Friday, October 31, 2008

Travel Advisory

I'm taking a quick weekend jaunt that will include stops in several locations: San Antonio, Corpus Christi and Austin. (What lengths I will go to, just to avoid passing out candy!) I'll see friends and family and, of course, dress up like a burrito tonight just like in previous years. Blogging will resume Sunday evening.

Blowing out the candles: Happy 39th birthday to KNTU, one of my old haunts (heh) in college. (They're planning a big celebration for the 40th next year.) And speaking of haunts, if you're new to this blog, be sure and check out my ghost story, which involves a former UNT building which once housed the radio station.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Stars, Last Night, Were Big and Bright...

...deep in the heart of North Texas, of course.

The Dallas Stars have been in Texas since 1993, but until last night, I had never attended a game, nor even set foot in American Airlines Center. (Don't get me wrong--I became a fan by the time they won the Stanley Cup in '99; in fact, I hosted the game-watching parties for my group of friends at my house. Star Wars: Episode I had recently come out, and we spent each intermission having a hellacious continuing Pod Racer tournament on the Nintendo 64--fun times!). But I'd never quite made it out to a game, either because of scheduling or the (not entirely accurate) notion that tickets were just too pricey for what I could afford at the time. So when the team ran a special that offered $15 tickets for all the games in the month of October, I had to jump at the chance.

It seems that I picked a good game for my first one, as the Stars beat the Minnesota Wild, 4-2. I missed the very first goal (which happened just 13 seconds into the game) because I couldn't get my teaching schedule and the train schedule to properly converge, but I still got there in time for a decent amount of the first period (and in fact, the Stars would score their second goal within mere minutes of my being seated).

As I said, I'd never been to the AAC before last night (though I did walk up to it on a visit to Victory Park one time), and I was quite impressed with the facility, especially compared to its predecessor, Reunion Arena. Although it's over seven years old now, it still looks sparkling and new. They've done a clever thing, advertising-wise, by having a lighted center ring that can host a variety of corporate logos and also be used to generate crowd excitement, announcing things like goals, power plays and so on. The seats were comfortable, and the sound was loud and clear.

As for the atmosphere of the game itself--the best word to describe things would be "rowdy," in a good way. The PA announcer may have been a bit over-the-top (in a Michael Buffer sort of way), but otherwise, they did a fine job of stirring up interest, using lights and music to get the crowd riled up. There's a lot of time between goals in hockey, but the presentation comes off as "constant entertainment," which fits well with the current Internet/gamer generation. (The use of lights was especially effective, with that center advertising bar flashing maniacally at some points--though I wonder if it might cause Pokémon seizures in little kids.) The Stars scored some more and kept up a good defense, so my first game ended with a W.

The one thing that really surprised me was how nice our seats were, especially only being $15. I didn't expect to have to go past a guard to get to the escalator, for one thing. Also, we were right next to the luxury boxes (so much so that I could turn my head just a bit and watch the final pitch of the World Series on the TV in the suite next door), and the food was not only really good (if expensive), but servers had come through the seats before I got there. As we were leaving the concourse, I asked my friend who had gotten the tickets how much the seats usually were. His answer? $115! (I guess they did the $100-off promotion because a lot of the October games don't draw as many people as the ones later in the year.) And it turns out that there really are $15 seats in the upper, upper deck on a regular basis. I'll definitely have to remember that in the future.

All in all, a great night. I'll be back.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

This Fine Young Band Is About to Become Asia's Business, Too

I've written about the band Nobody's Business in a short post last spring, when I first was turned onto their music by my friend Colin, who plays drums in the band (and is also the first-call drummer for any project that I have these days). Since then, I've purchased their debut CD, Forward Momentum, and I've seen them live at a Denton club last month.

And now, their music is about to go not just far beyond Denton, but far beyond our shores, as they embark on an Asian tour starting tomorrow:
"Every musician wants to play internationally and show other cultures their music," [pianist Roberto] Verastegui said. "We thought Asia would be good to start with."

Soon, Nobody's Business will play a two-week tour in Hong Kong and Tokyo.

The tour covers nine gigs from Oct. 30 to Nov. 8, including stops at Hong Kong Baptist University, jazz clubs and an artist showcase for jazz and blues music.
And perhaps the coolest part is that their professors are very much OK with the fact that they'll be missing two weeks' worth of class and, for the most part, letting them make up missed assignments. As Colin said in the article, "After all, we're doing what we're supposed to be doing."

Be sure and check out the video at the bottom of the linked article for a quick impromptu video of the band jamming. And in two weeks, on November 14, the band will host a fundraising show for a future trip to Mexico by splitting a gig with the UNT jazz faculty at the Syndicate on campus.

Bon voyage, guys! They should love you over there...

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Yes, I Read the Story...

...about the 15 UNT football players who failed drug tests recently. An anonymous commenter to my post about the passage of the stadium referendum a few weeks ago asked me about it in the comments to that post:
I saw a tv news blurb about your precious UNT atheletes....15 tested positive for drugs! Now is this more embarassing than the condition of Fouts Field? And I hate to say this but a new field will not cancel out (especially in parents' minds) the drugs in the team!
(I'm guessing that this Anonymous is not Anonymous #1, who engaged in a civil discussion with me even though we disagreed, but it could be Anonymous #2, who came in dropping F-bombs, or even a third, completely different one. Should I start requiring people to make up screennames yet?)

Anyway, I'll address Anon's question: First of all, he's talking about this story, the main points of which are as follows:
Fifteen University of North Texas football players failed a drug test conducted this fall at the request of head coach Todd Dodge, according to documents obtained by the Denton Record-Chronicle through the Freedom of Information Act.

Drug tests were conducted on a pool of 86 football players selected by the coaching staff. UNT tested members of the team who were contributing on a regular basis. Fifteen of those tests, or 17 percent, were positive.

The university did not release the names of the players or what drugs they tested positive for.
First of all, take note that this was something that Coach Dodge requested on his own; the story notes that it's distinct from the tests done by the NCAA. Dodge has high standards, and if some players are falling short of those standards, it's good to nip the problem in the bud and get the players the help they need. Dodge said as much in the article:
“I don’t think we have a problem with drugs, but I will say that it’s every coach’s prerogative to test his team,” Dodge said. “It’s a great tool to help players stay away from drugs and temptations. When I talked to my team about drug testing all of them, I told them that if there was one young man on our team who secretly needed help, if it saved one young man from getting in trouble or ending up dead, then it is worth it.”

[...]The school normally tests athletes on a random basis.

“We call ourselves a team and it was appropriate to test the entire team,” Dodge said. “I don’t go by the protocol of what every other team has done.

“We are past it now and can go down the road.”
So to the Anon who's trying to turn this into some sort of "I told you so!", all I can say is this: We get it. You don't think that the UNT students should have voted for the stadium fee. But something like this incident does not mean that those students, or the alumni who support the idea--were wrong to do so. If anything, it just goes to show once again what a stand-up guy Todd Dodge is, and it's good to know that the new facility might well play a role in helping to keep him in Denton for a long time.

And in the meantime, since the voters (albeit a small percentage of them, but still larger than any student election in recent memory) have spoken, it's probably about time to apply the coach's wisdom to this subject: Get past it, and go down the road. (Anyone want to take bets on whether or not that will happen?)

UPDATE: A later story notes that what Dodge had his players tested for were "recreational" drugs, while the NCAA tests are for performance-enhancing drugs. That doesn't make what the players did any better, but it does clarify some things.

Also, a commenter at the original linked DRC story raises an interesting question:
Anyone that thinks this problem is isolated to the football team is ignorant. I would be curious to know how many of the 34,000+ student would test positive if tested today. Though not right, this goes on at every school, on every team and in all parts of society. Those that cast stones better not live in glass houses.
Good point.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Another Call for Saturday Elections

A few days ago, I pondered the questions of why Election Day was on a Tuesday and what was keeping it from being moved to a weekend. In a single op-ed column in this morning's paper, I got answers to both...
  • Why is it on a Tuesday? According to Steven Israel, a New York Congressman, and Norman Ornstein, co-founder of Why Tuesday? (a nonpartisan group that seeks to increase voter participation), it has its roots in our agrarian past:
    [I]n the United States, for more than 150 years, we've voted on Tuesday. Why? It's not in the Constitution. It isn't to avoid holidays. And it's not because people hate Mondays.

