Saturday, May 31, 2008

Another Trip to See "Back East"...and We're Back East Too

COLCHESTER, VERMONT (just a shade northeast of Burlington)--After a dearth of Joshua Redman performances in my neck of the woods in recent years, it was a real treat to hear him in his Back East trio format for the second time in a little over eight months. Last time, it was a free outdoor concert in Ft. Worth with Reuben Rogers on bass and Gregory Hutchinson on drums (the former played on the record, the latter did not). Tonight, at the Flynn Center in Burlington, it was Hutchinson again, and Larry Grenadier on bass (who played on a few tracks on the CD), and having just one different member made it a completely different show in many ways.

If you read the review of the previous concert, you'll note that it started off with the first three tunes on the CD, in order: "Surrey With the Fringe On Top," "East of the Sun (and West of the Moon)" and "Zarafah" (the latter dedicated to Redman's mother, whom he noted was having a birthday today; he was happy that she was on California time so that he could call her after the gig). Tonight's show started off exactly the same way, but it wasn't at all like the Ft. Worth show; by that, I don't just mean that the solos were different (of course), but that the tunes were reinvented in many ways. "Surrey" had a completely different coda on it, and it was punctuated in many sections by stop-time that was initiated by some of Redman's trademark leg kicks. "East of the Sun" and "Zarafah" were introduced by long Redman solo passages on tenor and soprano respectively. The presence of Grenadier, who's rapidly becoming one of my favorite modern bassists, added a whole new dimension to the music.

From there, the show veered off in new directions, reaching into Redman's back catalogue for "Soul Dance" (all the way back from 1993's Wish), followed by a return trip to the new CD with "Indonesia." A fine treatment of the ballad "Angel Eyes" would follow (one of the best examples of Redman's jaw-dropping altissimo register was heard on this tune, the highlight of which took place when he took the second "A" section of the head up an octave, pulling it off with precision and sensitivity), and another blast from the past with "Herbs and Roots," a most unusual treatment of C-minor blues. After a wild ovation by a very enthusiastic crowd, the trio returned for the stage for "Hide and Seek," the same encore that was done at the Ft. Worth show. All in all, it was a great start to our week-and-then-some at the Burlington Discover Jazz Festival.

A quick read of the Ft. Worth post will tell that I loved that show...but this one was better. I'd even go out on a limb and say that this was the best Joshua Redman performance I've ever seen (out of seven of them, if I'm counting right). So what was different this time? Sure, artists (especially the greats) continue to grow for the duration of their careers...but tonight far outshined the gig in Ft. Worth. Without a doubt, the acoustics of the Flynn Center (a beautifully-renovated 1930's-era theatre) are better than a big outdoor park (and even in the very back row, our seats were closer in than last time), and we could watch the group interact more closely. Certainly, the presence of Grenadier added an element of excitement, and he seems to thrive in a trio format (think Fly, Brad Mehldau, etc.). And the raucous crowd--who treated the group like rock stars--added to the energy of the night (even if a few of them in our section went a little overboard; I'm talking to you, Loud Young Couple and Weird Dancing Guy).

So rather than trying to over-analyze things, I'll just bask in the glow of a great show and remember that we're just getting started. Paquito D'Rivera is tomorrow night, and that show will be the subject of my next post.

Happy landings: It was a good travel day today; we landed pretty much on time despite a delay in leaving our layover at O'Hare (evidently, eight mysterious bags didn't make it onto the plane until the last minute), and we managed to get through the usual minutiae (baggage claim, rental cars, getting downtown, parking) and arrive at the Flynn Center just in time for the start of Redman's set (yay for an opening act beforehand). A bit of intermittent rain didn't cause too many problems (and brought the temperature down to the 60's), and Church Street was hopping again as we made our way to a post-concert dinner at a favorite local haunt of mine, Ken's Pizza. We're staying in a different hotel this year, a bit north of town, and everything seems nice so far.

We've only been here a few hours, and I already remember why I love Burlington so much. It's going to be a great week...

Another voice: Here's a review of the concert by Burlington Free Press reporter Paul Kaza, who's blogging the entire festival here.

Travel Advisory

I'm headed out to Burlington, Vermont for the next ten days. I'll be attending various concerts at the Burlington Discover Jazz Festival (previous times have been chronicled here in June of '03 and '05; click the links under Archives to find the posts) and doing some of the usual tourist-y stuff. I'll be blogging regularly, so The Musings will be a combination of travelogues and concert reviews for a little while.

WIth any luck, we'll land on time to see the Joshua Redman Trio tonight; if so, that'll be my first report.

Blowing out the candles: Happy birthday to Jonathan. We usually tend to get each other Chipotle burritos for our birthdays (which are eleven days apart), but his will have to wait until around mine, and then there can be another one. But two burritos are always better than one (sometimes, even at once).

The Class of '08

I realized at the beginning of the year that not only did I have very few seniors (four, to be exact), but they were all from the same school; that's never happened before in my entire teaching career. Who knows why more saxophones from the Class of '08 didn't continue on with band (or at least with private instruction), but I'm happy to have been able to work with these four for the duration of high school (a couple of them even longer than that).

So here's a shout-out to Philip, John, Lauren and Shelbie. Even though none of you are going into music as a course of study, I hope you'll keep it in your hearts (and I'm really happy that at least two of you have decided to play in college). One of the things that I've found out from teaching the night group at my own college (which features a lot of non-traditional students) is that music is something you can always take with you, and you can always come back, even after a long layoff.

Best of luck to you all in the future; it's been a pleasure.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Happy Graduation! (If They Let You Go Through the Ceremony, That Is)

As I said earlier, the schools in my district are graduating this week, so I collected a bunch of graduation-related stores, from the sublime to the ridiculous:
  • A Nashville high school senior wasn't allowed to walk with his class because he rode his horse to school on his last day of classes, and the principal took offense.

  • In both Gatesville (near Waco) and Bloomer, Wisconsin, newly-minted Marines have not been allowed to wear their uniforms to graduation.

    A nice rant on the latter story can be found here. An excerpt:
    Here's the bottom line. This young man has already moved beyond Bloomer High School - he's a Marine. In other words, he's put childish things behind him and has moved to the next phase of his life. That phase involves wearing a uniform.

    I can't seriously imagine that allowing Private Lingen to accept his diploma while wearing his dress blues would create a disruption or detract from the nature of the event. To the contrary, I think it would be inspirational.

  • A Grapevine senior who has the highest GPA in the history of her school was not named the valedictorian of her class. How does that work? She's graduating a year early, and the rules specifically call for the valedictorian to be the person with the highest GPA over four years. The rule was meant to discourage late-transferring students to knock longtimers out of their slots, but this is a case of a "one size fits all" rule that, well, doesn't fit. (And it's not just for pride here; attaining the rank of valedictorian yields a one-year college scholarship from the state.)

  • Graduates go through a variety of emotions on their special day, but few can match those at Fort Campbell High School in Kentucky; it's located on a military base, and nearly every student has a parent who has been deployed overseas during their time in school.

  • Finally, on a happier note: A Michigan senior has had perfect attendance all the way since kindergarten, and her father is rewarding her with a new car, just as he'd promised all those years ago.
As I said earlier, I'll salute my own upcoming graduates in the morning.

Ahh, Sweet Freedom

The end of my school year took place a little over an hour ago. (This is the public school portion, mind you; the college has been on break for several weeks now.) Even though I'm hopping on a plane tomorrow for a ten-day trip--and come back very late the night before summer teaching begins--it'll be good to have some relaxation.

One of the things I've noticed about this week is that, to a person, everyone has been really out of it. Students, teachers everyone. Maybe it happens like this at the end of the year every year, but it seems more pronounced this time. It could be the fault of any number of things, but I for one blame the later school start that was forced on every Texas school district by the Legislature. I've griped about this before, but now we're starting to see the final results of this process. For one thing, having all the schools start at the same time means they all have to stop at the same time, which is causing gridlock at the various graduation venues in the area. I can't find a link for the story, but I heard on the radio the other day that the backlog is so bad, some schools have had to delay their graduation ceremonies until as late as June 14! Not only is that really, really late, but it's keeping some people from starting summer college courses that begin before that date.

But the biggest thing I've noticed this week is that everyone's brain seems to be on summer mode already. If we really are stuck with the late start/late finish in the public schools for the foreseeable future, we're going to have to collectively reprogram ourselves as a society to accept the fact that there's going to be over a week left of school after Memorial Day. This year? It didn't work so well.

