Sunday, August 31, 2008

This Guy Is Crazy...

...but I'm definitely paying attention to what he says. A New Orleans resident named Mark O'Malley is staying in town and liveblogging the hurricane, in whatever way it comes to town (or doesn't).

Scroll down for lots of interesting pictures, especially those from a nearly-deserted French Quarter. He may be out of his mind, but, assuming he survives, there will be some pictures and stories from a very unique vantage point. Good luck and Godspeed, Mark.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Great Idea, Bad Way to Go About It

Julia Isaacs of the Brookings Institute, in an op-ed from today's paper, recommends earlier government involvement in childhood education:
The back-to-school ritual leaves our youngest children behind. Federal investment in children does not start until age 5 or 6 when – ready or not – they enter kindergarten. Attitudes toward the pivotal early childhood years are shifting, and both presidential candidates should consider effective preschool programs in their domestic policy platforms.

Good care early in life helps children grow up with the skills to become tomorrow's adult workers, caregivers, taxpayers and citizens. Traditionally, we have regarded the care of young children as the almost exclusive domain of parents. Yet many young parents today are stretched thin, trying to care for their children while early in their own careers and family life.
I agree that the early years are crucial; does anyone disagree? But personally, I think that this should still be the almost exclusive domain of parents, especially at this young age. But I'll let her continue for a moment:
Whether a single mother working the night shift at a fast food restaurant or a busy executive dashing home before the child care center closes, parents across the country struggle to balance both their children's developmental needs and the demands of their employers. Too often, policymakers view the need for child care, keeping children safe so that parents can work, as separate from preparing children to enter kindergarten ready to learn.

It is time to consolidate the existing patchwork of early childhood policies and programs and move them forward.

What is needed is a universal but targeted pre-school program, under which the federal government would fund a half-day of high-quality prekindergarten services for children from low-income families and a partial (one-third) federal subsidy for services to children in higher-income families. Extended-day services should be available for children of working parents.
Hmm--sounds expensive. And yes, it would be:
The estimated federal cost of such a proposal, if fully funded for all 3- and 4-year-olds whose families choose to participate, would be $18 billion a year. This includes $13.3 billion for the "free" part of the preschool program, $8.6 billion for the federal share of the partly subsidized part and $2.4 billion for "wrap-around" child care for working parents. Subtracting out the $6.5 billion currently provided through Head Start yields the $18 billion figure in new costs.
But I see several problems with this: If it's a government program, there will be lots of wasted money, because the whole thing will grow into a big, bloated bureaucracy, and way too much of the funding will go for that part instead of the educational part; it always does. And am I so cynical enough to think that "universal" will end up being translated as "dumbed down," as so often happens? Indeed. And here's another part that's scary to me:
Some institutional, philosophical and political barriers remain to integrating the services. Initially, the federal government might have to continue separate funding streams for Head Start and the new pre-K initiative. But eventually the two programs should be fused and have a single funding stream at the federal level.
That bothers me, because if the funding is coming from a single federal source, sooner or later the people with the purse strings might want to start telling the local programs how the money has to be spent. I'm a big believer in local control as well as parental control, and this sounds like both of these things could suffer.

But I guess my main problem with this whole thing is that, before implementing something like this, perhaps we should ask ourselves if we really need another big government program. The ones that already exist don't often do a very good job of anything except spending a lot of money in order to look as if something is being accomplished (so that all involved can feel good about themselves in the process) and empowering yet another crop of bureaucrats that are hard to get rid of later on.

I'm sure this is oversimplifying on my part, but what if we took that $18 billion that Isaacs seeks to have spent every year and return it to the pocketbooks of hard-working families. That might well help them afford better-quality child care, or even, in some cases, allow a parent to stay at home with the kids, which is by far the best way for most kids to show up to kindergarten prepared to learn.

Government has already stepped too far into our lives. Other than defending our shores and borders, and offering some assistance and incentives to help the proverbial trains run on time, most people just want the government to leave them alone. The time spent with kids before the age of five is crucial to their development; on this, Isaacs and I agree. But rather than launching another bloated, money-wasting program that will choke on its own red tape, our goal should be to let people keep more of their money and raise their own kids, rather than have the nanny state do it for them. In my mind, it takes a family to raise a child.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Oh, No--Not Again?

On this, the third anniversary of Katrina, could Hurricane Gustav be headed toward the Big Easy?

I sure hope not, though the linked story seems to suggest that, while all the levees aren't shored up as much as they could be yet, at least there's a solid evacuation plan in place. But I really hope that the area is spared completely this time; the people don't need to go through that again so soon, and, yes, the energy infrastructure in the Gulf could stand to not be disrupted right now (gas prices of $3.30-something aren't great, but they're better than a few months ago).

I blogged about Katrina and her aftermath for the better part of a week, and I chronicled a Spring '06 visit to the Big Easy in these two posts . Meanwhile, Photojournalist Mario Tama juxtaposes before-and-after pictures of New Orleans (from three years ago and last March) here.

A happier anniversary: As of today, I've been in Casa de Kev for seven years, and it's still as great as the day I moved in (or even better, considering the recent renovations).

And one more anniversary of note (lots of notes, really): On this day in 1920, Charlie Parker was born. I wonder how much more he could have accomplished if he'd lived longer than 34 years...

Thursday, August 28, 2008

An Intriguing Idea, But There's a Gap in His Logic

Yahoo! finance columnist Charles Wheelan has some unusual advice for recent graduates:
'm going to step back from economics for a moment and write about teaching economics to both undergraduates and graduate students. Based on that experience, I have some advice for talented high school students: Don't go to college.

And advice for talented college graduates: Don't get a job.
Huh? Is he out of his mind?

OK, I'll let him continue for a moment:
Of course there is a caveat. You should do both of them eventually, just not right away. Take a year off, either after high school or after college.

Use that year to do something interesting that you'll likely never be able to do again: write a book, hike the Appalachian Trail, live with your grandparents, trek in Katmandu, volunteer at a health clinic in India, or serve your country in the military.

Just do something that will make you a more complete person. I suspect that it'll also make you appreciate your education more (and, ironically, make you more attractive when you do apply for college or enter the job market).
So he's suggesting a "gap year" like many European students take. This might be a good idea for some people, but definitely not for all. But I'll get to that in a minute. How does he propose that this will work? Is he saying that the kids should leach off Mom and Dad for one more year? Not at all:
I have two rules. First, you have to support yourself. If you're writing that novel, then you need to be waiting tables when you're not at the keyboard. If you're traveling across India, then you've got to earn the money before you go. This isn't about Mom and Dad funding leisure travel. The time will only be meaningful if you have to work for it, literally.

And second, this experience can't be one of those uber-competitive kinds of programs that are designed as a means to get you somewhere else -- like NASA physics camp or 14 hours a day of intensive gymnastics.
And he goes on for a while, talking about how "the world is your classroom" and the need to be street-smart as well as book-smart and so on.

This is all well and good. But is it practical? I can see a few problems with this, and many of the 100+ commenters to this story can as well. Here are the main drawbacks:
  • This might not be a great idea for recent high school graduates, because many of them lack the maturity and focus to get the most out of such a trip. It would be tempting to spend the whole year as one giant party (especially in Europe, where the drinking age is lower).

  • Also, most recent high school graduates spend the time right before college working and making enough money to either not have to work during college or at least work a lot less, so as to minimize its interference with studies. Taking a gap year might well send someone off to their first semester dead broke, which is almost never a good idea.

  • Something else that occurred to me is that there's no telling as to whether or not any scholarships earned before graduation would still be honored a year later if the student chose not to start right away.

  • There's also a big problem with taking that gap year right after college. Anyone who has student loans will find their first payment due shortly after graduation. That timeline will not be delayed because you decided to bum around Europe for a year. If that trip is supposed to be financed without help from Mom and Dad, how is one supposed to pay for that and the student loan bills without a job (or even with the "waiting tables while you're writing your novel" job that Wheelan suggests.
So far, most of the reasons not to do something like this are financial in nature. But there's one I haven't touched upon yet, and yes, it's the one that's closest to my heart: People who are planning on majoring in some sort of specialized skill they already possess would be quite unlikely to do this successfully.

Imagine a music major (not hard for me to do, of course) trying to take a gap year before college. That would likely involve being unable to practice for an entire year (good luck hauling that cello to the jungles of Nepal or cramming your tuba in your backpack as you bicycle between youth hostels in Europe). I can't even begin to imagine starting school a year later being that far behind. And doing the gap year after college probably wouldn't work, either; by the time a musician graduates, he or she probably is a professional, having already practiced the craft on a regular basis (something other professions--think doctors, lawyers, etc.--don't get to do yet) and built up a network of professional contacts. It would be hard to just walk away from all that for a year.

