Saturday, February 28, 2009

Blowing Out the Candles

I won't have time for a long post today, as I'm involved with a giant production at the college that will take up most of the day, but I couldn't let the day go by without wishing a happy birthday to my Fit Brother, Coop. He's in Corpus at the moment, but there will be time for celebration over spring break in a few weeks.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

This Could Really Be My Cup of Tea

Instapundit posted an "insta-poll" this morning asking the following: "What should be the goal of the Tea Party movement?" Here's my reply:
1) Term limits for all in government, including staffers and bureaucrats (exceptions for the military, of course). Nobody spends more than ten years of their career in government, and they can't start there either; the only entry-level careers should be in the productive class, and that's where people should return after loaning their talents (which they'll actually have, being in the productive class beforehand) to government for a short time.
2) A ban on ex-members of Congress becoming lobbyists for ten years after the conclusion of their terms.

3) Stripping the federal government of all powers (especially with regard to taxation) not explicitly given to it by the Constitution.

4) No more special perks for Congress (private planes, etc.), and no special health care or retirement plans; they retire on Social Security and and subject to whichever health care plan they happen to pass.

It's time to return to citizen-legislators. No more "two Americas" in this regard!
I probably left something out, but that's a good start.

Read the whole thing, and feel free to post your own thoughts both there and here.

(I'll catch up on the past few days' posts eventually...)

Saturday, February 21, 2009

If There's a Dallas Tea Party, I Might Well Show Up

A couple days ago, I discussed a common-sense stimulus plan--one that gives the power back where it belongs, to the people--that's been making the rounds of the Internet for the past week or so. And here's another great idea that's only been around for a couple of days, but it's starting to explode across the country. It comes from CNBC reporter Rick Santelli, who captured the mood of a lot of Americans earlier this week with his interview of traders at the CME group, a major futures and options exchange out of Chicago. In this video, Santelli and the traders have the chance to vent about the potential for their having to pay their neighbors' mortgage, especially if said neighbor bought way more house than he/she could afford. Santelli floats (pun intended) the idea of having a "Chicago Tea Party" this summer and echoes the oft-stated premise that the government can't buy its way into prosperity.

Here's a good summary of Santelli's idea, which has really taken hold in many circles over the past few days:
Rick Santelli, who also an experienced investment strategist and trader, put it simply that the government would be promoting bad behavior by subsidizing mortgages given to people who ought not to have had them to start with.

"Because we certainly don't want to put stimulus forth and give people a whopping $8 or $10 in their check, and think that they ought to save it, and in terms of modifications... I'll tell you what, I have an idea.

"You know, the new administration's big on computers and technology-- How about this, President and new administration? Why don't you put up a website to have people vote on the Internet as a referendum to see if we really want to subsidize the losers' mortgages; or would we like to at least buy cars and buy houses in foreclosure and give them to people that might have a chance to actually prosper down the road, and reward people that could carry the water instead of drink the water?"

Rick Santelli went on to compare what is happening to America under Barack Obama to Castro's Cuba and to suggest a kind of "Boston Tea Party" anti spending revolt. Rick Santelli's impassionate speech on CNBC brought cheers on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade, from where he was reporting,
There have been a lot of taxpayer protests around the country since the Porkulus bill was drafted, and I would certainly consider attending (and blogging, and taking pictures of) such a protest if one materialized here in the Metroplex.

Santelli has had a busy week; since that original video came out on Thursday, he's appeared in two more videos; the first video discusses Santelli's thoughts on the White House's rather juvenile overreaction to his original report, and in the second one, Santelli and Home Depot founder Ken Langone have a less-impassioned but very productive discussion on ways that the nation might get out of the mess it's in--and it involves a very different way of doing things than those expressed in the Porkulus bill.

Meanwhile, there may be a Chicago Tea Party even if Santelli doesn't organize one; several other entities have already launched websites promoting such a thing, and Santelli is no doubt enjoying his rockstar status of the moment.

At one of the linked stories above, someone muses about the possible content of such a party:
[W]hat exactly would one dump in the harbor? Surely not tea. Rick Santelli, perhaps a little tongue in cheek, suggested dumping some derivative securities. Somehow, though, that doesn't seem to imply the most exciting of visuals. Whatever gets dumped in the harbor, the new tea party better get ready for an Envrionmental Protection Administration law suit. There is a bit of oppression that the British never thought of.
Lord help us all.

Incidentally, the CNBC anchor asked Santelli if he'd consider an appointment to the Senate if Roland Burris is forced out in Illinois; Santelli replied that he didn't want to have to "shower every hour," as he'd seemingly have to do if he lived or worked in Washington. (There's certainly enough dirt there to go around at the moment.)

UPDATE: There may not be a Dallas Tea Party yet, but one is being organized in Ft. Worth (scroll down a bit).

QUOTE OF THE DAY: "It is time for the productive majority to refuse to subsidize the leeches of society, both economic and political. If we didn't produce it, there would be nothing for the thugs to redistribute. It's time we reminded them of that."--commenter Patsy, from this post at Riehl World View.

Friday, February 20, 2009

A Great Solution to a Bad Problem

On the one hand, it seems pretty awful that the Lancaster Independent School District (just south of Dallas) doesn't have the budget to pay substitute teachers right now. But I really love their solution:
Eliminating the budget for substitute teachers, a cost-cutting idea introduced in Lancaster schools four months ago, is getting mixed reviews from parents, students and staff.

And the state-appointed monitor who controls the district's purse strings is promising to restore the funding next school year.