I'll have a roundup of weird, controversial and/or touching graduation stories a little later today, and a shout-out to my actual graduates tomorrow before I go out of town.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Happy Graduation; Now Go Find a Summer Job...If You Can

Graduation ceremonies for the schools where I teach begin tonight (though I don't have any seniors at tonight's school; more on that in a few days). And quite a few of these newly-minted grads will be looking for summer jobs, if they haven't done so already. Unfortunately, the job market for teens is the worst that it's been in decades:
The summer job market is shaping up as the weakest in more than half a century for teenagers, according to labor economists, government data and employers.

That jeopardizes what many experts consider a crucial beginning stage of working life, one that gives young people experience, confidence and pocket money.

[...]Little more than one-third of the 16- to 19-year-olds in the United States are likely to be employed this summer, the smallest share since the government began tracking teenage work 60 years ago, according to a paper published by the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston.

[...]As older people stay in the workforce longer and as experienced workers lose jobs at factories and offices, settling for lower-paying work in restaurants and retail, some teenagers are being squeezed out.
From my informal survey of students, this appears to be the case; those who already have jobs (or are returning to seasonal work, such as lifeguarding, from previous summers) are doing OK, but the ones who are looking for a job from scratch aren't doing very well.

One paragraph in the story puzzled me:
But some economists contend that the drop is largely a favorable trend, reflecting a rising percentage of teenagers completing high school and going on to college. In wealthier households, many have come to see summer work as a waste of time that could be spent gaining an edge in the competition for entry to elite colleges.
Umm...with gas at $3.75 a gallon out here, I don't know of too many kids whose households are wealthy enough for them to not have to work at the moment. And those who are trying to get into "elite" colleges are such a small minority that they should barely rate a mention in this story. By and large, Joe College needs a job nowadays.

But let's talk about one of the main reasons that teens can't find jobs anymore:
At the lower end of the market, adult Mexican immigrants, in particular, pose competition for jobs traditionally filled by younger Americans, like those at fast food chains.
As I've said before, I grow weary of those people who say that illegals "do the jobs that Americans refuse to do" when there is an entire class of people--students--who would probably be very happy to have those jobs right about now.

And it would be a good thing if they did. Allow me a geezer moment here--an excerpt from the earlier post, to be precise--while I explain why I think that every young person needs to hold at least one really crappy job in his or her life:
My first job was at McDonald's, and it was a really crappy job. But it was also a real eye-opener for me, because I got to interact with the managers: People who were way too grey and way too fat for their age; who had a few heart attacks before age 40 and generally seemed to hate their everyday existence; people for whom fast food was their life. I saw these people and thought to myself, "I will not grow up to be like these people," and indeed, I kept my nose to the grindstone and made something of myself. I feel bad that many of today's youth have lost out on this opportunity, as well as the opportunity to simply have a job during high school or college.
I'm not sure if there's a complete solution to this problem; after all, the teens are also competing with downsized older adults for those lower-end jobs now. But I still say we need to be looking after American citizens first; the poor from other countries can have our spare jobs once everyone from here who needs a job, has one.

Best of luck to the young people in my sphere who are looking for work at the moment.

Kids say the darnedest things: I haven't had a post in this vein for a while, but I had a funny exchange with a sixth-grader this morning. She was getting ready for a concert tonight, and one of the songs they were playing was the Beach Boys' "Barbara Ann." Here's what followed:

KID: We're playing Barbara Ann tonight.
ME: So I see. That's my mom's name, you know.
KID: Barbara Ann?
ME: Yes, but with an E on the end.
KID (looks puzzled, hesitates a second): On the Ann?

I assured her that, yes, it was Anne that had an E on the end, and that my grandparents liked Mom too much to name her "Barbarae."

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Music and the Brain (or, What Does Organ Music Taste Like?)

Instapundit links to a post over at LaShawn Barber's blog that discusses various aspects of music and the brain. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the article is the section on synesthesia, or the aspect of one sense triggering another one in a completely involuntary manner:
At its simplest level, synesthesia means that when a certain sense or part of a sense is activated, another unrelated sense or part of a sense is activated concurrently. For example, when someone hears a sound, he or she immediately sees a color or shape in his or her "mind's eye."
I remember hearing about this syndrome in Psychology of Music class in grad school. I think it came up during a discussion of the guy who sells a perfect pitch course in magazines (to which some of us expressed skepticism). If I recall, the concept in that course had something to do with colors, but it wasn't quite the same thing as people who actually see colors when a certain note is sounded. I remember us joking at the time, "I see purple; it must be an F-sharp!" Well, it turns out that I wasn't too far off the mark. From commenter Jim Ward at Barber's blog:
One of the basic reasons for my success as a Luthier is the fact that I visualize timbre in an instrument in colors. Tap tuning a soundboard to a Dflat pitch, for instance produces a dark blue orientation in my visual field.
Who knew? And here's one more, from commenter Gregg the Obscure:
Have had synesthesia as long as I can remember - the main attribute is that some (not all) musical sounds have associated smells and, occasionally, tastes. This happens more with either pipe organ or orchestral music than with other instruments.
I wonder--and I'm not being totally facetious here--if any synthetes among my fellow saxophonists (who, by and large, prefer sharps to flats by a large margin) would find a G-flat more distasteful than an F-sharp...

Commenter Hucbald gets to the heart of what my class discussed that one time:
Being a musician/composer/guitarist for over thirty years, I’ve not only read about synesthesia and absolute pitch, but I’ve encountered several individuals who have these abilities. The most interesting cases, to me, are the rare people who see specific colors related to every note of the dodecaphonic (twelve-tone/chromatic) system. Astonishingly, they tend to agree on which notes make them see which colors.
And this is even more fascinating to me:
Though I don’t have either of those abilities, I have what I have found to be similar traits to other composers whose music I really like: A terribly low score in numerical ability - below the fiftieth percentile - but top percentile scores in all of the reasoning categories.

[...]Not surprisingly, I guess, the only math course I ever got an “A” in was geometry: I could visualize that internally because it involved manipulating shapes and objects.
Wow. My math experience was largely the same. (And I'll mostly avoid the obvious opening left by Hucbald about being a musician and a guitarist. Heh.)

Read the whole thing (including the great comments section), if you're interested in the subject; me, I find it fascinating. I should note that Barber's post was prompted by the reading of a book entitled Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks, which is mostly about music's effect on people with brain disorders, but it also devotes a section to synesthesia. Since I'm three days away from summer (we operate on the academic calendar over here), I'll have to add that book to my to-read list (and I just added it to my Amazon Wish List; hey, it's less than two weeks until mah birfday). Of course, I also have to finally read The Brick of Narnia, which I received several Christmases ago.

Incidentally, Instapundit himself, Glenn Reynolds, says he's a synthete: "I see sounds as visual analogs with shape, color, and texture. Based on my own conversations, this is quite common among people who do sound engineering, and probably helpful." Hmm; I'll have to ask the sound guys at school if they think like that.

UPDATE: I just chimed in over at Barber's comment section, citing an oft-told tale:
I have what one might call garden-variety perfect pitch; I can't tell you how many cents sharp or flat you are, but I can tell you what note you played and reproduce it (range willing) on demand. It comes in very handy in things like transcribing jazz solos, and it made Aural Skills (ear-training) class a breeze in college.

The one time that it wasn't really cool was when I found myself at college parties where both alcohol and a piano were present. Some of my friends used to like to turn my pitch skills into a parlor game of sorts, sitting down to the piano and making some sort of hideous tone cluster, and then saying, "Hey, Kev, what notes are these?" I would usually just smirk and reply, "All of them!"
As I said, read the whole thing; it's one of the best things I've read on the Web in a while (and a nice respite from all politics, all the time.)

Kitten on the keys: While we're on the subject of music, enjoy a lolcat from a few days ago with a new twist on Beethoven.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The BIg Apple Meets Little D

I was quite surprised over the weekend when a friend emailed me a New York Times profile of Denton, of all things. Sure, it has a ridiculously cheesy headline ("An Indie Scene That Comes With a Texas Twang in Denton"), but it's not a bad little snapshot of the town that houses my alma mater:
WITH its Piggly Wiggly markets and dusty pawnshops, the Texas college town of Denton does not look the part of a Woodstock in waiting. A Romanesque courthouse juts out of the central square, as in that fictional town in “Back to the Future.” And whenever the local college football team plays at Fouts Field, the entire town seems to put on Mean Green T-shirts.

[...]At last count, more than 100 bands were polishing their sound in the city’s dive bars, rooftop spaces and fraternity basements. Even the local record store, a converted opera house called Recycled, has a section devoted to Denton bands. The bin dividers read like a Lollapalooza T-shirt: Lift to Experience, Centro-matic, Jetscreamer, Vortexas, Robert Gomez, Stanton Meadowdale, Mom, Mandarin, and Matthew and the Arrogant Sea, to name just a few.