And while I use musicians as my example, this really applies to anyone in a pre-acquired specialty skill area: Artists, actors, athletes, and so on. It would be hard to let your "chops" atrophy for any length of time right before college, and, after graduation, you're already a part of your profession.

But the good thing about the artistic types is that, because of your profession, it may not be too late to make that European trip. My opportunity came well after college (once I was teaching college, as a matter of fact), when our program got invited to the prestigious Montreux festival in Switzerland. Sure, I had wanted to go to Europe for a long time, but I always kind of had a feeling that music would get me there, and it well as to places like Vermont, Colorado and Washington state. If I'd bummed around for a year instead of working hard, I might not have ever had the opportunity to go later, and it was more meaningful when I got there by doing what I was meant to do.

So while I think that, in a perfect world, it would be a great experience to do something like this, it's not realistic for too many people, unless they start saving for it in middle school or something. I agree with the commenters who say that Wheelan has a narrow worldview if he thinks the vast majority of people could actually do this (though I won't go as far as to brand him an "elitist" as some of them did), and I also come down on the side of those who say that you don't have to leave America to "live among the poor" if that's your choice; there's a lot of this country to see, and quite a bit of it is very different from where any given person grew up.

Entertaining comment thread of the day: If you could do a gap year, where would you go?

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Too Ugly to Work?

I thought that yesterday's story took the cake as far as being the most ridiculous thing I've read in a while. But this story comes close:
There's no in between. You're either Abercrombie hot – or you're not.

Kristen Carmichael discovered she didn't fit the clothing store's self-described "sexy, effortless style" when she was pulled from a sales position on the floor of the NorthPark Center store and shoved back to the stockroom to fold clothes.

This was after they'd rated her face.

The college student who was in Dallas for the summer and her female co-worker had received a 0 ranking on a district manager's monthly audit. The report, posted on a wall in the office, included the question, "Do all female models currently working have beautiful faces?"

There were two choices, 0 and 5, with the higher number signifying an approval rating for the models – an Abercrombie & Fitch term for sales representatives. The same question for the male models had both 0 and 5 marked – a mix.
Maybe this should come as no surprise at a store that refers to its sales reps as "models" (I wonder what anyone who considers "associate" or "barista" to be over the top would think of this), but it's still amazing that the company doesn't get more criticism for what some people would consider openly discriminating against the, umm, "aesthetically challenged" like this. (Do you think that the people who come down on the wrong side of this policy would get more attention if they formed a noisy advocacy group or something?)

Don't misunderstand me--I'm not suggesting that any other group assume the mantle of professional victimhood, nor would I dare tell a company how to uphold its "image" (I would never ask Hooters to hire, say, a morbidly obese woman as a server and put her in one of those skimpy little outfits). But Abercrombie has already gotten in trouble for outright discrimination in the past:
The company agreed in 2005 to pay $40 million to a group of Latinos, blacks, Asians and females who accused the company of advancing whites at the expense of minorities.
I guess it just amazes me that there are enough people out there that buy into this line of thinking enough to buy the company's clothes, much less work there.

Here's the telling paragraph for me:
Sales people function as the store's advertising and are handpicked by current employees, said Joshuah Welch, a 26-year-old Dallas resident, was hired two weeks ago as a manager and told to recruit people who walked into the store looking "all-American, clean, wholesome, or the girl or boy next door." He said stocking employees, on the other hand, are told not to speak to customers.

"It's a hierarchy of hotness," he said.
Get that? They can't even speak to customers. It's one thing to go for a certain "look"--even the attorney for a couple of people who sued the company noted that it's not illegal to discriminate against ugly people (wow?) as long as race or gender weren't a factor--but to treat people as somewhat less than human because of it just seems like too much to me. Carmichael, the former employee quoted above, pretty much sums it up:
"It just seems so superficial and kind of stupid," she said. "I don't think I'm the most attractive person in the world, but I don't think I'm so hideous you have to shove me into a back room."
Any thoughts, of course, are welcome in the comments.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Too Good to Play?

I'm pretty sure I've seen it all now: A youth baseball league player in New Haven, Connecticut has been disqualified from his league because fastball is too fast. He hits 40 miles an hour with that pitch on a regular basis, but he has yet to hit anybody this season. Still, the league told Jericho Scott's coach that he couldn't pitch anymore, and when he did take the mound anyway, the opposing team forfeited and walked away. Now, the league is trying to disband the team.

Maybe this is the key paragraph here:
Jericho's coach and parents say the boy is being unfairly targeted because he turned down an invitation to join the defending league champion, which is sponsored by an employer of one of the league's administrators.
I sure hope that's not true, but it wouldn't surprise me; adults seem to do a really good job of messing up kids' sports leagues on occasion.

So what's the answer to this? Move Jericho up to a league with older kids? Or is his coach, Wilfred Vidro, right on the money when he says, "How can you punish a kid for being too good?"

This may or may not be relevant, but, as a music teacher (or, if you wish, a "fine arts coach"), I feel compelled to make a comparison between this and my own field. Over the years, I've had some protégés who were good enough to play with our college groups while still in high school (some as early as their sophomore year). A lot of these same people also got to play gigs for money before they reached college as well. Wouldn't it have been ridiculous if the University Interscholastic League (UIL), which governs high school competitions in Texas, had decided that these people were "too good" and were no longer allowed to compete for, say, All-Region Jazz Band, or even to perform in their school programs at all? This would be completely wrong, no matter how many other kids got "hurt feelings" from competing against someone that good. (Indeed, by the time one of these guys was a senior, only one person even opposed him at the region level. I thought that the rest of the region was being collectively wimpy for staying home that day.)

Here's another example: In grad school, I directed the Six O'Clock Lab Band at UNT. We got the chance to go to a festival in Oklahoma that was just starting a college division. There were four or five other bands in there already, from smaller schools that tended to be named after a diagonal compass point in Oklahoma or Arkansas. I was looking forward to seeing how my band compared to them (me, a graduate teaching fellow, going up against full-time professors in front of the top bands from other schools). I figured I'd learn a lot that weekend.

But when we got there, we were more than a little disappointed to discover that all the other bands had dropped out! All of them! When they found out that a band from the legendary North Texas program had entered the fray, they all bailed. If I'd been the director at Podunk Tech, I would have loved to see how my band compared to the sixth group from a vaunted program. But they chose to back out, and their students--not to mention themselves--lost out on that experience, as did my guys and myself. (We still got another performance, a roadtrip, some judges' comments and a good recording out of the deal, as well as a trophy that proclaimed us the "winner" of the festival, though that lost more than a bit of its luster for us.)

OK, back to Jericho. Sporting News blogger "blackbandit20" thinks that not only is Jericho being cheated, but so are his would-be opponents:
I always thought it a challenge to try to get a hit off of a fireballer. When I was in high school, I was a benchwarmer on my high school team and one of the few highlights of my career was getting three hits off a future major league pitcher. This pitcher brought 90-95 mph heat and for some strange reason that day I had him timed. But there was the challenge but these kids are being told that this kid is too good and that to face him is tatamount to failing, that is wrong.

[...]When I played, I wanted to win and play well of course. If I didnt, I knew I had to play harder and do my best. My mom went to every baseball game I played and before every game, only said "Do your best and have some fun." I think that it isnt the kids who are afraid, its the parents who have softened the game up to the point where the fun and challenge have been taken out. These are the same parents who are more concerned about looking bad because they are afraid that their kid isnt a star, so instead they make the rules so soft that everyone gets a trophy, everyone is a winner. The kids who excel are brought down. It seems that its an extreme on either point, parents who push their kids to be the ultimate best or parents who want everyone to be mediocre. That is a bad on either end.
Agreed. And does the "everyone is a winner" attitude remind anyone else of the DISD grading flap that we were discussing here last week?

Here's one more thought from blackbandit20:
Personally, I didnt play on a title winning team till I got into college and won a summer league intermural softball title, but I always had fun and thats what it should be. I knew that there were better players and I learned to step my game up to compete and win. I learn that you cant always win but to try your best and give max effort. These kids should be able to learn that too, they might not get hits off of Scott, but they can give their best effort. And maybe just maybe they might get a hit off of him and be able to build on that acheivement.
Well said. Read the whole thing.

So should Jericho be allowed to pitch to kids his own age? Should he have to move up a division? And what kind of message is all of this sending to Jericho and to the other kids?

Another view: Eugene Volokh comes down in favor of having Jericho move up a division, saying that the disparity of ability would take all the fun out of it for the other players. I think that, as long as nobody is getting hurt, I tend to agree with blackbandit20 more than Volokh on this issue.

UPDATE: After having read the comments to the Volokh post, I found some more good points that support my argument:
1) I didn't even think about the fact that, if Jericho were required to play in an older league, he'd have to leave all his friends on his current team behind. That's important when you're nine years old. (And older, sometimes.)

