reminded me of how bad I am at juggling different jobs. I’ve tried to excuse this as a consequence of my gender. I’ve tried consoling myself with the theories of evolutionary psychologists who say that male hunters on the savanna needed to focus intently on one job — kill or be killed — while women evolved to be better multitaskers because the survival of the species depended on their being able to keep an eye on children while doing other work.

But now I fear I just have a lazy untrained brain. Some other men — musical conductors — multitask just fine, and it’s possible that this skill can be learned if you’re just diligent enough to rewire your brain, according to a study published in NeuroReport by researchers at Wake Forest University and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
It's not just conductors, of course; all learned musicians do this, especially those who are required to sight-read as part of a performance. Granted, some of the things that performers and conductors do (such as reading ahead in a piece of music) become so automatic that it frees up more space for other things, but few would doubt that musicians are multitasking all the time.

This was what happened at during the linked study:
The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging to map the brains of musical conductors and non-musicians who tried to distinguish musical tones while also being shown visual images. The scans showed that non-musicians had to turn off more of their visual sense than the conductors did in order to focus on the task. One of the researchers, Dr. Hodges, director of the Music Research Institute at UNC-
Greensboro, says there are two possible interpretations of the results: "One is that the brains of musicians are wired this way, and that’s why they became musicians. The other is that they train their brains for rewiring. Because conductors have to be able to hear a bad note, then identify who did it, perhaps they rewire their brains to combine their visual and auditory senses. An experienced conductor has trained day after day, year after year, to let their brains pick up various signals from their senses."
Read the whole thing, which contains some very good comments from readers (take note of the guy who can translate back and forth between three languages simultaneously!). And yes, there are some studies out there proclaiming that multitasking makes you stupid, but most of us have to do it, so, from where I sit, it's good to know that the same skills that go into making me a better musician can also help me get several things done at once.

Holidazed: Of course, today is Martin Luther King Day, but two of my favorite humorists have also made note of the other, lesser holidays with which it is shared this year. James Lileks pointed out that today is National Hugging Day, while Dave Barry heralds (heh) Squirrel Appreciation Day. In the comments to Dave's post, I wondered if anyone tried to combine the two by hugging a squirrel, because that would just be...nuts.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

If the Car Fits, Photograph It

A couple of better pictures of Kevmobile 2.0:




It took the convergence of a couple of things (being home during daylight hours on a sunny day, along with freshly-charged batteries in the digital camera) to get these pictures taken yesterday, and one more day to find the USB cord that ran from the camera to the computer (d'oh!). But here she is in all her glory.

(It's also interesting that, without a definite sense of scale, the Fit almost looks like a mini-SUV in these pictures. But the gas mileage is much better.)

Saturday, January 19, 2008

A Saturday Smorgasbord

Once again, here's a collection of the things I ran across this week that I deemed blogworthy, but not quite enough to fill up an individual post by themselves:I'll have some car pictures up tomorrow...

Friday, January 18, 2008

Let's Raise the Bar, Not Lower It

I really couldn't believe it when I heard this story on the radio yesterday: Teachers in the Dallas ISD are not allowed to give grades below 50 for any six-week grading period:
Dallas teacher representatives asked trustees Thursday to reconsider a policy that prevents teachers from giving students who are failing any grade lower than a 50.

"With all the talk about increasing academic rigor, [the policy] is hypocritical," said Aimee Bolender, president of the teacher group AFT-Alliance. "Teachers need to be able to give the grades kids earn."

Currently, students can receive a grade no lower than 50 for any marking period, even if they do no work. District officials said that's a long-standing policy meant to give students who bomb their work early in the semester a chance to earn a passing grade if they clean up their acts.

If students received a grade of zero for the first six-week grading period, for example, they would be unable to pass the class even if they produced near-perfect work in the rest of the course. Administrators fear kids would realize that and give up entirely.
Or maybe...just maybe...they'd realize that they had to get on the stick and get something done. And if that didn't happen...maybe they'd have to go to summer school to get credit for that course. Is it the worst thing in the world to hold students accountable?

Evidently, this is a common standard across Texas. But "everybody else is doing it" is just as bad an excuse for school administrators as it is for kids on the playground. And most teachers don't seem to care for it either:
[T]eacher groups see a double standard. At a time when the district will begin paying bonuses to teachers based on student achievement, the policy requires that students be given points for doing inadequate work.

"To assign actual grades earned by students, instead of grades of not less than 50 percent, is a vital part of raising the achievement bar," Alliance-AFT vice president Maureen Peters said. "An education is not something a child is given. An education is something the child must work for and earn."

[...]The requirement is part of a larger policy about student grading that is under review, along with many other policies. Trustees will be asked to vote this month on proposed revisions that don't affect the 50-grade requirement. Teachers asked the board at a meeting Thursday to remove the 50-grade language.

"What are we asking the board to do?" Ms. Peters said. "Hold students accountable for their grades. Raise the bar. Increase student rigor. Allow teachers to assign students the grades they legitimately earned. Stop supporting grade inflation."
Well said. And if I'm agreeing with a union leader on something, it must be a really strong point.

I did hear a teacher who called in to Ernie and Jay yesterday who wove a fairly compelling tale of life in a big urban school district; she talked of students who couldn't turn in homework for a whole six-weeks because, well, they were homeless. If that situation improved the next six-weeks, the grades would rise in turn. And while that's a heartbreaking story, wouldn't it be better to put something in place for those students, rather than lowering the bar for everyone? What am I missing here?

So what do you think? Does it make sense to give half-credit for a failing grade even if no work was done at all? Or is accountability still a good thing in this day and age?

I bet he'll be mobbed with questions now: You may have read that Cowboys assistant head coach Tony Sparano just got hired by the Miami Dolphins. I had always thought that his name sounded a lot like the TV character Tony Soprano, but I was still surprised when a Fox Sports article about the hire made a Sparano/Soprano joke in the opening sentence.

