17 July 2008

Can you separate the dancer from the dance?

The name accrues.

We buy Warhols, Van Goghs, O'Keefes, Matisses, and the like -- shortened simply to the name. A mad scribble on a restaurant napkin by De Koonig -- hell, a restaurant receipt with a doodle -- would fetch more than a six foot by eight foot oil by the best art school graduate in the land, and while there may be money in a Basquiat, there's little in the way of a marketable skill for most graffiti bombers.

Except for Banksy, the British stenciler who not only decorates walls and overpasses but also manages to hang his art surreptitiously in some of the world's best galleries. In the last few years, Banksy's work has been highly collectible, which is no mean feat given that much of it is stuck (without authorization) on buildings along public streets and is therefore not really moveable and by default becomes the property of the property owner and nearly as impossible to guard as the previously un-defaced/decorated wall.

Aside from the originality of Banksy's stencils and his cleverness in eluding museum guards long enough to hang his work with adhesive on gallery walls, part of the allure was his secret identity. Who is Banksy? In a form associated with "the street," meaning urban, working class, and in America at least, minority, where would Banksy come from?

Over the weekend, both the BBC and the Guardian reported on Banksy's probable unmasking as a middle class and mid-thirties guy from Bristol, England (The Mail on Sunday ran the original story, but I'd rather link to the Beeb than to the tabloid). However, I can't pass up the Mail's self-satisfied chortling over their coup:
And far from being a radical tearaway from an inner-city council estate, the man we have identified as Banksy is, perhaps all too predictably, a former public schoolboy [meaning in England "private"] brought up in middle-class suburbia.

The story is complete with photos of the presumed Banksy's childhood home and Bristol suburbia. Which gets me back to the beginning: the art is attached to the artist and vice versa. Revelations of Banksy's identity now allow for biographical criticism, a form that is at its worst utterly useless in terms of finding meaning in art and at its best most penetrating in finding motivations for the artist.

The Mail, for its part, seems to think that it's performed the equivalent to the unmasking of Vanilla Ice as a middle-class kid from a good home rather than an edgy street kid...except in Vanilla Ice's case, there really was no there there. What Vanilla Ice's attempted comeback response showed (if you can remember this far back in pop culture, Ice tried to recuperate himself as a thug rapper...an astounding flop) was that he was all image -- his songs being unremarkable and his most marketable quality being showmanship.

In Banksy's case, what we have is art before the artist, a body of work with no body to attach it to, except in our collective imaginations. In other words, the image issue was really a lack of his actual image and presence, the absence of which creates its own speculative presence (which is why most of our superheroes have nondescript "everyday" alteregos).

Of course, as graffiti is technically a crime and Banksy's most common method is to select canvasses without regard to ownership, it makes you wonder if he can continue with a style that was predicated on not getting caught.

16 July 2008

Heroes apparently come in many shapes and guises.

I was reading about the "prisoner exchange" in which Israel, whose occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip is utterly shameful (the Golan Heights I'll leave out of it), agreed to hand over five live prisoners and 199 dead bodies in exchange for two dead bodies (the two soldiers kidnapped by Hezbollah in 2006, sparking a short-lived war that decimated Lebanon but left Hezbollah and Israel just fine). It's not much of an exchange when all you get in return is two dead bodies.

It's also pretty pathetic when one of the live guys you're giving back is nothing more than a thug:

For its part, Hezbollah is most interested in the release of the convicted Kuntar, the longest-serving Lebanese prisoner in Israel. The Shiite Muslim militia group hails him as a hero.

Kuntar, who had been a member of the Palestine Liberation Front, led a group of four men who entered Israel from Lebanon by boat in 1979. They killed a police officer who came across them. Then they took a 28-year-old man and his 4-year-old daughter hostage.

Kuntar shot the father dead at close range in front of his daughter and tossed his body in the sea. Then he smashed the girl's head, killing her.

A 2-year-old girl suffocated as her mother tried to stop her from crying as they hid from Kuntar.

He was sentenced to life and spent the last three decades in an Israeli jail -- until Wednesday, when he is expected to return home to a hero's welcome.

