Archive for July, 2008

Why Web Pages?

July 25, 2008

I have never tried to hide the fact of my technological ineptitude, not here or not on my currently incomplete, half-assed webpage.  It was during my tenure at the University of Florida where I was lucky enough to teach in the now-sadly-decaying Networked Writing Environment where I became interested and compelled to learn how and why to integrate technology into my teaching.  I experimented with the MOO environment and attempted to learn how to integrate my own web page and student web pages into the curriculum.  My eagerness certainly outran my abilities.  I embraced the possibilities head-on, but in the midst of my dissertation work (which in hindsight I realize I should have shifted into a rhet-comp project, judging from my current interests and the fact that it seems odd to have an “American Lit” degree when I’m not sure “Literature” exists, only rhetoric) and my job hunt, I never really learned the technology to properly support my ideas.

At the time, I never ventured into blogging as a teaching tool, however.  The world of blogging has really opened up recently for me.  I have used it as a tool in several classes, most effectively in my intro composition course, “Knowledge, Culture, and the Liberal Arts.” Here, too, I have “seen the light” and am incorporating blogs into my courses fairly frequently now.  My primary interest in using the blog is as a way to help students see writing as an act of community.  Writing is too often presented as an act within a vacuum rather than a form of community dialogue.  The blog really opens this up for students.  It is also a very easy method to do the logistical work that I had learned to do through my web page.

One of the great things about a web page initially was that with very few skills I could have a central page where everything could be posted, assignment updates, readings, etc.  Now I use moodle to update any assignments, and I post any other changes onto the blog and tell students they need to check the blog for my postings and each others’ every day.  It works like a charm.

The question now is what purpose I want my web page to serve.  One of my goals for August was to spend a little time with my webpage, update it, learn how to make it look a little more spiffy etc.  But I also find myself asking why.  I am no longer sure what role it plays in my personal or my teaching life.  It’s as if I outgrew my webpage before I even learned how to really make an effective one.  I’d like to still work on it, but given the limited projects I can really invest in, do I have the time to really make working on it worthwhile?  It has lost priority and now sits out there in limbo.  So, what I really need to do this August is spend some time re-evaluating what tools I most want to use and why and how and consider where to put my meager efforts.  I feel sad, though, thinking of my poor little website adrift without a purpose.  Maybe it’s really just an advertising medium now to sell my book.  My webpage goes commerical.

Lewis Black and Budweiser

July 24, 2008

So, it is official.  InBev from Belgium is buying Anheuser-Busch.  A very remarkable development indeed.  Can’t say it really affects me one way or another except that when I say that I really like Belgian beers will people now think I mean that I like Budweiser?  Hmmm….

Of course, InBev assures people that it will still be brewed by the same people following the same recipe.  To which, Lewis Black asks the important question: Budweiser uses a recipe?

Sam Adams and American Marketing

July 23, 2008

I love good beer. I don’t overly think of myself as a beer snob, though. There’s a time and place for a good cold Budweiser (although let’s not even talk Miller, okay?). The more I know about beer, the more some of my old favorites fall out of favor with me; but many beers I’ve loved for years still find their way into my cooler. It’s about range and variety and set and setting I suppose. That said, I generally find Sam Adams beers innocuous enough. They’re not great beers, but I’ll drink them without too much of a fuss. My main complaint with them is that they brew this huge selection of beers, most of which just don’t taste that different. They have a flavor profile that runs throughout their beers. I’d love to see them brew fewer beers but give each of them a bit more character (although I have yet to try their triple bock yet which certainly seems to fall into the extreme beer category). Nonetheless, I was at a local pizza place last night and Sam Adams lager was really my only option–so, as I say, I ordered and was generally content. Why am I writing all this, though? Because I feel like Sam Adams and Jim Koch, as most American advertisers, play us for fools.