Not bad for a college town of 110,000, prompting more than a few music industry insiders to call Denton the next Austin.

“There’s this combination of artistic fervor and small town naïveté,” said David Sims, a music columnist for The Dallas Observer. “Artists here don’t know they’re not supposed to be Bob Dylan so when they start a band, they shoot for the moon.”
Even the Fry Street situation merits a mention here:
STILL, unlike Austin, downtown Denton has no liquor stores or a Starbucks, and it sometimes feels more like a suburb of Dallas than a subcultural oasis. It didn’t help things when a developer last year bulldozed much of historic Fry Street, the former epicenter of Denton’s live music scene, to make way for a CVS (a plan since stalled by a permit issue). All that remains today of the Haight-Ashburyesque strip is a mosquito-infested mud pit and a graveyard of frat bars and head shops.

But in a testament to the town’s musical resilience, the night life simply migrated over to the main square. Pick any side street and you’ll find partygoers noshing on tacos, outside a smattering of derelict warehouses that have been transformed into clubs and live music stages.
Read the whole thing. Even Jay Saunders (UNT jazz trumpet instructor, director of the Three O'Clock and one of my jazz camp colleagues) gets a quote in here: “These kids are definitely more educated than your average garage band.” Indeed; if only all garage bands were educated in this manner. (Hat tip: Occasional commenter Super Anonymous JP.)

Maybe they misread the name as eBaby: A German couple is in trouble for listing their 7-month-old son on eBay for the price of one euro. (The couple insists the ad was a joke, but the kid has been taken away by the German equivalent of CPS.)

This guy's old team might as well have listed him on eBay as well: A Canadian minor league baseball player is now on his way to a team here in Texas after his old team traded him for 10 baseball bats.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Take a Moment to Remember

In just about thirty minutes from now, if you're in my time zone, please take a minute to remember those who have given their lives for our nation, as the President has requested:
The president is...calling on Americans to observe a "moment of remembrance" at 3 p.m. local time to honor those who perished fighting for freedom. Heeding the president's request, the moment will be observed by Major League Baseball. Also, Amtrak trains will all sound their horns and buglers will play taps at military cemeteries.
I wanted to make sure and get this post up before 3:00 my time; I'll be back later with more thoughts.

LATER: I wanted to share a few good things I've read today with you: First, a speech by Donald Sensing entitled "For the Fallen," given to a group of Gold Star Mothers in 2005, and second, a reflection on his captivity by Sam Johnson, a former POW who now represents this area in Congress. (Call it full disclosure or simply interesting trivia, but one of Rep. Johnson's granddaughters is a former student of mine.)

As a longtime teacher, I have a few alumni (who are friends now, as well) who are currently in the armed services. Thankfully, none of them are among the fallen, but I still take this opportunity to recognize their service each year at this time. So continued Godspeed to Fletch and Scott and Josh and John; may you stay safe yourselves, while helping to keep the world that way for the rest of us.

One more person to remember today: R.I.P. Thelma Keane, wife and business partner of cartoonist Bil Keane, and inspiration for the "Mommy" character in The Family Circus.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

They'll Make Great Music Together

It's always interesting when a couple of musicians get married, because music will work its way into the ceremony in ways that it probably wouldn't do for mere listeners. A few years ago, I attended a jazz-dominated wedding where a live combo replaced the organ and choir for the ceremony and played at the reception as well. Last night, I attended a wedding of one of my former combo students/occasional bandmates and a vocalist/choir director, and, once again, music ruled the day in a unique way:
  • Once again, no organ was involved. The entire ceremony featured a capella choral music, mostly done in jazz harmony. The performers were a group of students from our collective alma mater (meaning the bride and groom, as well as myself), and a group that was a hodgepodge of the bride's colleagues and former students. The vocals sounded beautiful in the big sanctuary where the wedding was held.

  • In the Oddball Trivia Department, the bride in the '05 wedding linked above was the matron of honor for today's ceremony, and I sat right next to today's wedding couple at the '05 event.

  • At the reception, during the traditional dance between bride and father, the song was something that the bride herself had sung and recorded especially for the occasion. (When recounting this story for someone at lunch today, they were under the misconception that the bride had sung the song live while dancing! Now that would've been a trick...)

  • This was the first time I had ever seen a party DJ armed with just a MacBook, a microphone and a speaker system...but evidently, all the cool kids are doing that now. There's even some software that allows cross-fading. It went off without a hitch, and I'm sure it was a lot easier to carry the equipment around this way.

  • I didn't get to catch the garter this time. The groom gave it a bit of an early release, and it flew under everyone's outstretched hands and under one of the tables, where it was retrieved by a middle-school-aged kid. (This was just as well, I suppose, because the bridal bouquet was caught by a girl who couldn't be much older than four.

  • I have to give out props to the kid (who had to be about 12) who went around asking a lot of the older women to dance with him...and generally succeeding. I wish I'd had that much courage in that area when I was his age. (He may have been the garter-catcher as well.)
All the best goes out to Andrew and his new bride, the blogger-on-hiatus who's now the former Ms. Worley.

And speaking of marriages: Happy 12th anniversary to my sister and brother-in-law, Kristen and Justin. According to this site, the traditional material for the 12th is silk, and some others add linen. (As I was telling a few folks last night, their wedding day in '96 was a very busy day for me too, as I was both a groomsman and the bandleader, but it was an experience I'll never forget.)

All caught up: Despite the relaxed college schedule, I got behind in posting again. Please catch the now-finished posts from the last three days:I'll try to be more on top of things this week.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Some Saturday Saxblogging

One of my favorite blogs for a long time has been Althouse, by a law professor who "sometimes...write(s) about law." Music is occasionally on the plate, but I would have never expected two saxophone-heavy posts in a row. But sure enough, there they were:
  • First, a post that talks about Bill Clinton's sax-playing on the Arsenio Hall Show when he was running for President. I don't really care for his playing, and said so in the comments, but it was interesting to watch the old performances again to reinforce that view. (I wish they'd had a full clip of the "Heartbreak Hotel" part, so I could see how well I'm recalling the three-note solo that I've told everyone about over the years.)

  • The next post up at Althouse is a video of a guy playing a contrabass sax. As I note in the comments, I've been recorded on a bass sax before, but I have yet to play a contra in person. (It's still my plan, money willing, to own the entire saxophone family someday.)

    And I love the title of the post: "His is bigger than Bill's." Heh.
It's not every day that one can find saxblogging on a (mostly) law site, but that's one of the things that draws me to Althouse; it's all over the map, subject-wise. And (for the most part) the commenters are interesting and thoughtful.

Animal stories, part 1: A parrot in Japan, separated from its cage and its owners, was taken by police to a local veterinarian, who eventually got the parrot to recite its name and address to him.

Animal stories, part 2: A donkey in Mexico was recently jailed for assault and battery after it bit and kicked two men.

Animal stories, part 3: Police in South Carolina had a runaway goat surrounded on a highway bridge, but the goat fooled everyone by jumping off the bridge. Despite a 50-foot drop, the goat survived.

Friday, May 23, 2008

A Creative Definition of "Bargain"--Or Does This Writer Have a Point?

This headline definitely jumped out at me from the MSN frontpage as I finished checking my Hotmail: Why $4 gas is a bargain. Say what??? OK, let's hear the guy out:
The next time you have to take out a loan just to fill up your tank, remember this: Four-dollar-per-gallon gasoline is cheap.

There's no doubt that high fuel prices are hurting low-income consumers, and high energy costs are placing a tax on the economy that is slowing investment while sending billions of dollars overseas. It's unsurprising that presidential candidates and members of Congress issue new proposals practically every day for lowering gas prices: Stop filling the Strategic Petroleum Reserve! Suspend the federal gas tax! Open ANWR to oil drilling!

These proposals are delusions, and Americans are living in a fantasyland when it comes to energy and energy prices. Over the past few years, consumers have been inundated with news stories about the soaring price of gasoline. Invariably, these stories include comments from a motorist who is outraged at the evils of a) Saudi Arabia, b) OPEC, c) Big Oil, d) all of the above.
But by almost any measure, gasoline is still cheap. In fact, it has probably been far too cheap for far too long. The recent price increases are only beginning to reflect its real value.

(UPDATE: A Sunday DMN article largely blames investors for the constant uptick in prices.)