    The reason makes perfect sense – at least it did in 1845. In early agrarian American society, Saturday was for farming, Sunday was the Lord's day, Monday was required for travel to the county seat where the polling places were, Tuesday you voted, Wednesday you returned home, and Thursday it was back to work.

    It's a safe bet that today most Americans don't follow the same schedule as our farming forefathers. In fact, for many, Tuesday is one of the most inconvenient days to hold an election. One in four people who didn't vote in 2006 said that they were "too busy" or had "conflicting work or school schedules."
    That makes sense to me. As I said in the earlier post, I took advantage of early voting last Friday just to ensure that I didn't end up running out of time on Election Day, but I'm aware that lots of people don't even have that luxury.

  • But most of us aren't farmers now. What's keeping it from changing? Well, I guess the easiest answer would be "tradition." But that could very well change soon:
    Legislation now before Congress would finally tailor our voting system to modern American life by establishing weekend voting for national elections. (Steve Israel is sponsoring the bill in the House.) The presidential election would be held on the Saturday and Sunday after the first Friday in November, while for those who aren't often home on the weekends, there would be a few days of early voting.

    Our current system penalizes single parents, people working two jobs, and those who have to choose between getting a paycheck and casting a ballot. Two weekend days of voting means those working families would have a greater chance of making it to the polls. It means easing the long lines during rush hour at the polling sites. It means more locations, more poll workers and more voters.
    Seems like a good idea to me. I'm not 100% sold on the Saturday and Sunday idea (it seems to me like it could all get done on a Saturday alone, and having the returns come in on a non-school/work night would spare a lot of people a groggy morning the next day), but moving it to the weekend would certainly be a good idea--that, or, as I said earlier, making Election Day a new Monday holiday.
Israel and Ornstein also point out that, no matter how high a turnout we have this year, the U.S. is still in the middle of the pack in that area, behind Iceland, New Zealand and Sweden--all of whom have their elections on the weekend.

So can this change really happen? The authors think so:
Making a change like this won't be easy, but it's not unprecedented. In 1968, Congress passed the Monday Holiday law, which moved Memorial Day, Columbus Day, Veterans Day and Washington's Birthday from their original dates to Mondays. If we can alter our federal holidays to benefit shoppers and travelers, surely we can change Election Day for the benefit of our voters.
I hope this works; it certainly wouldn't hurt to try it.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Monk Day

No, we're not celebrating the music of Thelonious here today (but feel free to do so in my absence). The "monk" part has to do with the fact that I have to complete several full combo arrangements today, for the concert that a few of my groups are doing in less than two weeks. My groups have big front lines and unusual instrumentations, so it's best to write some backgrounds, harmonies, shout choruses and so on, so as to spare the audience a constant "wall of unison" for the entire set.

But there are a few challenges to doing this: I find it hard to get "inspired on demand" to write; I get very little work in this area done at home (too many distractions); and I have a shared office at school that often gets quite noisy. (Oddly enough, the most inspiration to write that I've gotten in the past several months took place at a Starbucks one afternoon last week; I didn't have time to finish everything, but I at least wrote the ideas down to finish up now.) Since I can't do this on demand on a regular basis, I told my groups that there would have to be a weekend where I just "became a monk" to get everything done. This is that weekend.

So this is a roundabout way of saying that I won't be blogging much today, even though I'm behind on a few days' worth of posts. I might duck in later with a progress report, but anything that doesn't get done today will have to be done by Tuesday afternoon (for one group) or Thursday evening at the latest (for the other one).

UPDATE: Seven hours later, the two most time-consuming arrangements are done. Everything else can wait, as my hand is cramped beyond belief (you should see the typos I'm correcting while I do this post). If I don't put up anything tomorrow, it means I've gone back to the "monastery" for a little bit more.

Friday, October 24, 2008

An Early Report From the Polls

As I said a few weeks ago, I don't talk about politics on this blog, but I certainly don't mind talking about non-specific parts of the process--more specifically, early voting.

I did this today at lunchtime, and I'm happy to report that I was in and out in fifteen minutes, despite double digits' worth of people in line. The process was pretty efficient, the touch-screen machines worked easily, and the workers were very helpful (it didn't hurt that the one who brought me to the machine was the mother of a former student). Quick and painless.

So why vote early? In my case, I might have had time to vote on Election Day, but why push it? My mind was already made up on everything, and nothing between now and then could make me vote differently. There's talk of big lines at the polls on that day, and my polling place is an elementary school with minimal parking, so there might be issues there. And, knowing me, I might space out and completely forget on that day, since I don't pass that school once it's open. It's just much easier to be safe than sorry.

But this brings up an interesting point: How did Election Day ever get to be on a Tuesday in the first place? And, perhaps more importantly, why does it continue to be there? As people work longer and longer hours, and two-income households are the norm, what's the point of having it on a workday? (And don't get me wrong--I'm definitely not suggesting that the polls stay open later to accommodate the working folks; it takes long enough to finalize results as it is.) I say it should either be moved to the first Saturday in November or be made a holiday (which would likely bump it back to a Monday).

Agree or disagree? Cast your "ballot" in the comments.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Some More Good Education News

Yesterday, I noted that relief may be on the way to overstressed third, fifth and eighth graders in Texas schools, as the education committees in each house of the Texas Legislature proposed the elimination of the requirement to pass the TAKS test in order to be promoted to the next grade. (If you're not from Texas and missed the previous discussion, it comes down to this: A student could pass every class during the year, but if he/she failed this standardized test, promotion would be denied. Doesn't this render the whole idea of grades fairly meaningless, if it can be trumped by one test? And it also should be noted that any sentence which contains the phrase "overstressed third-graders" is indicative of a big problem somewhere.)

So here's today's good news: State Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes--who must have received a slew of complaints about his proposal to take extra weight away from pre-AP and pre-IB courses when computing students' GPA's with regard to college admission (as discussed here)--has agreed to adjust his plan so that those courses would get an extra half-point in weight; AP, IB and dual-credit courses would still get the one extra grade point of weight as in the original proposal.

(There's no word as to whether fine arts courses, which are left out of the GPA calculation completely in the current plan, might find their way back in, but Paredes says that he is soliciting suggestions of other courses to include in the calculation, so there may yet be hope.)

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

This Is a Good Start; Now, Let's Take the Next Step

Longtime readers of this blog know that I'm no fan of the TAKS test (that's the standardized test given to public school kids here in Texas). As I've said on many occasions (enter "TAKS" into the search box to find my other posts on the subject), the test is fine when used as an assessment (which is what the A in TAKS stands for), but it should be given at the beginning of the year, not the end, and it shouldn't be tied to promotion or graduation. And while the use of TAKS as a high school exit test is about to be phased out, it is still linked to promotion in the third, fifth and eighth grades. But a proposal by a pair of state legislative committees may change that:
Texas students in certain grades would no longer have to pass the state achievement test to be promoted under a new school accountability plan unveiled Tuesday by leaders of the House and Senate education committees.

The proposal would scuttle a requirement originally championed by former Gov. George W. Bush as a way to curtail the widespread practice of social promotion – automatically passing students regardless of achievement.

In addition, the new accountability plan would base annual school performance ratings on three years of test scores rather than the most recent year, allowing school districts and campuses to make up for a bad year of results with a couple of positive years.
I couldn't agree more; a single test--especially one branded as an "assessment"--should not carry as much weight as the TAKS has since its inception. And others agree:
Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, said school districts would be able to decide their own criteria for promotion of students, using test scores, grades and whatever else is considered appropriate. She said students who fail in the three grades would receive additional instruction.

"These decisions need to be made locally and not dictated by the state," Ms. Shapiro said, insisting the move would not undermine promotion standards. "We're not saying [these students] won't be held back. We're just saying the decision won't be based on one test."

[...]Len Phipps, a teacher at Cowart Elementary School in southwest Dallas, said most teachers don't like the idea of a single test determining whether a student moves up to the next grade.

