Friday, April 29, 2011

Day 24: RIP the Tim Duncan Era

I am a Houston Rockets fan first and foremost. But they have not been a serious contender for awhile, so I can be a fan of my adopted home, San Antonio. Here is Adrian Wojnarowski’s summary of the San Antonio Spurs during the Tim Duncan era:

“The Spurs haven’t been the team that David Stern wants to promote because they never drew national television ratings. They don’t do drama and soap operas. Popovich never kissed the commissioner’s ass and it cost him the Olympic coaching job. The Spurs have been the team that the high school coaches watch with notebooks and pens, and tell their kids to watch over Blake Griffin. They’re the champions of the purists. They stand for something – substance over style, subtlety over gaudiness.”

“Champions of the purists.” Absolutely. If you are a serious student of basketball, a serious fan who is not distracted by flashy plays and Hollywood personalities, then you cannot dislike the Spurs. If you do dislike them, then I would posit that you do not really understand great basketball. Since the Tim Duncan era started in 1997, The Spurs have won four championships (1999, 2003, 2005, 2007). They have done it with relentless work ethic, a tenacious defensive personality (something they lacked this season), and free from scandal or drama. Coach Gregg Popovich does not court the media like a Phil Jackson. Stars Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker (save this year’s tabloid divorce from Eva Longoria) are not often in the headlines for activities off the court. They have just won. A lot.

The key to the Spurs is that Popovich and Spurs management have been able to surround their stars with great role players, be they Bruce Bowen and his nasty defense, Steve Kerr’s three point magic or Robert Horry’s playoff miracles. It also has to do with the character of the players that have been here in the last decade and a half. David Robinson was the man when Duncan came along. Robinson was mature and smart enough to cede the spotlight and become the #2 guy upon Tim's arrival. It paid off. Robinson got his championship before he rode off into the sunset because of his willingness to do that. Likewise, especially this season, Duncan has realized that Ginobili and Parker need to be the go-to guys, and he let that happen. Duncan has shown leadership on this team by taking criticism. Popovich is one of the few coaches in the NBA today who is the boss of his team. And that all starts with Duncan. Duncan is a star, but has allowed Popovich to coach him, even to yell at him from time to time. It trickles down. The other players on the team also have to listen to Popovich if the man at the top of the pecking order does. If they don’t fall in line, they aren’t a Spur for very long.

Many in this city felt that maybe they had one more championship in them. Afterall, they have held the first seed nearly the entire season. San Antonio has a special relationship with the Spurs in part because it is the only major league team here. To be honest, the Rockets run a long third in the hearts of Houstonians (why, I can never understand. They are the only major league team to bring that city a championship). But in SA, The Spurs are woven deep into the fabric of the city.

But this series with the Memphis Grizzlies has shown that that one more River Parade was all wishful thinking. The Spurs are old. Tim Duncan is probably on the verge of retirement. Ginobili and Parker are both old as well (in NBA years). With a lockout looming for next year, this may be the last time we have seen these three together on the court. Hats off to the scrappy, young, brash, hungry Grizzlies. (Reward: they will be destroyed by the OKC Thunder in the next round). They deserve this win, they were clearly the better team this series, regardless of seed. But let’s take a moment to honor Tim Duncan and the Spurs of the last 14 years for winning four championships with class, a team-first mentality, and hard work.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Day 23: "Get Your Ass to Maaazz"

Here's 10 minutes of one of the greatest actors of our time (or any time)...

Day 22: Live to Fight Another Day

Well, it certainly has been an entertaining 1st Round of the NBA Playoffs. I hope that you saw the Spurs-Memphis game tonight. One of the most hard fought, exciting games I've ever seen. Memphis (the 8th seed) was up 3-1 in the series, so if the Spurs lose this game they are done. The Spurs are down by three with 1.2 seconds left in the game. Watch what happens...

That is a rookie who made that shot, Gary Neal. For one of the more thrilling shots in recent memory, and a shot with everything on the line (literally, the entire season), the commentator for that clip seems surprisingly calm. Anyway, game goes to overtime and the Spurs win.

What a game. Friday will be interesting. It is also cool that within an hour or two, that clip is already up on YouTube.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Day 21: Catching Up

I seem to keep getting one day behind. So, this is yesterday. I've got a good post in the pipeline, but something must happen first before I can post it for it to be timely. I am certain this thing will happen, perhaps tonight. Then I can post it and be caught up.

I watched Tron: Legacy this weekend. I have fond memories of the original, but mainly as a visual experience. The story was muddled and acting was cheesy. Guess what. The sequel looks beautiful (especially on Blu-Ray on a nice TV), but the story is muddled and acting cheesy. Although, I love the references to the original, to the 80's (Journey playing on the jukebox when Son of Flynn goes to his Dad's old arcade, perfectly preserved under a blanket of dust). Even better, in the flashback scenes when Son of Flynn is a kid and Jeff Bridges (said Flynn) is reading him a bedtime story, the kid has a Black Hole poster in the background on his wall. Nice, I had a chuckle there. Another Disney sci-fi flick that flopped in its time, but since has developed a cult following, albeit one smaller than Tron. By the way, I have always loved The Black Hole. Generally, I cannot stand this trend of remaking everything under the sun, but I have always thought The Black Hole, if done right, could be a killer remake/update. Rumour has it that it is in fact being done. We'll see.

ABOVE: Dez is intrigued by a possible remake of The Black Hole. It was one of the campiest sci-fi flicks ever, yet also had an interesting and dark story to it and featured arresting visuals. Plus the acid trip of an ending still astounds. "You're not planning on going into the black hole..." "In...through...and BEYOND!"

