Monday, November 27, 2006

Another one bites the dust

My dinner plans took a great hit last week. With the 'rents coming in on Thursday, I was looking forward to another world class meal from what I considered the best of the small Iowa City restaurant lineup. I couldn't believe it as I strode up to the window peering into the darkened quarters. A small note on the door was all that stated what the blank insides cued me in on: Venuto's: World Bistro was closed, for good. It stated the customary "thanks" to its faithful patrons, and cited finances as the main reason for closure. 

What this comes down to, and illustrates more than anything, is that Iowa City is dying. Yep, I said it. This week has been an eye opener of sorts, because like any good kid living in the apartment world, I ran out of food. Not wanting to buy new groceries that could spoil, and partially because I wanted to dine out more, I was forced out into downtown Iowa City for food survival.   

You know what the problem in that is? If you don't want to eat at a bar, well, you're screwed. Wait, check that, you could eat at a fast food restaurant along the lines of Taco Bell (found out the perils of that on Monday). It's not bad simply that Venuto's closed, but rather another piece of the teetering unofficial restaurant alliance fell. Restaurants in walking distance of the eastern part of the campus are dwindling at an alarming rate. One-twenty-six, Givanni's, Takanami, and Devote, are about the only restaurants leading the charge anymore. If you go downtown to the Ped Mall, well, let's see, we could get plain grill food from Brothers, or maybe Vito's.

I'm not knocking these bars as badly as it may seem. My feeble attempts at cooking make me more that willing to participate in feasts at just about any place, but unique restaurants like Venuto's just don't come around that often. If I want a nine-course Mediterranean full on blitz of a meal, I'm out of luck. 

Last spring I was struggling to get a REAL restaurant reservation anywhere because of graduation. My friend was confused, because he assumed that it?d be easy to get into a place like Applebee's or Old Chicago, but herein lies the problem: As today's Iowa City and America in general continue allowing the death of the small restaurant, people begin to forget what the dining experience could mean. To me, going to a restaurant shouldn't be about wondering if the table is clean, or what some famous chef created on the latest commercial. No, my dream would be sitting down for two hours, getting my multiple-platter eat on, and if they would be so kind, how about that Mediterranean belly dancer.

Jon Van Dyke
DI editorial writer

Music's "rock diplomacy"

An interesting new international development, the practice of "rock diplomacy," is becoming prevalent in a series of mostly European countries sending independent rock bands to the United States. By providing mostly unknown bands with grants sometimes topping $18,000 in funding for touring, recording, and other expenses, a variety of governments from Scandinavia to Australia hope to gain goodwill, cultural influence, and economic remuneration.

These bands have been offered, in some cases, large amounts of money by government arts councils so they can travel to the U.S. to promote their music. Ontario rock group Broken Social Scene and its record label, for instance, were offered $140,000 by a publicly-funded Canadian music promotion agency. The organization, called Factor, has a $12.4 million dollar endowment and has distributed money to one third of over 3,800 applicants which included sub-popular bands The Arcade Fire and Stars. The program is justified in part as a way to help define a "Canadian identity" against ubiquitous American ones. However, the project may overlook that, as Adam Shore, former signer of musical trainwreck The Brian Jonestown Massacre who now works closely with the Swedish consulate promoting bands in America, astutely points out, many of the immigrating rock groups "sound like bands we already have."

Aside from undercutting their rebel posturing, though, it is unclear what this use of occasionally large amounts of public money accomplishes. Certainly, it is good for indie music, which places a premium on the exotic, weird, and free-of-charge. But even in cases where bands are modestly successful, the benefit to their home country in the areas described above appears to be minimal at best. Could it be that the reason why many of these bands sound exactly like their ephemeral indie counterparts in America is because "American culture" is increasingly indistinguishable from the more global one shared by these bands?

In an age of increasingly mobile and cheaply made music, it is unclear why this expenditure is necessary. It seems that, if bands are good enough to generate their own buzz, the rest will follow — and taxpayers around the world will avoid paying for their airline tickets.