"The test by itself is not enough to make the decision on whether a child should be promoted," Ms. Phipps said. "Other factors, like teacher input, need to be considered. There can also be extenuating circumstances for some children."
Some people don't favor the idea, saying that it would increase "social promotion," but the only person quoted in the story as supporting it, Sandy Kress, was also the architect of the federal No Child Left Behind act, which doesn't seem to have many fans at all at the moment; I'll take the word of teachers over that of an educrat/lobbyist/lawyer almost any day.

So it looks like the Texas Legislature is starting to understand that students (and schools) shouldn't be penalized for taking one bad test, and an average of several years' worth of tests should be the main criterion for evaluating a school. Now let's go on to the next step: Revamp the state's no pass/no play law so that it only penalizes students who have a cumulative failing average for a six-weeks period, not those who fail a single class. I've been an advocate for this since grad school, for the same reasons stated by the legislative committee for revamping the TAKS promotion standards: It doesn't provide for the student who has a bad day (as in failing an exam that is worth, say, over half the grade for the six weeks) or even a bad teacher.

(I should also note that I was surprised to see that no pass/no play had its own Wikipedia page, and more than a little annoyed to see music incorrectlly referred to as an extracurricular activity; certainly, there are extracurricular components to music, such as marching band, but fine arts are indeed a part of the curriculum.)

Does anyone think that the Lege will take me up on this idea? I'm not holding my breath...

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Should This Band Have Been Banned? Maybe Not All of It..

Here's one more story that came out a week or so ago that I haven't had time to blog about yet; I'm actually glad I waited, because a similar thing to this was brought up yesterday, as you'll see...

It's not all that often that a music story makes it into the sports section, but that's exactly what happened when the University of Wisconsin announced that it had suspended its marching band for several games because of a hazing incident:
University of Wisconsin band dirctor Michael Leckrone announced Friday that the famed UW marching band has been suspended for Saturday night's nationally television game against Ohio State and won't play again until an investigation into allegations of hazing and inappropriate sexual activity is finished.
Leckrone and UW Dean of Students Lori Berquam declined to say where the latest alleged incidents occurred or talk in specifics about the allegations, but Leckrone said they involved "inappropriate alcohol use, hazing and sexual behavior."
The band was put on probation by former Chancellor John Wiley following a Sept. 23 trip to Michigan in 2006. He issued stern warnings that continued bad behavior would result in more repercussions for the band, including possible loss of performances and travel privileges and possible suspension of the band.
Leckrone noted that the band would continue to practice regularly, but the game performances--which started in the 1920s--won't take place for a while.

The behavior, as described in the article, was definitely bad, and punishment is warranted--for those who did it, the number of which is described as "a handful." But I feel for the completely innocent people who are also being punished for this (and yes, that would include the Wisconsin fans at the next several games).

There are many reasons why I didn't become a regular classroom teacher, and one of them is that I absolutely bristle at the idea of punishing entire groups for the transgressions of the few. What exactly is this supposed to teach the innocents--that life is hard and sometimes unfair? A lot of them experience more than their share of that concept at home. I think it's laziness--it's much easier to just issue a blanket punishment than to actually take the time to discover the perpetrators and punish them.

One possible reason for suspending the entire band is discussed in a recent op-ed column by the Boston Globe's Derrick Z. Jackson that appeared locally over the weekend. He quotes Leckrone as saying the following:
"I'm not sure society does a good job of getting this across, but there comes a point where if you want respect for your group or organization, you have to set your group apart from some aspects of society. [...] There has to come a point where just because society says it's OK to do certain things, you have to say it's not OK for me. I am sure that many band members never saw anything and did not even know anything about it. But I also believe there had to be other members who observed what was going on and could have stepped up to say 'Stop that,' but didn't."
There we go; he's expecting people to rat out their peers. And I think that this approach couldn't be more wrong.

Why, you may ask? I have a few reasons:
  • The whistleblowers might find themselves in personal danger if the people they named ever found out about them and decided to retaliate; after all, these same people have a history of doing bad things that are likely to be fueled by alcohol, so who says it won't happen again?

  • There's always the chance that someone involved in the process won't be named by anyone and will get off relatively scot-free. It's far better to have a full investigation at the university level.

  • If we're raising a society where whistleblowing is the norm, there's always the chance for abuse; people might "turn in" someone they don't like for an infraction that never occurred.
Those are the first few things that pop into my head, but again, for me, the underlying principle in all this is that the many should not be punished for the infractions of the few.

Quoting Leckrone one more time, in Jackson's column:
Asked if some people have questioned him about punishing the whole band, he said, "Sure. And when I ask them what they would have done, they don't have an answer."
I have an answer: You, and university officials, should be doing the investigation. Punish those who actually did wrong, not the entire group and not the fans. (As one of the commenters in the first story linked above pointed out, when one or two members of the football team commit an infraction, it's not like they suspend the entire team...)

This came up again a few days ago at one of my schools, where, evidently, there was some bad behavior (mostly involving thrown objects) by a few small groups of students at a pep rally and subsequent football game. The principal came on and announced that exam exemptions--a precious commodity at the school-- would be forfeited by three of the four grade levels at the school (with the exception of people who were not in the bleachers, such as the band, cheerleaders and drill team). But following that announcement was an encouragement to report the names of the perpetrators within the next two days, which made me assume that perhaps the punishment might be lifted if all the wrongdoers were named.

So there we go again: Punishing entire groups for the transgressions of the few and encouraging people to rat out their peers (which seems like an even worse idea at a high school, where people are more likely to get in fights over such things). There has to be a better way, and it seems like having the officials in charge conduct the investigation is the best place to start.

Am I missing something here? Feel free to try and convince me why punishing whole groups, instead of just the wrongdoers, is a good idea...but it'll take some doing to get me to change my mind.

PC run amok? A female first-year student in Jackson's column is listed as a "freshwoman." Is that a case of overly kowtowing to political correctness, or they saying the woman is prone to flirting?

Monday, October 20, 2008

What a Little Traffic Can Do...

This is the effect that the forum posting has had on this blog the past two days:

It's too bad that I didn't know how to do screenshots two years ago, when my review of the Maynard Ferguson tribute concert was linked in the MF forums; that would have been an even bigger jump.

Thanks again to those who have visited lately...

Welcome Mean Green Fans...

I was checking out my SiteMeter stats today, and I noticed a huge uptick in traffic yesterday. One look at my referrals page explained what had happened: Someone on the forums discovered Sunday's post about the victorious UNT stadium referendum and linked to it there. While one reader backed my anonymous commenter (the first one, that is, who I'm pretty sure is not the same anonymous commenter who came in dropping F-bombs later--that's a good reason for all the Anonymi to adopt screen names if they visit regularly), but the others seemed supportive of my post.

So to any new readers who came here via the GoMeanGreen forums--welcome! I'm a UNT alum myself (with two degrees from the College of Music), and I make it up to as many Mean Green football games as I can. I've written plenty of posts regarding various things at UNT in the past (click the "UNT" tag at the bottom of this post to see some of them, and I'll get the rest tagged shortly), so I hope you'll come back regularly and get involved in the comment section.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

More Glory to the Green

I knew that the results of the stadium referendum at UNT were supposed to be released about 5:00 this afternoon, so I started hunting for them. I visited the NT Daily--nothing. Ditto for the Denton Record-Chronicle. But when I went to, I found what I was looking for:
Students at the University of North Texas voted to add for the first time ever a dedicated athletic fee to help fund a new football stadium and entertainment venue, according to referendum results released today by the Student Government Association.

The official results of this week’s referendum, which was held Oct. 13-17, show that 2,829 (58.1 percent) students voted in favor of the athletic fee while 2,038 (41.9 percent) students voted against the fee. A total of 4,867 (13.9 percent of the student body) students voted in the election that also included races for SGA senators and the UNT Homecoming court.