My students start their TAKs testing this week. (Recall, TAKS is Texas's standardized testing regime). I have bathroom duty. I have to sit in a desk facing the restrooms, and make sure only one person is in there at a time. They could discuss the test at the urinals if I let more than one in, you see. It is difficult work.

More later.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Day 20: On the Bedside Table

This is yesterday's post. Really. Got to make this one short but it is important. I have a stack of books that I want to read, and I need to know which one to start with. Here are the choices, give your suggestions in the comments section.

1. Back to Our Future (David Sirota): How the 1980's explain our world today

2. The Hawk and the Dove (Nicholas Thompson): A look at the Cold War years through the lives of two of its architects, Paul Nitze and George Kennan

3. The Castro Obsession (Don Boening): Our many plots against and confrontations with Fidel

4. The Fifties (David Halberstam): What many consider to be the definitive look at that decade

6. The Real History of the Cold War (Alan Axelrod): A detailed look at the period

7. Alexander Hamilton, American (Richard Brookhiser): a relatively succinct biography

8. Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters (Meg Meeker): Advice for men raising daughters

9. The Happiest Toddler on the Block (Harvey Karp): A discipline strategy for raising a toddler

OK, so which one?

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Day 19: Happy Easter

Here's a quick post for Easter. By the way, don't miss Day 18's further discussion of the Rolling Stone list below, I just posted that one about 2 minutes ago. OK, now I am caught up.

Day 18: Dez on The List

I know this post is late (that is happening more lately), but this is yesterday's post. Just pretend.

If you haven't done so, read the post below regarding Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 100 Greatest Artists and how they made it. In the comments to yesterday's post, Anonymous asked my opinion of the list. So, OK, here it is. It is important to note that I will base my opinions, as best as possible, on an objective basis as to who I think is most important or influential in rock history. I will try to keep my personal preferences to a minimum. (Also, when I say someone should be "lower," I mean further back, less important. When I say someone should be "higher," I mean in a better spot on the list than they are.)

For discussion purposes, here is Rolling Stone's list, as of 2011:

1. The Beatles

2. Bob Dylan

3. Elvis Presley

4. The Rolling Stones

5. Chuck Berry

6. Jimi Hendrix

7. James Brown

8. Little Richard

9. Aretha Franklin

10. Ray Charles

11. Bob Marley

12. The Beach Boys

13. Buddy Holly

14. Led Zeppelin

15. Stevie Wonder

16. Sam Cooke

17. Muddy Watters

18. Marvin Gaye

19. The Velvet Underground

20. Bo Diddley

21. Otis Redding

22. U2

23. Bruce Springsteen

24. Jerry Lee Lewis

25. Fats Domino

26. The Ramones

27. Prince

28. The Clash

29. The Who

30. Nirvana
31. Johnny Cash

32. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles

33. The Everly Brothers

34. Neil Young

35. Michael Jackson

36. Madonna

37. Roy Orbison

38. John Lennon

39. David Bowie

40. Simon and Garfunkel

41. The Doors

42. Van Morrison

43. Sly and the Family Stone

44. Public Enemy
45. The Byrds

46. Janis Joplin

47. Patti Smith

48. Run-DMC

49. Elton John

50. The Band

51. Pink Floyd

52. Queen

53. The Allman Brothers Band

54. Howlin' Wolf

55. Eric Clapton

56. Dr. Dre

57. Grateful Dead

58. Parliament/Funkadelic

59. Aerosmith

60. Sex Pistols

61. Metallica

62. Joni Mitchell

63. Tina Turner

64. Phil Spector

65. The Kinks

66. Al Green

67. Cream

68. The Temptations

69. Jackie Wilson

70. The Police

71. Frank Zappa

72. AC/DC

73. Radiohead
74. Hank Williams

75. The Eagles

76. The Shirelles

77. Beastie Boys
78. The Stooges

79. The Four Tops

80. Elvis Costello

81. The Drifters

82. Creedance Clearwater Revival

83. Eminem
84. James Taylor

85. Black Sabbath

86. Tupac Shakur
87. Gram Parsons
88. Jay-Z
89. The Yardbirds

90. Carlos Santana

91. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

92. Guns N' Roses
93. Booker T. and the MG's
94. Nine Inch Nails
95. Lynyrd Skynyrd

96. Diana Ross and the Supremes

97. R.E.M.

98. Curtis Mayfield

99. Carl Perkins

100. Talking Heads

First, as far as who is there, and then I will address omissions. I question Nine Inch Nails, Gram Parsons, Tupac, James Taylor and John Lennon. I like and respect them, but this is Top 100. Parsons is cool, but I have always thought that his influence was exaggerated when you look at his actual output. He made some great cutting edge country, but others were better at making a country/rock hybrid. To me, Parsons often sounds straight up country. I know that James Taylor sold a lot of records in the 70's, but there were better, more artistic, and ultimately more influential singer-songwriters in that decade (such as Jackson Browne). John Lennon. As with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductions of Lennon, McCartney and Harrison all as solo artists, you have to completely separate his status as a Beatle (since they were honored with their own induction/slot on the list). Looking purely and solely at his solo career, it certainly does not deserve #38. I have never gotten why people love Plastic Ono Band so much. I mean, I see that it is so raw, confessional, bare bones, exposes the just isn't all that good. Perhaps I would not kick John totally off the list, but I would at least push him up to the 90's somewhere.

Now, as far as placement for who is there. CCR a little higher than 82. First of all, I love CCR. But this isn't about my preferences. I think that John Fogerty is one of the great American rock songwriters. Period. His body of work with CCR is almost uniformly strong. He evokes a swampy, Southern American mythos that runs deep in our psyche. Plus, CCR grooves like a motherf*cker.