For instance, have you seen those ads that emphasize they use “a pound more hops” than other beers? OK, and that means….? There are two options here. One, the target audience is one that knows beer and knows that this claim in and of itself is meaningless. It’s about flavor profile and hop varieties. Is it a beer style that’s appropriate for a pound more hops? What kinds of hops are we talking? If your audience understands hops then give us something of substance. The other possibility, and more to the point, is you’re selling beer to people who don’t necessarily understand the dynamics of hops in a beer. In that case, the claim is mere pandering, bolstered by the American notion that more must mean better. Hmmm, more hops must mean better beer, ok I’ll buy it. It’s like the old Coors ads that rave about the Rocky Mountain water they use. Fair enough, but either your consumer understands the way water works in a beer or not. For instance, you wouldn’t want to brew an English style ale with such “pure” water as the mineral content is what makes an English ale an English ale. Now, the water that Coors was touting may actually be appropriate for the lager style beer they were brewing, but so the hell would purified water. Does it really matter that it came from the Rockies? Not so much. But back to Sam Adams and hops. Here’s their lengthy, fairly full-of-itself description of their American Lager:

Samuel Adams Boston Lager® is the best example of the fundamental characteristics of a great beer, offering a full, rich flavor that is both balanced and complex. It is brewed using a decoction mash, a time consuming, traditional four vessel brewing process discarded by many contemporary brewers. This process brings forth a rich sweetness from the malt that makes it well worth the effort. Samuel Adams Boston Lager® also uses only the finest of ingredients including two row barley, as well as German Noble aroma hops. The exclusive use of two row barley not only imparts a full, smooth body but also gives the beer a wide spectrum of malt flavor ranging from slightly sweet to caramel to slightly roasted. The Noble hops varieties, Hallertau Mittelfruh and Tettnang Tettnanger, add a wide range of floral, piney and citrus notes, which are present from the aroma, through the flavor, to the lingering smooth finish. We take great pride in the Noble hops used in our beers. They are hand selected by Jim Koch and our other brewers from the world’s oldest hops growing area. Among the world’s most expensive, they cost twenty times as much as other hops.

OK, you use a decoction method. Again, it’s this claim that’s geared toward those who may not know what it means. Most people would ask why it has been discarded by most brewers. Could it be that technology has allowed brewers to achieve some of the same effects more efficiently? Most brewers who still use decoction are Belgian brewers who need it to achieve a flavor profile that is particular to many Belgian beers. I’m not suggesting that James Koch should or shouldn’t use the decoction method, but just to point out the ambiguous way it fits into this advertising campaign. OK, your hops cost twenty times as much as other hops–again, the question is about the flavor profile of the hops. Are you telling us about flavor or why you may be able to charge a particular price for your beer? I think this description, while it appears to be informative, from a beer-lover’s perspective is all marketing. Don’t get me wrong; I understand the importance of marketing and know that sam adams is a business, but it’s at the heart of what I see wrong with discourse in America today. It’s all sound bite and slogan vs. substance. It doesn’t work for politics and it doesn’t work for beer either: talk to your audience as if they know beer, and you’ll teach the others along the way. Or, better yet, save the speech and brew the best beer you can.

Legion Arts Theft

July 15, 2008

Yesterday was a beautiful summer afternoon, perfect July weather. I took some pictures of our raspberry patch that’s really filling in after 3 years, and our flower gardens that are really coming into full bloom. I had every intention, then, of writing a nice summery post, show off the gardens, describe our wonderful grilled veggie, orzo, feta and herb dinner last night and talk beer. But this morning I read this really distressing news from post-flood world.

I have written quite a few times about Legion Arts in downtown Cedar Rapids, really the best thing going about this town. I had also posted some pictures of the building and was happy to report that the art gallery and performance space on the second floor were basically unharmed by the floods. This included thousands of dollars in sound equipment. If the building is structurally sound (it appears so but the final verdict isn’t in) and electricity can be restored, they could be up and running pretty quickly. The salvage work on the businesses on the first floor, though, apparently left the building unprotected. Yesterday, thieves used a gap where walls had to be torn down to steal $14,000 of sound equipment. Sure, they are insured and will be able to get back on their feet, but this just astounds me. The neighborhood is a complete disaster area and thieves are seeing it as opportunity. Legion Arts has always run on a shoestring and the hard work of countless volunteers. Directors Mel Andringa and John Herbert have put their lives into keeping this place afloat for over 20 years. As the centerpiece of the new Bohemian Arts District, it was the cornerstone of a new vision for Cedar Rapids before the flood and will be the anchor of whatever might come after the flood. And this is what it comes down to.