In October, the district stopped hiring substitute teachers and instead asked office staff, counselors, librarians and other personnel to fill in for absent teachers. Implementing the idea has created a daily challenge for principals, who shuffle employees from job to job in an attempt to cover all classes.

"We're doing the very best we can with it," said Lancaster ISD Interim Superintendent Dana Marable, who last week filled in briefly for a first-grade teacher. "We're all pitching in and trying to help as much as possible."
I love that last part--the superintendent substituted! Wouldn't it be even better if she did that every day? My pet educational solution makes even more sense in tricky economic times; we simply can't afford to pay as many non-teachers as we're doing now.

Not everyone in Lancaster is doing this, of course:
Junior Aisha Manning, 17, said her high school language arts class has spent much of this year sitting in the gym.

"It was like once or two times a week," she said. "They just took roll and escorted us to the gym. We could talk, laugh, play, anything."

Parent Cynthia Corbin learned from her daughter, Shanequia Jarvis, that the students sent to the gym weren't required to do school work.

"These kids are not going to pass the TAKS in March because they haven't had any instruction," Corbin said. "I was told by the principal's secretary that any time a teacher is out, they all go to the gym."
Well, actually, the bigger problem is that students won't learn anything if they get sent to the gym; the TAKS test is not the prime objective here (and I can't wait until it goes away for high school students is a few years), but Corbin's point is well taken.

And the superintendent, fresh from her temporary teaching duties, is on board with the proper solution:
This month, Marable told Lancaster High School Principal Roosevelt Nivens to find another way to handle teacher absences.

"I told him we're not going to have students sit in the gym, not when you have seven assistant principals who can sub," Marable said.
She couldn't be more correct here. Obviously, Lancaster--like all districts--needs to get its regular platoon of subs in place again, but in the meantime, wouldn't it be great if the administrators-in-the-classroom idea became, might I say, habit-forming? One can only hope...

Not going postal anymore, but still annoyed: I finally got my mail today, four business days after it was supposed to have resumed. It turns out there was a small unknown glitch on my end--my visiting parents neglected to tell me last night that they'd spoken to the letter carrier yesterday--but the biggest problems were still of the USPS's making: The call I was supposed to get yesterday went to my house phone, not my cell, despite my specifically telling them to call the latter, and the letter carrier didn't seem to think I had put a "stop date" on my hold, even though the form I filled out--a copy of which he put in my box last week--had it ending last Saturday. I may have to find some sort of an alternative to a mail hold the next time I go out of town for an extended period, because this thing was a complete fiasco from start to finish.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

A Stimulus Plan for All of Us

I took about a week's break from griping about the government's Porkulus plan, but, now that it's been passed, it's time to look at some alternative ideas so that we'll have something to do when it fails.

Others have been doing this as well, and one of the best ideas comes from "rebel economist" Michelle Muccio, whose idea of a far more effective stimulus plan is to let people keep their payroll tax for a year:

If the video won't load, or you don't have time to watch it right now, she explains her premise in the "more info" sidebar:
Politicians are going to spend $800 billion dollars which they claim will stimulate the economy. For the same amount of money we could eliminate the payroll tax for the rest of the year, giving the average worker thousands of dollars back in their pocket. Instead of more government spending, why not just let the American people spend their own money?
Can I hear an amen? And the people she interviews heartily agree.

I think this is a great idea, though I'm sure that Congress would disagree, since it doesn't do anything to increase their own power or reelection chances, which seems to be what so many of them are all about today. Watch a PJTV interview with Muccio here, and throw in your opinion on the idea in the comments below.

Still going postal: My update to yesterday's post is really no update at all; no mail was in my box tonight, and the promised call from someone at USPS never came. This is really getting rather aggravating.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

In My Head, I'm Going Postal Over This

It seemed simple enough: Fill out an easy form online, and my mail would be held for the few days that I was at TMEA last week. I requested the hold to start on Wednesday (since I knew I'd be leaving that morning) and the delivery to resume on Saturday (since I'd be back late that day and would like to get everything before the Monday holiday). I hit "submit" and expected for things to happen to my specifications.

Unfortunately, they didn't even come close. First of all, I got the confirmation of my hold in my mailbox (with no other mail) on Tuesday of last week--a day early. That was somewhat unnerving. But even more so was the discovery upon my return on Saturday night that no mail had arrived then either. OK, so they started a day early and ended a day late. Surely I'd get mail on Tuesday...

But yesterday came and went, and still nothing. And the same would be true for today. I saw the letter carrier on the next street and stood around waiting for him, but I guess he'd already done my street, because he never came back. Frustrated, I called the USPS customer service number, and, after a dazzling array of options that didn't fit my particular problem (and getting hung up on by the system once), finally got to talk to a live human being. She said that I would be "contacted before the close of business tomorrow," and when I asked her what in the world could cause a simple mail hold to go so wrong, she said "I'm sorry, sir, but I don't have that information" as well as any bureaucrat. Why couldn't she pass me to someone who would own this problem?

Like many Americans, I've been frustrated with the Postal Service on several previous occasions, but those mostly had to do with mailing something (or the condition of the various stamp-vending devices at post office branches). Keeping my mail for over a week is a whole 'nother ball of wax. I've said before that if UPS or FedEx mailed letters, I might well use them, because, even though the USPS is a "quasi-governmental" organization, it often moves with the (complete lack of) grace and efficiency we've come to expect from all other areas of government.

