Archive for May 29th, 2006

The Inland Northwest Space Alliance (INSA) story gets more convoluted. You remember the story: INSA is (was supposed to be) a non-profit working to spur space technology industries to start up in Montana. Instead, it seems Burns and his staffers used the group to…well…give money to out-of-work staffers and their family members. It's currently under investigation by both state and federal authorities.

In other words, just another day at the office for Conrad Burns.

In today's Missoulian, it appears that INSA gave a $250K no-bid contract to a company with ties to Senator Burns. And by “ties,” I mean the company employed both Burns' former chief-of-staff and Burns' daughter.

The company, called Compressus Inc. of Washington DC, which, according to the report,

is a “software company that sells, among other things, a kind of software that enables doctors to send digital pictures like X-rays or scans clearly over less-advanced Internet connections.[snip]

Exactly what Compressus did for the money is unclear. Larry Mortensen, the business manager for INSA, said he could not release the list of services Compressus promised to do for the money because it was part of a proprietary contract.

George Bailey, a former UM official who quit to lead INSA, said Compressus did a number of things for the space startup. The company hired an employee to work in INSA's Philipsburg office and hired INSA's Missoula-based information technology employee.

Bailey said Compressus also worked with INSA to test medical devices.

According to the report, Burns was “instrumental” in getting INSA going and funded. He was responsible for INSA's $3million grant.

Other tidbits from the report include the revelation that INSA was listing folks as board members who weren't hadn't served on the board, or weren't even aware that they were listed. Among these board members include former Burns' aide, Mark Baker; Burns' daughter, Keely Burns; and Missoula entrepreneur, Russ Fletcher.

There's other stuff, too. It's a big clusterf*ck, this INSA thing.

What's evident is that Conrad Burns, using his pull as U.S. Senator, appropriated a multi-million dollar grant for an old friend, who p*ssed away the money on his friends and family. Did Burns know? Did Burns help direct funds? Or are all of Burns' former staffers still looking out after one another? Where the heck did they pick up this habit of dishing out money for favors, anyway?

Ultimately, it may be this INSA scandal that really does in Burns. Burns and his zombie followers love to cite the $2 billion the Senator has allegedly brought to Montana during his tenure as Senator. Besides the obvious fact that Rehberg and Baucus no doubt had a hand in some of the appropriations, it's now becoming increasingly clear that a portion of Burns' appropriations went directly to his friends, not Montanans who needed it.

Two billion for Montana. Burns' Montana. If you haven't received your check, I can't see why you would actually vote for the man.

Go fly a kite!

Now comes a discernible change in the Curious George series with “Curious George Flies a Kite.” First, it's a much longer book than the others – a whopping eighty pages. Next, the language bumps up a notch; instead of “This is George. He's a monkey,” suddenly it's “George is a little monkey, and all monkeys are curious. But no monkey is as curious as George. That is why his name is Curious George.” Cause, now, alongside effect. And then the narration gains an element of cohesion, where previously – as mentioned on this blog – there was none.

The plot. Again George is left on his own by the clueless Man in the Yellow Hat. This time he leaves with a warning:

“I have to go now,” said the man with the yellow hat. “Be a good little monkey till I come back. Have fun and play with your new ball, but do not be too curious.” And the man went out.

(Um. I'm sure that will work, Man in the Yellow Hat.)

George strikes out minutes after the Man's departure. He raids a rabbit hutch, tries his luck at fishing and nearly drowns, then flies a kite, which pulls him high into the air, where the Man in the Yellow Hat rescues him with a helicopter.

For the first time in a Curious George book, the plot takes on a three-act structure: rabbit, fishing, kite. Each act builds off the first and increases in peril. Each act – rabbit, fishing, kite – has also got a catch, wrinkle, and resolution, climaxing in the dramatic mid-air rescue of George by the Man in the Yellow Hat.

The cool thing about this plot is how the seemingly disparate acts are tied together in a single panel early in the book: George standing on the windowsill of the Man in the Yellow Hat's house overlooking the landscape of the neighborhood. Lying beneath the monkey's feet are the elements soon to star in the book's plot: there's the rabbit hutch enclosed in its stone wall; there's the road to the lake and the pier where George will fall into the hungry jaws of lake fish; there's Bill slowly pedaling his bicycle, clutching the very instrument of George's future ascension into the book's heavens, the monstrous kite, bigger than the boy and his bicycle combined.