“I believe the student’s voice was heard and it shows that we care about the future of this university. We understand that this vote was not just about the stadium. It was about our university’s future and our experience as students and alumni, because having a new stadium and entertainment venue will enhance our entire college experience,” said Jeff Kline, student body president. “The students have made an investment in this university by voting yes; we now challenge the alumni of UNT to support their alma mater as well.”
Read the whole thing; this is great news! Thank you to all the students who supported this effort (despite a perceived effort by the Daily--for which I used to write--to push the opposition). The 56-year-old white elephant known as Fouts Field should be consigned to the dustbin of history in about three years now; I'm already looking forward to opening day at the new place in 2011.

And yes, this College of Music alumnus--though not the wealthiest guy on the block--will find a way to open his wallet a bit to support this effort. As the story said, the students have done their part, and now it's our turn.

UPDATE: The discussion continues in the comments; feel free to join in.

YET ANOTHER UPDATE: Welcome to readers of the forums who are visiting from this post. Click the "UNT" tag below to see other things that I've written about our alma mater, or click "Home" to see what else I've written about lately.

Friday, October 17, 2008

He Made a "Hefti" Contribution to Jazz (and Television)

I meant to blog about this the day it happened, and then other things got in the way. But I would be remiss in failing to mention the passing of Neal Hefti, a journeyman jazz trumpeter who made a much more lasting impression with his composer's pen for Count Basie, Frank Sinatra and others. Think of a Basie classic from the '50s and beyond, and if Sammy Nestico didn't write it, Hefti probably did. "Splanky," "Li'l Darlin'" and "Cute" come to mind; in fact, he wrote every tune on the 1957 album that we now know as The Compete Atomic Basie.

But to most people outside the jazz realm, Hefti wasn't known for any of the above. He's known for this:

As noted in the article above, Hefti always joked that, with the word "Batman" repeated over and over again, he should have been credited with writing the "music and lyric"--singular--for this theme. Heh. (And the ironic thing is that, no matter how much he's revered in the jazz world for "Splanky" and the like, this 43-second composition probably paid for his house.)

And here's a full version of the song. The video's a still, but it includes a solo section, which I didn't know existed until a few months ago, when I found the video for a friend who had no idea that this theme came from the same pen as the author of so many Basie classics.

I saw the Batman show before I ever heard any Basie, but I recognized the name immediately. But unlike some composers who "sold out" for television, Hefti stayed true to his art; the Batman theme is a 12-bar blues with horns, vocals and thick jazz harmonies, while his second-most-famous theme, The Odd Couple, is a happy, bouncy swing tune. On rare and happy occasions, art and commerce can mix and actually elevate both of them in the process.

R.I.P., Neal. No matter how people remember you, your music touched a lot of lives. Your contribution will not soon be forgotten.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

"But Everyone Else Is Doing It" Doesn't Apply Here, Either

Today was the day that the Dallas Independent School District started laying off teachers to make up for its "unexpected" budget shortfall. Even before I got home today, I read this article in today's DMN that said, well, DISD may be a bloated bureaucracy, but other school districts are just as bloated:
As the Dallas school system lays off hundreds of teachers to save money, some critics say more cuts should come from the central office rather than the classrooms.

This is a school district with a 250-page organizational chart, with supervisors for everything from concrete to pest control.

But the state deems Dallas just fine for its size, with administrative spending and staffing in line with other big Texas school districts.

Bureaucratic bloat, it turns out, is in the eye of the beholder.
But this beholder calls shenanigans. "We can do it, because everyone else is?" That argument didn't work when we were young, either:

KID: I want to go do [insert dangerous or stupid activity here]
MOM: No, I don't think so.
KID: But Mooooom, all the other kids are doing it!
MOM: Well, if all the other kids jumped off a cliff, would you do that too?

(And yes, it can be argued that DISD already jumped off a cliff when they underestimated their budget by, oh, $64 million or so.)

I'm not the only one saying this, of course:
With half the cuts coming from the teaching ranks, critics have argued on blogs and at school board meetings that educators shouldn't get pink slips in a budget crisis they didn't create.

"They should cut anyone but teachers!" one person wrote on The Dallas Morning News' DISD blog this month. "Cut those people at the top," another wrote.

District officials say they have reduced the staffing levels at district headquarters, and not just in this latest round of layoffs.

"There's been a concerted effort to reduce the size of the central administration," DISD spokesman Jon Dahlander said, with more than 250 cuts from Ross Avenue in the last year. District officials did not have the prior number of central office positions available.
Oh, that's convenient. But this was the most alarming statistic that came from the article:
Just over half of DISD's employees are teachers, also in line with the national average for big districts.
Just over half?? Somebody's priorities are seriously out of whack here (or there are a whole lot of cafeteria ladies in DISD).

Read the whole thing, especially the comments, where people point out a similar thing to what I'm saying--that just because they're not as bloated as other districts' bureaucracies doesn't mean that a bloated bureaucracy is bad in the first place. Others mention that private schools seem to get along fine (and even do better academically) with a fraction of the administration found in public schools. And yes, I use the forum to tout my favorite solution for this and other public education ills; DISD would be a great "lab" for this project, because it sure can't get much worse than it is now...

But this wasn't the worst news of the day. Just a little bit ago, upon arriving home, I read the article about the 375 teachers who were let go today. And the opening paragraph jumped out at me:
Campus by campus, hundreds of Dallas teachers learned their fate Thursday in whatever manner their principals saw fit. Some retained a small measure of dignity; others were forced to clean out their desks in front of stunned students.
You've got to be kidding.

If the DISD would like to follow my advice and cut out some of their administrative fat to save money, whatever principal(s) pulled that stunt should be the first one(s) to go. They should be fired tomorrow, in exactly the same way they let the teachers go--in front of a student assembly would be nice, or even a pep rally. There's simply no excuse for that kind of behavior, and it bolsters my point that becoming an administrator can change a teacher in many undesirable ways.

Oh, and this was brilliant, too:
And the confusion likely will continue this week because the district had previously scheduled parent-teacher conferences on Thursday evening.
I'm really glad I don't teach in this district, and I'm especially glad that I don't pay taxes to it. It's become a laughingstock, and something has to be And it starts at the top.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

iPhone or BlackBerry?

I've often asked the readers of this blog for advice on certain decisions I'm about to make. A couple of years ago, it was a decision between getting a laptop or contacts (I ended up getting the laptop as a birthday present, and chose to hold out for LASIK when I can afford it). And earlier this year, when said laptop was in the shop and I was mostly Net-less for a few weeks, I wondered if I should increase my surfability by getting either a desktop or a smart phone. For the moment, I've decided on the smart phone, because 1) it's cheaper, and 2) I'm eligible for an upgrade, as it's been over two years since I last did that.

But one question still remains: Which smart phone do I get? The iPhone has always been attractive to me, and the new one has probably been out long enough that a lot of the initial bugs have been fixed. But I'm also aware that my monthly rate would go up if I got one. In the meantime, there are some other smart phones out there, like this BlackBerry, that sound intriguing. (And, scrolling through everything, it appears that my bill would go up no matter which smart phone I got, so that comparison is a wash, I guess.)

So the call goes out to anyone who's had either a BlackBerry or an iPhone: If you had a choice, which one would you get, and why? Or is there something else out there that I haven't discovered yet that's even better? Let me know in the comments.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

A "Bucket List" of Sorts, But for Music

I haven't seen the movie The Bucket List yet, but I know its premise: Two guys with terminal illnesses leave the hospital and set out to to do all the things they ever wanted to do in life but hadn't gotten to do yet. There have also been books with similar ideas, such as 1,000 Places to See Before You Die.

Now, music critic Tom Moon has come up with an interesting book that's a slight twist on the above: 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die. It covers 15 different genres, from blues to world music, but (naturally), I'll concentrate on the jazz section.

Out of 133 entries in the category, I own 24. While I have certain issues with his selections (no Giant Steps; an obscure Cannonball album over Somethin' Else or Mercy, Mercy, Mercy; very little big band beyond Basie and Ellington [no Thad Jones??]; very little overall from the past 10 years), but overall, this list digs deeper than just the "greatest hits," and it would be a decent reference for someone starting a jazz collection.

Feel free to browse the list and add your own thoughts in the comments.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Hey, UNT Students: Vote the Mean Green Some Green This Week

This is a big week over at my alma mater, UNT--the week where, in addition to electing new student government representatives, the students will vote on the athletic referendum that would help get a new football stadium built sooner, rather than later.