Anyone else have a postal service gripe? Go in the comments.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Once Again, the Wrong Solution for Educational Budget Woes

The Plano Independent School District was in the news this week, but not in its usual high-achieving way. This time, the story is that, like many of its neighbors, the PISD is not immune to the bad economy, and they're going to have to make some staff cuts. And, like the Dallas ISD before them (but without the scandal, mind you), their idea of a good solution to the problem is to cut some teaching positions--about 100 of them, to be exact. And again--like every time this happens--I say wrong, wrong, wrong.

I will give them a little credit here: They're not talking about laying off any current teachers, just not filling 100 vacant positions or replacing anyone who leaves. But still, it will make class size go up, especially at the elementary level:
Class size won't jump that much, maybe by a student or two in most cases, except possibly in specialty classes, like ESL and art or music classes.

"We really are trying to keep the cuts away from the classroom. We're trying to figure out ways to balance the budget," said Otto.

For weeks, the district's been trying to save money, to reduce a $17 million deficit.

It has saved $1 million with the drop in gas prices and has already cut some librarians and central office workers.
So, has anyone suggested my favorite solution (administrative cuts instead of classroom cuts)? Why yes, they have:
Still, parents say say more should be done, especially at the administration.
Of course, I heartily agree, and I'll take this idea even farther: Keep the class sizes where they are by putting administrators in the classroom for one period a day. That way, nobody's getting any less attention, and the administrators can keep one foot in teaching, as I've always suggested they should do, for the same money being spent now.

My pet educational solution has been a theme on this blog for over three years now, and because of our current economic mess, the theme is expanding. Our problems really do stem from the clashing needs of the productive class vs. the unproductive class, and the productive class must win if our nation is to continue to succeed. The sooner that more people figure this out (which will be difficult, because an undue amount of power--which will need to be sacrificed in order for this to work--is wielded by the unproductive class), the better off we'll all be.

Plano's been known for its quality schools for a long time; I hope this all works out for them.

Blowing out the candles: Happy birthday to my friend and colleague Allan and my friend and former student Andrew. (Tying this all neatly together: They're both products of Plano schools.)

Monday, February 16, 2009

More Than Just a Place to Lay Your Head

I've been hinting ever since the first full day of TMEA that I would say a few words about the new hotel where I got to stay this time. (And yes, "new" is relative, because it has been a hotel for almost two years now, and the building itself is 80 years old!) I was quite pleased with virtually every aspect of the Drury Plaza Hotel Riverwalk in downtown San Antonio.

The edifice in which it's housed has a storied history, starting in 1929 as the Alamo National Bank Building, and housing a succession of other banks later on. A few years ago, the city issued bonds to redevelop the building into a hotel, and Drury added a special element to the proceedings: The company paid several million dollars to extend the facility to the Riverwalk, completing its circle in the process:
While the River Walk's eight million visitors a year don't seem to mind its horseshoe shape, the design forces them to double back at both ends, adding to the congestion problems there. To ease the traffic, Drury Southwest, Inc., a development company based in San Antonio, TX and Cape Girardeau, Mo., has designed and paid for a $3 million tunnel project at the River Channel area which will add 850 feet of walkway to connect the two ends of the River Walk and create a full circle. A gift to the City of San Antonio, the walkway completion will, not surprisingly, run right in front of the new Drury Plaza Hotel. (Source: San Antonio Business Journal)
Anyone who's into architecture can look at some elevations of the renovation project here, and a more detailed history of the renovation may be found here.

During the renovation, great pains were taken to retain the grandeur of the building's history as a bank. Looking out over the lobby, it's not hard to imagine that former incarnation:

Notice the cool 1930 Ford in the right-hand corner; if car models back then came out a few months before the calendar year like they do now, the car and the building are almost exactly the same age.

Even the check-in area has been made to look a lot like the old bank-teller windows. And in the basement, which now leads to the Riverwalk, there are plenty of old photographs on the wall that chronicle the building's bank days; among the most amusing are those of the "drive-up teller" who actually walked out to your car and the IBM computer that printed out the bank's annual reports (it's as big as a refrigerator and probably had less storage space as an iPod nano). But the biggest nod of all to the building's history has to be this:

That's right--they've retained the old bank vault door, which now leads employee break room. Heh.

Drury has added some other great amenities to the hotel; not only is there an observation deck on the 22nd floor (from which this picture was taken), but there's a swimming pool up there as well, and the famous spire atop the building (which signaled weather conditions back in the day) lights up once again.

As far as the hotel part goes, I couldn't have been happier; my room was in a corner, which meant that it had six (!) windows (whose curtains I had to remember to close every night to avoid an overabundance of morning sunlight) and almost an L-shaped layout; after coming in the room, it was necessary to make a big right turn to get past the closet/bathroom portion to the sleeping area; this gave the room an additional grandness of scale that's not usually found in places where I stay. The beds were extremely comfortable, the flat-screen plasma TV was great, and the breakfast--like at all Drury hotels--was abundant and free (but this one was served in a giant mezzanine area looking down on the lobby). The hotel staff was professional and courteous--some of the best I've run across; they even tended to smile more, as if to say that this is as great of a place to work as it is to stay.

You might be thinking, "C'mon, Kev, surely there has to be something that wasn't ideal!" Well, OK; the walk down Commerce Street was a little dicey at times, though it's been that way--at least west of Losoya--for a while now. (The Market Street side was a bit friendlier, what with all the new hotels such as the Westin, Hotel Contessa, and Homewood Suites on that street.) But with the Riverwalk extension in place, there's now a good alternative to the streets; the river is well-patrolled and much freer of questionable characters, and it's great exercise to take the long way to the Convention Center.

