Archive for April, 2007

Harper’s Ferry Arsenal Blues

Sunday, April 29th, 2007

Last weekend we took a daytrip to Harper's Ferry, West Virginia, perhaps most famous for John Brown's raid prior to the US Civil War. It was also home to one of the first two arsenals in the US, where the government would manufacture its weapons. That, plus its prime location at the place where Virginia, Maryland and West Virginia meet, made it a significant prize during the Civil War. It changed hands between north and south many times, and at one point it was torched by retreating Union forces, to prevent its resources from falling into the hands of the Confederates.

In this video, a volunteer from a local historical society in period costume talks about the arsenal ruins. -andy

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The Not-So-Fine Line Between Creative Writing and Disorderly Conduct

Friday, April 27th, 2007

I’ve been counting the days since the Virginia Tech shootings to see how long it would take for a school to overreact to a student doing something that disturbed them. For example, following the Columbine shooting, scores of students around the country were suspended from school because they posted goth-themed content on personal websites, and worried that somehow goth culture would influence them to kill, kill, kill. Some of these students managed to get the last laugh, either through lawsuits or court injunctions.
So now I read on CNN that a straight-A student named Allen Lee is facing two counts of disorderly conduct – for a creative writing assignment. His teacher told the class to “write whatever comes to your mind. Do not judge or censor what you are writing,” according to a copy of the assignment. So Lee decided to push the envelope, writing the following:

“Blood, sex and booze. Drugs, drugs, drugs are fun. Stab, stab, stab, stab, stab, s…t…a…b…puke. So I had this dream last night where I went into a building, pulled out two P90s and started shooting everyone, then had sex with the dead bodies. Well, not really, but it would be funny if I did.

Tasteless? Sure. Inappropriate for a high school classroom? Likely. But school officials were so freaked out that this honor student might suddenly go postal on them that they decided to call the police. He was arrested and now faces up to 30 days in jail for what he wrote.
“In creative writing, you’re told to exaggerate,” Lee later said. “It was supposed to be just junk. … There definitely is violent content, but they’re taking it out of context and making it something it isn’t.”
I can understand if the school got nervous about what he wrote and called him in for counseling, or at minimum, a friendly chat with him and his parents, particularly if the school had ever had concerns about his mental stability. But that doesn’t seem to be the case.
I think back to the kinds of stuff I wrote in high school and I wonder if in today’s climate I would have gotten suspended or arrested. For example, in one creative writing class I recall writing about cannibalism (two buddies crashing their plane on a deserted island, going nuts and hunting each other down for a nice dinner) and suicide bombers (a poem from the perspective of a terrorist’s final thoughts as he counts down to the moment of detonation). I also remember doing a full chapter of a story that could only be described as a mediocre first-person ripoff of Platoon – soldiers swearing, murdering civilians, taking drugs and everything in between. Come to think of it, everything I can remember writing for that class involved violence. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised – I was reading a lot of Stephen King at the time, did papers on him, and even corresponded with him once.
How did my teacher react? I generally got A’s on my assignments, plus a brief introduction from her on Ludwig Wittengstein, nightmares and the creative consciousness. I loved creative writing in that class because it gave me a chance to write about stuff I would never do or would never believe myself, but could explore from the perspective of very flawed characters, even when written in the first person. My teacher was also smart enough to get us to talk about why we wrote and why, so we could explore the root causes of inspiration.
I loved that class because I felt safe that I could literally write whatever I wanted. I felt secure that the teacher and my classmates knew the difference between me and my characters. I’m so glad I’m not in school now; the chilling effect is palpable. -andy

Captain America Assaults Woman With Burrito

Thursday, April 26th, 2007

What is it with my home town?

Raymond Adamcik, a doctor from Indialantic, Florida, where I grew up, got arrested this week. He and his buddies were at a local bar, all dressed up as Captain America as part of some superhero-themed pub crawl. He allegedly groped a woman, wielding a burrito he pulled from his pants, then got into a scuffle with the woman’s significant other. The police arrived, and they made all the Captain Americas go outside for a line-up so the woman could identify the not-so-super superhero.

“There were a lot of people in costumes,” said Jill Frederiksen, Melbourne Police spokeswoman. “They had to ask all dressed as Captain America to step outside, so she could identify him.”

This photo was taken by the security camera at the police station. Say it ain’t so, captain! -andy

Horsing Around at the Village ATM

Wednesday, April 25th, 2007

Here’s something you don’t see every day: a horse hanging out in an ATM vestibule. Apparently, a German man went out on his horse for a few drinks and was too blotto to make it home, so he decided to crash at the local bank. And since the bank didn’t have a hitching post outside, he brought the horse inside with him. Everything was fine until a customer came by sometime after 4am and interrupted the sleepover.

Local police released this photo from the bank’s security camera. Neither the man nor his horse are facing charges, though the guy may have to pay for cleaning up the deposit the horse reportedly left at the bank. -andy

How Can Public Broadcasting Make a Real Difference in Election 2008?

Tuesday, April 24th, 2007

Today is the second day of the NPR annual membership meeting, and yesterday afternoon I got to facilitate a group discussion on how public broadcasting should use social media tools to engage the public during the 2008 election cycle. Following the meeting I wrote up some notes while riding on the train home, in order to prep for a summary presentation to the whole group this morning. I wanted to share these notes, which I’ve cleaned up to make them more readable, to help catalyze a broader conversation on the subject.

