Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Clothes May Make the Man...But Do Shoes Break Him?

(I started this post in early December, but it got lost in the holiday shuffle. Since the situation came up again last night, I thought I'd finally finish it.)

I had several concerts in a row right after Thanksgiving, and by the end of the last night, it was almost as if the mere act of walking had become a chore. Sure, I was on my feet for a long period of time, but I think it was something else on my feet that was the problem: Dress shoes.

I've never been a huge fan of dressing up, and, in a perfect world, I'd be getting paid for playing nearly every time the situation arose. I definitely have my stylin' gig suit, but I don't always feel right when I'm dressed "to the nines"--maybe it's because I'm somewhat of a "rumpled" type anyway (I gave up ironing years ago, since clothes just naturally look wrinkled on me), and the usual Texas heat doesn't help. But mild discomfort is one thing; those shoes were causing me actual physical pain. The same thing would happen yesterday while I was making a fraternity chapter visit at another area university; I had just enough free time to make a few walks across campus, and I was feeling it later.

You've heard the old joke about the guy who goes into the doctor and says, "Doctor! Doctor! It hurts when I do this...." and he makes some unusual arm motion or something. The doctor replies, "Well...stop doing that." Sure enough, when I returned to my regular shoes--both back in December and today--I felt fine; my feet weren't achy, my knees un-creaked....it was all good. But it really made me feel bad for the people whose jobs require them to wear dress shoes regularly. How much money is spent on things like orthotics, massage therapy, trips to the podiatrist and even surgery, all in the name of "looking sharp"? Sure, we guys don't have it as bad as the women who subject themselves to ridiculously high heels on a daily basis, but I guess you could say this is our equivalent.

I'm not sure what the answer is here. I do have a backup pair of black shoes, purchased on my last Stephenville trip when I realized that I'd left mine at home. They're spongier than my usual dress shoes, but they also make me look a little like I should be managing a McDonald's or something. I like the style of my usual "jazz oxfords," but style does come at a price.

So I know that many Musings readers are not from the business world, but I'm just curious: Has anyone else experienced a similar problem? Are dress shoes just a really, really bad idea, or is it a problem unique to me? Fire away in the comments...

Blowing out the candles: Happy birthday Coop! A celebratory Trifecta certainly awaits. He'll be having a good time with his new toy, which is not a new piece of percussion equipment, but rather one of these. He shares his birthday with a wide variety of notables: Gilbert Gottfried, Bernadette Peters, Mario Andretti, and Tommy Tune.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Still Going Strong

I saw Maynard Ferguson in Keller tonight, and I have to say that it was one of the best shows I've seen him do in several years; he seemed to be in better health than anytime in recent memory, and he put on a particularly strong performance.

I've seen Maynard a gazillion times, going back to my undergrad days, and the four most recent times have been in just a little over three years (the 2004 show was reviewed here). At nearly 78 years of age, it could be totally understandable if Maynard had lost a step or two; indeed, I had been concerned about his condition the last few times I'd seen him. But tonight, he was "on" in a big way.

I've noted before that Maynard has a certain M.O. when it comes to his recent shows: He always plays at an area high school, where he knows he'll draw a young, energetic crowd that will go well with his young, energetic band (and will also totally eat up every screaming high trumpet note from himself and his first lieutenant, Patrick Hession). He always closes the main portion of the show with a comprehensive medley of his best-known hits, and he'll always come back for "one more trip to Birdland" as an encore.

After a couple of opening small-group tunes (from trombonist/musical director Reggie Watkins and drummer/UNT alum Stockton Helbing, who sounded great), the rest of the Big Bop Nouveau band took the stage, followed by the man himself. From Maynard's first note, there was something different about tonight; not only did he look like he'd lost weight, but his sound had a renewed sense of power and vigor that had seemed to have diminished in recent years. People who had come here last year had told me that he had been particularly haggard during that show, but tonight he was back; it's as if twenty years had just vanished from the calendar.

The set contained a few new (at least to me) tunes; most impressive was a fiery Latin arrangement of Cole Porter's "I Love You," which featured some amazing horn section work (I'd be interested in seeing their charts, just to find out how they get such a big sound out of six horns--alto, tenor, trombone and three other trumpets). A few of the usual gags had been retired, and the hit medley was longer on some tunes (especially "Pagliacci") and shorter on others (most notably "Hey Jude," which didn't send the trumpets into the audience for the first time in recent memory).

As always, the band is filled with top-notch players, including some with whom I was familiar (UNT alum Brian Mulholland on bass, and the aforementioned Helbing) and a few new faces (alto saxist Julio Monterrey and pianist Jeff Lashway, one of the older guys I've seen in MF's band in a while). During the hit medley, Maynard handed off quite a few of the screaming parts to Hession, who nearly brought down the house on "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me." But nobody begrudges the master his moments of relaxation; he's earned the right to rest on his laurels a bit and let the younger generation take over the mantle. Besides, he'd always come in eventually and let loose with plenty of great and fiery moments himself.

I'm really glad that Maynard is doing so well these days, and I hope to see many more shows like this one. No matter whether someone was a seasoned listener like myself or was seeing him for the first time, this performance definitely delivered. Same time, next year?

