Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Philosophical Question of the Day

Should someone be charged with "theft of service" if they sit in their car outside a public library and glom onto the library's free wi-fi? This guy was.

Key quote: "Either way, Tanner's Internet usage has been curtailed. He's got a home computer, but his parents don't let him on the Web after 9 p.m. He's been using computers at the library during the day."

This guy is 21 years old; talk about someone who needs to get his own place...

So did the authorities go too far here, or not?

Stupid criminals, part 1: If you're going to rob someone's house in the middle of the night, it's probably best not to ring the doorbell first.

Stupid criminals, part 2: And if you're going to rob a bank, it's probably best to be able to run fast enough to make it farther than 30 feet away from the entrance before the cops get there.

Blowing out the candles: Happy birthday to Coop--teen no more.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Saved by the (Later) Bell?

I haven't had much time to post the past few days; Monday was Monday, which meant Fish Night and jamming with friends, and today, my colleague at the college was sick, so I taught some of his classes as well as all of mine (which makes for a nice 14-hour day in all). So let me toss out a discussion question that's been in the news recently. You guys can add your thoughts first, in the comments, and I'll come back shortly and tell you my own take on the subject.

Here's the question: Should the school day be lengthened? A lot of people are talking about it nationwide. The average school day is 6.5 hours long; the schools where I teach clock in at about an even seven. Some schools have expanded to eight, and one set of charter schools goes from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. (that's exactly half an hour shorter than my Friday, which is one of my "slacker" days). Would the potential gains justify the extra expense? Do students need to be in school that long? Discuss...

Sunday, February 25, 2007

This Idea Is Already Testing My Patience

What I'm about to discuss here has to be one of the worst ideas ever proposed for higher education: Standardized testing at the college level:
Gov. Rick Perry has proposed to spend $362 million more on higher education, with conditions, including standardized exit-level tests. He wants to tie funding to test scores and graduation rates. He also proposes an initiative to move students through college faster.

The idea of new dollars tweaks college administrators' salivary glands. New tests? Where do we sign? We'll just make students pay for them, $25 a pop.
But needless to say, professors aren't exactly on board with the idea:
Texas Faculty Association president Charles Zucker told the Web site Inside Higher Ed: "We've had massive amounts of teaching to the test in public schools. ... Now there's a consensus that that has failed, the governor wants to institute the same plan for higher education."

His use of "consensus" is open to debate. If education's quest is to roll out drones who, when drilled under threat of retention, will do certain state-assigned tasks, maybe Texas' "accountability" is a success. But we all thought higher education was, well, higher.
Read the entire story (a column by John Young of the Waco Herald-Tribune), which points out that, even though the tests as proposed by Perry wouldn't have to be passed to graduate, that would likely change rather quickly, with the result being the dilution of the college curriculum in much the same way that has already been done in pubic schools.

Here's one more key quote from Young's column:
Standardized testing has become a dead weight on our nation's schools with far less benefit than anyone wants to acknowledge. It is a particular drag on children at or above grade level. Meanwhile, those in the bottom reaches of achievement are subjected to stifling repetition and test prep.

With Texas leading the way, states have shown they can increase test scores, but not necessarily produce thinkers or innovators.

Speaking to Inside Higher Ed, Bob Schaefer of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing warned that with state-imposed standardized testing and with economic incentives attached, colleges would "narrow their curriculum to test preparation for the exit exam."

"Test scores may soar, but education quality will be undermined."
It's time to let our representatives in Austin know that the pendulum should be swinging away from standardized testing; it's time to get rid of the TAKS (or at least severely lessen its stakes), not replicate it at the college level.

I believe that such a thing would be the last thing higher education needs. From where I sit, the TAKS test has been a complete disaster. Creativity, higher-level problem-solving, innovative teaching techniques and many more things have been sacrificed to feed this obnoxious beast. As a letter-writer in today's paper put it,
TAKS is moving our educators away from teaching deductive reasoning, logic and problem-solving. Their compensation plan has become uncomfortably tied to TAKS. Texas needs to broaden the formula for school assessment because the compensation scheme on TAKS runs counter to the greater interests of education.

[...]The most compelling reason to discount TAKS' position in school assessment is the overwhelming voice of Texas schoolteachers. They are on the front lines and they see it isn't working.
Also, kudos to the letter-writer, Eric Brandler of Rowlett, for working a Count Basie quote into his letter: "[I]f you play a tune and a person don't tap their feet, don't play the tune." Governor, nobody's tapping their feet to this one (except maybe the companies that make the tests). It's time to change the set list for Texas.

Yet another reason teachers should be paid more: Sometimes they have to deal with truly bad kids, such as the ones in Philadelphia who assaulted a teacher for taking up an iPod from one of them during class. The teacher was knocked to the ground and left with several broken vertebrae.

Well, OK, there are exceptions to every rule: On the other side of the spectrum, a Kentucky middle school teacher made the questionable decision to send a text message to her drug dealer during class. Even worse was the fact that she entered the wrong number into her phone and sent the message to a state trooper instead. (And the fact that she'd done this on school property added even more to her fine.) Key quote: "She learned her lesson. Program your dealers into your phone."--Kentucky State Police spokesman Barry Meadows.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Famous for Being Famous--Why?