At least he didn't staple a Cheesehead to the kid or anything: Talk about an overzealous football fan--a Green Bay Packers fan became so enraged that his six-year-old son refused to wear a Packers jersey during last weekend's game that he taped the jersey onto the boy.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

The New School Calendar Is Testing Students' Patience This Week

A little over a year ago, I lamented the fact that the new later start to the Texas school year, which began last fall, would delay first-semester final exams until after Christmas; yes, I'll use the un-PC term here. (For what it's worth, I also dislike the later start because the state government has no business sticking its grubby paws into what was, and should still be, an issue of local control, but that's another post altogether.) And now, as I sit at home on a rare break because my students are mired in these same exams, I see that the problems I predicted are, by and large, happening; nobody is very happy with having exams this week:
In years past, not studying over the winter break may not have been a big deal. But this year is different.

Because of a later school starting date, Aug. 27, students didn't begin taking their first-semester exams until this week. So, as Jordan and thousands of other high school students across Texas returned to class this month, teachers greeted them not with new material but with previous semester exams.

A two-week hiatus before exams causes some students enormous stress.

"It's just easy to lose focus," said Charles Douglas Jr., a 17-year-old senior at North Mesquite High School.

He said his teachers urged him and his classmates to study and review notes over the break, but he was too busy spending time with his family.

The first week back, Charles had tests that covered what he learned over the past six weeks. And this week, he had comprehensive semester exams.

"Even the teachers were complaining," he said. "To retain all this information and then use it is a lot to ask of some teenagers."
As the article points out, most schools used last week as a review week, and the students are now being tested on material that they may not have seen for at least three weeks. It just doesn't make sense.

There are some ways around this (besides the long-term solution of voting out the legislators who caved in to the desires of the entertainment industry and took a valuable chunk of local control away from the districts). One would be to do what a couple of high schools have already done: Use a trimester calendar. They have five periods of slightly over an hour apiece that meet every day, and many classes that would normally take an entire year to complete can be done in four six weeks' time. (The rest of the high schools in my district are on an eight-period "A/B" block, where four of the eight classes meet every other day for an hour and a half apiece.) Perhaps the best argument for trimesters would be the fact that their major exams are given in the last full week before Thanksgiving, the end of February, and the last week of the school year, so fact that the third six-weeks is divided up by Christmas break (yes, I said it again) becomes much less of an issue.

But trimesters may not be for everybody. One of the downsides is that, with only five periods, it's hard to get all of the required classes in for students with multiple electives. Our schools start so early (7:30 a.m.) that it's nearly impossible to do a "zero hour" class, which would normally occur before the school day (6:15 a.m. class, anyone?). So perhaps Highland Park's idea would work for some people. It's a somewhat radical idea: Unbalanced semesters!
Highland Park ISD decided to finish first-semester exams in December despite the new law. Under its current calendar, the first semester has 80 days and the second has 95. But once mandatory testing days, such as for TAKS, are subtracted, the semesters are nearly even, said Helen Williams, director of communications.
Some school officials interviewed for the article seemed to recoil at this idea, but I give kudos to HP for thinking outside the proverbial box. Who says that the semesters have to be equal, after all? Plano is considering the method, and, if it seems to work, it may well be copied by others.

Granted, I have a dog in this fight. As a private music teacher whose high-schoolers have solo and ensemble in three weeks and two days (but who's counting?), I haven't seen a whole lot of practicing going on this week at the semester schools (while most of the trimester kids improved by leaps and bounds this week). But I'd be against having exams this week even if it didn't affect me personally at all.

It will be interesting to see how the grades compare on exams taken this year vs. those taken before Christmas a year ago...and you'd better believe that teachers and principals will be tracking this stuff. And let's hope that, down the road, voters will have the courage to elect people who actually have the best interests of education at heart.

But here's one rescheduled test I can agree with: One of the other issues connected with the later start is that it moved all the TAKS testing two weeks later. But people forgot to consider that the Tuesday of TAKS week suddenly coincided with the March 4 presidential primary. Since TAKS and voting would be taking place at some of the same schools, the state's education commissioner wisely opted to move all testing away from Tuesday that week. Not only does that avoid the distraction of having voters and test-takers in close proximity, but it also guarantees that teachers won't be caught up in long hours on testing day and will thus have the ability to cast their own ballots on that day.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Whatever They Saw, It's Not of this Erath*

I've mentioned Stephenville many times in this blog: it's the location of one of my fraternity chapters, it's the home of Hard Eight BBQ and Moo-La the Cow and close to the Dublin Dr Pepper plant, and it's been the subject of some very interesting travelogue posts on this blog. But it found itself home to an unusual news story this week as many of the locals have reported seeing a UFO:
In this farming community where nightfall usually brings clear, starry skies, residents are abuzz over reported sightings of what many believe is a UFO.

Several dozen people - including a pilot, county constable and business owners - insist they have seen a large silent object with bright lights flying low and fast. Some reported seeing fighter jets chasing it.

"People wonder what in the world it is because this is the Bible Belt, and everyone is afraid it's the end of times," said Steve Allen, a freight company owner and pilot who said the object he saw last week was a mile long and half a mile wide. "It was positively, absolutely nothing from these parts."

While federal officials insist there's a logical explanation, locals swear that it was larger, quieter, faster and lower to the ground than an airplane. They also said the object's lights changed configuration, unlike those of a plane. People in several towns who reported seeing it over several weeks have offered similar descriptions of the object.
So was it really an identified flying object--in other words, an airplane? Nobody's really sure:
Maj. Karl Lewis, a spokesman for the 301st Fighter Wing at the Joint Reserve Base Naval Air Station in Fort Worth, said no F-16s or other aircraft from his base were in the area the night of Jan. 8, when most people reported the sighting.

Lewis said the object may have been an illusion caused by two commercial airplanes. Lights from the aircraft would seem unusually bright and may appear orange from the setting sun.

"I'm 90 percent sure this was an airliner," Lewis said. "With the sun's angle, it can play tricks on you."
Whatever it is, I'm sure it's the talk of the town at the Hard Eight and other local hangouts.

Have you ever seen a UFO? If so, did it remain unidentified, or did you eventually find out what it was?

*And no, the headline's not a typo. Stephenville is in Erath County. Heh.