Another link in the chain, perhaps: Two years ago, when I did my review of this show, I mentioned getting to shake hands with Patrick Hession when he came out into the audience on "Hey Jude." Much later, I found out that he linked to my review on his website. I wonder if I'll get a repeat mention now...

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Look! Up in the Sky!

...it's a bird; it's a plane; it's...rain?? That's right--the wet stuff has been in the area for two days in a row now. It's not like this will make even the mildest dent in the drought that we've had here in Texas for the past several months, but at least it will provide a bit of relief for everyone's beleaguered lawns and landscaping. Of course, that meant that, from what I heard on the radio, rush hour yesterday afternoon was evidently a nightmare; couple that with last weekend's icy conditions, and I'm sure that means that plenty of insurance adjusters and car-rental execs will be fat and happy this week.

It'll be a good weekend, even if it's busy; my high-schoolers have solo and ensemble as we speak, I'll be catching the Two O'Clock later on today in Frisco (opening act: the Frisco Community Jazz Band, directed by frequent commenter Gary P.), and the Cool Concert Tour kicks off tomorrow with a trip to Keller to see Maynard Ferguson. In between all that, I might well finish all the posts that have been half-completed since earlier in the week.

Keys on the kitten: I hadn't seen this in years, but Gizmodo recently posted the famous picture of the cat piano. Note to PETA: No actual felines were harmed in the making of this drawing. (Hat tip: Instapundit)

It took a lot of "stones" to do this: Streakers have been an unwelcome, if amusing, part of various big events for over three decades now; one even interrupted our marching band in college when we were putting on an exhibition (heh) show at a high school marching contest. But the last place I ever expected to hear about a streaker was at an Olympic curling match. Brrrrr....

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

No, I Haven't Fallen Off the Face of the Earth...

...it's just been a rather busy past few days, getting everyone ready for solo and ensemble and things like that. But don't worry, I have two new posts in the pipe, and I'll try to get them completed tomorrow. But in the meantime, here's some weirdness for the week...

I'm not sure about hopping or jumping, but these kids have skipping down: A middle school gym teacher in Pensacola, Florida was busted recently for accepting bribes from his students to skip class. He allegedly made over $200 in the scam, but the actual total may have been much higher.

Headline of the day: Homeless Man Tries to Steal Sheep. Somehow he didn't think he'd arouse any suspicion when he walked out of the Little Rock Zoo carrying the sheep in a trash can.

Gross story of the day: A Bavarian village was flooded by liquid pig manure when a tank containing the sewage burst.

Monday, February 20, 2006

A Slightly Unconventional Week

This was definitely a good week at TMEA...but then, I don't know that I've ever had a bad week down there. Each convention takes on its own identity after a while, although there are many things that are exactly the same from year to year. So here's my collection of random thoughts and observations from this year's event:
  • I don't know the exact head-count from the convention, but suffice it to say, it's massive. Freakin' huge. Ginormous, even. The wall of people passing through the convention center at the top and bottom of the hour is like a mini-New York transplanted to the heart of the Alamo City. I think it's especially energizing to me because 1) I know so many of the people, and 2) because everyone there is involved in some way in the teaching of music, which is a very good thing. Sometimes, as a music teacher, it's easy to feel isolated amidst a sea of colleagues whose only concern seems to be this year's standardized test scores, so it's great to experience that certain unity of so many kindred spirits in the same place. It's always a little sad on Saturday night when things are winding down, but it's great to be able to repeat the whole thing every February.

  • It's always interesting to see someone's face the first time they walk into the exhibit hall. Imagine a couple of football fields' worth of space (spread out over two halls this year) filled with everything that has even the smallest connection to music or music education: Instrument manufacturers, music stores, and music publishers, all the way down to niche marketers like marching drill designers, oboe supply shops and fundraising specilalists (thanks for the free giant lollipop, by the way). No one person would be interested in everything in there, but each booth meant something to somebody.

  • Incidentally, I managed to only drop a little over 60 bucks at this booth this year; my acquisitions included an Eric Alexander CD, a classic Thad/Mel recording, Mintzer's Art of the Big Band and a CD with three (!) bari players playing Mulligan tunes.

  • As I said, I know a lot of people down here every year; more than a few of them are people I went to college with, and TMEA is the only time we ever get to see each other. My encounters with some of them even take place at the same location (the exhibit hall, the UNT reunion, the Sinfonia sing) every year.

    One of my old friends noted that everyone always says "it's going well" when they're asked how things are, and that such a stock response would probably be offered even if things were going badly. But, generally speaking, everyone did seem to be sincerely having a good life. Perhaps that's related to being able to do something you really, really love and make a living out of it.

  • I was very impressed by the VIA streetcar system that runs downtown. I had been a little concerned about being so far away from the convention center and the Riverwalk, but the system pretty much ran like clockwork, for eighty cents a pop. As a result, we were able to leave the van parked in the hotel garage until it was time to take the guys and their gear to the concert, and we just came and went as we pleased. The service stopped a little early on weeknights, but the good thing about knowing so many people down there was that there was always a fraternity brother with a car to take me back if a social gathering ran late.