Tyler Bleau
DI columnist

Monday, November 13, 2006

The "M"-word

In a classic, "Oh, no he didn’t," moment, Tom Vilsack splashed the big democratic uprising with the M-word. That’s right, Vilsack rocked my ears with the word I loathed only two years ago: Mandate. Now, I just don’t know how to react to that type of speech anymore. During my political career (of paying attention), I’ve never witnessed a Democratic government, everything has always been red, all I knew of Bill Clinton was good, but not really what he was doing to garner that term.

Then came the ultimate race, the presidential campaign of 2000. It marked the birth of my political pessimism. Every election year from then on has been met with disdain, until that special night when I run to and constantly refresh my hopeful candidates’ races. 

And here is the disturbing bottom line, if you will. I was so happy that Leach was toppled, and my roommate and I just kept maligning Justin Timberlake’s “Sexy Back” with Loebsack-infused parodies as the topsy-turvy race, considered to the outside as a safe bet, rolled on throughout the night. I went to bed with the Democratic challenger up by a little over 500 votes, with 97 percent of the precincts reporting, sure that Johnson County’s remaining 2 percent not reported would ensure his victory.  

For the first time ever, I feel as though I finally impacted a race, after narrow losses throughout my early voting years. And ya know what? I felt bad for Leach, because as numerous bloggers and reporters have expounded upon, he’s a legitimately good guy. But I’m from Johnson County. We’re supposed to be the bastion of liberalism in Iowa. Somebody who votes liberal maybe three out of eight times might be admiral, but I’ll take the guy who skews closer to three fourths of the time any day. 

Now back to the mandate. Why that word, Tom? I still feel the kick in the mouth when I first heard that word just two years ago from some high up dude. Words like that tick people off; tick them off so much that nice guys do indeed finish last, at least in District 2. I don’t want that to happen to this precious new state and national governmental makeups. Big splash words can leave you soaking wet, Tom, and now that you’re a national candidate, let’s try to learn from ticked off voters in the first place.

Jon Van Dyke
DI editorial writer

A disturbingly clever loss

I'’m shocked. Shocked, I tell you. Democrats, even with huge momentum and universal public anger directed at the GOP, actually won an election. It’s like the Generals beating the Globetrotters. I kept expecting the usual things: Serious irregularities in Democrat-heavy districts; suspiciously inaccurate exit polling; masterfully run get-out-the-vote operations.  None of these materialized. I was gripped by a sense of unreality, like someone who has just remembered that the red mushrooms are the ones to put in his salad, not the spotted kind.

I realized, though, that I'’d missed something: The Republican party didn't’ want to win. Having eaten no mushrooms of any kind, I'’m pretty sure that they sacrificed control of the House and Senate to set up the 2008 presidential campaign. Look at it this way: Why were people so manifestly furious with them? Iraq, of course. They think it'’s a failure, and justifiably want their sons and daughters home right away. The problem is that neither party is going to do that, because the Iraqi civil war would instantly get bloodier by orders of magnitude. So the Republicans will be perfectly happy to let Democrats wrestle the alligator on this one, and they’they'll have neatly defanged Iraq as a political weapon. 

Think I'’m crazy? Ask yourself why the White House waited until the day after the election to make the well-received (and well-deserved) move of dumping Donald Rumsfeld. Do you really think that they decided that it would be wrong to twist foreign policy for political gain? These are guys and gals who’'ve done exactly that since day one!

It'’s breathtakingly clever, in a deeply disturbing way. They get themselves into a no-win situation, then they let the other team play. Unless the Dems are a lot savvier than I think they are, it’'s going to work, too.