Exercises for the lazy: Don't have enough peripherals on your computer? Here's a USB device that basically lets you play DDR with your fingers.

Technology 1, Finance 0: Some of the FBI's criminal surveillance wiretaps have been discontinued in various locations because the bureau didn't pay its phone bills on time.

He might be a "little terror," but not a terrorist: A would-be airline passenger was recently detained by the TSA for having the same name as someone on the no-fly list. What made this situation extraordinary--and ridiculous--was that this "person of interest" is five years old.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

I Chose Tokyo, But Can Detroit Rebound?

It was interesting to read this story in the midst of all my car-related news this week: Two Republican candidates, in Michigan this week for a primary that took place today, vowed to help the U.S. auto industry regain some of its lost ground:
Michigan Republicans head to the polls for that state's primary Tuesday as Mitt Romney and John McCain both pledge to lead a revival for the state and an auto industry ravaged by recession.
"I will not rest until Michigan is back," said Romney, a native son who jabbed at his rival for saying many jobs among the thousands lost will never return.
"We will create new jobs," insisted McCain, who also favors improvements in federal programs for laid-off workers. "We have the innovation, the talent, the knowledge and the ability ... to regain Michigan's position as the best in the world."
It occurred to me as I read this story that, during all my recent car-shopping, I never once considered a domestic automaker, and I think the main reason was at least the perception of a lack of quality. Having just come off a year where my aging car was in the shop for three major issues, the last thing I wanted was a new car that had similar problems right off the bat.

But is it just a perception of low quality among domestic automakers, or is there any truth to that? (We'll set aside for the moment the question of which car is more "domestic"--a Ford truck made in Mexico, or a Honda Accord made in Ohio?) I can only go on anecdotal evidence, but it seems like the people I know who drive domestic vehicles have their cars in the shop more often than those with foreign--especially Japanese--ones.

I remember a good friend of mine whose dad worked for Ford for a time, and even after he left the company, the dad wouldn't buy anything else. And I also remember that those Fords were in the shop again and again; he pretty much had "frequent flyer miles" at the dealership's garage, where everyone knew him by name. Still, out of loyalty, he continued to buy nothing but Ford, and they continued to always be in the shop. (I can understand the loyalty thing to a point. My dad, retired from Shell, will buy no other gasoline unless there's none available; keep in mind that Shell stations in Houston are as ubiquitous as Starbucks in Plano. Still, I've never heard of Dad getting a bad tank of gas from Shell, and if he did, I wonder what it would take to test his loyalty.)

The jury's still out on what caused the once-mighty domestic auto industry to fall so far. Did they rest of their laurels while the once-upstart Asian companies took over the mantle of innovation? Are the unions here to blame? (I'd have little trouble citing that as a cause myself.) One of the presidential candidates blamed our own government regulations; it's probably a little of all of that.

Don't get me wrong--I'd love to see the American auto industry rebound; I'd love for a lot more of everything we consume to be made over here. But for me personally, while Detroit was sleeping, Tokyo rose up and created something that a lot of us could wrap our hearts and minds around, and, having just bought my third Honda vehicle in a row I don't see myself going in a different direction anytime soon.

So, a quick quiz: 1) What kind of vehicle do you drive? 2) Do you prefer domestic or foreign cars in general? 3) Do you think that the American auto industry can ever regain its faded glory?

I'm ready to play Tag again: In yesterday's post, I mentioned the few things I would miss about my old car. There's one more that I omitted, though it really wasn't specific to the old car per se, and it's a temporary situation: I miss using my TollTag. I've generally been very happy with the NTTA, but if I can spout out a quick rantlet here, I wish there were a way to keep using one's tag while in the interim period of new car ownership. I understand what they're doing--it's hard to combat fraud if someone has a cardboard license plate--and I have no problem with keeping new customers from opening accounts until they have their permanent tags, but it's unfortunate that already-existing customers have to be temporarily disenfranchised just for buying a new car. At any rate, I've been hoarding quarters more during the past few days than I have since college...

I'm glad I had some decent money to spend...or I might have had to buy something like the Nana Tato, an Indian-made vehicle that, at a list price of $2500, is billed as the world's cheapest car. The base model has no radio, no air bags, no passenger-side mirror and only one windshield wiper (and no AC; imagine getting through an Indian summer like that!). It's also two feet shorter than a Mini Cooper, looks smaller than a Smart in the picture, has only one-third of the horsepower of my Fit, and gives off the general impression of a Matchbox version of the Chevy Aveo that I rented over Christmas. (And no, they're not intended for sale over here.)

QUOTE OF THE DAY: "Michigan is best known for for being the place where, in 1896, Henry Ford built the first commercially successful automobile, using parts manufactured by the Toyota Corporation."--Humorist Dave Barry, on his daily calendar page for today.

Monday, January 14, 2008

A Fitting End to the Saga (and the Beginning of a New One)

Anyone who's followed this blog for any length of time was probably not surprised to read yesterday's post announcing the new car. I had been having quite a few breakdowns recently with the old once, which, after all, was eleven years old. So when I was given the opportunity to buy a new one, it didn't take too long to research the best deal and go for it.

In case you can't tell from the pictures (and yes, some better ones are forthcoming), I ended up getting a 2008 Honda Fit, a fairly new model of hatchback that's known for its "Magic Seat" in the back that folds either forward (to give length) or back (to give depth). It has the potential to be able to haul around quite a wide variety of people and equipment to gigs and so on. (And the car that I ended up buying was the same one that I test-drove--and snapped a quick picture of--last Thursday.)

It's only a few days into the whole thing, but here are a few Fun Facts about the Fit in general and Kevmobile 2.0 in particular:
  • I was first turned onto the car by my buddy Coop, who got one about a year and a half ago. He and his mother both have them and totally love them, and when I found out that one of their models ran in my price range (which was no longer the case for a newer Civic or my onetime dream car, the RSX; the latter is not made anymore, but even ones a few years old came in too high for me), it quickly became the "car to beat" in all of my comparisons.