  • Tha Gud Spelr Awarred goes to a little shop that I passed every day on the streetcar ride: a CONVENIENT STORE that sold WATERS. (I didn't stop in, so I don't know if it sold COAKS as well.)

  • Since I had no computer access at the hotel (note to self: the laptop goes waaaaay up on the list of priorities), I watched the Olympics every night before bed. I'm not one for things like ice dancing, but snowboard cross in particular was a whole lot of fun to watch. I'd never seen it before, but I found myself enraptured every time it came on. (Althouse liked it too, though not all of her commenters agreed.)

  • The guys from my school did very well at their concert. I thought that the community college all-state jazz band as a whole sounded better than last year's group, and clinician Alex Parker (from Baylor) was knowledgeable, effective and full of energy. It's too bad that the crowd wasn't bigger, though "front and center" was mostly full. I bet that, with all the things going on, some people aren't even aware of the community college groups...but, as one of my friends who sat with me at the concert said, it was nice to come to an all-state concert where it was actually easy to get a seat.

  • Speaking of that, it was the first time in recent memory that I didn't get to attend one of the "regular" all-state band concerts, mostly because they happened when I was running the guys back and forth with their equipment. I'm sure they did well, and it's always impressive to see a band that fills the entire stage of the Lila Cockrell. I still hope to have someone in one of those bands before too long (it's been all jazz for me so far); the competition is massive, but someone's gonna do it in the near future, I think.
All in all, it was one of the most relaxing TMEA weeks I've ever had, even though I had official duties this time. There ended up being plenty of things to see but plenty of chill time in the middle. And with a state test giving me a "holiday" from public school teaching tomorrow, I should get all caught up on both work and sleep.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Thanks for Coming, Have an Ice Day

We made it back in one piece from TMEA today (OK, technically three pieces, since it's not like we fused together or anything) despite the nasty, frozen, drizzly weather that followed us for most of our trip. The worst of it was actually in San Antonio and Dallas, with all the parts in between being rather dry. In fact, the iciest thing we encountered was the parking garage at our own hotel; we had been relegated to the uncovered roof level due to a big wedding in one of the hotel ballrooms last night. Once we made it out of there--and through the big elevated freeways around downtown San Antonio, it was pretty much smooth sailing for the rest of the trip.

Sure, we saw plenty of other people who weren't having such a good time of it; for the first half-hour or so, the freeway would be closed down around every five exits because of a wreck (thank goodness for almost constant service roads in Texas). As for me, I just decided early on that safety was the only factor in play today, so I never went any faster than I felt comfortable going, and I tried really hard to leave a big "bubble" on all sides of me as much as possible. We did run into quite a bit of traffic (especially trucks) when we got back to Dallas, but, although Eric and his traffic-reporter counterparts had a busy day at the office today, I didn't see much rough stuff the whole way back. I hope everybody else's trip back was equally uneventful; it's really weird that, just like two years ago, winter weather has been more of a factor on the San Antonio side during TMEA week than it has been up here.

I'll post some random thoughts about the week, and finish Friday's post, in the next day or so.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Wowed by Wycliffe, Stunned by Shelly

SAN ANTONIO--All is well here at TMEA, though the weather has gotten sharply colder since last night. By far, the two best things I've seen here up to this point have been trombonist Wycliffe Gordon (with the Baylor Jazz Ensemble) and pianist Shelly Berg (with the Dallas Wind Symphony). Amazing musicians, they are.

(I have limited time here at the internet court, so I'll finish this post later; just checking in for now.)

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

It's That Time of Year Again...

...when I hit the road for San Antonio and the TMEA convention. I'm going a day earlier than usual this year, since I'm the sponsor for a couple of community college all-state jazz band members; it's the first time in my history that a school is paying my way for this trip.

There's not a ton of jazz at this convention this year, but I will get to see Wycilffe Gordon with the Baylor Jazz Ensemble, as well as the UNT Jazz Singers, tomorrow night. Other guests will include the pianist and educator Shelly Berg, as well as my camp colleague, Glenn Kostur (also known as one-fourth of THRASCHER), who'll be directing the All-State Jazz Band (the high school one).

As always, it'll be fun to play the new horns, experience the Riverwalk cuisine and see practically everyone I ever went to college with in the same weekend. Needless to say, blogging will be light and sporadic, depending on the size of the lines at the "Internet cafe" in the exhibit hall. This would be a great time to have a laptop, but I hope to do that by this time next year. I'm back on Sunday around noon; everyone have a great week.

Monday, February 13, 2006

The Three P's

I'm in a frenzy tonight getting ready for my trip to TMEA on Wednesday. You've heard of the "three R's," of course; this trip involves the "three P's," which are packing, paperwork and preparation. This means I don't have time for a post of substance today, but I thought I'd keep you occupied (as if The Musings were your only source of online entertainment!) with the weird stories of today:Blowing out the candles: Happy Birthday Eric!

