I spent six weeks in fall 2003 in Zambia as part of a Pew Fellowship. I kept a blog while I was there, but it was taken down by a server crash some time ago.
Anyway, last weekend, I went through the bother of rebuilding it (on a modified version of the new design). So is back online and ready for your reading enjoyment.

the final wilmer-hutchins story

Here’s my story from today’s paper, on the final closing of the Wilmer-Hutchins Independent School District. Long-time readers know that I’ve written roughly three gazillion stories on Wilmer-Hutchins; because of its many problems, it is shutting down forever at midnight tonight. You might find this story worth your time.

The earthly remains of Wilmer-Hutchins were, in the end, few.

A few broken buildings. Some debts, some indictments. A few thousand kids who learned less than they should have.

Everything that could be put in boxes was Thursday, as the Wilmer-Hutchins Independent School District slipped into the past tense. After decades of mismanagement and crisis, Wilmer-Hutchins will legally cease to exist when the clock strikes midnight tonight. Under orders from the state of Texas, it will be absorbed into the Dallas school district.

“It’s a sad day for the district, but it’s also a new day,” said Donnie Foxx, one of the state-appointed managers who have shepherded the district through its declining days.

The district’s skeleton staff – down to 10 from more than 400 two years ago – went out for a nice lunch at Truluck’s and said their goodbyes Thursday afternoon.

They would have locked the doors one last time. But Dallas staffers were too busy carting off the district’s remaining items of value.

“I think in the long run, kids will have a better chance to get a good education – that’s the important part,” said Ron Rowell, the Texas Education Agency employee who has spent the past few months as acting superintendent.

For decades, his agency was criticized for not doing enough to stop corruption and mismanagement in Wilmer-Hutchins. The district was sick, residents said, and needed immediate attention from TEA.

They got their wish. But most residents hoped the patient could be saved. Instead, state officials chose a mercy killing.

And if you want to stroll down Hutch memory lane, the paper has posted some of the high points of my stories on the district since 2004.

tripartite motto

Did you know: Every nation has to have its own tripartite motto, apparently. Ours, of course, is “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The French: “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité.” And what could be more Canadian than “Peace, order, and good government.” (Alternately “paix, ordre et bon gouvernement.”) The Nazis: “Kirche, kinder, küche” (church, kids, kitchen). The Russian revolutionaries: “Peace, land, and bread.” (An echo of “panis et circenses.”)

jew iq

I take no stance on the Ashkenazi IQ research presented here, but I did find this stretch interesting:

The possibility that Jewish mothers produce smarter children is unlikely in light of abundant evidence that families have no lasting effect on intelligence. Siblings reared together are no more correlated in IQ than siblings who were separated at birth, and adopted siblings are not correlated at all. Growing up in a given home within a culture seems to leave no lasting stamp on intelligence.

Really? “No lasting effect on intelligence”? In other words, drop a given newborn in a crackhouse or in the lap of luxury and it has no lasting effect on IQ? Unless the “within a culture” caveat means that one particular crackhouse has no greater or lesser impact on IQ than any other crackhouse.
In any event, since a given parent can have an enormous impact on a child’s academic performance in school, I suppose this points to the yawning gap between intellectual potential and intellectual performance. In its parents-don’t-matter approach, it reminds me a bit of this Gladwell piece from 1998 on the comparative importance of peers over parents in child development.

wordplay movie

Attention crossword-puzzle fans: Take a moment out from your intense loathing of sudoku to go see Wordplay, the documentary film about your craft. And keep an eye out for no fewer than three appearances by my college buddy Ken. (He’s in the trailer on the web site, too — the bearded fellow posing for a picture, oh, about 35 percent in.)