Jon Gold
DI columnist

Marching band memories

I have been a member of the trombone section of the Hawkeye Marching Band for the four years that I have been enrolled at Iowa. Saturday marked the last game that I will perform at in Kinnick Stadium. Marching band is probably one of the most time consuming student activities on campus, and this certainly is a factor that every member has to consider. Looking back on the past four seasons, however, I realize that I wouldn't’t have changed my decision to participate in this organization, and I would like to encourage anyone with musical experience to consider the opportunities that the band offers.

Undoubtedly, the music of a university, its fight songs and alma mater, provides a common thread that binds together all members of its community. This is especially true of Big Ten schools, due to their large student population, the quality of athletics, and the tradition associated with each university. The opportunity to be part of that history and tradition is truly a privilege.

One of my best memories from being a band member was marching pregame before the Ohio State game this year. Performing under the lights in front of a full capacity crowd was an experience that I wish everyone could have. From Kinnick to bowl games to the Friday night “music rehearsals” downtown, the amount of time committed to the band has certainly been worth it. It’s always fun to see how each individual works together to create the show as a unit in and of itself. I would highly encourage anyone who is interested to consider joining this organization.

Lydia Pfaff
DI columnist

Thursday, November 9, 2006

Lofty expectations

A changed political landscape crawled across the country Tuesday night. With polls closing first on the east coast, initial numbers showed more than a few Democratic upsets early in the evening — and they only got bigger as the night progressed. One of the first big LOSERS (as called out by Jon Stewart on Comedy Central's "Midterm Midtacular") was Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, the number three person in the Senate for the Republicans, an avid Bush supporter and conservative knee-slapper. The two term senator and would-be presidential hopeful was ousted 59%-41%, with Fox
News, CNN, and MSNBC all calling the election for challenger Bob Casey before 9 p.m.

As the night moved forward and the polls closed in the Central and Mountain Time zones, what would have been huge upsets just two years ago turned into sweet reality for the Democrats. Iowa was perhaps the most overlooked of all
states, with the Democrats gaining two new House seats, along with having the first Democratic governor elected after a sitting Democratic governor in over 40 years.

As a lifelong Iowan who has maintained residence in a Jim Leach-represented district since birth, I went to bed last night
thinking that perhaps that would finally change in the morning. When I woke up, it was confirmed. I'd like to think that many things changed in America on that night, but, before anyone can start talking about drastic changes, we have to see some evidence of that change. The country has put their faith in a party that came to power this year without any real specific issue changes, other than "look what the Republicans did." American's will expect more than just rhetoric in the two years to
come, and hopefully the new party in power will give us just that.

Eric Kochneff
DI columnist

Off the field "Astroturf"

The rampant use of canned letters to the editor is an affront to the political process, and a perversion of the "Fourth Estate" through which these sordid sandwich boards are disseminated. Called "astroturf," these letters are produced by campaigners for public office and distributed to members of the community, who send them under their names. Posing as very motivated, if not sycophantic supporters of a particular candidate, the people who send in the letters contribute nothing — save for a stamp, envelope, and the saliva oozing out of their slackened jaws — to what is basically free advertising on a newspaper's editorial page.

While most people expect the election-year smut commonly heard or seen on TV and on the radio (of "Nussle Hustle" variety), the editorial page is not advertising space and should, ideally at least, be different. It is a travesty of the editorial page's traditionally vaunted status as a bastion of American democracy and a forum for exercising freedom of speech, and the onus for this cynical exploitation rests solely with politicians and their associates. Newspapers, which have no way of knowing for sure which are which, and are thus under a certain obligation to give all letters the benefit of the doubt, cannot really be held responsible. Astroturf is just one relatively mild example of the poverty of politics in a decadent, "rationally ignorant" America, also evident in ever more facile and ethically-challenged campaign ads, officials' conduct, and now, vote hacking. These fears may be perennial ones, and American democracy may not be what it was cracked up to be; yet we
should strive for the ideal, or adjust the myths accordingly.

Tuesday, November 7, 2006

Perfect timing

An Iraqi court, to no one’s great surprise, has sentenced Saddam Hussein to death by hanging. A curfew, still in effect as I write this, was imposed shortly before the verdict was delivered. Violence is expected after its expiration. What a shock; violence is expected in Iraq.