Sunday, February 12, 2006

On a Mission with Music

Today, our Sinfonia alumni association gave a performance at a local retirement center, and I think everyone was pleased with how it turned out. Every fraternity has songs, but one of the advantages of being a music fraternity is that we can actually sing our songs, even in a group like ourselves that consists mostly of instrumentalists. This performance was part of a weeklong celebration of the 150th anniversary of the birth of our founder, Ossian E. Mills, in which every chapter, colony and alumni association in the nation was asked to do a "Mills Music MIssion" (described in detail here). We chose a retirement community close to where we usually meet, and it was rewarding to see the looks on the faces of the residents as they heard a song they recognized, as well as when each received a long-stemmed carnation upon entering the common room.

We did about a twenty-minute program, including the version of the National Anthem that we sang at the Rangers game last year, as well as other patriotic songs and some timeless old chestnuts. We mingled with the residents for a while afterwards, and everyone was very appreciative; one lady made it a point to tell me that the saxophone was her favorite instrument (we weren't playing, just singing, but we all introduced ourselves during the program and described what we did at this point in our lives). While everyone here seemed to be in pretty good health, we still felt evidence of music's special power to uplift mankind. While none of us is a trained singer, we combined our voices to make something enjoyable, and I think there's a metaphor for life in there somewhere. All in all, it was a great way to spend part of a Sunday afternoon.

Getting my head in the Games: I had the chance to catch a little bit of the Winter Games tonight; I saw some of the fun stuff: luge, downhill skiing, short-track speedskating and halfpipe snowboarding. Snowboarding looks like fun, though I guess I'd better try skiing first. Oh, and Dave Barry emerges from his pseudo-retirement to file a great column on the Games.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: "I just don't think I could stand it without music in my life."--the lady whose favorite instrument was the saxophone (yes, I did find out her name, but, ya know, privacy, yada yada). I replied that I definitely couldn't either...

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Talk About the Boss from Hell...

You may have read about this elsewhere in the news or in the blogosphere: New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, who's also a billionaire and an extremely successful former businessman, stopped by the city's legislative office in the state capital of Albany recently while he was in town to hear the governor's State of the State address. While wandering around the office, he stopped to greet a city worker, Edward Greenwood IX. A photo-op took place and all that. But Bloomberg took a quick glance at Greenwood's computer screen and noticed a game of solitaire in the background. He didn't say anything about it to Greenwood at the time, but later, he told an aide to fire him.

Was this an overreaction on Bloomberg's part? Shouldn't Greenwood have at least gotten a reprimand or a warning first?
"The workplace is not an appropriate place for games," Bloomberg said. "It's a place where you've got to do the job that you're getting paid for."
The mayor states his philosophy of the workplace in further detail:
"I expect all city workers, including myself, to work hard," the mayor said. "There's nothing wrong with taking a break, but during the business day, at your desk, that's not appropriate behavior."
For his part, Greenwood believes the punishment was too harsh for what he calls a first offense:
Greenwood, who earned $27,000 a year and had worked in the office for six years, said in a telephone interview that he limited his play time to his one-hour lunch or during quick breaks when he needed a moment of distraction.

"It wasn't like I spent hours and hours a day playing, because I had plenty to do," Greenwood said. "If I had been working at something exhaustively for two hours, I might get a cup of coffee and play for a minute but then go right back to my work."
There's a lot more on this subject over at Althouse, where one of the commenters notes that Bloomberg's method may not be the best way to deal with certain types of workers:
Knowledge workers need to be cut slack, because we spend a lot of time using our heads to solve problems. Sometimes you just need to turn your brain off for a few minutes and have some time to yourself. It's recharging, and lets you move onto the next problem fresh. Smart employers know this, and create flexible and comfortable environments. Small minded ones like to apply one size fits all solutions that tend to demoralize their employees by treating them like children or slackers...People should be accountable for results. If an employee is doing the work their employer expects of them, who gives a crap what they are doing at their workstations or how they are spending their time?
(Another commenter marvels at how Greenwood's name could be carried on through nine generations; that amazes me too.)

So did the mayor go overboard here? Speaking from personal experience, I'm never in a situation where that could happen, since I'm teaching individual lessons or small classes, but things like this remind my why I'm so happy that I work for myself most of the time.

...And a sitcom extra to be named later: You probably heard by now that ABC/ESPN's Al Michaels is going to NBC to join his fellow former Monday Night Football boothmate John Madden...but did you know that NBC had to trade away the rights to an obscure cartoon rabbit (as well as the next four Ryder Cups) in order to seal the deal?

Friday, February 10, 2006

Blowing Out a Whole Hand's Worth of Candles

Happy birthday to Noah, the oldest of my two nephews; he's five today. Ever since he could talk, he's been a great conversationalist, and he's a sweet kid who's a lot of fun. Since we live about three hours apart (and since my sister and her family are getting back from a ski trip today), I won't get to see them all, but I'm hoping to sneak in a quick lunch with them on my way back from TMEA, if the two all-staters I'm "chaperoning" don't object (they're community college all-staters, so they obviously don't need actual chaperoning, but I'm going down as their sponsor from the school). That's the only thing I'm going to miss this year is the nice long visit that we usually have on my way back.

In case you missed it two years ago, here's an account of how I found out about Noah's birth while I was at TMEA; I had jokingly requested that my sister not have him while I was out of town, but babies operate on nobody's schedule but their own.