2) Commenter A.S. wins the thread with this: "...Michael Phelps should be disqualified from the Olympics, so that they could let all the other swimmers - men with roughly the same level of ability, clearly lesser than Michael Phelps - compete against each other.

Where's the fun of Olympic swimming when all those other athletes know that they are not good enough to compete with Michael Phelps?

Well said. I added my own comment at the bottom of the thread, offering up the music analogy and getting in a swipe at the DISD policy as well.

Blowing out the candles: Happy birthday to my former protégé C-Rod. (He was one of those who started playing with our college groups as a high schooler, which prompted me to make the comparison above.)

Monday, August 25, 2008

The Amethyst Initiative Made MADD Mad, So They Fired Back with SPAM

Last week, I posted about the Amethyst Initiative, the effort by a group of over 100 college presidents from around the nation who desire to start a serious discussion on whether or not the legal drinking age of 21 is responsible for the epidemic of binge drinking that occurs on many college campuses today (and whether having the higher age--unique among "adult" privileges in this country--is a good idea or not). As I noted then, the activist group Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) is among the most vocal foes of this initiative (that's right--they don't even want people to discuss it), and now, according to Inside Higher Ed, they appear to have gone overboard in their zeal to silence those who disagree with them:
MADD’s pushback began, like Amethyst’s, as a media blitz. Beyond the typical press releases and statements from spokesmen, though, it followed the strategy of many interest groups and political action committees by encouraging concerned citizens to write letters to college presidents listed as signatories to the initiative.

Lots of letters. Lots of electronic letters.

At MADD’s Web site, any visitor can enter his or her name and address into a form that will automatically send a ready-made e-mail message to all of the Amethyst signatories. As a result, presidents have reported receiving hundreds of the same message, urging them to “disengage from the list of signatories and to instead join MADD and our partners in the public health community in saving lives and supporting the 21 Minimum Legal Drinking Age.”

Included in the form letter are statistics on public support for the current drinking age, and a bullet point that says: “More than half say they are less likely to vote for a state representative who supports lowering the legal limit or send their children to colleges or universities with ‘party school’ reputations.”

Starting late Thursday, Dickinson College president William Durden began receiving hundreds of the same message, to the point where there was “interference, but a manageable one,” said Christine Dugan, the college’s director of media relations.
Great. So they're trying to spam the presidents into submission, possibly shutting down the college's mail server in the process? That's a mature and reasoned way to initiate honest dialogue.

Except, of course, they're not trying to have an honest dialogue at all. LIke many "activist" groups, they're trying to to shut down that dialogue by the equivalent of screaming in their faces, referring to anyone who disagrees with them as "evil" and so on. It's like they're throwing a big collective temper tantrum, except that these people are supposed to be adults.

Groups like this often stray from their original purpose. As I said in the earlier post, MADD may well have started as a group of mothers who lost kids to drunk drivers, and they wanted to prevent that act (no argument from here; in my college partying days, I wrestled car keys away from people, made them stay overnight, etc.). But they've morphed--devolved, if you wish--into a modern day temperance league whose members want to prevent anyone from drinking, anytime. (One of the commenters at the linked story notes that they really ought to call themselves Women Against Alcohol for Humans--WAAH--to better reflect their changed purpose.) And we all know how well Prohibition worked the first time...

Read the whole thing, including the comments, which come down on both sides of the issue. And there's more on the subject from David Harsanyi, Michele Catalano, and two articles from the Washington Post.

The point is, people are having calm, measured discourse in these comment sections, and this is exactly what the Amethyst signatories are trying to engage on a national level. It's a shame that some people are trying to squelch this dialogue before it ever really begins.

And the solution to the problem at hand--the spam being received by the Amethyst signatories? One of my computer-savvy friends pointed out that, if all the emails are coming from a common IP address, it would be easy enough for the school to block that address. And if they're generating unique addresses for each email to work around such blocking, my friend says that makes them even lower than the V!@gra spammers. I agree.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: "We need to empower young adults to make responsible choices, not make those choices for them."--Michele Catalano, from the article linked above.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Not Going Postal, But Still Annoyed

This weekend, I had to send out some very important paperwork that had to do with part of my employment. It came in one of those big manila envelopes, so I figured I'd send it out in something similar, so as not to get everything all folded up.

Now, is it me, or didn't mailing something that was that size, but still lightweight (the mailing in question weighed 1.3 ounces), used to cost the same as a regular letter? I was pretty sure that was the case, but I decided to put it on the self-service electronic scale at the post office just to make sure it wasn't overweight. So I was more than a little surprised to discover that the machine expected a dollar's worth of postage instead of the 42-cent "Forever Stamp" that I had already affixed to the envelope.

Obviously, I'm not the only one who was under the impression that the cost was the same, as one of the options offered to me was to make up the difference between the regular stamp and the dollar. I did this, and it printed me a new label, so hopefully the presence of the label and the stamp won't confuse the person who handles it. And then, since the machine can't accept charges of less than a dollar, it printed me a 42-cent computer-generated stamp for later. It wasn't an arduous process, but it still really took me by surprise.

So does anyone know when the price went up to mail the larger envelope? Did it coincide with the most recent rate hike? Or had it been more expensive all along, and I had somehow just gotten away with it for a long time? (I'm really doubting the latter.) Chime in via the comments if you know.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Later, Gator...But My Arm? He Ate 'er.
So Make Me a New One Like the Terminator!

This weekend's weirdest news story has to be the one about the kid in Louisiana who lost his arm to an alligator a few weeks ago:
One minute, Devin Funck was a typical kid living a typical life in suburban Slidell, spending a lazy summer afternoon swimming with four friends in a lake near his home. The next minute, he was being dragged by his arm through the waters of Crystal Lake, fighting a 500-pound alligator named Big Joe with all the tenacity a 12-year-old boy could muster.

"It was Godzilla, " he would recall of the monster that ripped off and swallowed his left arm in the July 30 attack.

By the day's end, doctors at Ochsner Medical Center broke the news to Devin and his parents that they could not reattach his arm, which authorities had retrieved after hunting down the alligator and killing it.

Devin's reaction was decisive: "Get me a robot arm that looks like the Terminator."
That's the spirit, Devin. He's already getting dressed and bathing by himself again, while shaking off that "phantom pain" that amputees sometimes feel.

More about Devin, including a video, can be found at the link above. Sure, you could question the choices he and his friends made which led to the unfortunate encounter (throwing sticks at the gator while it was in the water? Devin getting in the water to track the gator when it went ashore?), but you can't question his perseverance since then.

In the meantime, Devin will have some bigtime medical bills, and he'll need new prosthetic arms every year while he's still growing (at one upcoming fundraiser, he'll receive the stuffed head of the gator itself). More info on the fund can be found at the bottom of the linked story, or by visiting this MySpace page.

Hat tip: Althouse, whose commenters are, by and large, being much nicer to Devin than the ones at the link. Sure, he was a little reckless...but calling a kid "stupid" because he had an unfortunate run-in with nature? Me, I like his spunk. Hang in there, Devin!

Friday, August 22, 2008

It's the Last Friday of Summer*...

...and I'm too lazy to post anything. (Except this, of course.)

Get out and enjoy a great day. I'll be back tomorrow.

*And please, nobody try to tell me what the calendar says. In the academic world, "summer" ends on the first day of school. Your mileage may vary.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

"HOA's Gone Wild," Part 357

Let me state my bias from the first paragraph here: I'm no fan of homeowners' associations, commonly known as HOA's. They may have started in a good place--keeping a set of standards in place so that a neighborhood looks good and keeps its property value high. But, like many things of this nature, they've morphed into something else altogether: Expensive, quasi-governmental entities whose officers become drunk with power, micromanaging their neighbors' lives down to what color they can stain their fence while, in the most extreme cases, turning old widows out into the street because they can't afford their association dues.

The latest example of an HOA running amok came this week in Frisco, where the association told a guy he can't park his truck in his own driveway. Why? Because it's not the "right" kind of truck:
im Greenwood is parking his 2007 Ford F-150 in the garage, but he’s not through battling the Frisco homeowners’ association. He says the association has declared the iconic Texas truck not upscale enough to leave in his driveway.

“I’m hoping that based on all the activity and noise that they might change their tune,” he said Monday. “These people [with the association] are in a position of leadership, ideally to serve their constituency.”

Earlier this year, the Concentra Inc. CEO began getting notices from the Stonebriar HOA threatening to fine him for parking his truck in his driveway. They say pickup trucks are not allowed in the driveway – although other luxury vehicles, including the Cadillac Escalade and Lincoln Mark LT, pass muster.

Bill Osborn, a board member with the association, had explained that those vehicles are “fancier,” “plush with amenities” and do not look like pickups. Most domestic pickups are banned.