The Police at 70. I don't know, hard to separate my adulation of The Police, but I think they have been very influential on some newer artists. Perhaps they are good there, but I might push them a bit higher.

The Kinks are way too low. As usual, they are underestimated and forgotten. I have posted whole separate posts on the greatness (and influence) of The Kinks, so I won't repeat it here. They are at 65, I would push them into the Top 20.

Clapton as a solo artist at 55? I'd push him back a bit. Since Cream and Yardbirds are also both on the list, he is rightfully honored for his accomplishments in those bands there. I'd still keep him on the list, but maybe back to the 80's somewhere. I laughed out loud when I read Steven Van Zandt's ridiculous claim in the Clapton essay that Eric is "the most important and influential guitar player that has ever lived, is still living or will ever live. Do yourself a favor, and don't debate me on this." Well Stevie, I will debate you on that. One of the most important and influential, certainly. And then Stevie does go on to make a excellent case for Clapton. But still. Jimi Hendrix and Chuck Berry are both more important and influential. And Rolling Stone knows this too, regardless of Stevie's views. That is why Berry is at 5 and Hendrix at 6, and Clapton at 55 (and Cream at 67 and Yardbirds at 89).

I might put Sly and the Family Stone further back than 43. I've never seen why they were so great. But I could be convinced.

I would push Madonna up about ten slots. Michael Jackson is way too low at 35. Almost to the Top 10 is where he should be, if not in the Top 10. For many younger folk, Jacko is more important than Elvis or The Beatles. Just ask my students.

Johnny Cash is awesome and influential, but 31 is a bit high. Nirvana is too high at 30. Should at best be in the 60's. The Who is too low at 29, give them at least a ten slot boost. Springsteen and U2 maybe a little higher than they are. Everyone loves Bob Marley (as do I), but 11 is a bit high for him. Well, maybe not. I don't know. Jimmy Cliff was also partly responsible to bringing reggae to the world.

Ommissions: The Cure, The Animals, Jeff Beck (in the 90's, at the end of the list, but there nonetheless), Jackson Browne, CSN (they could take James Taylor's slot), Fleetwood Mac, Peter Gabriel, Genesis, Yes, Pearl Jam (perhaps, in the 90's or even at 100), Steely Dan (maybe), Traffic (maybe), ZZ Top (maybe).

Looks like lots of complaints. But honestly, there is much to like about this list too (like the love for Neil Young at 34). It is an improvement over 2004's version.

ABOVE: Where's Peter?

Friday, April 22, 2011

Day 17: Another List

I do love a good list. Back in 2004, Rolling Stone magazine polled a group of music experts - critics, industry bigwigs, artists - to come up with their "100 Immortals" list. They have now gone back and polled those same folks again to update their list, now called "100 Greatest Artists of All Time." The title is a bit misleading. If you read the intro to the special issue that is on stands now, Jann Wenner says it is a list "of the most influential artists of the rock & roll era," and it is a "broad survey of rock history, spanning 60's heroes and modern insurgents, and touching on early pioneers and the bluesmen who made it all possible." That is more accurate, explaining why there are no jazz artists at all, nor pre-rock giants like Sinatra, etc.

It is kind of interesting to compare the 2004 and 2011 lists to see movement/changes. There was not that much change overall. Some artists dropped and some moved up. Pink Floyd, Queen, Metallica, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Jay-Z, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, REM and Talking Heads are the artists who were not on the 2004 list but who did make the 2011 list, nudging off Louis Jordan, Etta James, NWA, Miles Davis, Ricky Nelson, Martha & the Vandellas, Roxy Music and Lee "Scratch" Perry. It is odd that Pink Floyd was omitted completely from the 2004 list, yet appear here at #51. If you want to see both lists, side by side, Future Rock Legends has done a good job.

Honestly, there are not too many suprises. As there probably shouldn't be. Top 10 (in order from 10 to 1): Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Little Richard, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, Chuck Berry, Rolling Stones, Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan and...who the hell do you think? The Beatles. Glad to see blues pioneers Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf listed, as they had a huge impact on rock and roll.

It is a nice issue of the magazine to buy, because each entry on the list has an essay written about the artist/band by a famous admirer (Peter Buck on The Kinks, David Bowie on Nine Inch Nails, Keith Richards on Gram Parsons, Lou Reed on David Bowie, Eddie Vedder on The Who, Chris Martin on U2, etc.) The essays are interesting perspectives on each artist. For instance, I like Robbie Robertson's essay on Bob Dylan, as he talks about recording with Dylan and Dylan's writing process in the studio, as Robbie witnessed it. Or Billy Gibbons talking about the early days when his band ZZ Top opened for The Allman Brothers, and how he and the other guys in Top would stand on the side of the stage each night and watch Duane Allman and Dicky Betts play into the stratosphere. Cool stuff for music geeks.

Day 16: a Quickie

This will be a quick one, and it counts for yesterday. Later, a longer one for today. Observation: Return of the Jedi kind of sucks, most people don't like it, yet it has made over $650,000,000 if you combine all of the re-releases and DVD sales.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Day 15: Teach the Test

ANCIANT asked a very good question in response to Day 13's post regarding standardized testing in Texas (see two posts below). ANCIANT asked the following questions:

"What's your position on the efficacy of standardized testing? Do you think they're useful? Do you think they serve the function they're said to serve? And do you or your fellow teachers resent having to 'teach the test?'"

In the abstract I agree with standardized testing. The idea is that there is a set curriculum to be taught for any given course. In order for the students to earn their way out of the course, they should be able to demonstrate a minimum knowledge and understanding of the fundamentals of that curriculum.