  • From Coop came a cool story: The Fit was introduced in Europe before it came to the States, and over there, it's called the Jazz. If it had kept that name over here, I think that would have put it high on my list even sooner; how could I not drive a Jazz? (After seeing one on a European trip, Coop's mom snapped one up as soon as it was introduced over here.)

  • Incidentally, it was funny when the two of us met up on Saturday night and parked the Fits right next to each other in front of a Starbucks (I chose silver partially to avoid the "twinkie factor" of having a blue one just like his). You could say we were having the inaugural Fit Club meeting (the first rule of Fit Club is, you do not talk about Fit Club; I guess I just broke that rule).

  • Have you ever noticed that, whenever you buy a car, you suddenly see that car all over the road? I saw two more silver Fits within five minutes of each other on my afternoon errands today, as well as another one on the way to an evening coffee get-together.

  • I haven't driven a four-door car since my junior year in high school, but I've already gotten compliments on that aspect from passengers. (Thank goodness for power locks; that was one thing that was annoying about the Aveo I had as a rental car during the last Civic breakdown--each door had to be locked/unlocked manually.)

  • The engine on this car is very peppy, and I'm looking forward to an extended drive on the freeway. I went as far as Fairview yesterday, but an even longer trip will be fun.

  • Despite the fact that this car is considered a subcompact, my first trip with passengers on Saturday night was a full house--four other people, and two of them were over six feet tall (one considerably so).

  • I've noticed that this car is a lot higher off the ground than the Civic or Integra were; yesterday was the first time in my life that I've been to an ATM in my own car and reached over to put the card in, rather than up.

  • I already have a full-blown case of New Car Paranoia, which means I've taken to parking far away from people whenever possible to avoid the inevitable door dings. And I certainly hope that the first person to spill a drink in there is me and not someone else (and I plan to prevent that for as long as possible).

  • But, on the other hand, the sense of mine-ness is growing as well, especially with things like my faculty parking sticker (which will be one of the few exterior adornments), my Mardi Gras beads (which double as a crash cymbal of sorts) hanging from the rear-view mirror, and all my stuff arranged "just so" in the cabin.

  • More Fit facts are available in the Wikipedia article, which tells where it's sold under which name and when it was introduced.
All in all, I'm loving it so far.

Despite the recent breakdowns, I did think that, overall, Kevmobile 1.2 served me well. It was never meant to be a long-term car (which is why I didn't name it 2.0), and when things were good, they were very good, especially in terms of gas mileage (I'll never forget the time I drove 400 miles on one tank).

Things I'll miss about the old car:
  • The moonroof. I almost never actually opened it up, but the cover was off (so that the sun could shine through) whenever it wasn't raining.

  • The driver's side trunk latch. It's the only thing that the Fit doesn't have that I really wish it did, especially since the multiple-schools-per-day nature of my work has me opening the trunk a lot.

  • The little armrest thingy in the middle that also held about 8 CD's, just in case I forgot to change out the ones in the wallet that's almost always in the car.
I think that's about it. Now, the things that I won't miss about the old car:
  • The "ejector seat" in the back (driver's side). There was a seat belt there, but it never had the "male" end of the buckle, so the person riding back there either needed to use the middle seat belt or hope for the best. It was a running joke as to who got stuck with it.

  • The annoying short in the volume knob of the stereo. Ask anyone who'd ever ridden in there; it took a special touch to make even the slightest adjustments in volume on many occasions, as it would either go completely silent (and then beep at you repeatedly) or ear-bleedingly loud, with no in-between. It's been great to listen to stuff in the new car at whatever volume I liked, even switching back and forth between radio and CD levels without incident.

  • And of course, the breakdowns, which seemed to get bigger and more numerous as the years went by. While I was overall very happy with my first pre-owned car experience (the Civic, after all, was six years old, had 74,000 miles and three previous owners before I bought it), there's still something cool about having a brand-new car all your own.
With any luck, I won't need to be posting about cars so much for a while, though I will post those good pictures once I take them.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Out with the Old...



...the changing of the guard...



...and in with the new:



Say farewell to Kevmobile 1.2 and hello to Kevmobile 2.0. I'll have more details (and pictures taken on a camera that's not a phone), a little later. (Actually, I've been pretty happy with most of the RAZR pictures so far, but I'll still get out the "real" camera for some better shots for the next post.)

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Blowing Out Lots of Candles in Lots of Places

Happy birthday to (takes deep breath)...
  • My protege and bandmate Aaron, with whom I'll be celebrating at least once, maybe twice today.

  • A former protege, Doug, whom I haven't seen in a while, but, if memory serves, is celebrating his first birthday as a married man (and by that, of course, I mean that it's his first birthday since getting married, not that he's one year old and has already tied the knot).

  • Two titans of talk radio, Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern.

  • And, last but certainly not least, one of my favorite bloggers, Ann Althouse, who has a request from her readers: She wants links for her birthday. And no, I don't mean that we're supposed to mail sausages to Madison or Brooklyn, but rather that she wants us to pick our favorite post on her blog from the past year and link to it today. That may take a bit of digging over here, so I'll come back and do that as an update just below.

Let them me eat be cake: I bet that none of the birthday boys or girl mentioned above will do something like this today, but just up the road in Allen, a recent bride had a wedding cake that was a full-sized likeness of herself made for her ceremony. (Pictures at the link, of course.)

These two shared a birthday, but they probably wish they didn't: A man and woman in Britain got married and then found out that they were fraternal twins separated at birth and raised by different families without knowing of the existence of the other. (The marriage was later annulled.)

Friday, January 11, 2008

Another Hair-Raising Tale from a School

Kerens, Texas was probably, until now, best known for being the original home of the giant Santa Claus that was moved to Dallas and made over into Big Tex of Texas State Fair fame. But now the small East Texas town is making national news, thanks to a flap over boys' hair length at the local high school.

It started before winter break, when four students were told they would have to cut their hair before returning from break. None did so, and upon their return, they were suspended for three days:
Matthew Lopez-Widish said that after he and three other long-haired friends entered school Tuesday morning, the principal and assistant principal were waiting and called the students into their office.

The students were handed suspension papers, and Matthew said principal David Tyson told them, "We warned you, and you knew this was going to happen."