Not only is this landscape a map of the book's plot – an elaborate foreshadowing – it's also a map of peril for the monkey. This neighborhood is where George will nearly die – twice – in the next few hours. But not only that, this simple drawing is a synecdoche of George's world, a seemingly placid and unremarkable world from which George creates adventure, chaos, and, invariably, great danger to himself.

This adventure and peril that George wrests from this world always involves the way in which he violates its rules, the theft of the cow and destruction of the museum in “Curious George Gets a Medal,” for example, or the false alarm called in to the fire department in “Curious George.” (Of course, the monkey doesn't know the rules, which is why we think the book is so d*mn funny.)

But what's also interesting about this world is that the authority that safeguards it is not guiding: it punishes, it does not explain or lead. The world's inhabitants intuitively follow the rules. Nothing needs explaining. The world is the offspring of the collective unconscious of its inhabitants. (Which might explain the unnatural furor of those that punish George for wrongdoing: the firemen who imprison George in a maximum security facility for making a prank call, the museum curator who locks George away in a cage for vandalism and then coerces the monkey into a suicide suborbital flight in exchange for his freedom. George, in his cheerful ignorance of the rules, is also violating the essence of culture.)

Ripped from his native habitat, bereft of family and friends, the monkey has no authority figure to guide him through this intuitive and most delicate of environments – other than, of course, the Man in the Yellow Hat, who seems an almost criminally indifferent eccentric, ever inappropriately dressed, of indeterminate sexuality, unknown profession, and mysterious comings and goings. Is it any wonder that George consistently runs afoul of the law?

It is then with little surprise when we discover Curious George sprung from the minds of two Jewish refugees who fled the Nazis on a bicycle:

In 1940 [H.A. and Margaret Rey], both of whom were Jewish, fled Paris as the Nazis mounted their invasion of the city, making their way by bicycle to Spain, by train to Lisbon, then to Brazil, New York City, and finally Cambridge, Massachusetts, where they made their home. The few belongings they carried with them from Europe included the manuscript of Curious George, which Houghton Mifflin published in 1941.

(Check out this additional information about the Reys with some links.)

How like George to be two foreigners set down in 1941 America, just having faced an unspeakable horror, to now negotiate the quaint American towns and suburbs, which must have seemed a fairy-world compared to Depression-era Europe, wracked by violence, extremist movements, and crushing poverty. But American suburbia also contains an irrational sensitivity to things that are “wrong.” How else can you explain the contemporary hysteria surrounding non-issues like gay marriage and Mexican immigrants?

Curious George is the story of an immigrant trying to co-exist with a world that views itself as rational, just, and orderly, when it is actually none of those things. Still, everything turns out in the end. In part because this world is quick to forgive and accept, in part because George's friend, the Man in the Yellow Hat, seems to have friends in powerful places. That's a good lesson for anybody trying to carve a niche in a new place: be persistent and cultivate important people.

The rush of Curious George books released in 1958 – alongside “Curious George Flies a Kite” were “Curious George Takes a Job,” “Curious George Rides a Bike,” “Curious George Goes to the Hospital,” “Curious George ABCs,” and “Curious George Gets a Medal” — are obviously influenced by the raging popular and intellectual success of Dr. Seuess' “The Cat in the Hat.” Seuess' classic was written during a major shift in pedagogy, when educators were rejecting memorization as the path to reading comprehension in favor of learning through phonics, the forty-four sounds found in the English language. The theory is that, if kids learn phonics, they'll be able to spell out, learn, and use words quicker an on their own. (American Democracy was at stake: those pesky Russian children were learning quicker and better than our kids – just look at Sputnik, fer chrissakes!)