But then there are several reality checks. Some students simply do not test well. I used to think this was a sorry excuse, but in my experience teaching I have found this to be a legitimate area of concern. I have several students who, if you have a face to face discussion with them, they can show that they clearly understand the material. Yet they do not test very well. Sometimes it is test anxiety, where they just freeze up or get so stressed that they cannot think clearly when you put an exam in front of them. You could respond that we live in a society where you have to prove your competence in certain ways, and therefore you better learn how to deal with it. But still, in their case, the test is not really gauging their true understanding of the material. I do not see much alternative to the written test, unless you want to do oral exit interviews for graduation for some students. Interesting idea.

My problem with the TAKS test is that it is not particularly well written, and the coverage is not really fair. Much of the test consists of maps, charts, graphs and other visuals that the students must interpret. These are "social studies skills," but do not really test an understanding of history. Yes, there are history questions on there, but over the years these other skills-based questions have increased in frequency.

Also, in Texas, students take the first half of U.S. History (Age of Exploration through Reconstruction) in the 8th grade. Then it is Geography in 9th, World History in 10th and the second half of U.S. History in 11th (Post-Civil War to now) (12th grade is one semester of Government, one semester of Economics). So the students take the Exit Level Social Studies exam in the 11th grade which covers all of U.S. History (plus the skills). These students have not studied the first half of U.S. History since the 8th grade. It is stupid. They should either rewrite the test or change the order of courses where U.S. History is taken back to back in the two years leading up to the test. (If you are in AP, this is not a problem, became AP U.S. History covers all of U.S. history in one year, 11th grade).

This TAKS issue will not be around for too long, because the EOC's will be given at almost every year/level, and will focus only on that year's curriculum in that course. But with the EOC's, you have more than quadrupled the number of standardized tests a student will need to conquer before graduating. I don't like this scheme (described in detail in Day 13's post).

To more directly answer ANCIANT's questions: I do not object, in principle, to standardized testing. That being said, there are some students who may have mastered the material, but have difficulty expressing that in a standardized format. Perhaps some alternative methods of proving mastery? I don't really resent having to teach to the test. This is because the guidelines are so broad as far as what can be tested, it is really just teaching U.S. History, but making sure that you hit on the things they stress. I generally agree with what they stress, but occasionally you will come across something a little odd. For instance, of the eight dates that they want students to know, one of them is 1957 for the launch of Sputnik (initiating the Space Race). Important, yes. But if you were to choose the eight most important dates in American history, would one of them be Sputnik?

Day 14: Random

OK, I guess I broke the 30 posts in 30 days streak, since this is going up on day 15's morning. But I am calling this Day 14 and we can look the other way, no? This is difficult to maintain, but worthwhile. ANCIANT asks excellent questions in his comment to yesterday's post below regarding standardized testing. I will respond to him in a full post later this week.

Did you see the Celtics-Knicks game last night? I would not usually be a Knicks or Carmelo fan, but what heart. The Celtics pulled it out in the end, but it was extremely close. The Knicks were without two of their three star players (Stoudamire and Billups), so it was basically 'Melo and his team of D-Leaguers. They fought so hard that I almost rooted for them. Almost. The Spurs, down Manu, could learn a lesson from The Knicks. It will be an interesting game tonight between the Spurs and the Grizzlies. I don't know if The Spurs have an answer to the Grizzlies's front line. I am also not sure on the status of Ginobili.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Day 13: Under the Wire

Almost didn't make today's post, but here it is. I was up late at the school tonight at a special TAKS (Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills) tutoring night for History. TAKS is the latest standardized test that Texas school kids must pass in order to graduate. Currently, Texas students must pass an English, Social Studies, Math and Science exam. But that is all about to change.

We are transitioning to EOC's (End of Course exams). Instead of four exams, Texas students will soon have to pass a series of exams throughout each year of high school, totaling 16 exams. The way the scheme is currently proposed, they should not only have to pass each exam with a certain score, but they would also need a total composite score in each subject area. So it might be possible to pass each individual science exam, for example, yet not reach the science composite number needed to graduate. OR, perhaps you barely fail one of them, but perhaps you can score high enough on the others to reach the required composite score.

It is even more confusing for the next couple of years as they phase in the EOC's and phase out the TAKS. We will actually have both types of exams going on, with TAKS required for older students as the younger students come in under EOC's (next year's freshman class is the first who will be required to graduate under the EOC scheme). It has been calculated that with TAKS, EOC's, AP Exams and others, that for the next couple of years there will be over 40 days of standardized testing at the high school level in Texas.

I'll leave you with that. Talk to you tomorrow.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Day 12: Progress

Got to keep today's post short. We just got back our pictures from our fourth and final photo sessions for baby. We paid for a package where we got four photo sessions evenly distributed throughout her first year. Here are four pics, one from each session, from newborn to 12 month. Pretty remarkable progress...

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Day 11: They Are Just Different From Us

"Do you prefer the UK or the American version?" Any true music fan understands what I mean by that question. Since the 1960's, many albums have been released in different versions in the UK than in the U.S. In the 60's it was due to a different view of the purpose of singles. In Britain, taking the more generous view towards the consumer, many singles were viewed (but not all) as separate entities from albums. A single was a release unto itself, like a "single" album track. Therefore, hit singles often did not appear on albums. Records were for other tunes. But almost from the beginning, in America, singles were seen as tools to sell albums. Therefore, the hit singles would be front and center on albums. The albums were then filled out with the "album tracks."

After the 60's, the British came around to the American view and started to include singles as part of albums (some artists still tried to give you something fresh on the singles in the way of B-sides that did not appear on albums. This was common stateside as well, making singles collectibles for many artists). But, British and American versions of albums still often would differ for certain artists. Or there would be (sometimes drastically) remixed versions of songs for American vs. British versions of albums (I am thinking about the different mixes of "Hungry Like the Wolf" on Duran Duran's Rio. of which the British is superior. And then the different mixes of "She Blinded Me With Science" for Thomas Dolby, of which the American is better.)