Mr. Osborn said this rule has been in place for decades and the fine would be $50 per violation.
"Plush with amenities?" Sounds like someone's a little too full of himself. But that's not the key quote. This (from an earlier version of the DMN story) is:
Mr. Greenwood appealed, claiming his Ford F-150 isn't much different from the Lincoln Mark LT.

"The response was: 'It's our belief that Lincoln markets to a different class of people,' " he said.
Wow. Can this guy be any more snooty? Even for a gated community, that attitude is over the top.

(As an aside, I'm pretty sure that not only could I not live in a neighborhood with an HOA, but I don't think I could live in a gated community. Gated apartment complexes make sense to me; people don't often live there long enough for everyone to get to know their neighbors, and there are lots of people in a reasonably small space. But gated communities of homes? That just strikes me as the ultimate in snobbery; you're saying I can't even drive down your street? )

I have yet to read anything about an HOA that would convince me to move to a place like that. The boards are often cliquish, reluctant to yield authority (members have been known to stay on past their allotted terms of office), and, as noted earlier, often intoxicated with power. In many cases, they handle an awful lot of money, and I'll bet a lot of them have never had an impartial external audit. But I'm also sure that most homeowners don't have the time or resources to have them investigated, because there's sure to be more than a few incidents of corruption; shine the light, and the cockroaches will come scurrying out.

DMN columnist Steve Blow has more in his column from this morning. (And if you have a lot of time on your hands, feel free to slog through the 13 pages of comments on the original article linked above.) Read even more on the subject from Pegasus News and a Disney message board, of all things. Noted blogger Patterico (whose commenters are having fun with the subject), also weighs in.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Remembering "Ms. Z"

A lot of us were afraid this was coming, but we didn't know it would happen so soon.

Marcia Zoffuto, known as "Marcy" to friends and colleagues and "Ms. Z" to nearly all of her legions of students, passed away Sunday of cancer, surrounded by her family. She had been sick for well over a year, so much so that she retired from her position as the legendary band director at Coyle Middle School in the Dallas suburb of Rowlett, where she took the band to never-before-seen heights.

Among the band's awards: Being named State Honor Band in its classification twice (in 2002 and 2006, if I'm recalling correctly), which gave the band the chance to perform at the Texas Music Educators Association (TMEA) convention the next year; an invitation to the prestigious Midwest Clinic in Chicago (which I attended for the first time last year), as well as two other major clinics in Seattle and Indianapolis. The program won the Sudler Cup in 2003, and this past May, Marcy was honored with the Bayard H. Friedman Hero Award for being the most outstanding band teacher in North Texas.

A daughter of the iconic West Texas band director J.R. McEntyre, Marcy was certainly driven, intense and demanding, yet she also had a gentle, caring and nurturing side. And despite all the accolades bestowed upon her and her program, she maintained a profound sense of humility; I think she sometimes found it hard to believe that people were making such a fuss over her, because she was just doing what she was born to do.

One of the most unique things about the Coyle program has been the constant involvement of the alumni. The way that the Honor Band competition works is that a band submits a recording of performances during the school year, which go through a judging process that culminates in the finalists being announced over the summer, with the winners performing the following year at TMEA. That means that, in a middle school situation, the eighth graders who played on the winning recording would be high school freshmen by the time of the TMEA performance. But Marcy made sure that those students were involved as well, utilizing a hybrid ensemble of eighth graders and alumni (i.e. a lot of the group that made the original recording) during the TMEA performances, and some of the other festivals as well. I've never been in another situation where high schoolers retained ties to their middle school program in this manner, but such was the nature of these kids' devotion to "Ms. Z."

Of course, this intensity and work ethic wasn't for everyone; kids would sometimes burn out so much that they wouldn't even continue with band in high school. (In fact, the one articulated difference of opinion that she and I had occurred a number of years ago when she asked me to listen to an eighth grader's alto solo on one of their contest pieces and help him sound "more professional." While I assured her that we shared the goal of excellence--and that I knew exactly what she was looking for, sound-wise--I wondered if the use of that particular terminology wasn't putting undue pressure on a kid that young.) But those who stuck with the program certainly reached a level of performance rarely seen by middle-school musicians (not to mention many high schools).

The cancer that eventually claimed her came sometime during the '06-'07 year. Despite rumors of her retirement at the end of that year, she came back last year and hung on valiantly, leading the band to the Indianapolis festival by sheer force of will. As her health worsened, we didn't see her all that often, but she came in for the key rehearsals and performances and got the most out of her time.

She did retire at the end of this school year (I really wish now that I'd made it to that final concert), and we received periodic updates of her condition throughout the summer, the most recent being on Saturday, the day before she passed. I heard then that she had some major setbacks in the past week, but I had no idea the end would come so soon.

The memorial service this morning was packed; I arrived fifteen minutes early and got one of the few remaining seats in the main sanctuary. People were seated in the choir loft, in folding chairs added to the aisles, and in several rows of the lobby, where the service was beamed out to a screen. The sheer volume of people, from all walks of life (family, friends, colleagues, current and former students), proved to be a fitting testimony to the number of lives she touched.

One of the eulogists noted that Marcy had once told him, "I really want to leave a legacy." You have, Marcy. You have.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

This Idea Is Making Some People MADD, But I Like It

This debate has been going on for years, but I didn't expect this particular group to have such a strong position on it. The issue? Lowering the drinking age in the U.S. back to 18. The advocates? A group of about 100 college presidents. Seriously.

And we're not just talking about "Podunk Tech" type of schools here, either; some of the chief executives on board with his idea include those from Duke, Ohio State and Syracuse. And the reason they've launched this idea, called the Amethyst Initiative, is in part because they feel that the higher drinking age has caused an increase in binge drinking on campus. From the group's website:
Twenty-one is not working

A culture of dangerous, clandestine “binge-drinking”—often conducted off-campus—has developed.

Alcohol education that mandates abstinence as the only legal option has not resulted in significant constructive behavioral change among our students.

Adults under 21 are deemed capable of voting, signing contracts, serving on juries and enlisting in the military, but are told they are not mature enough to have a beer.

By choosing to use fake IDs, students make ethical compromises that erode respect for the law.

How many times must we relearn the lessons of prohibition?
And of course, MADD is mad about this idea:
Mothers Against Drunk Driving says lowering the drinking age would lead to more fatal car crashes. It accuses the presidents of misrepresenting science and looking for an easy way out of an inconvenient problem. MADD officials are even urging parents to think carefully about the safety of colleges whose presidents have signed on.

"It's very clear the 21-year-old drinking age will not be enforced at those campuses," said Laura Dean-Mooney, national president of MADD.
It sounds like she's all but demanding a boycott, doesn't it?

As I said in a post several years ago, it's hard, in a way, to bash on MADD ("it's like kicking a puppy," I said at the time). It doesn't take much effort to feel bad for the people who've lost kids in drunk-driving crashes, and there's no saying that, if I were in their shoes, I might never touch a drop of the stuff again in my life. But I can't ever see being at the point where I would want to keep others from doing so.

And that's the problem: MADD seems to have morphed over the years into an organization whose members won't rest until nobody drinks alcohol at all. As longtime (but absent for a while now) commenter Gary P. noted after that previous post,
The problem with advocacy groups like this is once they do achieve meaningful goals, they have to keep inventing more and more scenarios to be "outraged" over to keep getting their name in the paper and preserve their relevance and power.
That seems to be an issue with bureaucracies as well: Solutions in search of a problem.

Look, if you want to eliminate drunk driving, punish drunk drivers more harshly. There's no reason to punish entire groups of people for the misdeeds of a few, and there's no reason to engender contempt for the law among those who would otherwise be on the straight-and-narrow. And if lowering the drinking age isn't the solution for you, then raise the voting age (possibly along with the age of consent to marriage and the age of eligibility for military enlistment) back to 21. Either 18-20-year-olds are adults, or they are not; none of this half-and-half business.

UPDATE: More on the subject from edublogger Joanne Jacobs. (A commenter at that site posts a similar idea to mine above, that the age of majority should be consistent; another one notes that if we waited until people were "fully mature" until they were allowed to do things, few people would even be driving before age 30. Heh.)

I wonder if this story hit his campus like a Hurricane: Among the signatories to this initiative (114 at this writing), only one Texas college appears at the moment: West Texas A&M, whose president is named Pat O'Brien. I'm sure he's not related to the founder of this place, but it's still a funny coincidence.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Odd News from the Music World

Two unusual music stories, courtesy of my fraternity's listserv:
  • This one is a few years old, but worth mentioning: Students at Cornell build a MIDI device that's controlled by hamsters. (Check out the accompanying video, which shows how the animals' movement triggers the sounds.)