[...]The policy for male students at Kerens High says hair may not go past the collar, below the eyebrows or a half-inch over the ears. Ponytails can be no longer than a half-inch.
But it seemed like Matthew was taking fairly extraordinary measures to ensure that he met with the dress code while at school:
To meet the dress code standards, Matthew's mom braids his hair and then tucks the braids to shorten them and keep them off his collar. He slicks back his hair on the top to keep it out of his face and from covering his ears. After the five-minute process is over, it's hard to tell that his hair is nearly 2 feet long, Matthew said.
Given the choice of alternative school, Matthew--a straight-A senior--decided to transfer to another school that will even allow him to wear his hair down.

And yes, we've all heard stories like this before, with both sides of the argument making some good points. But I was very surprised to see DMN columnist Jacquielynn Floyd pretty much came out in favor of Matthew's position in a column yesterday:
It's a shame that Matthew Lopez-Widish had to change schools over something as comically anachronistic as the length of his hair.

It's absurd that we're still having this silly argument nearly half a century after the Fab Four, with their quaint mop-tops, wowed a generation of awestruck teenagers and scandalized their parents.

You can add my vote to the many who scoff that American schools should be a lot more concerned about the contents of the student noodle than the amount of amount of hair on its exterior.
I certainly agree with that; click the "Dress Codes" tab at the bottom of this post to read my previous writings on the subject. But something in Floyd's column caught my attention:
Matthew was told just before Christmas break that the compromise that the school had adopted for longer-haired boys -- bind or braid it up -- wasn't working out because some kids (not him) still weren't complying. All boys would have to cut their hair short. No exceptions.

I'm surprised and perhaps slightly amused that there are still school districts that mandate boys' hair may not touch their collars. I guess they're also still running around with rulers to measure miniskirts and making the girls wear bloomers under their gym uniforms.
So it wasn't that he was hiding his hair from anyone by going through the braiding process; he was simply obeying what seems to be a perfectly good compromise that was suddenly pulled out from under him. Why? Because other people were taking advantage of it.

This is why it's a good thing that I'm not a regular classroom teacher; I recoil at the slightest notion of punishing entire groups for the misdeeds of the few. Those few should be punished, period. Otherwise, what kind of lesson does it teach the students who aren't doing anything wrong? That authority figures are unreasonable and not to be trusted, and, in a nutshell, that "school sucks." Great lesson, guys...

Floyd continues:
This story is widely viewed as a culture clash between two ideological forces: In Matthew, some see a spoiled, arrogant, it's-all-about-me Gen Y teenager who thinks the rules don't apply to him. Conversely, some saw in the Kerens High principal a petty authoritarian nit-picker more interested in strict student conformity than in academic accomplishment.

[...]I guess it boils down to which you consider more important: The right in a free society to what we nebulously call "self-expression," or our mutual obligation to respect the rule of law, even in its most arcane manifestations.

Maintaining both freedom and the rule of law is, inevitably, a messy, kinetic business.
How true.

Floyd also notes that if the citizens of Kerens decide that they don't like this policy, and the school board members aren't responsive to their request, they can always depose those board members in the next election. But that takes a long time--since most boards have staggered terms of office--and, in the meantime, there are still administrators who seem to value their own power and control more than a student getting a good education. Floyd concedes that point:
No reason, of course, to suppose that ruling won't be overturned at some point. This issue comes up a lot, in the guise of provocative T-shirts, pierced flesh, holey jeans, unorthodox hair and various other forms of student "self-expression." If a sweeping change is handed down, though, it'll take a while, and Matthew Lopez-Widish may be as bald as a grapefruit by then.
This sort of reminds me of the recent flap over baggy pants here in Dallas. As I noted at the time, if a City Council member has that much time to spend on such a minor issue, that must mean that everything else in the city is going swimmingly--no crime, no potholes, etc. LIkewise, if this principal (who, for what it's worth, was described in one of the earlier stories as having "close-cropped" hair himself) is able to put this much energy into such an arcane issue, perhaps the man has a bit too much time on his hands. And perhaps some of that time could be filled with something useful, such as teaching a class. Just a thought.

I really do see the valid points on both sides of the issue, but I still have to fall on the side of students getting an education (and teachers teaching) without all the administrative claptrap getting in the way all the time. Just let teachers teach; just let students learn.

Feel free to support or disagree with me in the comments, of course.

Outrageous punishment or courageous mom? You decide: A Des Moines mother found booze in her 19-year-old son's car, which ran afoul of a previous rule she'd laid down. So she sold the car through the local paper. (The son cried foul, claiming that the alcohol belonged to a passenger.)

Father, it's confession time....for you: A man claiming to be a Catholic priest was arrested at the Amsterdam airport for hiding nearly 8 pounds of cocaine under his robes.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

A Glimpse of the Future?



Maybe. It's too early in the game to tell for sure. But this is what I test-drove this afternoon, so the process has started. I'll have updates aplenty as I go along.

(And yes, that's a bad picture...but it was the best I could do on a whim, staring at the sun.)

UPDATE: Yes, it was indeed a glimpse of the future, as, two days later, I would buy the exact car in this picture--the one I test-drove on this day. "Changing of the guard" pictures are posted here.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

An Even Less Perfect Union

I finally got to sit down tonight and watch Monday's edition of the Tonight Show; I tape it every Monday for the Headlines feature, and this was the first show I'd gotten to see since it returned without its striking writers last week.

Longtime readers of this blog know that I'm no fan of unions in general, and that negative feeling is intensified whenever the unionized workers are members of a profession: my fellow teachers and musicians come to mind, as do the screenwriters being discussed here. Former DMN columnist Ruben Navarrette, now in San Diego, notes that Leno has been put in an extremely awkward position by the strike:
The Writers Guild is right that its members deserve a fair share of profits generated by television scripts they produce, especially since the networks will cash in for years through DVDs and other distribution means that haven't even been dreamed up.

But the guild is wrong in its tactics. For instance, the union has vowed to discipline one of its own, late-night star Jay Leno. According to the strike rules, guild members cannot write material for any company affected by the strike, even if the material is intended for the member's own use.