Not so fortunate: I eat a lot of Chinese food, but I've never gotten an obscene fortune cookie like these guests at a Brooklyn political fundraiser accidentally received.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Anyone Taking Bets...

...on whether or not the weather forecast is right this time? They've invoked one of the S-words (this time, it's "sleet") in their projections for tomorrow, but we in North Texas have been teased by meteorologists more than a few times before. It's not expected to stick, but it could make for a messy commute tomorrow afternoon and maybe scuttle a lot of people's social plans.

NEXT DAY UPDATE: Naah; by this morning, there wasn't anything wintry at all in the forecast, save for some really cold temperatures at night.

I really can pick 'em: Last night was, of course, the Grammy Awards. I didn't watch, but I did find the jazz winners list, and several of the winners were CD's that I own and/or have blogged about supporting concerts: Wayne Shorter Quartet's Beyond the Sound Barrier, Pat Metheny Group's The Way Up, and the Dave Holland Big Band's Overtime (links later; I'm racing a Blogger outage here).

Someone else is thinking like me: A few days ago, I posted about the oddball idea of a car engine that ran on urine. Now a guy in New Jersey says he's invented an engine that runs on almost any liquid, including pickle juice or Listerine. But attorneys general in several states say that he's a fraud.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Keeping the Beast at Bay

It seems like a whole bunch of my students, as well as several of my good friends, have been sick lately. I had heard on the radio a few weeks ago that flu season had already hit its peak, although I'm not sure if everyone who's been out has actually had the flu. All I know is that a lot of people have been out from lessons and ensembles, and a couple of my friends were sick for a week apiece (and on top of all that, poor Coop got food poisoning from his dorm cafeteria and subsequently blogged about it). So far, at least *knocks wood*, I've managed to avoid whatever is going around, and the twice-a-year sickness/allergy troubles (which I've nicknamed the Beast) have yet to make an appearance either.

I thought that the good streak almost ended last night. I was exhausted during big band, and, although I made it through The Walk™ after dinner with no problems, I was pretty much toast by bedtime, which happened a bit earlier than usual. I felt the blah's coming on, so I hoped for the best.

Sure enough, when I woke up (squeezing out the maximum amount of snooze alarms out of the morning), I felt...normal. Crisis averted, for now. Although I can never really afford to be sick, since I only get paid when I work, that goes double for this week with several big events this weekend and next week's San Antonio trip on the horizon. Thanks to a few more students being out sick, this day wasn't the beating that it could have been; I even got a real lunch break today. (That's right--their being sick helped me stay well...weird.) Sure, I'm pretty drained now and am in fact headed to bed before eleven (anyone who knows me, especially my AIM buddies, is aware that this is a hell-freezes-over moment most of the time), but the hardest part of the week is over.

And to the rest of my friends who've avoided the Beast so far: Good luck, and keep up the good fight.

Reviews you can use: As of last night, I've now eaten at every restaurant in Firewheel Center and Firewheel Market except for Cybertown Pizza, which I'll get to soon enough (air hockey, anyone?). I think I'll give each place a second visit before posting a set of review-blurbs, but that will be on its way pretty soon. I was starting to get burned out on the same three places to eat every week, so the variety offered by all the new stuff has been very nice.

Cool gadget of the day: The Inflatable Home Cinema System. Turn your backyard--yes, yours, since mine's too small--into a drive-in at the push of a button.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

This Car Would Really "Whiz" Along

(GROSS ALERT: Maybe you shouldn't read this while eating...or especially while drinking lemonade. Heh.)

OK, this is the whimsical follow-up to yesterday's post about the potential use of alcohol/gasoline mixtures as automotive fuel. I waited till today to add this part because I didn't want to dilute the serious message of the previous post.

Anyway, several months ago I read on Dave Barry's Blog about some people who had developed a motor that ran on urine (go ahead--get the obligatory "ewwwww!" out of the way, and then ponder this with me for a moment). I can't find the link for it, and Dave's blog doesn't have a self-search function, but I'll post it later if I can find it. At any rate, talk about the ultimate renewable resource. The mind reels at the possibilities...

For one thing, a car powered by such a fuel would totally transform the gas station as we know it today. Rather than having big, open fueling areas, they would instead have little private bays where customers could fill their tanks (or empty one tank into another, as it were) in privacy. The convenience store would still be attached, but it would serve even larger drinks, just in case the driver was going on a long trip. Imagine the Triple Super Big Gulp or the gallon bottle of Dasani, just to name two.

Over Starbucks before the Super Bowl the other day, a buddy and I were discussing this theory, and we actually worked out most of the details. I won't go into everything here, since some of it was pretty off the wall, but in about fifteen minutes, we solved the problems of 1) how women would fill their cars this way, 2) how NASCAR and Indy drivers would keep their tanks full (think either a really bizarre pit crew, or an even odder self-fueling option), 3) the partial merging of the restroom and the gas tank on airplanes and buses. We also wondered if the user's having consumed different substances would increase or decrease the potency of the fuel--i.e. would someone fresh off a caffeinated venti latte produce a higher "octane" or not. (We also decided that, if this ever happened, Starbucks' profit might match that of ExxonMobil of late. Of course, Exxon could stay in the game as well; On the Runs and Tigermarkets do serve most excellent coffee.)