  • Someone has come up with a door that can be knocked melodically, with an octave's worth of notes.
It's a busy day, preparing for auditions at the college. I'll have more when that's over.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

A Truly Olympian Effort

What more can be said? Michael Phelps is a beast.

Sure, tonight's effort wasn't the nail-biter that last night's was, but it was still a most impressive showing, especially when Phelps got his team out in front by the end of his butterfly leg (and then "closer" Jason Lezak brought it all home with a masterful freestyle performance).

Last week, on the opening day of the Olympics, I predicted that I'd watch "some" of the coverage, but the dominance of Phelps has drawn me in, to the point where the presence of a TV showing the Games, and an unobstructed view of said TV, actually dictated where we ate dinner tonight. Seriously; the first place we went only had one TV, and it was tuned to the (fairly dismal, as it would turn out) preseason Cowboys game. Tonight, when history was being made, that would not suffice.

Did you watch last night's shining moment?

(And last night also reminded me that I have yet to swim in a pool this year. This must change soon...)

And one for the ladies: I'd also like to give a shout-out to Dara Torres, whom I got to watch for the first time last night. She missed gold by ever-so-little, but I was nonetheless quite impressed by a 41-year-old--who's had a kid already--performing in a demanding athletic event at such a high level.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Sorry, DISD, I'm Flunking You On Your Second Effort As Well

Yesterday, I took the Dallas ISD to task for its ridiculous new policy of allowing students who flunk tests, miss deadlines and neglect to turn in their homework the chance to make up the work without penalty. In this morning's paper, superintendent Michael Hinojosa, quoted in a front-page article, defends the policy:
Dallas school superintendent Michael Hinojosa and two trustees defended new classroom grading rules Friday, and urged teachers and parents to learn more about the requirements before dismissing them as misguided.

Teachers have derided the new rules as being too lenient on lazy students by requiring teachers to accept late work, give retests to students who fail and force teachers to drop homework grades that would drag down a student's class average.

But Dr. Hinojosa asked teachers and parents to consider that in the long run the rules will help more students succeed.

"We want to make sure that students are mastering the content [of their classes] and not just failing busy work," he said.

"We want students to get it right, and we want to make sure that they do get it right."

If that means teachers will be required to extend an assignment deadline, or let students retake exams, so be it, he said.
Isn't it great to see that the district's top dog is on board with this nonsense?

Sorry, Dr. H., but I'm afraid you guys have failed this test again. You have to have standards and stick to them; giving someone another chance on one or two occasions might be OK, but to continue to allow students to flout the rules (or what's left of them) won't really produce the outcome you desire in the long run. And as I said yesterday, the real world doesn't work that way. How many times can someone blow off assignments at their job before they get fired?

I will concede one point to Hinojosa: If homework is being given in an excessive amount, to the point that it really is nothing more than busy work, then yes, a change needs to be made. But that change should be a regulation on the amount of homework given, not an undue relaxation of the deadline therefor. And if the homework in question really is necessary for the mastery of the material, then there's no reason to undercut the teacher in this manner.

I'm trying not to read too hard between the lines here, but this paragraph in this morning's article stands out to me:
Dr. Hinojosa said the new rules are aimed, in part, at helping curb the district's alarming ninth-grade failure rate. Each year, roughly 20 percent of the district's high school freshmen fail to advance to the 10th grade. Many eventually drop out.

Dr. Hinojosa cited new research that determined ninth-graders who are flunking two or more classes in their first six weeks of high school are almost doomed to become dropouts.
Maybe I'm too cynical, but I'm hard pressed not to think that he's more concerned with the fact that, for every kid that drops out, the district loses state money (and, since dropout rates are published in lots of places, it makes him "look bad" among his peers). Am I accusing him of acting more like a businessman (whose primary objective is to have warm bodies in seats) than an educator? Maybe. I hope I'm wrong, but it sounds like the idea of keeping the numbers up is what's driving the bus here. Hinojosa continues:
"Our mission is not to fail kids," he said. "Our mission is to make sure they get it, and we believe that effort creates ability."
No district has a mission to fail kids. But sometimes, kids will fail anyway. If the school has given its best effort (and especially if the kids in question have given little to no effort in return), then it's not the district's fault. (You can lead a horse to water, etc.)

The problem with this policy is not that the really good students will start blowing off their homework or turning things in late; they won't. And the really bad students who didn't do those things in the first place certainly won't start doing so now! But there will be plenty of marginal students (the "big middle," if you wish) who might have followed the rules, but now have even less incentive to do so.

A big part of this problem is caused by parents who have abdicated their parental responsibilities and expect the schools to raise their kids. It's a noble effort to require a parent conference before issuing a failing grade for missed work, but if the parents don't care--if they don't even return the teacher's call or email--it's going to be very hard for the kid to improve. It all begins in the home, folks, and if the home is deficient, the kid will find it difficult (not impossible, just difficult) to rise above the situation. And if neither the parents nor the student care, then the district will be hard-pressed to improve the situation. It's too bad that there can't be a way to remove these kids from the general school population and let the ones who want to learn, do so.

But I digress. This is a bad idea, and I still don't think it will achieve the desired outcome. It's too bad that so many innocent students will have to suffer at the hands of this misguided social engineering experiment.

As noted yesterday, teachers have come down in opposition to this policy, as well they should. No active teacher would ever have made this proposal. And since the DISD board of trustees seems to have a hand in this inedible casserole, I need to amend my earlier statements: Not only do administrators need to remain teachers, but school board members should be required to substitute for one week every year. (I realize that many board members aren't certified teachers, so there would still need to be one in the classroom to satisfy legal requirements. But the teacher could sit in the back of the room and only intervene if a situation got out of control.) Decisions like the new DISD policy would be less likely to be made if everyone involved was an active participant in a classroom--and I mean now, not 20 or 30 years ago. Which district will be innovative and courageous enough to be the first one to take this step?

(More reaction to this idea can be found on the DMN's DISD blog.)

UPDATE: After reading these two posts from the DISD blog, it appears there are even more problems with this policy than I had realized: One, that allowing students to retake tests will also require teachers to spend even more time grading those tests; two, people teaching AP classes couldn't do "effort-based" grading even if they wanted to (which they probably don't), because those classes aren't structured that way, and the College Board wouldn't sign off on such a dilution. Also, the teachers who have tried to call parents tend to get unworking numbers over half of the time. What a mess...

YET ANOTHER UPDATE: On Sunday, DMN columnist Jacquielynn Floyd contributes a bitingly satirical column, written in very overdone teenspeak, about the reaction of some (stereo)typical slacker students to the new policy. (See how many times the words "dude" and "like" are used in the column.)

AND ONE MORE UPDATE: Welcome Dallas ISD Blog readers, and thanks to Kent Fischer for the link. (I was wondering why my traffic was up all of a sudden.) I don't always blog about education, but, as a teacher, it's one of my favorite areas. Just click the "education" tag at the bottom of this post to read other posts on the subject.

This situation is also likely to be "packed" with emotion: A small Texas school district near the Oklahoma border--located 30 minutes away from the nearest county sheriff's office--will allow teachers and staff with the appropriate permits to pack heat at school.

Blowing out the candles: Happy birthday to my youngest nephew, Micah, who's two today.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Like Many Others, I'm Giving This Proposal an "F"

A few months ago, the Dallas Morning News ran a series entitled Bridging Dallas' North-South Gap, which offered a set of ideas for bringing South Dallas up to the standards that people have come to expect from the (as a whole) far-wealthier North Dallas. My response to that--never before articulated in these pages--is that the reason this is not likely to happen can be summed up in four letters: D-I-S-D. The fact that the bulk of South Dallas is located within the Dallas Independent School District is a major hurdle to the advancement of the area. (There--I said it.)

And it's not as simple as "smaller suburban school districts good, big urban district bad." Rather, it's the fact that the DISD brass continues to make idiotic decisions such as this one:
Dallas public school students who flunk tests, blow off homework and miss assignment deadlines can make up the work without penalty, under new rules that have angered many teachers.

The new rules will be distributed when teachers return to their campuses next week. But many who have already seen the regulations say they are too lenient on slackers, and will come at the expense of kids who work hard.

For example, the new rules require teachers to accept late work and prevent them from penalizing students for missed deadlines. Homework grades that would drag down a student's overall average will be thrown out.

School officials said the new guidelines are needed to ensure that all district teachers operate under the same rules and to create a "fair system" for grading students.

"The purpose behind it is to ensure fair and credible evaluation of learning – from grade to grade and school to school," said Denise Collier, the district's chief academic officer.

Some teachers said the new rules offer kids too many loopholes.
You think??