In recent installments of NBC's The Tonight Show, Mr. Leno has begun to write his own comedy monologue. Not that he has much of a choice. The show's 19 writers may be on strike, but the network declared that the show must go on.

The sticky part is that Mr. Leno is also listed as a writer on the show and a member of the guild.

[...]Mr. Leno went to the guild beforehand to get permission to write the monologue, say NBC executives. The comedian and a few of his writers met with Patric M. Verrone, the president of the Writers Guild of America West, and Mr. Leno told him that he wanted to write the monologue himself. According to the executives, and at least one writer present at the meeting, Mr. Verrone gave Mr. Leno permission.

[...]The union can't seem to figure out what category to put Jay Leno in – is he a writer or a talk show host? The guild can't insist on treating him as a writer when it wants to control him and then change the script when he seeks an exemption that would allow him to compete with [David] Letterman.
Oh, that's great. Nothing like talking out of both sides of your mouth, guys. Don't you realize how this makes you look to Joe Average TV viewer, who, as the column points out, likes to tune in to late-night TV for relief from tension and backbiting?

Navarrette pretty much sums up my feeling toward unions here:
This whole drama illustrates what's wrong with much of organized labor these days. Unions once served a purpose, but now they just serve their own interests. Whether it's an organization serving mill workers, farm workers, teachers or police officers, it usually starts off with a just cause. But, often, the groups go too far, demand too much and wreak havoc.

And they almost always stray from the principles they espouse. Then, when things go badly, they put the blame on someone or something else. If only we didn't trade with China or outsource to India or import low-wage workers from Guatemala, why, the mill would be open again and business would be humming.

And, of course, it has nothing to do with the fact that the unions demanded that their members were entitled to salaries that eventually would price them out of the market, or that the unions never adapted to change and prepared for the future by reforming some of their more arcane rules.
Well said. But here's the biggest thing from this viewer: After watching Monday night's show, I honestly couldn't tell the difference between that show and one where the unionized writers had been working. Jay was just as funny, and he even drew more viewers than usual last week. Nothing like a long strike to show how unneeded the union workers can sometimes be.

Have you watched any of the late-night shows since they've come back? Are any of the writer-less shows (Letterman doesn't count, because he owns his show and made his own deal with the writers to come back) more or less funny to you this week? And feel free to weigh in on the idea of unions if you didn't get to do so last time.

A not-so-blockbuster movie sequel: Mice on a Plane.

You can have my profanity when you take it from my cold, dead lips: A proposed ordinance in the St. Louis suburb of St. Charles would ban swearing in bars.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

The iTunes Shuffle, Part 3

As I promised yesterday, here's another edition of the fun little computer/music experiment.

Once again, the ground rules:
1. Open up the music player on your computer (or your iPod, possibly).
2. Set it to play your entire music collection.
3. Hit the "shuffle" command.
4. Tell us the title of the next ten songs that show up (with their musicians), no matter how embarrassing...

Here's what this edition produced:
One O'Clock Lab Band: Point of Entry (from Lab 97)
Dan Haerle/Jack Mouse/Bob Bowman: The Slither (I blogged about the release of this CD here)
Dewey Redman: O'besso (at 14:10, this will make for one long Shuffle!)
Jerry Bergonzi: Have You Met Miss Jones? (live version)
Lennie Niehaus: Fancy Free from Basic Jazz Conception for Saxophone (I knew that a teaching aid would get in here. LOL)
Fay Claassen: My Funny Valentine
Tomasz Stanko: Chameleon (no, not the Herbie Hancock one)
Jerry Bergonzi: Up for the Count
Miles Davis--I Fall in Love Too Easily
Lennie Niehaus: Tuning Notes (There we go--another teaching aid)
Thrascher: 52 Short (Yes, I did add a bonus 11th track since I got two non-listening tracks in there.)

In the previous editions of this game, I've pointed out how many of the above performers I've seen live. This time, of the nine different individuals/groups listed, I've seen four: the One O'Clock, Haerle, Miles and Thrascher; (three of those are from the "duhh" department, because the One O'Clock is based where I went to college, Haerle was one of my professors, and I work a camp with Thrascher and went to school with three of its four members). I've also seen Bergonzi in a clinic situation and heard one of his live performances through a door (it was last year at IAJE, where he was playing in a room that was way too small for the audience he drew, and the Hotel Security Nazis kept people out unless an equal number of people left). Having seen four artists live ties the '05 edition but falls short of the six in the '06 effort.

Have fun with this--try it yourself and post it on your own blog, and feel free to link to it in the comments here.

UPDATE: It took a few days, but regular commenter Gary P. did his own Shuffle and posted the results in the comments to this post.

The Force is strong with this one: An 11-year-old boy in England defended his mother from a man who tried to attack her by hitting the man with a plastic toy lightsaber, causing him to run away.

This is more creative than "my dog ate my homework," but no more effective: Most public schools (including mine) have resumed after winter break this week, but one boy in Mexico tried to prolong his holiday by gluing his hand to the bedpost. (Paramedics had to come out to free him, but he was only a few hours late to school.)

Monday, January 07, 2008

The iTunes Listening Project

Ever since I got my iPod (almost exactly one year ago), I've been adding quite a bit of music to the iTunes library on my computer. Buying from the iTunes Store and the new Amazon downloads has added a lot as well. As we speak, I have 15.4 days of music in there.

So around the end of September, I was listening to a CD that I'd just bought and uploaded, and when it was done, I decided to let it roll onto the next one. At that point, I decided it would be cool to just continue listening until the end of the alphabet whenver I was on the computer. I would then scroll up to the top and start from the A's, so that eventually I would end up back where I started and see how long the whole thing took.

On that late September day, I started with the Paul Motian Quartet (my iTunes goes alphabetically by first name of artist, which I think is the default mode). It took me another month to get to the end of the alphabet (or, to be precise, the numeric 29th Street Saxophone Quartet, which was deposited after Yo-Yo Ma), and, through today, I finished up with Leo Parker and am about to start with Level 42 (this alphabetical thing is nothing if not eclectic). If it took me two months to get from A to K (roughly), then I should be back where I started in another month or so. (I should point out that there have been "detours" where I'd listen to a new CD out-of-order right after I down- or uploaded it, and that I skipped over teaching aids like Jamey Aebersold Play-a-Longs that only get used in lessons--although I did manage to let the Texas All-State Jazz Band Improv CD play in its entirety; I think I may have been on the phone at that point.)