The swap reverberated among Palestinians. Ismail Haniya, the leader of the Hamas movement in Gaza, on Wednesday exulted over the prisoner exchange and said the underlying lesson and meaning of the swap is that "victory is possible." [cnn.com]
That's some victory, getting back a man with the courage to shoot an unarmed man and smash a four year old's head in.

Then again, history is full of shameful episodes.

11 July 2008

L2, bane of my existence.

I have to get to VA to pick up our car, which means I have to get to the orange line from Adams Morgan. In a moment of utter stupidity, I headed out the back door to 18th Street rather than the front door to 16th, so instead of picking up a reliable S line, I'm standing around looking up 18th Street for the L2 like a junky waiting on his man.

A whole slew of 9x buses have passed me by, and I'm thinking maybe I should hop one to 16th to transfer to an S2, when damn here comes the L2 looking like Jesus on wheels and I am a saved man.

All is forgiven.

10 July 2008

Somewhere in Newark, Clifford Janey is smiling.

DCPS has released test scores indicating marked improvement on standardized tests this year. It's great news for a system so maligned that the citizens of DC have given up any sort of representative oversight over it. As expected, Chancellor Rhee and Fenty are trying to take credit for the gains, despite the fact that system-wide education reforms rarely take hold in less than ten months, which is roughly the time between Rhee's taking office and the students' taking the standardized tests. It didn't even bother Rhee that she'd hedged her bets on taking office, claiming that gains wouldn't be seen for three to five years:

D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee said the initial results demonstrate that the approach she used in her first year in office is working. Rhee said previously that she did not think test scores would receive a bump from her initiatives for a few years. [WP]

Well, it could be that scores are receiving a bump because she has introduced no academic initiatives: the curriculum in place -- and to a large extent the methodology -- is a product of Clifford Janey's reign as superintendent, which coincidentally just happens to have begun...umm, September 2004...oh, about 3.5 years before those standardized tests.

As superintendent, Clifford Janey ditched the old curricular standards and adopted some of the toughest in the nation (including the Massachusett's standards...and unlike Victor Reinoso, Janey openly admitted he was using those models); he replaced the old Stanford-9 test with the DC-CAS; and he laid it all out in a "Master Education Plan." That plan is still in place, and Reinoso hasn't had the chance yet to scribble out Janey's name and put his own on it. You can actually still get Janey's plan off the DCPS website.

As the Post article also notes, one possible cause for a jump in scores is that students are getting used to the new test:

In 2006, the number of schools achieving proficiency dropped, which officials and outside experts said then was an expected byproduct of administering the new, more difficult D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System (DC-CAS). It replaced the Stanford 9, which used multiple-choice questions and tested students on national standards.

Then-Superintendent Clifford B. Janey introduced the DC-CAS exam, which requires students to give short responses. It was part of an effort to upgrade instruction by aligning testing with new learning standards.

School system officials said yesterday that this year's gains resulted in part from programs that accustom students to the DC-CAS format.

As with most of life, test gains and losses are never cut and dry...you can't standardize life. So it's really distressing to see Chancellor Rhee pretending that her reforms -- which only a month ago she and Fenty were claiming were largely facilities related and had little to do with academics -- are the cause:

"We made every one of those decisions because we felt that this is what was needed to happen . . . so achievement can be maximized. I fully believe we will see the upward trajectory as long as we're making the hard decisions," Rhee said at a news conference at Plummer Elementary School in Southeast Washington, where reading scores jumped 17 percentage points and math by 15. In the 2007 academic year, the reading scores rose by two percentage points and math by six.

"I wasn't expecting to see such large gains early on," Rhee said. "It's a testament to what kids can do. I believe the children in the District of Columbia can achieve at high levels."

I don't know what's worse...the idea that she's trying to equate her "hard decisions" of closing schools and firing high-achieving principals with increased test scores, or her empty platitude about what kids can achieve. I challenge anyone out there to show me a school chief who doesn't throw out some bone about "believing the children can achieve at high levels."

OK, I do know what's worse: it's trying to take credit for results that surprised the hell out of you because you spent the entire length of your tenure so far trying to distance yourself from the test results...in other words, you truly believed scores would be stagnant or just plain lousy.

However, if your goal is simply to improve standardized test scores as opposed to improve the education of children, then you can get a boost from full-time test prep...