When measured on an inflation-adjusted basis, the current price of gasoline is only slightly higher than it was in 1922. According to the Energy Information Administration, in 1922, a gallon of gasoline cost the current-day equivalent of $3.11. Today, according to the EIA, gasoline is selling for about $3.77 per gallon, only about 20% more than 86 years ago.
OK, so maybe the prices didn't rise in proportion to everything else over the past several decades. But that doesn't mean that it doesn't hurt to have it go up so quickly all at once.

So, with the holiday weekend beginning as we speak, let's take a quick survey: Has the high price of gas altered your travel plans? Are you going a shorter distance, or simply staying home? Reply in the comments.

A Smart idea? If you're looking to downsize your vehicle in these high-priced gas days, you might want to know that the Smart Fortwo did extremely well in recent crash tests. I'd still hate to encounter an 18-wheeler in one, but for mostly city driving, it would probably be fine. (And by the way, Kevmobile 2.0 is doing really well with gas, having attained 36 mpg for a tank that was a hybrid of city and highway driving.)

UPDATE: A few days later, while listening to the Clark Howard radio show, the host was talking about the same Smart crash tests, conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). He also noted that there was one small car that the IIHS praised for being built for safety from the ground up. That car? The Honda Fit! The purchase of Kevmobile 2.0 just seems like a better and better idea every day...

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Another School That's "Out of Touch" With Reality

Here we go again: A Minneapolis elementary school is the latest one to ban touching among its students:
Students at a Minneapolis Elementary School are faced with a new rule: No touching.

Armatage Elementary School issued the ban, saying students were being too rough with one another.

Teachers allow the students to touch during music class, but not during recess.

"You don't need to be shoving, pushing and touching. All we're trying to do is alleviate what results in fighting and kids getting hurt," said Armatage Principal Joan Frank.
Shoving and pushing? Sure. But touching, period? No handshakes, no high-fives? Isn't that going a bit overboard?

As you might imagine, the parents whose kids were roughhousing "victims" support the ban, but others think that it goes too far:
"Kids need to be kids--get out energy out by roughhousing," said parents Jessica Henrikson.

Many parents share that concern, saying the policy simply goes too far and will be tough to enforce.

Parents who oppose the plan tell 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS that the school sent an email saying there would be no contact in school. However, the follow-up emails focused only on activities like football and tag.
I'm trying to imagine touchless football and touchless tag. How does that work? (Hat tip: Lileks at

We spoke on this subject most recently back in the fall, when a local school district stopped an eighth-grade girl from holding hands with a friend.

Isn't this going a little far at times? Can't kids just be kids on occasion? Chime away in the comments, as part of this seemingly never-ending discussion.

Another bit of school lunacy: Parents of kids at one North Carolina elementary school are upset over a policy that prohibits students from going to the bathroom alone, supposedly because of an ongoing graffiti problem. They can go in pairs or as an entire class (no, that doesn't hold the potential for trouble at all!), and kids who go at "inappropriate" times have to eat lunch silently at a table by themselves.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The End of a Fun Era in Aviation

It was a big day in the airline industry, as outgoing Southwest Airlines chairman Herb Kelleher chaired his last meeting under that title before stepping down and becoming an "ordinary employee" tomorrow:
This is an obituary for a guy who hasn't died, a retirement story for a person who hasn't retired, a goodbye for someone who isn't going anywhere.

Chairman Herb Kelleher, 77, will chair his 31st and last Southwest Airlines Co. annual meeting Wednesday, ending one of the longest and most colorful tenures for a head of a U.S. airline.

[...]And Mr. Kelleher says he expects to still be coming to work every day in 2013, when he turns 82.

"I would guess so. I enjoy it. I enjoy work. You can refer to me as a drone, a worker bee. I always have enjoyed it," Mr. Kelleher said Friday, adding, "I hope I can still be useful."
Oh, I'm sure they'll put him to good use. He's been pretty useful thus far. Known as the "crazy" chief executive in an industry usually dominated by stuffed shirts, he made Southwest in his own image, and it became famous as the airline that was fun to fly and appeared to be fun to work for as well. This morning on the radio, even some of the union officials were saying nice things about him. (Contrast this, if you will, with what they were saying about American Airlines in front of its own board meeting across town today.)

Flying hasn't become any easier recently, and it's not getting any cheaper either. It's always been refreshing to me to have the "fun" airline so close to home. (And yes, besides the fact that I'll take "fun" over "stuffy corporate" any day of the week, I also very much prefer the ease of Love Field vs. the congestion and expense of DFW.) And a lot of the fun element of Southwest came courtesy of the man that everyone evidently simply calls Herb. (I hope you enjoy those weekends off now, Herb.)

UPDATE: This post was linked at a site called Topix; thanks to whomever is responsible.

Flying the unfriendly skies: In case you missed this last week, a JetBlue passenger is suing the airline because a pilot made him sit on a toilet for three hours so a flight attendant (who thought that the "jump seat" assigned to her was uncomfortable) could have his seat.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Calling 911 in Dallas Might Cost You $911, In Some Cases

The subject of discussion on morning radio today in my neck of the woods concerned a proposal by the City of Dallas to require payment from patients with non-life-threatening injuries before they're loaded into an ambulance:
If you need an ambulance in Dallas, you may soon have to shell out some money up front before the paramedics will take you to the hospital.

Dallas city council members are talking about possibly having people with non life-threatening injuries pay before they're taken to the hospital in an ambulance.

Councilman Mitchell Rasansky proposed the idea because he says it makes sense for the city's bottom line. He says "Why should Dallas pay out several million dollars a year when the operator can simply ask if they have a credit card".

Again, this would apply only to those with non life-threatening injuries who obviously would be able to hand over their credit card.
This idea is still in the discussion phase at the Dallas City Council, but it seems to open up all kinds of worms: What if the person can't afford the ambulance (the bills have been known to be as high as $1000) but has no other way to the hospital? Should a decision like this really be made just to save the taxpayers money? Do we want our EMT's doubling as cashiers?

One caller this morning (who I believe used to work for an ambulance dispatch service) pretty much summed it up for me: All it would take is one person whose injuries didn't appear life-threatening to not get taken to the hospital and then die, and the lawsuit that would ensue would cost the city a lot more than paying for several hundred potentially "unnecessary" ambulance rides.

Now, if someone is abusing the system, there should be things in place to deal with that person. But doesn't this proposal seem a little harsh? Feel free to chime in using the comments.

This guy would qualify for the free ambulance ride, even though he could easily afford it on his own: I waited to post this until it was fairly clear that his injuries were not life-threatening, but I found it ironic that attorney Brian Loncar--best known for his commercials appealing to people who have been hurt in a car accident (especially one caused by the negligence of others)--was injured in a wreck over the weekend when he evidently failed to yield to a fire truck at an intersection.

This guy would definitely qualify for a free ambulance ride: It could be said that a Utah photographer got a little too involved with his work; he was taking pictures at the state high school track meet in Provo when he was speared in the leg by an errant javelin. (The kid who threw the javelin picked up another one and subsequently won the state title in his classification.)

Monday, May 19, 2008

The Bush Is Coming! The Bush Is Coming!

I haven't been checking my city council member's blog lately, or I would have known that the final barriers to the Eastern Extension of the President George Bush Turnpike have been removed, and the dirt is about to start flying in this area (cool map at the link). Bids for the main section in Rowlett are scheduled to be awarded in just a few days, and the end date for the whole project has been moved up a bit, to late 2011.

Just as the opening of the Bush thus far has transformed this area (I shudder to think of the traffic that we have now having to stop at stoplights along the service road), its continuation to I-30 will do even more, as it will bring people in from all directions. (And yes, it will make the drive to some of my southern schools a lot easier as well.) Let's get the dirt flying!

Chapter Day: Today is the 68th anniversary of the founding of the Gamma Theta Chapter of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, a great brotherhood of musicians. Among our alums are jazz guitarist Herb Ellis, pianist/vocalist Bob Dorough (of "Schoolhouse Rock" fame), the late classical composer Fisher Tull, the late jazz composer Frank Mantooth, and the recently-departed Jimmy Giuffre. I'm headed up in a few hours to celebrate with whomever happens to be in town tonight.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

A Weekend Cornucopia

A collection of oddities from hither and yon:Tomorrow: A special holiday for my brothers and me.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

A Great American Moment

What I just saw on TV was something incredibly cool; I wish I could have been there in person for it.