The culprit in the mess were those irritating reading primers, “See Dick Run” and the like. Something else was needed, educational books that would engage a youthful reader's attention with its creativity and storyline and would educate the reader's mind, paying specific attention to teaching children to read on their own at an early age. So Theordore Geisel – Dr. Seuess – already known for his creative and entertaining books like “Horton Hears a Who” (1954), was given a challenge by Houghton Mifflin director of educational literature, William Spaulding: write a book using only words from a list three hundred long that embodied the phonics program:

Spaulding handed Geisel three lists, drawn up by experts. The first was composed of two hundred and twenty words that first graders could be expected to recognize at sight—like "a," "about," "and," "are," and so on. Geisel selected a hundred and twenty-three. The second list contained two hundred and twenty words that beginning readers might recognize from phonics exercises—sets of words similar in sound, such as "make" and "rake" and "cake." Geisel chose forty-five. And the third list contained two hundred and twenty words that first graders had probably never seen but should be able to decipher, such as "beat," "fear," and "kick." Geisel used thirty-one. This netted him a hundred and ninety-nine words. It wasn't enough to make a story from, so he added twenty-one words of his own, including "nothing," "mess," and "pink." "The Cat in the Hat" is 1,702 words long, but it uses only two hundred and twenty different words. And (as the cat says) that is not all. Geisel put the whole thing into rhymed anapestic dimeter. It was a tour de force, and it killed Dick and Jane.

The book was a runaway success. Released in 1957, benefiting from a Cold-War program to boost American education, which swelled the coffers of schools and libraries who were desperately looking for books like Seuess', it sold upwards of 12,000 copies a month, a million by 1960, and 7.2 million copies by 2000. In response, Random House started a division called “Beginner Books,” and put Geisel in charge. The publisher made up a list of 379 words and sent them out to authors. The rush of entertaining, educational books was on.

The 1958 Curious George books were a part of this educational race. The Reys published through Houghton Mifflin, the publisher Geisel left for a cushy desk job at Random House. That the Reys to the publishing standards Geisel set with “Cat in the Hat” is obvious from the book flap of “Curious George Flies a Kite,” which specifies the number of words found on different English lists.

(I suspect that this educational program produced maybe the best run of children's books – ever seen. Thanks to government funding of schools and libraries!)

You're probably asking yourself, is this all Jay has to say about Curious George? Well, funny you should ask, because, well, no it's not. There's the movie, which I haven't seen, but, like a good blogger, I am prepared to give you my opinion about it. Or at least I want to say a few things about it…

First, it's gotten decent reviews. The worst say it's too boring for adults to sit through, but that kids love it. Fine, I can handle that. Second, the reviewers, almost to a man/woman claim that the movie is faithful the spirit of the original Curious George books. By that, I suppose the filmmakers didn't make the monkey talk. The Seattle P-I review praised the movie for what it wasn't:

Here are the easy outs and common crimes the filmmakers didn't make, though: no flatulence jokes, no pointless cruelty or violence, no bad language, no scenes that seemed designed to tie into a video game, and no product placements we could identify beyond a crate of Dole bananas. It's fast-paced, but not in a hyperkinetic, MTV fashion — more in the entertaining style of the book itself, which lets each scene play out quickly and simply, then moves on to other, loosely linked fun.

Yet after claiming the movie was faithful, the review dropped this little bomb:

It also deals, deliberately or not, with the uncomfortable overtones that make modern parents wince when reading the stories: Rather than having the Man in the Yellow Hat pluck George from his home to imprison him in a zoo, the movie George stows away on a boat (sweetly titled "H.A. Rey" after one of the book's two creators) in order to follow his curiosity and new friend. Added P.C. points for having a native guide repeat "I know. I live here!" when explorer Ted offers lectures on the region's marvels; Elgin Marbles points deducted for a story line that makes it heroic to remove an ancient icon from the jungle and move it overseas for museum display.

Oh, really? So giving the Man in the Yellow Hat a name – which you will never see my type on this blog – a love interest and a foil is “faithful” to the original? You know what I think of the Man's distant, paternal role and George's romps through American suburbia. Slapping a good/evil dichotomy on George's escapades is frankly heretical. Do kids need a world where everything is defined as good and bad? Can't they just watch a monkey f*ck sh*t up and laugh their *sses off?

And that, my friends, is about all I could ever say about Curious George. But there's still “Madeline”…

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