How many hours/days/weeks of music is in your iTunes? Have you ever listened to it all in sequence like this? If so, how long did it take?

Tomorrow, I'll do another edition of the iTunes shuffle, which I've done a few previous times.

Just call it Gridiron Hero: If LSU does well tonight in the BCS Championship, it could be thanks in part to their high-tech practice aid: They've programmed their offense vs. Ohio State's defense into the Xbox and their two quarterbacks play it regularly.

And if we're watching the game, it's time for a blimp shot: Check out these designs for the hybrid airship of the future. (The first one looks a little like an old iMac mouse, if you ask me.)

Tech news we can all appreciate: Sony BMG plans to join most of the other major labels in dropping DRM protection from its recordings.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

A Sunday Smorgasbord

Another random collection of oddities that I've noticed during my weekly surfing:
  • New York CIty has been suffering from a bedbug epidemic, and even some of the five-star hotels aren't immune from the problem. (I'm glad this wasn't happening a year ago, when I went up there for the IAJE convention).

  • A woman in Michigan ran a stop sign and then collided with a utility pole last week, but even the fact that her truck subsequently caught on fire wasn't enough to make her stop driving (at least until the vehicle was totally engulfed in flames).

  • Theatregoers in Berlin were forced to flee recently when, at a time in the play when stage fog was supposed to be released, tear gas came out instead.

  • A man using a GPS system to navigate drove right into the path of a train. (I guess that goes to show that, no matter how cool our new technology is, common sense must still prevail.)

  • Now this is just wrong: A Wisconsin man is accused of sneaking into a 2-year-old's room and stealing $20 from her piggy bank while she slept.

  • A man in Toronto was clocked driving at 100 mph in ice and snow. What makes it even more unusual is that he's 85 years old.

  • My second-favorite headline of the past week: Wisconsin seeks less cheesy image. (Perhaps it would help if fewer people were seen wearing these things on their heads.)

  • My favorite headline of the past week: Man douses fire with aunt's underwear. (And even though it saved the day, I'm sure the aunt is delighted that the whole world knows that she wears size XL powder-blue undies.)
A music-related post is on the way for tomorrow...

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Meet the New President of "Club Libby Loser"
(or, Hannah Montana Made This Mom Go Bananas)

First of all, I'm embarrassed that this incident took place here in Garland, and right down the street at Firewheel, no less. But it's been making national news, so I figured I should comment on it.

Surely you've heard about this by now: A six-year-old Garland girl won tickets to a "Hannah Montana" concert (she's the alter ego of Miley Cyrus, daughter of Billy Ray Cyrus of "Achy Breaky Heart" fame) through a chain store called Club Libby Lu that caters to preteen girls. The winner was required to write an essay, and the winner was chosen on the strength of hers, which began, "My daddy died this year in Iraq." The only problem was, it was completely untrue:
A 6-year-old Garland girl won a Hannah Montana makeover and concert tickets Friday with an essay that started, "My daddy died this year in Iraq ..."

But the girl's mother now admits that the essay, along with information she supplied about the supposedly deceased soldier, is false, said Robyn Caulfield, a spokeswoman for Club Libby Lu.

Club Libby Lu, a store aimed at "tween" girls that sells pink and purple merchandise and gives princess makeovers, sponsored the Hannah Montana Rock Your Holidays Essay Contest. First prize was the trip to see Miley Cyrus in concert as Hannah Montana, the fictional rock star from the Disney television show of the same name.

Club Libby Lu still plans to honor the girl's prize – airfare for four to Albany, N.Y., and four tickets to the sold-out Jan. 9 Hannah Montana concert there.

[...]The girl's mother, Priscilla Ceballos, refused to answer questions Friday at the store. She did not return repeated phone messages left later in the day.

Company officials notified Ms. Ceballos that her daughter won the contest and arranged to surprise the girl Friday at the Club Libby Lu in Garland's Firewheel Town Center.

Store employees treated the girl to the makeover, complete with blond wig, and danced with her as television cameras recorded the scene.
I've ranted about irresponsible parents before, but this one takes the cake. What kind of lesson is Ceballos teaching her daughter? (Here's some video from WFAA-Channel 8 reporter Byron Harris in a story filed soon after the deception was discovered.)

The first big discussion I saw of this story in the blogosphere was last weekend at Althouse. I agree with the good Professor on more than a few things, but I was surprised when she equally blamed the store for handling it badly, saying that they should have fact-checked the essay and then discreetly resolved the matter with the family upon discovering the untruth. But quite a few of the commenters expressed the idea that a little public shaming is perfectly appropriate in this situation. (And have we really gotten to the point where even a six-year-old's essay needs to be vetted?)

Eventually, Ceballos was forced to return the tickets. The case also received the attention of DMN Metro columnist Jacquielynn Floyd, who wrote:
It's distasteful, but not especially shocking, that a person would resort to gross falsehood for personal gain. People do it every day. But Ms. Ceballos' subsequent, matter-of-fact explanation that "we wrote whatever we could to win" sets a new benchmark for pure hubris.

She comes across as slightly puzzled by all-this-fuss: Who can blame a parent for yearning to deliver something their child holds so dear?

That's the really astonishing part – that a parent would resort to such measures to deliver something as trivial as tickets to see a pop star. Yet there are hints that, while some condemn Ms. Ceballos' methods, they sympathize with her desire.

[...]Breathless reports quoted moms everywhere as they wrung their hands over how they would "explain" this to their grade-school children. I dunno. Maybe it would be a good time to talk about bad choices and good ones, about the difference between TV characters and real people.

Ms. Ceballos no doubt deserves the public scorn she has earned for being a liar and a cheat. It goes without saying that she has completely missed the point of this "role modeling" business.