MP3 Monday: June 26, 2006

Welcome to another MP3 Monday. I’d previously threatened to theme one of these things around the World Cup, but was daunted by the sheer labor required for a 32-team field. Well, thanks to competitive balance and the passage of time, we’re down to 12 teams. Much more manageable.
First, the four teams that, thanks to this weekend’s play, are on to the quarterfinals.
ARGENTINA: “Azúcar Amarga” by Vox Dei. From the album Mandioca Underground (1969).
Mandioca (whose name means cassava in English) was the first Spanish-language rock label in Argentina, and this compilation was their first release. The humbly named Vox Dei (“Voice of God”) was one of the bands featured, and they went on to a healthy career as one of Argentina’s biggest bands in the 1970s (including a rock interpretation of the Bible).
ENGLAND: “Acquiesce” by Oasis. From the album The Masterplan (1998).
Of course there are a thousand possibilities for a song to represent the Jolly Ol’. I opted for this one because (a) Oasis is about as English as they come, annoyingly so, and (b) the song is apparently about Noel Gallagher’s support for his favorite football club, Manchester City.
GERMANY: “Reality Check” by Schneider TM. From the album Zoomer (2002).
The Germans have contributed relatively little to the history of rock and roll. Well, I guess they hang pretty well with the rest of Continental Europe — Kraftwerk, Neu!, Can, Tangerine Dream, and of course Scorpions — but the rise of German techno in the 2000s has brought about as much prominence to the country as anything outside David Hasselhoff. I can’t stand most of it, to be honest — it all sounds soulless and cold to me — but this Schneider TM track at least seems human.
PORTUGAL: “Gaivota” by Amália Rodrigues. From the album Com Que Voz (1970).
Amália Rodrigues was the Elvis and the Beatles (combined!) of fado, the fatalistic, sorrowful ballad style of Portuguese music. Quoth Wikipedia: “The music is usually linked to the Portuguese word saudade, a word with no accurate English translation. (It is a kind of longing, and conveys a complex mixture of mainly nostalgia, but also sadness, pain, happiness and love.)”
Now, on to the 12 teams who’ll play in the remaining Round of 16 games this week:
AUSTRALIA: “Under the Milky Way” by The Church. From the album Starfish (1988).
Australia has given us many fine bands, including many more recent than The Church, but this was one of the first songs I ever liked that, in retrospect, made me kind of cool. (To be clear, I was not very cool in eighth grade, when I first heard this. But compared to the other stuff I was listening too — Jethro Tull, mostly — The Church had indie cred out the proverbial wazoo.)
BRAZIL: “Solidão Gasolina” by Curumin. From the album Achados e Perdidos (2005).
I love Brazilian music. (iTunes tells me I’ve got 376 Brazilian songs.) I was making the argument to someone the other day that Brazil is probably the most undercovered country in the world in the Western press. South America is completely ignored in comparison to the eastern hemisphere, and it’s easy to forget Brazil is the fifth-largest country in the world. (Not to mention one of the most culturally significant. Brazil feels like the future to me.) Anyway, Curumin is a terrific young samba-funk musician who specializes in a laid-back, soul-soaked groove.
FRANCE: “Puzzle” by Tahiti 80. From the album Puzzle (2000).
Tahiti 80 was, for a window of time, as good a summery pop band as existed on either side of the Atlantic. Xavier Boyer’s vocals had the breathy naivete of a 14-year-old virgin, and the band had a nice bounce that got your knees moving. Sadly, the wheels came off a bit with their last album (the still-unreleased-stateside Fosbury), which made an ill-advised play for the discotheque crowd, but their first few albums are divine.
GHANA: “Bukom Mashie” by Oscar Sulley & the Uhuru Dance Band. From the album Gilles Peterson in Africa (2005).
As I’ve mentioned before, the name Gilles Peterson is gold here at HQ; the man’s musical tastes match up 1:1 with my own, and I love his eclecticism and his musical generosity. His Africa album is as good as you’d expect (as are his Brazil and U.S. R&B albums), including this track of early ’70s big-band Afrobeat. Sounds like Fela Kuti backed by Tommy Dorsey’s horn section.
ITALY: “Talk About the Passion” by Samson and the Philistines. From the album Surprise Your Pig: A Tribute to R.E.M. (1992).
This is from an almost hilariously bad R.E.M. tribute album. (Although I’ll make minor exceptions for the Jawbox version of “Low” and, for sheer humor value, the hardcore version of “Losing My Religion” by Tesco Vee’s Hate Police.) For some reason, it included this remarkably faithful version of “Talk About the Passion” (roughly the 2,474,237th-best R.E.M. song) sung in Italian. I can’t find anything else about the band.
SPAIN: “La Nina de Puerta Oscura” by Paco de Lucia. From the soundtrack to The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004).
I was a little stuck finding a song for Spain. I considered going with the band Spain instead of the country, or maybe some appropriate Miles Davis. But I found this Paco de Lucia track (from the Wes Anderson vehicle) to save you from a flamenco-less MP3 Monday.
SWITZERLAND: “Eat the Rich” by Krokus. From the album Headhunter (1983).
Switzerland: Pride of neutrality and producer of lame music. I considered cheating here again (by including Les McCann & Eddie Harris’ Swiss Movement, which was recorded at Montreaux in 1969). But instead, I tracked down the one Swiss band to dent the American charts: Krokus, purveyors of bad pop-metal in the early 1980s. Eat the rich, indeed!
UKRAINE: “Tsilkom Vakantnyy (Pretty Vacant)” by The Ukrainians. From the album Respublika (2002).
I was going to be forced to use Ukraine’s Eurovision 2006 entry (a bland English-language trifle entitled “Show Me Your Love”) until I stumbled on The Ukrainians. They were originally a side project of the British band The Wedding Present, in particular bassist (and ethnic Ukrainian) Peter Solowka. The idea is to play high-energy rock versions of traditional Ukrainian folk songs — or, alternately, to add some Ukrainian flavor (and language) to punk rock. This track is a cover of the Sex Pistols’ classic “Pretty Vacant.”

online taks story

Here’s my story from today’s front page. Foot fetishists, note that this story sets my new personal record for toe mentions:

If you own stock in a company that makes No. 2 pencils, now might be a good time to sell.

After a few years of tiptoeing, Texas is preparing to take its first big step into online testing. School districts have the option to administer next spring’s TAKS test by computer.

“Students have become more and more accustomed to a computer environment,” said Susan Barnes, associate commissioner for standards and programs at the Texas Education Agency. “That has become the mode of how they interact.”

Some worry that the shift, designed to eventually save money and time, could have substantial implications for the tests’ fairness. Not every school has access to the same quality or quantity of computers.

It could also be a solution to Texas’ cheating problems – or make them worse, depending on who’s talking.

I also never linked to my column from Monday:

Why do some parents make such stupid decisions?

That was the question that kept popping into my mind last week as I walked around the KIPP TRUTH Academy in South Dallas. (For the moment, please forgive their over-commitment to capital letters.)

Here was a middle school, in a poor part of town, that put academics first. A free charter school with a demonstrated record of taking struggling neighborhood kids and putting them on a path to college. A school whose graduates will get scholarships to Dallas’ most elite private high schools and who will eventually be successful in life.

And it opened school this month with 20 empty seats in its fifth-grade class.