I discussed my feelings on the stadium issue in this post a week ago, so I won't belabor the point, except to encourage any UNT students who read this blog to vote "yes" for the proposal.

I'm assuming that the results will be announced by Homecoming (October 25), if not sooner, and of course it will become a topic of conversation here again no matter what the outcome.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Say This Ten Times Fast:

(Seen on the campus of Texas A&M-Commerce, where I conducted a concert this afternoon.)

Saturday, October 11, 2008

What a Gas!

Tonight, for the first time in quite a while, I paid less than $3 a gallon when filling up Kevmobile 2.0. I was out and about quite a bit during the evening, and I started to see prices with a two in the far left column, and when my fuel light came on, I found a station in Plano selling regular at $2.92. (It was also nice to come in with a total below thirty bucks again.)

I realize that, in some ways, the lower prices are a result of everything going on with the economy right now, but I bet part of it is also in response to people's changed driving habits--combining errands, cutting out unnecessary trips, etc. It's always nice to have a bit of good news like this in such uncertain times.

What's the cheapest you've seen gas going for this weekend?

NEXT DAY UPDATE: On a trip out east to Commerce, gas was even cheaper than last night, with the low price I saw being $2.69 a gallon for regular at a grocery store there. Can anyone top (or I guess that would be "bottom") that?

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Self-Esteem Police Run Amok?

Just when I thought I'd seen it all, here comes another story screaming from the headlines where someone is messing up education: Rewarding students for passing the TAKS test might be against FERPA rules.

Let's talk about FERPA for a second. First of all, the name sounds like a cross between a Furby and a Sherpa; would you really want to climb to the top of Mt. Everest with an annoying little furry creature spouting gibberish? But seriously, it stands for the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, and, according to this article, it's been around since 1974, though people only seem to have been making a big deal out of it for the past decade or so. But how does this relate to recognizing outstanding students? Evidently, this is how:
Pizza parties, field trips and other rewards – including cash – for students who pass the TAKS may be in violation of federal privacy laws for students, the state's education chief has warned.

In a letter to school superintendents that was released Thursday, state Education Commissioner Robert Scott said the Texas Education Agency has received "numerous reports" from across the state that students' confidential test score results may have been directly or indirectly disclosed.

"Specifically, some districts and campuses have distributed or released test scores in a manner that may have inadvertently identified students who did not meet the standard" on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, Mr. Scott wrote.

"These reports reflect that rewards are being offered to selected students based on meeting the standard on the test ... consisting of such things as cash, pizza parties, field trips and other varying forms of recognition."

The problem, according to the commissioner, is that typically only a minority of students fail to pass the TAKS at each school. By recognizing those who pass, it is easy to identify by process of elimination the students who fail.
And what's the problem with this? Here's the commissioner's view:
Mr. Scott said that while the motivational efforts are intended to help students by encouraging better performance on the test, they also have a negative effect on those who are not rewarded.
Umm, Mr. Commissioner, don't you think that not passing the test has a negative effect on those students as well? I hope you're not thinking of going all DISD on us and not allow kids to fail the TAKS or something.

Is it just me, or has this whole self-esteem movement just gone totally overboard? Have we really gotten to the point where winners can't be rewarded anymore, simply because it would make the losers feel bad? What's next--doing away with the presentation of the state championship trophy in football because the team that lost in the finals will be jealous? Or not allowing the state honor band/orchestra/choir to perform at TMEA because the kids whose groups didn't get chosen will have their feelings hurt? (OK, I'll shut up now before someone gets any ideas.)

Another educrat has a bone to pick with an even simpler thing:
Debbie Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the TEA, said Thursday that even school assemblies at which educators recognize students for passing the TAKS is technically a violation of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

"If you have 20 students in a room and single out 15 who passed the test, it's pretty obvious who didn't pass," she said. "Principals aren't intentionally trying to violate the privacy rights of children, they have just not thought through what they're doing."
Or maybe they were just trying to do the normal thing and reward a job well done, unencumbered by the Self-Esteem Police. Is that really so bad?

I read up on FERPA a bit; I honestly thought it only applied to college students, because that's the only area of my teaching where I've ever heard it mentioned. The college portion is actually helpful, because it gives students over 18 control of what information from their educational records may be released--even to the parents. (That means that if a parent of a college student calls a professor and asks how the student is doing, we're not allowed to say anything other than whether or not the student is currently registered for our class--not even whether or not he or she is attending said class. It's a weird transition when a student whom I've been teaching privately in high school continues on with me at the college level, but, honestly, the situation has almost never come up.)

But evidently, FERPA applies to primary and secondary school as well, except that the parents have the rights to request information for their under-18 student offspring. But it never would have occurred to me in a million years that these guidelines included rewarding students who passed the TAKS test, just because it might hurt the feelings of those who didn't. Does everything really have to be dumbed-down like this? Is a Harrison Bergeron world that far away from us?

Read the whole DMN article linked above, especially the comments, where people are having a field day bashing this idea. (Among the questions asked: Do schools need to do away with the A/B honor rolls? Recognition of honor graduates at graduation?) And my favorite comment comes from "temporarilymary," who says, "I believe in public education, but the TEA and the Feds have created this mess; how many of these regulation-makers ever taught in a real classroom?" Amen, sister; I've been asking the the same thing for several years now.

It sure would be nice to even have a week go by without the educrats coming out with ridiculous statements like this one, but I' not holding my breath...

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Their Entrees Aren't "On Trays" Anymore

Over at, James Lileks links to a story about college dorm cafeterias doing away with trays at the University of Minnesota and other schools.

But wait--don't people need trays to carry their food? And what else is this supposed to accomplish? At least on paper, these are the goals:
Saving the environment is part of the reason, but a tray-free cafeteria also saves money by reducing waste and cleaning costs.

[...]Schools and dining companies say that the elimination of trays translates into less food wasted by students with eyes bigger than their stomachs. And it reduces the number of items that need to be washed, saving both water and detergent.

But it also means students have to figure out how to navigate without a tray.
And there's the rub. Remembering my own dorm days, it wouldn't surprise me if this policy resulted in more broken plates, etc. And it couldn't be a very good use of the students' time if they're having to make multiple trips back and forth.

So how do the students feel about this?
University of Minnesota freshman Miles Dombrovski has a strategy when he gets to the dining hall at Middlebrook Hall: Get there early to get a seat near the drink station.

This way, he can use his hands for carrying food.

[...]During Monday's lunch rush at the U's Sanford Hall, one student stacked her food three levels high. On the bottom was a plate of chicken. On top of that was a small plate with a salad. The upper level was a glass of milk.

"I'm all for saving the environment," Dombrovski said, "but it's kind of a pain in the butt."

That is why he secures prime real estate; he can set his plate down and not have to cross the room to fill his glass.
Another Minnesota student, Robert Westcott, started a Facebook group called "Official Petition To Return Trays To University Dining Services." He noted that the serving area has more traffic now, because people are having to make multiple trips.

Another Minnesota school, Gustavus Adolphus, chose a different tack: They eliminated the all-you-can-eat setup and have given students a finite allotment of " " each month. But they've kept the trays, saying that it seemed "inhospitable" to treat their student customers that way.

So what do you think about trayless dining--Good idea, or bad? One commenter suggests that someone should manufacture and sell customized trays to the students, who could reuse them the way some grocery customers do with cloth shopping bags. (And another one points out that the first lawsuit from a student slipping on a dirty floor will cost a school more than they're saving by not washing trays.)

As always, feel free to fire away in the comments.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

This Headline May Sound Made-Up...

...but it's real, I swear:

Texas Pulls the Plug on Fish Pedicures.

(As Dave Barry might say, "Fish Pedicures" would be a good name for a rock band.)

So let's get past one part: The pedicures are not for the fish, who--last time I checked--don't even have toes.

But not in Texas anymore; the state's Department of Licensing and Regulation really did shut down the practice.

Why? Well, it sounds like typical nanny-statism on the surface:
Spokeswoman Susan Stanford said the licensing agency has health and safety concerns related to the practice of using the same fish to clean the skin of multiple customers. The worry is that the practice could transmit infections. She also said the foot baths and holding tanks, because they're home to live fish, cannot always be properly cleaned and disinfected.