I was really surprised yesterday when I was driving between schools and listening to the top-of-the-hour network news on the radio, and the second story was about Britney Spears checking into rehab for the second time in a week. Of all the things going on in the world these days, I fail to see how this story merited more than a brief mention at the end of the newscast (and even then, only for the reason that it's fairly unique to have someone leave and return to rehab in such a short span of time).

I just don't get the whole idea of obsession with celebrities--especially those who don't really have all that much talent to begin with. The only time I've ever read a People magazine was in the waiting room at the doctor's office or the car repair place, and was only if I was finished with my newspaper and there wasn't a copy of Sports Illustrated handy. I'm especially surprised to see so much ink, bandwidth and airtime devoted to people who are mostly "famous for being famous" (Paris Hilton, Anna Nicole Smith, K-Fed, etc.). Sure, it was sad when Anna Nicole passed away at such a young age, especially after just having lost her son and giving birth to a baby in short order. I won't argue that her story deserved a place in the hourly newscast, but breaking in as a special report? Don't we save that for things like huge natural disasters, the passing of former presidents, and things like that?

I noticed that, in this morning's paper, an L.A. Times columnist agrees with me. Here's a key quote:
Not so long ago, you had to make a pretty strenuous effort to become well-known enough to register as famous. However, because that playing field was relatively small, once you got there it wasn't too hard to become a household name – if only for the allotted 15 minutes.

Now I'm not sure there's such a thing as a household name anymore. Instead of 15 minutes of fame, we get personalities who are famous in the eyes of maybe 15 people. Fame is no longer about reaching the masses but about finding a niche audience somewhere.

This can, of course, be a good thing, since the masses never have been known for their taste or intelligence. But there's a dangerous flip side to the democratization of fame. The YouTube/American Idol/MySpace regime may be providing new opportunities for genuinely talented, less conventional people, but it's providing even more opportunities for untalented, often downright annoying people. "Celebrity" now connotes a mundanity that borders on tedium, not to mention that smelly territory of reverse indifference.
Read the whole thing. I admittedly don't have a personal stake in this at all; if I become famous, I hope it's for something I've done musically--something that's the product of hard work. I don't need to waste my time obsessing over the lives of strangers who may be famous for not having done much, but I wonder why anyone would consider this a good use of his or her time.

UPDATE: Eric links to his post on this subject from a year ago. Here's the key quote:
While I find humor in certain stupid things (ie, cheesy action flicks), I don't understand people acting stupid to get attention. Do I feel any better about myself when I hear Paris Hilton say something stupid? Nope, I just feel indifferent. I know someone somewhere feels better about his/her life as he/she vicariously lives through other people's stupidity.

Eww, part 1: Some inmates at the El Paso Country Jail annex were recently served noodles infested with weevils.

Eww, part 2: After the recent e. coli scare, Taco Bell sure didn't need the world to see the pictures of rats scurrying around one of its New York restaurants after-hours; the whole thing was caught by TV cameras.

Slightly less "eww," but some may beg to differ: A Humane Society investigation has uncovered evidence that some "fake fur" coats may actually include fur from dogs. Can you say Fi-D'oh!?

Friday, February 23, 2007

A Powerfully Bad Error

I was amused, but not all that surprised, to read the story about the utility customers in Weatherford who received electric bills for $24 billion this month. It turns out that, this time at least, the mixup was the fault of operator error, not computer error.

At least one local took it in stride: ""I know they raised the rates on kilowatt hours a little bit," [Weatherford resident Richard] Redden said. "I guess we shouldn't have run the heater quite so much this month."

The reason this doesn't surprise me? I once received a utility bill for over $2500 (for only a few months) in college; the error turned out to be that the meter had been changed during the billing period. I chronicled that story here, in a post that also reported how a guy in Malaysia got a phone bill for 218 trillion dollars.

At least in the Weatherford case, the company immediately discovered its error; in the cases of both the Malaysian guy and myself, the billing entities originally maintained that there was a chance that the outrageous bills were correct.

Cheeky behavior: A USC hockey goalie was ejected from a recent game for mooning the crowd. (It seems like he'd, well, freeze his butt off doing that on ice, wouldn't he?)

The name fits the crime: A woman in the Tampa Bay area was recently charged with taking off one of her high-heeled wooden shoes and hitting her boyfriend in the head with it. Her name? Kari Barefoot.

A good deed goes rewarded: The Wisconsin police officer who wrote himself a ticket for a traffic violation (reported in this post) has received over 150 congratulatory emails from around the world. (Two people even sent him $15 to help cover the fine.)

Thursday, February 22, 2007

This Would Be Some Real Progress for Congress

I read a great editorial today by a writer named Lynn Woolley, who's evidently a radio talk-show host based somewhere here in Texas. He came up with three great ideas for reforming Congress:

1) Eliminating the income tax code
2) Term limits
3) A lifetime ban on politicians becoming lobbyists

Read the whole thing. I'm totally on board with all of these ideas, and there's not much extra frosting I can spread on this well-made cake. But I will call attention to his reasons for term limits:
The Founding Fathers believed in a citizen legislature in which people served and then returned to the private sector. In fact, the Constitution originally called for U.S. senators to be appointed by state legislatures, placing a tremendous amount of power at the state level.