I got a convention rate for this hotel, so it's probably more expensive to Joe Average Traveler, but it compares favorably to other nearby properties. If I were going to TMEA on my own dime, I would definitely consider this as a prime option.

This Is Not Something You See Every Day

Me, conducting a 500-piece choir on Friday night:

I wasn't originally supposed to be the lone conductor of the Sinfonia Sing--the idea was to have four of us split the duties--but, through a series of random events, I ended up as the last man standing (literally, in one case, as one of the other guys broke his ankle). It was a great deal of fun, not to mention an almost overwhelming experience to have that many voices at my beck and call. Thanks to all who participated!

As promised, I'll rave about our hotel a little later on today.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Another TMEA Checklist

A few years ago, I posted a checklist of things I usually do at TMEA. This year was a little different, so I'll post the same items and see if the answers agree:
  • Spend quite a bit of time in the exhibit hall? Check. It's impossible not to do that if you truly want to experience TMEA.

  • Spend way too much money at the Tap Music (rare CD store) booth? Nope. They weren't there this year. Maybe the economy didn't allow them to come down from Iowa...

  • Eat way too many big meals on the Riverwalk? Check, with the giant chimichanga at The Original Mexican Restaurant taking the biggest toll later in the day.

  • 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? Believe it or not, no. Maybe it was too close to Valentine's Day, and anyone who wanted to do that was going to save it for Saturday night on the Riverwalk. (And I'll have more about the sing later.)

  • 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? Nah, I was up quite a while before that, and we were there in plenty of time.

  • Fight the crowds at the Rivercenter food court at lunchtime? Almost, but when we saw the crowds (still massive at 1:15), we forsook the mall for a trip to County Line BBQ on the Riverwalk, where we got seated rather quickly.

  • Get a table there by spying someone about to leave one and pouncing on it 2.5 seconds after they'd gotten up? Nope; see above.

  • See the Andean Fusion band playing some sort of a classic-rock cover song on ancient wooden flutes just outside that food court? Check; they were playing every night we were there this year.
Among the things I usually do but didn't get to do this year included dining at Casa Rio (first time in a long time that I'd missed that) and going to either the Rivercenter Starbucks or the Hear Music store, though I passed by each of them several times. I also didn't get to see any of the high school all-state concert bands this year, partially because of the early departure, and also because one of them conflicted with my student's concert.

As always, it was a great hang; I look forward to this week every year.

The TMEA Exhibit Hall is Big.

You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind- bogglingly big it is.*

*Apologies to Douglas Adams, of course.

I've always had trouble describing the sheer size of the TMEA exhibits, which have to rank among the biggest trade shows in the retail music industry. To get this shot, I went to the second floor of the convention center, where they have windows looking out over the entire room. (The picture, however, only catches about half the big room; there are a few more long aisles' worth to the left of this shot.) This is the West Exhibit Hall, the football field-sized one, and there's another smaller hall to the east of the registration area. It's quite a place to be.

I'm still pretty tired from the trip, so I'm using today to relax, and I'll rave about our hotel tomorrow and give a TMEA wrap-up either at that time or later on tonight.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Resting Up

I'm back from TMEA tonight, but exhausted; I'll have updates (including more pictures) sometime during the day tomorrow.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Walking the River

SAN ANTONIO--Here's a rare view of a section of the San Antonio Riverwalk with almost nobody on it (taken 10 a.m. yesterday):

If I can get a picture later in the day when it's full of people, I'll post it here as a contrast.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

A VIew from the Top

SAN ANTONIO--I'll devote an entire post to a rave review of this year's hotel when I get back, but for now, enjoy a picture from the 22nd-floor observation deck:

There's really a lot in this picture: The four major convention-center area hotels (left to right, the Marriott Rivercenter, the Marriott Riverwalk, the new Grand Hyatt and the Hilton Palacio del Rio. At far right is the iconic Tower of the Americas, and behind that is the Alamodome (I always thought it looked more like a ship than a dome).

Things are going well--running into old friends left and right, eating great food, seeing interesting clinics and good performances. Back with more tomorrow.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Travel Advisory

I'm off to San Antonio this morning for my annual trip to the TMEA convention. As always, I'll have daily updates, and maybe even a few pictures, since the iPhone is pretty good in that area.

If you're going down there as well, have a safe trip, and I'll see you on the Riverwalk.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

What's in a Name (Toll Road Edition)

Most people don't get the opportunity to help name a road, especially one as big as the over half-completed State Highway 121 tollway. But the North Texas Tollway Authority (NTTA) is seeking public input on its name at the moment, and they have a few ideas:
A legendary congressman, a historic regional railway or a familiar, if bland, state highway number. Those are the options proposed by the North Texas Tollway Authority for renaming the road from Coppell to McKinney formerly known as State Highway 121.

The NTTA is asking for public input on the names Sam Rayburn Tollway, Interurban Tollway and 121 Tollway.

Don't like those choices? They'll also take suggestions.

Agency spokeswoman Sherita Coffelt said board members want a name that brands the road as well as differentiates it from non-tolled highways. But they also considered that using 121 in the title would provide existing name recognition, she said.

[...]The NTTA's naming policy, adopted last fall, encourages names that reflect geographic location, infrastructure or historic sites or posthumously recognize an individual for lasting public contributions.
If you're behind in your Texas history (or not from Texas but still reading this for some reason), Rayburn was a longtime U.S. representative who was speaker of the House for 16 years, and the Interurban was a longtime railway connecting Denton and Waco, with major stops in Dallas and Ft. Worth (ironically, it was made obsolete by the rise of the passenger car).