The best news of course is that scores have gone up; unfortunately, many of those responsible for such improvements have been fired by Fenty or Rhee.

09 July 2008

Working with oils.

I had been working with acrylic lately, but for some work you just want the feel and lustre of oils.

However, it's a pain to work in oil, because the clean-up is cumbersome, and quite often I simply ruin the brushes after one use.

I call my latest work "dining room baseboard and door frame trim."

08 July 2008


I ride my bike every day in the District, and much of the time I've got one kid on a child's seat behind me and one kid pedaling in front of me. That's why when I read about bicyclists struck by automobiles, I get a creepy feeling.

This morning, Alice Swanson was hit and killed by a garbage truck at 20th and R Streets NW. That's only a few blocks from my daughter's daycare, a few more blocks from my son's school. Most days I ride through the 19th and R intersection, just one block away.

I've been hit on my bike a few times, although never seriously (except for a bike-to-bike head on collision when I was in 8th grade that required surgery...) and with one exception, never in the District. You always have to be aware of traffic, because you know most drivers don't pay enough attention to bicyclists, motorcyclists, or pedestrians; however, you're always trusting that they're paying enough attention to avoid flattening you. Sometimes, being aware of traffic isn't enough.

And while it's always in the back of your head, it's moments of extreme violence that force you to understand again how fragile the frame and wheels are, how exposed you are sitting on top of them.

The death of any cyclist brings our own vulnerabilities into focus. Although I didn't know her at all, I am deeply saddened by Alice Swanson's death.

07 July 2008

Another popped seam, another look at the Chancellor's New Clothes

A little while ago, I mentioned the fraud that was the Rhee Regime's slogan of "aggressive national search" for principals for the DC schools. Well, the Post has finally gotten around to looking into the actual data from the recent round of principal pools and has come up with some unsurprising numbers:
About two-thirds of the more than 700 applicants were from the surrounding suburbs or already working for the school system, according to figures provided
by the chancellor's office. It's not a surprising result. The city offers no relocation assistance to principals, according to application information on the D.C. schools Web site. And as "at will" employees, there is no guarantee that a job would last for more than a year.

So the principals class of 2008-09, which officially began work last week, looks decidedly local. Along with Taylor and Jordon, new hires include Terry Dade, a former Fairfax County teacher taking over at Tyler Elementary in Southeast, and Maurice Kennard, an assistant principal at Walker-Jones Elementary in Northwest hired to head the new Francis-Stevens Educational Center in Foggy Bottom, which will offer pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.
Of course, if you were a high-performing principal in a good situation in your own district, would you really want to come to a system where the chancellor appears to be offering no job security even for employees who do good jobs? Would you trade a system of checks and balances for an imperial chancellory, where courtiers curry favor and your employment prospects hinge on who you know rather than how you perform? Probably not.

And it's not as if Rhee doesn't know better. Her old organization, the New Teacher Project, actually put out a policy paper on principal hiring. Apparently, Rhee didn't bother to read it.

If you really want a laugh (or a cry) you should check out the chart on page four of the report...the "model principal hiring process." Apparently, principals shouldn't be hired in rush jobs, where you announce a vacancy on a Friday and scoop together a panel to interview candidates on a Saturday eight days later.

03 July 2008

Only if they're smoking Rhee-fer...

Borrowing another classic move from conquerors everywhere, Chancellor Rhee has proposed a contract that would essentially split the Washington Teachers Union into two opposing camps. She proposes a "red" track that would maintain a traditional contract based on tenure and seniority with modest pay increases and a "green" track that would end seniority and tenure and offer far greater financial incentives in return. In other words, those green tier employees would trade their collective bargaining rights and long-term stability for the possibility of a big payday. Here's how the Post describes it:
Under the proposal, the school system would establish two pay tiers, red and green, said the union members, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the talks are confidential. Teachers in the red tier would receive traditional raises and would maintain tenure. Those who voluntarily go into the green tier would receive thousands of dollars in bonuses and raises, funded with foundation grants, for relinquishing tenure.

Wait...how will those bonuses and raises for the greenies be paid for? Oh, foundation grants...well that's interesting. So the money's not actually budgeted for Rhee's promises, but is rather tied to the whims of outside foundations. The three foundations that the Post names are the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, and the Broad Foundation; none of the foundations cared to confirm that story.