What are some examples of all of this? Early Beatles records were different across the pond. In the case of The Beatles, the British versions were considered uniformly superior, and now if you buy them on CD, you are buying the British track listings. The Rolling Stones are a bit more complicated. Stones albums were quite different across the ocean until they became uniform with 1967's Their Majesties Satanic Request and on. For the Stones, both versions are still widely available, but I almost always prefer the American releases over British for them. Take their classic Aftermath. The American version is a tighter listen and kicks off with "Paint It Black," whereas that classic is not even on the British Aftermath.

Hendrix's debut Are You Experienced? is another example. Drastically different listening experiences depending on which version you have. Hendrix recorded all of these songs in the same sessions, but in Britain he released many hit songs as singles only.

Which would you prefer?

British Track Listing: "Foxey Lady" / "Manic Depression" / "Red House" / "Can You See Me?" / "Love Or Confusion" / "I Don't Live Today" // "May This Be Love"/ "Fire" / "Third Stone From the Sun" / "Remember" / "Are You Experienced?"

ABOVE: The album cover for the British pressing of Hendrix's Are You Experienced?

American Track Listing: "Purple Haze" / "Manic Depression" / "Hey Joe" / "Love or Confusion" / "May This Be Love" / "I Don't Live Today" // "The Wind Cries Mary" / "Fire" / "Third Stone From the Sun" / "Foxey Lady" / "Are You Experienced?"

ABOVE: The American version of Are You Experienced?

That is a tough call, but I give the edge to the American version (although I love "Red House"). The Hendrix issue is moot at this point for CD buyers, because the CD version rightly includes all of the above songs, plus "Stone Free," "51st Anniversary" and "Highway Chile." As it should be, because all of the songs were recorded in the same sessions. That is an incredible fact to consider, by the way. All of those Hendrix classics tossed off in the same quick sessions?

Anyway, just another topic for music geeks to debate endlessly. I thought about this today as my daughter and I were playing with her ball machine and we were listening to the British version of Thomas Dolby's Golden Age of Wireless. A completely different listening experience than the American version.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Day 10: Wasps, Socialists and Fries

I have the day off work today. In San Antonio it is Fiesta Week, and the schools are out today for the big Battle of Flowers Parade downtown. Fiesta is kind of like Mardi Gras, but with tortillas.

I started the day by mowing the lawn. In the winter we spread some winter seed and the grass looks beautiful, but requires mowing once a week because it is like grass on steroids. I got stung on my skull by a wasp. Or a hornet. Or some nasty, angry flying creature. I had a hat on, so the bastard had to land on my head, and get its stinger through the hat, my hair, and into my skull and through my brain. It still hurts.

I spent the rest of the day touring and interviewing Day Care facilities. My daughter attends a fantastic Day Care at one of these mega-churches nearby (I can de-program her later, not to worry). But they are closing their program at the beginning of the summer, so we need to find a new place for her to start in August. At one place I visited today they have a lunch menu and don't want you bringing your own food. I looked over the menu, searching for the fruits and veggies, and noticed that on several days there were no veggies. When I asked about that, the lady pointed to the french fries and said "there are some potatoes." Reminds me of the Reagan Administration, when they were responding to complaints about food served to students at public schools, and some official claimed that using ketchup on burgers constituted a vegetable portion. Anyway, she won't be attending that one.

Over the past few months I've gone to about 15 Day Cares. I've gotten it down to two of them that I like. They are the ones with the strongest curriculums.

I am reading Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States. It is a controversial but popular "alternate" history of the United States, told from the perspective of the Indians, slaves, factory workers, women and minorities. Obviously the guy is a socialist, and he does try to debunk history told from the perspective of the victors. But he is also honest about his perspective, and explains it thoroughly in the first chapter. I am on some listserve, e-mail group of AP History teachers around the country, and the debate rages over the legitimacy or illegitimacy of Zinn's history. It would be interesting to give the students a chapter of the book about something that we cover more conventionally, and then get into a discussion of ideology in the writing of history.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Day 9: Dez the Magnificent Predicts...

Pro basketball is the only sport that I follow very closely, and as we are on the verge of the “second season” (the eternal playoffs), it is time for my bold predictions for the first round. My fantasy team, by the way, finished right in the middle of the pack. My backwoods, inbred Mississippi, Meth-addled friend Denny won our league. He specifically asked me to mention his victory on my blog. OK, let’s dive right into it.

The West

San Antonio Spurs (1) vs. Memphis Grizzles (8)
Usually 1-8 series are not too exciting, but the Grizz could give the Spurs more problems than expected for two reasons. The Grizz have a tough front line, and that may be The Spurs’ only weakness. We will need to see the Tim Duncan of old to be able to match them. And with Manu Ginobili getting hurt in the season finale last night, that could be trouble. Early word is that it was not too serious, but Manu will miss at least the first game. The injury was on his non-shooting arm. While I could see The Grizz pushing this to 7 games…

Dez says: SA in 6

L.A. Lakers (2) vs. New Orleans Hornets (7)
L.A. got the best draw of the West. New Orleans wasn’t that strong anyway even at full strength, and they are missing their #2 guy, David West. Chris Paul can’t do it all by himself. The Lakers will get to coast through the first round and gear up for the tougher rounds.

Dez says: Lakers sweep.