I’m mad. I’m sad. And I’m a bit scared of what this bodes for the future as these “opportunities” will be here for many months in this city. Right after the flood, the city was shocked by the news that vandals had broken into the children’s zoo in Bever Park and rounded up 50 ducks of a variety of species from the duck pond, herded them into the corner and stoned them to death. It was just stunning to think of what bad can lurk even in the worst of times (you know, when we all point to tragedy as the point when we come together and the good in people shows up). Nothing like kicking people when they’re down. I was happy to see the community response to that event, and hope there is a similar outcry and public assistance for Legion Arts.

The Madison Haul

July 14, 2008

We had been planning to go to Saint Louis this last weekend, get away from the ever-present flood remnants for awhile, go to Schlafly etc. It’s about a 5 hour trip for us going down Route 61.  It might be a tad quicker going interstate down toward Peoria, but highway 61 is part of the appeal, a beautiful drive down through the Missouri bluffs along the river, a stop in Hannibal etc. The Iowa DOT though was a little sketchy on continued detours and bridge closures due to the floods, so we weren’t sure how much extra time the trip was going to take.  We decided it would be better to wait until the roads are definitely clear.

I found myself Saturday morning, then, unsure of what to do with our weekend when MB suggested going to Madison for the night. I’m always game for Madison (It’s a great town and a pretty easy drive) but we get there fairly often and I wasn’t sure about it. I asked MB why she thought Madison and she said, “Well, I’d really like to get that Sayur Lodeh (coconut soup) at Bandung.” OK, I thought, I can see the appeal. It’s a fabulous Indonesian restaurant and we can’t get it around here. Then she added, “I’m also worried about your beer supply running low. I thought we could check out the beer store that Bradley suggested.” It was a great reminder of why I love this woman so much!! Yes, she was worried about my beer supply, sigh….

So, off we went to Madison. I don’t think our haul at Steve’s was as big as Bradley’s recent haul, but we did pretty well:

Bells Hopslam
Bells Two-Hearted Ale
Lakefront Brewing IPA
Avery The Reverend Quadrupel
Andersonville Brother David’s Tripel
Lagunitas IPA
Lagunitas Maximus
Lagunitas Lumpy Gravy
Tyrenena Bitter Woman IPA
Tyrenena Chief Blackhawk Porter
Bear Republic Hop Rod Rye Ale
Bear Republic Black Bear Stout
Bear Republic XP Ale
Stone Ruination IPA
Stone Arrogant Bastard
Ale Asylum Hopalicious
Ale Asylum Contorter Porter

All seems right with the world. Steve’s is indeed a well-stocked store and worth the visit. They don’t have the Belgian stock like John’s Grocery in Iowa City does, so we’ll still just hop down to John’s for the Belgians, but I liked the west coast supply of beers like Bear Republic and Stone. Yumm. And indeed we had a good dinner at Bandung and some good beers at Great Dane Brewing. I’ve been to Great Dane quite a few times and really enjoy the place and have always been fond of their beers. I must say that this time something seemed a little off, though. Some of their bigger beers were lacking body. For instance, their Texas Speedbump IPA, which has a ton of hop flavor, was surprisingly watery in body. As was the ESB. Their APA, though, was quite nice and creamy. And I had a Belgian Pale that started out on the watery side but really filled out as it warmed up a little. Nice, spicy pale. Now we’re back to being money poor but beer rich. I think a nice mid-summer cook-out tonight with some Hopslam is in order. Sigh…

What’s a Guy like Bush to do?

July 8, 2008

He’s made it very clear for years: no timetables in Iraq. No cut and running. As long as Iraq wants us there, we’ll be there until the job is done (although “the job” remains frustratingly undefined). Nope, no sir, no way, not gonna happen. Only now it appears that Iraq doesn’t want us there. Iraq is requesting, at a minimum, that we commit to some sort of timetable for American troops to leave Iraq. So, President Bush, can we take you at your word now that you’ll leave if asked to leave? I know it’s difficult for a tough cowboy like you to leave a job unfinished but certainly you wouldn’t want to overstay your welcome would you?