At any rate, there are probably plenty of things (besides the "eww" factor) that would keep this from ever happening, but I bet there will be some sort of alternative fuel in widespread distribution before long. Read yesterday's post if you haven't already.

OK, that idea is over. I promise to return to more mature/refined posts again tomorrow.

Here comes Peter Cottontail, hopping mowing down the bunny trail: Everything may be big in Texas, but we have to go to England to find Herman the giant bunny. His ears alone are as long as most pet rabbits are altogether.

Weird animal news, part 2: Lady gives mouth-to-mouth to an exotic chicken.

Coolest new sport of the year so far: The Rocket Racing League.

Monday, February 06, 2006

I Never Want to Be an Alcoholic, but Maybe Our Cars Should Consider It

Last week, in his State of the Union address, President Bush said that America is addicted to oil. With gas prices rising as they have lately, and most of the world's oil located in areas of the world that are unfriendly or downright hostile to us (but who will happily take our petro-dollars), perhaps it is time to get serious about pursuing alternate fuel sources.

Hybrids are a step in the right direction, but they still rely in part on an engine that's totally powered by gasoline. Perhaps, as this article notes, the answer comes from engines that use a mixture consisting of a little bit of gasoline and the rest either methanol or ethanol.
Flexible-fuel vehicles (FFVs) offer consumers little advantage right now, because the high-alcohol fuels which they could employ are not generally available for purchase. This is because there are so few such vehicles that it doesn't pay gas station owners to dedicate a pump to cater to them. Were FFVs made the standard, however, the fuel they need would quickly be made available everywhere.

If all cars sold in the U.S. had to be flexible-fueled, foreign manufacturers would also mass-produce such units, creating a large market in Europe and Asia as well as the U.S. for methanol and ethanol, much of which would be produced in America. Instead of being the world's largest fuel importer, the United States could become the world's largest fuel exporter. A large portion of the money now going to Arabs and Iranians would instead go to the U.S.A. and Canada, with much of the rest going to Brazil and other tropical agricultural nations. This would reverse our trade deficit, improve conditions in the Third World, and cause a global shift in world economic power in favor of the West.
The article also notes that a switch to an alcohol standard would reduce air pollution and provide jobs both for farmers (both here and abroad) who grew the crops from which ethanol would be distilled and for those involved in the distilling of methanol from a variety of materials such as coal and natural gas.

Read the whole thing. It would certainly involve a big leap of faith on the part of Congress to mandate the manufacture of these new engines, and the oil-rich Arab countries wouldn't like it too much (note the Saudi ambassador's shocked response to Bush's "addiction" quote) but it sure seems like a win-win for the West. And if the oil companies are smart, they'll start devoting a portion of their profits to research and development in this area, so that they won't be left out in the cold if and when this conversion takes place.

Gee, your hair smells car runs terrific: While researching this post, I came across an article that touts jojoba oil (found in many shampoos) as an alternative fuel source.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Boys (and Girls) Meet Horns

Today, I call your attention to the rare serious post on Dave Barry's Blog--not because it's serious, but because it's for a great cause that's close to my heart. A guy in Colorado, Jordan Graham is spearheading an instrument drive for an underfunded school in the South Side of Chicago; before the drive, the school's band program had 220 band members but only 48 instruments. The school, Harper High, is only a few miles away from where Graham himself grew up with the good fortune of his parents being able to buy him a trumpet as a kid, and now, as a successful mortgage broker, he's looking to give back (in fact, that now-unused trumpet of his own is going to Harper). Since Dave posted the story, they've gathered 15 instruments (as of this afternoon).

So if you have any old instruments lying around, here's a great opportunity to put them to good use. If the instrument you have would be cost-prohibitive to ship (like the piano that one of Dave's readers wants to donate), or if you'd like to act more locally, I'm sure there's a school in your area that fits the bill. (This group seems worthy as well, and it's got the muscle of Sir Paul behind it.)

I posted a few months ago about kids getting stuck with cruddy horns, but imagine these folks in Chicago and elsewhere who don't even have it that good. Music is a very important part of the educational process, and the opportunity to play should be available to every kid who wants to participate.

Cat-napping, of a sort: I've been to Burlington, Vermont for their jazz festival several times now, and I always enjoy it; last summer, I even got to take a walk around the University of Vermont campus. Now that campus is all abuzz because someone stole their Catamount mascot while it was being repaired at a sign shop in South Burlington. This cat weights 200 pounds, which (like the time last fall when someone stole a Chick-Fil-A cow off a billboard) begs the question: How in the world do you transport something like that without getting caught, and where the heck do you hide it? (UVM is offering a reward for its safe return.)

We Interrupt This Commercial Message for a Little Football

Now that the big game is over, what was your favorite commercial that aired tonight? My vote goes to the FedEx spot with the cavemen and the dinosaurs.

Oh, and did anyone get to see the pregame music? I got back too late to see Stevie, and I was just "wondering" how it went (heh).

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Pop (up) Go the Weasels

I'm not one for putting very many restrictions on the Internet; the unfettered displaying and exchanging of information (except maybe in places like China) is one of the Net's finest attributes. But if I were the Grand Poo-bah of the online world, I might well try to stop one particular behavior: Disobedient popup windows. You've probably had them too--the kind that come up when you close a certain browser window, saying "Wait! Don't Go!" or something like that. This is fairly annoying; it's as if they think I couldn't possibly have wanted to leave their site on purpose. But when you get down to it, that's all they are is an annoyance, though the people responsible should be taken out back and roughed up a bit on general principle. (And in case you're inclined to say, "Kev, just get a popup blocker and be done with it," I can't find one for my platform and browser--Mac OS 9 and Mozilla 1.2.1--that allows specificity, because I can't block all popups, or things I need to use, like my online banking, won't work properly.)

But in the past week, something has happened three different times that has me concerned. I play a few online lotteries and what-not (they're free, so the only thing I'm "gambling" is the few minutes it takes to enter my numbers), and sometimes those sites have popups from third parties. Usually, the solution is easy: Close 'em, and they're outta there. But in these three instances, if I closed the popup, it came right back again. And again. And again, and again, ad nauseam. One time, quitting the browser solved the problem; another time, I had to restart the computer. But the second time it happened, it wouldn't even let me quit the browser or restart the computer; I finally had to switch it off (improperly) at the power strip. That annoyed me, because I realized that whatever was causing that window to keep reappearing could also be trying to damage my computer.

Needless to say, I sent a scathing email off to the host of each of the host sites, naming the popup site by name and suggesting (rather strongly) that they might not want to do business with advertisers who might be trying to harm their customers. I haven't heard back from anyone yet, but I also haven't had a repeat appearance of the malevolent window at any one given site.

Has anybody else run into The Popup That Just Won't Leave? (That sounds like a bad horror flick, doesn't it?) As a Mac user, I'm usually immune to viruses, so I'm wondering if this is the new wave of hacker work or something. At any rate, whoever's doing this is pure scum in my book, especially if people's computers are actually being damaged. I'll update if it happens again.

Wildlife getting your goat? How stunning: In South Carolina, a goat gets loose and charges one of its owner's neighbors; a deputy sheriff subdues the animal by using a Taser.

I'd like my eggs Samsung-side-up, please: Today's Fun with Science project involves cooking eggs using a pair of cell phones.

Friday, February 03, 2006

You Oughta Be in Pictures (in the Paper)

I was reading my Dallas Observer tonight, when, all of a sudden, the smiling mug of my buddy Eric was staring back at me. He's the subject of an article about the book he's writing: Post: An Anthology of American Post-Hardcore /Whatever-You-Call-It-Core: 1985-2005. The book is still a few chapters away from completion (as the article notes, and I knew already, Eric juggles his writing with both playing in a band and his day gig as a traffic reporter), but he posts regular progress reports on his blog.

Congratulations, Eric! I look forward to reading the book. Oh, and how cool would it be if the book had an accompanying CD featuring, say, a track from each band that's featured in there. (I realize that might be difficult for those bands who aren't on indie labels anymore, but maybe they still have some material in the vaults.)

Speaking of bypassing the Machine, here's my favorite quote from the article: "I don't want to bother getting an agent and beg publishers to get it out," Grubbs says. "There was no middle man when people started their own records. Why should there be a middle man when publishing a book?"

I say amen, brotha.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: "My next class is a nap."--Me, to my last student of the day, as I was encouraging him to pack up quickly and get to his next class on time. It's been quite an activity-filled last two weeks, and that Friday afternoon nap felt quite good today...now, a three-day weekend awaits.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

OK, I'm Confused Now

Almost a year ago, I posted about the confusion which ensued when all kinds of companies started changing names: Many of the major oil companies started buying and selling each other, re-branding many of the local gas stations in the process (if I recall correctly, many Texacos became Shells, many Mobils became Chevrons and the rest of the Mobils became Texacos. It was enough to make your head spin...); Macy's announced a takeover of many regional department-store nameplates; my cell phone service also changed names at the same time. But the latest makeover in the telecom industry is really unusual.

My cell phone service had been with AT&T Wireless for a really long time, until a year ago, when it was acquired by Cingular. I didn't really notice any difference in my service or anything; my bill just got printed in a different color. I knew that, eventually, I'd have to switch completely over to the Cingular system, which would mean trading in my cool texting phone, since it was incompatible with the new system. I was planning on waiting until this coming fall to do that, because that's when I'd qualify for a free phone again. But wait, hold everything (or maybe that should be "hold the phone"--heh). When SBC bought AT&T recently (keeping the venerable AT&T name), more changes were announced, and this one really surprised me: Cingular will become AT&T again. Huh? That's right, my phone service is being re-rebranded, you could say. SBC-now-AT&T owns 60 percent of the Cingular brand (BellSouth owns the rest), and evidently the new brand will have more clout and more options for business customers.

At any rate, I guess it doesn't really affect me too much; since I pay all my bills online, it's not like I'd write the wrong name on a check or anything. Still, it's ironic that so soon after I've finally gotten used to saying that I have Cingular and not AT&T, it's about to be time to say that I have AT&T again. And I wonder if I'll be able to keep my cool phone now...