Of Hussein’s multitudinous crimes, his massacre of almost 150 Shiites in the town of Dujail is the one that will end his life.  Even though I’m generally against the death penalty, I’m not an Iraqi, and, frankly, I’m finding it hard to fuss about the pending execution of such a soulless tyrant.

However, I wonder at the verdict’s timing. Like I said, it’s not exactly a shock that a government dominated by the group that suffered the worst of Saddam’s heinous brutality would decide to execute the guy. It was pretty much a foregone conclusion, even with Saddam’s frequent disruptions of the trial and the assassination of some participants. Yet the government of Iraq, which owes its very existence to U.S. political leaders, somehow decided to announce the pending execution of one of America’s main political bogeymen just two days before our elections.

Whether it will be enough to swing significant numbers of votes to the Bush-led Republican Party remains to be seen. The President has, understandably, been trumpeting the verdict as noisily as possible as he stumps for the GOP. What better distraction from growing dissatisfaction in Republican ranks and the politically disastrous editorials published recently in all four armed forces newspapers calling for the ouster of the Secretary of Defense?

For all of Mr. Bush’s political life, Saddam Hussein has been his single greatest political tool. In death, it seems, the pattern will continue. 

Jon Gold
DI columnist

Monday, November 6, 2006

A chance at a Second Life

What would you do if you could have another shot at winning the big game or going in on that business deal you passed up and lost millions? Well maybe now you can find out. The virtual life videogame Second Life has hit the one million mark and is showing no signs of slowing down. The game allows members to sign up for free and create virtual representations of themselves called avatars. Once enrolled, the members need but engage in the virtual community and set up shop, meet new people or just fly around (yes you can fly). The game has become so popular that the BBC has sent technology reporter Mark Ward into the community to get to the bottom of why this game has captured the lives of more than a million people.

The laws of the land are simple. There are six forms of behavior that members are required to abstain from or risk banishment: intolerance, harassment, assault, disclosure, indecency, and disturbing the peace. Other than that you're free to go about your business building relationships.

There's a tendency for these games to become "pegged" as nerdy and played only by those who have nothing better to do but I beg to differ. Second Life could very well mark the future of social networking. Facebook, Myspace, and other personalized web designs offer limited customization compared to virtual worlds like Second Life. At least your avatar can move and is not limited by "hobby" and "interest" categories. It will be interesting to see if these three-dimensional worlds will begin to influence websites of this nature.

John LaRue
DI columnist

Thursday, November 2, 2006

Halloween havoc

My life is complete. I have seen something so ridiculous and disturbing that it has made me question my purpose on this earth and why there is not a law banning Halloween in Iowa City.

It began on the chilly Halloween Saturday night outside of Sports Column. Amidst the entourage of bumble bee bimbos and not so little Bo-Peeps stumbled a drunken six foot five gangly Spider Man followed closely by a slightly shorter and equally drunk Ninja, complete with face mask and katana sword. Two sinister looking bouncers in black t-shirts in turn followed them. While I was preparing myself to watch a cataclysmic beat-down, Spider Man and the Ninja had other plans. They, by some divine intervention, fire up a black moped and speed away just avoiding the bouncer's outstretched hands. They then proceed to fly down Dubuque Street going down the wrong side of the road, the Ninja waving his katana sword at oncoming traffic with vigor.

It is apparent that Halloween is used just like every other holiday in Iowa City. An excuse to get hammered and run around town in clothing Jenna Jameson would find offensive. I don't see any end to the madness in the near future but it makes me question whether the weight of academics makes people vault into disproportionate states of being when the time comes to celebrate. After observing the calm and peaceful demeanor of Iowa City during the summer it makes me sad to see what happens when mismanagement of time and purpose leads to Spider Man endangering the lives of pedestrians.

John LaRue
DI columnist