So if it were up to you, what would you name the tollway? I know it sounds generic, but 121 Tollway works for me; I think that's what I've been calling it anyway. I'm OK with naming it for Rayburn, too, especially if they nicknamed it "the Sam." Agree or disagree, feel free to hit "comment" and chime in.

Blowing out two hands' worth of candles, but no thumbs: Happy birthday to my nephew Noah, who's eight today. He may have had to go to school on his special day, but...there was cake! (The unusual story of how I was first notified of his birth is found here.)

Monday, February 09, 2009

This Web Entrepreneur Is Taking an Undeserved "Beating" For His Site

This shouldn't be news, and it's a shame that it is:
A San Antonio man wants to shut down a Dallas-based Web site that sells sleeveless undershirts known as "wife-beaters," because he claims the site is offensive.

Patrick Greene, 60, says he's filed complaints with the Better Business Bureau, the Texas attorney general's office, a Dallas City Council member and the FBI.

Greene said the site appears to glorify, or at least make light of, spousal abuse.
Oh, please. If anything, it's making fun of redneck culture, and I don't see anyone stepping up to defend them here. It's called satire, and Greene should learn a little bit about it before flying off the handle like this.

Fortunately, he's not likely to be able to do anything about it:
pokesmen for the agencies contacted by Greene, along with free-speech experts, say there's little that can be done.

"I don't see where legally you could shut it down unless the site is calling for violence against a specific individual," said Craig Flournoy, a former Dallas Morning News reporter who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1986 and is now an assistant professor of journalism at Southern Methodist University.

"One of the things about the First Amendment is that it gives you the right to be an idiot."
Well said. And perhaps the only idiotic thing on the site would be the fact that it sells infant-sized shirts (LI'l Wife Beaters) and purports to offer a second shirt at half off to anyone who can "show proof of a conviction for wife-beating." But I think I can detect a little tongue-in-cheek here, can't you?

But again, the agencies contacted by Greene all appear to have a good grasp on our free speech rights; none has suggested that the site be shut down just because it is offensive to some. (If every site that offended somebody could be shut down, how much of a Web would there be?)

Let me say this again: In this country, you do not have a Constitutional right to not be offended, and (heaven forbid), if that were ever to happen, we would no longer be America. The Web has millions of sites, and if Greene is offended, he has the right to point his browser elsewhere.

It's not "Mr. Morning News" anymore: This may have been going on for a while, but I first noticed it when quoting the linked story above: The complainant is called "Greene" on subsequent references. Not "Mr. Greene," but "Greene." The honorifics are gone? How cool is that? (And a search of other stories in both the web and dead-tree editions confirmed my suspicions: They're outta here.)

I was annoyed for the longest time about the DMN's use of the professional courtesy titles in every section except for sports; I felt that their use cluttered up the writing, gave some people a status they did not deserve (a convicted mass murderer should not be called "Mr. Dahmer"), and were often taken to ridiculous extremes (such as the time when the cartoon pizza mouse Chuck E. Cheese was referred to as "Mr. Cheese"). I don't know exactly when they went away, but I'm glad to see them go.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

All Caught Up Yet Another Time

Lately, I've had this bad habit of starting blog posts during the week and not getting to finish them until the weekend. Such was the case this week, and again, not wanting my work to go for naught, I link to the tardy-but-still-present posts:I only have two teaching days this week before leaving for TMEA. Hopefully, I'll stay current on posting between now and then.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Playing This Weekend in the Kevmobile

I've been so caught up in ranting about various actions of the government lately that I've sort of forgotten to blog about music very often. But since I've had a chance to catch up on Down Beat Magazine recently, I've been able to discover a couple of new artists recently and thanks to my eMusic subscription, I've been able to own a lot of them fairly quickly. Here are some of the highlights of my recent acquisitions:
  • The Claudia Quintet, For and Semi-Formal (both on Cuneiform). This group is the brainchild of the highly creative percussionist/composer John Hollenbeck, and he's joined by longtime cohorts Drew Gress (bass), Matt Moran (vibes), Ted Reichman (accordion) and Chris Speed (clarinet and tenor sax). The palette of unusual sounds keeps a high level of interest going throughout each of these sets, the former from last year and the latter from 2005 (I especially enjoy the tunes where the front line consists of clarinet and vibes). Musically, Hollenbeck's compositions are all over the map--everything from funk to minimalism, as well as a few unusual touches (a mash-up of "Rainy Days and Mondays" with "The Peanut Vendor" on For, and something called "Kord," which consists of a single chord repeatedly struck with one note added or subtracted each time, on Semi-Formal). The musicianship is outstanding throughout both albums (underpinned by Hollenbeck's tasty drumming, and though it's not necessarily easy to get the recordings (only For was on eMusic, while Semi-Formal can be bought from Amazon Downloads), I'm sure I'll be buying up their back catalog--for a good price, mind you--from Hollenbeck's website. I can totally see this becoming one of my favorite groups, and Hollenbeck one of my favorite composers (the Down Beat critics agreed, giving Hollenbeck "Rising Star" awards in the Composer and Arranger categories; the Claudia Quintet garnered a similar award in the Jazz Group area.

  • Exploding Star Orchestra: We Are All From Somewhere Else (Thrill Jockey). Chicago composer and cornetist Rob Mazurek leads a 14-piece ensemble through a set that ranges from fairly traditional modern big band writing (with cool textures such as flute, vibes and strings) to spacey computer and keyboard effects and free-jazz sections. This album consists of two suites, "Sting Ray and the Beginning of Time" and "Cosmic Tunes for Sleep Walking Lovers," separated by an interlude, "Black Sun," and followed by a finale, "Dark Water." The subtitle of Part 3 of "Sting Ray" references electric eels, which evidently were used in the recording, and Part 3 of "Cosmic Tunes" features a nod to "All Blues." Much of the music is through-composed, though solos are heard from flutist Nicole MItchell and guitarist Jeff Parker (from the experimental Chicago band Tortoise), among others.

  • Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey: Winterwood (self-produced?). I got to see the JFJO for the first time a few weeks ago (and blogged about it here), and since then, I've managed to get four of their CDs, including this one, which is available at the moment as a free download at their website. It's more acoustic than some of the group's recent fare, and it also marks the final work of Reed Mathis before he departed the group last year. The presence of instruments such as banjo, dobro and thumb piano even emit a country vibe sometimes, but it's all over the map stylewise, and I mean that in the best possible way (indeed, the album is dubbed "genreless" in iTunes' genre column). Besides originals from Mathis and keyboardist/de facto leader Brian Haas, writing credits go to the likes of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Jerry Garcia. The opener, "Dove's Army of Love," is remarkably catchy; I found myself hitting the back button in the car to hear it again and again.
I'll try to continue to do posts like this as I discover new (or at least new to me) groups, because I've run across some very cool stuff lately.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Hey, Rush Hour Commuters--Run Across Any Zombies Lately?

This story has been making the rounds of the various news media recently, and the actions that spawned it seem to be spreading across the country as well. I'm talking about the people who have been hacking into those electronic road signs that usually warn of road construction or accidents ahead and broadcasting funny messages from them:
The latest breach came Tuesday during the morning rush hour near Collinsville, Ill., where hackers changed a sign along southbound Interstate 255 to read, "DAILY LANE CLOSURES DUE TO ZOMBIES."

A day earlier in Indiana's Hamilton County, the electronic message on a board in Carmel's construction zone warned drivers of "RAPTORS AHEAD — CAUTION."

And signs in Austin, Texas, recently flashed: "NAZI ZOMBIES! RUN!!!" and "ZOMBIES IN AREA! RUN."
And of course, highway officials don't appear to have a sense of humor about this:
Officials in Illinois are concerned the rewritten signs distract motorists from heeding legitimate hazards down the road. The hacked sign on Tuesday originally warned drivers of crews replacing guardrails.

"We understood it was a hoax, but at the same time those boards are there for a reason," said Joe Gasaway, an Illinois Department of Transportation supervisory field engineer. "We don't want (drivers) being distracted by a funny sign."
Heaven forbid that a driver might be distracted by something funny. What's next--outlawing jokes on the radio? These may not exactly be the same people who want to take away our cell phones when we drive, but you'd think that they could at least acknowledge that it's funny.

As the linked article notes, the hackers do provide a public service of sorts: They alert transportation officials to holes in the security of their sign programs. Perhaps that's why there hasn't yet been an effort to take down the online tutorials, such as the one on, that show people how to hack the signs. And besides, the signs themselves are often unintentionally funny, with badly misspelled words or glitches in the time estimates between landmarks (just the other day, on the President George Bush Turnpike in Richardson/Plano, a sign at Jupiter Road gave the estimated time between there and Coit Road--a distance of five miles--as "33 minutes," which, if true, would have likely meant that traffic would have been backed up to a point quite a bit behind where I was driving, unimpeded by traffic of any kind, at the moment).

In the meantime, since I do make quite a few Austin trips, I'll definitely watch out for those zombies; you never know when they might jump out at you.

Funny video chain of the week: The original video, called David After Dentist, shows a seven-year-old kid interacting with his dad after a trip to have a tooth removed. (Hat tip: Althouse, where the hostess posts a poll asking if the dad should be condemned for making fun of his kid like that, and the answers are almost evenly divided between Yes, No, and Eh.) Then someone made a mash-up of David with the Christian Bale movie-set rant from earlier in the week (and if you missed the RevoLucian remix of Bale's rant, you should definitely check that out; it stands on its own as a cool techno song). WARNING: Both of the previous videos have audio that's NSFW (does anyone read The Musings at work?). It also spawned a few other remixes, including a metal version.

In the original video, little David asks his dad, "Is this real life?" This is very close to the opening lyric to Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody," and when it was submitted to Digg, the commenting community finished the lyrics in the comment section to that post; it's very funny to watch everything scroll by.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Here's Some "Shared Sacrifice" We Can All Believe In

"This is America, we don't disparage wealth. ... What gets people upset, and rightfully so, is executives being rewarded for failure. Especially when those rewards are subsidized by U.S. taxpayers."
--President Barack Obama, yesterday
There has been a lot of talk lately about "shared sacrifice" that will be required to help our country out of its current economic downturn. And this week, President Obama called for a salary cap for executives of firms that have received government bailout money.

There are some who would say that such a practice is excessive government interference in private business. But you know what? I agree with the president, so long as he takes that idea one step further: It's time to apply it to government as well.

Can anyone really say with a straight face that the government has been successful of late? (In any area besides wasting our money, that is.) We have a confirmed and seemingly unrepentant tax cheat as the head of the Treasury, and several more would-be Cabinet hires who got thrown under the bus for "forgetting" to pay their taxes; we also have two other Senators with significant unresolved tax problems that make one wonder how these people are supposed to solve the nation's economic problems when they can't even keep their own houses in order.