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Sitting for my Second Musical Portrait with Pete Townshend’s Computer

Monday, April 23rd, 2007

While Susanne was putting Kayleigh to sleep tonight I decide to sit for another music portrait with Pete Townshend’s online music generator, The Lifehouse Method. You may recall I sat for my first portrait last year after being invited to beta-test the tool. The system, created by Townshend electronic composer Lawrence Ball, asks you to input several unique pieces of content, which it uses to interpret your musical portrait. It asks for a sample of your voice, which you can record with the website’s flash recorder. I recorded a short message in a soothing voice, saying “Isn’t my voice oh so soothing?” Then, it asked for a photo, so I supplied it with this photo of me taking a picture of the coliseum of El Jem in Tunisia. When asked for an audio clip, I gave it the opening bars to the Dresden Dolls song, “Coin Operated Boy,” which we use in the opening credits of our Dirty Diaper Diaries videos. Finally, I needed to give it a rhythm. So I tapped out the opening bars to the Rush song “YYZ,” which spell out the letters YYZ in morse code, in a 10/8 time signature.
The result? Have a listen.
For one thing, you can’t dance to it. In some ways, it’s reminiscent of some of the more dissonant musical studies my late father-in-law David Cornwall used to compose. It’s rather slow, with strings and keyboards plodding along at a modest tempo, while a bass and piano interject themselves at inopportune moments. There are very few chords – mostly individual notes from each instrument overlaid with each other. I can’t decide if it sounds like Morton Feldman revved up or Conlon Nancarrow slowed down. The first minute or so doesn’t do much for me, but then it gets a bit more coherent, as several instruments fade away and elements of bassoon and marimba pop up, but in a very minimalist way. There’s also a haunting, high-pitched whistle that weaves through the piece, not unlike a theremin. Fascinating stuff, but probably not for everyone.
Thanks again to Pete and his colleagues for letting me experiment with it. -andy

Yet Another Case of Breaking News I Learned Via Twitter

Monday, April 23rd, 2007

So Boris Yeltsin died today. I learned about it via Twitter text messages from NPR chairman Tim Eby and a few other people over the last hour or so. Tim just mentioned Yeltsin’s death in the meeting. He asked how many people heard about this morning’s breaking news. A few people raised their hands. He then asked how many learned about it by listening to a radio. No takers.
Proshai, Boris Nikolayevich. Mir spokoysviye. -andy

Are We Doing The Denial Twist?

Monday, April 23rd, 2007

Someone in the audience suggested to Alan Deutschman that maybe public radio is doing just fine, and that change could actually be a bad thing. Alan replied by asking a question and telling another story.
First, the question: if you could take a pill that would solve all of public radio’s problems, would you take it? Even if it had zero side effects? Alan said you probably wouldn’t, and he explained this by talking about statin drugs, which are taken by millions of people to prevent heart attacks. Statins have kept Alan’s dad alive by reducing his cholesterol dramatically. If there’s any drug that represents the promise of pharmaceuticals, it’s statins, he said. Yet according to a massive study of patients with cholesterol problems, people don’t stick with taking the pills that can save their lives. They may start by taking them, but as the months pass by, as many as three-quarters of them quit. Why? Because the act of taking the pill every day puts them in the mindset that they have a problem – a chronic illness that they have to deal with. And no one likes to admit when they’re sick.

So now you’re mad, denying the truth
And it’s getting in the wisdom in the back of your tooth
Ya need ta spit it out, in a telephone booth
While ya call everyone that you know, and ask ‘em
Where do you think she goes?
Where d’ya suppose she goes

The truth, well, you know there’s no stoppin’ it.
And the boat, well, ya know she’s still rockin’ it.

-andy

How the Cookie Guy and the Chicken Guy Saved IBM

Monday, April 23rd, 2007

Alan Deutschman, author of The Second Coming of Steve Jobs and Change or Die, is giving a pep talk to NPR executives and station managers at the NPR annual membership meeting in DC right now. He just finished telling a brief story about how IBM managed to save itself from oblivion.

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Time-Warner to Allow Fon Wifi Hotspots

Monday, April 23rd, 2007
Martin Varsavsky

Martin Varsavsky, founder of Fon

Jessica Mintz of the Associated Press is reporting today that Time Warner Cable has agreed to a partnership with the insurgent community wifi business Fon. Founded by serial entrepreneur Martin Varsavsky, Fon offers wireless routers that anyone can use to set up a public wifi hotspot. When you get a Fon router, you set it up to allow your neighbors to piggyback on your wireless connection, either for free or a small fee – typically a couple dollars a day.
While Fon has been successful partnering with ISPs in Europe, they hadn’t had any success penetrating the US market. (This didn’t stop tens of thousands of Fon enthusiasts, or foneros, setting up their own Fon hotspots on the Q-T, though.) Now, Time-Warner cable customers will be allowed to use the technology and become purveyors of community wifi without having to violate their terms of service. The question still remains whether other ISPs will follow suit. Starbucks and T-Mobile, for example, have been somewhat dismissive of Fon, which caused the Spanish company to respond by giving away nearly 7,000 free Fon routers to people who live adjacent to Starbucks, allowing them to provide a competing service.
Last year I got a chance to meet Martin during a presentation he gave at Harvard. Here’s a video of him discussing the idea behind Fon. -andy