The Rangers and Astros are about to meet at The Ballpark. But the opening festivities were like no other: The National Anthem was played by an Army brass ensemble (from the 4th Infrantry Division, operating out of Fort Hood here in Texas), beamed live via satellite from Iraq. (The Division's Major General Jeffery Hammond addressed the fans right before the Anthem.) And following that was a truly special moment: Another soldier stationed in Iraq, Bobby Ochoa, sent out live birthday greetings to his two sons, who then (after announcer extraordinaire Chuck Morgan got the crowd to sing "Happy Birthday" to them), went to the pitcher's mound (accompanied by team president Nolan Ryan and owner Tom Hicks) and threw out the ceremonial first pitches. It was quite a moment to behold.

I've said before that baseball embodies many of the best qualities of America, and what just happened at The Ballpark reinforced that belief. If video of this ceremony goes up on the Net, I'll be sure to post a link.

(There are more special things going on during the Lone Star Series; see a schedule, and read more about tonight's ceremonies, here.)

UPDATE: A picture of Maj. Gen. Hammond addressing the crowd can be found here.

YET ANOTHER UPDATE: I still can't find any footage of yesterday's ceremony, but I was rather taken aback when a blog called the Newburg Report (which claims to "cover the Texas Rangers from top to bottom") slammed the ceremony, calling it "Ranger Jingoist Fest '08." Announcer Chuck Morgan, who's being honored today (Sunday) for doing 2,000 straight games or something like that, chimes in during the rash of comments that follow.

Friday, May 16, 2008

If This Is True, Someone Should Give This Idea the Red Light

I've mentioned my opposition to red-light cameras in many, many posts here (click the link so named at the bottom to see them all), and, indeed, some areas (including Dallas) have started to cut back on them, often because they weren't generating revenue (yeah, we knew it was never really about safety, guys).

My suburb of Garland was one of the first areas to start using them, and one of the first cameras to go in is located very close to my neighborhood. Only the northbound direction had a camera in place, and it was announced by a warning sign a few yards ahead of the intersection. So I was very surprised this morning, while driving down that road, to see a warning sign on the southbound side as well. But when I passed the intersection, I was surprised twice: First, because there wasn't a camera to go with the southbound warning sign; and second, because the northbound camera appeared to be gone as well!

I've read about the idea of using dummy cameras to trick people into thinking that there were cameras around so that they would alter their driving behaviors accordingly; is this what's going on here? I could see leaving up the sign on the northbound side, because many people wouldn't even notice that the camera was gone. But why trick people on the side that never had a camera in the first place? Won't everyone end up doing what I did--look to see where the camera is, only to discover that it's not there?

I'll admit that I'm a one-issue guy on this one. As someone who experienced a rear-end collision several years ago (with an uninsured driver to boot), it's always been my concern that the use of these cameras would lead to more such collisions, and statistics seem to bear this out. I hate that we're sometimes forced to make a choice between what's safe and what's legal. But what I saw this morning just confuses me...

Incidentally, here's a roundupof stories about states cutting back or pulling the plug entirely on the cameras, from Knoxville, Tennessee blogger Michael Silence, (who calls them "revenue-light" cameras. (Hat tip: Instapundit.)

UPDATE: The traffic cameras in Mount Carmel, TN are catching police officers in the act of running red lights themselves. Even worse, it appears that the state Highway Patrol (a.k.a. Tennessee taxpayers) will be paying the fines. (Also from Silence, again via Instapundit.)

Policing run amok: In the Collin County town of Melissa, a guy was arrested for signaling without turning. That's right--not ticketed, but arrested. And strip-searched, and forced to share a cell with druggies for three hours. Sure, I've often wished that people would get more tickets for this offense, but being thrown in jail? That's way over the top.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Another Teacher Who Made a Difference

At the beginning of this school year, humorist Dave Barry wrote a moving tribute to a beloved former teacher who had just passed away; it was chronicled here in this blog.

And now, nearing the end of the school year, my other favorite blogging humorist, James Lileks, fondly remembers a teacher of his own who recently passed on. (If the previous link doesn't work--because his column, The Bleat is on a few days' vacation--try this.) Here's an excerpt:
To the callow student who drew her for English, she must have seemed like a bemused bird of prey; to those of us who had her for a coach, she was the ultimate authority on the superficial aspects of our craft. How to stand. How to walk. How to gesture. She was also the one who tore apart our arguments and built them back up, taught us to construct a thesis, rebut on the fly and think on our feet, act like junior Barrymores, deliver a humorous speech or a tearjerking monologue, then head over to the Extemporaneous Speaking round and whip a defense of Israel or the 55-MPH speed limit out of our own heads in 15 minutes. She had a sense of sarcasm sharp enough to shave granite in micrometer-thin slices. When you got one of her exfoliating critiques you felt it down to the bone, and when she reacted to your humorous speech with her dry smoker’s cackle – the tenth time she’d heard it! – you were on top of the world. She treated us all like grown-ups who’d unaccountably ended up in high school, but she wasn't our peer and she wasn't our pal; if we doubted her authority, it took one arched eyebrow to bat us back into place. She expected victory and she got it. She loved us and we loved her. She was the most important teacher of my life.
As I said in September, in response to the Barry column, most of us in education consider "you made a difference" to be the greatest compliment we can be given; that's why we do what we do. (Again, it's not for the money. Heh.)

Teacher Appreciation Week may have been last week, but we can certainly accept a belated (and Bleated) tribute of this nature. And if you missed last week, be sure and let a beloved former teacher know how much they mean to you; it'll make their day/week/year.

Students in the news, part 1: A UNT freshman was elected to the Bedford City Council by a landslide. (The final days of his political campaign coincided with his final exams last week, and both went well.)

Students in the news, part 2: And up north, a University of Oklahoma freshman was elected mayor of Muskogee this week.

Students in the news, part 3: Give it up for Moshe Kai Cavalin, 10-year-old college sophomore who's tutoring his older peers.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Ladies and Gentlemen, Maestro Zubin Metal

I had a gig tonight, and it went well...but it wasn't nearly as interesting as this one: The Detroit Symphony was conducted by a robot on one of its numbers tonight:
The lights dimmed, the sold-out hall grew hushed and out walked the conductor - shiny, white, 4 feet 3 inches tall.

ASIMO, a robot designed by Honda Motor Co. (HMC), met its latest challenge Tuesday evening: Conducting the Detroit Symphony in a performance of "The Impossible Dream" from "Man of La Mancha."

"Hello, everyone," ASIMO said to the audience in a childlike voice, then waved to the orchestra.

As it conducted, it perfectly mimicked the actions of a conductor, nodding its head at various sections and gesturing with one or both hands. ASIMO took a final bow to enthusiastic shouts from the audience.

"It is absolutely thrilling to perform with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. This is a magnificent concert hall," ASIMO said.
ASIMO, which stands for Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility, was programmed in accordance with the motions of the orchestra's educational director, who conducted a dummy performance done by a pianist a while back. The musicians thought him to be a bit stiff, but more human-like than they would have expected.

Well, there was this, though...
During the first rehearsal, the orchestra lost its place when ASIMO began to slow the tempo, something a human conductor would have sensed and corrected, said bassist Larry Hutchinson.
Oops. (And speaking of "oops," do you think anyone in Detroit was miffed that it was a Honda robot doing the conducting? Feel free to insert your obligatory joke about the GM robot breaking down if you so desire.)

And if you missed it a few years ago, check out the robot "playing" John Coltrane's "Giant Steps" solo on tenor sax. (Since that video was made, it's also been done faster, with a cheesy MIDI accompaniment to boot.)

A lesser use of technology: A guy in New York state took his riding lawnmower out for a 1 a.m. drunken joyride recently. (At least he had the presence of mind to wear a tuxedo while doing so. Really.)

Monday, May 12, 2008

Two Sides To Every Story

Well, this one has two sides, anyway. At first, it looked pretty cut-and-dried: Southwest Airlines called the cops on a passenger who refused to stop talking on his cell phone during a flight:
Dallas police met a Southwest Airlines plane at Dallas Love Field on Monday after flight staff reported that a passenger refused to stop using his mobile phone during the flight.

Joe David Jones, 50, was cited for disorderly conduct, Dallas police said.

The incident occurred during a Southwest flight from Austin to Dallas. “After multiple requests, the flight attendants were not successful in getting the passenger to get off the phone,” said Southwest spokeswoman Brandy King.

According to a Dallas police report, flight attendants had asked Mr. Jones to turn off his cell phone and he responded with, "Kiss my ---." When asked again, he stated, "Kiss my ---. Not happening," the report said.
This was the story as it was known when I read it this afternoon. But it was updated later in the afternoon, and, sure enough, there was more to the story than was originally reported:
Joe David Jones, 50, was on the phone with medical professionals where his father was being treated for a heart condition, police said.

Officials said Jones' father's heart had stopped and physicians needed direction on what course of action to take
Wow. That makes it a little different.