So the president doesn't want to reward someone for failure if said failure is subsidized by We the People. Well, I don't think there should be a reward for the government's failure, either, yet our "leaders" continue to amass undeserved perks. So I'm calling on everyone in high levels of government to join in this sacrifice, as follows:
  • Congress just voted itself a raise at the beginning of the year, despite the country's woes. I say give it back; it's a shared sacrifice!

  • The president has asked automakers to up the fuel standards of new cars during a time when they're barely avoiding bankruptcy themselves, and there's no proof that people will actually buy these cars.

    All this is being done to supposedly reduce the nation's "carbon footprint." But a much bigger footprint comes from certain people flying everywhere in private jets, so I'm calling for members of Congress to abandon this practice in favor of flying commercial. (I won't begrudge the president his Air Force One for obvious security reasons, but there's no reason that Congress needs the same treatment.) It would not only help the airline industry, but it would allow the members to experience what everyone else does--delays, crowded airports, and so on. Too many in Congress have lived in a bubble for too long, and if they're not going to be subject to term limits (which I still think is a great idea), it wouldn't hurt them to see life as their constituents do from time to time. It's a shared sacrifice!

  • And speaking of carbon footprints, I was quite dismayed to read last week that the president had cranked the White House thermostat to the point that, according to his senior advisor, "you could grow orchids in there." Ann Althouse, who gets the hat tip for this story, rightfully takes the president to task for this behavior, and I wholeheartedly concur. You need to join the rest of us at 68 degrees, Mr. President; it's a shared sacrifice!

  • There's been a lot of speculation that some sort of universal health care legislation will come up during this term. If it passes, it needs to apply to all, and that includes everyone in all three branches of government. If they're going to pass it, they need to live under it, which would guarantee a much better thought out piece of legislation. No more double standards; it's a shared sacrifice!
I've noted before that we can't have two Americas--one set of rules for our "leaders" and one for everyone else. And someone needs to look these people and remind them of the following: You are here to serve. And by that, I mean serve the people of this nation, not just their own friends, families, wallets or egos.

It would take a lot of (atypical) courage for someone in Congress to propose these ideas, but it would be amazing to see it happen. Once the votes were recorded, we would know for all time who is really in government to serve this nation, and who is in it to serve their own interests. This is a small voice crying out in the wilderness, but if enough people heard it and repeated it, someone might take notice.

As I've said in earlier posts, we can't afford the government we have now, much less the kind that some people in Washington want to foist upon us. Who will answer the true call to shared sacrifice?

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

This Week Hasn't Exactly Gone Swimmingly for Michael Phelps

When I first saw the picture over the weekend of Michael Phelps evidently smoking a bong, I was skeptical, if for no other reason than the fact that it came from a British tabloid. After all, these kinds of publications run stories like "I Gave Birth to Elvis' Two-Headed Love Child," so it was always possible that this one was a fake as well.

But as you probably know now, Phelps has acknowledged that the photo is real, and this brings forth a host of troubling questions: Should he be punished by the Olympics or swimming's governing body? What should his sponsors do about him? And of course, there's always the old favorite--What is an Olympic hero's obligation to society in terms of being a role model?

And now comes word that Phelps might face criminal charges in South Carolina if the sheriff in the county where the offense allegedly took place can prove so. I won't publish the name of the sheriff here, because it seems to me like he's just trying to get his fifteen minutes of fame, but it can be easily found with some quick Googling (and is very similar to the name of a fumble-prone former Dallas Cowboy).

As for my personal take, I'll have to admit that, at the moment, I'm sitting firmly on the fence on this one. I'm not an illegal drug user myself, and, as an educator, I certainly can't condone their use; that's my own sense of obligation towards being a role model for kids. But then, I deal directly with kids in my work, and I'm not so sure that such expectations should be forced upon people who are famous just because of some sort of exceptional athletic ability.

It should also be pointed out that Phelps has never failed a drug test in all his years of swimming, so this incident could be considered an anomaly, as opposed to being indicative of a larger problem. So I guess the question we're all wrestling with is whether or not the current marijuana laws are too harsh, and the opinions are all over the map:
  • A Dallas Morning News editorial points out that, while recreational pot use may seem harmless, an awful lot of people have lost their lives due to drug deals gone bad, killing by Mexican drug cartel members, and other aspects of the illegal drug trade.

  • In response to that editorial, readers responded, and they're divided as well: One thinks that we need to send a powerful message that illegal drug use will not be tolerated, while the other points out that legalizing pot would drive the Mexican cartels out of business. Meanwhile, a commenter suggests that perhaps prosecution of marijuana is a cash cow for the court system and various law enforcement agencies.

  • A Fox Sports editorial column notes that contain some teachable moments: First, that our role models aren't perfect, but flawed like the rest of us; and second, that role models should really come from friends, family members, teachers and other components of kids' immediate community, rather than sports heroes.
I still don't know what to say on this one, but I think it's a conversation that's worth having. What say you? Respond below in the comments.

UPDATE: First, Phelps has been suspended for three months by USA Swimming and lost one of his sponsors--Kellogg's--because of this mess. And a new column by Kathleen Parker brings up some good points:
Understandably, parents worry that their kids will emulate their idol, but the problem isn't Phelps, who is, in fact, an adult. The problem is our laws – and our lies.

Obviously, children shouldn't smoke anything, legal or otherwise. Nor should they drink alcoholic beverages, even though their parents might. There are good reasons for substance restrictions for children that need not apply to adults.