It's more subtly disturbing, though, to see so many parents out there who seem to sincerely believe that gratifying a child's desires, no matter how trivial, is a sound foundation for good parenting.
Well said. And what is hopefully the final chapter in this story (for everyone except Ceballos, who seriously needs to learn some better parenting skills), a national TV audience was treated to an apology from the errant mom on the Today Show yesterday morning (video here):
“I meant no disrespect. I just made a bad decision which I sincerely regret,” Priscilla Ceballos told TODAY co-host Matt Lauer in a prepared statement she read from Friday. “I apologize to my daughter for getting her mixed up in his mess. I wanted to help my daughter realize her dream of seeing Hannah Montana. Instead, I brought so much negative attention to my family. Please accept my heartfelt apology, and please, do not punish my child for my mistake.
But watch the video; she says that she told her daughter that she "refused to accept the tickets." Today host Matt Lauer called her on that one (since the truth was that Club Libby Lu revoked them), but she stood by her earlier statement (thanks to talk show host Austin Hill, filling in for Ernie and Jay on KRLD yesterday, for pointing that out). It sounds like she still doesn't get it.

For those of you out there who are parents: How far would you go to help your kid get hold of a "hot item" like this?

I'll let an Althouse commenter named Jason have the last word:
Her mom was quoted as saying, basically, "we did what we had to to win."

The 6 year old is not disgraced. The parent is.

I think they should raffle off the prize and give the proceeds to a charity that benefits children of deceased servicemen.

The six year old will understand.

Mom never will.
These past three days have featured some long, quote-laden posts (and they've taken forever to finish). I'll go for some lighter fare tomorrow.

Friday, January 04, 2008

The "Drop Date" For This Idea Is Today

Here's one more education-related rant, about a law which I wasn't even aware was in effect yet until I read this story:
A new state law that limits chronic class-dropping in college may sound good on paper, but some college officials and students worry that it might hurt students who need help the most.

Under the law, passed this spring, students at public campuses can drop no more than six classes during their undergraduate careers. The idea was to encourage students to stick with their courses and graduate faster and to keep them from hogging seats that could have gone to someone else.

College officials say they're all for timely graduation. But they don't want to see students penalized when they wind up in a class that's too hard or not what they expected.
I just can't see too much good coming out of this, and I bristle at the "keep them from hogging seats" phrase; we shouldn't be trying to just run people through college like cattle. And in my particular area--the two-year college--it's a whole different ballgame as well:
[S]ome community college leaders say that while the policy might work for a focused, full-time student at a flagship four-year university, students at two-year colleges often are in very different situations.

"If the purpose is to get them to have a two-year degree within two years, it's never going to happen, because 80 percent of our students work," said Dr. Cary Israel, chancellor of the Collin County Community College District.
And it's not like most students at four-year schools aren't also working, especially in recent years, when tuition at those schools have skyrocketed.

This law has had an effect on nearly everyone; college officials have to keep tabs on the number of dropped classes (as do the students themselves), which is a challenge when students transfer from campus to campus. And it's changed the way advisors work with students as well:
Advisors at the University of North Texas have often recommended that struggling students tough it out for a while because they can always drop the class.

"Now we don't want to advise students to drop classes if they're failing," said Rebecca Lothringer, UNT's associate director of admissions. "Now they need to go ahead and finish the course."

Another worry is that students who get low grades may get discouraged and consider dropping out altogether.
There is still a small window of opportunity to test the waters in a course without being penalized, but it's definitely small:
The law still permits some course shopping. That's where students try out several classes, dropping and adding them until a set date, usually the 12th day of the semester. Students can still drop classes for several weeks after that, but it shows up on their transcripts.

Now, students can still drop classes before the 12th day. But any dropped courses after that count toward the six-class limit. There are some exceptions – if students have an illness or death in the family, are drafted by the military or have an unavoidable change in work schedules, for instance. And the law applies only to students who started college in fall 2007 or later.
Still, I'm not seeing the good in this at all; the only people who appear to benefit from the law are the herd-'em-through advocates, and (as someone who teaches in an area where students often--for good reason--take extra time to finish their degrees) I happen to believe they're wrong about this one, as I've said a few previous times. As I noted earlier,
I think I'm particularly sensitive in this area because of the way musicians learn their craft. While most traditional academic degrees consist of four to six three-credit courses every semester, the bulk of music courses only earn one credit (despite sometimes meeting as often as four hours a week, in the case of many ensembles). The solution would certainly not lie in increasing the credit hours of those classes to match the "contact hours," because that would push most semesters into credit overload: an average schedule would balloon to 21+ hours, which would be cost-prohibitive for most students. But even under the current system, an 18-credit semester would probably consist of ten or eleven classes, as compared to the six taken by "regular" students whose classes are all worth three credits. Sometimes, that's just too much.

Besides, music (and this goes for most of the other arts, I'm sure) is something that isn't necessarily learned on a schedule. Getting the degree doesn't necessarily ensure that one's playing (or singing/acting/painting) is exactly where it needs to be; that extra semester could be the time when everything finally solidifies.
Perhaps the underlying reason that we get silly laws like this passed in the first place is best expressed by a local college official:
Lawmakers mean well, said Don Perry, an interim associate vice chancellor for the Dallas County Community College District. But despite those good intentions, he said, "they often really don't know enough about the business of higher education to understand what the unintended negative consequences might be."
How true.

UPDATE: Check this out from John Corrigan of Coppell (in Friday's letters to the editor in the DMN, which I didn't get around to reading until the next day):
I was stunned when I read the front-page story that said our Legislature has passed a law that limits the number of times an undergraduate can drop a course. Brilliant. Austin never ceases to disappoint and amaze me. However, when we send only mediocre people to Austin, we are going to continue getting only mediocre results.

Education is this state's most important product, and we should leave it to the professionals at each of the institutions to make policies like this.

Isn't it ironic that the author of this bill, Fred Brown, does not have a college degree?
Oh, that's just beautiful. Perhaps Brown should try getting a degree himself--in as short of a time as he's advocating for others--before he goes around creating legislation like this.

I have one more rant left this week, but it's not about education...or is it? Tune in tomorrow...