The Broad Foundation is a big player in the public schools these days, having bankrolled the New Leaders for New Schools among other para-educational organizations, and according to Susan Ohanian, their education initiatives skew heavily toward business-oriented concerns and involve a good bit of log-rolling:
According to the Broad Foundation website ( http://www.broadfoundation.org ), its plan is to "redefine the traditional roles, practices, and policies of school board members, superintendents, principals, and labor union leaders to better address contemporary challenges in education." Broad's deep pockets mean it gets to define those challenges. Follow Broad money: A pattern emerges of business and foundation money moving in on local elections. Founder Eli Broad was influential in getting the Los Angeles superintendency for former Colorado governor Roy Romer, and it's no coincidence that the Broad Foundation gave its first urban ed prize to Houston -- with Rod Paige at the helm. A tight circle of backslapping and influence peddling reigns.

Nice. But let's assume nothing but good intentions from these foundations (Dell? OK, it's a long shot, but let's suspend disbelief...). Are these grants given in perpetuity? Or until DC can come up with its own funds to pay for the bonuses, which according to the Post could potentially raise a "mid-range" teacher's salary from 62K to over 100K?

Or maybe these grants will last long enough to bust the teachers union.

At any rate, the Washington Teachers Union will have to be smoking plenty of Rhee-fer to go along with this plan, for the following reasons:

  1. The union will essentially cease to function as a union once differentiated salary tiers go into place -- the groups will be divided against one another and will no longer have mutual interests and goals, which is precisely Rhee's intention.
  2. The "green" tier teachers will no longer have job security. While Rhee pays lip service to things like rewarding excellent performance, her track record with the employees she now has power over (for instance, the principals) indicates that excellent performance reviews are no guarantee that you will keep your job.
  3. Her plan to pay for bonuses through grants means there's no guaranteed source of funding for these promises...which of course makes it of a piece with most of her other promises, or as they say in Texas, all hat and no cattle.


02 July 2008

PGC: Because the cops don't need you, and man they expect the same.

I've been following this story of the PGC police officer who was killed last week, the arrest of a suspect, and the subsequent death of that suspect while in police custody. The officer, Richard Findley, was murdered after a traffic stop, when the vehicle rammed him and dragged him a good ways. The suspect, Ronnie White, was arrested over the weekend and ended up dead in a jail cell. In solitary confinement. Strangled. In other words, murdered.

It's a classic locked room murder mystery, except the only people who had the keys were the corrections officers, and according to the Post, they aren't talking. Gives me great confidence in the quality of our law enforcement employees. PGC has a history of being infiltrated by criminal corrections officers, as well as a history of rogue cops taking all aspects of the law into their own hands.

All indications are that PGC cops aren't getting any more clued-in to their perceived above-the-law attitude:
County police expressed frustration yesterday that the controversy over White's death seemed to be overshadowing the death of Findley, whose funeral is scheduled for tomorrow.

"We all understand that the death of this kid is tragic. However, his actions that led to him being in that predicament don't even begin to rise to the level of the sacrifice that Findley made," said Vince Canales, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 89. "Everybody needs to take a minute and focus solely on putting him to rest. We'll get back to the investigation when we have properly buried Corporal Findley."

Ummm...maybe the attention being paid to Mr. White's death -- "this kid" according to Mr. Canales -- stems from the fact that state-sponsored lynchings are no longer in fashion. I'd go so far as to say that Officer Findley's sacrifice has been obscured and tarnished forever thanks to the actions of his colleagues. So Mr. Canales can thank his fellow lodge officers for that, if corrections officers get to be part of the FOP...I don't know. What I do know, is they've got a crook among them, and they'd better sort that out first.

And what, by the way, is "that predicament" Mr. Canales alludes to? The predicament of being put to death unarmed in your jail cell? So basically, any arrestee who finds him or herself in jail ought to expect that perhaps a representative of the law will come by to kill him or her? Is this behavior to be expected in PGC? Is this the "rule of law" in PGC?

For the record, I don't think White's murder was an act of revenge by the cops. I think he was killed to shut him up.