Granted, he shouldn't have used abusive language with the flight attendants...but who among us could say that they wouldn't do the same thing if they were in Jones' shoes?

And of course, there's this whole issue:
The Federal Aviation Administration bars use of mobile phones when planes are flying due to concerns about interference with the navigation system.
I wonder if that's really true, or is the FAA just being very, very cautious. I wouldn't want something horrible to happen to a family member while I was in the air, but I wouldn't want to possibly bring down an entire plane in the process of helping said family member. Talk about an uncomfortable position to be in...

I realize that, before long, this question will be moot; there are already phones (on more expensive airlines) that can take in-flight calls, and there's been work to make such calls more widely available. And while I really hope that every single person on the plane is never allowed to talk on the phone for the duration of a flight, I hope that there's some sort of provision in place for emergencies such as the one experienced by Jones today.

What would you do if you were in such a position?

UPDATE: One more thought, from a follow-up to the original story. Note this quote:
Beth Harbin, a Southwest spokeswoman, said that although the carrier sympathizes with Mr. Jones' situation, "it was a safety regulation that we're required to enforce, and we're simply not in a position to make exceptions."
Or were they? You've probably read before of my disgust with zero-tolerance policies; they allow people in authority to hide behind rules instead of making (possibly controversial) decisions. Even worse, it keeps people from having to think, and it makes it appear as if the rules are more important than the people themselves. (And by the way, callers to Ernie and Jay today--even those claiming to be pilots--were divided on whether or not a cellphone could actually bring down a plane.)

A happier father-son moment: A Utah man and his son graduated from an Ohio law school together this past weekend, and they may open a practice together back home.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

A Tribute to Moms

A nice tribute to moms, at Protein Wisdom (hat tip: Instapundit). Also some very nice words from (nearly) all the commenters.

Even before I read the comments, I realized how fortunate I am to have my parents still around; Mother's Day isn't always a happy day for everyone, after all. Being able to make it past my turbulent teens and twenties and just enjoy our occasional visits is indeed a privilege. Sure, they still dispense wisdom, but everything's on a totally different level now. I like it.

Mom and Dad may be 300 miles away, but Mom and I had a nice conversation this afternoon. It had been a busy weekend, and they were enjoying their usual Clock Tower time on the deck; the weather in Houston was nice enough to do that today, just as it was here.

So Happy Mother's Day to all the moms, grandmas and moms-to-be out there. Feel free to include your own memories of Mom in the comments.

UPDATE: One more nice tribute to a Mom, from Rachel Lucas.

One more tribute: A few weeks ago, I mentioned the passing of Jimmy Giuffre, the "Four Brothers" composer-turned-free jazz pioneer who was also a founding member of my fraternity chapter. Check out another fine tribute by Michael E. Young, from the GuideLive section of yesterday's DMN.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Toughest Job On Graduation Day

Our semester at the college is done now (well, maybe not for those who have Saturday classes, but I've never fallen under that category). Once I tabulate and submit my grades in a few hours, my semester will be completed.

A lot of other colleges and universities finished this week, which means that there are a lot of graduations going on today. The graduates have worked hard for four (five? six?) years to attain their degree, so today is a day of relaxation and celebration; the hardest thing they'll probably have to do is make it across the stage without tripping or losing their hats. But who has the most difficult job on graduation day? The person or persons charged with reading out the names of the graduates.

On the surface, you might think this would be a sweet gig; it takes place once or twice a year, your dulcet tones get to echo throughout the coliseum or stadium, and it's over in a few hours. But the growing number of international students at U.S. colleges has turned pronunciation of their names into a challenge:
A week from Saturday, 453 new graduates will cross the commencement stage on the lawn of Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. Among them: Nokuthula Sikhethiwe Kitikiti, Udochukwu Chinyere Obodo, and Baitnairamdal Otgonshar.

Jayne Niemi will be ready.

No-oo-TOOL-a SEE-kay-tee-way Ki-tee-ki-tee. Oo-DO-chu-koo CHIN-yea-ray Oh-boe-doe. Bat-NAI-ram-dal OT-gone-shar.

Niemi's job is to read out the graduates' names without mangling them.

"People invest a lot of time and money and commitment to be here at Macalester and get this education, and they get one day of celebration in the end," says Niemi, a college registrar who will spend several days studying pronunciation cards submitted by students. "Their families are here from all over the world. I don't want to embarrass them or the college."

Niemi is part of a cadre of deans, professors and even outsourced professional public speakers that is gearing up to perform one of academia's quirkier, and tougher, jobs — getting every name right, so nobody leaves campus feeling angry or ungenerous toward his or her alma mater.
As someone who's not exactly a "Jim Smith," I can totally relate to the frustration that comes when someone mispronounces your name; even my own teachers rarely got it right the first time until I was in college. But I can imagine that the frustration is compounded for someone who's come here from a long way off, and whose family may well have made the same long trip to join them in the celebration.

Sometimes, these readers need all the help they can get; with over 600,000 international students in school here in the U.S., there's quite a variety of languages represented out there:
Pity James deJongh (pronounced dee-YUNG), a commencement reader at the fantastically diverse City College of New York. Among the names on his list this year: Agnieszka Wojcik-koba, Georges Ndabashimiye and Johana P. Ponikiewski. (That's VOY-chik-KO-ba, En-da-bashi-MEE-yeh, and Pon-yeh-CUE-ski.)
I was very impressed by the clever methods that some schools use to guarantee that the reader gets it right:
Marist College has deans record the names ahead of time, then uses sophisticated computer software to edit and broadcast them in sync with the students.

Technology has been a godsend for Gary Kates, a dean at Pomona College in California who was so nervous when he began reading names in 2001 that his childhood stutter occasionally returned. Kates used to pass a tape recorder around at rehearsal, then had just one night to practice. Now Pomona has students pronounce their names on MP3 files, and Kates has several weeks to listen to them, which has lessened his anxiety.

[...]At Wellesley College, students are asked to speak their names into tape recorders at rehearsal a few days before the ceremony. An associate dean, Joanne Berger-Sweeney, one of four name-readers at commencement, sometimes follows up with students by phone. If they don't answer or call back, just listening to their voice mail message can help.
But sometimes, even the best-prepared readers will have a name that simply stumps them:
[T]he greatest anxiety often comes from Asian and African names, particularly in tongues such as Xhosa, a South African tribal language that uses a clicking sound most Westerners can't replicate.

"I was practicing in the shower and I was practicing in the car," Macalester's Niemi says, recalling one student with such a name. But on the big day she froze up. She just couldn't summon the click.

"I just told him, `Please come up here and say it yourself, so people can know how beautiful it is,'" she says.

The audience gave a big cheer.
As do I. Good luck, folks, with whatever names are thrown your way. And congratulations to the college graduates of today and the next few weeks.

Speaking of names; The above story reminded me of a class I took in undergrad school, where we had a Chinese student among our classmates. I'll change the name for privacy's sake, but you'll still get the idea: On the roll, she was listed as "Ching-Li Wu." It took the instructor several tries to figure out which was her first name and which was her last. Was Wu her first name? Ching? Finally, after about five minutes of back-and-forth, he established that Ching-Li was her first name and Wu was her last name. "Is that correct?" he asked her. "Yes," she replied..."but you may call me Cindy."

Sports feat of the week: A blind bowler rolled a perfect 300 game in Iowa last weekend.

Friday, May 09, 2008

End of the Free Ride at Amazon?

I buy a lot of music online these days; in fact, it's rare for me to make any purchases from a brick-and-mortar music retailer at all anymore, unless it's a used store like Recycled or CD Source (the only exception being when I have a Barnes and Noble coupon that takes even more off the price than my membership does). When I'm ordering online, it's common for Amazon and B&N to have the same price on certain CD's; if that's the case, Amazon wins for me, because they don't charge state sales tax. But that might soon be changing:
Texans who shop to avoid paying sales taxes may not have that luxury for long.

The Texas Comptroller's Office is investigating whether the Internet retail behemoth, with sales last year of $14.8 billion, owes Texas possibly millions of dollars in uncollected sales taxes on purchases made by its customers in the state.

Seattle-based has been operating a distribution center in Irving since 2006, giving it a "physical presence" in Texas, a longstanding litmus test for when sales taxes must be collected by an online or mail-order company.

The issue came to light last month after Inc. sued the state of New York over whether it should begin charging customers state sales taxes, citing the federal law it appears to be breaking in Texas.

[...]For e-commerce, Texas and most states follow federal law that allows states to impose sales tax obligations on out-of-state retailers with a "physical presence" in their state. "Physical presence" is defined as anything from a store, warehouse or distribution center to a sales agent or delivery truck, according to the Texas Comptroller.

The state's tax-collecting agency didn't know was operating a facility here until this week when The Dallas Morning News called to ask why the online powerhouse wasn't charging Texas customers sales taxes, said Robin Corrigan, the comptroller's team leader for sales tax policy.

"We will definitely send out a team to investigate," Ms. Corrigan said. She is the state's representative to the Streamlined Sales Tax Governing Board, a national group that's sought uniform standards for e-commerce and mail-order companies since 2000.
That was yesterday's story, for which Amazon was unavailable for comment. But today, the online giant fired back: Inc. said Friday it believes it's in compliance with state laws after the Texas Comptroller's Office said this week it is investigating whether the Internet retailer should charge sales tax to Texas customers.

A spokeswoman for the Seattle-based chain said that its distribution center in Irving is operated by a subsidiary called Inc. and not by Inc.

Under Texas law, the subsidiary isn't required to collect sales taxes, said spokeswoman Patty Smith.

"We continue to interact with and cooperate with local and state Texas tax officials at many levels," she said. "The state of Texas is fully aware of's subsidiaries' Texas operations, and we remain in compliance with all Texas laws governing sales tax collection."
So this will probably go back and forth for a while, and who knows how it will all end. If nothing else, I'm glad that the taxing authorities took it easy on Net-based businesses in the early days of e-commerce, or the whole thing might never have gotten off the ground in the first place. And while I'm no fan of the government finding every possible way to take more money out of our pockets, I can see how the growth of online businesses could make them nervous about lost revenue. Hopefully, this will work out well for everyone.

I can has award? K thx bye: Congrats to I Can Has Cheezburger?, probably the top lolcat site on the Internet, for winning two categories (yes, that's right, cat-egories) in the 12th annual Webby Awards.

UPDATE: It turns out that ICHC is growing so much that the site is hiring more people. (It's probably one of the few businesses that not only disregard spelling mistakes--or would that be "misteakz"--on resumes, but they probably encourage it.)

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Rebate or Roadwork?

Coming relatively hot on the heels of the federal economic stimulus, Gov. Rick Perry announced today that Texas has too much money, and the state is pondering whether or not to give some of it back:
Just as the federal government sends out economic stimulus checks to Americans, Texans may get a 2nd check.

A spokesman for the Governor says estimates of the budget surplus in Austin have ranged from the comptroller's near 11-billion extra dollars... to the house speaker's 15-billion dollar guesstimate.

[...]Governor Perry's spokesman, Robert Black, says there are several ways some of that could go back to taxpayers. Including reducing property taxes, reducing sales taxes or rebate checks like the federal government is doing now.
A second rebate check? That sounds sweet, at least upon first hearing. But others say that it smacks of political gimmickry; there are certainly plenty of other ways that the state could put its surplus to good use. Here are a few examples:
  • Using the money to help offset the shortfall in road-construction funds (after all, TxDOT is pleading poverty these days, and even this toll-road fan wouldn't mind a few more free roads being built)

  • Pouring more money into higher education so the colleges don't have to increase tuition so much or so often

  • Giving more money to public education for teachers' salary increases

  • Helping families who don't have health insurance
And I'm sure there are many more possibilities. So what do you think? Do any of the ideas above appeal to you, or do you have another one of your own? Or would you just say "show me the money"? Fire away in the comments.

Stupid criminal of the week #1: If you decide to give the cops who have stopped you a fake name to avoid getting nabbed for some unpaid parking tickets, it's a bad idea to give them the name of someone who committed an even more serious offense.

Stupid criminal of the week #2: If you shoplift some candy bars from a convenience store, it's a good idea to get the chocolate off your breath before the cops stop you.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Even I Think This Is Hazy Logic

First of all, let me point out that I'm allergic to cigarette smoke. It does awful things to me. I had the misfortune of being assigned a smoking room (which I had specifically asked not to have) for a couple of nights during TMEA several years ago, and when I got home, I had what could best be described as a "smoker's cough" for weeks after that.

I'm not unsympathetic to the plight of smokers; I realize it's a very hard addiction to kick. But current policy in most indoor places, which causes smokers to have to light up outside in a doorway or porch, is pretty much fine by me. I'm cool with restaurants having a smoking section as long as they have a non-smoking one as well. I understand the attraction of smoking in bars, so I'm sort of a fence-sitter on that one, but, on the other hand, I did have a semi-regular gig at a smoky bar last summer, and if the gig hadn't ended when it did, I might have had to bail anyway, as I was starting to get sick from being there.

But even I don't quite understand a proposed revision to the smoking ordinance in the nearby city of Richardson, which would even prohibit smoking in hookah bars:
On any given night, patrons gather at Main Street's hookah bars, socializing as they send streams of fruity tobacco smoke wafting into the air.

But in the next few months, this taste of Middle Eastern tradition could disappear as Richardson leaders consider a tough new smoking ordinance.

So, too, would people's ability to legally smoke a cigarette while sipping a beer at Main Street Liquid Co., shooting pool at Fox & Hound or knocking down pins at AMF Richardson Lanes.

City Council members will discuss the proposal again Monday night. The earliest a vote on the smoking ordinance could be held is May 12. If passed, it would go into effect 90 days later.

Last week, four of the seven council members said they wanted to cut the list of exempted businesses to just one: tobacco retailers.
It seems to me that a hookah bar should count as a tobacco retailer, doesn't it? After all, as someone pointed out in the article, people who go into such an establishment expect to encounter tobacco, so it's not as if they're being blindsided by it when they walk in the door. But the Richardson retailers truly are being blindsided by these proposed changes, since they were told all along that the local regulations would mirror those of neighboring cities, and nobody's are quite as harsh as what Richardson has proposed. (It appears that some hookah bars might be exempt if tobacco accounts for a majority of their sales, but it seems to me that any business with a tobacco delivery device in its name should fall under that category as well.)

Personally, I'd be happy as a clam if smoking simply went away tomorrow. But I'm also no fan of the nanny state, and I support the right of adults to make informed choices whenever possible. So if a proposed law can actually make me support smokers, that's a good indication that perhaps that law isn't such a great idea.

This gives "having one's jersey retired" a new meaning: A Connecticut boy finally stopped wearing his Brett Favre jersey a few weeks ago, perhaps spurred on by his idol's recent retirement. David Witthoft had worn the jersey every day since he received it--at Christmas, 2003.

Concerto for cabbies: A violinist who accidentally left his Stradivarius in a Newark, NJ cab gave a private performance yesterday in the airport's cab loading area, out of gratitude to the driver who reunited him with his instrument.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

People for the Ethical Treatment of Plants??

In terms of great places to visit, I absolutely adore Switzerland...but I'm sorry, part of their government has gone absolutely nuts:
At the request of the Swiss government, an ethics panel has weighed in on the "dignity" of plants and opined that the arbitrary killing of flora is morally wrong. This is no hoax. The concept of what could be called "plant rights" is being seriously debated.

A few years ago the Swiss added to their national constitution a provision requiring "account to be taken of the dignity of creation when handling animals, plants and other organisms." No one knew exactly what it meant, so they asked the Swiss Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology to figure it out. The resulting report, "The Dignity of Living Beings with Regard to Plants," is enough to short circuit the brain.

A "clear majority" of the panel adopted what it called a "biocentric" moral view, meaning that "living organisms should be considered morally for their own sake because they are alive." Thus, the panel determined that we cannot claim "absolute ownership" over plants and, moreover, that "individual plants have an inherent worth." This means that "we may not use them just as we please, even if the plant community is not in danger, or if our actions do not endanger the species, or if we are not acting arbitrarily."
I wish I were kidding. Read the whole thing for even more ridiculousness. And writer Wesley J. Smith of the Weekly Standard pretty much nails the reason that things like this have come to pass:
Why is this happening? Our accelerating rejection of the Judeo-Christian world view, which upholds the unique dignity and moral worth of human beings, is driving us crazy. Once we knocked our species off its pedestal, it was only logical that we would come to see fauna and flora as entitled to rights.
And the craziness goes on and on....

And this is just plain weird: An Antarctic fur seal was captured on tape while trying to have sex with a penguin. (Said penguin would normally be dinner for the seal, which gives new meaning to the term "playing with your food.")

This is weird too, but funny: Some residents of the Greek Island of Lesbos (i.e. the original "Lesbians") have sued to stop gay groups from using the term to describe themselves.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Oh, My Stars!

OK, fellow Metroplexites, 'fess up: How many of you stayed up late last night to watch the end of the Stars game? (Yes, you can count me among them.)

Granted, it was a game with a great outcome, well worth staying up to watch since it sends the Stars to the Western Conference Finals in a few days. Still, I wonder how many people will be wandering around work, zombie-style, because of that game today.

Feliz en su lengua materna, otra vez: Hace un número de años, escribí un poste del blog enteramente en español en el honor del día de fiesta de Cinco de Mayo. Hice esto no usando mis habilidades españolas de la High School secundaria, sino algo mecanografiándolo en inglés en el Babelfish y copiando lo que salió. Esperanzadamente usted conseguirá una cierta diversión de esto copiando y pegando este texto en el Babelfish otra vez. ¿(e impar que mis escuelas estaban en la sesión hoy, pero, según Lileks, las escuelas en Minnesota tenía un día de fiesta hoy?)

(The above was written in English and translated into Spanish using the AltaVista Babelfish. If you're in need of short-term amusement, copy the text below and, using the Babelfish again, re-translate it into English and see how messed up it comes out...)

Blowing out the candles: Happy birthday to Gordon, the "assistant coach" of my evening combo, as well as to my longtime student Andrew, who gets to shed the state curfew today.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

When Life Gives You (Hard) Lemonade, The Nanny State Will Make Lemons For You

It's been a few days since I first heard about it, but I still can't believe this story. "Advice Goddess" Amy Alkon tells the tale:
You could've filled Tiger Stadium (aka Comerica Park) with the tidal wave of idiot-ade in this little drama.

Start with one University of Michigan archeology professor, a little more versed in ancient culture than consumer culture, who takes his 7-year-old kid to the ball game.

He spots a sign: Mike's Lemonade, $7. Being a nice dad, he buys his kid a lemonade. Yeah, the price is kind of inflated, but it's the ball park, and he's probably focused on having a nice time with his kid.

Whoops, seems that's not just Mike's Lemonade, but Mike's Hard Lemonade, with a whopping 5% alcohol in it.
Uh-oh. The story continues, via Brian Dickerson of the Detroit Free Press:
If you watch much television, you've probably heard of a product called Mike's Hard Lemonade.

And if you ask Christopher Ratte and his wife how they lost custody of their 7-year-old son, the short version is that nobody in the Ratte family watches much television.

The way police and child protection workers figure it, Ratte should have known that what a Comerica Park vendor handed over when Ratte ordered a lemonade for his boy three Saturdays ago contained alcohol, and Ratte's ignorance justified placing young Leo in foster care until his dad got up to speed on the commercial beverage industry.

...It wasn't until the top of the ninth inning that a Comerica Park security guard noticed the bottle in young Leo's hand.

"You know this is an alcoholic beverage?" the guard asked the professor.

"You've got to be kidding," Ratte replied. He asked for the bottle, but the security guard snatched it before Ratte could examine the label.

...An hour later, Ratte was being interviewed by a Detroit police officer at Children's Hospital, where a physician at the Comerica Park clinic had dispatched Leo -- by ambulance! -- after a cursory exam.
Dear Lord. Alkon wasn't kidding about the idiocy. But wait--it gets worse:
Leo betrayed no symptoms of inebriation. But the physician and a police officer from the Comerica substation suggested the ER visit after the boy admitted he was feeling a little nauseated.

The Comerica cop estimated that Leo had drunk about 12 ounces of the hard lemonade, which is 5% alcohol. But an ER resident who drew Leo's blood less than 90 minutes after he and his father were escorted from their seats detected no trace of alcohol.

"Completely normal appearing," the resident wrote in his report, "... he is cleared to go home."

But it would be two days before the state of Michigan allowed Ratte's wife, U-M architecture professor Claire Zimmerman, to take their son home, and nearly a week before Ratte was permitted to move back into his own house.

...And so what had begun as an outing to the ballpark ended with Leo crying himself to sleep in front of a television inside the Child Protective Services building, and Ratte and his wife standing on the sidewalk outside, wondering when they'd see their little boy again.
All I can say after reading that story is this: The Nanny State has got to go. Now.

Let's allow you to be the judge as well. Take a look at the sign above the stand that sold the lemonade. Notice how the word "Hard" is conspicuous by its absence. Sure, it might have aroused suspicion that the lemonade cost more than a beer...but hey, it is the ballpark, after all. Who hasn't spent way too much for a cold drink on a hot day? (I can't begin to tell you how many $4 Cokes I bought when the All-Star Game was in Arlington in '95 and we were seated in far left field, right in the crosshairs of the burning July sun.)

I'll let some commenters (from Alkon's site and the Freep story) have their say, because there's some great stuff in here:
  • "The trouble with regulations is that, in the end, they always replace intelligent thinking."--Kirk, at Alkon

  • "Meanwhile, there's some kid sitting in the squalor of an inner city tenement with his mom turning tricks to make money so she can buy more crack. The kid hasn't had a decent meal, a bath or clean clothes in months. There are rats and roaches running around the place. And CPS is no where to be found because they are "protecting" a 7 yr old with two clueless university professors for parents."--newstroll, at the Freep

  • "Europe had it right, kids grow up with weak wine and by the time they are adults, they tend to have much less problems with alcoholism than we do in America. Hmmmm. Why do we so often reject proven successful ideas while stubbornly repeating the same old failed policies over and over and over again?"--Bikerken, at Alkon

  • "This is what happens when we surrender our natural and Constitutional rights as parents to an ever-encroaching government that thirsts for power. Incrementally we have elevated the state to having a greater say in our children's lives "for the good of the children" as if the state is an all-loving god that really cares. This goes for their education, healthcare, job training, etc. all because the state has a "compelling interest" which overrides any parental interests. So we hear a case in the news of terrible parents who do bad things and we clamor that "there ought to be a law against that" and demand that "someone do something." So the state steps in. Now no one wants to see a child abused but the flip side of making policy based on the behavior of the few, is that it enslaves EVERYONE (including the good) to the state and forces us to answer to it even when nothing is wrong (as was the case with this story). To be continued..."--RXEnergy, at the Freep

  • "The rooted problem with this story, one that has really pulled at my heartstring (yes, i do, is the persistent drive of the government to come between father and son, parent and child.

    More subtle, is that those who work in these capacities for the government are simple-minded persons who think they are only doing 'thier job', without contemplation of the serious consequences that can, and often does, last a lifetime.
    "--j.d., at Alkon

  • "This whole thing reminds me of another group of government employees about 65-70 years ago that kept using the line, "I was only following orders." Can't any of these state employees involved in this thing use their own brains?"--dns33, at the Freep

  • "I think that the major problem is that the system has been geared and gotten legal support for dealing with the very worse case scenarios. This is not to say that the worse case scenarios aren't important, but what has happened is that the methods for dealing with the very worse abusers, are being used across the board as standard operating procedure."--DuWayne, at Alkon

  • "What is maddening about this and other similar fiascoes with this department, is that there appear to be no consequences. Not one of these " apologetic" individuals stopped to ask, "What would best serve this child"? We should be horrified that such mindlessness is encouraged by this failed system, and that there is such pressure to "follow orders" (or procedure) without the apparent encouragement to use or have a functioning body of common sense. I DO think that there should be repercussions for those involved...I am an RN, and I am NEVER allowed to use the excuse that "I was told to", or that "The system or rules made me afraid to act"..I am required to THINK about every action which will affect the well-being of another, and to act accordingly. I expect the same of others, and if that's not how that system/department is designed, it MUST be changed."--jimmish, at the Freep
And we'll end on a somewhat humorous note:
  • "Read a great story on this subject a few years ago: A woman was awakened in the middle of the night by a noise in the kitchen, and found her four yr old son had drunk a bottle of beer and was acting a little tipsy. She called her pediatrician, who was less than dazzled to be called about this, and asked him what she should do. He told her to just put him to bed, he'd be okay in the morning. "But should I give him anything?" she asked. "Got any pretzels?" he replied."--billmax, at Alkon
(Sorry for the long quotes, but I wanted to give a good sampling of the comments that support my point without your having to slog through them all yourself.)

I still really don't know what to say about this story, except that the security guard, the policeman, and everyone up the chain at CPS probably should have been given pink slips for this. The Nanny State has already been given an inch and taken several hundred miles, and we as a people have to rise up and stop it. We need term limits for bureaucrats as well as lawmakers; nobody works in government for more than ten, twelve years, tops. After that, they need to find a job in a field that actually produces something; if they have no talent for such things, it's back to college for them...or they can do those "jobs that Americans refuse to do" that are currently held by illegals, therefore killing two birds with one stone.

And as always, I fear that this won't be the last post on this subject...