July 7, 2008

I have read a disturbing number of articles and blogs that are attempting to make comparisons between the Iowa floods and New Orleans after Katrina. The argument goes that Iowa has handled this disaster in the way that New Orleans should have: Iowans have pulled together and are working through it while New Orleans folks merely whined. This is such a bogus and disturbing argument I just don’t know where to begin. The swath of devastation from Katrina was vastly larger than the Iowa floods. We also have had no loss of life in Iowa, thank God. But there are two primary issues for me: first, New Orleanians had a reason to complain about the length of time it took FEMA and others to arrive with help, and the incredible mismanagement of such help. In contrast, FEMA was on the scene the day of these floods. If anything, this shows that at least some lessons have been learned through Katrina. I’d also suggest, though, that the portrayal of Iowa nice here doesn’t ultimately hold up. I watched a painful City Council meeting in which citizens called the council racist and classist and claimed they were attempting to bankrupt them. The problem is that even if we have voted the council in based on experience, no council in any city is really prepared to deal with this scope of crisis. Now, I don’t mean to denigrate Iowans here. On the whole, I think the depiction is correct. People have pulled together to an amazing degree; I just don’t buy into this Iowa good, New Orleans bad depiction that I’m hearing these days. One interesting comparison I might make between the two cities is that the most heavily damaged areas were working-class, poorer neighborhoods. If anything, those who are making the argument against New Orleans ought to ask why FEMA was able to get into our white, eastern European neighborhoods immediately while it took so long to get into New Orleans’ primarily black neighborhoods. I’m not trying to add fuel to some racial fire here, but if you’re going to point out the flaws in New Orleans’ response to their crisis, you need to acknowledge that their are different ways to consider the “objective” events. We always need to paint the full picture.

On a different front, I spent some time doing salvage work with the Legion Arts building, one of Cedar Rapids’ primary cultural centers. While the devastation on the main floor and in the firehouse (which was under renovation to serve as artist housing and work space) was heartbreaking, I’m also happy to say that the building is still structurally sound and the primary art gallery and performance space on the 2nd floor were mostly untouched. When power returns to the neighborhood (they’re now predicting early August), Legion Arts can get back up and running. Some photos of the building and the neighborhood might also give you a sense of the scope of clean-up projects. Here is the building before the flood. The sandbags would have kept the building safe based on the 1993 floods which did not touch the door and based on the projections that were in play up until the day before the crest:

The reality of the flood, however, was that water made it up to the address numbers on the top window. Here is the post-flood scene:

And here is the scene as ruined debris were pulled from the building:

Here are a few pictures of the remains of 40 years of art work by Mel Andringa. Mel was using the firehouse as a studio and storage while it was renovated as an artist studio for out of town artists:

You’ll notice what look like puzzle pieces, and well they are puzzle pieces. Mel uses puzzles for his art. It’s a shame to lose all this work, but he seems to be keeping his spirits about him and is looking forward to getting Legion Arts up and running again. For those of you who have never had the pleasure of salvaging in a flood-ravaged building, here are a few internal shots from the firehouse:

Notice the thickness of the sludge everywhere. It’s hot, nasty, smelly, and quite toxic work, but Iowans are in fact pulling together and going through this building by building, house by house. I don’t mean for my earlier comment to suggest otherwise, I just don’t want to hear the ridiculous and pointedly political comparisons made with New Orleans. Me, I’m just looking for a return of the Legion Arts as a sign of the return of Cedar Rapids.


July 7, 2008

OK, so I’m not a huge tennis fan, but I do love to see sports history. I was looking forward, then, to seeing if Roger Federer could take Bjorn Borg’s record of 5 wimbledon titles in a row. Sorry Roger, but at least you’ve got the US Open coming up to get 1 win closer to Pete Sampras’s major title record. But more importantly I love to see excellence in any sport. And, holy crap, this was tennis at its finest. Both of these guys brought out the best in each other; I don’t care whether you’re a tennis fan or not, if you saw this and weren’t on edge by the end, then you just don’t get sports. High drama from start to end. As both Nadal and Federer (and John McEnroe to boot) said, sometimes it’s a shame that a championship can’t be shared; they both deserved this one.  Cheers to one of the finest battles I’ve ever seen in any sport.

