31 August 2011

Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice, well why not?

Only someone who knows how dysfunctional the DC government is would have the wherewithal to try to pull this one off.

Allegedly, convicted (but now released) "drug kingpin" Cornell Jones landed a sweet deal -- via a non-profit he started called Miracle Hands -- with the city to renovate a warehouse into a job training center. The WaPo has the details. Sort of. The salient points are as follows:
According to the suit, Miracle Hands submitted false invoices to “wrongfully obtain” $329,653 in grant funds in its agreement to renovate a 14,000-square-foot warehouse at 2127 Queens Chapel Road NE into a job training facility.
The claim is that Mr. Jones received HIV/AIDS funding to build the training center, but instead it became a strip club. Let's leave aside the status of the property and try to figure out what the hell the DC government is doing giving grant money to convicted drug dealers. This guy was sent away for 27 years...he served 9 years of his sentence, then promptly started a non-profit because there are so few worthy non-profits out there that the District was falling over itself to distribute buckets of cash to a convicted drug dealer.

But it gets better. Miracle Hands obtained the grant money most likely because Mr. Jones was a close chum of a D.C. official:
The series also exposed the unopened job training site and the conflict of interest between Jones and Debra Rowe, interim housing chief of the city’s HIV/AIDS program from 2004 through 2008. Three of Rowe’s relatives worked at D.C. Tunnel, a nightclub operated at that time by Jones.
Four years as "interim" housing chief of the HIV/AIDS program? Was the job so crappy that no one would take it? I suppose it has its benefits if you can steer several hundred thousands of dollars to cronies who in turn employ your relatives.

And by the way, this didn't happen under Vincent Gray's watch (corrupt though he may be) or our former Mayor-for-Life Marion Barry. This cavalier attitude toward oversight occurred under notorious bean counter Anthony Williams and his successor, Adrian Fenty, who billed himself as a modernizer who would bring new transparency to District government.

Of course, Fenty was too busy bringing in new untested idiots like Michelle Rhee to worry about corrupt officials already working for the District.

09 August 2011

Reader's report: Wieland by Charles Brockden Brown

Looking forward to the spring 2012 semester, I have set a task to revisit or acquaint myself with some early American literature. So I read Wieland, a text I'd only glanced through before as part of my graduate work.

Brown was a pioneer of the novel set in the New World, where such fanciful pursuits as fiction were deemed less than honorable. The tale would be well paired with Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, both texts dealing with unreal circumstances and dreadful crimes.

Wieland leaves a major event unresolved, and that is the mysterious death/disappearance of the elder Wieland, whose maniacal religious devotion seems in the end to descend upon his son.

The text is a tremendous study in the power of superstition over even those who feel themselves educated, rational beings. It's also, I think, in the tenor of our age, a useful meditation on religious certainty and willingness to commit horrendous acts in service of one deity or another.

I finished the text this morning, after plowing through the bulk of it with the sound of waves hitting the sand. I am now starting a very different novel, Rudolf Fisher's The Conjure Man Dies.

05 August 2011

Still devoted to the printed word.

I'm getting ready to depart for a week of (hopefully) sun, sand, and surf in that lovely summer oasis known as Ocean City, MD. My bag is packed, and aside from getting together the necessities such as beach chairs and towels, as well as assembling the bike rack, my major concern is with beach reading.

I've decided already that I'm not going to haul the current tome I'm reading, David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, for two reasons: first, it's really thick and, second, I'm not sure that I want to commit to that book just yet. I'm about fifty pages deep in it, and it's intriguing but not absorbing.

So what to take.

One of the books I will be packing will be Charles Brockden Brown's Wieland. I'm teaching early American in the spring, and I have to get up to speed on that book. For that same reason I may bring the Franklin's Autobiography, although I just taught it earlier this summer.

However, I also have some newer books I want to read before the semester begins and my dreams of leisure reading are dashed. I want to read the Patti Smith memoir Just Kids. I want to read Brock Clarke's Exley. I'd like to read Richard Russo's That Old Cape Magic.

Of course, it being the beach, I'll probably pick up some books at the discount book dealers down there, and so add to my deficit of books purchased v. books read.

04 August 2011

In which I imply yet another way to lower federal spending on unproductive areas...

The Post has an article today on Texas Governor Rick Perry's desire to destroy what remains of education in the state of Texas. Perry's argument, which is really couched in economic terms, is more of the same lament coming from cultural conservatives for at least the last thirty years and going back even further if you really care to dig around.

The complaint, in cultural terms: humanities and social science programs are turning out people who hate America.

The complaint, in more economic terms: humanities and social science programs are turning out people who don't agree with global corporations' priorities.

However, it's always useful if you can make this a purely economic issue, and therefore claim that ideology has nothing to do with it. So Rick Perry has determined that universities cost too much because they're filled with unproductive majors and programs (e.g. humanities and social sciences) and really the place needs to be run like a business.

Perry, who at Texas A&M was a "yell leader," which is what the insecure-in-their-masculinity powers that be at Texas A&M call what most people in the country call a cheer leader (if, albeit, a specialized one), is taking direct aim at one of the few institutions in Texas with any credibility, the University of Texas.

Look, I can understand his envy. He went to a third-rate school and, like many Americans, doesn't like "high falutin' thinking." So what better way to exact revenge than to turn Texas higher education into glorified trade school? The University of Texas is in fact the only thing that makes Texas bearable. It is, if you will, a flower growing in an otherwise barren and inhospitable landscape.

Take away the University of Texas and most Americans wouldn't give a rat's ass if Texas left the Union, aside of course from those people trying to get from Louisiana to New Mexico who would now have to go around the third world country.

03 August 2011

Decline and fall.

It was 30 years ago this week that MTV started broadcasting. For those who don't remember, MTV stood for Music Television and it broadcast these things called music videos. It did this all day and all night. There were hosts called "VJs," for "video jockeys," who told viewers about the videos and the artists before or after the station played them. The whole thing was modeled on music-format radio.

Back in those days, MTV played a variety of artists, which didn't include rap or country. Once videos as a concept became more acceptable, videos became more sophisticated. Some of them received preambles to set the mood before the music actually began. Videos that consisted simply of live footage of a band became less frequent or developed a storyline of sorts (see Bruce Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark"). Finally, we arrived at the overblown production of Michael Jackson's "Thriller," a founding moment in which videos aspired to be something other than a visual rendering of a song. "Thriller" was a mini-movie, made all the more unbearable because its popularity meant it was on several times a day, eating up a good sixth of an hour every time it aired.

With no serious rivals, MTV consolidated its grip by offering niche shows, such as Yo! MTV Raps and 120 Minutes and the Headbangers Ball. In my opinion, 120 minutes soon became the only time it was worth it to watch MTV.

Then MTV started offering original programming such as game shows, expanded news, and cartoons. Reality shows soon followed. Music became less and less a part of the so-called Music Television's programming.

I have to admit that I rarely watched MTV after I was in high school/college, and when in high school I never watched it home because we didn't have that cable package, so my depth of personal knowledge and experience with MTV ends about a decade into its existence, with the last two decades of its life being categorized as occasional viewing. I know for instance that in the first Real World (I think) there was that annoying bike messenger named Puck and some guy with AIDS and some brunette who wore stupid clothes. However, I can't tell you how many Real Worlds there were.

The channel is clearly aimed at the young, and to an extent it's hilarious to hear people like me, people in their forties and/or late thirties, complaining about the format of a channel that's so clearly geared toward teenagers to early twenty-somethings. No one is stopping a rival from coming in to fill the gap left by MTV's abandoning of music videos.

Most of the people complaining about MTV's decline are probably people like me who complained bitterly back in the day about the crappy quality of the music that MTV did play. I hated almost all of the artists we associate with MTV-friendliness: Michael Jackson and Madonna first and foremost. MTV in its music phase was essentially a top 40 station that deigned to play outside its format on occasion.

It's really hard to measure decline when you're constantly running into references to its latter day output, from Jackass to Jersey Shore.

So MTV isn't what it was 30 years ago. So what?

01 August 2011

Chugging through the summer with literature.

For a summer course I'm teaching I just finished reading Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns. It's an interesting text and like its predecessor, The Kite Runner, this novel is a real page turner. Hosseini knows how to pace a story and how to build suspense. His chapter breaks are impeccable.

Let me continue.

His character development is very good where it concerns the two main women of the novel, Mariam and Laila. It's not as good as developing the male characters in the text, but in part you could argue it's because the male characters do not develop at least as far as the women are concerned. Rasheed, who is probably the central male figure, is simply nasty. He enjoys his position as absolute lord over first Mariam and later Laila and Mariam. Since the story is told from the perspectives of the women, Rasheed essentially presents himself to them as an unquestionable overseer: he gives orders and they obey.

It's a harrowing story and I think an important one for us to understand U.S. cultural consumption of the last decade of the Afghanistan conflict. Both Hosseini's novels have been bestsellers; one has been turned into a film, while the other is in development. They certainly contain a narrative that American audiences (both liberal and conservative) can identify with: the Taliban were bad.

Of course the texts are more complex than that, but one theme they reinforce is the absolute tyranny of the Taliban rule. In The Kite Runner, the main problem one might have with the story is that its sympathies lie with a ruling elite that has lost power and been exiled...yes the Taliban are bad, but lingering at the back of the mind is that perhaps it was the excesses or blindness of the wealthy that made the Taliban possible.

A Thousand Splendid Suns
brings us much closer to what you might call "everyday experience," in that the two women come from markedly different backgrounds but neither is of the ruling elite. Mariam, the daughter of one of her father's servants, is born an outcast near Herat. Laila is the daughter of middle class parents in Kabul. When the middle-aged Rasheed marries the teenaged Mariam and brings her back to Kabul, it is to Laila's family's neighborhood that they move. Years later, when Laila's remaining family is killed in fighting between warring factions of warlords, Rasheed marries her, uniting both women under his oppressive rule.

You could argue with the ending, as things fall in place a bit too neatly and quickly, but the main interest I have in this novel is its place in our cultural memory. One thing that propelled these novels to best-seller status was their subject matter: the U.S. was and continues to be intimately involved in the affairs of Afghanistan. However, Hosseini does not offer easy solutions and no one comes out of his books unscarred.

Changed my clothes ten times before I take up my template...

Some of you may have noticed that my blog changed its look for the first time ever. That was something of an accident. All I wanted to do was get my charts to fit. They used to fit. No matter how inept I was, blogger always fixed the size of my pictures and charts so they fit in the main window.

No longer.

Apparently, some template change has my charts etc spilling over the margins into my housekeeping column. I am not happy about this feature.

I am also having difficulty returning to my original template without returning to some god-awful version of my blog layout and blogroll from 2006. All I want is Rounders 3 back.

It should be simple.

It probably is.

And no, I do not have the time to sit around coding this crap myself and I'm not at the moment interested in moving to a more professional self-publishing tool such as wordpress. I'm actually pretty happy with the crap I can do with blogger.