In a large state like California or Texas, how much direct contact do you have with your U.S. senators? Likely, none at all. But you probably have much easier access to your state senator or representative. So the 17th Amendment gave you the right to vote for your senator directly but in so doing actually diminished your power.

Reasonable term limits could serve to make senators and representatives more responsible. I've suggested 12 years for all elected offices. A U.S. senator would have one term during which re-election would be looming and one term in which it would not matter. It would work a bit differently for representatives, who are elected for two-year terms. Still, they could serve only six terms. The powerful seniority system in Congress would be less important because no one would serve long enough to build a kingdom.

Members of Congress would not spend every waking minute in fundraising or feel the need to buy elections with earmarks – at least, not to the current extent. The power of the incumbency would be reduced, leading to more turnover and fresh ideas in Washington.
Amen, brother. For the same reason that I believe that administrators must teach, I also think that legislators should be regular citizens (which includes being subject to the same health care that we regular Joes can get). I'm all about bursting bubbles and knocking down ivory towers over here.

Now what's the chance that Congress would ever pass this?

Neither rain nor snow nor turn of the century...: A British soldier's postcard arrived at its destination a mere 92 years after it was sent.

City of angels: A new record was set in Bismarck, North Dakota, for the most people to make snow angels in the same place; among the participants was a 99-year-old woman.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Beware the Ides of March

There's been an unfortunate development in the Save Fry Street saga:
The Tomato, the pizza restaurant long considered an iconic part of the eclectic Fry Street area, will be closing its doors soon.

Last week, owner Mike "Ski" Slusarski received word that he would need to be out of the building at the corner of Hickory and Fry streets by March 15.

The deadline followed the end of ongoing discussions between Slusarski and United Equities Inc. about the restaurant's move into the proposed Fry Street Village.

The Tomato was one of a number of businesses on the property to receive official eviction notices from the Houston-area developer in early January. The notices cited Jan. 31 as the final day, but an official with the development company indicated the firm would work with the businesses individually.
And when we had last checked in on the subject, the Tomato owners' son had posted a bulletin on the store's MySpace page saying that the store would likely be there until the end of the semester. Previous articles had also noted that the owners were negotiating with the developer of the future Fry Street Village to relocate within that development. So what happened?

Well...this happened:
Slusarski said initial conversations with the developer about relocating to the new development did not include downtime — time that his business would be closed. However, recent talks included the possibility of seven months between the time his current location would not be available and the proposed location at the proposed Fry Street Village would be ready.

“That doesn’t make any sense,” he said. “I can’t be out of business for seven months.”
No kidding. That's a bit too much to ask.

Another local Fry Street activist says that this behavior is par for the course with this developer:
“It is typical of UE’s [United Equities] strong-arm business tactics and not the first time they’ve used them in Denton,” wrote in e-mail Mike Cochran, former City Council member and Denton historian who has been working with Save Fry Street, an organization formed after the property sale to save historic portions of the retail area.

“They offer small business rent at exorbitant prices and when they balk, throw them out on the street with almost no notice. This is just pure punitive action to force a small businessman out of business because he wouldn’t ‘play ball’ with them,” Cochran wrote.
Read the whole thing. In the meantime, Slusarski is looking for another location (which he has to find in a little more than three weeks), and at this point, it's not likely to be within walking distance of campus, because there's simply nothing available. But count me in as one UNT alum who 1) will support the Tomato no matter where they go, and 2) has little desire to support any business in Fry Street Village, no matter how cool it might end up being. It's not always just about the almighty dollar; sometimes it has to do with keeping the character of a neighborhood intact, especially in a college town. United Equities doesn't seem to have learned that lesson yet.

UPDATE: More thoughts on the subject at the Save Fry Street site.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

It's Still Not Too Late... celebrate National Pancake Day with a free "short stack" of pancakes at IHOP; the promotion goes till 10:00 tonight. (I had mine already today, during a break from school because of TAKS testing.) This is not an urban legend; it's true. (And it's not true that I waited until I got mine before blogging about it *grin*; it's just that I was pretty wiped out last night and didn't get a chance to get back to the computer till now.)

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Something Good Is Brewing Here

I have seen the future of the CD store, and it is good.

It started out as, of all things, a restroom stop. I had been to the (fairly) new Hear Music/Starbucks outlet on the Riverwalk a few nights before, and I'd noticed that they sold quite a lot more CD's than the average Starbucks; I'd also noticed the listening stations scattered throughout the place. But it was near closing time (as a song with that exact title played on the PA), and I hadn't had a chance to check out the upstairs, where I had assumed that the jazz section was located. But tonight, having traversed the Riverwalk and needing a pit stop, we figured that we could kill two birds with one stone: find relief and find the jazz section, both of which were likely upstairs.

We stayed in there for the next two hours.

We found out that the hybrid music store/Starbucks concept is still very new; it's only been rolled out in three other locations besides San Antonio (the other ones are in California, Florida and Washington state). While a few stores in Seattle and Austin have burning bars (I'd seen one in Round Rock before), these are the only places so far that combine all three areas--burning bar, retail CD store and full-service Starbucks.