That's the real drug message that should inform our children and our laws, rather than the nonsense that currently passes for drug information. Today's anti-drug campaigns are slightly wonkier than yesterday's Reefer Madness, but equally likely to become party hits rather than drug deterrents. One recent ad produced by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy says: "Hey, not trying to be your mom, but there aren't many jobs out there for potheads." Whoa, dude, except maybe, like, president of the United States.

Once a kid realizes that pot doesn't make him insane – or likely to become a burrito taster, as the ad further asserts – he might figure other drug information is equally false. That's how marijuana becomes a gateway drug.

Phelps may be an involuntary hero to this charge, but his name and face bring necessary attention to a farce in which nearly half the nation are actors. It's time to recognize that all drugs are not equal – and change the laws accordingly.
I can't come down completely in favor of changing the laws yet, but, as I said above, it's a conversation that we as a society probably ought to have. Would it be better to regulate pot like alcohol--tax it, sell it only by prescription or from approved locations, etc.--or should the current laws continue?

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

One More Thought on Tax Cheats Seeking High Places

I really do have other things to talk about this week (among other things, I will chime in on Michael Phelps' indiscretions that came to light over the weekend), but I can't seem to move away from the subject of the numerous Cabinet appointees who seem to have "forgotten" to pay their taxes. (Again, my personal dog in this hunt is that over half my income is derived from self-employment, and if I did the things these guys have done, I wouldn't be rewarded with a plumb government job; I'd be making license plates in Huntsville, or whatever they do down there now.)

I may not be able to express my feelings as eloquently as I'd like on this subject, but Victor Davis Hanson does a fine job:
Millions of Americans don't have either Daschle's or Geithner's resources, yet they pay dearly to go to accountants, honestly turn over all their records, and then pay the full amount of taxation in accordance with their understanding of the law, and the advice they receive from professional accountants.

Yet men both much richer and much more informed about the U.S. tax code not only don't do that, but feel no compunction to rectify mistakes unless they cause embarrassment enough to thwart their careers.

[...]Any more of these stories and we will be on very dangerous ground, since the message is a terrible one to the American people: You pay your full amount, but our elites not only do not, but won't unless they get caught.

This is all about as good an argument for a flat tax as one can imagine.
This is also a good argument to keep government in the hands of talented, productive people, who would bristle at the mere thought that someone would refer to them as "elites."

Hat tip: Instapundit. And with the tax issue tanking the nominations of these folks, NRO's Larry Kudlow thinks that it's time for Timothy Geithner to step down as well:
Geithner never answered the question put to him by senators Kyl and Bunning: Would he have paid his back taxes if he were not nominated to run the Treasury? His issue has never been resolved. He will never have the full trust of the country.

Consider this: Daschle said today that he would not have been able to lead a reform of the nation’s health-care system “with the full faith of Congress and the American people.” Well, Geithner will not be able to lead a reform of the nation’s financial system either. Mr. Geithner will not have the full faith of the American people or Congress, where 31 no votes were cast against his nomination — by far the largest nay vote for a post-WWII Treasury secretary.

[...]This is a matter of personal character and accountability. It is a matter of honesty. Too many of our leaders suffer big deficits in these areas.
Well said. Do the right thing (for once), Mr. Geithner. Now.

(I'll have a new subject tomorrow, I promise.)

Monday, February 02, 2009

Have You Had Your "Phil" of Winter Yet?

Today was Groundhog Day, and I heard the report from Pennsylvania (where it's an hour later than here) even as I was waking up this morning: Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow today, which is supposed to mean six more weeks of winter.

I don't mind the cooler temperatures as long as we don't have the kind of winter that we had here last week, and I'm sure the folks in Kentucky and southern Indiana (some of whom evidently haven't even been allowed back in their houses yet) don't want more of the same.

So what do you think--was Phil correct? And what would you like to see: Six more weeks of winter, or an early spring?

Blowing out the candles: Happy birthday to my friend and fraternity brother Kevin.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Rating the Ads

Now that the big game is over, it's once again time to ask you, my readers, to chime in on which Super Bowl ads you liked the most. I"m having to catch up on some of them, as I didn't quite get home in time for the beginning of the game, but from what I actually saw, the Budweiser Clydesdale commercial that showed the protagonist horse's great-grandfather faltering his way through a series of jobs before settling in with the beer company is probably my favorite so far; those ads are always good.

As for other ones that I liked? Here are a few that stand out:
  • the "Forever Young" spot for Pepsi

  • the Crystal Ball ad for Doritos

  • the takeoff on the Mean Joe Greene Coke ad, this time for Coke Zero and featuring Troy Polamalu (incidentally, they still show the original spot at UNT games, since that's Mean Joe's alma mater)

  • and the one where all the bugs collectively steal a Coke from a sleeping picnicker
All the ads can be seen at this MySpace page. Which one did you like the best? And if there are any that you thought were particularly bad, you can talk about them as well.

UPDATE: After going through some of the ones I missed, another Clydesdale ad--the one with the stick-fetching--earns high marks from me as well.

He got pretty Jacked up: Another commercial (that aired regionally, because I don't think Jack in the Box has a presence across the country) makes us wonder: Will Jack be OK? It's not every day that a company shows its spokes-CEO getting hit by a bus. Like many on the site, I blame the maniacal Burger King...

Six years later: We still remember the Columbia Seven. It came up in conversation several times this weekend, because the previous time our workshop took place in Commerce--which allowed us to unwittingly witness the horrendous event as it as happening--was that weekend in '03.

Blowing out the candles: Happy birthday to my friend and fraternity brother James.