Dallas Mavericks (3) vs. Portland Trailblazers (6)
The Mavs always have a great regular season, and then fold like a tent in the playoffs. I don’t see this season going any differently. Portland is tough and can give any playoff opponent a tough time. But I think the Mavs make it through to the second round, where they will be stomped by the Lakers. I will tell you this, the Lakers would rather see the Mavs win this over Portland.

Dez says: Dallas in 7.

Oklahoma City Thunder (4) vs. Denver Nuggets (5)
This should be a great series. The Thunder are the team in the West nobody wants to play. They will be very dangerous with Durant and Westbrook and the addition of Perkins in the middle. Scary. The Nuggets have been the feel good story of the season, with their renaissance and great team play once they got rid of the black hole known as Carmelo. ‘Melo and New York deserve each other. Should be an entertaining and hard fought series between two teams that are both hard to dislike.

Dez says: OKC in 6.

The East

Chicago Bulls (1) vs. Indiana Pacers (8)

If you had told the experts that the Bulls and Spurs would have the best records of the regular season, they would have laughed at you. But the Bulls are awesome, playing team basketball to a transcendent degree with almost guaranteed MVP Derek Rose leading the way.

Dez says: Bulls sweep.

Miami Heat (2) vs. Philadelphia 76ers (7)
I am an instant fan of whoever is playing the Heat. I do not want Jebron Lames to ever win a title. Ever. The arrogance makes me so angry. Philly has surprised many observers this season, and combine that with all the pressure being on the Heat and the fact that the Heat will inexplicably have at least one game where a high school team could beat them, this series could be fun.

Dez says: Heat in 6.

ABOVE: Dez does not want this jackass ever to win a title

Boston Celtics (3) vs. New York Knicks (6)
Boston’s decline in the past month is not promising for this one-time Eastern conference favorite. Trading away Kendrick Perkins really did some damage. The Knicks have some big names (Stoudamire, Melo, Billups), but they still don’t know how to play defense consistently. Don’t know if Boston can win the conference any more, but they should be able to win what will be a hard fought series.

Dez says: Boston in 6.

Orlando Magic (4) vs. Atlanta Hawks (5)
The Magic have been the forgotten powerhouse team of the East, and they have many problems to fix if they want to win the conference. But they should be able to handle the Hawks, who always choke in the playoffs.

Dez says: Magic in 6.

Well, it doesn’t look like I have any upsets predicted, but it still should be a fun first round in certain series. I think the Dallas/Portland match-up will be the one to watch. That is the most likely upset.


Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Day 8: Promises, Promises

Today/tonight's post will be a bit short. Just got back from school giving my National Honors Society speech. Very tired. It went well, I got the laughs where I had hoped and got a warm reception. It was a fun ceremony.

Since tonight is the last night of the regular NBA season, tomorrow I hope to have my NBA Playoff predictions. It has been an uncommonly interesting regular season, so I have high hopes for the playoffs. Analysis to come. I also owe a belated recap of this year's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony. I know you are all waiting breathlessly for that.

I will leave you with cuteness...

And here is a crawfish...

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Day 7: Honors

I have been chosen by the students at the school where I work to give the key note address at this year’s induction ceremony for the National Honors Society. I was quite honored. What do you say to these kids? “Congratulations for being smarter than everybody else”? I think I’ve got a good speech written that I will deliver tomorrow night. It is full of sage advice, humorous asides and lots of Thomas Jefferson. I structured the speech around their core principles of scholarship, leadership, community service and character, and then discussed how Jefferson embodied each of those qualities through different actions taken during his presidency, and then how they can apply those lessons to their own lives. I don’t even like Jefferson that much, but he seems to work since he is so malleable a historical figure. As I say in my speech, Jefferson is claimed as a hero to both the Right and the Left, and they are both correct.

Many of my AP students will be inducted, so that will be cool. Which reminds me of my own experiences as an AP U.S. History student at my old high school. Where I teach now, you can get into an AP class if you request it. But back in my day, you had to be recommended by your previous year’s teacher. My 10th grade history teacher refused to recommend me for AP, which really pissed me off. I had to figure out a way to circumvent her. I had to figure out a way to impress the venerable, Nixonesque (in a good way) AP U.S. teacher, J.G. I noticed that he often sat at lunch at a table with another teacher whom I would chat with from time to time, but who I knew wasn’t that bright. That was my opening. I joined them for lunch one day and struck up some debate regarding Vietnam with not-so-bright teacher. J.G. was impressed and asked me if I was signed up for his AP class. The plan worked like clockwork. “No, but I am very interested.” He informed the school office that I would be joining his AP class the next year, regardless of what my 10th grade history teacher thought.

I’m not sure whether I like the old way of needing a recommendation or allowing students in based on their professed interest. I can say that I do have some students in my current AP classes who should probably be in the regular level classes (mostly due to work ethic.) Perhaps if there had been a filter to determine whether they could (or would) really do the work they would have been in a better spot for them. But at the same time, when you have a situation like mine, where a student is self-motivated to push themselves and for whatever reason the person making the decision does not see it, then perhaps they should be given the chance.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Day 6: A Riff So Massive

I enjoy late night TV on occasion. I'm not talking Letterman or Leno, I mean the shows on the upper reaches of the cable channels. I'm not even that much of a heavy metal fan, but lately, once the wife and baby are asleep, I have found myself flipping over to VH1 Classic (in the 200's somewhere) to That Metal Show. I don't watch it religiously, but I've seen a few episodes lately and find myself enjoying them. Like recently when estranged Kiss guitarist Ace Frehley was on, and his answer to almost every question went something like "I don't know, I think I was too [drunk, blitzed, loaded, trashed] to remember."