Ms. Stanford added, however, that she knew of no cases of anyone getting sick from a fish pedicure.

“It is in the realm of possibilities,” she said. “We are erring on the side of safety.”
Hmm. So what would they do to keep it clean--disinfect the fish between customers?

Well, actually...Kate Caldwell, co-owner of Zen Luxury Nails in Frisco, one of the places that had been offering fish pedicures, said that...
...her salon had a rigorous safety protocol to avoid putting customers at risk. After each pedicure, she said, the foot basins were emptied and cleaned with a disinfectant. During that cleaning, she said, the fish were transferred to a "hospital tank,” where they were treated with an anti-microbial agent and isolated for at least a day.
Well, there you have it. So did the state err too much on the side of caution here, or was this the correct response? And do you know anyone who's adventurous (or weird) enough to get one of these? Would you get one yourself (if it were legalized again)?

You can watch a video of someone getting a fish pedicure here, and a DMN reporter chronicles her experience with the procedure here.

You can "bet" there's fraud going on here: A group in Nevada that is suspected of submitting fraudulent voter registration forms had their records seized by authorities yesterday. Among the records are the names of the entire starting lineup of the Dallas Cowboys.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Playing This Week in the Kevmobile

A few months ago, I subscribed to a service called eMusic. It's a reasonably priced, legal music download site, and they have a pretty decent jazz selection. I'm on the plan that allows you to download 75 tracks a month for $19.95, and it's allowed me to get not only some brand-new stuff, but some classic recordings as well. There may not be anything from the really big labels (Blue Note, Verve or ECM) that I can find there, but my "saved for later" list is up to 70 CD's at the moment, so this should keep me busy for a while.

At any rate, this means that I've been listening to quite a bit of new music on my daily commute; here's a sampling:
  • Kenny Garrett: Sketches of MD: Live at the Iridium featuring Pharoah Sanders (Mack Avenue Records). The alto saxophonist reunites with his Beyond the Wall co-conspirator Sanders in this live set. There are only five long tracks on here, which gives the saxists and their new rhythm section a chance to stretch out. Among the surprises is hearing Garrett play through electronic effects. The set ends with a juiced-up, multiple-ending version of "Happy People," complete with the audience singalongs that he started a decade ago on "Sing a Song of Song."

  • Yellowjackets: Lifecycle, featuring Mike Stern (Heads Up). Bob Mintzer and company are back, this time working with a guitarist for the first time since their Robben Ford days (before Mintzer even joined the band). Stern proves to be the perfect foil for Mintzer, and their sounds blend wonderfully on the seven tunes done in quintet format. (Stern also contributed two compositions to the mix.) This music is contemporary but never "smooth;" as I said in two previous concert reviews of the group, it's "fusion with integrity." Another fine effort.

  • Dave Pietro: The Chakra Suite (Challenge Records). I heard my former schoolmate play this new music at the final New York IAJE conference a year and a half ago, and it's cool to see it come out on CD (for some reason, eMusic had it available way in advance of its official "street date" of next Tuesday). Pietro blends the East Indian influences implied by the title with his usual Brazilian/bop casserole, and the results are very enjoyable. Gary Versace shines on both keyboards and accordion (no, really!). I'd love to hear this music live again in a full-length show; the IAJE showcase only whetted my appetite for this CD.

  • Nik Bärtsch's Ronin: Holon (ECM). The newest acquisition to my collection. I'd read about this group in the ECM advertisement in Down Beat Magazine, but I didn't actually get to hear them until Sunday evening via Amazon Downloads. Swiss pianist Bärtsch leads a quintet of electric bass, drums, percussion and a bass clarinetist/saxophonist who goes only by the name of "Sha" (and the compositions all have the word "Modul" in the title, followed by a number). The music, which the leader has described as "Zen funk," is mostly Steve Reich-type minimalism, but with an underlying funky groove (though the woodwinds add a Philip Glass touch at times). One track, "Modul 46," sounds like guitar-less early Pat Metheny Group, so it fits perfectly on ECM (where Pat got his start), and label mogul Manfred Eicher's production makes for an exquisite sound, even on the download version.

  • Dave Holland Sextet: Pass It On (Dare2 Records). I've been a fan of Dave Holland's quintet and big band for a number of years, but for this release, he trots out a slight variation on his small group (which was premiered at Birdland two years ago, at which time it was decided to document the group on this recording, which took place in August of '07). Trombonist Robin Eubanks remains a constant, but all the other chairs have different players: Antonio Hart (on alto) mans the saxophone chair, while trumpeter Alex Sipiagin adds a third horn to the mix; Eric Harland (of SFJAZZ Collective fame) handles the drum duties, while Mulgrew Miller plays piano, a rare feat for a Holland group. The compositions (a couple of new ones, along with some reworked versions of pre-Quintet originals from Holland) are complex and enjoyable, the arrangements are outstanding as always, and the new mix of players adds a lot to the experience. (I'd love to hear a showcase presentation like the one that spawned this group: One night with the big band, one with the quintet, one with the sextet, one in a duet with vibraphonist Steve Nelson. I'd have tickets for every night...)

  • Esbjörn Svensson Trio: Leucocyte (Decca). Since this is the group's final recording (made barely a month before Svensson's passing this summer), I'll review it separately in a day or two.
Not all of the above came from eMusic, but this seemed like the right time to mention the service. I've also managed to land such things as The Remedy, the double-CD live set from Kurt Rosenwinkel at the Village Vanguard; two out-of-print Chris Potter CD"s, Concentric Circles and Pure, as well as SMV, featuring the bassists' dream matchup of Stanley Clarke, Marcus Miller and Victor Wooten.

It's always cool to have fresh tunes in the car. With about 7 new CD's guaranteed to come my way each month, I'll try to do these updates on a regular basis.

Monday, October 06, 2008

All Caught Up

After quite a bit of work on this, my four-day weekend in the public schools, I'm finally caught up on the past week's worth of posts. So that all my work isn't for naught, please check them out:I'll try to keep more on top of this in the days and weeks ahead.

Float for aye: Happy Founders Day to my fraternity, Sinfonia, a fine brotherhood of musicians. (We're 110 years old today!)

Sunday, October 05, 2008

A New Level of New Urbanism in the Metroplex [UPDATED WITH PHOTOS]

It was totally on a lark that I even visited this place today. I was on my way home from the Mid-Cities and decided to drive the new 121 Tollway in its entirety just to check on the progress of the part that's still being built. While doing so, I remembered driving by the recently-built New Urbanist center in Allen the other night and wondering what it was like. I had heard that there were a bunch of upscale restaurants in there, but otherwise, I was fairly unfamiliar with it. With a little time to kill in the afternoon, I decided to check it out.

The new development is called Watters Creek at Montgomery Farm, and I have to say that I was extremely impressed; it's the most "urban" of the New Urbanist developments I've seen so far. It may not look like much from the freeway, where most of what can be seen is a pair of parking garages, but the streetscape portion is a delight to behold.

The one thing that stands out about Watters Creek is its design; the best way I could describe it is a "curvy sideways letter A." There is a main street running through the development, but the street that bisects it starts out parallel to it and then curves around to meet it, forming the curved part of the A, while another street connects the two in the middle. But even more unique is the topography of the land and the use of water. A creek runs through the middle, running parallel to the inner connector street, with lots of open space, and the whole thing rides a gentle hill up to where the two main streets intersect. The only anchor store is a Market Street grocery, but it faces Bethany Road and is elevated and somewhat separated from the streetscape, which is accessible from a descending staircase between the grocery and a Borders bookstore. The hills and the water remind me a bit of a small European town, although the image that kept running through my head was that of Middlebury, Vermont (pictures here). With the exception of the Brownstone area of Southlake Town Square, this is the only time I've seen a New Urbanist development pay this much attention to the lay of the land; it's very effective. It may have been built only a few months ago, but it looks like it belongs there.