I was impressed with the fact that the CD's were reasonably-priced; I rarely saw a single CD over fifteen bucks. And while the jazz selection could have been larger, the extensive database of the listening stations more than compensated for it. I was even more impressed to learn that it's possible to make your own mix CD's out of anything in the store, at a cost of $8.99 for a CD with up to eight songs (it's 99 cents per song for anything above that). They also allow you to burn entire CD's for a very reasonable price (mine averaged out to $11.99 for a single CD). The process is simple: You decide what CD you want to burn, place your order, and it burns downstairs at the burn bar (located conveniently right next to the coffee bar). Each order is given a name (the names come from famous musical artists and are assigned in alphabetical order; for example, my three were MARVIN-1, MOBY-1 and MONK-1), and its status is listed on a series of screens located throughout the store.

Sure, it's not exactly like getting an original CD, but it is given a professional-grade jewel box and outer sleeve with the title, song listings and a facsmilie of the original cover art. The sound quality is equal to any commercially-produced CD, and in some cases, the price is considerably less than the original import CD would have been (for example, I got a double Kenny Wheeler album for four bucks cheaper than Amazon, which was itself cheaper than anyplace else I'd ever seen it.)

As a jazzer, I'd love to see one more thing added to this idea: LIner notes, or at the very least a list of personnel on the album. (Unlike many other genres, knowing the sidemen on a recording is often as important as knowing the leader.) I'm sure there would need to be a way to keep the printing down while doing this, though one of my friends suggested that maybe the liner notes could themselves be burned onto the CD in .pdf form or something. Still, I'm sure that the costs are kept down by not having to have every CD in the database in the store's physical inventory.

I've read articles in the past about the day when most CD's would be produced on-demand like this, and--at least for these four locations--that day has arrived. Other music retaliers should indeed be nervous, because not only does this concept appear to be a winner, but the same store already has a great cup of coffee. I'm not sure when this might expand to Dallas, but I hope it's soon. And while I'm sure that they wouldn't choose my beloved nearby Firewheel to bring this concept to the Metroplex, I can make a few good suggestions of where they could thrive.

Thought for the day: Schools should take off Presidents' Day just like other governmental agencies do. I enjoyed the holiday we had two weeks ago, but tomorrow would have been nice too. I'll be back to regular posts if I'm still awake by the time I get home tomorrow night.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Checking the List: A TMEA Primer

SAN ANTONIO--It's Saturday of TMEA; did I do all the usual stuff this year? Let's look at the list:
  • Spend quite a bit of time in the exhibit hall? Check.

  • Spend way too much money at this booth? Check.

  • Eat way too many big meals on the Riverwalk? Check.

  • See some people I hadn't seen in several years at the UNT reunion? Check.

  • Make jokes about how, when, I was in college, the free food at said reunion would serve as Friday night's dinner? Check.

  • Watch someone propose to his girlfriend during the serenade at the Sinfonia sing? Check (and this year, it happened twice).

  • Get to the convention center in time to see the high-school all-state jazz ensemble on Saturday morning, making it with just minutes to spare? Check.

  • Fight the crowds at the Rivercenter food court at lunchtime? Check.

  • Get a table there by spying someone about to leave one and pouncing on it 2.5 seconds after they'd gotten up? Check (and this time, a helpful lady even cleaned off the table while we waited).

  • See the Andean Fusion band playing some sort of a classic-rock cover song on ancient wooden flutes just outside that food court? Check (this year, the song was "Hotel California," and when I saw them today at lunch, I remarked that my TMEA was now complete).
I didn't get to see any of the high school all-state concert bands today; being involved with the community college groups means that those concerts are often scheduled on top of each other. (I also didn't get to try out any new horns this year, though there wasn't really anything I was definitely wanting to play.)

But despite the lack of interesting (at least to me) clinics this year, it was still a great hang as always; as I've said before, it's something I look forward to every year. Sure, it may be surprising to see me posting before midnight, but being beholden to the streetcar schedule may occasionally limit my nights out (though they did expand the service on my route to 12:30 a.m.). Still, I'm perfectly happy to get a little extra sleep before tomorrow's drive back.

COMING TOMORROW (once I'm back home): I have seen the CD store of the future, and it is good.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Alamo Crackers

SAN ANTONIO--All is going well at TMEA. The 'Net in the hotel was out last night, but it's back now, so I thought I'd chime in with yet another quick collection of animal stories so that my loyal readers (and I appreciate all 20 of you--really!) won't come back to an empty Musings every day while I'm out of town.

(Incidentally, the title of this post is the name of an actual gift item I saw in a Rivercenter Mall store last night. Heh.)

Like a sturgeon (that I've caught for the very first time): A Wisconsin man caught a 6-foot, 102-pound sturgeon while ice-fishing. (The article includes a great picture of the guy lying down on the ice next to the big fish.)

It's raining cats and one dog: A mother cat at a Connectictut Humane Society shelter has adopted a Rottweiler puppy that was rejected by its mother.

This must have driven the pilot nuts: An American Airlines flight was forced to land early when an unusual noise was heard above the cockpit; it was later proven that the noise in question was the skittering of a stowaway squirrel (say that ten times fast).

Is it soup yet? Nope: A Florida girl's pet turtle--forced inside because of bad weather--was accidentally eaten by the family's golden retriever...and lived to tell the tale.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

"Old Home Week" Begins

SAN ANTONIO--The trip here was quick, easy and without incident. Tomorrow will be a very relaxing day (as in there's nothing I want to see until 3:30 in the afternoon), so I'll just kick back and enjoy the Old Home Week aspect of this convention.

Sure, I come here because there are always at least a few cool clinics or concerts. The exhibit hall is overwhelmingly large, and there's a lot of interesting stuff there (for example, I always like trying out the new horns). Lately, I've come in support of the college students who've made the all-state group. Any of these things alone would get me down here every February (the last of the three in a literal sense).

But my favorite part of this week is getting to see everyone I went to school with, as well as some people I used to teach with and don't anymore. In the short time I was downtown tonight, I saw one person I teach with now, two I taught with about eight years ago, and two fraternity brothers from other places, all in short order. These occurrences will only increase as the week goes on.

Music educators are a busy type. "Nine to five" is only an old country song to us. If we're not working together on a weekly basis (and sometimes even if we are), way too much time goes by before we see each other again. This week gives us an opportunity to get together, recharge our batteries a bit, and remind ourselves why we do what we do. As I look out my hotel window, it pales in comparison to my Manhattan view of a month ago. The program isn't nearly as full for me this week. But I still wouldn't trade this week for anything.

Happy Singles' Awareness Day: Since I'm single at the moment, today has been just another day for me...but some people hate Valentine's Day with a passion. The greeting card companies have taken note of this phenomenon. (I should mention that my brother-in-law's company continues to take notice as well.)

Animal stories, part 1: A New Jersey homeowner was quite startled to look out her kitchen window and see a 210-pound bear staring back at her.

Animal stories, part 2: A Maine farmer has been trying for three weeks to corral his runaway donkey, but she's having none of it.

Animal stories, part 3: Investigators searching a California house for drugs found a mysterious slothlike, snouted animal in the house. (The mystery was later solved.)

Blowing out the candles: Happy birthday to Kirk from Combo PM and my fraternity brother Javi.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: "Are you on drugs??"--the streetcar driver on my way back tonight, to a passenger who was asking weird questions and pulled the "stop" cord about 2.5 seconds after the driver had taken off from a stop.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Travel Advisory

I'm off to San Antonio in the morning for the annual TMEA convention. I'm still debating as to whether the laptop comes along for the ride; if it does, I'll have updates on a nightly basis. Otherwise, I'll chime in when I can from the Internet court in the exhibit hall, and I'll do a big roundup when I get back on Sunday. (And with possible snow flurries here in the morning, I'm not getting out of Dallas a minute too soon.)

Monday, February 12, 2007

The Best G-Weasel Slam in a While

In yesterday's paper, there were some very amusing comments in a review of a Boney James concert:
Saturday night at the Majestic Theater, slightly more than 1,000 fans of smooth jazz assembled to enjoy the dulcet, nonchallenging tones of saxman Boney James.

Saxophonist James 'Boney James' Oppenheim brought his diluted brand of urban jazz to the Majestic Theatre on Saturday night.
Of course, over the last two decades we've all seen jazz diluted into nothing more than shopping-mall-soundtrack fare, and it's no longer even fair to evoke such names as Charles Mingus or Miles Davis when considering popular purveyors of the instrumental twaddle that passes for the idiom these days.
But here's the kicker:
While no Kenny G – an inane buffoon whose tootling repeats itself endlessly within the space of a single songs and often is out of tune – Mr. James and his histrionics were still more possessed of "lite" than the actual light that folks once looked to in jazz.
--Dallas Morning News special contributor Matt Weitz
Matt, I couldn't have said it better myself.

(Incidentally, I normally wouldn't read a review of such a concert, but the headline caught my eye: "Boney James OK if you want ear candy." Heh.)

As I've noted before, there really should be another name for this music that doesn't include the word "jazz," because--unlike any other subgenre--the artists don't tend to mix (save for some occasional collaborations by trumpeter Chris Botti, for some reason). It's too bad the scary religious implications caused the "New Age" label to fade away, but Weit'z "ear candy" might do just as well.

Anyway, I had to share that one with those of you who don't read the paper.

This "snow day" had one missing ingredient--snow: Students at an Ohio school posted a fake announcement on their school district's website saying that school was closed for a snow day; the only problem was that it wasn't even snowing. (The girls face explusion.)

This cat has only eight lives left now: An Indiana cat was found outside in a water trough with its back legs and tail frozen in three inches of ice . The cat is fine, but it may lose the tail.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

A Revolution-ary Idea for Weight Loss

A recent column by one of my favorite writers, James Lileks, concerns a novel idea by West Virginia schools to help battle the problem of childhood obesity: Put a Dance Dance Revolution machine in every school. A 24-week pilot program showed that kids who spent half an hour on the DDR machine every day didn't gain any new weight during that time.

I have no doubt that this could work. A buddy of mine became quite a DDR player in high school; not only did he burn off (and keep off) all of his "baby fat" by playing regularly, but he actually worked his way up to state DDR champion in the process, making money at tournaments and everything. (I've heard of people who worked their way through college winning tournaments as well.) So my proverbial hat is off to the school officials who came up with this, because, if you've ever seen people play DDR, you know that they're having a great time, and if you can have fun and lose weight at the same time, you're onto somethng.

(And if you're, I've never actually played the game myself; I'd have to go a long way from home while I was in the learning process. All I'd need to do is run into one student when I was bad at the game, and any shred of teacherly dignity would go out the window. And the one time that was possible--at the game room of Schiltterbahn when only my friends and I were around--I was improperly shod and couldn't play. Maybe someday...)

That's one big omelette: A truck overturned on a Virginia highway and spilled nearly 165,000 eggs. (You'd have to play DDR for a week to burn off the calories of an omelette that big...)

Saturday, February 10, 2007

You Should Give This a Whirl

We took the college big band out today for an unusual team-building activity: WhirlyBall. If you've never played before, it pretty much goes like this: You use a jai alai-type scoop contraption to shoot a wiffle ball at a target located in the center of a basketball-like backboard, all while driving bumper cars. It was bigtime fun (even though our team, the saxophone section, was admittedly pretty bad--we lost to the trombones, for crying out loud), and, despite the cost (it ain't cheap), it's definitely something I'd do again. Nobody got hurt (save for a few bruised egos), and it really was a great way to spend an hour. (And I think that, with just a bit of practice, a lot of us--myself very much included--could have been a lot better at shooting the thing. Really!) I hope we do it again in the fall...

Badly-written headline of the week: Mom Allegedly Leaves Kids in Car to Tan. As written, it sounds like she left them in a hot car so they'd get some sun, but, as the story explains, she actually left them in a cold car while she went inside to use a tanning booth.

Least-plausible-sounding excuse of the week that turned out to actually be true: "My dog ate my wedding ring."

iGuts: A truck driver lost control of his car as he took his eyes off the road to adjust his iPod, spilling his truck's load--50 tons of cow intestines.

Blowing out the candles: Happy birthday to my oldest nephew Noah, who's six now. An account of his very first birthday may be found here.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Apple vs. Apple: The Settlement

As I've noted in a couple of previous posts, Apple (the computer company) and Apple (the recording label) have been entangled in some legalities for a few years, but now they've finally reached a settlement:
The settlement gives Cupertino-based Apple Inc. ownership of the name and logo in return for agreeing to license some of those trademarks back to London-based Apple Corps - guardian of The Beatles' commercial interests - for their continued use.
It ends the ongoing trademark lawsuit between the two companies, with each side paying its own legal costs. Other terms of the settlement were not disclosed.
And how, they can get to work getting the Beatles' catalogue on the iTunes Music Store, something that is being eagerly-awaited by many, I'm sure.

This is right up there with Underwater Basketweaving: Colleges in Malaysia may soon offer courses on how to keep public restrooms clean.

At least half of this headline is newsworthy: Man bites dog; dog bites back.

But "man vs. snake" is newsworthy: A Brazilian man saved his grandson from the clutches of an anaconda by beating it with rocks and a knife for half an hour.

And this is the most newsworthy one of all: The police chief in Kewaskum, Wisconsin wrote himself a $235 ticket for driving past a stopped school bus that had its flashers on.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

One More Reason I Don't Like "No-Pass, No-Play" As It Stands Now

In Monday's post, I presented a few reasons why I'm not too fond of Texas' no-pass, no-play law; here's one more:
  • A law that was originally intended for athletics should not apply to the arts. Now it gets personal. And before you ask me if, in fact, the reason that I feel this way is because I'm a musician and not an athlete, I need to point out that there's a big difference in how the two disciplines perform. Things like music and drama aren't completely learned until a performance takes place, and it's not right to deprive a student of that opportunity because of failing one class. (But wait, Kev--isn't a football game a "performance" as well?) Yes, but the "seasons" are set up quite differently. Bench an athlete for even an entire six-weeks, and there's probably still at least half of the season left. Bench a bandmember during the six-weeks with UIL contest and the band trip (which often occur within a few weeks of each other) and two-thirds of the semester's performances are gone.
I'll let a college student close out this discussion:
[...] (A) successful band program builds not only good performers, but good human beings as well, and this author challenges H. Ross Perot to find as many of those positive traits of attitude, teamwork, camaraderie and cultural enrichment being developed in a science, math or English class. Some things cannot be learned sitting at a desk with a textbook!
(Perot led the Governor's Select Committee on Education--the one that developed the education reforms that included no-pass, and is often given the buik of the credit--or blame--for its inception. Oh, and the college student? Me, back in the day, in a class paper that morphed into an article in the TMEA magazine.)

I don't expect as many people to agree with me on this reason as with the previously-stated ones, but I felt like I needed to throw it out for general consumption. Feel free to comment away as always...

The thrill of victory; the agony of de feet: In one Minnesota family, it's a tradition to run around the garden barefoot during halftime of the Super Bowl. But, as their teenage son found out, doing so when it's 17 degrees below zero outside is not such a great idea.

A much better place to run barefoot, I'd think: Philadelphia may soon be getting rubber sidewalks; which would save money, be environmentally friendly and minimize the number of slip-and-fall accidents that happen on them.

Coming soon to a theatre near you: Bambi vs. Doczilla, on the ski slopes. Thankfully, it ended in a tie, as neither party was hurt.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

What Happens When an Astronaut Gets Nervous in Flight? Depends...

This story started out as one of those "weird news" entries this morning and turned into a major headline. Of course, I'm talking about the astronaut who drove 900 miles to intimidate a woman whom she considered a rival for the affections of another astronaut. Here's the paragraph, buried in this initial story, that caught my attention:
When she found out that Shipman was flying to Orlando from Houston, Nowak decided to confront her, according to the arrest affidavit. Nowak raced from Houston to Orlando wearing diapers so she wouldn't have to stop to urinate, authorities said.

Astronauts wear diapers during launch and re-entry.
Diapers? Who knew...

(That does sort of dilute the image we usually have of astronauts, though, doesn't it?)

Be sure and check out her mug shot in the article; she looks as though she should've been in a love triangle with Nick Nolte instead.

Oops... On the island of Grenada, a new stadium was being inaugurated. China had the major finiancial stake in the structure, and Chinese officials were present at the ceremony. But there was an awkward moment when the band played the wrong national anthem, and not just any other country's, but Taiwan's.

When Wookiees go bad: A Chewbacca impersonator was arrested outside Grauman's Chinese Theatre after he allegedly head-butted a tourguide. (Key quote, from a police spokesperson: "The lesson here is you can have the force with you. You just can't use illegal force."

Yet another reason to be wary of red-light cameras: A car allegedly ran a red light in Manhattan, and its license plate number was captured on camera. Yet the number it supposedly read was traced to an upstate New York man's aluminum rowboat, which hadn't left his yard in years.

Monday, February 05, 2007

This Rule Still Doesn't Get a Passing Grade From Me

There's been a lot of talk recently about the supposed "dilution" of the "no pass, no play" rule that's been in Texas for over 20 years now (in other words, certain classes have been allowed to be exempt from the effects of the law if they're labeled as "advanced." This applies to as many as 166 classes in one Austin-area district, whereas the Carroll Independent School District in Southlake (home of the Class 5A state football champions, incidentally) has no exemption list at all.

But now lawmakers want to get back into the game, and, as usual, we should be scared:
wo key lawmakers say they want to close a loophole that allows students with bad grades to slip by the state's no-pass, no-play law.

Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, said she plans to pursue legislation to tighten the law, which requires students to score at least 70 in their courses to play sports or participate in other extracurricular activities.

Rep. Rob Eissler, chairman of the House Public Education Committee, said the state clearly needs to change rules that allow school districts to label courses as advanced and exempt them from no-pass, no-play requirements.

The legislators spoke out this week after The Dallas Morning News published a story Sunday showing that schools across the state use the exemption policy to exclude yearbook, auto shop, cooking and many other courses from those rules.

"It is appalling," said Ms. Shapiro. "It was certainly not the intent of the legislation. It has obviously taken a turn for the worse."

The Legislature approved the no-pass, no-play law in 1984 to bench students for poor grades. The exemptions are designed to encourage students to take tough classes without fear of losing eligibility.
There are three areas in which I have disagreed with the original law (and thus side with the idea of exemptions) ever since the beginning. Here are the first two:
    • Students shouldn't be penalized for accepting an academic challenge. If a student attempts to take a challenging course (many of the AP courses fall under this category), he or she is doing so for personal enrichment; such a course is not part of the basic education. If the student aims high and falls just short in a class that's an "extra," there's no reason to assess a penalty by taking away part of another class (athletics, fine arts, etc.). If someone's failing basic math or English, that's another story, but the reward of AP classes should be greater than the risk. (After all, it's not like someone can just go drop the class, as could be done in college.)
    • This rule is set up incorrectly in the first place. It should never have come down to depriving someone of an extracurricular event simply because of failing one class. This means that a student isn't even allowed to have a bad day (blow a test badly enough in some classes, and you're sunk for the six-weeks)....or a bad teacher, for that matter. Penalziing someone to this extent for failing one class (out of five, seven or eight, depending on the school system) is like failing someone on a test for missing a single question.

      So what's the correct way it should be done? Cumulative grade point average, of course. That's the only number that matters in class rank, college admissions, and so on. If that number drops below a certain level (70, for sure, but I'd even go for 75), then the punishment kicks in, but to me, the whole idea of meting out this penalty for failing a single class has always struck me as absurd.
    I'll come back later and explain one more reason why I don't care for the "no-pass" rule in its current incarnation, but in the meantime, let me know your thoughts on this issue in the comments.
  • Sunday, February 04, 2007

    Is It Just Me...

    ...or were the Super Bowl commercials not as good this year? (Feel free to list your favorite[s] in the comments. I haven't decided which one really stood out for me, though some of the Coke ones were decent enough, and I liked the one where the dog got to pretend he was a Dalmatian and ride in the parade.)

    UPDATE: If you missed some of the commecials (or just want to see one again), they can all be viewed from this MySpace page.

    Saturday, February 03, 2007

    Teachers Punishing Parents?

    A Texas lawmaker has come up with an interesting idea to maintain regular communication between parents and teachers: Fine the parents who skip their scheduled conferences with the teacher:
    Playing hooky from a parent-teacher conference? You better have a good excuse.

    A Houston-area legislator wants to subject parents to criminal charges for skipping a scheduled meeting with their child's teacher.

    Rep. Wayne Smith, R-Baytown, said it is time for the state to crack down on Texans who are shirking their parental responsibilities by failing to meet with the teacher when their child is having academic or disciplinary problems.

    "I don't know if it's been getting worse, but it's a problem right now," Mr. Smith said. "It's certainly worse than when I had kids in school."

    Under the bill, parents who miss a scheduled conference with a teacher could be charged with a Class C misdemeanor and fined up to $500. Parents could avoid prosecution if they have a "reasonable excuse" for failing to show up. State education officials or school districts would probably be left to define what's reasonable but, for example, a medical emergency would probably suffice.

    Mr. Smith said his goal is not to punish parents but to get them to show up for meetings so they can communicate face to face about their child.
    But of course the end result would be to punish the parents. Is this a good idea?

    As you know, I've ranted about irresponsible parents in a previous post, and I certainly agree that if the parents aren't setting the example, the kid won't have much of a chance to be successful. But I'm not sure that it's possible to legislate behavior like this; maybe the approach needs to be more educational and less punitive. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.

    Friday, February 02, 2007

    Travel Advisory

    I'm off to Ft. Worth for tonight and most of tomorrow to conduct a fraternity workshop. Once I get back, I'll catch up on all the topical posts from earlier in the week; I've had plenty to say the past few days, but no time in which to say it.

    (Incidentally, I typed the first sentence of this post one-handedly while talking on the phone. Marvel at my mad multitasking skillz!)

    A "State of the Arts" Idea

    Even though a lot of the news regarding the Dallas Independent School District has been less than positive in recent years, we need to give them credit where it's due, and this new idea is definitely something positive:
    The children of Dallas are about to reap the benefits of a hard-earned victory three decades in the making. By the end of 2009, every Dallas Independent School District student will receive 45 minutes of art and music instruction each week during the academic year – the first time that will be in all schedules since 1979.

    A modest victory to be sure, but one that could be an important step in the larger, more crucial battle to raise the quality of education in our community.
    That's right--no matter how much the "back to basics" crowd may be silent on this issue, giving students more access to the arts will raise the value of education overall.

    Here's more:
    President Bush's State of the Union address stressed the importance of education, particularly in science and math. What he didn't mention is how the arts increase performance in math, science and other curricula.

    But Big Thought, a local nonprofit partnership, understands the connection. So, along with the city of Dallas, DISD and the New York-based Wallace Foundation, we are creating the Dallas Arts Learning Initiative.

    It's a major undertaking. More than 50 of the region's most vital cultural institutions will partner in an estimated $39.8 million project that is believed to be one of the most comprehensive citywide arts-learning initiatives in U.S. history. In December, the Wallace Foundation awarded the program $8 million, the single biggest arts-learning grant ever presented.
    And it will be money well spent:
    DALI was created on one unabashedly idealistic, yet meticulously researched, premise – that students flourish when creativity drives learning.

    Countless studies over the last four decades have supported this notion, but none hits home as strongly as the one conducted in our own back yard by Big Thought, DISD and the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University.

    In that report, which will be published in March, a representative sampling of Dallas elementary students whose teachers integrated curricula with high-quality arts experiences saw dramatic increases in tests scores, engaged learning behaviors and overall performance. The study shows that link again and again.

    For example, one first-grade class from Casa View Elementary made a field trip to the Dallas Museum of Art, where students learned how artists use line, texture, symbols and color to express feelings in portraiture.
    Read the whole thing. Nobody's denying that math and science and languages are crucial, but way too many members of the "basics" crowd seem to think that man can live by those subjects alone. The arts are too often seen as frivolous, and they tend to get short shrift when budgets need to be tightened. Hopefully, more initiatives like this will be created throughout Texas and across the nation so that everyone will realize that the arts are basic to a well-rounded education.

    UPDATE: Here's a related story from today's paper.

    Our government in (overre)action: A New York state lawmaker wants to establish legally-defined minimum weight standards for people in the fashion and entertainment industries.

    Their government in (in)action: Meanwhile, the French minister of health wants to do a $9 million study on whether workers should be allowed to sleep on the job to make up for the rest they're not getting at home.

    Phil says we get relief from the cold: The famous Pennsyvania groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, didn't see his shadow today, so that's supposed to mean we'll have an early spring. After having an actual winter here this year, that certainly would be welcome (as long as the drought doesn't return).

    Don't stop the bleating: Happy 10th anniversary to James Lileks' "The Bleat."

    Blowing out the candles: Happy birthday to my friend and fraternity brother Kevin D. (currently a 2L in Houston).

    Thursday, February 01, 2007

    Four Years Later...

    ...we still remember the Columbia Seven. They met their end on this day in 2003--a disaster that I actually witnessed part of, even if I had no idea what I was seeing at the time.

    UPDATE: A clearinghouse of coverage of Columbia over at the Popular Mechanics website.

    Blowing out the candles: Happy birthday to my fraternity brother (and deputy governor) James.