It is what you would think. Three dudes sitting on a set that looks like Bill & Ted's basement and a live studio audience where black metal t-shirts and long hair are part of the strictly enforced dress code. They get surprisingly high quality guests (for the metal/hard rock world). One host is a guy named Eddie Trunk who is the resident metal expert, and there is a segment called "stump the Trunk" where audience members ask metal trivia questions and if he can't answer, they get metal-related prizes. He is rather difficult to stump. The other two guys are wisecracking comedian/metalheads who do not take the proceedings nearly as seriously as Trunk does. Other features include pulling out a blackboard and debating/analyzing such issues as: Queen vs. Queensryche (Queen unanimously won that one).

Anyway, last night, one of their guests was Yngwie Malmsteen. Aside from having the greatest metal name ever, this Swedish born metal legend has been the butt of jokes from non-metal fans for years. Long regarded one of the most technically proficient guitarists of all time, he is also the poster child for souless noodling. Wikipedia's description of his technique is as follows: "Malmsteen is known for his technical fluency and neo-classical metal compositions, often incorporating high speed picking with harmonic minor scales, diminished scales and using sweep picked arpeggios...Also, Malmsteen favors the harmonic minor scale, and often uses diminished arpeggios and phrygian scales and draws an influence from Bach and Beethoven."

Personally, I've never listened to a note Yngwie has ever played, so I can't comment. But the criticism usually goes something like this: "I would rather listen to Neil Young's one note solo in 'Cinnamon Girl' over Yngwie Malmsteen any day." The classic example of what my friend over at ANCIANT calls "craft over art." Anyway, having heard the name for decades yet never having laid eyes on the legendary Yngwie, I was intrigued to at least see the guy.

ABOVE: Eddie Trunk (left) questions Yngie Malmsteen (right) on VH1 Classic's That Metal Show

One of my favorite exchanges in any interview anywhere went something like this:

Question: "Have you ever written a riff so massive, so awesome, that even you can't play it?"

Yngwie (dead serious): "Actually (dramatic pause) I have. I was able to get it down, but have never been able to figure it out again in all of its awesomeness."

Also, on why Yngwie usually tours as a solo act with hired hands versus working as a member of a band: Yngwie: "no band has ever been able to contain me." Trunk: "I mean, of course. You're Yngwie Malmsteen."

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Day 5: Yes, The Croup Still Exists

Going to have to keep today's post a bit short. Evidently my daughter has the Croup. The Croup is an upper respiratory viral infection of some kind that features a harsh cough that sounds somewhat like a seal. Also, her formerly sweet, high, sonorous voice now sounds like Tom Waits. If you don't know what Tom Waits sounds like, this is my daughter's voice today...

I called my mother, and she said "that's an old-timey sickness." My wife's mother asked, "people still get The Croup?" Evidently so. At least she has style and goes for one of the classics.

Day 4: RIP Sidney Lumet, 1924-2011

NOTE: I came in a couple hours late, but this is Saturday's post.

Sidney Lumet was one of the great ones. It is hard to find a director who directed landmark films for multiple decades. It is also hard to find a director so beloved by the actors who worked for him. If you read the accolades heaped upon Lumet, you often hear the phrase "an actor's director." Actors such as Al Pacino, Christopher Reeve, Henry Fonda and Paul Newman have all stated at different times that Lumet was able to get their best performances. Lumet was also notable for not being difficult to work with, and as a chonicler of New York life. He usually worked out of New York instead of Hollywood, although he was much beloved by the Hollywood brass because he usually made his pictures quickly, efficiently and under budget.

Lumet was active as a director for five decades, starting in 1957. When your debut picture is 12 Angry Men, where do you go from there? As I was looking over his filmography of 45 films, I was struck by the eclectic nature of the subjects and stories he chose to tell. A list of the more notable ones: 12 Angry Men, Long Day's Journey Into Night, Fail-Safe, Serpico, Murder on the Orient Express, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, The Wiz, Deathtap, The Verdict...

ABOVE: Sidney Lumet's auspicious debut was 12 Angry Men, starring Peter Fonda

Lumet liked to rehearse, and he believed that if done correctly, you could still maintain a spontaneous performance even with many rehearsals. I believe that his work bears this out. Just look at the clausterphobic atmosphere and inense performances he gets out of his actors in 12 Angry Men.

I remember watching the documentary about actor John Cazale, I Knew It Was You, and I was struck by Al Pacino's interview as he talked about how much Lumet listened to and collaborated with his actors. It was not a weakness at all, but he would allow Pacino and Cazale to try out multiple things within each scene to see what would work. (The classic exchange: "what country do you want to go to?" "Wyoming," was improvised on the set). He gave his actors great freedom, yet always had a firm hand on his films. Lumet did not want to cast Cazale in that immortal role of Sal in DDA, but Pacino persisted, and Lumet respected his actors enough to allow Cazale to audition, even though Lumet had initially envisioned the character of Sal going in a very different direction.

ABOVE: John Cazale and Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon, my favorite Lumet picture

RIP Sidney Lumet.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Day 3: A Real American Hero

On an evening when the clowns who run our federal government came an hour and a half away from shutting down the government, I would like to talk about a real American hero. His name was Ham. When teaching about the space race in the 50's and 60's, my students are always fascinated by Ham the Chimp. Ham was the first American in space. Here is Ham...

Originally named Chop Chop Chang, the rechristened Ham beat out 39 other chimp candidates. Ham was trained to push buttons and flip levers in his capsule. When he flipped the wrong switch, he would get a little shock in his foot. When he flipped the correct one, a banana pellet would drop for Ham to enjoy. On January 31, 1961, Ham became the first American to break his earthly bonds and he was in space for approximately 15 minutes. There was a malfunction in the capsule, however, and among other things that went wrong, Ham recieved electric foot shocks even as he was flipping the correct levers and pushing the correct buttons. What the f*ck is this? (I am just speculating on what Ham was thinking). He returned to earth mildly agitated but unharmed. Almost ten months later Enos the chimp was the first American to orbit the earth.