Parts of Watters Creek are still being built; the now-obligatory loft apartments are nearly done, and a few more stores are being added to the south of the main intersection. One of the more interesting aspects of the place is that many of the close-in street spaces have parking meters; while some people might gripe about this practice--unheard of in the suburbs, for the most part--two things stand out: 1) Many of the meters are free for hybrids, and 2) The idea is to get as many people as possible to park in the remote garages and walk the entire streetscape during their visit. These two things dovetail nicely with the fact that Watters Creek is the first retail development in Texas to be LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified. And all the revenue from the parking meters goes to selected local charities throughout the year.

The center has quite a busy events calendar, and I'm definitely going to see what it would take to get a band (be it my own, a school group, or both) to play there, since it's so close to the college (and only twenty minutes from home).

As I've said many times before, I'm an unabashed fan of New Urbanism. Sure, there are people who have said that the suburbs will suffer as gas gets more and more expensive, but that idea is based on the flawed assumption that everyone works downtown. If anything, the suburbs need more places like this, where people can live and shop and gather and eat (and sometimes even work), leaving the car on the periphery while doing so.

One other thing that's cool: Watters Creek seems to operate like a town and less like a mall with regard to photography. Not only do security people not freak out when you take pictures, the management actually encourages people to do so and upload their best shots to the website.

I think I just found my new place to take chill breaks and walk breaks on college teaching days...

UPDATE: I returned later in the week and took a few pictures:

A typical block of stores, with soon-to-be-completed lofts above

Trees line a portion of the creek that bisects the area

True to its name, there's a lot of "watter" in this development

I want to eventually do a "night and day" contrasting set of photos, but I'll have to use the real camera for the night shots, as the phone-cam doesn't do them justice...

Saturday, October 04, 2008

If You Build It, They Will Win?
(Well, the University Will Definitely Win)

I just got home from the UNT football game a little while ago. Like the rest of the games this season so far, it was pretty much a blowout, and this one was even more embarrassing because it came at the hands of Florida International (who?), a team that has won all of three games in its last 29 attempts...but two of them have been against UNT these past two years. Save for the fact that I was hanging out with friends at the "hospitality deck" and the weather was beautiful, this game was not fun at all.

So, considering all the losing that's taken place the past few years, iit might be surprising to hear me coming out in favor of the proposed new football stadium...but that's exactly what I'm doing. According to this North Texas Daily article, the stadium will cost $60 million; private donors are being asked to provide half that amount (and could secure naming rights for a donation of that entire half), and student government has proposed an initiative that will allow students to vote on whether to allow an increased student service fee to foot the other half of the bill.

Obviously, reaction is mixed among the students, and opposing Facebook groups have been formed (with the pro-stadium group outnumbering the anti- group by almost nine to one). Some students have said that any extra money should go to the upgrading of current university facilities, while others point out that few people attend the games anyway.

But would that change if a new stadium was built? I think it would. After all, the current stadium, Fouts Field, is not exactly a drawing card. As head coach Todd Dodge noted in a Morning News story a few weeks ago, :
"Just about every high school at the Class 4A or 5A level in Dallas-Fort Worth has a nicer stadium than we do," he said. "It's time, not only from a recruiting standpoint, but also for fans and alumni."
And he's right. (My own high school's stadium is much nicer than Fouts, despite being built only 14 years later.) Sure, there's a lot of high school football talent in Texas, but which facility will attract more recruits--something like Kyle Field at A&M or Royal-Memorial at UT-Austin, or one where, according to the article, "the field is circled by a track, the locker rooms are terrible, and the atmosphere leaves a lot to be desired[...]UNT officials have to haul in 19 supplemental generators on game days to power the facility and deal with restrooms built for a stadium that seated 20,000 when it opened in 1952. Fouts Field now seats 30,500." The school is outstanding, and Todd Dodge is a stand-up guy (play-by-play announcer George Dunham said this on the postgame show tonight; I worked at KNTU with George, and I don't doubt his word one iota), but a lot of recruits may not be able to get past the 56-year-old white elephant on I-35E.

And even if you think that football is overblown, there's little denying that the exposure brought on by success in this sport can lead to success in other areas of the university as well. Think about some of the powerhouses in the sport at the collegiate level, and think of where they're located. What would bring people to Norman, Oklahoma, or State College, Pennsylvania, or South Bend, Indiana? Or to Lubbock, for that matter? I'm not denigrating these institutions of higher learning in any way, but the fact of the matter is, football helped put them on the map, and the result has been increased school pride, alumni donations and national exposure.

Some have opined that the games would be better-attended if UNT would bring in a better class of opponent (i.e. schools that the average student or alumnus has heard of). But it must be understood that Fouts Field is what is keeping the university from doing just that; few programs of note are interested in even playing there. That means that anytime UNT plays an OU or A&M or UT-Austin, it's on the road, and, while those games bring in a lot of money (largely due to the big gate revenue), there's never the chance for any extra money (hotels, food, entertainment) to be spent in Denton if the games are never held there. It's more than likely that, given a new stadium, UNT could join a conference with the likes of Rice and SMU and build strong intra-state rivalries. But with Fouts, those conferences won't even give the Mean Green the time of day, and we're stuck playing in a conference where the closest schools are in Arkansas and Louisiana and the farthest ones are in Kentucky, Alabama and Florida. Don't misunderstand me--I'm not knocking the quality of the other schools at all; it's just hard to build rivalries with schools that have to be looked up on Mapquest, and the distance makes alumni roadtrips much less likely. (I was talking to one of my friends online before leaving for the game today, and he asked me who UNT was playing, and I honestly had to look it up. Sure, it's easy to mix up Florida International and Florida Atlantic, but I bet that sort of confusion is rare in, say, the Big 12.)

And yes, some will say, UNT already has a world-class College of Music (and as someone who has two degrees from there, my response would be, "well, duhh"), so why do they need to excel at sports? But imagine having double or triple the number of alumni who currently attend games coming to campus on football weekends, spending money in town, eating at a reopened Tomato (hey, we might as well make the dream even more pleasant here). Imagine the endowment of the university growing and many other programs benefiting from this growth. And imagine the opportunity for that many more people to hear a performance from One O'Clock Lab Band on campus, or catching Snarky Puppy at Hailey's, while they're in town. It's a win-win situation; and the team is likely to get even more wins out of the deal, thanks to increased support and bigger, better recruiting classes.

Take a look at the concept rendering of the new stadium. If you're a fellow UNT alum, take several good looks at it, and dream a little bit. This could be a reality in three seasons. And if you're a fence-sitter (especially among the student body), read the talking points and let them sink in (among other things, the new stadium would be "green" in more ways than one). And if you're a student in a position to do so, vote "Yes" on homecoming weekend. As the slogan goes, "The time is now."

UPDATE: I slogged through all 70-something comments to the Daily story linked above, and they give a pretty good representation of the opinions on both sides of the argument. I think one alumnus makes a very good point: The stadium is going to get built eventually, no matter what (if nothing else, after Fouts Field falls down from old age and decrepitude). The question is, would the students like to contribute to a portion of a $60 million stadium now, or a $100 million stadium in ten years?

It should also be noted that, according to the university's master plan, the current site of Fouts will be used for a number of things when a new stadium is built, including more housing and an opera house right next to the Murichison Center. It's not just about football; it's about improving the university as a whole, while getting rid of a piece of infrastructure that's long past its prime and gives the university a black eye in the minds of the thousands of cars who pass Fouts on the freeway every day.

Friday, October 03, 2008

A Great Time-Waster (No Fooling!)

Host James Lileks is on a few days' vacation from, and in the post announcing the hiatus, he instructed the buzzerati (as the readers are often known) to come up with their own topics. One of the ones that came up was "interesting websites," and a commenter suggested, a site dedicated to buildings that formerly housed chain fast-food restaurants but have been converted to something else...with little effort to hide the former identity of the buildings. (The three most popular former tenants appear to be KFC, PIzza Hut and Taco Bell.)

It's a fascinating site (and a great way to kill half an hour), so I would recommend a visit when you have the time. Among my favorite pictures:I've seen a few bad conversions in my time, so I'll have to take the camera out there and submit some photos of my own; I'll update this post when I do.