I can't for the life of me imagine why anyone would want to teach in the DISD under policies like this. Isn't it bad enough that kids can't be properly disciplined, or that, when a kid gets in trouble, the parents will often come running to school to defend their "little angel," who couldn't possibly have done anything wrong...and, more often than not, the principal throws the teacher under the bus by reversing the decision? (Never mind the irony that, if the parents had done their jobs in the first place, the kid might not be a discipline problem at school.) I'm not saying that the above things are exclusive to the DISD; unfortunately, that's the case in way too many other places as well. But to add this new policy on top of everything else threatens to turn teachers into little more than highly-paid babysitters.

I probably don't have to tell you that teachers aren't in favor of this:
"It's like we're sending the message to kids that deadlines don't matter, studying is optional, and no matter how little you do, you're still [going to] pass all your classes anyway," said Ray Cox, who teaches world languages at Franklin Middle School.

The intent may have been to create a uniform grading policy, but the result was to lower standards, said Dale Kaiser, president of the teachers' group NEA-Dallas.

The school board and superintendent "talk about elevating standards and holding high expectations for kids, but we're telling the kids that whether they do the work or not is irrelevant," he said.
Precisely. And here's the really scary part:
District records state that the changes are part of a switch to "effort-based" grading and are designed to give students multiple opportunities to demonstrate that they've mastered class material. Requiring teachers to contact parents instead of awarding zeros is designed to increase home-school communications, according to district materials presented recently to principals. Retests and deadline extensions are meant to motivate students to do better after initial failure.
In a word, no. (Can someone please set off the alarm bells now?) This is pushing the district full-throttle towards the touchy-feely, New Age-y movement where self-esteem matters above all, and there are no winners or losers; everyone gets a medal just for participating.

Except that's not how the real world works. Can you imagine that at the Olympics? Not everyone deserves the same medal that Michael Phelps gets unless they actually swim as well as Michael Phelps. There are winners and losers in life, and learning how to deal with that is a crucial part of one's development as a human being.

Not only that, but in the real world, people are held responsible for their actions. C'mon, guys, even a (presumed) college sophomore knows that:
One recent DISD graduate commented that he thought the new rules would give students the wrong impression of how businesses operate.

"Babying the rules so that [students] have almost unlimited chances to pass, that's unreal," said Joshua Perry, a 2007 graduate of Skyline High School. "In the real world, you don't get a whole lot of chances or other ways to make something up."
The young man speaks the truth. If only the DISD officials were smart enough to listen.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

We Can Only Wish for Something Like This in August

My favorite news site said that it was having "technical difficulties" this morning. I guess it was, since the weather forecast looked like this:

Ha--if only. In the thirties during August in Texas? And how about that Wednesday--high of 91, low of 40! People would be getting sick left and right. It was obviously a glitch; the fact that it started with Monday and today's a Thursday pretty much tipped me off. (And when I clicked the "More" link, it took me to a page where Thursday was listed as "Thanksgiving Day." Heh.)

But evidently, we are getting some relief in the form of rain. They said on the radio that there'll be lots of it over the weekend, and we'll have rain-soaked highs of "only" 80-something. That may not be as cool as the "forecast" above, but I'll take it.

(So do you like my first effort at taking a screenshot? I do realize it's a bit messy up top, but I just learned how to do that this week. Call me a "n00b" if you wish, but I'd never really had a need to do this until recently, when a site I visit--the same news site, coincidentally--started spawning unblocked popups, and the support people asked me to take a shot of the offending ad to send to them. And now I can do that!)

Tea and biscuits, or crumpets and gravy: The city of Birmingham, England recently released an official city brochure containing a picture of the skyline. Unfortunately, it was the skyline of Birmingham, Alabama by mistake. (A similar thing happened in my college yearbook; at the beginning of the College of Music section, they had a nice writeup on the program and a big picture of the building. Unfortunately, it was a picture of the Art Building. D'oh.)

He probably scared the Pooh out of them: Two people in Tokyo were assaulted and robbed by a guy wearing a Winnie-the-Pooh costume. (Fun facts: 1) "Pooh" evidently went off on the pair because he didn't like them staring at him. 2) He and his friends were in costume because they didn't have anything else clean to wear.)

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

New Urbanism: A Tale of Two Cities

Longtime readers of this blog know that I'm a big fan of New Urbanism and one of its best-known elements, the "lifestyle center" shopping area that is quickly replacing the conventional enclosed mall (most notably represented in my neck of the woods by Southlake Town Square, which I've written about before, and of course my friendly neighborhood Firewheel Town Center, which has been covered here so often that it has its own post tag). It's interesting, then, to note my varying reactions to the triumph of New Urbanism over an old-school mall in two different parts of the country...

Part 1: Richardson, TX (RIchardson Square Mall). Richardson Square, built in 1977, was never really anything to write home about; it served its purpose for the people of the area (which included myself until Firewheel's opening), but it was never considered a destination of any sort. It was anchored by Sears, Montgomery Ward, Joske's and Dillard's, and when Dillard's bought Joske's, they operated both stores for a while, with the old Joske's holding most of the men's clothing, while women's wear stayed at the original store. (I used to refer to the two stores as "Mr. Dillard's" and "Ms. Dillard's," although the electronics department, contrary to what one might expect, remained in the "Ms." part.) Besides the usual clothes shopping, I saw my share of movies there back in the day, but the theatre closed when its parent company (General Cinema, if I recall correctly) fell on hard times. And the mall itself started to decline in the early '90s as nearby Collin Creek became more popular; Richardson Square was at a disadvantage by not being located adjacent to a freeway, and the surrounding area changed demographically as kids grew up and left while their parents remained in their nearby homes.

A 1998 renovation helped reverse the mall's fortunes for a while, adding a Barnes and Noble (the first one in the chain to open in a mall), an Old Navy, and a new food court built on the site of the former Joske's (as Dillard's consolidated its efforts into a single store again). When Montgomery Ward closed its doors, that building was razed and replaced with a Super Target, which brought in plenty of business but was not physically accessible from the mall proper.

When Firewheel opened in October 2005, three of the major tenants--Dillard's, Barnes and Noble, and Old Navy--relocated there (both malls were owned by Simon, which understandably didn't want to duplicate its efforts only a few miles apart, and it also makes sense that the stores wanted to be a part of the new retail trend). The mall was mostly vacant by 2006, and the inner portion of the mall (pretty much everything in between Sears and Super Target, though I'm not sure if the Ross store, which remains, got a new building out of it or not) was demolished in 2007, to be replaced by a Lowe's home improvement center, which opened this June and signified the rebirth of Richardson Square in a new form.

Writer Andrew Laska of the Richardson Echo comments on the new Richardson Square and calls its history a metaphor for the entire American shopping mall experience. He's not as bullish on Firewheel as I am, but he makes some good observations. (Granted, the loss of Richardson Square was a blow to his neighborhood, while the opening of Firewheel greatly enhanced mine, so our viewpoints are understandable in context.)

Some pictures of the near-vacant mall, taken before and during demoltion, can be found here. (The siteowner erroneously labels Dillard's as JCPenney, but the latter was never at Richardson Square.)

Part 2: Mt. Prospect, IL (Randhurst Mall). Almost a year ago, I came across an interesting site called, which I discussed here. Even though I've never been a big shopping guy, the proverbial trip to the mall was always a fun thing for me, dating back to when I was really little. I was surprised, as I browsed that site, to find out that many of the places I visited as a kid had been turned into town centers (such as Westgate Mall in the Cleveland suburb, near my grandparents' house) or simply closed outright (such as Salem Mall in Dayton, Ohio, near where the other grandmother lived).

Further searches at that site led me to, a similar site that's done in blog form and is updated more regularly. (A labelscar is what's left when a store vacates a building and removes its signage; a good example thereof can be found on the Barnes and Noble picture from the Richardson Square slideshow linked above.) On that site, I learned of the fate of two other places I used to go when we lived in St. Louis (the longest place we stayed before moving to Houston): River Roads Mall in Jennings (home of an awesome monorail in the toy department of its main anchor, Stix, Baer & Fuller, which was sold to Dillard's in the '80s), and Northwest Plaza in St. Ann near the airport. The former was demolished in 2006 (after lying vacant for more than a decade) and its proposed successor project has yet to come to fruition, while the latter is still around but has fallen on hard times.

But the one thing that really stood out in my search was the discovery that Randhurst Mall in Mt. Prospect, Illinois--where I went to kindergarten--is about to be turned into a town center.

It may have been a few years since I was in kindergarten, but I remember Randhurst well. Its unusual design, by famed architect Victor Gruen, featured an equilateral triangle with the anchor stores at the "points," but it also had other levels--including an eventual food court--that were artfully placed in the center, but halfway in between the other floors (check out a picture here to get an idea of the design). I visited there again on a trip about 15 years ago, but I didn't have the foresight to take pictures of it back then.