I discuss rocketry, the Mercury and Apollo programs, U.S.-Soviet geopolitics surrounding the space race...but my students are always most interested in Ham. I think that Neil Armstrong is the only astronaut they ever learn about. I start our discussion out something like this: "Who was the first earthling in space?" "Neil Armstrong." "No, Laika the Russian dog." "Who was the first American in space?" "Neil Armstrong." "No, Ham the Chimp." "Who was the first human in space?" "Neil Armstrong." "No, Yuri Gargarin." "Who was the first free man (or American) in space?" "Neil Armstrong." "No, Alan Sheppard."

Oh, about Laika the dog...

The Soviets picked up Laika as a stray on the streets of Moscow. Her original name was Kudryavka ("Little Curly"), but was soon rechristened Laika (or "Muttnik" by the American press). Laika made her legendary voyage in 1957 aboard Sputnik II. Alas the Soviets, being coldhearted commie bastards, did not intend for Laika to return alive. At the time they announced to the world that Laika lived for several days before succumbing to overheating. But a report in 2002 revealed that she actually died within five hours of launch from fright and stress. My discussion of Laika's fate elicits more sadness and emotion from my students than discussions of the Holocaust, Vietnam or the Civil War.

So even though the Soviets were first, we at least brought Ham back alive.

ABOVE: Ham's gravesite at the International Space Hall of Fame.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Day 2: Radiohead and Robbie

NOTE: It says Wednesday, but I posted this Thursday morning, I promise. A couple of new releases (or fairly new, in one case) have pleasantly surprised me.

The first is Radiohead's latest, The King of Limbs (pictured above). It is in the vein of Kid A and Amnesiac, but there is something a little more interesting and less forced about this one. The bleeps and blips are still there, as is the cold ambient soundscape, but it is also a bit busier, musically, which I like. I still have no idea what Thom Yorke is singing (I view his vocals as just another instrument). In the opener "Bloom," underneath the bleeps is a jazzy bass line that really grooves. There are several interesting layers of sound here. "Morning Mr. Magpie" features some guitar patterns that remind me of some of the Afro-pop of Paul Simon's Graceland (just the guitar playing). Radiohead seems to have expanded their sonic palates a bit, and that is good if they want to stay interesting.

The other one is Robbie Robertson's latest, How To Become Clairvoyant (pictured above). From the iTunes samples, I was not very impressed. Robbie hadn't made a record in ten years, and the samples sounded a bit bland. This is one of the cases where the samples do not do the actual songs justice. One of the things that I have admired about Robbie's solo career (this is his 5th solo record) is that, musically speaking, he made a complete break from The Band. He purposely steers clear of the acoustically-based, organic, pioneering Americana that The Band perfected. His solo records are sonically dense, slick, very produced, and I respect that. He bathes his music in layers of synthesizers, samples, electronic beats...all things that would have been anathema to The Band's ethic.

He is off his Native American obsession that dominated his previous two records, and is back to vague tales of American myth, backroads and forgotten bluesmen. His weakness has always been his lyrics, and they are still a bit forced and hackneyed here, but I really dig the acquired taste of his smoke-ravaged vocals (there is a reason that even though he wrote the bulk of The Band's material, he was not one of their three lead singers). Like his other records, it is not solid from start to finish, but there is much to enjoy and cherry pick. "Straight Down the Line" is a groovy opener, the moody title track is great and features the best lyrics on the album, and instrumental closer "Tango For Django" is both graceful and surprising. "She's Not Mine" is the only true stunner here, but I enjoy the overall mood he creates (his music is always big on consistent mood), and it compares favorably to his underrated sophomore effort, Storyville. It is good despite Eric Clapton's heavy involvement in co-writing and playing on it. It is a record that will reward repeated listens.

Anyway, both are records that I had modest hopes for, and have come to really enjoy them in recent days.

Radiohead's The King of Limbs, ***1/2 out of *****
Robbie Robertson's How To Become Clairvoyant, *** out of *****

Day 1: I Only Read What Is Real

Hello? Is this thing still on? tap tap tap. Sorry for the lack of posts recently, my excuses are rather pedestrian, but they are real. I have been inspired and challenged by my good friend ANCIANT over at his blog here, where he promised and delivered on 30 posts in 30 days. I now vow to do the same. Some may be long, some may be short. So, here goes.

Today I realized that it has been over a decade since I have read a book of fiction. I read quite a bit, but everything is nonfiction. I don't dislike fiction, but I guess I get my fiction fix through movies. I would like to read more fiction, but that whole time factor gets in the way. I bought a book called The 100 Most Important Books In the World, where it summarizes each book in about 4-5 pages. Maybe I can get caught up that way. I want to be well read, I just can't sit down and read all of these books. Dammit.

I just finished a project that I started last summer. I have been summarizing/outlining the rather huge AP U.S. History textbook from which I teach. Today I completed the last chapter. Now I have a huge binder with awesome lecture summaries from this book. But the binder appears to be about as thick as the textbook. Hmm. It is that time of year when AP students realize that the AP Exams are coming up in about three weeks and that they better start paying attention. I have been enjoying their panic. At least they will really know about the Nixon administration. If only they had been this focused from the Colonial days through Vietnam.

Crap. The baby just woke up from her nap. I need to take her for a walk now in her stroller. She LOVES that stroller. There is a huge hill in our neighborhood, and I run full speed pushing her down the hill in her stroller, and she throws both arms in the air like she is on a roller coaster and squeals with delight. It is absurdly cute.

More tomorrow.