Blowing out the candles: Happy birthday to my former roomie James.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Another Bad Move by the State Educrats

I received a disturbing email from TMEA, the state music educators' association, this morning. It referenced this press release, sent out under the banner of the Texas Coalition for Quality Arts Education:
Fine arts advocates today urged the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to include high school students’ grades in state-approved fine arts courses in the uniform grade point average calculation.

“It is truly astonishing that statements have recently come from the coordinating board’s staff denigrating the study of music and the other fine arts as ‘non-academic’ and thus equating these courses to extra-curricular athletic events,” said Robert Floyd, Executive Director of the Texas Music Educators Association, at a public hearing in Austin.

A state law passed in the last legislative session requires the Higher Education Coordinating Board to adopt a uniform high school GPA formula for use by Texas universities. Commissioner of Higher Education Raymund Paredes has proposed a rule for adoption at the board’s October meeting that excludes grades from fine arts courses in the GPA calculation, but includes and gives extra weight to Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, and dual credit fine arts courses.

“Surely the members of the board do not want the State of Texas to go on record as a place where the study of music and the other fine arts is not considered academic,” Floyd said. “If the Coordinating Board fails to recognize the hard work and academic achievements of the 650,000 Texas high school students enrolled in fine arts courses, I’m sure the board and members of the legislature will hear from outraged parents throughout the state.”

Floyd pointed out that Texas law includes fine arts among the academic subjects of the required curriculum. The law also mandates that all instruction in these required subjects, including fine arts, be based on the rigorous standards outlined in the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) adopted by the State Board of Education.

Fine arts courses are also included in the core academic curriculum of the federal “No Child Left Behind” law.

“Once and for all, we must end the misconception that studying, rehearsing and performing music in classrooms across Texas is an extra-curricular activity,” Floyd said. “Any professional educator who believes that is appallingly misinformed about Texas education law.”

Floyd testified to the board on behalf of the Texas Coalition for Quality Arts Education, a coalition of more than 40 organizations that promotes quality fine arts instruction for every student in Texas schools.
There are two things wrong with this law, and I'll discuss the less-obvious one (at least for me) first:
  • All GPA's are not created equal, and there's no reason to pretend that they are. The Uniform GPA Calculation rules are flawed from the start. The rules state that every course that's not an AP (Advanced Placement), IB (International Baccalaureate--a rigorous curriculum available at select schools), or dual-credit course will be weighted according to the exact same four-point scale. This is a departure from the past, where advanced or "honors" courses were sometimes given five points for an A, whereas a "regulars" course might give four points for that same A. (When I was in school, students in a remedial course were awarded three points for the A; I have no problem with weighting grades in remedial and regulars courses equally, but I still understand the reward for the extra work done in an honors course.)

    It should be pointed out that this is being done in response to the "ten percent rule," which requires any undergraduate institution of higher education in Texas to admit anyone who graduated in the top ten percent of his/her high school class (this is obviously a big issue at schools like UT and A&M, which, by nature of their popularity, have to limit enrollment). The schools are also expected to make a decision as to whether or not to automatically admit anyone in the top 25 percent of the class.

    But, needless to say, school districts don't calculate their GPA's in the same way; some gave the extra grade point for pre-AP courses as well as honors courses, while some do not. (And according to this opinion from the office of Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, it appears that the districts are free to use their own formulas to calculate GPA's used for class rank, but the new state rules must be used when reporting students' GPA's to college admissions offices. The two-pronged GPA sounds confusing to me, but some districts may well be doing that.)

    So while I can understand the basic premise of the rules, I still can't get past the idea that it sounds like dumbing-down to me. If a "poorer" school district doesn't have as many honors or AP classes as a "richer" district, the solution is not necessarily to slice off the edges and pretend that everyone's in a great big "middle." The kid who took all honors and AP classes should have something to show for it, and the other districts can make up for the discrepancy in other ways, such as magnet programs (i.e. if having the advanced classes at all the schools isn't feasible, they can be held at one school and bus kids in according to who wants to take the courses) and giving more state aid to schools in the first place.

    And if they are going to have this standardized GPA, a lot more courses need to be on the "included" list for the calculation. According to one local school district, the absence of pre-AP classes from those allowed to award extra grade points is causing problems:
    A primary concern is that PreAP courses are not given extra weight in calculating the uniform GPA. Educators and parents know that without the extra weight, students’ interest in taking the more rigorous PreAP courses will be greatly diminished and subsequent enrollment in college-prep AP classes will suffer. Another concern is that the proposed uniform GPA does not include courses that are required under the state’s recommended graduation plan.

    In his letter to the THECB, [Richardson ISD] Superintendent Dr. David Simmons, requests that changes be made to their proposed rules. “Preparing students for college level academics is a primary goal of public education, and not allowing a weight for PreAP courses is contrary to the college readiness standards supported by the THECB and the Texas Education Agency. Additionally, the rules for a uniform GPA must include courses other than just those in the core content areas. Courses like Economics, Fine Arts, Health, and Physical Education, as well as other electives including Career and Technical courses are important to students’ overall education. The exclusion of these courses would result in a GPA which is not reflective of the entire scope of the high school program.”
    Well said. And now on to my pet topic:

  • Fine arts are academic courses, not extracurricular ones; I can't believe that we're still talking about this. Robert Floyd of TMEA said it all in his quote above: Fine arts are not extracurricular. The state agrees with this (as proven by the arts' inclusion in TEKS), so why does this board have trouble understanding it? Certainly, some fine arts courses have extracurricular elements to them (marching band, UIL one-act play, etc.), but those elements do not comprise the whole of a fine arts course. As Floyd points out, denying them their credit for their hard work is a slap in the face to many, many students.
Rulings like this have me doubting the integrity and intelligence of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, whatever that might be (anyone want to bet that it's made up of people who don't teach anymore?). Since this post is already going out several days late, I don't have time to fully research this, but all I can say for now is this: Do your homework, folks, and fix this mistake. Now. If not, a whole lot of angry parents will be "marching" on your office in the weeks ahead.

Blowing out the candles: Happy birthday to my friend and occasional fellow jazzblogger Shawn.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Farewell to a Childhood Icon

Yesterday was the final day of business for the old Randhurst Mall in Mt. Prospect, Illinois, where I lived when I was in kindergarten. I mentioned its impending demise in this post from a few months back.

Even though I was only five years old when I lived in Mt. Prospect, and we were only there for a year, Randhurst made an impression on me. Maybe it was the mall's unique architecture; even if I'm not sure how much the intricate design could be appreciated by a kid that young, I was at least old enough to know that it "looked cool." Or maybe it's just that it's the first time I ever "went to the mall" when I could actually remember it. For whatever reason, the place has a permanent spot in my memory.

The center's Wikipedia article describes the design thusly:
Randhurst was designed by Victor Gruen, a pioneer of modern shopping mall design. Unlike most shopping malls of the time, which were built in a straight line between two anchoring department stores, Gruen's design was shaped like an equilateral triangle, with an anchoring department store at each angle. Additional stores lined the sides of the triangle on two levels: a conventional level and a level located half a floor below the first level (down a flight of stairs), facing the first level. A floor of offices occupied the level above this "subfloor" of stores. A ring of clerestory windows was mounted in a domed area over the center of the mall; mounted just inside these windows were numerous stained glass windows in various oval and round shapes, oriented in such a way as to cast beams of colored light into the mall itself. As the mall was built at the height of the Cold War, it included a fallout shelter big enough to hold every citizen of Mount Prospect.
Again, I send you to this photo to get an idea of the unique design. Architecturally speaking, the place was definitely one of a kind.

As I said in the earlier post, had I known of Randhurst's fate when I was in Mt. Prospect over spring break, I would have certainly adjusted my schedule in order to stop in and look around one last time. But today, it faces the wrecking ball, and one can only hope that its New Urbanist replacement (to open in 2010) will revitalize the area. In the meantime, I found a bunch of tributes in various places on the Web:I'll definitely be interested to see how the new place turns out when it opens in 2010. Unabashed New Urbanism fan that I am, I'm still sorry that the old place had to go, but I've also seen what these centers can do for a community, so hopefully this new chapter in Mt. Prospect's history will be a good one.