Monday, February 26, 2007

Sick Daze

A nasty bout of the flu (round 2) took me out this weekend, and the weekend before that was Mardi Gras in exile, so you know how that goes. There's not much to talk about, as evidenced by the INCESSANT AND UNENDING MADNESS THAT IS THE ANNA NICOLE SMITH SPECTACLE.

How in God's name is this news? Geraldo can cover it, fine, it makes him look like the unserious journalist he is, but when CNN, the blogs and MSNBC can't seem to stop talking about ridiculous details about a nonceleb who no one in their right mind should care about, it makes a guy want to retreat from the world and ignore the media for awhile. It also makes some of us really, really angry ... because it's just something we have to put up with.

Props to Forrest, Scorsese and the rest. I think after they gave Three Six Mafia an Oscar last year, the Academy must've said, "Well, whatever Martin does next year, he wins the Oscar for it." I for one didn't think he deserved it for this. I didn't really enjoy The Departed. Maybe that makes me shallow. I dunno.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

SNOW DAY in DC: Nat'l Portrait Gallery, Piratz

Work was cancelled yesterday due to the 2-5 inches of accumulated snow and ice that forced me to use my snow chains to dig out, so I could drive to a job interview. After a couple cups of coffee and the interview was over, I headed over to the National Portrait Gallery - apparently the National Spy Museum was closed due to inclement Weather. (what kind of a spy outfit IS this?)

By the way, I believe the word "inclement" is an example of an exclusive modifier, that is, an adverb or adjective that is used almost exlusively in common speech with the associated noun (weather). I mean, can you use the word inclement without using the word weather? I doubt it, at least not effectively.

The National Portrait gallery is amazing, I can't believe I haven't been yet. They had a wing for "American Landscapes" and "Folk Art" in an attempt to end-run around their primary cause and show some real non-portrait art (using the word portrait liberally, as in, "a portrait of American landscape and culture), but I wasn't complaining because they had a couple of Edward Hoppers, so I got to see my first real, live Hopper, in the flesh. I'm a dork, I know, but he's my favorite painter. I did a paper on him in High School and he continues to be my favorite, with Nighthawks being my favorite painting of all time and #6 on the list of things I need to see before I die.

They didn't allow flashes, but they DID allow photos, and my new cheapo digicam took a great one.

They didn't allow photographs in the American Presidents portrait gallery, but we got to see the whole exhibit, which is spectacular, and free. All 45(?) former presidents accounted for, and it really brought history viscerally into focus for me, along with the various portraits of the patriots (Henry Knox, Thomas Pain) and historical figures (John Brown, Walt Whitman + lover). It was the perfect appendix or compendium for my readings of 1776. Can't wait to read Team of Rivals now.

Oh, and we went to a pirates-themed restaurant in Silver Springs for Rachel's 23rd. It was a blast.

So tornadoes swept through New Orleans a couple of nights ago - my good friend Kier was sleeping, and her house got hit, tearing the roof off of her home. She's fine, thank God. My sister Sandi's house was missed by 10 blocks, too.

Quote/link/news clip of the day: Fox News is starting a "Daily Show" copy that has a conservative slant, based ont eh concern that the Daily Show is just too dang liberal... which, of course, is ridiculous. ... remember the Clinton years? I have nothing really to say, this clip speaks for itself ... which is to say, I don't care about bias, as long as it's funny. And this, well, isn't. It's like Dennis Miller. The Daily Show might do more jokes about Bush than it does about Hillary (maybe, dunno about that one ... if she was president I'm sure she'd get it BAD), but thing is, this new show probably won't do ANY jokes about Bush at all. And that's just not good comedy. Once politics intrudes as a motive, it loses a lot of humorous credibility. Or something. Whatever.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

A picture is worth ....

Ms. Mae's in New Orleans - a 24-hour bar with $1 drinks. I have no explanation for this picture, but I can tell you, it's definitely not staged.

Uncle Bill

So amongst more bad news, my uncle Bill was diagnosed with prostate cancer just after Christmas, and is now recovering from his first surgery. The cancer had metastasized to his bone, so the doctors wanted to do a prophylactic surgery on his femur, in order to strengthen it and prevent future breaks ... what I'm guessing is the first step in a very long process.

They inserted a titanium rod to strengthen the bone, and (I'm guessing here) exculped or "excavated" the area, removing the weak, cancer-damaged bone. As a load-bearing bone, it makes sense to strengthen it by adding a titanium rod, which I'm guessing was serrated with microbeads or some other rough matrix, which, after a time, will allow his bone to grow into it, making his femur much stronger.

I need to research this a little and find out more of what they're doing, but for now, he's fine, in the hospital.

Prayers asked for. More information later.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Net Neutrality, and more

Quote du jour: "Kevin, you're what the French call "les incompetents"."

Movies: His Girl Friday, High Noon
Books: 1776, Team of Rivals

Political hot-topic of the day: Does the Iranian government really have anything to do with the use of E.F.P.'s? And why was the briefing anonymous? And who was the mysterious "unnamed senior defense analyst" at the Pentagon? I believe Rumsfeld still has a desk there, according to Pelosi.

Read all about Net Neutrality, learn about it, know it through and though - and then explain it to all your friends, join the petition and call your Senators and Congressmen. Let's make this happen before it's too late.

Friday, February 09, 2007

FROM THE VAULT: Vintage Stroud

Snowstorms after Christmas aren't so strange - Opinions

Talk about navel-gazing

The quote du jour is one by your favorite writer - me.

"Why is it so funny that the word for people who use big words that no one else knows is sesquipedalian?"

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Quote - Cleveland Free Times

This is a link the the Cleveland Free Times about Lester Lefton ... once the Provost at Tulane University. I wrote an article at the time calling for his resignation - which is explained below.

Here's the very innacurate part of the story that is about the incident:

Before taking over at Kent State, Lefton was provost of Tulane University in New Orleans. In 2003, after Lefton changed housing policies to require any senior who was writing a thesis to live in a dorm, the Tulane student newspaper The Hullabaloo published a blistering editorial titled, "Fire Lester Lefton: The Provost Must Go."

"You're rude, and what's more — you lied to us," wrote then-editor Jonathan Stroud.

"I was upset at the time because I didn't think he showed proper respect to students, so I answered in the only way I knew how — because students have such little power at a private university," Stroud says in an interview. "But the core of the message is accurate. I didn't think he was good for our university, and I don't think he's good for any university."

Another former Hullabaloo editor, Jaclyn Rosenson, says the newspaper's dealings with Lefton were strained after that.

"Our views editor took a point-blank attack at him and it just led to a very adversarial relationship where Lefton was not forthcoming with any information," Rosenson says. "There were pleasantries exchanged, but almost never information. But he was always there for the sound bite that made Tulane look good."

Here's my letter-to-the-editor response:

Dear Cleveland Free Times,

I'd like to clarify a couple of major errors you made in your "chatter point" piece on Lester Lefton, for the record.

The problems at Tulane arose from an unannounced withdrawal of almost $2,000 a semester from a specific scholarship - the Founder's scholarship - which many underprivileged Tulanians were recipients of. There was no guaranteed off-campus housing, so certain students - friends among them - lost almost $2,000 in scholarship money, with no student vote, no real action or announcement. It was done over winter break, while the students were away.

My actions at the time were acerbic and hyperbolic - but like I said, I didn't know what else to do. I stand by my article, and my quote, but would like to make the point - which I made to your reporter - that if I had the chance to handle it differently I would have. It was a proper forum for my opinions, but the word "liar" should not be thrown around so lightly.

I was not the editor, but rather, the views (editorial) editor. And afterwards, I enjoyed a more collegial - if strained - relationship with Lefton and the administration. That being said, his actions were wrong - and it appears, continue to be so. Example - the closure of the prestigious (but unprofitable) School of Engineering in the face of Hurricane Katrina's budget shortfall, shortly before Lefton left the university. But overreaction is not the answer. Meaningful debate is.

-Jonathan Stroud
BSE, Biomedical Engineering
Tulane University School of Engineering
former views editor, Tulane Hullabaloo

Sigh. Anyway, there I am, in print, for better - or worse. You decide.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

The Friendly-Fire Video

Murder Capital of America: The Big Easy

New Orleans proudly regains its old reputation, post-Katrina, as a bad bad city filled with bad bad men, killing each other, mostly black. Front page of the NYT. A lone pastor has had "ENOUGH" as evidenced by the awesome campaign he is mounting in an attempt to regain some neighborhoods and souls.

This is just a result of Nagin's dangerous policy allowing residents to move back to empty neighborhoods with little or not social service - a lower ninth with almost no police force, no running water and a rising budget at city hall all mean that these neighborhoods will grow feral, while consolidation - into largely unoccupied neighborhoods where the city could offer full police protection and services - becomes a distant memory and unreachable goal. Now, the real horror begins as the city struggles against impossible odds.

Also, apparenty the reporter couldn't get anyone to talk to him either - notice the explanations and quotes as to why he couldn't get anyone on the record. (NYT)

A panel of people (, basically) want to create a Hurricane Katrina comission much like the 9/11 comission - so much like it that they want to call it the 8/29 comission. Hyperbole weakens your case, kiddos. (WP)

Color For Change has an upbeat message today:

Last week, Congressman Bennie Thompson put the Gulf Coast Civic Works Project (GCCW) on the map in Congress. In his first speech as Chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security, Thompson mentioned that a civic works project would be a great way to rebuild the Gulf.
Can you take a moment to let Bennie Thompson know we appreciate his support for the program? It's a great way to solidify his support as an ally and help the GCCW gain momentum in Congress. It takes just a minute:

Rep. Bennie Thompson, Washington, D.C. office: (202) 225-5876

The other night my sister, a New Orleans native for more than ten years, said that the city was this violent before, in the eighties - so for many there now, this is just a return to that, and is being taken in stride. We're talking 181 murders so far, since Katrina, in a city half the size. HALF THE SIZE! This is insane. We're abandoning the Dirty to die a slow death. I can't stand it.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Just finished Schlosser's Reefer Madness - and here's a conglomeration of quotes and my own thoughts about why this is so important and what we must change with the way we deal with illegal immigration. Disclaimer - much is pulled directly from the book.

The growth of the underground, of using illegal labor, has lowered wages, eliminated benefits and reduced job security in the meatpacking, construction, gardening, garment manufacturing, picking and growing industries.

The migrant work force is poor, lives on the fringes in illegal housing and drives illegally, and is easily exploited. Immigrants live in ditches, hidden on private property, or sleep on the ground by roadsides and at orchards. They must do battle with unsafe working conditions, wages far below the national minimum wage and zero job security day to day.

They should be given the chance to come to America, to work, but not like this. Every day they remain illegal another immigrant is exploited, the state agencies and hospitals are overtaxed and overburdened, Emercency rooms are crowded and taxpayers pay for the benefits that corporations and growers reap. Cheap labor delays mechanization or puts it off entirely.

"Companies are willing to break the law to gain a competitive advantage over those that employ legal residents, that pay good wages and that fully pay their taxes. Employers who cheat are rewarded. There are 200 federal inspectors for workplace violations ... and a million private employers in California alone. A first federal offense of employing an illegal immigrant is a fine of $250, a third offense, $3,000."

"Michael Allen Lee recruited migrants at homeless shelters in Florida, charged them for room, board, transportation and cigarettes, loaded them with debt, gave them as little as $10 a day for a day's work in the fields, sometimes paid them in crack cocaine and alcohol instead of cash, and threatened to harm anyone who ran off. He beat one of his farmworkers severely, then made him scrub his own blood off the walls. In August 2001, a federal judge sentenced Lee to four years in prision after a plea bargain. Had he been convicted of growing 100 marijuana plants, he would have faced a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison."

"In December, 2002, Helion Cruz, a pastor from a church in Wimauma, Florida, discovered a trailer full of young migrant workers - the door was chained shut. "

"Adjusted for inflation, the wages of tomato pickers have fallen by more than 50 percent over the past 25 years." Workers generally develop back problems and cannot work past their mid-thirties.

Sharecropping - basic indentured servitude - should not exist in this country. Hard work should be rewarded and these immigrants should be given a chance to earn a fair and decent wage, rather than existing as they do at the borders of our society, a set-up that benefits only the businesses that save money on labor costs.

Guest-worker programs are unworkable in practice - because the desire to move and immigrate to this country is so great, policing all of those workers would be impossible and hundreds if not millions would simply use it as a means of immigration - illegally - which will again deprive them of their rights as human beings. It would be more of the status quo. Although it could afford more rights to those already here, and provide some sort of legal (and moral) framework for bringing these immigrants into American society, rather than treating them like second-class citizens.

The government should either legalize immigration and the illegal immigrants currently in the country should be given full rights and legal status, or they should enforce the labor laws on the books and crack down on the businesses that hire illegal immigrants, including contractors, sharecroppers and growers who are used as a legal dodge by so many in these industries. They must make a decision. I advocate legalization; we have, de facto, an open border, and the only one benefiting from the status quo are the industries undercutting labor costs. The ones losing in the current paradigm are the immigrants (who are often exploited and exposed to horrible working conditions, and have no rights whatsoever) and the taxpayers and state services, which must provide what the industry will not - health care and social services that should be built in to their employment.

But honestly, the chances of anything happening at the federal level are slight - we will argue about a guest worker program for years, and tighten the border perhaps, but other than that, even the waves of anti-immigrant and pro-immigrant sentiment will fall on dull ears. At the state and local level, you can expect business interests to be protected and entrenched - like they are in Florida - and public (and mostly white) opinion to be turned against legalizing the people who wash, cook and clean for the legal citizens of the United States. We must continue to advocate for worker's rights and better wages, for some sort of watchful gaze, but we cannot expect things to change anytime soon.

Quote du jour: "Although an 18-year-old woman cannot legally purchase beer in Southern California, she can be paid a few hundred dollars to screw half a dozen men in a porn film without breaking any law." - Eric Schlosser, Reefer Madness
(Finished! - next book, 1776 by McCullough ... then on to Team of Rivals or maybe Catch-22)

The folks over at "Color of Change" (as vituperative and belligerent as they can be) are making sense about Liberman's Katrina dodge. Contact him and other Senators on the committee and put Katrina and New Orleans back on the map, literally.

"Ten months ago, Senator Joe Lieberman blasted the White House for obstructing a Senate committee's investigation into the federal response to Katrina. Now he controls that committee, but instead of forcing the White House to participate, he's called off the investigation altogether!

Lieberman is side-stepping his responsibility to hold the White House accountable and betraying the citizens of the Gulf Coast. Join us in calling him out and demanding that others in Congress conduct a full investigation if he won't:"

Monday, February 05, 2007

The Auburn Hotline Story ... secret revealed

Below is my (unpublished) story about the mysterious Auburn Hotline. Enjoy.

FOY UNION. Where it all began.

The answer to any question you can think of – no matter how complicated or obscure -- is just a phone call away.

For the past twenty years, student workers at the University of Auburn's help line have been answering random questions, free of charge – from any caller, anywhere in the United States.

Need directions? Want career, medical or legal advice? Need to know the name of the actor who played Zach Morris on the television show Saved by the Bell? Need to put together a quiche? Ever wonder how many Oreos would you have to stack to get to the moon?

“We can find the answer to almost any question, if it exists. It's a challenge, people try and stump us, and I enjoy that challenge,” said Terry Marshall, a supervisor who has worked at the desk for six years.

It is a tradition – never advertised or promoted -that smacks more of urban legend than legitimate academic service, and it has promulgated across America for the last twenty years, building up steam in bars and supermarkets, passing by word-of-mouth from one person to another.

What started as an insider's joke has evolved into a serious question-and-answer service, and with the advent of the Internet and free long distance that most cellular phone companies provide, it has become a widely-used resource by alumni and strangers alike, and the workers – who make $6 to $8 an hour – don't seem to mind.

Now, hundreds of people call every day - from as far-off as Russia, London, Los Angeles or New York - wanting to know driving directions, medical advice, stock tips, trivia and sometimes, just to talk. Some callers ask “Is this God?” according to Marshall/

The desk workers, many of whom have never been outside of Alabama, find themselves giving directions, restaurant advice and weather reports for cities they've never visited. The also field more scandalous and obscure questions that sometimes fail to garner a response.

“The first question I was ever asked was, 'How many times does the average prostitute have sex in their lifetime?,” said Ashley Horton, a student desk assistant. She researched but “couldn't find any polls,” she said.

Started in the 1950's, it began with a card-based system where answers to school-related queries, mostly scheduling and phone numbers, were written down. But at some point in early eighties, it grew beyond that, with college workers deciding to take matters into their own hands, filling cabinets with trivia, phone and reference books, as well as spiral notebooks filled with previous answers and random facts. It eventually grew, with the help of the Internet, into the powerful mock-search engine that it is today.

This service – and its growing popularity – is a bellwether for a changing society that demands more information, faster, and puts that information at consumer's fingertips instantaneously, accordi=perts.

“These technologies are letting people to look more broadly than they would look normally. People are more open to looking at a wide degree of information,” said Robert Atkinson, the President of President of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a Washington, D.C. -based think tank.

Following in the vein of this apparently popular service, the marketplace has produced a number of services that allow anyone possessing a cell phone unfettered access to volumes of information – and the industry continues to improve and refine those services daily.
Local and national 4-1-1 services - provided by telephone companies and wireless providers – once provided only directory-assistance, but now services have expanded to include movie times, weather updates, sports scores, driving directions and more.
Toll-free lines have rushed in to provide information for the small price of an advertisement or promotion. Numbers like 1-800-FREE-411, 1-800-411-SAVE and 1-877-520-FIND, are free alternatives to traditional 4-1-1 services, which generally cost a small fee.
Another line, 1-800-555-TELL, is more traditional, covering basic categories like stock quotes, movie times, weather and sports. Or you can send a text message to GOOGL (46645); you should get a proper response provided you use reasonably good grammar.
And, whether inspired by the Auburn help desk or independently created, similar services have been created, like Internet Search Pro, a toll-free number advertising an “Internet lookup” service based out of California. The web site claims it in beta phase testing – although repeated calls and inquiries provoked no response.
Experts say numbers like these are changing the way Americans store information, the same way Wikipedia, search engines and services like have made mountains of data readily available to the average American. And services like this – from search engines to news updates – mean that Americans can remember less, and do more, but that their jobs may be in jeopardy in the long-run.

“It will not eliminate managers, lawyers or professionals, but it will automate and eliminate menial jobs,” said Atkinson.

He used newly-automated McDonald's kiosks, which eliminate the need for restaurant workers, as an example, envisioning a future where basic routinized functions, like multiplication and rote memorization, are replaced by higher-level functions, with workers able to do more because of powerful information technology, although he admitted American's mathematical abilities were already suffering thanks to the easy availability of calculator-equipped cellular phones and computers.

“It's just not necessary to remember phone numbers or do basic math anymore,” he said.

The workers and supervisors at the Auburn desk, however, insist they're just having fun, offering a quirky service that they see as nothing more than an otherwise harmless enigma; answering questions people ask.
“A guy asked me how to put together a car engine. It's something I didn't know, but I found the answer,” said Marshall. “It was a long answer, by the way.”
The line is staffed by three or four workers, 24 hours a day Monday through Friday, closing from midnight to 10 am Saturday and midnight to 1 pm Sunday. On top of answering the phones, which ring non-stop during the evening hours, they run the student store, mange the union and answer questions for anyone who walks up.
The student workers, who make between $6 and $8 an hour, called the service interesting, weird, and unique – but most said they enjoyed providing the answers, if just to relieve the boredom of a menial job.
“We live in a quick-fix society,” said Ashley Horton, a 23-year old desk assistant. “you've got to know something and you've got to know it now. Those are the little things we do that make somebody's life easier.”
Are the workers, supervisors or administrators at Auburn worried that the service will get out of hand, that call volume will ever get too high, or that they will ever need to end the service? Do they think the school should shut down or charge for this service? No, they said.
“I think this will go on forever,” Horton said. Melissa Irvin Howell, the Coordinator of Operations at Foy, agreed. “I don't see this stopping anytime soon,” she said.

Friday, February 02, 2007

H Street Recovery

Today's quote-du-jour comes from a personal experience as the proud (renter) of a home a block off of the "H street corridor."

"At the epicenter of the District, the H Street neighborhood was part of L’Enfant’s original central Washington, DC design. From the late 19th century through most of the 20th, this 15-block quarter was one of the Capital City’s most thriving commercial and residential scenes. Members of Congress, Supreme Court Justices, Presidents, and the shopkeepers and families of everyday Washington strolled its charming sidewalks. Today, the District of Columbia is revitalizing the H Street quarter to include worldly new residences, Class A office space, eclectic shops, neighborhood clubs and restaurants, and a full-scale Arts and Entertainment community. It’s all part of the City’s Great Street Initiative. Even the streetcar line is returning."

.... they failed to mention the double-shooting that woke my roommate and I up two nights ago. Half a block away. And that whole "rioting destroying homes, businesses, etc" thing was left out of their history. Fifteen shots, by the way, in our estimate.

UPDATE: That's shooting, not murder, according to INKED ... woman was shot through the hand. Ouch.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

The Wire ... and remainders

Quote du jour: Here's my pitch as to why you should watch The Wire (and why watching it will make you a better person):

"The world of corporate finance and corporate capital is as criminogenic and probably more criminogenic than any poverty-wracked slum neighborhood. The distinctions drawn between business, politics, and organized crime are at best artificial and in reality irrelevant. Rather than being dysfunctions, corporate crime, white-collar crime, organized crime, and political corruption are mainstays of American political-economic life. There is precious little difference between those people who society designates as respectable and law abiding and those people society castigates as hoodlums and thugs."

Embrace your inner Math nerd.

Blog du jour: The Iranian Prospect ... an Iranian journalist with some good arguments for better relations with Iran.

MediaMatters, as always, does a wonderful job breaking down the back-and-forth over Hil's Evil Men flap.