The mall thrived for a while, but, like many older venues, it lost customers to the newer, bigger centers in farther-flung suburbia, and it suffered with the loss of some anchors, either to relocation or because the parent company shut down. (Also, like Richardson Square, it suffered by not being close to a freeway.) Last year, it was announced that the mall proper (the "triangle" portion) will be torn down (this is probably in progress as we speak) and made into a lifestyle center. The anchors will remain intact and open during this process.

A profile of the replacement project, to be called Randhurst Village, may be found here (it includes a cool animated video "walk-through" of the development, with the unusual juxtaposition of moving cars and stationary people). Also check out this information brochure from the developer, which includes an aerial picture of the soon-to-be-demolished original site, showing the triangle shape.

Seeing as how I just visited Mt. Prospect in March during my Chicago/Milwaukee trip, I'm kicking myself for not stopping in Randhurst. I drove right by it on my way in, but it was just a bit before noon on Easter Sunday, and I wasn't sure what would be open. Now, I sure wish that I could have gone in there one more time.

So why the mixed feelings about these two places? As I said, I'm an unabashed New Urbanism fan, and it makes sense why I celebrate the arrival of one in my neighborhood, even at the expense of an older mall. But why do I feel a glint of sadness about the new replacing the old in a place where I haven't lived since a few weeks before my sixth birthday? After all, as I wrote in an earlier post,
[T]he town center seems to be the wave of the future; people want to have nicely-built, walkable shopping areas with greenspace instead of huge air-conditioned boxes, and they want to be able to drive right up to their favorite store if need be instead of parking out in the hinterlands somewhere. I won't be surprised if more boxy malls remake themselves as town centers in the future.
The answer lies in that last sentence: It's all about the architecture.

Richardson Square was a generic, boxy mall (and it was six miles away, whereas its replacement, Firewheel, is a healthy walk from home). Randhurst was a really unique design--confusing to some, I'm sure, but one of a kind. However, I'm sure there aren't enough "architecture freaks" in Chicagoland for that to be a drawing card in and of itself. The New Urbanist model will do a better job of that, and it's likely to attract more of the high-end businesses that will make the area thrive again. As I noted on my Chicago trip in March, Mt. Prospect--or at least my old neighborhood--has held up very well, but there hasn't been a lot of new construction in a while; this development can only help.

And while I'm sorry that I missed a possible last visit to the old place a few months ago, you had best believe that any Chicago trip from 2010 onward will include a stop at the intersection of Rand Rd. and Elmhurst Ave. (yes, the source of the name). But I won't forget what was marked that location for over four-and-a-half decades.

(Apologies for the lengthy essay; I was just on a roll and kept on going. Feel free to state your opinion about New Urbanism, or the decline of the traditional shopping mall, in the comments.)

Monday, August 11, 2008

Gastronomy Frog WBAGNFARB*

I've linked before to some hilarious posts involving badly-translated menu items in Chinese restaurants (meaning, in this case, restaurants actually in China). The phenomenon, often known as Engrish, is evidently widespread throughout that country, and, in light of the Olympic games going on over there, Chinese officials have been making a concerted effort to rid restaurant menus and other signage of these mangled translations.

A few months ago, CNN posted a story about the changes suggested by Chinese officials:
Local dishes like "Husband and wife's lung slice" or "Chicken without sexual life" conjure lots of furrowed eyebrows on famished foreigners.

So, with the Olympics a few short weeks away, China is giving its cuisine a linguistic makeover.

It is proposing that restaurants change the names of exotic, but bizarrely named, delicacies to make them more delectable for the estimated 50,000 visitors arriving in August for the Summer Games.

The appetizer "Husband and wife's lung slice" is taking on the more appetizing "Beef and ox tripe in chili sauce."

The government has put down more than 2,000 proposed names in a 170-page book that it has offered to Beijing hotels, according to state media.
And we finally learn the reason for the odd names; it's not always just a bad translation:
The Chinese say the names of their dishes focus more on appearance than taste or smell. But Westerners are more accustomed to names that describe the ingredients and how they are cooked -- such as pot roast.

The government realizes local names are a matter of taste, but don't want them to get lost in translation.
OK, that makes sense. So while it will be easier to decide whether or not to order "Bean curd made by a pock-marked woman" now that it's been renamed "Mapo tofu," but it won't be nearly as much fun.

But the government didn't get them all. Dave Barry is over in China at the moment (not just as a humorist, but because his sportswriter wife has official credentials), and he's found all kinds of funny stuff:
  • Gastronomy frog

  • Highest-ranking imperial concubine's milk bread

  • Soup eel soup

  • Wish beans

  • Fried-centipede/Fried-starfish

  • Mafia salad
Go to the August archives of Dave's blog and just keep scrolling; not only does he have pictures of the signs in question, but he also shows some of the delectable (?) local food. Scorpion on a stick, anyone?

And not everyone in China is wild about the government's effort. As one Chinese columnist quoted in the CNN story said, "it turns a menu into the equivalent of plain rice, which has the necessary nutrients but is devoid of flavor."

*As Dave Barry fans already know, WBAGNFARB stands for "would be a good name for a rock band."

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Is It Intermission Yet?

I missed this last month when it happened, but there's been a development in the performance of a very long John Cage composition in Germany: They've changed to the sixth chord now. And when I say "sixth chord," I'm not talking about a type of chord; I mean that they've moved on to Chord #6.

Cage was best known for his unusual composition, 4'33", which consists of four minutes and 33 seconds of slience (in three movements). I actually "transcribed" this for saxophone quartet in college, and we played it on one of our fraternity recitals. (It was an interesting experience, as many people never sit in complete silence for that long unless they're taking an exam or something. It really forced us to listen to everything going on around us.)

Cage also wrote another piece entitled As Slow As Possible, an eight-page work which is meant to be played as its title specifies...but the composer never added a tempo marking. While its premiere performance lasted just under half an hour, a church in Halberstadt, Germany decided to take him literally, and they've scheduled the work to go on for 639 years! (As to why this length of time was chosen, it has to do with how old the city's famed organ was when the performance began in 2000.)

Eight years in, the performance struck Chord #6 last month; the local officials have not yet stated how long this chord is to be played (how cool; they're doing it rubato!). The organ's pedals are held down by weights, so the composition is "playing" in the church (not in the main sanctuary, I'd hope!) all the time. It's scheduled to end in early 2640.

And you thought some concerts were too long...

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Let's Imagine a Jazz Musician's Dream Wedding Reception Gig...

...mine would go something like this:
  • The bride grows up in a house where the two most-played albums are Dave Brubeck's Time Out and Miles Davis' Kind of Blue. Not only are "generic danceable standards" unnecessary (nary a note of "Satin Doll" is played all night), but there are specific requests for multiple tunes from the above two albums, and everything else played is in a similar "cool jazz" vein.

  • The food is delicious, and the musicians are allowed to partake of it.

  • Not only that, but there is a generous amount of break time to consume said food while various toasts to the happy couple are being raised.

  • There's one phrase that a wedding host can utter that will strike fear into the hearts of bandleaders the world over: "We have a friend who'd like to sing with the band." But even though this is scheduled to happen at this gig, it turns out that the friend in question sings very, very well.

  • As is often the case at a wallpaper gig, there's not a lot of applause, but the people at least nod and smile in your general direction, and there are random compliments afterwards. Someone asks for a business card at the end.

  • And to top it off, the gig is only a seven-minute drive from home.
Most veteran musicians would read the above list and say, "Yeah, Kev, in your dreams!" Which would normally be true...except that I played that exact gig last night. It joins my sister's own wedding (in which I was a groomsman and the bandleader) as the top two weddings I've ever played, and the all-jazz wedding I attended a few years ago would round out a list of the three most fun weddings I've ever been involved with in some way.

I don't know a thing about the happy couple, apart from what the toasters were saying, but I wish them all the best. Their reception certainly had a very cool soundtrack...

Blowing out half a century's worth of candles: Happy 50th birthday to James Lileks, one of my favorite writers and bloggers.

Friday, August 08, 2008


Here we are again--the day where all three of the numerical abbreviations for day, month and year coincide. I've noted this at least in passing on this blog for the past three years. (It's interesting to note that 07.07.07 is considered lucky by most people; 06.06.06 is considered evil by many, but lucky by the Chinese; 05.05.05 seems to be "meh," neither good nor bad; and today is also considered lucky by the Chinese, which is one of the reasons they chose today to be the opening of the Olympics.)

Me, I have a gig tonight--a private function, which is why I'm not touting it left and right--so I won't be watching any pageantry right away. So there's the discussion question of the day: Will you be watching any of the upcoming Olympics? And if so, what is your favorite event? (My answers would be "probably" and "cycling and swimming," for the record.)

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Five Degrees of Separation...from Reality

The Dallas Morning News" Jacquielynn Floyd points out a recent article by Joe Klein of TIME Magazine that basically calls air conditioners unnecessary. Here's Klein:
The unnecessary refrigeration of America has become a chronic disease. It seems to have gotten worse over the past few years, with thermostats routinely set at 68deg.F, and sometimes even 65 deg., in the (far too many) hotel rooms I've suffered on the campaign trail. "Americans seem to keep their houses cooler in summer than they do in the winter," muses Edward Parson, an environmental expert at the University of Michigan Law School. But it's hard to know for sure, since there are no comprehensive studies that measure air-conditioning trend lines.

I will confess a bias here. I love warm weather, even when it slouches toward humidity. I detest the harsh, slightly metallic quality of the air forced through even the fanciest AC systems. The only air conditioner I own sits, unused, in my car; my home is happily unrefrigerated. But given the energy mess we're in, I can now gild my personal preference with a patina of high-mindedness: air-conditioning is bad for the planet, and for national security, and for our balance-of-payments deficit. Unfortunately, it is not as bad as I'd like it to be — in part because not all of our electricity is provided by fossil fuels (although coal does predominate). And also because air-conditioning represents a relatively small slice of our energy use, an estimated 4%.
So what's Klein's suggested solution?
I'd like to see both [presidential] candidates call for an immediate 5deg.F thermostat adjustment, just to get the conservation ball rolling — and because it would be a "personal virtue" for each candidate to ask it of us. And I'd like to wish you all a nice, warmer summer.
Back here in the Dallas area, DMN columnist Floyd takes Klein to task:
I had the kind of summer he evidently envisions. Once. As a young, typically broke adult, I spent a blistering Austin summer living in a ragged, un-air-conditioned rent house. Every night, we would slap wet towels over ourselves to get to sleep, waking up every hour or so to soak the towels down again. I'm nostalgic about a lot of things, but not that.

Mr. Klein, according to his biography, lives in Westchester County, N.Y., where the expected high temperature on Monday was 85 degrees (for those of you confined to subterranean silos, ours was expected to reach 108). He does not say whether he intends to endure next winter without running the heat.

I'm not insensible to the need for conservation. We've made voluntary concessions at our house – sharing rides, using DART, declining plastic bags, watching our water usage.

Asking us to pull this particular plug, though, is asking too much.

They'll get my A/C when they pry my cold, dead fingers off the thermostat.
Well said. You'd think someone like Klein, who actually does get out of the New York bubble if he's covering the campaign trail, would realize that a one-size-fits-all "solution" doesn't work in a country with weather as varied as ours.

Not to mention that it's rather unsafe to turn off the AC for an extended time in this part of the country in the summer. As Newsbusters' Tim Graham points out, "the opposite of air-conditioning can be heat-wave deaths."

The thermostat in Casa de Kev is set to 78 degrees in summer. There's no way in the world I would set it to 83; it would probably start to damage the electronic equipment in the house, and it would definitely be too hot to sleep. Sure, the utility bill that just arrived in my mailbox today is pretty high, but, like Floyd, I'm trying to conserve in other ways. It's nearly impossible to live in this part of the country without AC; it's no coincidence that the population of this region was rather small before its invention.

If Klein really wants to make this into a North vs. South debate, it should be noted that even he concedes that heating represents nearly twice the drain on energy that air conditioning does. Floyd makes a good point: Is Klein willing to make the same sort of sacrifice in winter that he's asking of Southerners in summer? (Using my own winter setting--68--as a benchmark, raise your hand if you think that the Klein abode will really be set at 63 in a few months.)

And if you live in this area like I do, offer up a silent bit of praise to Willis Carrier, whose invention of the "Apparatus for Treating Air" made it possible to live here in comfort.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

I'll Mark Down This Day, As I Bet It's a One-Time Occurrence

This afternoon, I walked out to the mailbox, as I have so many times before. But today was different: Not only was all the mail relevant, but it was all money. No bills, no junk mail, no advertising circulars. All money.

The advent of modern technology has taken a lot of the joy out of that daily trip to the mailbox, but today was an exception. (And why are people mailing me money? Because some students' parents do that, especially this month when some of the kids are away at marching band.)

Have you ever had a day this good at your mailbox?

Thank You, Edouard...

...for bringing some relief to Texas and ending our string of 100-degree days. The wind was nice last night, and it felt so much better to "only" be in the 90s in the afternoon. Sure, it would have been nice to have gotten some of the rain that teased us last night (I saw dark clouds and a partial rainbow on my way home, but nothing ever came of it), but I think there's still a small chance in the forecast. The cloud cover and lower temps are nice, though, and I'm sure my students who started marching practice this week appreciate it.

And I'm also happy that the storm didn't cause any havoc near my parents' house and didn't mess up too many people's Galveston vacations (although attempting to swim through its waves evidently wasn't a good idea). Here's hoping that a little moisture makes it up our way pretty soon; the yards need it.

And in other beachside news: Catholic priests and nuns in Rome have established an inflatable church on the Adriatic coast to attract beachgoers who want to worship or give a confession.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

This New Drink Fits Me to a "Tea"

Longtime readers of this blog know that I'm a big coffee guy (you wouldn't want to see me before I have my cup at breakfast) and a fan of Starbucks--not only for the beverages, but also the various purposes of the place (hanging with friends, reading, grading papers, etc.). In the summer, I tend to stop at one on the way to the college, both as a buffer between one type of teaching and the other, and as a chance to get a little reading done.

In the summer in Texas, a hot drink isn't very practical in the afternoon, so I skew towards Frappuccinos, but I'm aware of the caloric content of those things, so sometimes I'll get the shaken iced tea or the iced tea lemonade. That's cheaper, but there's not as much drink in there either, so there's a tradeoff involved.

But this afternoon, while on my usual stop, I was presented with another alternative as I prepared to order the tea lemonade. "Would you like it blended?" What's that; come again? "Yes, you can have it just over ice, or we can make it like a Frappuccino." Ooh, that sounds good; let's try that.

And I think I've found the answer to my summertime drink dilemma now. The blended tea has the substance of a Frap (and no wasted space filled with just ice) without the calories, and it's still a buck cheaper. I wondered if this was brand new, and, if not, why nobody had ever suggested this before. (A little research showed that some sort of blended tea had been offered since at least 2002, when the company pulled a controversial ad that some people accused of having 9/11 imagery.)

So thank you, anonymous female barista at Renner and North Star. You've guaranteed yourself some more sales now.

Jumpin' with java joy some more: The New York Times dispels some of the negative myths about coffee drinking.

Monday, August 04, 2008

The Latest From Fry Street: No News Is Good News

I missed this story a few weeks ago (mostly because it came from the North Texas Daily, which I rarely see in dead-tree form anymore, and my visits to their website are spotty at best), but I heard about it yesterday from one of my friends who lives in Denton: United Equities, locked in a stalemate with the city of Denton after being denied a drive-through permit for the proposed CVS drugstore, is not planning on moving ahead with the development for the foreseeable future, and they are even considering selling the property.

My response? Good! Sell it quickly, to someone who has ties to the community and cares about its history, and don't let the door hit you in your carpetbagging behind on the way back to Houston.

This thing has been a fiasco from Day One. A UNT student quoted in the story put it best: "This seems like a big waste of money and time," business and marketing senior Devon McAfee said. "This project has ruined businesses like the Tomato who have been a family business and now have no restaurant to call their own." (And The Tomato is still working on things, folks; I just got a MySpace bulletin from them over the weekend. It's just that, after a few false leads, they're not going to announce anything official until a deal is close to being sealed.)

If I had some lottery money, I would certainly join a few of my fellow UNT alums in buying this property and developing it the right way. (Keep in mind that not all of UE's plan was bad, but the replacement of The Tomato and its neighbors with a drugstore turned out to be the fatal flaw for myself and many others.) At the risk of sounding like a broken record, here's my idea once again:
[A] generic chain drugstore is not a suitable use for the Hickory and Fry corner. The CVS could go just fine on the other end of the property, in the old FEMA call center building at Welch and Oak (which used to be an Eckerd Drugs back in the day). There's more parking and less foot traffic on that end, and the drive-through wouldn't be nearly so much of an issue over there.

Meanwhile, the Hickory/Fry corner should be the place that houses some of the student-friendly restaurants that they're trying to attract; that would be a much better use of the "gateway" portion of the development. Build replicas of the 1925 buildings that were razed (and invite the Tomato back), and they'd probably win over the city council in a heartbeat.
Let's hope that a suitable developer can be found quickly; as depressing as it is to see that empty lot, it's still better than having United Equities' vision of the area rammed down everyone's throats.

As always, more updates as they occur...

(If you're a first-time visitor who has no idea what I'm talking about here, click the "Fry Street" link below for a display of all the posts leading up to this one.)