Jammin' jingle: The new AT&T commercials are all over TV and radio (as you know, unless you've lived in a cave since New Year's), but that's OK with me, since they all feature a really cool song, "All Around the World" by Oasis (it's on this CD). I've always been a sucker for anything that sounds like the Beatles (as well as the real thing), and I think that this 9-minute opus is one of the Gallagher brothers' best; in fact, I just popped it in the CD player as we speak.

Milestone: This is my 800th post. Yay!

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Dissension Is Taking Its Toll

There's been a lot of talk lately about the proposed toll roads in the Metroplex. One of them, the eastern extension of the President George Bush Turnpike, will run very close to my neighborhood. Another one, Highway 121 through Collin and Denton counties, doesn't usually affect me directly, but it definitely needs to be done; it outgrew its old incarnation as a two-lane farm road about a decade ago. The third one, Southwest Parkway in Ft. Worth, would probably be used even less by me, but I don't begrudge them a toll road at all. If only everyone shared those sentiments, the 121 project wouldn't be in such a snag right now.

The group who builds and maintains all of the current toll projects in our area, the North Texas Tollway Authority (NTTA), recently announced a plan to use portions of tolls collected on Dallas and Collin County roads to build the Ft. Worth project, but officials over here don't like that idea: Dallas County commissioners raised the idea of pulling out of the NTTA, and Collin and Denton officials were toying with the idea of making sure that all the tolls collected on a future 121 toll road in their counties would stay in their counties:
Last month, the tollway authority board voted 4-3 to adopt its toll policy for Southwest Parkway and other projects. Representatives of Denton, Tarrant and Johnson counties supported the vote.

Representatives of Dallas and Collin counties unsuccessfully pushed for a policy that could set higher tolls for projects, such as Southwest Parkway, that don't initially generate as much revenue.

"The fuse has been lit," Paul Wageman, the Collin County representative of the tollway authority board, said at an agency retreat this week where board members spent an hour discussing last month's vote. "Our own actions have helped to create dissension." (source)
And there's also been a lot of griping from lots of people in the area about having to pay tolls at all. But let me throw in my two cent's worth (a small toll?) here:
  • We have to think regionally. It's just not very neighborly to worry about tolls on one road going towards the consruction of other roads in the system, so long as each road is well-maintained. It's not so much that roads in one county exist in a vacuum; does anyone around here really think about what county they live in, with the exception of paying property taxes or going to jury duty? You're not paying just to use that road; you're paying to use the system, and if the system does a good job of facilitating mobility throughout the area, then I'm happy to contribute.

  • We need to have a single toll-collecting authority. I never cared for the notion that the 121 toll road might be run by some private company that wasn't the NTTA, and I was really bothered by the notion of Dallas County creating its own separate authority. Why? In a word, TollTags. This little piece of plastic is one of the best inventions of the past two decades; being able to cruise through a tollbooth at a just-barely-reduced speed and getting your account automatically replenished by a credit card (instead of sitting in a long line, coming to a complete stop, and fishing for quarters, or tokens, or whatever) is the reason the system works as well as it does. Sure, I bet that multiple collection agents would eventually use the same piece of plastic, but you know there'd be a long lag before everything was configured to "talk" to each other (you can only imagine my frustration when I went to visit my parents in Houston before those two systems got integrated). And if they weren't, a lot of people's windshields would be covered with the stupid things, with each tag activating depending on whether the road you were currently driving was maintained by Tollway Authority A, B, or C. Aargh, what a mess that would be.

  • Toll roads are here to stay. Sure, we were used to all the highways being built with our gasoline taxes. But lately, the Legislature has been raiding the gas tax revenues on a regular basis to pay for other stuff. While we might eventually be able to elect people who won't do that anymore, I'm not holding my breath. The fact is, without tolls, a lot of the projects in this area wouldn't have even started to be built, including the George Bush, just a stone's throw from my house. Imagine how bad the mobility would be in this area if the Bush were still just access roads with stoplights. And also, without the Bush finished as far as it has been, Firewheel would still be nothing more than a lonely "Future home of AMC Theatres" sign on the prairie, and we'd still be driving to Plano (on the aforementioned service roads) for everything. Sure, I probably don't appreciate how much I actually pay in tolls, since the TollTag is charged to a card, but it's totally worth it to me to have roads done now instead of 25 years from now.

    Granted, if the subject turned to tolling existing roads (like, say, 35E from LBJ to Denton, which has been discussed before), I'd be singing a completely different tune. But that's another post for another time...
After all this, I was really happy to read an op-ed from the mayor of Frisco advocating having the NTTA build and maintain the future 121 tollway. As he pointed out, at least they'd have a local representative on the NTTA board, a luxury that they wouldn't have with a private company.

I'm sure there'll be more on this story as it develops.

We remember: A few days ago, we remembered the Challenger Seven; today, it's Columbia's turn. I actually saw the shuttle fly through the air as it came down and broke apart, though I had no idea what I was seeing at the time. A year later, having started The Musings, I blogged about it from the vantage point of one year earlier.

Blowing out the candles: Happy birthday to my fraternity brother James (no, not the Australian one; I don't think the Prawn dons Greek letters on a regular basis).