Iowa City Jazz Fest, Part II

July 6, 2008

Yesterday we went back down to Iowa City for some more Jazz Fest fun. A great day of music and sun and food and beer all around. We missed out on Euforquestra but showed up in time for some of Garaj Mahal. Garaj really taught me the problems of fusion jazz. While I appreciated the spirit they brought to their explorations, they were so darned earnest about it all that it didn’t really move me. In many cases, there’s a fine line between truly innovative work and boring in fusion, and sad to say that Garaj landed on the latter. Didn’t really do anything for me. We saw some of Groove Ship on a side stage and they put on a solid show (but not up to last year’s side stage band, The Diplomats of Solid Sound–great band!). The IC Fest is really good for veggie street fair, good falafel, soba noodle stir fries, indian food from the veggie restaurant Masala, fine pizza from the Wedge, etc. but they really need a beer booth I think. Beer was strictly a cooler enterprise which we did just fine with.

The headliner of the night was John Scofield and the Scohorns. The horns were a great addition to the Scofield trio sound, really rounding out that jazz guitar. He still puts on a good show with lots of improvisation and a full array of styles. His version of “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” with some traditional New Orleans horns thrown into the mix was quite nice. He also played a long jam of semi-country, semi-jazz rambling that really fit the twilight perfectly. As much as I enjoyed Scofield, though, the night truly belonged to the penultimate act, Bonerama. That’s trombones, folks–get your mind out of the gutter.

Bonerama is an astounding band from New Orleans. I’ve always loved the funk of New Orleans Brass Band music, but they stretch even that to its limit. There is a drummer, guitar player, a sousaphone, and four trombones. I don’t care if you do or do not like trombones, if you do or do not like New Orleans jazz, you should see these guys if you get a chance.  They brew up a ridiculously fun stew of funk, soul, r&b horns, and draw from a broad range of styles and covers in their own inimitable style. From Led Zeppelin to Edgar Winter to John Coltrane to Johnny Cash, all in their own voice (yes, in fact, Folsom Prison Blues works just fine as a trombone ensemble). From straight ahead jazz, to contrapuntal syncopated improv, to rock, to freestyle; they shifted seamlessly from style to style and maintained this incredible groove that you couldn’t help but be caught up in. Clearly the highlight of the weekend.

Here’s Bonerama doing a version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Crosstown Traffic” in an in-store performance in New Orleans’ Louisiana Music Factory (one of my favorite places). The little bit of vocals here are misleading as the singer is actually incredibly powerful (the previously mentioned version of Folsom Prison Blues was downright scary in his voice) while he’s clearly a bit weakened by the jazz fest festivities here, but the mix of horns gives at least a glimmer of what they do. Like I said, just check them out if you get a chance.

July 4: MMW

July 5, 2008

Well, as truly screwed up things are here in Eastern Iowa these days, it’s nice to be able to celebrate. Most of Cedar Rapids festivities went under, but I was really happy to see the Iowa City Jazz Fest went on as planned. The old capital area of Iowa City/University of Iowa is on a hill and was unaffected so the three-day fest goes on despite the miles of sandbag walls you see coming in to town, or, worse, if you have to come in through Coralville as we do, the miles of washed out, muck filled, incredibly stinky areas of town. Businesses washed away, no power still, and the odor of mold, mildew and sewage laden water is overpowering. But alas, that’s not what this post was about, right? Right. Last night we went to see Medeski, Martin, and Wood at the Jazz Fest. Incredible show. I’ve been a long-time fan but had not had the opportunity to see them. Yea, it’s got that whole jam-band ambience to it (something I tend to distrust these days as its anything goes attitude seems to make audiences less discriminating about really good music from just jamming), but the fact is these guys are just amazing musicians. I’ve known Medeski is a genius on the keyboards, but by the end of the evening the person that was really amazing me was Chris Wood on bass. He was getting sounds from his instrument that I didn’t even know were possible. Mostly, we sat fairly far back but once in awhile I went up close to fully experience it–hadn’t had that heart-pounding high-volume bass experience in a long time and they delivered some serious power. Good stuff, through and through. I’m not going to miss Bonerama from New Orleans and the great jazz guitarist John Scofield today! Here’s a little clip of MMW you might find interesting: